Musing upon the resistance of the games industry to accept ethical reforms, Maiyannah Lysander takes a brief, introspective look at the games industry: its past, present, and future directions, and upon the philosophical under-pinnings of journalistic ethics.
I come to the games journalism hat, so to speak, by an unusual vector: my background is in psychology, with a master of science with that major, and perhaps somewhat more predictably and in-genre credential, the study of computer science. Indeed, having grown up listening to the likes of Carl Sagan and Bill Nye on the television, reading the works of Sagan or Dawkings, one could assuredly say that sceptical inquiry inform much of my personal stances and beliefs.
For those beliefs I have been fairly unpopular with some of the established journalists whom know of me or know me personally in the field, and indeed "validating GamerGate" - for whatever that means in the reality of the situation - by supporting an ethical press that asks the hard questions. Why should this be though? Why is asking reporters to balance objectivity and personal opinion of their own against their audience, whom obstensibly pay their bills and put food on their table, an apparent act of revolution?
The Evils of Objectivity
To suggest that there is some objective truth when it comes to matters of journalism, in particular, journalism of an entertainment media, indeed of any creative media, seems a fool's errand; indeed, art is defined by subjectivity, a method of communicating abstract thoughts, ideas, and images that are often fairly unique in at least their mode of particular expression to the person elaborating that idea in the medium of art. Such has been the rallying cry for many a journalist with an ulterior motive; the scape-goat excuse for those whose financial interests in the opinion articles and criticisms they push are obvious and often without doubt save in the mind of the faithful. Indeed, games journalism, and personal computing electronics hardware journalism additionally, have become akin to a church: there is a certain orthodoxy of the opinions expressed, with their own apostates, and their own heretics. Woe betide you whom, in your haste to present your honest opinion, become burdened with the oft-used and indeed well-worn label of "misogynist," as there is a resistance inherent to the human nature to change, especially change which may place our own personal well-beings into peril.
Gamers are often stereotyped with such a brush. They are the bearded, fat nerds, "goony man-beards" being a common appellation on the social media outlets upon which they are oft discussed, and often frequent themselves. The nerds of these generations of youth and young adults of our time, what indeed computer scientists were in mine. That is to say, they were the social out-group: portrayed as undesirable and unfit, socially inept and not acceptable to culture. This has always come with the emerging double-think - the explanations for the ones that popular culture does like. Exception after exception to a seemingly-objective rule gets made, until its subjective nature becomes self-evident.
There are a series of pitfalls to the pursuit of complete objectivity, and this has been the subject of much philosophical ruminating over the decades and centuries that have been humanity's ongoing formative years. In the shadow of such considerations, the crisis of conscience currently facing games journalism seems minute and unworthy of consideration. Indeed, one infamous quip echoed by many upon the beginning of our most topical recent moral quandry, #GamerGate, was the cry: "It's just games journalism, why does any of this matter?" Setting aside for a moment that this falls into the common fallacy of relative privation, it is not unreasonable for someone to consider whether something on the periphery of their interest or only a fraction of their lives is worth the investment of their time, and indeed as months and indeed the roll of years and decades have passed, many whom have grappled with these fundamental questions of ethicality have determined it to not be worth the troubles that come with prolonged discussion and debate. So dear reader, you may wonder to yourself: "why do I make that attempt, when many others have determined it not worth the effort, or worse, failed to make a determination or an impact upon the ongoing debate?" It is not an invalid question, and indeed, I would go so far as to say there is no such thing as a truly bad question, but one I find a very simple answer, one I find in those past ruminations. This is why I do not despair for the length of those inquires, and nor should you - it merely means there is a large body of previous inquiry, debate, and thought upon this and the related, broader subjects.
I find my own answer in an old philosophical text, by the eminent German philosopher Immanuel Kant, Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten, or as it is called in English, "Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals." In this work, Kant opines what could be considered a universal axiom, which he calls the first formulation of morality. It goes as thus:
Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law without contradiction.
This is indeed a maxim that is not unique to Kant's philosophical text or texts, indeed, it can be said to be the one universal axiom. Every major religion, every major philosophical school of thought, has some reflection of this axiom. For instance, in Christianity, it is referred to as "the Golden Rule" - summated often as "do unto others as you would have them do unto you," as classically translated in the English versions of the Gospel According to Luke, chapter 6, and verse 31. It is hardly exclusive to Christianity in religion, either, as in Buddhism's Udānavarga also says to us: "hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful." Indeed, there are versions of this maxim in every major religion and philosophy, a full examination of which would be lengthy and beyond the scope of this simple missive, but the conclusion that it reaches: that we must not ask of others what we would not of ourselves, is paramount to my own personal thinking. I live by my life by that maxim, by that Categorical Imperative as worded by Kant: "Do only what you would will become universal law."
