Game Journalism and the Scandal Cycle

In the wake of E3, there has been an avalanche of articles, blogs, and Twitter postings on the following topics:

All of these topics are important and I’m happy the game journalism community has given them the attention they deserve.  Even better, judging by the comments on these articles, a lot of people seem to understand the problem and would like to see a change.

However, reading all this made me feel like I was free-diving in sewer water.

Once you’re past the U-bend you’re homefree!

One of the greatest lessons of the Internet is that outrage is the only thing that sells better than sex, and controversies get hits, comments, Tweets, and Facebook shares. I’m not suggesting that gaming sites drum up controversies solely for hits–I doubt anyone could call the above concerns illegitimate, at least not in good conscience–but that social media users tend to be drawn to sharing stories that provoke an emotional response.  When shared on a wide scale, these stories create a sort of feedback loop where everyone in the community wants to join the discussion whether they’re a journalist, player, or part of the PR machine.  A PR gaffe turns into a news story on a news site like Kotaku, which is editorialized on a blog, which is Tweeted widely, which attracts harassing comments,  and those comments then become a story on Kotaku.  While this particular scenario is theoretical, anyone who spends time on the Internet understands what I’m referencing.

However, I would also suggest that these controversies tend to be chain-reactions.  Look at the list above and you’ll find two major themes: 1) the predominance of sexist thinking in games and game culture; and 2) the perceived stagnation of the AAA market through the over-emphasis on “dark,” violent games.

It’s no accident that these two memes are currently dominating the outrage circuit since one controversy tends to bleed into another.  Put simply, once one powerful article has been read and discussed at large, people have the tendency to see the world through the lens of that controversy.  For example, I absolutely believe that the Tomb Raider controversy wouldn’t have made as big a splash were it not for the Hitman and rape culture articles that preceded it, or even the negative tweets about E3 “Booth Babes.”  Each controversy lays the groundwork for the next, not only because readers still have unresolved feelings, but because thinking about and discussing problematic representations or exclusionary social norms makes the community more likely to recognize and share new examples of both.

And don’t get me wrong: This Is A Good Thing™.  The fact that we’re recognizing the underlying problems in gaming and discussing them at all is major progress.  Just like every nation, industry, religious order or hippie commune, the games community has deeply-ingrained issues we need to work out.  The representation of women in games and treatment of female gamers, for instance, is a problem that’s been building ever since women began to join the community in large numbers.  At this point in time, forty-eight percent of game players are women, meaning misogynist language is potentially alienating half of the community.  If we don’t combat the misogyny in the gamer population, we’re going to see fallout throughout the industry–it’s an appendix about to burst, and removing it is going to be a painful process.

That’s what we’re going through now: an appendectomy.  As painful as it is to trudge through tweets, articles, and blogs full of anger and justification, the end result will ultimately make us better.  Surgery hurts.  Drugs cause side effects.  Healing is generally a painful process that makes you feel weak and sick.  I’m not going to lie: opening the gaming community to women and minorities, as well as shaking AAA games from their current torpor, isn’t going to be a fast or fun process, but the end result will make it worthwhile.  By recognizing and discussing problems, we’re showing both the industry and our peers the kind of games–and society–we want.

But discussing that means exactly that: discussing, not preaching.  Read widely.  Listen more than you talk.  See a problem from someone else’s perspective.  When you understand what’s driving their concerns, you’re more likely to find common ground.  State your case with precision.  Use examples where games got it right, not just games that failed.  Avoid insults and condemnations.  When you condemn people, they’ll never agree with you–and that’s your ultimate objective, isn’t it?  Conversion, not conquest?  Let me tell you a secret: you don’t win an argument by telling your opponent “I’m right and you’re wrong,” you win by making your case so clear and compelling that your opponent links arms with you and says: “Let’s be right together.”

There’s another, crucial component to all this: positivity.  I mean really people, I feel like I’ve spent two weeks guzzling bile, can you give me something good to hold onto?  This stuff makes me feel so bad that I’ve actually had a hard time reading games journalism lately, and I’m a games journalist.  The danger of fighting and re-fighting all these controversies in such a short timeframe is we run the risk of succumbing to scandal fatigue, where everyone gets entrenched and reactionary, and is generally just spoiling for a fight.  I recall something I said during the Game Journalism panel at PAX East, namely, that games journalism tends to have a lot of negativity, and we need to resist the urge to snark.  Games are a medium full of wonder and possibility, but we spend most of our time harping on its flaws rather than celebrating the great things it can do.  Games take us to new places, bring us knowledge, and even help heal the sick.  Just because we’re elbow-deep in wrangling the uglier demons of our culture doesn’t mean we have to lose our sense of collective amazement and enthusiasm.  In denigrating the bad, we must not fail to champion the good–especially since building on positive success is what will ultimately let us transcend and overcome our bad habits.  Also, peppering in some positive news lets us relax a little, giving us the time to take our hands off each others’ throats and rebuild our community’s bonds of trust.

I know it can be hard to avoid the snark sometimes, but we have to try.  Take WonderBook for instance.  When it debuted at E3 I could barely contain myself.  The demo itself wasn’t the best of the show, true, but there’s massive potential.  We could design textbooks that contain 3D depictions of planets, moving physics models, cutaway topography maps!  Consider how amazing an Incredible Cross Sections book would be if you could strip layers at will–and imagine my disappointment when this peripheral was greeted with yawns and eye-rolling and “get-on-with-it”s from most of the gaming press.  I’m going to be honest–I kind of needed some enthusiasm and vision at that moment.  I think, after seeing so many guns and guttings and Booth Babes and arguments, we all needed to see that old gaming magic again.  At that moment, I felt like E3 had opened Pandora’s Box, and there I was searching through the bottom, wondering if they shorted me on Hope.

Make no mistake, these controversies are a struggle for the soul of gaming.  But we have to remember that even as we have our disagreements, we need to keep nurturing and celebrating that common soul we all share as gamers, that delight we feel interacting with a new and vibrant world.  We need to celebrate our successes just as much as we nitpick our failures, since it’s only by elevating the good examples that we find our way forward.  Because ultimately we’re all part of a community, and if we’re to integrate and co-exist, we also need to focus on our common values.

Let me suggest this as a start: We All Love Games.

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