Tag Archives: journalism

The Structural Origins of Gamergate

“The AAAs *are* supporting Gamergate, at least tacitly. They don’t want the journos to gain any more influence (or to stop losing influence), and they loathe this pseudo-academic “critique” stuff just as much as your average gamer. The thought of having to kiss the ass of some PhD in order to gain an Indie or Social Justice imprimatur is insulting to them. They’ve got money to make. So by remaining silent on Gamergate and having IGN do the pageantry of adopting an ethics policy (no skin off their nose), the AAAs signaled that they were not in alignment with the journos. And they aren’t. They are happy to see Gamergate take these people on–and that enrages the journos all the more. This wasn’t a planned strategy on behalf of the AAAs, but it was an easy call to make once Gamergate was in play.”
David Auerbach, Sour Gripes: E3, the AAAs, and the Journos

Last year the most inexplicable event in the history of American publishing happened. Multiple game-enthusiast publications, in a coordinated campaign, published nearly identical editorials, with headlines like “Gamers are dead,” “Gamers don’t have to be your audience,” “Gamers are over, etc.”

gamasutra_gamers_are_over

Replace gamers with “golf-enthusiasts,” or “yacht owners,” or “biblical archaeology nuts,” or “railroad modelers,” or any other hobby you can think of. Never before, in American publication history, had publications that catered to hobbyists condemned their own hobby.

This was the origin of gamergate. There were events before (a sex-for-publicity microscandal in the hobby before hand, some tweets by actor Adam Baldwin afterwards), but those fit neatly into the daily churn of pop culture.

Hobbyist publications condemning their own hobby doesn’t “just happpen.” Something like gamergate requires professional media manipulators, and a failed revolt within a sector of the industry.

This is how it happened:

The games industry historically has five fundamental groups operating with in

  • Multimedia creators, such as AAA development studios (Electronic Arts ,etc) and indie studios of one or a few employees
  • Text and graphics creators, such as AAA magazines and indie hobbyist publications
  • Media consumers, who are gamers and game enthusiasts
  • Outrage entrepreneurs, attempting to extort various members of the three above groups for their own purposes
  • Gamers, who are customers that buy games

In the 1990s the barriers to capital for the multimedia and graphics creators were relatively high. It was (and is) expensive to run a AAA games studio. Running a magazine involved highering a lot of people, negotiating wiht book stores for shelf placement, and a large budget for printing and postage. Development tools were relatively unfriendly, and it was difficult to collaborate with others who were not in your same town. “Indie” games largely consistent of wargames, RPGs, and direct translations of these genres.

The only outrage entrepreneurs at this time were cultural conservatives such as Jack Thompson. They were alienated from all aspects of the industry, and so had to attack it (unsuccessfully) from the outside.

Gaming Industry Then and Now Slide1

Then, the internet happened.

The internet had a lot of consequences, all relating to lowering capital requirements as a barrier to entry:

  • News become “free” leading to the closure or consolidation of the old-line AAA publishers
  • Cheap “indie” or “clickbait” publications arose with no physical presense
  • Platforms with consumer-side economics of scale (like Twitch and Youtube) arose that lets gamers and game-enthusiasts self-publish to a broad audience, with no staff

But publishing a AAA game didn’t become cheaper. Instead (as gaming became increasingly hit driven, and the internet allowed the creation of marketing echo chambers) it became more expensive. Instead of both AAA game publishers and AAA news publishers both having ‘monopolies’ and some degree of equivalence, the remaining news publishers had a stark choice to make:

1. the transition to a “USA Today” of soft news managed by AAA game studios (the model adopted by the most popular online publisher, IGN, and the sole survivor of the print era, PC Gamer)
2. reducing expenses and dependency on AAA publishers for access by allowing writers more freedom; non-financial contributions in allowing writers to use their positions to push pet political interests, as long as the headlines geneated clicks (the model adopted by Gawker, Vox, and other “indie” or “clickbait” sites)

A second-order effect of the ultra-low cost model adopted by Gawker and Vox is that it enabled outrage entrepreneurs for the first time to target writers within the industry. In short order a new generation of such entrepreneurs. Its perhaps not a coincidence that the most successful such entrepreneur is rightist-become–leftist Jonathan McIntosh: as the audience for gaming outrage changed, so the political stances of the entrepreneurs changed.

