I’ve already said nearly all I want to about #gamergate in an overly sentimental and entirely too earnest plea for sanity on both sides. What I am going to talk about is something else that became readily apparent as the entire fiasco developed and matured into the royal rabbit clusterfuck warren that it is today. And I am going to do it while doing my best to remove my own moral judgment on the situation. I am not judging the actions of the people involved or what happens behind closed doors. What goes on behind those doors is for their ears only, and the only way we have of knowing what goes on behind those doors, realistically, is if someone on the inside opens it a crack.
What I am judging is the absolutely piss-poor ways individuals in the industry have conducted themselves publicly in the wake of these allegations. These public displays of self-humiliation have been so widely documented that there is an actual tumblr dedicated to recording harassment received from proponents of #gamergate, and prominent figures in both the indie games development scene and games journalism have come out and basically thrown themselves on their own swords live and on Twitter Technicolor. When you’re losing a PR war against goddamn 4chan of all people – the site that has a rather-well-deserved reputation as the “internet hate machine”, you have to be fucking up in so many ways that even people who only found out the internet existed sometime last Thursday would call you on your bullshit if they knew. So as an interesting little thought experiment in public relations, I am going to illustrate how I would have handled this if I personally was responsible for PR in the wake of the Five Guys scandal.
While my current title is Creative Editor, I have some modicum of experience in branding, marketing and advertising, and as someone who at least pretends to be professional from time to time I want to see how this could have been turned into a net positive for, if not everyone involved, at least some of the people who have painted targets on themselves while waving flags proclaiming their stand against internet misogyny.
We shall then compare this to how Zoe Quinn and her loosely-defined social cadre of indies and game journalists (“gamejournopros“) have actually handled events. Let’s give this a go.
Scenario: Your ex has published a tell-all expose that reveals your history of sleeping around with a list of people (including your married boss) and emotional manipulation for your own gains, branding you as toxic.
The first understanding that you must make is that there is simply no way you’re coming out of this squeaky clean. The most rational and logical person in the world can be driven to make decisions and snap judgments with nothing more than an emotional response to base those judgments off of. Clinton getting head in the Oval Office had absolutely no bearing on how well he ran the country and how deftly he played the game of international politics, but people were already going to blame him for a lack of morals, the decline of family values, American promiscuity, and lying to the American public (never mind that being able to lie convincingly is a trait we’d all want in a president).
By discrediting the expose you lend it credence; why deny this if you’ve got nothing to hide? We live in skeptical times. So the first thing I would do in this situation is own up to the entire mess. This allows you to reclaim control of the narrative and begin shaping it. This would also have the side effect of giving you a position of prominence in the entire mess; you would become one of the primary sources of information on the scandal, meaning you have a chance to be heard before anyone else. Owning it also allows you to be proud of your own sexual identity. The sheer fact that Zoe tried to sweep this under the rug meant that she was either directly ashamed of her own actions, or, if she wasn’t, she knew she stood to lose as the story gained more exposure. She was, by censoring the story, slut-shaming herself. So much for progressiveness and sexual identity.
There are also opportunities to laugh about it! Everyone enjoys watching others end up with egg on their face. The allegation that you slept with press to further your career is going to come out – why not claim it’s true? The audience already has a deep-seated mistrust of the videogame press as is, as there are multiple documented cases of clickbaited articles for ad revenue, notable bribes and AAA-funded lavish PR events in the hope of scoring better reviews and positive press. There was a very real opportunity to exploit this situation by claiming that you did indeed sleep with gaming press, as you felt sorry for them – more of a ‘pity fuck’ than a calculated and entirely cynical attempt at furthering your own career. (See also; possible merchandising opportunities regarding clothing e.g. ‘I slept with game journalists and all I got was this lousy t-shirt’)
By doing this, the general public will treat this as less of an example of collusion on your part. The emphasis will instead be placed on the sexual promiscuity being your own choice and them being pathetic pieces of scum who barely even deserve what you’re handing out. Whether they choose to treat you better because of it (the aforementioned corruption and cronyism) is their choice. For bonus points, claim they were terrible in bed. Male impotence is something the entire world thinks is funny anyway thanks to an entire plethora of Hollywood material on the subject.
