Unless you’ve been stuck in a cave somewhere you’ve probably noticed that the last six months in gaming have been tempestuous to say the least. The events leading up to and including the #GamerGate movement have created a rupture in the very heart of gaming itself. The ripples have steadily moved outward, from the gaming media to the mainstream media and even into entertainment, with the Law and Order SVU episode ‘Intimidation Game’ painting a quite frankly ludicrous picture of the current situation in gaming.
In the middle of the storm have been game developers. While there have been some developers that have openly supported the media, and some that have openly supported gamers, most developers have kept out of it. Who could blame them? If you’re someone that just wants to make games because you love the medium then you may find yourself caught between the rock and the hard place that is the politics of modern gaming. Developers walk a difficult path. They know that gamers, as their customers, look to them for support against those that seek to slander them all as sexists and harassers. They also know that if they say the wrong thing they may find themselves blacklisted by gaming media, making it almost impossible to get their game out there once it is made. Developers that work for larger game companies may also be unable to take a public position because of fear of repercussions from their employer. Employment contract stipulations and Non Disclosure Agreements can make speaking out in the open very difficult. Some developers have chosen to speak anonymously, Bro Team Pill made a series of YouTube videos in which developers answered questions from gamers while having their faces silhouetted and their voices distorted.
Recently there have been events that have made me re-examine the way that the current game media deals with developers. These being the handling of the Peter Molyneux story and the response to Mark Kern’s petition. For those who don’t know Peter Molyneux is the British developer responsible for games such as Dungeon Keeper, Theme Park, Black And White and the Fable Series. Mark Kern is CEO of MEK Entertainment and has worked in the development of such games as Starcraft, Diablo 2 and World Of Warcraft.
In 2012 Peter Molyneux and his company 22cans launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund a new Free To Play game, Godus, which he billed as “Half a living sandbox world, and half a strategy game” The Kickstarter was successful, raising just over £526 000. In September 2013, nine months into development, Godus was released on Steam Early Access. It’s official release on the App Store came in May 2014 though it was not received well critically, earning middle to poor reviews for it’s missing features. On 11 February 2015 Eurogamer ran this story about Scot Bryan Henderson, a young man that won a competition in 2013 to be the Godus ‘God Of Gods’, meaning he would be featured as a god in the game’s multiplayer “Hubworld” feature and would receive a share of the game’s earnings. Eighteen months after winning the prize the “Hubworld” feature of Godus has not yet materialised and Scot has received nothing of the prize he was promised, indeed Molyneux and his team appeared to have abandoned him completely. Five days after this story broke developer Mark Kern launched this petition, asking that the gaming press, particularly Polygon and Kotaku, take responsibility for their part in the unfair coverage and character assassination of gaming as a hobby in the current mainstream media.
After these stories emerged the response from press and on social media was immediate. Molyneux was universally condemned, for his company’s treatment of Scot Bryan Henderson, the chaotic, unfinished state of Godus and for his announcement that many Kickstarter backers would not receive their pledge rewards. Backers were furious and took to forums and Twitter to express their outrage. Molyneux found himself under the media microscope. In the following days after the Henderson story was released there were more articles featuring Molyneux. Rock, Paper, Shotgun ran an interview in which the author, John Walker, immediately asked Molyneux if he is a pathological liar. This piece was published in The Guardian in which Molyneux announced he would no longer speak to the press as he and his family had received death threats. There was also this article which pretty much calls Molyneux’s entire career a lie. This almost instantaneously caused a dramatic swing the other way in public sympathy, with Molyneux in the space of a few hours going from villainous bounder to clueless but earnestly creative victim of poor decisions and belligerence. Rock, Paper, Shotgun in particular came under heavy criticism for it’s treatment of Molyneux.
