So I’ve done a fair amount of work in ethics. I studied it as an M.Phil at a centre for Applied Ethics; I wrote on it for Big Think, write on it for Daily Beast, the Guardian and elsewhere. I teach it at a local university, to first-years, medical students and, once, even accountants. I’ve reviewed papers for major bioethics journals. I’m not an expert in it: but I can safely say I’ve “done” ethics more than most people.
And this is one reason (of many!) why I find Gamergate, this supposed movement concerned with “journalism ethics”, so insulting, so demeaning, and so contrary to ethics. I care a great deal about media ethics – particularly gaming media, as someone who also writes in that sphere – so I would love for more people to care.
Gamergate, however, makes my job a thousand times harder.
It’s clear from my hundreds of interactions with Gamergaters that, for a movement that is ostensibly about “ethics”, it sure has a lot of people that have no idea what that even means. I want to outline some various problems Gamergate has with ethics, aside from continuing to exist in the face of creating toxicity and harassment.
Ethics isn’t the same as code of ethics
Media is a tricky subject. Consider this question: Should news sites show a clip of a man escaping police who then shoots himself – on live TV? Most places would say no. But should websites then report on that segment, even after many regret that they showed it in the first place? I don’t know for sure, but I made some arguments about it.
Should we use our column space in a major newspaper to write about how a woman dying of cancer is dying wrong and conveying T.M.I.? Is it right for big sports blogs to “out” someone as a trans woman? I argued at length that those who do so are misusing their platform and are immoral.
You can disagree about all of these – as clearly the publishers and editors at the time did (though some changed their mind, after engaging with critics).
These questions are not answered by pointing to any list of codes – they are troubling on a case-by-case basis. Medicine, for example, has a “first rule” of “First Do No Harm” – but how do we square that with decriminalising/legalising euthanasia? Again, perhaps we need to change what we mean by “harm”, or perhaps get rid of the rule altogether? We can discuss that.
All of these are ethical engagements in complicated areas.
When I asked Gamergaters about ethics, I inevitably received a link to the SPJ Code of Ethics*. (Please stop sending it to me? K, thanx.)
Here are some problems with answering ethics questions by showing me a code of ethics.
a. What about it?
b. Which sites are failing in this and in what way?
c. Why should anyone stick to the SPJ Code of Ethics?
d. This doesn’t solve ethical problems: it serves as a guideline on how to be ethical according to the definition of “ethical” the SPJ works on.
Many of the so-called ethical breaches are fabrications and misconceptions; particularly the creepy and continual insistence that Zoe Quinn’s game was reviewed by a Kotaku journalist that she then had a relationship with.
No mention is made about why sites should stick to the SPJ Code of Ethics. Gamergaters usually tell me “because that makes sites ethical”. But that’s like saying you’re moral because you follow the Ten Commandments. You’re working on a pre-determined outline of what constitutes ethics. You haven’t said why it’s ethical. And thus you haven’t shown why it’s unethical.
And, as I highlighted above with some cases, codes of ethics don’t negate ethical problems. Game journalism isn’t like other journalism and this marks another problem for Gamergate. L. Rhodes explains it well.
Those codes were written primarily to uphold the reliability of news reportage, but not everything published in the gaming press is news reportage. Even stories that look like news aren’t always news. That’s because, historically, games journalism grew out of what’s called the enthusiast press — meaning that it was (and still is) written primarily by gaming enthusiasts, for other gaming enthusiasts.
It’s possible to see that distinction a bit more clearly if you compare the way games have traditionally been written about in a venue like, say, the New York Times, versus the way they’re usually covered in gaming magazines. Even when they aren’t being downright skeptical, non-enthusiast publishers tend to be at least agnostic about the value of games in general. When you write for an enthusiast press, though, you’ve already thrown out some measure of objectivity, since it’s assumed that you and your reader already agree that games are worth your time, money and interest.
Thus, even the code outlines don’t do the work you want as codes, let alone as moral assertions.
A more important concern is that there is legitimacy to ethical concerns. As I say, I write on media ethics, this is a billion dollar industry, I’ve watched before my eyes as fellow game writers have done major and minor immoral things (my small pet hates: showing off what game you’re reviewing before any member of the public has their hands on it; showing off swag the average person will never get, etc.). Leigh Alexander has compiled a list of ethical concerns in games and game media; Jim Sterling has been the most eloquent, consistent consumer advocate for years – targeting game media sites and game devs and dodgy PR.
