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.
It's no coincidence that many of these people — award-winning writers, professional game developers, strong-minded critics — are women, unified by the belief that video games aren't perfect. The audacity of this belief has prompted an alarming wave of hatred that has snowballed until finally, perhaps inevitably, it reached the front page of The New York Times, as significant a milestone for mainstream awareness as there is. It would appear that gaming, on the cusp of mainstream acceptance, Supreme Court victory in hand, has traded in the stereotype of the violent loner for the violent misogynist.
Under the headline "Feminist Critics of Video Games Facing Threats," New York Times writer Nick Wingfield details the threats made against Tropes Vs. Women creator Anita Sarkeesian, Giant Spacekat studio head Brianna Wu and independent developer Zoe Quinn. It was Quinn's relationship with a video game journalist, as revealed in an angry tell-all posted by an ex-boyfriend — the relationship being a supposed ethics breach that was later debunked — that not only kicked off this wave of hatred but also its complementary "movement," focused ostensibly on ethics in game journalism. That 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.
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, hastily defining exactly what ethical breaches they found most alarming. Journalists contributing exceedingly small sums to independent game developers, via Patreon, was highlighted as a particularly egregious failure of the games press. I didn't agree, and still don't, but also didn't see the harm in disclosing that information to the public when applicable, which wasn't often. And thus began a journey of good-faith efforts met with, what else? Harassment.
Of course, this whole thing didn't begin with "ethics." When demands from the proto-GamerGate crowd to cover the Quinn "controversy" got louder, we discussed the topic internally. 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 of what was now being called a conspiracy. "Ethical journalism treats sources, subjects, colleagues and members of the public as human beings deserving of respect," the code reads under the heading of "Minimize Harm."
Journalists should, it continues:
Balance the public's need for information against potential harm or discomfort. Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance or undue intrusiveness.
Show compassion for those who may be affected by news coverage. Use heightened sensitivity when dealing with juveniles, victims of sex crimes, and sources or subjects who are inexperienced or unable to give consent. Consider cultural differences in approach and treatment.
Recognize that legal access to information differs from an ethical justification to publish or broadcast.
Realize that private people have a greater right to control information about themselves than public figures and others who seek power, influence or attention. Weigh the consequences of publishing or broadcasting personal information.
Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity, even if others do.
Balance a suspect's right to a fair trial with the public's right to know. Consider the implications of identifying criminal suspects before they face legal charges.
Consider the long-term implications of the extended reach and permanence of publication. Provide updated and more complete information as appropriate.
This is the same SPJ ethics code that would be shared under the GamerGate hashtag as a model to follow and an example of the failures of the more progressive ends of the video game press. The same one that reads, "Boldly tell the story of the diversity and magnitude of the human experience. Seek sources whose voices we seldom hear."
But under that same hashtag, we're met with accusations of corruption because ... our review of Bayonetta 2 had the audacity to treat it like a cultural artifact and not simply a toy. The solution: Convince Nintendo to blacklist us for our impudence. Under that same hashtag, we're met with coordinated campaigns to strip us of our advertising, pointing to criticism of advertisers like Intel. The same SPJ Code of Ethics states, "Deny favored treatment to advertisers, donors or any other special interests, and resist internal and external pressure to influence coverage." To rectify these so-called ethical breaches would be in direct violation of widely accepted journalistic standards, like criticism free from corporate oversight and the freedom to critique one's own advertisers.
They say they want an ethics code? OK, we had that ready at launch and update it when appropriate.
They say they want transparency? We try for that, too!
They say they want objective game reviews? That ... well, that doesn't make any sense.
They say they want politics out of video game coverage? OK, now we're getting somewhere.
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. Baldwin was the first of several notable opportunists who, despite caring little for video games or video game culture, were more than happy to contribute to any movement that counted "SJWs" — that's "social justice warriors," for those of you out of the loop — as enemies. That "social justice warrior" is considered a pejorative at all speaks volumes about the motivations behind much of GamerGate and its fixation on progressive voices.
