GamerGate: Journalistic Integrity, Online Harassment and the Future of the Gaming Medium

Article by Bobby Miller | 1,644 words

The video game industry has grown rapidly since the days of the 1970s, back when Pong was all the rage. With more developers, higher budgets and greater technology, video games today can create eerily realistic experiences, allowing players to immerse themselves in fantastic worlds. Video games, once viewed as nothing more than a playful pastime for children and niche enthusiasts, have risen to mainstream status.

As such, the number of journalistic outlets devoted purely to video games has increased. Back when I was younger, official video game magazines like Nintendo Power, owned by the very company whose games it covered, were the main sources of information out there. Now, however, there are thousands of video game websites just a few clicks away. They range from professional websites to personal blogs.

What’s interesting about video game journalism is how, in a way, it acts like free advertising for game developers. The amount of coverage a game receives in the form of previews before being released can determine how hyped players are for the product. The review scores that magazines and websites dish out can make or break a game’s sales. This places video game journalists in an awkward situation: they have to objectively cover the pastime that they’re so passionate about, knowing that there’s a lot of money at stake in how they portray games.

The awkward relationship between video game developers and journalists recently came to a head in a controversy surrounding Zoe Quinn, the maker of a game called Depression Quest. You see, years ago, not too many games were released, so you could count on just about every game receiving a fair amount of coverage. With the rise of indie games, those developed without big-name publishers funding, advertising and distributing them, that’s not the case anymore. Most websites couldn’t possibly delve into all the huge console games and little smartphone games released every week if they wanted to. Especially for indie developers that don’t have big names and lots of hype to support them, getting the attention of the video game press and gamer community in general can be a difficult endeavor.

Rumor has it that independent developer Zoe Quinn was so desperate to get attention for her game Depression Quest that she slept with various video game journalists in exchange for positive coverage of her product. According to Forbes, these allegations proved to be “all smoke and no fire”—apparently, rumors started by an angry ex-boyfriend aren’t always true. While Quinn did have a relationship with one video game journalist from the site Kotaku, they didn’t begin seeing one another until long after the game had been covered on the website.

Still, this raised the issue of whether or not some video game developers might be sliding money and other favors under the table to game journalists in exchange for positive coverage. In a world with so many games, everyone wants to stand out somehow, right?

Cue the GamerGate movement, claiming to seek integrity in video game journalism. This started in August of 2014 when the actor Adam Baldwin, who has performed in live action films and voiced video game characters, first used the hashtag #GamerGate on Twitter. Concern over the issue quickly rose up on discussion websites such as Reddit and 4chan. The video game community has been abuzz ever since. As of October 27, if you type “#g” into Twitter’s search box, the first suggestion is still “#GamerGate.”

GamerGate

An image that claims to summarize what GamerGate is all about. (Credit: NicheGamer.net)

On the surface, this “grass-root movement” has made progress toward greater integrity in video game journalism. According to CinemaBlend.com, websites such as The Escapist, Destructoid, Kotaku and many others have updated their transparency policies, clearly stating that they’ll disclose if they have any sort of personal or financial relationship with the video game developers they’re covering. Even Game Informer, one of the biggest video game magazines in the world, announced in its November 2014 issue that it would not participate in crowdfunding projects for video games since doing so could upset their ability to neutrally pick which games to cover and to discuss them without bias. The magazine’s editor-in-chief did not explicitly mention the GamerGate movement in his announcement, but it’s certainly a sign that journalists are aware that their audience is now more concerned about their integrity.

However, it’s interesting that this whole movement started from an alleged love affair between a video game developer and a journalist that turned out to be nothing more than a rumor. Are there actually lots of corrupt relationships between video game journalists and developers?

Possibly. In 2007, Jeff Gerstmann, the editorial director for the highly popular website GameSpot, was fired for being too strict with his review scores, as he explained to GameFront.com years later. After all, no video game developer or publisher wants to advertise on a site that’s giving their products low scores. Seeing their ad revenues decreasing, GameSpot eventually removed him. The final straw may have occurred when Gerstmann gave an unfavorable review to Kane & Lynch: Dead Men, which Eidos Interactive had heavily advertised on the site. According to 1UP.com, four editors left GameSpot after his unjust dismissal.

