OK, so shall we talk about ethics in games journalism?

This is a post about VERY BAD THINGS that are happening/have happened on the internet. This is a trigger warning because I understand not everyone wants to or can healthily read about stuff like this. There are very few explicit words or images in the post, but there may be more if you follow the links (which I have kept to a safe minimum here, though you can read all of the horrible things you like if you look hard enough. Or see Audrey’s post.)  

Male and “EdTech” readers – yes this post does concern you. You don’t get to write this off as “some horrible men are being horrible to some women”. This is our internet, this is our culture, this is our responsibility.

Gamergate is a thing, and some people are still trying to defend it. It’s a leaderless, structureless, and – quite possibly – lawless entity which seems to exist primarily to (a) threaten and humiliate women involved in the games industry or “games culture”, (b) threaten other women and men who speak up for the women that have been threatened, and (c) say “BUUUUT ethics in games journalism” when taken to task about the first two activities.

Threatening people is no way to win an argument. Defining or agreeing what the argument is about would be a first step, maybe.

The history of the “thing” is already well documented and goes something along the lines of “messy break-up whining goes viral, rape threats happen, but ethics in game journalism”. Turns out a woman may have slept with a man she met who works in the same industry as she works in (I know, right…), and the man was not responsible for writing a non-existent review of an award winning game she produced. Because ethics in games journalism.

Obviously this is the cue for people (and by people I mean a very small number of men) to get angry and start hurling accusations and threats about. As this is the internet and the internet loves drama, a whirlpool of journalism and journalism-flavour content is scattered all around the bits of the web that us normal folks might go on, thus drawing more people in to point out that threats of sexual violence are not ever a good thing and thus having similar threats hurled at them. Because ethics in games journalism.

This annoys me. Ethics in games journalism is actually an interesting thing to write about. Games, and gaming culture, is interesting. There are legitimate concerns about ethics in games journalism, although to be entirely accurate these concerns do not extend to the sex lives of game developers or game journalists.

The real ethical issue in games journalism concerns the huge amount of advertising and sponsorship income gaming publications get from people who make games.

Once there was a time called “the 90s”, and the Amiga was was pretty much the gaming platform of choice. So there were loads of magazines that reviewed Amiga games, and in pre-internet times these reviews were the main way in which tedious game-obsessed schoolboys (like your humble scribe) could get information regarding which games (if any) they would want to spend their scarce funds on.

And these reviews were, in the main, awful. They reviewed unfinished games, they gave high scores to terrible games (because game reviewing was, and is, mostly about the scores – which [by ancient convention, the reasons for which are lost forever] are measured as a percentage against the platonic ideal of the best game ever.), and they used screen-shots that all looked suspiciously similar to each other.

The usual deal would be that an evil software publisher would sidle up (oh yes, SIDLE up) to an unscrupulous magazine and whisper “oh deary me, what am I going to do with this *huge advertising budget* for our new game. Which magazine should I buy ads in?”. At this point the magazine in question would adopt a certain position and offer to review said new game in glowing terms, even if it wasn’t (a) very good or (b) finished as long as they could have an “exclusive“.

Why? Because … yup… ethics in game journalism. Always has been.

Videogames magazines and videogames publishers nowadays exist solely as a mutual-support network aimed at squeezing money out of your pockets and into theirs. They know only too well that the days of games mags are numbered, so they have no interest in building reader loyalty, and hence no interest in integrity. All they want is to get as much cash out of you as possible before they die forever. And the best way of doing that is by hyping publishers’ games, artificially inflating readers’ enthusiasm, getting lucrative advertising from the publishers in return, and meanwhile cutting back on staff and budgets to the point that even reviewers naive enough to want to do their job properly simply don’t have the time or the resources for it.

Stuart Campbell, probably around 2004.

Or how about giving an excellent score to a terrible game that was unfinished, using a version that bore no resemblance to the game that was released. In 1987.

Ethics. Journalism. Games. And actually a fair point, one that deserves criticism (as opposed to, say, threats of sexual violence).

At the time there was one magazine that wouldn’t arbitrarily give a dull game 73% because they didn’t want to annoy people, and that was Amiga Power (which pioneered new and exciting ways of annoying people).

It had a short-lived but still worthwhile “Amiga Power Policy of Truth”, which was an aspiration rather than a law:

 1. We won’t review unfinished games just to claim an exclusive.
2. We don’t pander to games publishers – we say what we really think.
3. We only use experienced, professional reviewers.
4. We won’t bore you with mountains of technical-jargon-hardware tedium.
5. We take games seriously, because you do too.

Because ethics in game journalism. Miraculously achieved without any rape threats at all.

