And Rohan Will Answer: Film Comes to the Defense of Games

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It’s not the end of journalism as we know it. Film journalism has already traveled the exact same path games journalism is heading down now.

I’ve mentioned this before, but the nature of my job – a film critic working for an outlet devoted predominantly to video games – is sometimes a surreal experience (especially since I’m also a gamer). It sometimes feels akin to time travel. Being familiar with the evolution of the film/entertainment press, I find myself experiencing whiplash watching the younger medium of games journalism experience many of the same growing pains. Not so much in the vein of “Aw, that takes me back,” but rather “Wait… they think _____ is a huge deal? What decade is this!?”

That’s certainly the sense I got watching what turned out to be the beginning of games journalism most-recent debacle. For those not keeping track: The ex-partner of an indie game developer (I’d rather not fuel the fire by mentioning names here, you can learn what you need to from the multiple links throughout) posted a lengthy description of her alleged infidelities during their relationship to the web, where it was seized upon by some as the launching-point for what became a massive, coordinated campaign of abuse, sexual harassment and threats.

It goes without saying that many of those most vociferously attacking this woman (in the interest of full disclosure: I do not know this person outside of social-media interaction, but we share a handful of personal acquaintances) had her in their sights long before this nonsense began, as the presence of her game on Steam had already allegedly made her a target of those who resent the praise heaped onto “art games” (especially those with a political theme – see also: Gone Home) by video game critics.

This would be one of those “time travel” moments I was talking about. For a film critic, it’s jarring to see gaming deciding to re-fight the Arthouse v. Blockbuster argument film-culture moved beyond decades ago. Nobody in film journalism (worth taking seriously, at least) will ask why Boyhood is more likely to be a Best Picture nominee than Transformers 4 but in video games one is still expected to receive outrage if they suggest that a small game more about emotions than combat might be more worthwhile than the next installment of Call of Battle: Wargasm (Now In Special Police Brutality Edition!)

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And since one of the alleged paramours happened to be a game critic (though apparently not one who had written a review of any of her work, though he had written about her before the alleged relationship began), the narrative lined up with the paranoia perfectly: An outspoken woman developer of indie/art games actually “in bed” with one of those “corrupt” journalists, thus explaining why such games were being “unfairly” praised and pushed. And that this “news story” (which, again, consists of one man’s long list of largely unverified accusations against a former girlfriend) was not initially being treated like it was newsworthy was just further evidence of some sinister cover-up.

Again, more time-travel moments: Apart from the very real (appearance of) impropriety that would exist were a critic to carry on a relationship with the author of something they were reviewing (which is not the case here and as such there is no “story” here), film criticism long ago got over the idea that journalists and filmmakers were not supposed to be friends (or more) a long time ago. It happens constantly, and save for blatant appearances of conflicting interest, nobody bats an eye. On top of that: No one expects even the least serious film-writer to “cover” the sex-lives of movie stars; that’s TMZ or US Magazine’s depraved beat. Any self-respecting film writer would be aghast if told they were expected to insert speculation about Kim Kardashian’s baby-bump into coverage of Cannes, but Joystiq or Polygon or The Escapist are derelict in their duties for not leading with “Female Game Dev Has Sex — Possibly More Than Once!” as a main headline? Give me a break.

The whole thing raged on for days, spawning “evidence” memes that looked like the digital age version of a clipping-choked cork-board on the wall of a would-be Unabomber, massive forum threads and “takedown” powerpoints all across the video-sharing spectrum. A pair of YouTubers even decided that this was the perfect time to start crowd-funding a documentary “exposing” so-called “Social Justice Warriors.” Fez developer Phil Fish cut short what had seemed like an attempt to return to public life after seeing his accounts hacked. The whole thing, frankly, looked rather lopsided. While it’s beyond dispute that the people attacking journalists and indie-developers do not represent a majority of gamers, there certainly seemed to be more of them than there were critics, writers and developers for them to attack.

Then, right in the middle of the worst of it, Anita Sarkeesian (full disclosure: I have met and I am on casually friendly terms with this particular person) released the most recent episode of Feminist Frequency: Tropes vs. Women in Video Games. Fire, meet gasoline.

But then… something changed.

When I talk to other film/entertainment critics about what things are like for journalists in the gaming scene, it’s not just to wax bemusedly about my time travel stories – in the bigger picture, I’m looking for help, or at least a sense of, well … solidarity if you like. Almost all of the problems I see plaguing the present form video game culture — the endemic sexism Sarkeesian and others focus on, the outrageous prevalence of racism, sexual-harassment and homophobia that plagues online gaming, the horrifying stalking and abuse campaigns against any developer who dares approach gaming in any manner other than what a certain minority of loud 4chan/reddit denizens deem appropriate — come, from my perspective, from the isolation that still defines so much of the medium.

