Video game journalism vs mainstream media: When worlds collide

(This was an essay I wrote for my journalism MA and actually got a good mark on so I thought I’d post it up here. I still hate academic writing…)

The video game industry is a different entity to most, as a niche interest it has been kept out of mainstream media for the most part. In this essay I will be comparing media coverage in the video games industry and mainstream media, looking at where they overlap and the different styles of reporting seen in both. I will be using the GamerGate controversy as a specific case.

The niche interest in gaming comes from a social stigma associated with geeky interests. Cohen (2015, p12) argues that “science fiction/fantasy fans, card-carrying members of a wider geek culture, may be socially accepted for their ability to accomplish different tasks, but they are simultaneously stigmatized as being physically ugly and socially undesirable.” Kowert et al (2014, p141) argues that “the stereotype of online gamers revolves around four themes: (un)popularity, (un)attractiveness, idleness, and social (in)competence,” which may contribute to the fact that video games are mostly a niche interest that is not seen in mainstream media. In fact, Kowert et al (2014, p141) argues “online gaming has become an activity associated with a highly specific, caricatured, and often negative image. This ‘‘stereotype’’ has permeated the collective consciousness, as online gamers have become common caricatures in popular media.” The video games industry is a fairly new one, only emerging in the last few decades, and so video game journalism is also relatively new when compared to mainstream journalism.

The biggest difference between mainstream media and game journalism is that game journalism has very little in print. We have magazines such as PC Gamer, Official Xbox Magazine and Game Informer Magazine, but the majority of game journalism happens online. This is perhaps not too surprising, as the video game industry relies on technology itself, and online gaming has become a central point of the industry. This means that most gamers, the target audience for game journalism, will be comfortable using the internet and perhaps more comfortable with online content than with print. Often, news in the video game industry is kept to sites such as IGN Entertainment, Kotaku or PC Gamer, or it’s left to bloggers and other citizen journalists.

Citizen journalism plays a very large part in the video game industry. With the widespread availability of the internet, everyone has a voice and a means to publish their own articles. Briggs (2010), argues that “blogs are no longer an extra feature on news Web sites. They have become the cornerstone of coverage for news organizations of all sizes. Blogs are also powering a growing wave of independent-journalism start-ups” and Robinson (2006, p843), argues that “online news has the potential not only to bring citizens a more comprehensive version of the day’s news, but also to empower them to take an active part in the day’s journalism.” This, combined with the way the target audience is comfortable to read news online, means that these niche news outlets do not need to provide print and are able to provide a purely online service. However, we see a wide number of independent publishers and other citizen journalists who spread news in the gaming industry, ranging from bloggers to YouTube content creators, usually specialising in one game or aspect of the industry. This is backed up by work by Carpenter (2008, p541) who argues that “online citizen journalists may concentrate their efforts on one or a few issues, rather than focussing on an institution as a whole.” Nah et al (2015, p412) argues that “online journalists tend to be favorable toward the adoption and use of USS as they advocate diverse perspectives and opinions in their news production,” however this seems to vary from publication to publication. Taking two publications that specialise in video game and entertainment media, IGN Entertainment and The Escapist, the majority of IGN’s content appears to be produced by journalists who are a part of IGN, whereas The Escapist welcomes a lot of user generated content onto its website.

Most of the time, an item of news in the video game industry is kept to these specialised publications. For example, a recent article on The Escapist1 about Hearthstone developers wanting to be more open with the community, but worry about harassment, is newsworthy within the video game industry, also being reported on other specialist publications such as Kotaku2, but you don’t see this in a mainstream media publication. This could be because entertainment news is not that important to people and generally doesn’t affect the day to day lives of most, so it would not be beneficial to people to see this news in the mainstream media that generally focusses on “important” news. However, sometimes an item of news in the video games industry finds its way onto mainstream media. One particular example of this is the GamerGate controversy.

In the summer of 2014, #GamerGate brought the spotlight of mainstream media to the video game industry. It started as an attack on Zoe Quinn, a female game developer who made Depression Quest, when her ex-boyfriend at the time claimed that she had an affair with journalist Nathan Grayson to secure positive reviews for her game. However, it soon exploded into a wide attack on women in the video games industry, be they critics, journalists or developers, with some of the main targets being Brianna Wu, a feminist game developer, and Anita Sarkeesian, creator of the Feminist Frequency series which criticised sexism in video games. Mortensen (2016, p10) argues that “there are several parallels between GG and hooligans. Like the football hooligans, these gamer fans organized into groups and were ready to attack the other team. Like hooligans, they appeared to join the fight for the thrill, not because they always believed their actions would be the best persuasive tactics,” perhaps showing that the abuse thrown about on the internet was not the genuine arguments of misogynists, but more of an echo chamber of people hurling abuse about because there were no consequences. The internet allows for anonymity and gives everyone a voice, which can be both positive and negative, as Mortensen (2016, p13) also argues that “GG demonstrated how complex game culture is. It is a child of the Internet, and gamers cannot be distinguished from the users of other social media. GG’ers were channers, tumblerinas, and redditors. They produced endless videos and live streams. They used Facebook and wrote blogs. Twitter was full of them, and they used tools that enhance Twitter: TwitLonger for when you need more than 140 signs and Storify when tweets need to be organized and structured. Through this variety and very visible exploitation of weaknesses in the different systems, GG taught us how technology designed for increased openness can be utilized to create echo chambers and to silence opposing voices.”

