Everything right and wrong with Polygon’s editorial on #GamerGate

Despite a number of opinion pieces on #GamerGate, the cultural movement that mixes opposition to unethical practices in games media with some unsavoury misogyny, games website Polygon has refused to take a firm editorial stance on the issue – until now.  Editor Christopher Grant has broken his silence with several good points well-made, but he also shows that he is unwilling or unable to tackle the main problem in games media: the uniform political bias that leaves a good portion of readers feeling alienated.

I’ve already written about how angry gamers have good cause to feel enraged.  But that’s only one side of this argument.  The other side, coming predominantly from the games media, is just as worthy of examination.

What’s right with Polygon’s editorial?

Harassment

Grant’s editorial opens with a sadly accurate statement:

Over the last few months, we've seen many people — some of them friends, some of them colleagues, some of them professional acquaintances — harassed, threatened, bullied for daring to suggest that video games can and should do better.

That any topic to do with video games can descend into real threats and harassment is deeply tragic.  Such actions taint everyone involved, and do nothing to help anyone’s cause.

Hypocrisy

Grant also brings up the involvement of non-gamers on the pro-GamerGate side:

[The] movement came to be known as GamerGate, thanks to the branding efforts of one Mr. Adam Baldwin, an actor who, despite being "not an avid gamer," was happy to lend his soapbox to the campaign.

Gamers have long been wary of commentary on their hobby from non-gamers, who tend to misunderstand the subject.  Gamers will of course remember non-gamers like American lawyer Jack Thompson who ran a campaign against video games on the grounds that they caused real-world violence.  Thompson was accused of misrepresenting games, because he did not understand them.  But now when non-gamer Adam Baldwin (much as I love him) comes along in support of GamerGate, suddenly we’re OK with non-gamers pitching in with their two uninformed cents?  There is a touch of hypocrisy there.

Games as art

Grant frames the matter as an opportunity to pursue the “games as art” theory.

If you believe video games are an art form, that video games are important, that video games actually mean something, then demands for silence couldn't be a less effective tactic for promoting those beliefs.

I think he’s right.  Games are culturally important, and the best way to engage with them is to invite all comers to make them, play them and talk about them – yes, even if they dare to be women.

Inclusivity

Grant stands up for the trends that are changing the gaming industry for the better:

Video games are changing, and it's incredible! New technology, new devices, new marketplaces, new players — this is all transforming the entire world of video gaming under our collective feet. It's growing bigger. It's becoming more inclusive. This is a win-win scenario. Did you love The Last of Us? I don't think we'd have seen a character like Ellie just five years ago. What about The Walking Dead, a game with an African-American lead and a nuanced view of race?

I agree that an inclusive gaming industry is a better one.  Like a lot of people, I’ve grown bored of shaven-headed space marines and I’ve been clamouring for “alternative” characters and scenarios to engage with.  If these changes help bring more people into the world of gaming, then that’s great too.

Ethics

Grant addresses the subject of one of the controversies that kicked off the GamerGate movement: the Zoe Quinn affair.

We debated its newsworthiness — it turns out we don't always agree — but it was the Society of Professional Journalists' Code of Ethics that ultimately helped me make the decision to decline coverage

Let’s leave aside the absurdity of having the games media attempt to act as judge and jury in a case where the games media itself stands accused of unethical conduct.  I’m inclined to agree that Polygon, and other publications, have taken a reasonable ethical stance on this issue, and that on the whole the games media is characterised more by ethical behaviour than by conspiracy to deceive and defraud gamers.

But here’s where I think we get to the crux of the issue: both gamers and journalists seem to be focusing on problems that aren’t really problems, and ignoring the elephants in the room.

Games journalism has some serious problems, but they have little to do with traditional journalistic ethics.  The games media seems to exist in an insular bubble: one that is condescending towards its readers, tends generally towards left-leaning cultural politics, and is frequently pro-business and anti-consumer.  These are legitimate reasons for gamers to be angry with the media that represents them, but these problems are barely recognised let alone discussed.

What’s wrong with Polygon’s editorial?

Empathy

Grant shows quickly that he is concerned with his own position in the debate, and incapable of much empathy:

This is where Polygon becomes a part of the story and my ability to be objective starts to wane. It's hard not to get defensive when told your outlet is being singled out for "rampant corruption" and "an alarming lack of ethics" by a largely anonymous mob screaming over each other.

I can sympathise with the tendency to get defensive when attacked.  But what Grant perhaps doesn’t realise is that when his publication (and other likeminded ones) attack traditional gamers for being “entitled” or “sexist” or any other trumped up reasons, these gamers will also get defensive.  It’s easy to attack your opponents for being a screaming mob, but it takes a bit of humility and self-awareness to understand that, to the other side, your lot appears to be the screaming mob.  Like I said, we have an empathy deficit here.  (I’m not unaware that elements of the GamerGate movement also suffer from an empathy deficit.)