Isolation (from behavioral consequences as well as from other people) is at the root of what drives the bad apples of gamer-culture to act like they act, but isolation from the rest of media has for so long been the default setting of games journalism that practitioners are often left quite alone when standing against unrelenting attacks like this. Whereas today even comic book writers/artists can maintain a stable of colleagues in the book, film and television journalism circles who’ll leap to their defense (or call them out, as needed) in a crisis; games journalism is largely still in its own world, speaking its own language with too often only its fellows to turn to when otherwise alone against an onslaught — yes, even popular-personalities from big sites or well-covered media fixtures like Sarkeesian.

But this time, for the first time I can remember … it went differently.

The first sense that I got that the wind had changed was seeing Badass Digest boss Devin Faraci jump into the fight when this was still just about verbally-assaulting a woman over alleged cheating because she made a video game, then full-force when the “Sarkeesian Effect” Patreon video found its way into his purview (full disclosure: I tweeted it to him, because I know web absurdity is his beat, but I seriously doubt I was the only one) and he got into it with the two would-be stars.

Say what you will about his tone or methodology, in an internet “brawl” Faraci is the sort you’d want on your side — and not just because he works with a Hulk. He’s a guy who turned commenting into a columnist gig and is now running one of the most influential film-geek news outlets on the web among not only fans but industry professionals as well. He and his site are followed/watched by an enviable legion of fellow critics from all stripes and plenty of genuine geek-culture icons. So when he fights (which is often) it draws quite the crowd — a crowd that subsequently watched Badass Digest’s gaming editor Andrew Todd post what I consider the best overall summation of this entire mess written thus far.

And not long after that (maybe related, maybe not) I started to see something I’d been hoping to see dozens of times before but never had: Critics and writers from other corners of the geek community taking note of the sewage-tsunami that had been crashing over game writers and jumping in to offer a hand. And while many on the gaming side frequently find themselves caught off-guard by the magnitude of what organized attacks from the web’s darkest recesses can do, many of these film folks are old hands at dealing with The Horde.

intermission rohan header

Whether out of genuine concern or just spoiling for a fight, the point was they showed up — from my perspective, it looked like the two “halves” of my Twitter/Facebook timelines suddenly became aware of each other for the first time, all at once. And while it may be a touch on the melodramatic side, my mind couldn’t help but recall the big “Gondor calls for help” sequence from Return of the King, where the signal-fires light up across the mountaintops one by one, finally arriving to trigger Theoden’s big applause line:

“…and Rohan will answer!!!”

And (most of) that was before a flurry of major gaming and nerd-culture icons including Tim Schafer, Neil Druckman, William Gibson and even Joss Whedon came out in support.

Not that there was any sort of grand victory, there never really can be when the fight is over imaginary conspiracies. The abuse and harassment continued apace. Anita Sarkeesian was forced to flee her own home by threats of violence credible enough for her to involve the police (possibly these ones). There is, somehow, apparently still some kind of protest on behalf of “Integrity In Games Journalism” (but really rather transparently aimed at the subject(s) of the original “cheating girlfriend” non-story) planned for PAX. People’s Twitter feeds are still being choked by wave after wave of Egg and Unrecognizable-Anime-Heroine avatar’d accounts with few followers and poor grammar.

BUT! In the midst of all that, I believe that I saw the start of something positive. Failure to deal with the problems of isolation (or even to acknowledge that they are problems) has tainted the very idea of the word “gamer” perhaps beyond repair, but the same doesn’t need to be true for the writers and critics and, yes, journalists who cover the medium. Video games are no longer a niche that needs to be bound to its own events, its own shared lingo or its own niche of the interweb (not that those things don’t have their place). Over the last decade, gaming has taken its place in the broader pantheon of geek culture and just plain popular culture, and with that can come solidarity with the overseers and analysts of all other media. And that’s potentially enormous.

Every other time a modern gaming controversy broke out within earshot of the film-geek set (or any other more established part of pop-journalism), what I saw was either indifference or dismissal. “Well, what do you expect? It’s gaming.” This time, it was different. This time is was recognized that there were good people getting chewed up in the maelstrom — people who deserved the help and support of their peers… and got it. That’s significant. That’s important.

Because that means that good behavior is winning out over harassment and threats.

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Bob Chipman
Bob Chipman is a critic and author.