Our enemy, the gamers
Game journalists are unique among professionals, in that, even though gamers are their audience and the source of their income, in times of crisis they have quite often sided against them, be it for the sake of a game publisher, or for less clear reasons.
The entitled gamers
Bioware’s Mass Effect 3 was released at the beginning of March 2012.
Its reception from the press was positive, but gamers complained about a severe lack of polish, especially in the ending, which they felt ruined the plot of the popular science fiction epic with a hasty, choice-denying wrap-up which contradicted the writers’ explicit promises.
The game’s publisher, Electronic Arts, eventually complied, and announced at the end of March the release of an extended ending as free DLC, but there was strong resistance at first, even a bot-inflated petition supporting Mass Effect 3 from a fake homophobic protest that some have blamed on Electronic Arts itself.
During the weeks proceeding and following the launch, game journalism juggernaut IGN ran a huge advertising campaign for Mass Effect 3, and peppered their feed with a continuous stream of fluff articles about the game—in which a lookalike of IGN’s Jessica Chobot appeared, employing her voice talent.
IGN took sides in the controversy with an opinion video, which criticized players’ “entitlement”, and accused their “stupid” petition of compromising developers’ creative freedom. The video also addressed protests about on-disk DLC, equating them to a wish to starve the developers.
When the new ending was announced, several journalists aggressively protested on social media—not just mocking gamers, but even booing Bioware, calling it “spineless” and saying it was unworthy of respect, for giving in to their fans.
After Mass Effect 3, nearly every gaming controversy became a chance for the press to call gamers “entitled”. Even the lukewarm reception of Ninja Theory’s Devil May Cry brought VG247 to call the disappointed fans “a crying shame”.
Reviled industry behaviour, such as always-online DRM, was often defended by journalists when no gamer would find it acceptable. One game with always-online DRM that received a lot of backlash was Diablo 3—especially on release, when the game was for a time unplayable even in single player, due to server errors. Complaints were trivialized and dismissed by the press, with gamers being encouraged to “shut up”, called “embarrassing” and even “whiny snot-nosed brats”. Kotaku’s Kirk Hamilton wrote that Diablo 3’s always online requirement made it “a better game”, while his site was running a massive Diablo 3 ad campaign.
Another Bioware game, Dragon Age 2, received scathing player reviews for its reused assets and bad writing, despite very positive reviews from the press. Legitimate criticism of the game, however, was framed as a misogynistic attack on Bioware writer Jennifer Hepler—with articles including Polygon, Gamespot and Kotaku, which later updated its article to acknowledge Hepler had also thrown her share of insults back at fans.
Some journalists did dissent from the press’ attacks on its audience, such as Forbes’s Erik Kain, who criticized “the pernicious myth of gamer entitlement”, calling the notion “deeply misguided, and perhaps unique to the gaming industry” and noticing that these attacks had become “a lazy substitute for an argument”.
Also defending gamers from accusations of entitlement were Cinema Blend’s William Usher, who felt embarrassed “to be associated with an industry of people who call themselves journalists and don’t seem to understand what it means to gather the facts”, as well as Youtube personality Total Biscuit, who stated that the issue of gamer entitlement was being “twisted and warped in a weapon to be used against people who are trying to be responsible consumers”.
Game journalists were content to call gamers “entitled” until the summer of 2014, when several of them decided that it was time to escalate.
The dead gamers
The provocative opening quoted on the left from Slate’s David Auerbach is referring to the so-called “Gamers are Dead” articles—a dozen of similarly-themed editorials which saw the participation of several large-profile gaming publications, including Polygon, Rock Paper Shotgun, Destructoid, Kotaku and Gamasutra. Most were published on the 28th of August 2014, with the first five coming out within about an hour of each other.
Two weeks earlier, a sex scandal involving a small indie developer and Kotaku journalist Nathan Grayson emerged. Grayson was accused of giving the developer privileged coverage while being personally involved with her. This spurred some very vocal accusations of cronyism toward a game press that has historically had a very bad reputation—criticism that escalated when discussion of the scandal was denied on most outlets and forums, leading the protesters to suspect censorship.
The press reacted with these articles, spearheaded by controversial editor-at-large of Gamasutra Leigh Alexander, with an inflammatory piece calling gamers “obtuse shitslingers”, “wailing hyper-consumers”, “childish internet-arguers”, accusing them of not knowing “how to dress or to behave” and encouraging the industry to shun them as customers.
Others articles, like the ones by Chris Plante, editor-at-large at Polygon, or Ars Technica’s culture editor Casey Johnston, accused the protesters, directly or indirectly, of being complicit in several acts of harassment, some related to the sex scandal, without offering proof of their relationship with the protests. None of the articles mentioned any of the protesters’ arguments or contextualized the accusations of cronyism, some even outright stated that the well-documented accusations were fake, and most of them explicitly stated, in one form or the other, that gamers were over or dead—an outdated concept, tied to change-fearing bigots that should not represent the world of gaming.
Although some of the articles quote each other, the proximity and similarity led many to consider them the product of collusion. Johnston and Plante were members (Alexander a former member) of the GameJournoPros mailing list, whose discovery was a massive scandal which struck shortly after the editorials were published. Most gaming outlets involved in the “Gamers are dead” articles had a significant representation in GameJournoPros. While no ties between the “Gamers are dead” articles and the mailing list have been found (it is not known if they were organized in the list, or at all, the initial censorship of the scandals leading to the protests has since frequently been confirmed or strongly suspected to have been shadily orchestrated, with censorship on media outlets coming directly from GameJournoPros.
The “Gamers are Dead” articles caused the press to gain, according to Auerbach, “10 times the enmity overnight”, with the protests still ongoing as of May 2015.
Gamasutra, the only outlet that published two of these articles, lost a large amount of traffic after their publication, with the final months of 2014 seeing it dropping over five thousand ranks on Alexa and its parent company UBM face a serious stock drop. Gamasutra community member Benjamin Quintero published a more moderate piece in early September, asking “When did this become media vs. consumer?” and “What’s so bad about being a gamer?”, advocating for at least addressing consumers’ criticism. Almost immediately after this article, Gamasutra downgraded Quintero, although he was reinstated soon after. Leigh Alexander eventually left Gamasutra for a much smaller outlet in early 2015.
Auerbach suggests that the “Gamers are Dead” articles are the product of a press that is uncomfortable with losing its monopoly on game coverage—a loss caused by the rise of Youtubers and other quasi-amateur enthusiasts, which are gaining the trust and attention of both gamers and the gaming industry.
Journalists, continues Auerbach, “cannot solve their problems by preaching about the death of their audience. That audience is dying only in that it is leaving them, a process the journalists have evidently decided to accelerate. Game journalists are rage-quitting their meal ticket”.