As for Mark Kern, though other big names in development such as Bioshock creator Ken Levine, were supportive of the petition
the day after his petition was created video game publication VG247 responded with an article titled
Developers shooting the messenger: stop blaming the press for sexist extremism in games
The article was very critical of Kern’s petition and Levine’s support for it. Writer Patrick Garret makes it clear that he does not recognise Kern’s assertion that the gaming press bears any responsibility for the rupture in gaming, placing the blame solely on the shoulders of those who have supported the GamerGate hashtag. Garrat finishes with this
“As was made blatantly obvious by Gamergate, the last thing the gaming community needs at the moment is more ill-informed bigots getting angry on the internet. Think before you sign. It may be very difficult to erase the ink.”
Some took this to be a veiled threat against developers that they will be blacklisted if they openly come out against the gaming press. In an exchange with Kern days later Garrat denied this
To be clear Mark Kern is not a supporter of the GamerGate hashtag, his aim is to encourage the gaming press to accept their share of the blame for how things have been for the last six months, with a view to opening a positive dialogue between all parties and beginning the healing process. However other members of the gaming press were quick to dismiss this.
The response to this petition is still going on. As I write this blog post the petition has 2465 signatures and the hashtag #LetMarkSpeak is trending on Twitter in response to VG247 denying Mark Kern a right of reply to Patrick Garrat’s article
So how does this all connect? Well in my opinion we have reached a critical moment in time. The game media, having spent the last six months painting gamers as the worst people on Earth, has now turned it’s attention to game developers. In doing so they may force developers to publicly take a stance on political issues in gaming, perpetuating a war of attrition. Whether or not you agree with Molyneux’s actions is it really professional journalist behaviour to call him a pathological liar? Does he deserve to be told everything he has ever achieved is a lie? Whether you support Kern’s petition or not is it really professional journalist behaviour to deride him in an article and then deny him the basic journalistic tenet of a right of reply? This sets a dangerous precedent. Mark Kern is a very well known name in gaming and as a result has been able to draw large attention to his treatment by VG247, meaning that other publications and even Youtube personalities such as TotalBiscuit have offered Kern a platform on which to speak. If a small or indie developer were in the same position then it would be likely that their side of the story would never be told, they would be blacklisted and their voice would remain unheard.
For both Molyneux and Kern the gaming media has chosen to focus on writing wildly accusatory opinion pieces instead of actually focusing and reporting on the news itself, creating a wildly unbalanced and unfair version of what has occurred. Why are developers beginning to see such bias in game news reporting? Where are the journalistic standards here? Even if I thought Molyneux’s actions make him the worst person in the world, or that Kern’s petition was a laughable and pointless exercise, I would still wish that they and anyone else be treated fairly and in a balanced way by the media. That is the most basic expectation of journalistic ethics.
It seems that the gaming media cannot decide whether it wants to be an enthusiast media which serves the interests of gamers, a marketing media which serves the needs of game publishers or an investigative media that uncovers and exposes wrong doing. It is not possible for them to be an effective enthusiast media while smearing their audience as sexist, entitled terrorists. It is not possible for them to be a marketing media and expect to retain a workable ethical policy, resulting in such things as the GamerGate hashtag. It is not possible for them to be an investigative media and uncover such things as the Molyneux story without an effective wall between themselves and their potential subjects. Many game journalists still have close relationships with developers, PR representatives and game publishers, even supporting them financially through Patreon.
What is certain is that other game developers will have watched the treatment of Peter Molyneux and Mark Kern and may be wondering if they will attract the witch hunt ire of the current gaming press. From my own perspective it seems that the state of gaming journalism is far worse than we feared. If nothing else the response to Kern’s petition shows that gaming journalists and publications are extremely unwilling to examine their own behaviour or admit that mistakes have been made. Are gaming journalists so willing to throw, not only their own audience, but game developers as well to the wolves for daring to disagree? If games journalists dislike games, dislike their own audience and now even seem to dislike those that make games then how can we have any real expectation of a competent games media? What is the point of a gaming media that hates gaming? If game developers need to be worried that they will not be treated ethically, with balance and non-bias, by the gaming media then it is clear that radical changes need to be made. Perhaps game developers should ask themselves if they can really afford to continue being silent and accept that ultimately they may be forced to choose a side. If this is the case then it may be a longer road than we thought to heal the wounds of gaming.
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