Fundamental to this consideration is the human nature of those with whom we interact with on a daily basis, some of us much more or much less than others, but all to some degree or another. Herein we find chief among the aforementioned pitfalls: the dehumanisation of a subjective work. In common artistic portrayals of history, or of wisdom, such as the classical example of Le Penseur, or in English, "The Thinker", by acclaimed French artist Auguste Rodin, depicts the virtue of thinking wisdom in the pensive and wizened figure of an older man with chin famously buried within fist. Many other depictions, such as from Greek or Roman antiquity, depict such philosophical or scientific thinking inquiries as elder men of advanced age, bearded and wizened. It is an artistic flair, one of which speaks somewhat to the now somewhat anachronistic importance placed upon respect for elders, that misses the vitality and human nature of both crafts. After all, the persons whom are pursuing historical, scientific, or other inquiry, are human just as you or I. They are not, as much as some may wish to be, automatons without emotional frame of reference inherent to each individual, a part of their psychological development that one cannot wholly shed the effects of. While none of these points of view may be more privileged or valuable than another, each of them carries the unique biochemical make-up of memory - the psychological scars and fingerprints, the DNA if you will, of their development. And from that make-up, comes your bias.
In another of his works, Kant examines the problem of this, Kritik der reinen Vernunft, or the Critique of Pure Reason. Critically, he states: "Thoughts without content are empty, intuitions without concepts are blind." In doing so, he stresses the importance of both intuition (which he often describes as the "feelings" of an individual in such a context as to mean their emotions), and of the higher, more objective, reasoning. "All our knowledge begins with the senses, proceeds then to the understanding, and ends with reason. There is nothing higher than reason," he states, reminding us of that importance of objectivity, but also of it's origins. He lay bare his reason for such higher reasoning not being a separation from other humans or from human nature, but the regulation of it so that we can work together in a proper society. He states: "Man must be disciplined, for he is by nature raw and wild."
One can relate this idea quite easily to games journalism, and indeed, without such over-arching ethical guidelines, one can certainly see the body politic of gamers in a wild and raw state much as Kant described, with seemingly-impenetrable veil of networks, of small tribal groups, each founded around small common beliefs or preferences, such as the "PC master race" which is a popular meme and Reddit group of our time, or the various fan factions for various hardware makers or developers. Without an over-arching ethical guideline to regulate such content, questionable pieces of all nature have been manufactured, from those obviously funded by corporate interests of those wishing to advertise products, to the personal vendettas of certain games reviewers pursued without consideration for their supposed opponent, or any notion of deceny in said dealings. While the latest forum in this ongoing debate, arguement if you prefer, could be called those of #GamerGate, to say that it began with #GamerGate would be provably false; the lack of these accepted, common ethical constraints has lead to an industry where conflict with its self amidst its component parts is the order of the day, and there are many who make a fortune from stewing consumer outrage at advertisers, all while taking free games and other products from the same entities. It has become the ourobos: the snake eating its own tail, and unlike the mythical creature of legend, that tail is not infinite; the people, funds, and efforts expended in this industry are finite, as much as since they are generally replenished far before their full expendiature we may have the impression otherwise. The emotional capacity of any individual developer, publisher, or other person in this industry is limited: they can only take so much before they burn out, and indeed, quite a few have, and retired from it in some fashion otherwise before their time.
So in short, we pursue at least some degree of this "objective", of this "unfeeling" element of the industry as a result of wanting to mitigate and consider emotional impact to both ourselves (as critics) and to the subjects of our coverage, such as developers or PR agents, and the readers of it as well. One need not recount the classical demonisation of the gamer stereotype which occurred almost a year ago, cried out by over twenty outlets both large media and smaller, independent press stepping in line with the decision of the Powers That Be, as it has been documented very thoroughly elsewhere, but it stands as a classic example of how the people whom can be slighted by an unethical media are not just the members of the industry they report upon, but can also be their very readers or viewers, for daring to question the legitimacy of the traditional pulpits of the gaming media. In short, these gamers whom questioned such, whom dared to respond to the many claims of this gaming press with scepticism, were ex-communicated. There could be no dissent in the cult-like halls of games journalism, and those whom sowed such a thing were adversely acted against, smeared with every label that could be imagined.