There aren’t many specific stories of reviewers being dismissed like this. However, perhaps all review outlets feel an unspoken but understood pressure to give mostly favorable reviews. After all, according to the website Metacritic, the average score on video game websites tends to be around 7.3/10. Anything below a 5 tends to be reserved only for games that are so riddled with glitches that they feel almost unplayable.

To say that GamerGate is just a movement giving us better video game journalism would be grossly oversimplifying the situation, though. In fact, some people believe that the movement is more about misogyny, discrimination and overall fear of change than anything else. As Todd VanDerWerff explains in an article on Vox.com, “Like all hashtags, #GamerGate has come to mean about 500 different things to thousands of different people.” Particularly, the hashtag has been used to harass Quinn and anybody who defends her. Her personal information has been posted online (an act known as doxxing), and people have threatened to rape or kill her, as The Washington Post explains. Some threats have been so specific and vicious that she temporarily left her home and stayed with a friend of hers.

Entire businesses have been subjected to pressure from the GamerGate movement as well. As TheVerge.com reported in early October, the gaming website Gamasutra has lost the advertising support of the company Intel. Why? Because a number of people using the #GamerGate hashtag told Intel to pull away from Gamasutra for characterizing their movement as nothing more than sexist harassment. TheVerge.com reported on this event with the headline, “Intel buckles to anti-feminist campaign by pulling ads from gaming site.” [Editor’s Note: As of November 15, 2014, GamePolitics.com has confirmed that Intel has resumed advertising on the website.]

But to characterize the GamerGate movement as nothing more than a bunch of misogynistic trolls masquerading as forces for change would be oversimplifying things as well. GamerGate supporters were upset by Gamasutra because the site was practically harassing those who identify themselves as “gamers.” Its articles claimed “gamers” don’t want to believe that people other than young males play video games. Gamasutra’s Leigh Alexander wrote that most members of the “generation of lonely basement kids” who called themselves “gamers” grew up from the childish label. It’s no longer all about “young white dudes with disposable income who like to Get Stuff.” This article was characterized on CNN as simply being “critical of the gaming status quo” when, in fact, Gamasutra did seem discriminatory against people who label themselves as gamers. Intel claimed it took this feedback seriously when it decided to pull its advertising from the website.

All this controversy surrounding GamerGate has created a huge division that, in some ways, is superficial. On one side we have the “gamers” who are stereotyped as lonely, angry nerds who spend way too much time playing. They start ranting online whenever somebody suggests that video game demographics and the subject matter games explore are expanding—namely, by becoming more inclusive of women. On the other side we have “social justice warriors” who are stereotyped as people who just use video games to push their own agendas. They denounce anybody who disagrees with them as misogynistic reactionaries.

However, I believe that this division is questionable because plenty of individuals who call themselves “gamers” are open to the widening demographics of the video game landscape. After all, video games targeted at hardcore enthusiasts can exist alongside casual diversions on smartphones and serious commentaries such as Depression Quest. It’s saddening, then, to see that GamerGate has been used by some media outlets as nothing more than a means to vilify “gamers.”

To be sure, there are certainly many people who have used the GamerGate movement as nothing more than an excuse to harass people who disagree with them. Anyone can use the hashtag when posting online, so pinpointing what it means exactly isn’t an easy task. And there are certainly misogynistic gamers out there, as nearly any female who has used voice chat while playing first-person shooters online could tell you. Yet, the important issue of misogyny in the gamer community (and actually, our culture as a whole) shouldn’t replace discussions on the possible shortcomings in video game journalism and how mainstream journalists characterize enthusiastic “gamers.”

Really, GamerGate has become a discussion of everything that might be wrong with the video game community, whether it’s journalism, misogyny or the pervasive harassment found online. Due to the ambiguous nature of what the hashtag even represents, it’s inevitable that all sorts of confusing debates will continue. The times to come will certainly test the ability of journalists and members of online communities to have constructive debates about the issues facing this growing medium and the press coverage that surrounds it.

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