A journalist looks at Gamergate’s dossier

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After my last post about Gamergate and their misuse of the word libel. A user on Twitter replied with a link to an article titled “A Review Of Game Journalism” I received the link again by the same user when I tweeted the hashtag #Gamergate a second time. It claims to be a white paper or dossier for Gamergate and a review of issues the group thinks is important.

I’m analyzing this document because Gamergate is full of mixed messages and a buffet of issues that any internet citizen can appropriate for their own ends. In a leaderless web movement, young kids who have never been told that online harassment is not OK, ideologues who justify harassment as a means to their twisted end, and people simply looking to cause trouble, have as much say as the silent majority.

This “dossier” is the most tangible message Gamergate has come up with to date. Users on Twitter thought it was important enough to link it every time someone mentions Gamergate critically. So, what what do I as a journalist think about what it has to say?

My training taught me that most writing will have a chestnut paragraph or “nut graf” that summarizes the thesis of an article. Here is the closest thing to a nut graf I could find

Major elements of the video game press have engaged in multiple breaches of ethics over the years and have had scandals similar to other tech-related fields. As a multibillion-dollar industry, it is expected that the video game press adhere to a higher standard of ethics and critique. However, experience has shown that they have not, and currently do not, adhere to these standards.

The first part of the document highlights the stakeholders of the game industry and game journalism. Followed by cases that the author thinks are examples of unethical journalism. Pretty boilerplate for an introduction.

2.2 Worth of a review

Journalists may also use scores as a way of punishing developers for things they do not agree with. In October 2014, Polygon ran a review of Platinum Games’ Bayonetta 2. …Polygon awarded it 7.5/10. This lower score was given based off the reviewer taking issue with the “blatant over-sexualization” of the protagonist in the game

The article asserts that this Polygon reviewer’s perspective on objectionable or laudable social content influenced the review score, but it doesn’t show the correlation. A further example by the same publication shows the opposite. Never Alone, whose review merited the game’s positive portrayal of Native Alaskan culture, received 7/10, a lower score than the Bayonetta 2.

In 2013, Gamespot gave Grand Theft Auto 5 a 9/10 rating. The same positive review provided one paragraph that criticized the game’s sexist portrayal of women. That one point was enough to make some readers angry enough to petition for the reviewer’s firing. The problem for these readers is not the supposed influence of social critique on review scores. The problem is that any social critique is being included at all with game reviews. The core Gamergate seems to follow this reasoning.

Even if reviews scores influence creative output, which they don’t, that’s a problem with review aggregators, and consumers who incentivize this with their reading habits. This problem is more complicated than simply blaming journalists.


2.3. Ethical Concerns in the Relationships between Publishers and Reviewers

This section covers examples of game publishers trying to manipulate game reviews by threatening to deny access to games up for review(Duke Nukem Forever) or control content that is covered in video reviews(Middle-Earth:Shadow of Mordor). These surely would be ethical lapses if they weren’t uncovered by game journalists themselves, which they were. Does the author suggest that uncovering foul play by game publishers is an example of unethical journalism?

Again, don’t readers have some responsibility for demanding instantaneous reviews and review score priorities?

3.2. How Indie Developers Find Funding, Fame, and Publicity

It’s a given that getting a foot in the door as an independent game developer is difficult. Many industries depend on one’s ability to socialize and “hustle” for one’s work. I struggle with this status quo myself as an introverted freelancer. Is this the fault of game journalism?

The balance between advocacy and neutrality is complicated. But the article seems to want to have it both ways, give all indie games equal coverage while favoring none.

3.3. Conflicts of Interest Between Indie Developers and Journalists

Patricia Hernadez’s personal relationships and supposedly favorable writing seem most improper among the examples given in this document. Kotaku has since taken steps to address disclosure of personal relationships among its writers. It’s important to remember that journalistic codes of ethics are not set in stone. Ethics needs to be measured on a case-by-case basis and by degrees. Some publications allow for small gifts not exceeding $10. Many publications who receive promotional gifts end up raffling them to readers.

Leigh Alexander’s supposed personal impropriety is less troublesome, given that the game news site Gamasutra very clearly represents and caters to people within the gaming industry. Personal relationships are in fact encouraged for an industry publication like Gamasutra.

It’s a given that journalists should avoid conflicts of interest. Many of these examples were uncovered and game review sites have taken steps to improve their standards, Sometimes making unreasonable disclosures of personal relationships that don’t constitute a a conflict of interest. Regardless, members of Gamergate continue to boycott or antagonize these publications.


4.1. The GameJournoPros E-mail List

On September 17, 2014 Breitbart reporter Milo Yiannopoulos released details of a private Google Group used by many prominent figures in the gaming media. Started by Kyle Orland, Senior Gaming Editor at Ars Technica in 2010 (and previously a writer for Video Games Media Watch), it was explicitly modeled after “JournoList.”

