Sunday, January 18, 2015

An Open Letter to Katherine Cross and Other Critics of PCGamer's Reform

Recently, after a "conflict of interest" came to light regarding a member of the publication, PC Gamer, having a relationship with someone from the industry, there's been a fair share of varied opinions online.  In light of the now-infamous "Zoe Post" and the questions it raised regarding whether impartiality can exist when people with a personal relationship deal professionally with one another, members of Gamergate called for PC Gamer to address this, and they did; providing a background to the two's relationship and declaring their intent to be careful to avoid such issues from now on.  They have been lauded for it; unfortunately, because many of the people who supported the measure belong to a very controversial organization (in the loose sense of the word), there's also concerns as to whether such measures legitimize terrorist tactics; such as some declaring loyalty to Gamergate have employeed.  One such person who's worried about this is Katherine Cross.  To Katherine, I believe your concerns make sense, but I would politely ask you to consider the following.

Before I got involved in the Gamergate scandal, I was willing to look upon the comparisons the movement got to ISIS without much skepticism.  I felt it was almost certainly an exaggeration, but the difference, I figured, was in degree rather than principle.  However, one thing puzzled me to no end; if Gamergate was analogous to ISIS, then why were none of the people against it opting to curtail its growth in a similar fashion?

If you've followed the situation in Syria and Iraq even lightly, you're probably aware that one of the major factors fueling the growth of ISIS was that very unfair and oppressive governments existed in both Iraq and Syria.  Since the US deposition of Saddam Hussein, Iraq had swung from being an intolerant Sunni regime to an intolerant Shiite regime.  Under Nouri Al Maliki, a leader as much a stooge of Iran as the United States, Sunni Muslims were excluded from government posts, the military, and more; essentially guilt-tripped by association with Saddam.  When ISIS went on the march, Maliki, rather than reconsidering this guilt by association with Saddam, seemed fine to amp it up into guilt by association with ISIS, but it seemed that tactic didn't work, as ISIS continued to make headway into areas populated by disenfranchised Sunnis.  Before long, many called him out for it.  The media condemned his policies as self-destructive, and that opinion went all the way up to President Obama, who put Maliki's feet to the fire by declaring the US would send no more aid against ISIS unless he abdicated.  Faced with that sort of pressure from all sides, he did, and Iraq has now begun to work with Sunnis to battle ISIS.  ISIS, in turn, massacred Sunnis it thought might be disloyal.  As tragic as that is, it will backfire on them just as Maliki's oppression did on him, as the era wherein the government of Iraq is the most oppressive thing to Sunni Muslims comes to dramatic end.  Faced with no more bogeyman outside, ISIS has become threatened by conflicts from within.

All that has been seen as self-evident for months to commentators on the situation in Iraq.  Yet in the recent past, when I have tried to convince people who opposed Gamergate that the best way to stop it may be to prove that the authorities are willing to work with the more rational people caught up in its anarchic drive, thus providing them with a legitimate and benign alternative, I faced hatred for daring not to follow the straight and narrow.  This senseless pressure to follow a stern party line, and to guilt people by any association to concerns taken up by those who happen to be within an organization, proved too much for me to take, and I defected to Gamergate.  At the time, I was not aware what I would find; ultimately, what made my decision may have been that Gamergate, unlike those it opposes, has no leader; nobody to tell the mob what is right or wrong; no party line beyond what is broadly accepted.  Every person in it has a bit of power to move it towards being what he (or, some would be surprised to learn, she) wishes it to be.  Turns out, I was far more accepted than I had been in my previous venues, and since then I've become an enthusiastic member.  I'm not going to lie to you about that; even if being truthful undermines your willingness to heed my advice.

However, I don't think there is much to undermine here.  I'm not asking you to support Gamergate, nor do I have any expectation of you altering most of your assumptions about it; given the venue for which you write, you'd probably be correct in assuming we'll never be friends.  Still, I hope I can help you understand that PC Gamer, along with IGN, do not really have anything to lose from what you seem to feel is capitulation.  If terrorist tactics had a hand in convincing PC Gamer to revise their stance on possible cronyism (I'm not very convinced that they did, but if you want to link to any offensive things, go ahead), that's a problem, but it is, much as the issues in Iraq are, a problem not just with any given terrorist but also with their target's failure to do what many non-terrorists consider is only fair.  Once again, I am in Gamergate, but I also work as a writer and editor, and before Gamergate was even a thing, I was already acquainted with the very rational concern about dual-relationships.