It might be this lack of empathy that leads to such condescension towards readers, with frequent accusations that readers are “entitled” for expecting such luxuries as a bug-free product, or a story that makes sense, or – heaven forbid! – that a game live up to the explicit promises of its developer.  This condescension puts gamers on the defensive, and as Grant has recognised, when you get defensive you stop being objective.

Politics

Grant eventually recognises one of the real problems: politics.

By politics, the voices calling for ethics reform really mean "progressive" politics. The so-called corruption that needs to be rooted out is a focus on "diversity" and the "magnitude of the human experience." It should be no surprise that the outlets and voices specifically targeted by GamerGate are progressive.

I think Grant’s right: a lot of gamers – people – are a bit fed-up with the left-leaning bias in the vast majority of the games media.  In most western nations, political leaning is split fairly evenly between left and right.  But in the popular games and technology media, I can’t think of a single major publication that isn’t left-leaning on cultural issues.  Eurogamer, The Verge, Gamasutra, Kotaku, many others and now Polygon have taken a uniform stance on GamerGate, and it’s mostly borne of the media’s collectively uniform politics.

For all the talk of inclusivity, the media’s uniform political stance in effect makes it quite exclusive.  By only favouring left-leaning politics, the media will make roughly 50% of visitors feel uncomfortable and even unwelcome.  The tech industry is already pretty unfriendly to right-wingers (remember the protests when Dropbox appointed Condoleezza Rice to its board of directors?) – I don’t think the games media helps the cause of diversity and inclusivity by perpetuating this trend.

I’m not expecting left-leaning journalists to suddenly start writing things they don’t believe in.  But there is surely space to include right-leaning games writers and to give a platform for their views.  If both sides can share a platform in the gaming world, in a way that’s good-natured and optimistic, without reflex shouts of “misogynist!” and “feminazi!”, we will all be better off for it.

Grant continues:

If GamerGate simply wants a conservative counter to what they consider a left-leaning gaming press, I think that's great! That's healthy! You don't have to like the way we or any other outlet cover video games. If you truly believe there's an army of people who reject "progressive" voices and outlets like Polygon and Kotaku, or who would prefer coverage "just about the games," then I'd encourage you to start a new site for those readers. There's no easier or better time to do it.

On the one hand, I agree: we need more balance in the games media and a few conservative-leaning publications wouldn’t hurt.  It would allow more gamers (who are a diverse bunch with diverse political beliefs) to find a place where they can feel comfortable and legitimate because of what they believe.

But on the other hand, telling conservative gamers to just “go and set up your own publication” feels like dodging the issue.  When the issue of women in games development has arisen previously, I seem to remember a few people arguing that “these women should just go and set up their own game development studio”; and I also remember publications like Polygon arguing that that was utter crap.  The existing large game developers have a responsibility to include women (and minority groups), because they have the power to do so.  If this line of argument holds any water at all, then the existing large games publications have a responsibility to include people of different political stripes – yes, even those dastardly conservatives! – because they have the power to do so.

After all, Grant himself quotes this gem of an ethical policy:

"Boldly tell the story of the diversity and magnitude of the human experience. Seek sources whose voices we seldom hear."

Diversity isn’t limited to the color of your skin or the type of junk between your legs.  True diversity extends to diversity of thought.  Unfortunately, too many in the left-leaning games media would have us believe that diversity is beautiful, so long as everyone looks different but thinks exactly the same.  I can’t think of anything more boring or destructive for our media.

Strangely, Grant admits that the problem of how to encourage diverse thought is real, but he seems to have no idea of how to address it.

The existence of familiarity among the games press is an issue, but not for the reasons GamerGate would argue. It's an issue insomuch as it inhibits new and diverse voices from joining the fray

Perhaps it is the fact that the games media has ignored this problem for so long that has led the GamerGate movement to fill this vacuum.  If only the games media had woken up to this issue earlier, we wouldn’t be in the mess we now find ourselves mired in.

So who’s right and who’s wrong?

Groan.  It seems like every publication is pressured into taking a stance on this issue.

For what it’s worth, I think GamerGate and the games media are both wrong.

Don’t misunderstand me: for whatever part of GamerGate stands up for the consumer, or laments the uniform political bias of the media, or just wants journalists to stop looking down their noses as them – I support you!

And for whatever part of the games media is holding large games publishers to account, and is writing insightful critiques of our games, and is helping encourage more people to get into gaming – I support you too!

But for those elements on both sides that are entrenched in their own views, that are unwilling to budge, that make people feel unwelcome just because they are different, that cannot imagine how their actions affect the feelings of their opponents – I do not support you.

To both GamerGate and the games media, I say only this: before you write your next tweet or pen your next editorial, please think about how your words will affect your enemies, not just your friends.  Will your words encourage people to come together and enjoy themselves?  Or will your words force people apart and foster hatred and recriminations?

Please just think twice.  Because you’re all right and you’re all wrong.

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