In doing so, the gaming press committed the greatest sin of that complete removal from the human element: they treated those readers merely as things, a means to an end, the vector by which they are continued. Mere dollar signs on a screen marketed to ad providers to pay their ever-increasing salaries and funding an increasingly bloated industry that has not had to learn to adapt to the changing market conditions of its surroundings and audience.
Perhaps paradoxically, by being so overtly harmful to their readers, by being so biased and subjective as to place themselves removed and away from their audience, the gaming press participating in this push found themselves falling into the same trap as that of complete objectivity: they forgot that behind each and every one of these monitors is a man, or a woman, trans-gendered or cis-gendered, black or white, young or old. And by forgetting such a thing, it abandoned the so-called "progressive stance" it has held aloft as its shield against claims of bias, the proof against all such blandishments. It is a great irony, for the people so focused on the identity of people, to forget the people themselves. As the adage goes, they have missed the trees for the forest.
The Wages of Sin are Equity
Ethical codes of behaviour aren't the best way to understand how to accord ourselves in a way that is fair to ourselves, our subjects of coverage in our articles, and to our readers or viewers, they are merely the best tools we presently have. Moral imperatives or ethical behaviour codes do not spring up overnight, and unlike modern science, there is no "eureka!" moment where we can definitively come up with something leaps and bounds better than our present understanding. No, like the ethos of philosophy it evolves from, journalistic ethical codes of behaviour have evolved over the many, many years in which we have a press or something resembling its essential function if not form. Essentially, these codes become social norms of behaviour, accepted by those whom wish to be seen as proper and upstanding, and codified by organisations such as the Society of Professional Journalists of the United States or the Canadian Association of Journalists that is native to my own Canada.
The question of whether social norms are valuable or important is somewhat beyond the scope of this text to have in full, however, let us distill it down to a simpler question: is an ethical code of behaviour required for a news or review publication to thrive in the games industry? The answer, somewhat surprisingly to some, is actually both no and yes. Allow me to expand: while clear and present examples are numerous of publications that may not neccesarialy adopt a formal ethics policy, or one that we find acceptable, the actions of a publication over time nonetheless contribute to forming the professional standards and ergo, the reputation of a reputation for ethical or unethical behaviour, and your contacts in the industry will act accordingly. You'll no doubt note, dear reader, that only the very largest approach ethical concerns with a bliase attitude, and even those we may feel are ideologues or harmful in other unethical ways to the industry take at least some efforts to maintain the appearance of some propriety, for this is in their best business interests. Only the unscrupulous want to deal with a press organisation with a reputation for sensationalism or other yellow journalism, so the appearance if not the actual acts become of paramount importance.
However, it is difficult indeed to start a publication on purely ethical and fair reporting - I should know, I've done it, or at least tried to. And it comes down to one essential fact: ultimately, humans are drawn to spectacle - and yellow journalism feeds on spectacle.
Is that Virtuous, Reporter?
White Noise, a novel by American writer Don DeLillo asserted as its essential premise:
Only a catastrophe gets our attention. We want them, we need them, we depend on them, as long as they happen somewhere else.
The pervasive need of the general public to consume scenes of tragedy or tempestuous, salacious claims has become such a pervasive phenomenon in popular culture that a whole slew of "reality TV" shows have arisen to cater to it, along with the terms "call-out culture" or "outrage culture" to describe the endlessly-churning machine of the gossip rumour-mill that powers such yellow journalism, but the concept is much older, as is its ultimate audience, and indeed, the popularly infamous tabloid The National Enquirer was founded in such halcyon years as 1926. There is a certain human need for comfort and reassurance, and nothing is more comforting to us than seeing our various social out-groups cast in a negative light, made to be worse than us, suffering great ails for their supposed sins and misdeeds. Such human cost to our vanities is something we do not oft give pause to consider, but it is a fundamental part of our human psyche.
Let us return for a moment to the concept of the gamer as the out-group, for it very much has been cast in that unattractive role by its own media. Such labels as "dudebro", "misogynist", "harasser", and "transphobe" or "homophobe" get directed at undeserving gamers so often that their use has become eroded into essential meaningless and words that previously were killing words like "rape apologists" or the like, are now so ordinary and sundry as to have no power even when truth is on their side, let alone the frequent times when they are not.