Reddit is a huge example of where the internet can become a hub for citizen journalism, as argued by Massanari (2015, p2) saying it is “a unique platform for user-generated content, and controversial role as a site for citizen journalism.” A lot of news within the video game industry does actually originate from Reddit, where both official sources such as game developers or company spokespeople can share information and announcements, but also serves as a platform for leaked information to be shared to the masses. However, the freedom and anonymity gives a zero-consequence platform for harassment. Reddit itself can devolve into harassment due to the nature of the internet, as argued by Massanari (2015, p13) who said “given the fluid, permeable nature of the Internet, it is important to understand how these kinds of interactions on Reddit are also reflective of and influenced by other platform cultures. Toxic technocultures propagate precisely because of the liminal and fluid connectedness of Internet platforms.” 4Chan, another popular internet message board, has “forums on the site, which rely on semianonymous posting, are a haven for gore threads, misogyny, racism and white supremacy, homophobia, transphobia, violent fantasies, and those who refuse to acknowledge that engaging with and promoting such content can have serious consequences,” according to Poland (2016, p142), reinforcing this feeling that the anonymity allows people to post anything without any thoughts of serious consequences.

Gamergate was a result of this zero accountability internet posting, and the level of harassment is what attracted the attention of the mainstream media. Harassment happens all the time on the internet, but #GamerGate was far more widespread and serious than typical forum harassment. Sarkeesian was forced to flee her home after being her personal details were leaked on the internet through what is known as “doxxing” and she received multiple death and rape threats, and she was not the only woman to receive such threats amidst the chaos of #GamerGate. Other women who were either doxxed or received other serious online harassment included Felicia Day, an actress in Supernatural and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Zoe Quinn, who was the first to receive such harassment, and Brianna Wu, creator of Revolution 60 and outspoken feminist game developer. Men who spoke against GamerGate did not receive the same level of harassment, with former NFL star Chris Kluwe both actively speaking out against the movement and simultaneously not receiving any threats or dox attempts, which he also calls the harassers on.

The coverage of this varied wildly. We saw the Guardian cover the controversy, as a mainstream media organisation, in quite a lot of depth with multiple articles around the event. We saw the Guardian publish articles following the event through 2014, some related follow up through 2015, and even continued through 2016, linking the GamerGate movement with one of its more vocal supporters, Milo Yiannopoulos3, to the rise of conservative politics and Trump’s election4. The Guardian coverage focussed on the ruined lives and the deplorable harassment messages, as well as the overarching situation, recounting what had been said to who. The Guardian interviewed Zoe Quinn and wrote about her experiences with the movement and highlighted the attacks on other women5. We saw coverage from other publishers, such as the Mirror6, Forbes7, the Telegraph8 and the Washington Post9. All mainstream media publications followed a similar approach to the Guardian, stating what had happened, what was said and to who, though Forbes, The Washington Post and the Mirror all spoke about the message that GamerGate was supposed to represent: an argument about ethics in video game journalism. Whilst the Washington Post article reports that the misogynists and harassers were a vocal minority and the Forbes article draws attention to the message of “gamers being unhappy and wanting something better” and the Mirror alleges that there are problems in video game journalism and the arguments are valid, the overall, perhaps positive message of GamerGate was inevitably drowned out by trolls and misogynists.

While similar, the coverage of GamerGate from the video game media organisations featured some stark differences. Gaming media was very obviously trying to show that they were not taking sides, with media outlets staying silent on the whole situation until it really started to spiral out of control. Large publishers such as IGN and The Escapist published responses to GamerGate, as well as coverage of the events, as they were a part of the argument concerning the questionable ethics in video game journalism. Arguably the best response to the GamerGate controversy came from The Escapist10 where they did not draw attention to the harassment and stuck to the original message of video game journalism ethics. The Escapist talks about the video game industry from a cultural standpoint, providing a detailed breakdown of where the industry was and why it worked the way it did, as well as what gamer culture truly means. It then moved on to video game journalism, talking about the difficulties in the industry and how the internet has made it difficult to maintain standards in journalism. They then actively apologised, stating that their editor-in-chief, Greg Tito, reviewed the facts that they had and realised that they had been imperfect in maintaining their own ethical standards. Not once did the Escapist join the discussion about the harassment or take sides, they didn’t even directly talk about GamerGate; they just tackled the original problem head on, apologised for any malpractice on their part and as such avoided a lot of potential fallout from either side. IGN also posted a response to the GamerGate allegations11, though they focussed on the harassment of the movement and the problems with that, though they focussed on stating their disapproval of harassment in general as opposed to reporting what had gone on exactly, stating that the specifics of the harassment had already been widely reported by other publications.

