Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Editorial: On GamerGate

Originally I was simply going to post this discussion on the newest Freelancin', but I was never happy with how my tone came out.  Actually in the very last Freelancin' episode I took up the issue briefly.  That was just before the phrase "GamerGate" was coined, got a Twitter hashtag, and even received its own Wikipedia article.  Generally I dismissed the entire thing as silly rabble rousing.  Usually these kinds of gamer "controversies" such as the slacktavist fury over "Assassin's Creed Unity" lacking female playable character or anger over Dorito product-placement in GameTrailers videos all blow over in a matter of days.  GamerGate is not blowing over, this cannot be simply dismissed, it is going nowhere.  And that requires a more serious response than what I gave, and more measured analysis.

Luckily nobody reads me, or those who do are happy enough with what I post that I usually do not get death threats*.  This is a small-time operation, I am not a games journalist.  I suppose technically I might possibly fit in the broadest of definitions, but I am not getting paid for this, nobody wants me to shill Mountain Dew, and nobody is going to invite me to an industry party (E3 aside).  My reviews are usually years late, I'm ignoring "Destiny" right now to play "Persona 4".  I would love to get paid for this work, I would love more if I was as well-known and read as people like Geoff Keighley, Leigh Alexander, or Jim Sterling, but that is not the case.  There is a negative side though to being prominent, and that's the gaming community.  We are not a very happy crowd, and we are not very pleasant to people who try to write for us.  This GamerGate situation is showing off some of our worst behavior, and we are doing nothing but cannibalizing ourselves here.

Trying to dig through the strands that led to GamerGate is a difficult process, and at this point, I do not think a single person on either side of the battlefield actually knows entirely what is going on.  This is a protest movement without very many protests, a revolution with no clear goals, other than "more transparency" and "less lecturing" and "stop sleeping with the enemy [read: games companies]".  An excellent article that actually summarizes the entire hurricane of controversy was posted on Forbes, written by Erik Kain.  I recommend you read that.  Everybody is involved, from Indie developers, reddit moderators, 4chan, and a wave of journalists quixotically declaring that "gamers are dead".  There's a lot going on, and this is going to take a long while to meander through.  

I have a theory about GamerGate:  it would not exist if games media had anything else to talk about.  2014 has been one of the worst droughts in memory in terms of video games, and the summer has been so bad I cannot name a single major release between and "Murdered: Soul Suspect" and "Destiny".  There really is starvation for content.  And how wonderful it is now that huge gaming platforms and discussion boards have something to talk about!  We're creating the topic.  There is no game involved in GamerGate beyond "Depression Quest", and nobody really cares about that anymore.  It's about the games media itself, the game publishers are not even involved. 

Now sites are getting hits, twitter feeds are getting followed, ads are being seen, this is working out very well for a lot of people, stress aside.  Hopefully when the games start coming again we will have a more constructive job to do.

But more to the point, there are two things that are going on right now:

Feminism or Lecturing?

I don't watch Anita Sarkeesian.  I find her personality unlikable.  Her show, Feminist Frequency, is pandering and the points are vapid.  She comes from a place of basic Feminist college courses, then read a lot of TV Tropes, and made herself mad at a lot of what is generally nothing.  I'm not here to yell that all games need to star men and all women in games should either be in the process of making a sandwich or dressing up in two pasties and a ribbon around the waist, but there is a disconnect happening here.

"Gaming journalism" is a phrase that is perhaps a bit too pretentious for the kind of work I do on this blog and the kind of work people around the Internet do for actual paychecks.  The "games media" is an enthusiast crowd, they love games.  I'm not going to review "Shin Megami Tensei IV" for people who do not like video games and want only to watch The View every morning, I'm going to review it for the converts looking for a good title.  That's not really journalism, that's hyping up a subject the audience and I enjoy.  I'm not telling the dark story behind the vaults at Atlus, I'm not breaking down evil EA conspiracies.  I am just sharing something I like.  And ultimately all game journalism does that, answering a simple question:  "Is the game good or bad?"

However, some writers and some readers want more from the industry.  They want deeper social issues inside their games, and they want more advanced criticism of the social impact that video games have.  You can find this sort of dialog inside much of film criticism, such as writers bemoaning the destructive impact the Twilight movies have had on the preteen population of the world.  Video games are a nascent media, right now they're still ultimately "games".   For every title with incredible narrative sophistication like "Spec Ops: The Line" there are nine billion games with no social definition of any kind and in no way experiment with the possibilities of the medium.  There's nothing wrong with merely being a game, but it is not what some people want.