This ties directly into the second course of action: throwing the people you are sleeping with under the bus.There’s no nice way to say this; as soon as it became clear that one of the people Zoe was sleeping with was “journalist” Nathan Grayson, there were going to be accusations of collusion and yellow journalism regardless of whatever you had to say in your defense. Nathan Grayson was too close to you; if he was going to play at being a journalist he should have known to remove himself from any coverage the sites he writes for gives you or at the very least openly admit to shilling a friend’s game. He carries the responsibility, not you. You have an active twitter presence and thus have the platform and the ability to call him out on his behavior.
An example tweet: “Hey Nathan if I give you another blowjob will you give me a higher review score? It seemed to work so well the last time.”
This puts the weight of responsibility on him to answer the claims of collusion, as you’ve already been outed/outed yourself and thus have a relatively clean slate. The narrative then becomes this: you didn’t sleep with him to get ahead; you slept with him because he’s a sad sack who has only heard of pussy in the figurative sense. Similarly, you didn’t ask for him to scratch your back in return, although the sex was so bad he had to find some way to make it up to you even if it meant ruining his integrity in the process.
What Zoe Actually Did:
Censor the Internet
Everyone who knows how the internet works – and I mean actually works, not people who just check their Fuckerbergbook or email three times a week – knows that this is a losing proposition.The very fact that Zoe asked for radio silence across the board in itself led to more speculation as to how many sites were under her sway and how many of these people were willing to put what little journalistic integrity they had on the line to cover Zoe’s ass.
Had sites reported openly on this mess, it would have been dismissed as tabloid journalism and forgotten within two or three days at most. Instead, we were treated to one of the best examples of the Streisand Effect the internet has seen in a long time. Site after site clenched their buttholes super tight, and forums silenced discussion and dissent of it everywhere. The internet was left to freely speculate as to what this meant. Zoe sleeping around barely qualified as news, but by stifling discussion in this manner it became less of an issue about Zoe’s promiscuity and quickly became one of internet censorship. The number of people who care about Zoe’s sex life is tiny compared to the number of people who care about free and open flow of information on the internet, and by actively trying to police and censor all conversation, they handed control of the entire narrative to one of the few places where discussion of this was allowed… 4chan, the internet hate machine.
Even worse, as we all know, by censoring discussion on a subject you are effectively lending it credence. The censoring effects were so complete and so total across a web of game-related sites that the internet was left to freely speculate as to how many people were in on it together, like an extended sick joke that they haven’t managed to completely understand yet. And people want to get the joke. They’ll dig to the center of the earth to get the joke if they haven’t found it yet.
Scenario: You and your circle of friends stand accused of collusion and cronyism, with an angry mob baying for blood. They are seeking any means of attack they possibly can.
This is among one of the worst scenarios that can occur in terms of marketing and PR. In the digital age where information moves at the speed of light, the viral factor of a negative and highly dramatic event draws people like flies to shit. You could have found the Holy Grail and that would have been less likely to go viral on the internet than people getting set on fire. So the first move in this case is to batten down the hatches and let this move on. Note that this does not mean to actively police the discussion. Anger is generally an immediate gut response, and thanks to the speeds the internet runs on it is very likely that it’ll move on to the next shiny thing within the next few hours. There are more interesting things to ooh and ahh at on the internet. That is, unless you attack them back. Once you do, the situation escalates. Stupid is a group activity on the internet, and the level of stupid increases exponentially in accordance with the numbers of people involved. This is true for any and all groups. So the second, and way more favorable play, is to bleed a little. The mob will not be satisfied until they see blood. It is in the nature of the mob to be a mess of dissenting voices; any capitulation, rationale, attempts at negotiation or even concessions can fracture the mob and diffuse the voices. A mob is a mess of people who hold often conflicting views who just happen to have found something in common to be angry about. But they do not all hold the same level of anger. There are those who have hatred deep inside them that has been building up for years and will not be pacified, but there are also those who just wanted some form of reasonable explanation and a reassurance that things are going to change.
Any actions to diffuse the anger of the mob or even delay it are the right ones. Even a delaying action would work; anger is a hot emotion, and even the most ardent angry fanboys need to take breaks to sleep, eat, and play more video games. The internet moves at the speed of light, and to hold its attention for more than a day or two requires something really impressive. The objective at this stage would be to diffuse the mob, splinter it and turn it against itself. Make it smaller, or at least make the loudest voices sound crazy enough for the others to think twice before adding theirs to the pile. The easiest way to do this is to give a little, and to do it in such a way that you stress transparency and accountability. Some will be pacified and consider the movement over and done with. There’s also the side benefit of being able to choose when and where you bleed instead of letting the mob pick for you.
