“Gamergate” and Media Ethics in Trade Writing

It is occasionally, when I’m not having to defend colleagues from “anti-PC” crusaders terrified that they’re losing “muh libertarianism” or when I’m not writing joke articles making fun of Mark Ames, the mission of this blog series to engage in media criticism. Truth be told, there’s a lot to criticize about the media these days. The entire news industry is in the midst of a massive technological shakeup, employment is fluctuating wildly, legacy organizations are being forced to adapt to a new paradigm of getting stories right versus keeping them “fair and balanced”… and on and on.

This isn’t just happening in the mainstream, either. Independent and alternative media has its own share of problems, from debates about credibility to maneuvering a more heavily-activist-populated space to figuring out how to break fast-moving stories and get them more right than the major media.

And then there’s the whole “journalism vs. the State” thing, which played out exquisitely in Ferguson, Missouri. Journalists were arrested, tear gassed, pushed around by cops – and it was all caught on film. Police State, USA was broadcast to the living rooms of every moderate, middle-class-identifying American, and suddenly we’re actually talking about demilitarizing the police. In public. Not in the C4SS comment thread. It’s magical.

But this has all been playing out (aside from Ferguson) within the space of decades. The signs of economic stress on journalism likely showed up in the early 90s, as computers began to proliferate and people began to stop subscribing to newspapers as much. Cable news’s polarization (again, in the 90s) threw the industry’s pretension toward objectivity into question, as news consumers found the source of media that best soothed their confirmation biases and stuck with them as the “most reliable” source. Independent media has never, by definition, been “objective” in the sense that most journalists mean it, but they’ve had to deal with the pseudoscience and new age spiritual baggage that seemed to attach itself to the indie newspapers in the 60s and just never let go.

So yes, there’s lots to criticize in the media – and lots to criticize from an anarchist perspective – but they’re perennial problems. They’re not going to be solved in an hour, or by one undergrad writing a blog about it.

There is, however, one niche media market that is seemingly undergoing a Pulitzer vs. Hearst-level dustup right now: games journalism. And since it isn’t every day you maybe run into a conflict the likes of which haven’t been seen in a century, that’s what we’re gonna focus on this week.


First, for the readers, a quick summation of “Gamergate” and why it’s notable.

About two weeks ago, programmer Eron Gjoni posted a long, angry accusation of infidelity against his then-girlfriend, independent developer Zoe Quinn, to a self-hosted WordPress blog. He alleged that she had slept with five other people, including a writer at games blogs Kotaku and Rock Paper Shotgun, Nathan Grayson, during their relationship. Readers then seemed to infer that Quinn had slept with Grayson in exchange for positive reviews on her just-released indie game, Depression Quest, a notion that Gjoni himself later dispelled:

To be clear, if there was any conflict of interest between Zoe and Nathan regarding coverage of Depression Quest prior to April, I have no reason to believe that it was sexual in nature. -Eron Gjoni, August 16, 2014 (edited)

However, it was Quinn’s relationship with Grayson that seemed to set off a firestorm among the video game community, such as it is. Even though Gjoni refuted it, and even though Kotaku Editor-In-Chief Stephen Totilo refuted it, and even though Quinn herself refuted it and talked about why it’s goddamn ridiculous to talk about people’s sex lives like they’re any of your businessand even though Nathan Grayson didn’t write the Kotaku Depression Quest review, people still took this as an opportunity to pile onto Quinn and anyone who seemed to think about defending her, all in the name of protesting corruption in video game journalism.

And so there are two threads here that diverge in spots and converge in others: the thread that ostensibly legitimately cares about integrity in video game journalism, and the thread that sees a “social justice warrior” conspiracy in the video game community (such as it is) and will attack any sign of that. When I jumped in the “gamergate” Twitter hashtag with a snarky comment about “gamer dudebros,” people quickly responded that gamergate actually consisted of a diverse range of people including women and individuals in the LGBT community, all concerned with corruption in games news (which, it turned out as our discussion progressed, still centered on Quinn). My experience in the tag did seem to be an outlier, however; as I was asking questions of my small, adversarial, yet seemingly amiable audience, friends of mine were receiving threats, abuse and harassment from people in the same space. Diverse, indeed.


After a few hours of going back and forth with a few people in the gamergate tag who seemed willing to engage my questions about the role of media in their community, I emerged with new understanding of some key points:

  1. There desperately needs to be a giant, year-long (longer if need be) open conversation between game journalists and their consumer base; and
  2. Gamergate simply isn’t the foundation for that discussion.

It probably sounds presumptuous of me to say that, but I only do so after considering the material those I talked to gave me, and observing the behavior of many more participants in the tag. Looking purely at the media criticism angle, y’all have some fundamental misunderstandings of how “journalism” works in meatspace – especially within the realm of trade media (we’ll get to it) – versus how it is supposed to ideally function. One person I spoke to wanted both objectivity from the media they were criticizing and “consistency” – their term – in what was covered. When I pointed out that one did not necessarily allow the other, I was told I was being too academic for the discussion.

If the discussion is trying to address endemic problems in the industry, then it’s my view that it should be as academic as possible. If the discussion is trying to provoke a witch hunt against one independent developer (I can’t stress the independent part enough, especially since the ostensible goal is to eliminate corruption) and those who disagree with you about that, then I’m happy to throw my academic stick in your spokes.

