GamerGate Interviews
"Damion Schubert" GamerGate Interview

The Escapist Staff | 10 Oct 2014 16:30
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Damion Schubert is a 20-year industry veteran focusing on AAA games, particularly MMOs, with a blog he really should update more often. The Escapist was privately provided with evidence that confirms Damion Schubert's biography. We interviewed Damion Schubert over email.

What is your definition of "gamer"?

While I disagree mightily with much of your recent editorial on the subject, I thought your core definition was really, really eloquent: gamers are 'games enthusiasts', roughly parallel to gearheads. They not only play games, they know games, they anticipate upcoming games, and they consume media about games when they aren't playing games.

It's an unprecedented catastrof**k.

Note that not all hardcore game players are 'gamers'. My mother, for example, is a hardcore, hardcore solitaire player. She's probably logged more game hours playing 'Spider' than I have playing WoW, and when she does, it's like watching Cypher in the Matrix - she's just seeing things not perceptible to normal humans. But she really doesn't give a moment's thought to games when she's not actively playing them, and I'm not entirely sure she's bought a new game in five years. I wouldn't describe her as a gamer.

That being said, there are a LOT of gamers out there that don't fit the standard stereotype of what a gamer looks like, or even plays.

Do you make games for gamers? (I'm using "gamer" here to mean "core game enthusiast")

I've been making MMOs for pretty much my entire career. MMOs take a large time investment to play, and usually involve a highly wired & net-savvy player base, so I would say yes. Note that it's a matter of degrees, though. My audience on Shadowbane was much more hardcore 'gamer' than my audience in SWTOR, where the nature of the license attracted a fair chunk of more casual players.

Do you think gamer culture more toxic than other enthusiast cultures on the web (political enthusiasts, fashion enthusiasts, car enthusiasts, gun enthusiasts, etc.)? (I'm using "gamer" here to mean "core game enthusiast").

Yes and no. There are many topics and hobbies that have a subset of enthusiasts that approach fanaticism in terms of their point of view, to the degree of actively attempting to attack or squelch others with a different point of view. Politics is certainly one (think of the rabid wing of the Tea Party), gun owners, hardcore feminists (google 'PiV is rape'). All of these have completely and totally rational people, and all of these have hardcore fanatics who sometimes dominate all discussion, to the detriment of everyone involved, especially their own cause. I would certainly agree that games is one of those topics that incites that level of passion.

And passion is good! Passion is the same thing that drives many game designers in the business! But for a very small percentage of players (and I want to stress, IT'S NOT ALL GAMERS), that passion ends up manifesting itself in incredibly shitty ways: harassing female players, doxing and hacking developers, forcing critics to go into hiding, calling in plane threats or SWAT teams or bomb threats - it becomes pretty clear that there is a subset of fanatics who are simply off the rails.

So there is a subset that is small - but it being small doesn't matter, really. In the early days of UO, we did polls that asked our fans what percentage of our playerbase were hardcore player killers. Responses came back at about 10%. In truth, the real numbers were at far less than 1% - player perception was off by a couple of orders of magnitude. That's the problem with toxic people: they have a massively disproportionate level of impact to the community. If you don't like the behavior, it feels like it's EVERYWHERE.

What is your reaction to this sentiment, expressed in Gamasutra: "Gamers are over. That's why they're so mad."

I think it was an extremely ill-phrased, ill-timed response to what was, at the time, a crisis - and I say that as someone who has a lot of respect for Leigh Alexander and her writing. Several writers, including myself, felt very strongly about the need to condemn the incredibly nasty, brutish behavior that was being inflicted on certain developers and commentators in this industry at that particular moment in time, and in this case, it manifested itself by tarring all too many gamers with a really negative brush. It was unfortunate, and in my honest opinion, threw gasoline on a grass fire that otherwise would have burnt itself out by now. For what it's worth, not long afterwards, I wrote that gamers weren't dead, but do need to repudiate their toxic elements.

gamergate emem 3x3

Briefly stated, what is your opinion of GamerGate?

Briefly, it's an unprecedented catastrof**k. And here's why: everybody is looking at the same thing, and seeing completely different shapes in the fire. To developers, it's an attempt to harass, silence and threaten unique voices around the industry, many of whom happen to be women. To journalists, it's a bizarre crusade that centers on the least problematic part of their industry - indie games and social issues coverage. To fans, it's a bold attempt to fix a whole bunch of problems they perceive and defend a way of life, but that IMHO are blown out of proportion and are focusing on all the wrong problems. And to a small group of assholes, it's an opportunity to foment chaos by sock-puppeting both sides.

This is a massive generalization, of course, with some people crossing lines here and there. But the important thing is that people can't agree on what the important thing is.

What is the root cause of GamerGate? Do you see it as part of a larger "culture war"?

Best way I'd describe it is that the hateful revenge porn of a jilted ex-boyfriend was the spark, and the raft of 'Gamers are dead' articles were the gasoline. I think that some people THINK it's a culture war, and I think that some people are definitely trying to make it one I know on Twitter, some people will try to flame Anita Sarkeesian's work out of the blue under the #GamerGate tag, but as soon as I point out that she has some really good points, people fall over backwards to stress it has NOTHING TO DO WITH HER AT ALL. And then they call her a Nazi.

Do you feel there is corruption among the game press? If so, is it primarily mercenary corruption (pay to get a good review) or primarily ideological corruption (toe the party line to get a good review), or a mix, or something else?

