Gamergate, ethics and hate

22 September 2014 - 16:05 By Bruce Gorton
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Image: ©ostill

Gaming over the last few years has become toxic, to the point where it is embarrassing to identify oneself as a gamer.

Whether it was hysteria over women daring to criticise flaws they perceived in specific games, or gaming as a whole, or women developers being harassed for having the temerity to be female, it has been a less than sterling period in gaming culture’s history.

Part of the blame for this lies on gaming media - the reason I say this is because when you get right down to it, games media has always had a dodgy relationship with ethics.

You can see this in preview content, when journalists write about why you should be excited about an upcoming title. That is not journalism – it is advertorial.

But if you follow gaming media for long enough, you’ll see more extreme examples.

For the new gaming media there was Machinima’s dealings with Microsoft to not say negative things about the Xbox One, and for older media there was Gamespot firing Jeff Gerstmann for a writing a negative review about a game they were heavily advertising.

Add in the sheer disdain gaming journalism has shown for gamers over issues such as the Mass Effect 3 ending, and you have the basis of a serious problem in gaming discourse.

Gaming journalists have become part of the PR arm of gaming, rather than a group of people dedicated to reporting on it.

And this has an effect – particularly when you have serious social issues that need dealing with.

Credibility is often an important aspect to dealing with issues like social justice – because there is a natural urge to deny there is a problem.

We as human beings tend to view ourselves as being better than everyone else, and thus we view criticism of our behaviour as being somehow attacking us personally.

In terms of racism, if a black guy gets shot by police there is often an urge to paint the victim as “no angel”- even when the particular department has a very bad history of racism.

In terms of sexism, we try to make excuses for why women aren’t more prominent in a given field, while ignoring what the women in question have to say about it as much as is humanly possible.

It cannot be that there is a sexual harassment problem, because that would indicate the problem might be with the behaviour of the people in that field, and more often than not that’s us.

We demand more in the way of good behaviour from those who make complaints, than we do in those who are being complained about.

Gamergate has to a large extent evolved out of this. For about two decades now gaming has had a sexism problem, made worse in part by game marketing.

Games emphasised a sort of pubescent idea of masculinity, with violence being pushed to the point where it became the default to believe AAA titles had to have combat or they didn’t class as games.

Or at least, they only classed as being casual gaming.

This hyper-masculinisation is a problem, because what ends up happening is that games become more and more homogeneous as points of engagement are cut off.

Consider what a surprise it is when a major AAA release includes the option of a pacifist run, once the hallmark of any good RPG.

WingSpanTT refers to games as murderverse simulators, because more often than not murder isn’t just a solution it is often the only way you can really interact with the game's world.

Obviously this doesn’t influence the behaviour of gamers – otherwise there would be mayhem in the streets worldwide.

But these themes pull in people with specific views, and even then that isn't a problem in and of itself up until you realise that society as a whole has moved more and more away from this.

Those personalities don't want to change, and they want gaming to remain stuck in the 90s because in real terms, that is where they are right now.

It cannot remain this way indefinitely, something has to change for gaming to grow as a medium and to a large extent the gaming media has begun calling for that change.

We are all able to accept that, we have just about everywhere else, but something is getting in the way of that change in gaming – gamers don’t have a media they can trust.

Rather than having voices who speak for the consumer, gamers have voices that have always spoken for the publishers.

And those voices have screwed gamers over before, with hyping up mediocre to terrible titles and repeatedly smacking relevant gamer criticism down.

So when it comes time to talk about how gaming has a sexism problem, gamers are fighting the instinct to deny that they might be the problem, but also they are hearing it from voices that have always been a problem.

And when it comes time to deal with death threats, or rape threats, or even bomb threats, gamers are cynical about the reports because of who is delivering news of them.

The credibility of the messenger is a problem that can lead to people ignoring the message.

To some extent when people talk about gamergate essentially being a group of racist, sexist malcontents, they aren't lying. At the same time nor is it a lie to say that games journalism has a serious ethics issue.

I don't have a solution to this problem - I am just another media voice - but I can tell you this gaming journalism needs to solve its ethics problems before we can get serious traction on gaming hate.

People can't change direction without reference points they can trust.

Gamergate is not going to be the end of the problem, that is still going to be many, many embarrassments ahead.