Being media literate is a major prerequisite to being able to criticize media well. The screenshots of forum posts, articles posted to deviantart, one person linked me to an article by A Voice for Men, an MRA page – you may consider these things to be evidence supporting your position and damning the conspiracy of social justice warrior commentariat ruining gaming, but to an outsider who, despite poking the tag with a stick initially, attempted to engage in good faith with you, it looks kinda like a mess of conjecture. It also doesn’t add up to a good critique of game journalism. You will need to learn how to cut through chaff and analyze actually important bits of information if your real goal is to end game journalism’s apparent corruption.

Tadhg Kelly at Gamasutra actually put it brilliantly:

And what of the media? Well, frankly, you’re simply out of your mind if you think that the gaming media of yesteryear was somehow more noble than it is today. It used to be way way worse. Back when magazines ruled the roost, for instance, there were plenty of bought reviews in exchange for promised advertising, feature coverage and the like, and far less ways for those stories to get out. You forget that today you have all these networks like Reddit on which you can gather and hear the real skinny. Back then you didn’t, and were duped far more often than now.

Today’s gaming media has never been more active or honest. Through outlets like Giant Bomb, Kotaku, Destructoid, YouTubers and the like a multitude of voices can be heard. The communities that form around them are barely corralled (I mean this as a virtue). The amount of quick analysis, exposure, true feelings about games and the reduction of paid reviews and the like is palpable. The conversation has long stopped being anything like a co-ordinated press organ of previews, reviews and columns and instead become delightfully anarchic. Sure it’s still a bit slushy sometimes (I’m particularly worried about the ethical standards among YouTubers) but still.

You often seem to carry on with this wacky notion that media journalism is a form of reporting similar to news media, talking about how journalists should behave like hard-hitting Woodwards and Bernsteins, but seriously think. A lot of gaming journalism is essentially a benign form of marketing. Coverage of E3, for example, is just video’d enthusiasm and debate over infomercials. The bulk of articles on sites are positivist coverage of new games, and that’s what you actually want to read. It may sound great in principle to have some uncorrupted soul-searing journos on the beat for the truth, but this is video games. There isn’t much truth to be found.

Here’s something important and valuable: trade journalism is not the same – and doesn’t play by the same rules – as “regular” journalism. Publications and websites that devote themselves to a specific niche, or a specific niche-within-a-niche, frequently must form extensive personal and professional relationships with those they cover in order to do their jobs. Additionally, much of the bread-and-butter content of trade media are subjective product reviews, behind-the-scenes features, previews and industry interviews. All of these can be gotten by a so-called “objective” outside journalist, but an interesting thing happens: their story tends not to be as in depth or as tuned into the cultural background noise as the trade journalist’s story is. This is why there’s such a major difference between a convention like E3 and the coverage it generates and a convention like PAX Prime. Both are major events, but one is specifically geared toward outside journalists.

The same kind of phenomenon holds true in other niche markets; in motocross, to use one random example, one of the largest American publications is owned by the same person who heads the management body of the US Motocross Outdoor Nationals. This fact is widely known, but there’s no crusade for an end to the corruption in motocross media. The participants, press and industry all know each other intimately, and while that definitely opens the door wide open for corruption, the work the writers do for publications within that niche tends to be better than work done from the outside.

However, this is not to say that the kind of ethics generally followed by outside press need to be eschewed when you scale down. The Society for Professional Journalists still has the best ethics list around, and as a basic foundation they’re fantastic to refer to in whatever discussion comes out of this.


I’ve spent most of this article kind of maybe defending the video game press from some of the criticisms it’s faced recently. However, I need to address you directly for a moment.

Most of you already know that you have a responsibility to your readers to work as ethically as you can, and with as little interference from those you cover as possible. I’ve read a lot of editorial staff statements defending your work and I believe you when you say that you’re operating as above-board as humanly possible, and I actually agree that you’re not operating on the same playing field and therefore shouldn’t be expected to play with the same rules as journalists at the New York Times.

But I spend all day studying the media. My blogroll is occupied by Jim Romenesko and Jay Rosen and Margaret Sullivan and NPR’s mysterious ombudsman. I understand what you mean when you say your relationship with advertisers and developers is complex. But your readers, the people whose blogroll is occupied by your websites and then Reddit and 4chan and 9gag and on and on, they may not understand – or worse, they may misunderstand that relationship. This is where you need to spend time clarifying everything. You need to let some sunshine in on your operations so that no one can credibly accuse you of shady dealings again. This has the added bonus of lending some credence to the idea that games journalism is actually becoming more professional.

My advice is to spend 2015 going to conventions and having meetups with readers who have concerns about your ethics and want to understand you better. That’s literally it. You don’t have to have panels or spend money on booths, just go and be available in some capacity to readers who want to know more about how these things work. If you find that too prohibitive, hire an ombudsman.

That’s it, literally. I’ve said everything I wanted to say on this subject. If you’ve got questions or comments, as always, feel free to leave them for me to answer (or not) below. You can follow us at @missingcomma and @c4ssdotorg on Twitter. I’m available there at @illicitpopsicle and Juliana is @julianatweets0. See you next week.

Anarchy and Democracy
Fighting Fascism
Markets Not Capitalism
The Anatomy of Escape
Organization Theory