I think there are a lot of practices by the gaming press and the industry's marketing department that are questionable, but GamerGate is so far away from actually talking about these issues that it's ridiculous. Zoe Quinn, Phil Fish, Anita Sarkeesian - these are all minor players in the games industry, making small donation-based indie projects. Zoe doesn't even charge money for Depression Quest. Complaining about any sort of impropriety there is so small time - it's like complaining some kid might be cheating at a T-Ball game while the Black Sox Scandal is actually going on.

Think about this: the average AAA game spends somewhere between a third and a half of its budget on marketing. Big games, including Destiny and GTA V, had budgets north of $100M, sometimes well north of it - and a third of that's a real big number. Where does that money get spent? Here's a hint: last week, I saw more than one Destiny review on a website with Destiny skins or ads in the sidebar. Anything an indie developer could possibly offer would pale in comparison with a fraction of the standard, above board cash that's part of the normal gaming press/publisher relationship. And that's before you get to the shady stuff.

Some years ago, a GameSpot journalist was fired right after giving a bad review to a AAA game. Games from big studios seem to rarely get reviews below 70%, but indie devs who can't afford to advertise routinely do. Some companies have been caught giving payola to YouTube streamers. Companies routinely fly press around the country and wine and dine the journalists that will review them.

Here's a story about a company who hired a reviewer to do a mock review, solely so he couldn't legally write the bad review they thought he'd give them.

But we're not talking about these things. Instead, we're talking about the indie games scene that struggled desperately for exposure, and the websites in the crosshairs are the websites who have historically been the best and most useful at helping indie games get exposure, sites like Rock Paper Shotgun and Polygon. We're talking about indie games whose entire marketing budget is about what a stuffed crust pizza would cost. We're seeing exposes of journalists who have had the gall to have HAD A DRINK WITH A DEVELOPER or SHARE EMAIL WITH EACH OTHER. Ignorant of the fact that that's how journalists vet shit and groom sources for future stories - in ALL fields. Hell, I'm writing this right now because you and I shared a drink years ago. It's hard to see how the outcome of this all is less indie coverage and unique perspectives, and more mindless repetition of marketing bullet points from the same ol' AAA titles with the same ol' cookie cutter designs.

What are the primary concerns that developers have, vis a vis the game press?

Day One launch coverage and MetaCritic scores. Almost everything else will blow over, if our fans don't pick up the thread. We used to worry about individual review scores, but with the advent of Metacritic, bad scores just get aggregated into a whole. Of course, that's just for AAAs. For indie press, it's getting noticed at all when you're trying to compete for attention and press with the AAAs with multimillion dollar marketing budgets.

What are the primary concerns that developers have, vis a vis gamers?

Overall, it's building a rapport with our fans, and developing great games they want to buy. Related to GamerGate? Here's a hint: the primary response from the games industry so far has been for the IGDA to talk to the FBI in order to develop resources that developers can use to deal with threats and harassment.

There are women on my friends list, some of whom are among the most outspoken women I know in the games industry, who have effectively taken a vow of silence since this started.

I believe GamerGate is a situation that has been brewing for years. Do you agree? If so, when did the situation begin brewing?

That depends a lot on what you believe GamerGate actually is. The industry has a long history of randomly choosing female developers to go completely irrational on: take a look at what happened to Jade Raymond and Jennifer Hepler. And lord knows there's been dissatisfaction with the press, although it's really hard for me to see this from the player's point of view, since my relation to the press has been from a developer's point of view for so long.

Are you or developers you know changing their interactions with gamers or press as a result of GamerGate?

Sure. It's shutting down women. There are women on my friends list, some of whom are among the most outspoken women I know in the games industry, who have effectively taken a vow of silence since this started. One is a community manager with 15 years experience, so she's no stranger to bad days on the Internet, but right now, she feels completely terrified to have Zoe and Anita's back. The other said the other day "As a female indie developer, I realize that I'm now terrified of success. And that's terrible." I tried to find someone to answer this very interview with you, because I think it's important that not all your respondents are white men writing from positions of relative safety, but no one I asked wanted to risk what happened to Anita or Zoe. Elizabeth Sampat wrote a great article describing the despair that some women on the inside in the industry feel right now. And it bugs developers, because these women are our friends, our colleagues, and very frequently, are some of the coolest geeks and smartest gamemakers in the space.

If you have concerns with the press, what could the press do to improve relations with you?

I don't really have many problems with most members of the press. Most developers and press have pretty good relations with each other, in my experience. Every now and then, you hear about a press member that supposedly hates a certain studio (some people at Origin were obsessed that Computer Games Magazine had it out for us, for example), but in the MetaCritic age, these things tend to get washed out. Most press are superfans, and the designers, coders and artists that make the games love talking to superfans.

If you have concerns with gamers, what could gamers do to improve relations with you?

Most gamers are great, and talking to them reinforces our love for what we do. It's one of the reasons that I love working on MMOs - I love the close relationship with the fans, and I love the quick turnaround on feedback when we add new stuff. The problem is, again, only with a very small number of toxic fanatics. These are people who don't seem to understand, or care, that games are not just games to us - for game devs and journalists, they're our livelihood. It's incredibly hard and stressful work. The good fan interactions make the crunch and the stress worth it. The bad fan interactions just make you want to flip a table and then crawl under your bed.
If I could wish for anything, it would be for the good fans to do a better job of just disavowing the bad fans. I've thought of trying to start a #DudeNotCool tag on Twitter, or SOMETHING, to try to create the culture of 'hey, let's just be civil to devs, journalists, and each other'.

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