GamerGate Ethics: It’s Not About Scoring Points

Grand Theft Auto 5
Off-the-rails video mayhem in Grand Theft Auto 5 (Rockstar Games)

What’s the point of video game debate? Consumer reviews pose valid ethical issues, but not this one.

By Stephen Rynkiewicz

Critics are prepared to justify their opinions, but shouldn’t be forced to defend their livelihoods, much less their lives. Yet that’s the challenge now facing video game reviewers, and it’s a struggle that tests the maturity of their industry.

Threats against cultural critic Anita Sarkeesian brought the issue mainstream attention. An anonymous email warned Utah State University administrators of a shooting massacre at her speech on women in video games. She canceled the appearance.

It’s hard not to identify with that dilemma. But when I circulated the New York Times report on Sarkeesian’s cancelation, the Twitter response was harsh. “Oh boo hoo,” one wrote, “those terrible, count them, ZERO, attacks on hated busybody con artists.” That suggests the level of the “GamerGate” debate.

No regrets from this editor if the mayhem stays at zero. I’m trained to keep writers safe. Mostly reporters want an editor to check their facts and their logic; reviewers need a sounding board. We may even disapprove of what our critics say. Yet editors defend their right to say it. Must we defend to the death?

Some examples from the automotive beat — like video games, cars are a consumer product that courts consumer reviews. The New York Times resisted public pressure from Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk to fire John M. Broder in 2013 after a battery-draining Tesla test. Auto critic Scott Burgess briefly quit MediaNews Group’s Detroit News in 2011. His biting review of the Chrysler 200’s redesign was softened online after an advertiser complaint.

Small publications have cause to be careful if advertising money’s at stake: An Ashland (Ky.) Daily Independent reporter was fired this year for posting a Facebook comment about a car dealer’s TV ad. Not even a newspaper review, yet the dealer threatened to pull his newspaper advertising.

That’s the prism through which I view the basic GamerGate ethics complaint, which is that game journalists are cozy with the $15 billion gaming industry. I’m struck by some unusual financial entanglements: Investors in The Escapist’s Defy Media include game developers and the Lionsgate movie studio. But they’re disclosed, and haven’t drawn much comment. Sites also accept publicity junkets and free merchandise, issues in travel and consumer journalism – again stated, not debated.

Instead, the most strident criticism’s aimed at sites like Vox Media’s Polygon and Gawker Media’s Kotaku, which have been sympathetic to independent developers who question the ethics of gaming itself. Kotaku’s editor defends its contributors’ small contributions to Kickstarter-style funding sites, and his publishing (with restrictions) work from a reviewer linked to a female developer.

If such steps diminish the voice of mainstream gamers on Kotaku, it’s not obvious: The day I read the editor’s note, it was framed by ads for the Xbox One game Sunset Overdrive. Sales reps call such blanket ad coverage a “site takeover.” Editorially, Kotaku’s still a demilitarized zone.

The editor cites the Society of Professional Journalists’ “minimize harm” ethics language in navigating GamerGate complaints. I’d take a cue instead from one of its reporting tenets: “Be vigilant and courageous about holding those with power accountable. Give voice to the voiceless.” Including minority views is part of the job, even if inconvenient or unwelcome.

It’s not novel to point out that role-playing games feature dodgy men, one-dimensional women and numbing violence. Not everyone finds the arguments compelling, but they’re part of the mainstream view of video games. I’d expect the gaming press to address these issues fearlessly. With GamerGate drawing new attention to the issue, the gaming press may rise to the occasion and do just that.

Postscript: GamerGate saw consumers rise up and fight for conformity. Now the gamer threats seem like a warmup to the Sony and PSN hacks. Further thoughts: Top 10 business stories of 2014

About Stephen Rynkiewicz

Stephen Rynkiewicz is a technology writer and web developer in Chicago. His work has appeared in digital, broadcast and print media, including the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times. His 2014 AdviceLine columns were honored in the Sigma Delta Chi and Peter Lisagor awards.

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