The worst thing that Milo Yiannopoulos found from the leak was that two writers advising an inexperienced editor of a game news site not to allow forum posts about salacious rumors against game developer Zoe Quinn by her ex-boyfriend, which lead to harassment against Quinn by internet users. Yiannopoulos, and those who believed his reporting, suggested that journalists acted to protect their own insular group.

A more likely explanation for closing comments was to reduce harm that the rumors caused and avoid gossip mongering. Minimizing harm and refusing to cover gossip are foundations of ethical journalism and are mentioned in the Society of Professional Journalist’s Code of Ethics.

– Balance the public’s need for information against potential harm or discomfort. Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance or undue intrusiveness(emphases mine)

– Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity, even if others do.

When I started discussing Gamergate on closed groups on social media, I had an online friend sent me some supposed evidence of Zoe Quinn’s wrongdoing by disgruntled associates. I found the “evidence” to be unrelated to any journalistic issue, and only served to demean her character. I didn’t disregard the information to shield Zoe Quinn from consequences she supposedly “deserved”. I disregarded it because it was bawdy mudslinging that wasn’t newsworthy.

4.2. Reporter’s Dismissal after Exposing an Indie Developer’s Fraudulent Campaign

The issue that contributed to Destructoid writer Allistair Pinsof’s dismissal was that he outed a transgender indie game developer against their will while reporting on the developer’s crowdfunding fraud.

This issue of outing an LGBT person while reporting related information poses a serious ethical dilemma for journalists, one that popular sports blog Grantland had to answer for before Destructoid. Nonetheless, the dossier doesn’t mention Pinisof’s and Destructoid’s ethical dilemma, and implicitly suggests that the writer did nothing wrong. Instead, This document unquestioningly considers Pinsof a martyr for going against a supposedly insular press community(And blindly accepting Pinsof’s explanation). This betrays a lack of reflection on the ethical problems of the case, and causes me to doubt the sincerity of someone who says they’re concerned about ethics in game journalism.

The document also accuses members the GameJournoPros mailing list of colluding to deny Pinsof further employment, yet the quotes provided only advises members not to get involved in the writer’s social media rabble rousing. Some members even advised that the Destructoid editor reconcile with Pinsof.


5. Steps Taken by the Industry to Address Ethical Concerns

The reforms taking place in various sites are good first steps towards re-establishing ethical standards in the press and a workable level of trust with readers. However, much more needs to be done to negate elements of the media’s insider culture that actively encourages unethical, anti-consumer practices.

Journalism will always have issues. As a freelance journalist, I have endured these issues and strive to keep aware of them. It’s a process, not a goal, and my colleagues in game journalism strive in that process. Gamergate seems to think they’re the first people to cover journalistic ethics in game review publications. And some of the accusations levied against game journalism in this dossier betray a fundamental lack of understanding of journalistic ethics.

“Anti-consumer practices” is a fairly subjective accusation. Should game journalism give consumers what they want with emotionally juicy listicles, and arbitrary game review scores. Should they give viewers what they want with thoughtful commentary on social issues? Journalists across the web already struggle with this balance, to serve pertinent information in a catchy format.

Conclusion

These practices actively harm the industry and must be addressed openly through reasoned and honest debate. Dismissal of these concerns, either explicitly through outright denial or implicitly through censorship, only exacerbates the problem.

This “reasoned and honest debate” began with slandering a game developer. Multiple websites shut down topics related to these accusations because they enabled ongoing malicious harm of an individual. If you don’t consider safety or privacy a factor when seeking the truth or engaging in discussion, then you simply don’t understand ethics behind free speech, assembly or press.

If this is the most concrete message Gamergate can come up with, it’s simply unconvincing to a professional journalist like me. If I were an editor at a newsroom, and this convoluted dossier arrived at my desk stating it was about ethics in game journalism, I’d just say “Thanks, but we don’t need your help upholding ethics”

PS. When I started writing this post, I wanted to solely address the message that Gamergate promotes. But I feel the need to point out one action that contradicts the “ethics in game journalism” message. Operation Disrespectful Nod was an email campaign targeting sponsors of websites that spoke out against Gamergate, some were non-journalistic forums like NEOGAF and entertainment sites like Badass Digest.

Basically, Gamergate sought to use the undue influence of advertising upon editorial content, an unethical status quo in journalism, as a weapon against websites Gamergate disagrees with.

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One Comment

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  1. “These surely would be ethical lapses if they weren’t uncovered by game journalists themselves, which they were. Does the author suggest that uncovering foul play by game publishers is an example of unethical journalism?”

    This is incorrect. The initial finding was by Total Biscuit (John Bain) and Jim Sterling. Both that focus more heavily on youtube content than that of the more editorial content seen on traditional game websites. Everything else flowed from their reveal.

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