And all of us are targets – not supporters – of Gamergate. Having Jim Sterling oppose you about consumer advocacy in games is like having your medical licence revoked by a medical body, but continuing to practice medicine. You’re probably doing it wrong and you’re not helpful and damaging to those who take you seriously.
I would love to have a discussion about ethics; I want people to care and now, thanks to Gamergate, that will become harder – not easier – to address. You can see it from their targets: not major corporations like Ubisoft or Monolith’s marketing, but indie devs who make free games and impoverished writers.
Oh, Gamergate supporters are very good at taking on corporations to support the corporations, but the gods forbid they actually work at challenging focus testing, dodgy marketing and the ethics of paying for reviews. You know: the things us “SJWs” have been writing on for years, at video game sites? Instead, they harass people who are not even journalists; target indie developers who have less influence on the industry than they do.
In their very targeting, Gamergate has been unethical. They are akin to animal rights’ activists who spend their time on a single, Mom and Pop’s Pet Store, which might be actually be a shelter.
Neutrality isn’t possible and it’s immoral to call for it
Many people like the claim that there are “always two sides to every story”: a response to that is “Yes: the wrong and right side”.
This mythical “golden mean” is a nonsense position that many of us critical of media have noted. It was of particular concern when media sites were having “debates” between creationists and biologists (we kept waiting for alchemists and chemistry professors but it never happened).
In Gamergate, there is a false idea that there are “two” sides: Gamergate and “anti-GG”. But as I’ve stated before: Anti-GG is a creation of Gamergate, a Strawman they can attack whenever they feel threatened, to paint all critics as harassers. An attitude of fairness suggests we shouldn’t paint all Gamergaters with the same brush: but when you have no good reason to maintain the label (many of us do ethics in game media, all the time), when people’s lives and safety being ruined because of a movement aren’t enough to make you leave it, even when you yourself haven’t “harassed”, it still doesn’t paint your views in a good light.
Regardless, this insistence by media to claim “two sides” – a creation itself of Gamergate, so well done with playing into their narrative, “objective” news sites – is nonsense. As Adam Lee highlights:
This corollary is to believe that when there’s a debate, the actual truth is always somewhere in the middle – as if the correct position on any topic could always be found by taking the average of the two most extreme positions. The media too often acts as if “moderation” and “centrism” are always better than passion and strongly held opinions – as though a person’s being “extremist” is a good reason to reject their views, regardless of whether those views are rational or correct.
Indeed, this is a moral failing on media sites themselves, who are apparently reporting on ethics in media: the failure to understand the environment that surrounds targets of harassment means you aren’t doing your homework. When you are adding to harassment, on a topic about harassment, you are failing. Zoe Quinn highlights why so many, who are targets of Gamergate, often refuse interview requests.
The environment is too charged, ruthless, and toxic against those who would defend their stances to reasonably expect that you’re making a simple request when you ask for a dialog. Without fail, I have watched every critic of GamerGate end up harassed at the least, and had their families targeted and terrorized at worst. The stakes on those being asked to speak out or defend themselves are exceedingly high, and we all know it. We’ve all been watching, and we are *scared*, not just for ourselves but for the people we love…
When you [request interviews/targets defend their position] publicly, you draw the attention of those obsessed with proving them worthy of this destruction, looking to take whatever is said and twist it to perpetuate an environment of fear and violence… I’m looking at having to potentially spend years going to court dates, I have to relocate, and I have to help my partner find a new job. You have nothing to lose by asking and they risk their family’s safety by answering.
Hiding behind claims of neutrality doesn’t help the targets; and who believes humans can be neutral anyway? We’re not dealing with robots. We’re dealing with facts that affect people’s lives. We’re not discussing whether a film was good or bad, we’re talking about co-ordinated attacks, an environment sustaining toxicity, people losing money and jobs, having their lives affected. It’s a movement so shallow it can’t even target the right people because it’s too upset over the existence of women having sex lives and opinions – though it conveniently forgets that and mutters something, something ethics.
Gamergate fails to understand ethics; in its own existence it fails ethically; and news sites claiming neutrality fail, too. It’s about ethics in games journalism, they say. No it’s not. That’s just what so many say to give the cover of legitimacy to a sustained harassment campaign targeting harmless individual people; it’s the spine of a shambling beast, using the ignorance of people who do care about good things, to keep its momentum going. You don’t fool the New York Times. You don’t fool the Boston Globe. You don’t fool Polygon, Gamespot, Eurogamer.
And, most importantly, you don’t fool the people whose lives you continue to make worse.
*I don't even need to point out how many in Gamergate fail on these very same standards, such as adding to mob behaviour, attacking, harassment.