-- intermission --
- "So, this isn't really about edtech at all is it. Just Kernohan doing his usual thing about some moderately interesting bit of recent history"
 - "Aye typical. Can't see any kind of edtech connection at all. Best get on and promote MOOCs/flipped classroom/iPads as some kind of educational panacea then..."
 - "Yes, thank god that so many edtech journalists will just blindly regurgitate any press release you hand them. Apart from a few of them, who always complain about violent misogyny on the internet which has nothing to do with edtech"
 - "No, absolutely nothing whatsoever. Just because someone had a bad experience interacting online, doesn't mean that interacting online isn't the best thing ever"
 - "Typical, bring things that aren't about selling shiny new disruptive ideas into edtech. Like that bloody Kernohan. I tell you what, I totally won't be downloading his hotly anticipated forthcoming ebook."
 - "No, me neither. I love fixed-width fonts though. Almost as good as being a man and not experiencing violent personal threats including the sharing of my name and address on the internet."
-- --

But is it just about the money? Or is there something else?

Have you ever (you the actual reader, not you the imagined reader voice that I just did that tricksy postmodern unreliable narrator thing with) heard of the New Games Journalism? It’s an idea a chap named Kieron Gillen had, which basically amounts to a post-modern turn for games journalism. This is way back in 2004 – so long, long after the Amiga was safely dead – but drew on the same kind of subjective player experience that they pioneered (apart from Your Sinclair). Alert readers will note that Gillen here manages to express this idea without threatening to violently sexually assault anyone.

Ethically, this was a very smart move as it emphasised the primacy of the individual writer’s experience. How does it feel for me to play this game? At worst, you got a blogger who had taken two junior asprin and a can of shandy pretending he was Hunter S. Thompson. At best, you got something that both functioned as consumer journalism and as literature in it’s own right. (IPR note, I’d quote from Gillen’s “manifesto” but it has such a bizarre custom license on that I am not sure I am permitted to)

Game reviews as art? Some responded with the horror that you might expect when confronted with the idea that subjectivity is not to be denied but welcome. For example Ram Raider suggests that

“The principle is that an NGJ article should centre around the writer and his experience. Taken at face value, this sounds quite sensible. Unfortunately, applied to an industry full of giant egos, this has resulted in a breed of articles that are more about the writer telling the world about himself.”

And, tellingly:

“Gillen’s not a bad guy when you meet him in the flesh, and it’s a shame to see his name brought to prominence with an issue that we can already see the community lashing out at.”

Really, people did make threats. And started alleging corruption and favouritism (but I don’t think the people involved had sex with each other. At least, I hope not) All down to ethics in game journalism. Or just wanting better game journalism. Or wanting to deal with the nastier bits of what was now connected life via the medium of video games and writing about them.

There was, inevitably a backlash, and to characterise this I want to point at what Gary Cutlack was doing with UK:Resistance during this period. Here’s his take on the issues with “new games journalism”, of which – it was fair to say – he was not a fan.  Cutlack was one of the earliest games bloggers(1), and the way his work descended into SEGA-related nostalgia and bitterness towards the end of the 15 years(!) of blog archives is oddly affecting.

Despite the “proper games journalism” stance in the article linked to above, I’d always read the site as being written in character as a parody of the “socially inept gamer” cliche. (Actually his twitter feed is still like that, except he doesn’t write much about gaming any more – shit, maybe he *really* is  that depressed… )

It takes a special kind of man to post pictures of a Sonic the Hedgehog branded popcorn machine onto a wordpress blog. And to write about his growing disenchantment with gaming and game culture for an audience that had grown with him. But in the latter years he primarily focused on “reader submissions”, which reflected the concerns of the readers back on themselves – which became downright disturbing.

UK:R became harder for me to read as the hugely disturbing “new gaming culture” became entrenched in the comments. When he closed the site in 2011, I understood why. Newer, and angrier, expressions of this culture – such as Yahtzee Croshaw’s “Zero Punctuation” – moved the rape jokes from the comment section to above the line. Because ethics in game journalism. (Incidently, this is the closest Croshaw has come to writing about GamerGate. I’d like him to write more.)

At his best, Croshaw is very funny indeed. Why he keeps adding the unfunny, disturbing and horrible bits is a mystery to me. He can clearly write well without them.

There are lots of games journalists out there – some of them are good writers, some of them are not, some of them are ethical, some of them are not. I’m naive enough to think that we are all publishers, and we all have the responsiblity to write ethically and transparently, to write well, and not to use threats of sexual assault if someone disagrees with us.

If you are concerned about ethics in games journalism (or EdTech journalism, or political journalism) remember that in commenting and responding to the work of others YOU ARE A JOURNALIST. Be ethical.

(1) It’s not a blog, it’s a web site.

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