In his blog entry entitled "I Can Tolerate Anything Except the Outgroup", doctor Scott Alexander hits the nail on the head quite soundly upon the matter of the ostracism of out-groups for social purposes, noting:
You can talk all you want about Islamophobia, but my friend’s “intelligent, reasoned, and thoughtful people” – her name for the Blue Tribe – can’t get together enough energy to really hate Osama, let alone Muslims in general. We understand that what he did was bad, but it didn’t anger us personally. When he died, we were able to very rationally apply our better nature and our Far Mode beliefs about how it’s never right to be happy about anyone else’s death.
On the other hand, that same group absolutely loathed Thatcher. Most of us (though not all) can agree, if the question is posed explicitly, that Osama was a worse person than Thatcher. But in terms of actual gut feeling? Osama provokes a snap judgment of “flawed human being”, Thatcher a snap judgment of “scum”.
Never underestimate the power of social labels; they can be difficult to shake off even with truth on your side and resolute friends on your side, let alone if the topic is nuanced and/or the answer is not clearly black and white. This is the tribalistic and reductionist method of thinking that both the proponents of journalism against #GamerGate, and the many feuding tribes within #GamerGate have utilised to their advantage, and it is common to humanity. Think of our memory as analogous to that of a personal computer: we have limited memory capacity, so we deduce methods of compressing information for more compact storage. "Maiyannah" becomes simply "games journalist", "girl gamer", "feminist", or "woman" to many a friend, let alone enemy whom cannot be bothered to put in the time. Only those truly an important part of our lives for a long period of time grow into more nuanced recollections. This gets used as a lever to manipulate people against the out-group - all you have to do after all, is exert the minimal effort to make that association of "gamer" with "misogynist" or whatever other derogatory term takes your fancy, the effort of time and nuance it takes to make the otherwise-uninterested person change their opinions is monumental in comparison to the effort to simply make that association. And so the wheels of propaganda repeat that simple message: gamers are shit, they are mean, they are unacceptable, they are evil - and the uninvolved person whom does not care to investigate further will not investigate further and believe this claim, so pervasive it is that it must be the truth, or close enough to it to be generally acceptable. It is much less likely, we tell ourselves, that so many people would be in concert, attempting to deceive us.
Of course, as mentioned before, the way in which to defeat this thinking is with the opportunity those whom write against games have presented us - for as Sun Tzu reminds us: "[t]o secure ourselves against defeat lies in our own hands, but the opportunity of defeating the enemy is provided by the enemy himself." The dilemma presented is: how do you demonise gamers, but elevate those of them in your own social circles which you prefer? Thus was the wedge cast and stroke: the "good gamers" were progressive ideologues, often uninterested in games to the point of saying that you don't have to be a gamer to develop them - a claim made most famously in one conference but has been repeated ad nauseum also in the likes of Gamasutra in various iterations of the same central premise. The "bad gamers" are the traditionalists, cast in the Disney villain-like role of being so obsessively attached to their hobby that they would not let these makers create their own games.
The central problem with that, is is involved a central change to how gamers, other hobbyists who might not call themselves gamers, and the mainstream itself, looked upon gamers. And change ... change is difficult. The resistance to that change of perception is whereupon the defence lies.
Time is not your Enemy, Forever Is
Resistance to change is a part of human nature and an expected element in psychology, as fundamental as the willingness to embrace it. And while this whole article may seem heady, that is where the central problem of games journalism lies. It is as much at odds with itself as each individual human can be, divided by the plurality of choices and seized with the despair for choosing the wrong one. For fear of making negative change, we sink into the siren song of the familiar; old habits are easily justified and come as a matter of routine, requiring little of such troublesome thought. Philosopher Søren Kierkegaard put it best: "Is despair an excellence or a defect? Regarded in a purely dialectical way it is both. ... If only the abstract idea of despair is considered, without any thought of someone in despair, it must be regarded as a surpassing excellence. The possibility of this sickness is man's superiority over the animal, and this superiority distinguishes him in quite another way than does his erect walk."