The largest job I have undertaken thus far is my editing of a book on psychology; written, as it turns out, by a psychologist whom I have known personally for two decades.  I told him that I had begun work as an editor, and he informed me that he happened to have something he needed editing--but noted the possible implications of hiring someone based on that.  He explained why dual-relationships are controversial, and this may surprise you--it certainly surprised me--but despite the fact that he's an old man, I'm a young man, and we're both straight, sexual relationships were the go-to example for him of what could be considered problematic collusion.  Ultimately, I did get the job, advising him, in essence, "You've come because you know me; let me edit the first chapter, and then you can choose to stay or go based on how well I did."  I did well enough, and am still on the project.  When it's done, I have no problem with him declaring I'm a friend in the published copy.

Naturally, Psychology is a heavily scrutinized subject, where peer-review is prevalent and questions of honesty are tantamount to determining whether an assessment of the human psyche is well-grounded.  I am not going to go in the direction some have these days, in alleging that the gaming press is full of rot and consciously spiteful of its audience, but I do think it's fair to assume that, because it's a relatively new area of journalism with a relatively small audience, for a while it's escaped the standards that have become ingrown elsewhere.  In line with this, I point to my time studying video games in college; as a new field, it was full of badly-edited, often intellectually-questionable texts of the sort that would not have escaped scrutiny in more established fields of study; here is a past post about this, wherein I link and critique one such text.  Yet this shirking of what are typically considered the responsibilities of journalists was never going to last without some manner of ramification.  The audience of video games--and by extension, those who write about them--is growing, and it is growing up; more and more attention is being given to the underlying business and politics of the industry, and this means that familiarity with other enterprises is going to motivate consumers more and more.

Furthermore, here on the Internet, the line between a journalist and a blogger is a thin one.  It is said that quality-control doesn't exist online the way it does elsewhere, and to an extent this is true; almost anyone can say almost anything.  Yet that also means that when people are inundated by terrible work, those rare producers who go above and beyond the usual rabble get recognized and rise to prominence based on the people's desire to follow them.  When it works, it works, but there is always the chance of backsliding when some manner of discontent blooms regarding an online presence, a challenger arises, etc, and the default purveyor can't rise to the challenge.  When I was in High School, everyone talked about Myspace and how much of people's time went into it; now the go-to social network is Facebook.  Back then, Napster was in the news constantly, now iTunes is many people's preferred music download service.  Neither of those organizations' falls from prominence were caused by Gamergate, which didn't exist at the time.  What is different about how business runs in this era of Gamergate, is that skepticism is now turned onto consumers as well as purveyors; both groups are calling each other out for what they see as unsavory motives, and the result is that some journalists have managed to make themselves out as heroes for resisting a tide of distasteful tactics, but when the policies this tide challenges are the sort that would be challenged by far more people if they were aware of them--and they are becoming aware, for the reasons stated last paragraph--this is a finite way to retain or regain support.  It's going to be the businesses that maintain the far more established value of listening to their customers that benefit most.

If some of those consumers happen to be in Gamergate, so be it.  While you may complain about capitulation, in fact there's a thick line between the sorts of demands they can, and cannot, capitulate to that is grounded in things far bigger than the war between Gamergate and games journalism.  That those in Gamergate are able to convince a company to be transparent about dual-relationships, does not mean they could convince a company to, say, fire all of its female employees; the difference is that there is an established precedent advising skepticism of dual-relationships in business and established laws against sexism.  While it's hard to control chaos, the new policies these businesses have in the wake of Gamergate is ultimately win-win.  If Gamergate is, in fact, a "hate mob" not really concerned with ethics in journalism, its members' refusal to cease their attacks even when businesses accomplish that goal, will expose it as such.  If Gamergate is not, in fact, a hate mob and really does care about ethics in journalism, this development will help its members move back into good standing until we all get along again.  If Gamergate is, in fact, a coalition of people from many backgrounds with many goals--which I maintain that it is--this development will help separate the good from the bad.

Of course, "good" and "bad" are to at least some degree subjective.  I will not pretend that there is not a widespread belief among Gamergate members that feminism has gone too far, and that the political left is teetering dangerously away from true liberalism and towards social re-engineering that holds people to different standards based on where their identities fall on the historical oppressor and victim scale.  That is indeed, probably a bigger concern for many of us than ethics in journalism actually are, and I understand it is a controversial belief.  However, most businesses shy away from politics when profit is their bottom line, and so long as they stay neutral in this interchange, so do their consumers.  We don't want the strained relationship that comes from tooting our horns if we can help it.  PC Gamer thus shouldn't be offensive to Gamergate in its new business model, nor should it be offensive to those that disagree with Gamergate politically.  It's only doing what, by long-established standards, companies should do in listening to their consumers, and I'll be honest, Katherine, however you feel about the continued existence of Gamergate, if you pressure a company to make a political stand against those customers, and the company listens, you're just going to ensure that continued existence.

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