Important Note: I try not to talk about this much because it’s usually irrelevant and makes me sound arrogant for even mentioning it, but I am technically an award-winning journalist. During my four years of writing for newspapers, I won two New York Press Awards and one Press Club of Long Island Award; I think I got robbed for never winning in the education reporting category, because that was where I did my best work, but that’s another story. Anyway, I mention this as a means of demonstrating that when I write about journalism, I do actually have some idea what I’m talking about.
I’ve been watching with some interest as the “GamerGate” phenomenon unfolds. I’ve blogged before about how I dislike the sanctimonious tone and often illogical demands that come out of the gaming press, so seeing a large portion of gamers declare that they, too, are sick of it all is somewhat gratifying. That’s what this is about, as far as I can tell: gamers are tired of being talked to like imbeciles by the “news” outlets that serve them. I’m pretty sure any concerns about corruption are actually secondary, even if a lot of the people using the #GamerGate tag won’t acknowledge that.
I mean, let’s face it: a call for greater journalistic integrity sounds better than “We’re tired of you guys being such smug assholes, and this is just the straw that broke that particular fucking camel’s back, okay?”
However, by making this ostensibly about journalism, gamers are opening themselves up to a whole bunch of issues they really don’t need to deal with. The complaint is that due to their cronyism and general corruption, games journalists don’t have the ethics of real “journalists” and shouldn’t enjoy the status that comes with that title. The problem there is that real journalism is corrupt in a lot of the same ways, and everyone knows it; or if they don’t, they should.
I was fortunate in that I got to do a few pieces for newspapers that were investigative reporting, but a lot of that came down to being in the right place at the right time. There were many unwritten rules about what I could and couldn’t write about because of the nature of the paper’s relationship both to businesses and the local government. When someone called about being exploited by a local business, I couldn’t write about it; local businesses bought the advertising space that paid the bills. I could quote someone criticizing a government official at a meeting, but doing any kind of inquiry into government finances would be seen as an act of aggression, and being on bad terms with the local pols was a definite no-no. That doesn’t mean we were completely corrupt and never criticized anyone in power; I had more than a few awkward moments where people in fancy suits were obviously mad at me for what I had written, but couldn’t show it openly.
Still, there were rules. Write an editorial criticizing one county or town policy? Okay. Investigate how actual tax dollars were being spent on possibly excessive PR initiatives? Good luck getting a superior to approve that.
And the funny thing is, I think my line of papers was comparatively less corrupt than many others. I wrote some scathing editorials, and I was able to write stories that made people with lots of money uncomfortable. Of course they’re in their death throes at the moment, but local newspapers are in this weird sort of niche where they can’t piss off the tiny titans of local businesses, but there isn’t enough money involved for anyone with real power to bother policing their content in regard to larger issues. I was told more than once that people were surprised that I could get away writing such “hard-hitting” stories in a minor paper that wasn’t the New York Times, or even the Philadelphia…whatever they have in Philadelphia.
So if games journalism isn’t necessarily more corrupt than “regular” journalism, for lack of a better term, does that mean people are foolish for caring about it? After all, a scandal about a toothpaste company like Crest buying off a reporter for Consumer Reports may be unimportant compared to actual government conspiracies, but it matters if you’re a Consumer Reports subscriber who now doesn’t know if you can trust the mag (or are in desperate need of toothpaste.) Saying that it’s silly to complain about something as comparatively unimportant as corruption in games journalism is committing the “But there’s children starving in Africa!” fallacy; just because there are more important issues doesn’t mean you’re not allowed to care about this one, particularly if it’s especially relevant to you.
So it’s alright to care about games journalism, but the thing is, you don’t even have to be concerned with journalistic ethics to have a problem with sites like Kotaku, Polygon, and Gamasutra. Even if they had no problems with cronyism and disclosure, which is far from the truth, the articles they publish are reprehensible: the constant barrage of “gamers suck” articles, designed to farm clicks from outraged gamers; the “this game/developer is misogynistic /racist and if you disagree even a tiny bit you are PART OF THE PROBLEM” opinion pieces; and Polygon’s attempts to feel important by trying to write about important issues like race riots in Ferguson and tie them back to video games in the most transparent, ham-fisted way possible. Journalists can be ethical, and still be very bad at their jobs; you don’t have to call them unethical to have a valid criticism of them.
Of course, who’s to say they’re even journalists? I know Jim Sterling of The Escapist doesn’t identify one, instead preferring to be called a blogger, and he’s not alone. While some loudly insist that they’re journalists, others are just as happy to dodge the responsibility they feel that label comes with, rightly or wrongly. Should we judge bloggers for the crime of not being journalists? Are they even being presented to us as journalists? Gamers talk about the problems with “games journalism,” but how many of the people involved would even consider that a fair criticism? It’s not fair to judge someone for being bad at the job they never claimed they were doing in the first place.
I guess my main point is this: you don’t have to even consider the ethics of journalism to dislike the pieces published by many gaming websites. You can think the articles themselves are bad, and if that’s true, the ethics become comparatively unimportant; after all, who needs the services of even a conscientious, ethical journalist if they never happen to write anything worth reading?
The constant back-and-forth for the past two weeks has been, “It’s really all about misogyny!” followed by “No, it’s really all about corruption!” It’s neither; it’s about the fact that whenever I read a sanctimonious lecture by the likes of Leigh Alexander or Ben Kuchera, I want to facepalm like I’m in a Captain Picard imitation contest– even though, as a “minority,” I’m one of the people they’re supposedly advocating for. It’s about the fact that gaming websites are (allegedly) trying to encourage positive change by shaming their readers for daring to like the things they like, turning on their own audience like vipers if anyone has a problem with that, and then claiming that the ends justify the means. It’s about the fact that opinion pieces from these sites almost never read like a jumping off point for discussion, but like a sermon from on high; and if you offer anything but total, 100% agreement, you’re a maladjusted racist misogynist neckbeard basement-dwelling virgin manbaby who’s totally irrelevant to life on Earth….regardless of whether or not any of those ridiculous labels are even close to accurate. It’s about how a group of people who supposedly care about other people’s feelings of belonging and self-worth resort to such name-calling, over and over and over again.
People are pissed at games “journalists,” for a given value of the word, because they write crappy articles and act like they have some kind of mandate to act as the morality police for an incredibly diverse group that includes millions upon millions of people with vastly different views and circumstances. That’s a good enough reason to leave these sites behind; you don’t even need to get started with ethics, no matter how noble those concerns may sound.