#Gamergate and the failure of ethics

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.


  1. Funny Diva says

    Thanks for writing this, Tauriq. I’m glad to see your experience in studying, practicing and teaching ethics applied to #GG specifically and systematically. It’s something I think I can apply to my own thinking about ethics and how to use them in my own corner of the world.

  2. says

    The discussion about utilitarianism that you linked to, that made my brain hurt. It’s going to hurt for days.

    If someone were actually making a utilitarian argument for gamergate, they’re going to have to say that they detected some corruption and decided that, for the greater good, they had to jump in and get involved. But, then the question would be “why aren’t you supporting jimquisition and/or working with established channels to try to argue for reform?” When you see revolutionaries leading with the argument that the system must be completely burned to the ground, the reasonable question is to ask whether they have exhausted all reasonable paths for non-destructive reform, since destruction and reconstruction is almost always more expensive than adjustment and repair. This is an argument that can be used to assess whether someone’s methods (or the methods they advocate) are beneficial in general, or not. To make a utilitarian argument for why threats and harassment are beneficial — seems a bit of a stretch but I’d be willing to hear it.

    • Marcus Hill says

      No, that’s not right. The extremes are “puppies must be kicked to death” and “don’t kick puppies”, with the clear mathematical compromise being that “all puppies, regardless of the floppiness of their ears, must be kicked precisely half to death”.

  3. L. A. Julian says

    I was looking back at reviews of The Dark Knight Rises in the wake of noticing how many Nolan fanboys commenting on Interstellar advance reviews seem to be climate change denialists and fiscal conservatives. (They are disappointed at the revelation Interstellar shows a global dust bowl and think Nolan sold out to liberal Hollywood.)

    What’s interesting, and which I had completely forgotten in the wake of Aurora overtaking it, is that TDKR was an early manifestation of the “death threats to dissenting critics” to the point where RT had to shut down comments and implement a moderation policy.

    In discussing this at Badass Digest, a pretty progressive site, the reviewers and community repeatedly made the connection between this violent rage at the lack of unanimous five-star reviews of Batman reviews, and the initial ire directed at Sarkeesian. Many pointed out that the reviewers attacked worst were women, and attacked in sexist terms not related to the review content.

    There was even a foreshadowing in the smaller number of commenters saying “ignore it, it is unlikely these losers will really shoot anyone” and others pointing out the dangerousness of that attitude.

      • L A Julian says

        Thanks for that link to your article – and the whole mess couldn’t be more illustrative of the fact that trolls, like all problems, only get worse if ignored.
        (Badass Digest’s Film Crit Hulk recently let GG have it, and it is interesting to look at it in light of his earlier post pointing out that these violent threat fanboys were taking exactly the wrong message away from Batman and friends re heroism.)

  4. Uncle Ebeneezer says

    Great post. Nothing of real substance to add here. Just thought, if you aren’t already familiar, that you might like the work of Jay Rosen whose blog Pressthink covers alot of these issues from the journalism perspective (though mostly focussing on political reporting.)

    Here are a couple good examples of his writing, discussing The View From Nowhere: and He Said/She Said reporting.

  5. David Ward says

    I can’t speak for everyone – I can only speak for myself, but this phrase “Neutrality isn’t possible and it’s immoral to call for it” really is problematic. I sympathize with your rationale, however, that no human can be unbiased but you should avoid some very basic no-nos if you’re a journalist.

    To answer your questions:

    a. What about it? – It’s a pretty comprehensive, tried and tested code of ethics. Many use it, what’s wrong with it?
    b. Which sites are failing in this and in what way? – See below.
    c. Why should anyone stick to the SPJ Code of Ethics? – Because it sets the same goal posts in an industry worth billions of dollars. Tech journalists, political journalists should be closer to what games journalists model themselves; not E! Entertainment.
    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. – This isn’t a question.

    “Distinguish between advocacy and news reporting. Analysis and commentary should be labeled and not misrepresent fact or context.”
    “Remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility.”

    These are two caveats offered in “The Code of Ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists” – unfortunately GameJournosList, Polygon, Kotaku, Gamasutra fail miserably for those 2 takeaways. There is active advocacy presented as fact, there is analysis presented as fact, and those Gamers are Dead articles are commentary but they present stereotypes as fact. Another point from SPJ – “Avoid stereotyping. Journalists should examine the ways their values and experiences may shape their reporting.”

    Many of these journalists, as shown in the chat logs, belong to a group where some journos pressure other journos into action or inaction. That fails that second caveat from above. As does reporting on your friend’s games, don’t even ask me about covering your lover’s game (not how I didn’t say REVIEW but COVER, because that’s the misconception – not that it NEVER happened).

    I’m sorry you don’t agree with the SJP, I’m honestly not so sure what’s bad about it. They outline some pretty decent guidelines. It reads as if it’s designed to protect people.

    I don’t know what’s so immoral about asking for that.

    • David Ward says

      Ah, brave man – link here from Twitter, don’t address your own words. Here, I’ll do it for you:

      From Tauriq, “I love boet-stereotypes because I’m a progressive” Moosa: “I seriously am struggling to believe how ridiculous this comment is.”

      Let’s let others decide how ridiculous I am for engaging with your content.

      • Tauriq Moosa says

        Oh wow, I totally want to address you now, while I’m at work and busy with other things and not ban you from my comment section. Yup. Totally. You are a special, beautiful snowflake…

    • says


      I’m loving this. You can’t even remember which ebil librul thing you’re complaining about. For the record: JournoList was the original version of this nonsensical whine, perpetuated in 2010 by assorted rightwing ratnests with a hate-on for mainstream journalism (despite having mailing lists of their own); the gamergate knockoff of that old bull is about GameJournoPro.