Yet these “indie” or “clickbait” outlets faced the even lower-fost competition of self-publishing gamers on Youtube and Twitch. And there was a real culture clash. The sort of person who happily plays videogames and talks about videogames in a second or third tier city in England or Wisconsin is not the sort of person who moves to Brookyln or San Francisco to work for Vox and Gawker. Their sense of mission is different (evangelize how fun games are, v. share social commentary learned in university), their sense of persecution is different (memories of being bullied or mocked for a hobby, v. academic concerns learned in university), their sense of villains are diffrent (those who would prevent them from enjoying their hobby, v. rich businesses and capitalists).

This was gamergate: a “goat rodeo” built on an ill-defined culture clash but containing many petty grievances and placing indie developers at the center, with their presses and audiences eager to hear them praise or condemn any given side. The chaos of the situation lead to the bitterness, a civil war within the community.

Gaming Industry Then and Now Slide2

In internet debates, the larger community centered around AAA publishers is sometimes called “gamers,” and the rival community of outrage entrepreneurs and clickbait journalists “SJWs” or “Social Justice Warriors,” but these are ideological terms that hide the materialist structure of the unfolding drama. AAA publishers like money, and so have friendly relationships with light media which celebrates their industry; with self-publishers who act as category captains for their products, and of course with their final customers, gamers. Outside, and looking in, are the outrage entrepreurs, now joined by clickbait journalists who due to economic reasons have become their audience and mouthpiece.

Journalism, Access, and Gamergate

Journalism and Access

The business of journalism is built on access. And the prestige of journalism is related to the ease of access.

Areas that are the easiest to access allow journalists to be most prestigious. For instance, covering the Unitd States government is a prestigious assignment of a journalists. It’s always an “easy” on: there are so many agenda and centers of powers in the United States government that it is relatively easy to aquire access. Occasionally, this allows journalists to present themselves as hollywood heroes. An example of this is All the President’s Men, a book (and later movie!) which is about two journalists special access to an FBI bureaucrat.

all_the_presidents_men

Areas that are moderately difficult to access allow journalists to be moderately prestigious. For instance, the organizational behavior of large companies shares with the United States multiple centers of power and many agendas. Unlike the ggovernment almost all employees at a company share some material interest in the well-being of a company. This, journalism about organizational behavior in large companies can be most prestigious either during a scandal, or during a succession transfer. An example of this is Inside the Plex, a book that was written during current Google CEO Larry Page’s successful campaign against former Google CEO Eric Schmidt.

steven levy

Areas that are the hardest to access allow journalists to be least prestigious. This is because of the monopoly power of any source that chooses to talk: they can extract concessions from the attractiveness of the reporter to a very real fear that access can be revoked if the tone of coverage becomes un-flattering. Journalists in these situations may find themselves almost indistinguishable from corporate shills

selling_journalism
Access and Gamergate

The gamergate consumer revolt against the low-prestige game journalists is in its second month. One reason  for this revolt is the disgust that journalists feel about gamers: as Vox Media’s T.C. Sottek says, that game journalists feel no obligations to look out for the interest of gamers

no obligation

But even before gamergate, the feeling was mutual: gamers do not like game journalists. The most successful game outlets, whether in terms of consumer recommendations or twitter followers, are “celebrity” gamers on youtube and twitch, and not journalists who declare their core demographic dead.

So if you are a publisher of games: who would you provide access to? Low-prestige journalists that do not like gamers, do not like games, and are unpopular with gamers? Or celebrity enthusiasts who are popular with the community and care about it?

Journalism and GamerGate

This is the context for Kotatku announcing they were deprioritizing access

The future of games coverage is in the present. For too long gaming coverage has focused on the vague future, the preview mindset of possibilities and maybes. And when it’s involved the present it has been drenched in the dreary falseness of empty interviews, bland producer-speak and executive-hype. It’s neither been real enough nor true enough to what is actually happening now. For too long games reporting has involved staring at what is opaque, maybe glimpsing something through it and reporting about that possibility, all the while ignoring so much of what is clearly visible and exciting around us. P

I believe there is a better way to cover games, one that puts future-based coverage and executive interviews in proper diminished proportion. We must focus on the games that are being played now and the human beings—the gamers, mostly—who are doing interesting things with them.

Game journalists have made their living as low-prestige journalists for decades. That’s not ending because they have a chance of being higher prestige journliasts. It’s that they’ve given up on being journalists.

This shift was made by the rise of consumer-side economies of scale which allowed self-published youtube and twitch channels to be more popular and trusted than gaming journalists.

top_steam_currators

Conclusion

I ignored #gamergate for the first month because I recognized game journalism as a low-prestige, low steaks profession.  Only this inexplicably stupid editorial from a once-respected magazine got my attention.

But my attention is mostly on the collapse of an industry I loved growing up — game journalism — its painful death throws, and seeing what comes next.