There is a division going on within the gaming world itself.  Many writers have looked for a major issue with which to add some social traction to their work, and Feminism has become the hot-button issue.  Be it the size of the asses in "Dragon's Crown" or the abundance of weak female roles in gaming narrative, the discussion has become that video games are not female-friendly.  See the weird flare-up about female characters in "Assassin's Creed Unity" or the rage against Lara Croft's near-rape moment in the 2013 reboot of "Tomb Raider"**.  The idea is that gaming is now a boy's club - let the girls have their Barbies while the men can play Call of Duty.

Meanwhile on the other hand, there are many more people who are sick of this endless guilt-pounding for being a male gamer.  Any kind of fanservice at all has become a dirty word, and not the fun kind of dirty.  Apparently you're some kind of pimping slave-driver if you just want to enjoy some silly breast-bouncing in "Dead or Alive Xtreme Beach Volleyball".  Even harmless JRPG harem fantasies (with admittedly really creepy concepts) such as "Conception II" are a criminal activity perpetuating the misogyny inherent in the system.  Yeah, there are games which are truly disgusting like "Duke Nukem Forever" with its parade of strippers, but I cannot help but feel that things have gone too far.  Political correctness seems to be demanding a quota system for every game, where we must fit exact mathematical definitions:  for every male character we must have as many female ones - and don't you dare fantasize or touch, you horny repressive piece of shit.

What's bizarre is that even though the tempo of feminist rage has been increasing, I would argue that female characters in video games have generally never been better-written or better represented than today.  Take Ellie in "The Last of Us", Elizabeth in "BioShock Infinite", the New Lara Croft from the reboot, GLaDos from "Portal".  Peach is not hiding in a castle in "Super Mario 3D World", she's a fully playable character with the boys - and joining her is probably the best character in the entire Mario franchise, Rosalina.  If you need to complain about poor use of women in modern media, video games are hardly the worst offenders.  Why is it that I can't get a Wonder Woman movie ever made or that Black Widow needs to keep piggy-backing the male superhero movies?  If you want just truly awful writing for female characters, enjoy "Vampire Academy".

But even if I understand the frustration from readers, the response is completely unacceptable.  Everybody agrees that the harassment and anger from a small minority has been reprehensible.  I have been lucky enough to never have a real job writing about games, so (almost) nobody has asked me to die horribly, but any of that talk on any level cannot be allowed.  Anita Sarkeesian might be an insufferable tart, but she has every right to say what she thinks.  If Zoey Quinn wants to cheat on her boyfriend, unless you are the boyfriend in question, you have no right at all to be upset.  Anybody who wants to write death threats gets the Official BlueHighwind Stamp of FUCK RIGHT OFF.  We don't want or need you in the gaming world.  I could say the same to the Fox News and "Men's Rights" groups who have decided to piggy back into the Gaming discussion to continue with their usual right wing bullshit.

I don't want to get lectured or feel guilty about every thing I play.  I really do not want the creativity of game designers to have to fit a single definition of what is "equal".  But on the other hand, I accept Anita Sarkessian's opinion as valid, she can keep making her videos.  Zoey Quinn can keep making her games.  Writers can keep posting their opinions.  The response to this is not to fight a war with these people - its to turn it off and read something else.  The entire world will not bend to your worldview, no matter how angry you get.

Journalism Incest

The other major problem going on is the supposed sense of incest between gaming journalists and the companies they represent.  This has been going on for years now, as gamers complain about Mountain Dew ads, complain about journalists receiving free swag and free games, and that they're too close to their subjects.  EA can wine and dine the industry into buying positive reviews.  There are cases of actual corruption, such the legendary incident when Jeff Gerstmann was fired from GameSpot for not giving "Kane and Lynch 2" the blowjob his corporate masters demanded.  But for the most part, free review copies are not going to make a journalist suddenly decide that "Ride to Hell" is suddenly a positive experience.  If anything, most of the gaming people I talked to at E3 weren't so much razzled and dazzled as cynical and bored.