  6. L. A. Julian says

    Upon reflection, I think what we see here is that violent fanaticism can coalesce around anything, not religion alone, but while the standards held aloft may seem very different, the basic impulses are the same. Whether modern superheroes or ancient gods, the communal urges that bind zealots together are always a glorified macho version of masculinity with the feminine either devalued as prizes for the worthy male believer, or the hostile adversary who prevents the worthy hero from getting his (or rarely as the pathetically devoted, unsexy sidekick who is pitiable for not deserving the hero’s attention due to her ‘ugliness’!)

    Combined with a general resentment at all society for not recognizing the innate superiority of the worthy male (passed over out of ‘political correctness’ of course) and the need for validation by the older male power base, and you have the simultaneous desire to have everything destroyed in a crash (usually) brought on by society’s own wickedness according to the narrative…but also to be hailed as its saviour by the same ‘unworthy’ masses whose innate inferiority make them helpless to rescue themselves. There is but one Batman/Superman/John Galt and Nolan/Snyder/Rand is his prophet!

    The only difference between this Apocalyptic Libertarianism and Left Behind fandom is that the former considers itself rational for rejecting the supernatural and the latter for embracing it. But they’re equally basing their worldview on a Calvinistic determinism in which they alone are the deserving Elect and dissenters deserve to be crushed for rejecting that ‘reality’ — which includes ‘heretics’ who say that the older, sillier, kinder versions of Bruce Wayne and Kal-el were better.

    (Something similar has happened in Whovian circles with the growing ‘Time Lord Victorious’ controversy, which are more female-dominated, so it isn’t a problem that can be written off as ‘a guy thing,’ either.)

  7. L. A. Julian says

    I should add that along with the inherent mysticism of fandom fanaticism — whether it centers on ‘willpower’ or ‘faith’ as its central virtue — it is very tied in with biological determinism, to the point that exasperated Badass Digest commenters started listing off all the recent instances of ‘Magic Blood’ as THE mechanism of Fate for Chosen One plots in male-targeted superhero films as it came up again in the new TMNT movie.

    Sometimes as with the Star Wars prequels it is even retconned in: no longer can any random peasant aspire to be a Jedi wielding the Force, it isn’t even a talent that can run in families like musical or athletic ability that still needs teaching and practice to be any use — now, it’s all about the midichlorians in your blood, something you have no control over whatsoever.

    But usually it’s all about ‘worthiness’ coming from patrilinear descent, sons and fathers, the male progenitor, the ‘family’ name, the paternal DNA — and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this reactionary Apocalyptic Libertarian fandom is so intersectionally awful: sexist, heterosexist, transphobic, and white-supremacist on top of classist and convinced that all the ‘good’ jobs and ‘beautiful’ women are going to innately unworthy recipients because of massive societal cheating, that the game has been rigged against all their born-to-rule white straight yuppie Harrison Bergeron selves unfairly. They only want to destroy society because they’re not completely being treated like its princes, like the Heirs Apparent they know they are — so they’ll Go Galt, and let the world burn instead.

    Except the world keeps on not noticing, or not being favourably impressed by their stances into repentance, and so we get Gamergate, or UKIP, or the four-decade tantrum the Religious Right has called the Culture Wars in America.

  8. Brup says

    I think the phrase “Ethics In Journalism” is used mostly because it fits in a tweet, together with a snarky remark about how it’s really about misogyny.

    What I’ve been able to read, is that gamers, when reading an enthusiastic review of a game, want to have some kind of confidence that the game is actually worth playing, not that the developer did some kind of favour for the journalist. Which in some cases involves sending a preview copy of the game on a brand new laptop that the reviewer gets to keep. Or people getting access to preview copies on the condition of No Negative Remarks, when getting early access is kind of a big deal when competing with your fellow journals. I think people are right to complain about that.

    Another thing I’ve heard is that journalists are interfering with the creative process itself. This mainly hits small developers who would disappear without a trace if nobody wrote about them. Only the likes of Blizzard and Ubisoft are big enough to say “Sod you, her cup size stays what it is.”

    A third thing is the barrage of vitriol towards gamers that poured forth from a large number of news outlets to the effect that gamers were a disgusting bunch of whingeing man-babies who wanted to Keep Women Out Of Gaming. Which is not so. Most gamers, including those who support GG, are perfectly happy to have female characters in games, female developers making them, and female gamers in raids with them.

    All of this has convinced me never to read any gaming journal again, and only buy games on the recommendations of actual gamers.

    And then, we have the harassment. O dear, the harassment. Sadly these days, anyone — man, woman or child — who achieves any kind of notoriety, is liable to get hate mail of the vilest description. This is not something that started with GamerGate, and it’s not really anything to do with the central thrust of Gamergate. But boy o boy, are the Big Three milking it. Nobody ever talks about the attacks on the women in GamerGate, and as for the men in GG? Well screw them. Probably asked for it. Doesn’t it make for a wonderful smoke screen? Because it’s actually, genuinely, a big, big problem. Demanding that “GamerGate Stop the Harassment,” when (a) any fuckwit can send garbage to anyone and sign it GamerGater, and (b) you can never “get rid of all the trolls first”, is a wonderfully effective wild goose chase. It avoids having to address the issues GG started up for in the first place.

  9. dude123 says

    This post is intellectually dishonest, biased and pedantic.

    If you want to come across as an intellectual, make a better case, you’ve completely avoided what’s happened with Gawker for instance.