The coverage of the events during the GamerGate controversy still looked at the harassment of women, much like the mainstream media did, but also offered a very different outlook. The Escapist interviewed GamerGate supporters and other gamers involved in the controversy. They took to the community and asked their opinions, getting a more real perspective on what was going on12 as opposed to the coverage offered by the mainstream media outlets that took the massive issue of harassment and ran stories on it, where we got a more grounded coverage from The Escapist. This is perhaps due to the sources available; mainstream media organisations do not have the communities that a specialised online publication may have. Online video game media outlets like The Escapist use their websites and forums to cultivate a community and can easily reach out to gamers when something like this comes into the light.

Kotaku’s coverage13 was more in line with the mainstream media, focussing on the harassment side of it, however they also covered the details as to how GamerGate was born and what it was supposed to mean. The Kotaku coverage shared the message of the mainstream media, that these women were being harassed and it was unacceptable, looking at major figures caught up in the controversy such as Felicia Day14 and Brianna Wu, however there is also attention shown to the movement as a whole, expressing the view that the GamerGate handle has been too strongly tied to harassment and misogyny to recover and be the positive thing that some of its followers want it to be15; a watchdog on ethics in video game journalism. This approach may be a response to the GamerGate official subreddit being named “KotakuInAction” by the GamerGate community. The reason for this name is not becaue the subreddit has anything to do with the media outlet, it is a way for the GamerGate community to mock and poke fun at Kotaku for being, in their opinion, a terrible outlet for games journalism. (Reddit, 2014)

Overall, I feel that the coverage of the GamerGate controversy was very similar across mainstream media and specialist video game journalism outlets. It is interesting to observe the different approaches to a very sensitive topic by different journalism outlets, both ones affected and unaffected by it. The incredible harassment aspect caused it to be elevated into the public eye and into the pages of mainstream media outlets, however the subtle details and grounded “people” view was kept to the specialist video game media publications. I do not feel that the roots of harassment on the internet will disappear in the near future and this will not be the last time a story like this breaches mainstream media due to the nature of the internet; the protection that anonymity provides, as well as the feelings of zero-accountability, means that the problem will not be solved in the near future and points to a more deep-rooted problem in modern society. The internet is not a bad thing in itself, for being the platform hosting such harassment, but the issue is more on how we, as humans, use it.

Media articles used:

  1. http://www.escapistmagazine.com/news/view/169174-Hearthstone-Devs-Worried-About-Harrasment

  2. http://kotaku.com/hearthstone-devs-want-to-be-more-open-but-are-worried-1790730362

  3. https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2016/jul/20/milo-yiannopoulos-twitter-ban-leslie-jones-bad-idea

  4. https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2016/dec/01/gamergate-alt-right-hate-trump

  5. https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2014/dec/03/zoe-quinn-gamergate-interview

  6. http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/technology-science/technology/confused-gamergate-heres-simple-guide-4536829

  7. http://www.forbes.com/sites/erikkain/2014/09/04/gamergate-a-closer-look-at-the-controversy-sweeping-video-games/#1a5328c05448

  8. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/culturenews/11180510/gamergate-misogynist-felicia-day-zoe-quinn-brianna-wu.html

  9. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-intersect/wp/2014/10/14/the-only-guide-to-gamergate-you-will-ever-need-to-read/?utm_term=.727333f1f374

  10. http://www.escapistmagazine.com/articles/view/video-games/editorials/12223-The-Escapist-Publisher-Issues-Public-Statement-on-Gamergate

  11. http://uk.ign.com/articles/2014/10/24/on-the-problem-of-harassment

  12. http://www.escapistmagazine.com/articles/view/features/12383-Game-Developer-GamerGate-Interviews-Shed-Light-on-Women-in-Games

  13. http://kotaku.com/another-woman-in-gaming-flees-home-following-death-thre-1645280338

  14. http://kotaku.com/felicia-day-and-gamergate-this-is-what-happens-now-1650544129

  15. http://kotaku.com/were-all-tired-of-gamergate-1648624281

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Reddit, 2014. Sorry if this is a silly question, but what does ‘KotakuInAction’ mean? https://www.reddit.com/r/KotakuInAction/comments/2kyy5y/sorry_if_this_is_a_silly_question_but_what_does/ Accessed 04/01/2016

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