Indecision is paralysing, but even more insidious is when it is used as a political lever. Many schools of political thought speak in coy, indirect tones, but few directly: the idea that the state of indecision, of over-complicating and making the answer seem difficult to discern and magical is a locus of political control. And it is, make no mistake. If your opponent is lulled into a state of inaction through whatever manipulative means you may employ, then you, yourself are free to accord yourself as you will, and act as you will. This is the state the gaming media as a whole entity has sought, some merely out of wanting a period of calm, others for much more nefarious purposes, but neither with the consumer interest ultimately at heart. No, it is done because a quiet and non-choleric audience is easiest to work with, whether they leverage that in an exploitative manner or not.
There is a popular dissertation among the intelligence community, psychologists, and frequenters of the "chan" message-boards of various site affiliation and stripes entitled The Gentleperson's Guide To Forum Spies. Allegedly a composition of the COINTELPRO techniques utilised by the United States' FBI, it describes in striking detail many common techniques for dividing and diluting opinion on discussion forums to the end of manipulating their posters. In one of it's techniques it describes one that the games journalism industry has become quite familiar with:
Topic dilution is not only effective in forum sliding it is also very useful in keeping the forum readers on unrelated and non-productive issues. This is a critical and useful technique to cause a 'RESOURCE BURN.' By implementing continual and non-related postings that distract and disrupt (trolling) the forum readers they are more effectively stopped from anything of any real productivity. If the intensity of gradual dilution is intense enough, the readers will effectively stop researching and simply slip into a 'gossip mode.
In sword-fighting terms, we would call this a feint - you are attempting to draw the attention of your opponent to an ultimately inconsequential strike, so that you may strike elsewhere with greater efficacy. It is something they've been doing far longer than the current controversy has been a thing - distracting you with industry gossip, or the latest anti-consumer piece of DRM, to conceal their own unethical dealings. This has gone on for quite some time, evidently, though the exact length of it in games journalism is difficult to pin-point precisely.
It was a dire miscalculation to think the essential bullying campaign that has sprung out of the affairs d'jour would be effective in doing so, as evidenced by the movement that has sprung up as a result that almost a year now past its initial inception is still going strong, that signal of theirs much stronger than any momentary flight of fancy. Think what you may of those "wailing hyper-consumers" as was the byword: love them, loathe them, but you cannot ignore them. They may not be the whole industry, the singular "voice of gaming" they may fancy themselves, but neither are they some lunatic fringe or general vast minority. This is your audience, and they are hardly over.
But all the more dire miscalculation was of #GamerGate and its proponents in under-estimating their foe. Media has been manipulating the general population for well over a century now, if not much longer into antiquity, and the egotistical-seeming responses of many journalists. They have played into the feints of it's opponents, and, over-estimating their own strength of position and over-valuing the results they have garnered, they have been lulled into that 'resource burn' mode of salacious gossip, by the by. While there are many who realise this move for just what it is, a tactical feint, there are many more who play into it part and parcel. Some of them do this because they do not realise they are being manipulated, but others so do so willingly, because they have fallen prey to the same appeal of salacious gossip and the attention (and oft, money,) it brings. And in doing so, and having such a crises and internal conflict, #GamerGate has, mostly-unwittingly, played into the hands of its opposition.
In Enduring, Grow Strong
So the question we ultimately come to is: what now? There is no self-evident or obvious easy victory out of all of this, no real end objective we can hope to attain in the pursuit of an ethical gaming press. As the famous British politician Leonard Henry Courtney's quote goes: "the price of peace is eternal vigilance." Ethicality is after all a moral code, and lapses in it are never guaranteed not to happen. I find myself coming to the conclusion that the best solution of all is ultimately education: education of the press itself, in the ethical standards that already exist, and directions to take their own; the education of the developers and publishers, in what the press will and won't ultimately accept in that brave new world of ethicality; and education in the readers and viewers of those articles and videos, of what they should be expecting and demanding of their press. Aristotle once said: "The roots of education are bitter, but the fruit is sweet" and indeed, while there have been many a growing pain in this quandary as the industry finds its feet in such a regard, I am given bolstered confidence every week by the young journalists whom come to me to ask what they should do in such ethical concerns, or in the outlets whom have based their own code of ethics in Highland Arrow.
Ultimately, the only true failure in any time of trial in life is not to learn from your experiences and grow as an individual. And thus, the only way in which both #GamerGate and the gaming press both could fail in light of this experience, as pained as it has been for many involved, is to refuse to take what lessons we can for it. Endure, learn, and grow from that experience; it is the crucible of the human experience, and that is no different for games journalism as a professional endeavour.