You may look at the various fluff pieces gaming sites put up to advertise the latest major video game release and say "yes, these people are the problem!  They're nothing but corporate slaves!"  But that's entirely unfair for the writers of the pieces and missing the point of gaming journalism.  This is an enthusiast media as I pointed out before, what else is a game journalist supposed to do with the knowledge that a new Sims game is coming out but report the news as loud as they can?  People want to hear about the Sims, people want to know more about "Sims 4", people will click on links with the words 'Sims' and '4' on them.  Maybe the writer himself is a Sims fan.  I know you would not want me writing about the upcoming Sims title - my one Sims experience ended in miserable frustration as my bored and badly depressed people wallowed in their own filth, unable to move from the couch (so just like real life).  Drumming up excitement is the natural state of this media, not manipulation.  And hopefully you're not an idiot who will simply buy anything that a Siliconera article talks about.

Maybe I'm as guilty as anybody else for hyping up the games that I have seen.  Every year I talk about the new exciting video games I see at E3 - this year I spent a week doing nothing but spreading my small share of the Internet to hype up mostly Nintendo releases.  No Ubisoft representative needed to come over to me at Los Angeles this June and give me a handjob to get me excited about "Far Cry 4".  Remember we're generally supposed to like video games - the responses to new announcements is going to be positive.  Jeremy Clarkson does not moan and cry about the upcoming Aston Martin, Aint It Cool is not going to talk about how much the new Iron Man movie looks like a pile of rust.

There will always be journalists with an agenda.  Some writers really like dull slow affairs like "Gone Home", when I would prefer to slam my head repeatedly into the walls of that house until the concussions make me hallucinate a fun game, like "Sonic 3 and Knuckles".  Some writers are personal friends with game developers - which is something that needs to be disclosed in the review.  I agree, if you're sleeping with the developer, you probably should not publish a review of the game they're making.  That is a problem.

But you'll get bias.   I have a life-long love affair with Zelda.  My moments with that series have been way hotter and filthier than anything Zoey Quinn is implied to have done.  Thus my review of "A Link Between Worlds" could never be fully objective.  I'll admit that if a critic is giving a positive or negative review for the wrong reason, it is not good for the industry.  But there's always going to be bad critics who will write poor reviews, or good critics who might focus on the wrong part of a video game.  You're going to have people who will always write about the feminist side of games, there are some critics who will give games a bad review if they do not like how the characters are portrayed. 

Also, you're going to disagree with reviews, that's going to happen.  And you need to accept this like a mature human being.

The burden of how a game looks ultimately lies on the reader, not the critic.  All the journalist can do is share their particular perspective and opinion.  But nothing is going to be 100% objective.  This is why you have to take a larger view of the entire review spectrum, read more than one review (nobody is going to sleep with every critic on the Internet, as much as some devs would like to try), watch the game in action, and make the judgment yourself.  If you don't like a critic, don't read that critic.  It is very simple.  If you suspect a website of taking bribes or selling out or just writing bad journalism, stay away from that site.  I don't like Kotaku - it is a fucking condemnable rag full of clickbait opinion articles hardly above a rambling GameFAQs forum post in quality - so I don't read them.

Yes, there is a conspiracy in the games world.  The journalists want games to get made so they have more to talk about.  To get more games made, gamers need to buy more games.  Then the companies will put in the work to make new games, giving new content, and so the engine of consumerism and industry will drive on forward forever.  The alternative is a dead industry, no new games, no new articles, nobody has a job.  We could always go back to board games, guys.  Again, it is assumed that generally you like video games to be apart of the "Gamer Culture" and to read gaming media.

Maybe modern video games suck.  Maybe the over-reliance on graphics has crippled innovation amongst the industry titans which has reduced them to making cheap products exactly like the last ones to the lowest common denominator.  If that's the case, GamerGate should be protesting outside the offices of EA, Ubisoft, and Activision, not sending death threats to Zoey Quinn. 

I am generally happy with the state of gaming in 2014.  There is more choice and more kinds of games being made by more people for more people than ever before.  You want huge blockbusters like Call of Duty, it's there.  You want an introspective Indie game on the nature of depression, it's there.  If you just want to place Freecell on your PC while ignoring your work at the office, it's there.  You don't have to like every kind of game the journalists recommend - you can even demand reform from the industry.  But this anger is misplaced, I feel.  Journalists do not decide the tempo of the industry, they're the smallest part of the chain, that's up the consumers and the developers.


