The Dumbest Case Against Games Journalists You’ll Ever Hear

on Thursday, Aug. 28th

WARNING: Contains Opinions. (Oh no!)

When I look at what the culture of gaming has become this summer I recoil in disgust. The worst excesses of geekdom, wherein the bullied become the bullies, have been on display.

The most hideous form of this has been what’s happened to developer Zoe Quinn and feminist cultural critic Anita Sarkeesian in the past two weeks. Quinn was doxed as part of a revenge campaign begun by an ex-boyfriend. Sarkeesian was driven out of her home by threats of violence against her and her family.

Quinn’s story has splintered into a ranging discussion about journalistic ethics in the gaming enthusiast press, even though no one has been able to show that an ethical breach occurred. The problem is that the accusations of unethical behavior found an all too willing audience: gamers just don’t trust the enthusiast press.

The ultimate form of this mistrust comes in the forms of objections to game journalists backing the Patreon campaigns of independent developers. This specific objection came after Polygon’s Ben Kuchera, whose main role at the publication is that of an Opinion piece writer, announced his support for a Patreon page Quinn had put up for support.

A portion of the readership went apoplectic at this, seeing this as a confirmation of bias on the side of Quinn and a breach of ethics on the part of Kuchera. Polygon responded by instituting a transparency policy when it comes to Patreon. Rival publication Kotaku decided that it would not allow its writers to contribute to Patreon campaigns anymore. This is the “solution” to the “problem” that the most outspoken gamers seem to prefer.

It is also dumb as a rock.

An emotional argument is being made by a segment of the audience that financial support of a creator is an emotional investment that is deeper than, say, the pre-ordering of a game. The logic goes that since there is no direct product involved the writer will be more inclined say nice things about the creator they are financially supporting.

The most strident arguments were made by the Polygon user who writes under the handle Archaotic in the comments under that publication’s new Patreon disclosure policy:

It’s literally that it is incredibly skeevy to have video games journalists actively giving money to developers just for the sake of giving money to them (because they’re friends, because they agree with their personal standpoints, etc) and then turning around and shilling their work.

While I reject the idea that journalists should not be able to give money to developers for any reason, the idea that game journalists aren’t supposed to be “shilling” people’s work is sound. Right?

Games journalists are marketing people.

Oh, Archaotic… oh, no.

They exist to convince us to buy things. No matter how they might try to spin it, that is the only reason they exist. And if they have a personal vested interest in the success of a certain developer, they are by definition not impartial. Which is wrong.

I’m afraid that these assumptions are not only quite wrong, but they undermine the idea that there would be any kind of ethical breach in the first place if the job of the enthusiast press was to market games.

That’s the job of the actual marketing people. There are a lot of more them and they are better paid than the professional journalists. The professional games journalists and critics are supposed to be immune to the wily ways of the marketers. They are supposed to stand in for the fans and ask uncomfortable questions of the creators. To hold the marketers to their promises and point out when they don’t.

If they weren’t supposed to do that there’d be nothing to complain about. Which makes the argument bizarre. (Granted, it is an argument made in a comments section, and we all know that few people are their best selves in the comments.)

Of course the lines get blurry because of the long tradition of crazy press junkets that major publishers put on for the enthusiast press. Plenty of gamers resent that journalists get early access to games. They see that as a privilege, and not as a responsibility to race through the game in order to file a review.

That anyone can argue that it is corrupt when a writer pulls money out of their own pocket to support a creative, but doesn’t bring up the open bars you can find at press events hosted by major publishers in the same breath means they are either painting a distorted picture or are running their mouths without information.

The real danger is that a writer will play it safe in order to retain access, not that they will continue to hype a developer so that they can what? I don’t know, stop giving money to them?

This logic works for fans because they think that way. You can see it every day in the rabid “console wars” posts. You can see it when commentators attack writers for being “Anti-Sony,” “Pro-Sony,” “Sony Indifferent,” or worst of all (this year): “An Xbox Person.”

To be fair, this is not limited to games, all kinds of fans like to see their financial decisions justified in the eyes of others. It comes in part from a deep seated need to feel like they are not wasting their lives by pouring thousands of dollars and hours into a hobby.

Critics are a different breed. They derive emotional sustenance only from novelty and schadenfreude. Nothing else can move our cold-brew coffee black hearts. An entanglement with a creator is often best dealt with by recusing oneself from making public comment, if only to not be too harsh on one’s friends.

For instance: no one I’ve broken bread with more than once would want me to issue them a theatrical review. I’d be incapable of being anything but savage, bringing to bear personal psychological knowledge of the subject along with my desire to see them do better. I reserve those assessments for private conversations, not to preserve my connection but because odds are I am being far harsher than I would be to someone whose point of view and potential I did not know well. I also pay to see those productions as a matter of course, while I am frequently given complimentary access to those that I will review professionally.

(If you think that telling someone why you think their work sucked to their face and not in print is a way to preserve a friendship, I imagine you don’t have many friends.)

One way or another, however, people are biased. Incredibly so when it comes to art and entertainment. The idea that there can be an “objective” assessment of a cultural product is dangerously naïve, a fallacy that no amount of fetishizing Metacritic and Rotten Tomato scores can make sound. A healthier alternative is to have writers wear their influences and connections on their sleeves, so that a reader can consider the source of their point of view.

We need those who write about games to be passionate about the topic. To show that creation doesn’t happen in a vacuum. That no piece of art magically appears fully formed from the mind of the creator without any influence whatsoever form previous creations or those who stand up and critique work.

Polygon’s decision to go ahead and have its writers be transparent about their involvement in Patreon campaigns is a good one, and should probably be extended to other crowdfunding ventures. Not to silence the trolls who are screaming about ethics violations that don’t exist, but to show just how interconnected culture really is.

Culture is a conversation, after all, so why not diagram it?

One of the great side effects of crowdfunding is that it moves us along the long arc towards transparency in how our culture is made. Where funding comes from, how the interests of tastemakers are forged, and the broad discussions about meaning, authorial intent, unintended consequences and more are all facilitated by openness.

Instead of chasing critics, especially opinion piece writers, with pitchforks for wearing their hearts on their sleeves audiences should be rejoicing at the level of access and insight they are getting. In the long run it can only help audiences connect with material that moves them. Games, comics, films and more which they might not otherwise discover.

Save the suspicion for the cultural artifacts that have marketing budgets as large as their production costs. Follow that money, not the chump change that pixel scarred wretches are tossing at struggling outsiders.

For an even blunter take on what’s be going on inside gaming culture, check out Leigh Alexander’s latest at Gamasutra.

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