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.
But by the same token, 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.
Despite our extensive coverage of harassment in the video game world, including a widely read piece by Brianna Wu, we haven't spoken out against GamerGate until now. We covered the more egregious examples of harassment mentioned above. We spoke to police departments and victims. But we didn't condemn the banner under which much of this hatred flew. And when inclusion in said mob is exactly 10 keystrokes away from anyone with a Twitter account — # g a m e r g a t e — it's not only hard but actually impossible to distill that mob's wishes down to any one thing. So we didn't. We were, and I specifically was, paralyzed by indecision. How do you condemn a mob without drawing attention to that same mob? For many of our staff, myself included, GamerGate presented enough of a perceived danger that we were scared for ourselves and our families. (Notable fact I remind myself of often: There are 14 children among the Polygon staff, including two under the age of 1).
If you consider yourself a GamerGate moderate, and are genuinely concerned with ethics in journalism, then I have some perhaps surprising news for you — you'd be hard-pressed to find a more interested party than the games press itself. Topics of ethics and disclosure are ... err, were frequently discussed on the GameJournoPros message board, of which I was a member. Disagreements were often the norm. Enough people had a differing view that someone shared the board's contents with a particularly one-sided journalist (who proceeded to publish the unedited logs, with email signatures and phone numbers for some members intact). Are critics of the list aware that journalists have "conspired" in this way for, literally, over a century? I live in Philadelphia, home of the Pen & Pencil Club, a similarly private social club for journalists that's been in existence since 1892. This is where journalists from the Philadelphia Inquirer, a newspaper that won 17 Pulitzers in 15 years, would get drinks with journalists from competing papers and discuss, what else? Work.
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 — I myself was taken to task by many of the people being attacked now over just this issue when we launched Polygon, and you know what? They were exceedingly right. But this isn't just an issue in the gaming press; it's an issue in journalism everywhere. Read this update from BuzzFeed's Ben Smith on how one of the fastest-growing media companies is tackling this challenge.
So yes, we take and have taken accusations of ethical impropriety seriously, and still find the accusations from GamerGate wanting.
This brings us to StopGamerGate2014, a hashtag started by freelance writer Veerender Jubbal on Tuesday night in response to the growing wave of threats against women in the industry. It quickly trended on Twitter. Indeed, some of the people who've spoken out against GamerGate, both using the StopGamerGate2014 hashtag and otherwise, have filled a vacuum that sites like Polygon left, helping to make people comfortable speaking out against the abuse. Andy Baio discusses this here and points out that, for supporters of GamerGate who've yet to recognize the toxicity of their platform, their "best hope is that the silent are secretly on their side."
Since Polygon launched in 2012, we've worked hard — thanks to the efforts of our tireless moderation team — to engender a safe space for our readers, writers and contributors. We have zero tolerance for racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia ... any type of harassment or trolling on our site, which is laid out in our written community guidelines. While we've addressed aspects of the harassment that exists around it, we've been silent on GamerGate specifically. That ends today.
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?
Video games are capital "C" Culture now. There won't be less attention, only more. There won't be less scrutiny. There certainly won't be less diversity, in the fiction of games themselves or in the demographics of their players. What we're in control of is how we respond to that expansion, as journalists, as developers, as consumers. Step one has to be a complete rejection of the tools of harassment and fear — we can't even begin to talk about the interesting stuff while people are literally scared for their lives. There can be no dialogue with a leaderless organization that both condemns and condones this behavior, depending on who's using the hashtag.
Attacks from the likes of Jack Thompson or Leland Yee only strengthened the resolve of gamers and unified our collective culture. But attacks from inside that same culture have led to worldwide media condemnation, a toxic dialogue and violent threats. People don't feel safe in their own homes. No need to jump at shadows of conspiracy or collusion, GamerGaters; you've already unearthed the most damaging force in video games today.
— Christopher Grant, editor-in-chief