Ultimately how is GamingGate going to conclude?  I suspect not with a whole lot done.  The best that GamerGate has achieved is to have the entire gaming journalism industry, from the Youtube bloggers to the major publications, stop and look at itself hard.  Many of the demands of the disaffected are most likely impossible to reach, it is just empty anger pushed in the wrong direction.  Made worse, of course, by Twitter, where it seems nothing can ever be solved and any disagreements are hypercharged into flame wars.  By the way, if you want a peaceful negotiation to any of this - don't use Twitter.  Don't retweet, don't respond to tweets.  Reason and subtlety and measured arguments cannot fit in 140 characters.  My prediction is that GamerGate simply will burn out of energy as people tire of the story, and a year from now another scandal will play this whole drama over again in a second more pointless act.

If anything is going to come out of this whole issue it would have to be an acceptance that the Gaming World is not a single monolithic entity of agreement.  We are getting polarized like everything else in the universe.  There are left and right wing journalists now - not just simply a "center".  Most likely come the holiday gaming dump, the gaming journalists will keep doing their job just as they would have done before GamerGate.  Somebody is going to complain about the use of female characters in Smash Bros, and you can either send that person death threats, ignore them, or try to listen and see if maybe they have a point.  Hopefully the latter two options will be what you pick.  What will have to happen though is an understanding that both sides have points, and they are legitimate on some level.  That hasn't happened in a lot of places in modern culture, which is why Washington has become a fiery pot of meaningless thrashing, accomplishing nothing while the country rots away.

You cannot have a discussion if on the one side you have Evil Feminist Penis-Killers, and on the other side you have Vagina-Enslaving Pigs.  Neither can you have one when you have decided that the entire gaming media is a huge conspiracy to steal your wallet and your soul.  (If you've gone that far, you might as well move to Montana, stockpile weapons, and bomb a government building.)  What you need to realize is that some people are unhappy with how fictional women are treated in some games, and if you do not like that opinion, turn off the Youtube video.  And some people do not want to accept quota systems and self-censorship just after we finally shut up all those angry mothers calling up their Congressmen to stop Grand Theft Auto.  They're both opinions coming from positive constructive places, yet they did not have to agree.  But neither do they need to demonize each other and start a nuclear war across the internet.

Gaming criticism is always going to be done by individuals, singular people full of both insights and idiocy.  I'm just me, I can speak only for me.  I thought the character design for "Bayonetta" was disgusting and poorly hid behind a veil of supposed "irony".  Other people will not agree with that, they will find it charming for their own reasons.  Discourse between us can happen, and it can be very fruitful.  Currently though, GamerGate is not allowing that, the narrative is too neatly "us vs. them".  I think if you talked (and hate mail does not count as "talking") you might actually get some kind of positive compromise.

Also, if you did not really care about my thoughts on GamerGate, here's a few other options:
(Sorry if my opinions seem unoriginal compared to all of those citations there.  Also apologies if this came out more like a rant than I wanted.  Furthermore, if you want to wish me to die horribly and very slowly in an incident involving a tire iron, seven horny orangutangs, and a fireworks factory with very lax safety policies, you can do so on the comments section below, but I will delete your post.)

* Though even I have received a few.  I recall one person being very upset with my negative "Final Fantasy XIII" review and hounding me down across just about website on the Internet where I post.  I took that more as validation that I was actually contributing something to the Internet than as a serious attack, I'm more tickled by trolling than annoyed.  However, send enough of that in my inbox and even I will probably start to get upset.

** Which actually was probably one of the most positive steps forward for female characters in video game history.  Lara Croft went from a cartoon slut to a real character with dimension and realistic proportions - and somehow became twenty times more attractive because of it.  It is the exact opposite of Samus' diminishing into a weak crying failure in "Metroid Other M", the worst destruction of a good female character.


  1. Thank you so much for your two cents, Blue Highwind. At least now I have a lifeboat to hold onto through a seemingly endless shitstorm of utter hysteria. I, too, want to become internet-famous, but maybe I'll just have to get really damn lucky for that to happen. Perhaps I should just pick my Tumblr up from where I left off and write some shit. But whatever happens, don't ever change. Thanks for being a great reviewer and a voice of reason.

  2. I will now cite your "Move to Montana" suggestion whenever my friends complain the industry is entirely corrupt! Along with that, I am so glad to have read this after the madness that's been rampaging lately. More posts like these really need to be out there and hopefully get others to chill the fuck out.

  3. Thanks for your thoughts, Blue and I have to be in agreement. I hope the gaming industry can walk away from this a better being and learn from it's mistakes. Now on to more pressing Issues!

    Did you really dislike persona 4? You might not be hardwired for weird japanese teenage sim-life RPGs :p