For example, look at the Escapist. They saw the storm begin to break and the co-founder of the website immediately took steps to make clear their position on the matter and what permanent changes they would be making internally as a result. Thanks to the quick efforts of the co-founder, the Escapist has, to pardon the pun, escaped the ire of the mob and come out with relatively good standing, especially in comparison to the other sites. By being clear about its goals and by revising their own code of conduct and ethical guidelines, the Escapist has turned a potentially damaging situation into a net positive. Nothing makes people happier than when they feel they’re being listened to and that the group they’re complaining at is actively seeking to address their complaints. Ignoring complaints is not ideal, but it’s something people can live with. To not only ignore those complaints but to claim they’re part of a targeted harassment campaign will only inflame them all the more.
What GameJournoPros Actually Did:
Slander and Discredit the Mob
Reframe the Argument
In retrospect, this is not as dumb a move as censoring the internet, but still – the last thing you want when facing a mob is to give them an excuse to be even angrier. This is the kind of mentality that, in real life, leads to physical riots.
On the internet there are no such ill effects, but you can count on whatever you publicly say or display to be recorded by a thousand eyes for all eternity (or at least as long as we still find it in our best interests to store data of any kind). By releasing a series of articles all within the same short timeframe essentially saying the same things, these people were drawing lines in the sand and fostering an “us vs them” mentality. They were the ones who showed solidarity with each other, and everyone excluded from their little group was the academic Other. The articles were so complete and total in their adherence to similar arguments and principles that it was impossible not to give the allegations of collusion – allegations that had only been allegations up until this point – some weight.
One of the hallmarks of the #gamergate movement has been willful ignorance of evidence and personal, in some case extremist, attacks on people on either side. Site after site cottoned onto the controversy, decided what it was about within hours of reading a website or two, and reported what they saw. Thanks to games journalists controlling the narrative, what they saw was journalists being attacked for having opinions not shared by their readership (e.g. something as inflammatory as ‘gamers are dead’). This wasn’t helped by the mob being as diverse as it was and as scattered as it was, making centralization of information very difficult. And this rush to report in our culture of now, without fully fact-checking or doing the legwork involved, meant that the mob only grew angrier at what they saw as ignorant misrepresentation of their side.
People within the circle of “game journo pros” showed remarkable friendship and solidarity with each other, and for this they should be commended. They are a close-knit group that has formed strong ties to help each other out in an industry that is often actively hostile to new ideas, but it was this very same solidarity that made them actively blind to the legitimate questions raised by the mob. It is easy to understand why they did what they did. There probably wasn’t some major conspiracy, despite strong allegations and links that grow increasingly less tenuous between the groups involved. It probably was as simple as “my friend is being attacked on the internet by a hateful mob”. This is the only explanation for the lack of professionalism and sheer vitriol displayed by those in the gaming media who claim to speak for, represent, and air concerns for their nebulous damned audience. Even if you look down on your audience with disdain, disagree vehemently with their opinions and hate everything they stand for and represent, the last thing you do is let them know it. Especially if your livelihood and career depends on keeping these people sweet.There is such a thing as ‘remaining professionally detached’. These people could not separate their friendships and personal lives from their careers simply because their friendships and personal lives in many cases were their careers. Indie developers depended on gaming journalists to keep their work relevant and exposed to a larger audience, and gaming journalists liked having the power to influence a game’s direction (as well as shape the narrative and discourse surrounding games as a whole). It was in their own best interests that they were as tight as possible. So of course they drew lines, closed ranks, and condemned the mob – a mob comprised of people they barely knew, a mob that could trace its origins to 4chan of all places.
Professional detachment means this: I may hate/love some of the people and clients I have to work with, but that does not stop me from doing my job to the best of my ability. That’s what it takes if you’re even going to pretend to be a professional.
The only attempt at PR that actually felt like a calculated move with some actual merit in this entire mess was to use Zoe Quinn and Anita Sarkeesian’s gender as a shield. The gaming community has already proven that it is willing to go gunning for Anita even if she painted the target on her own back. By making the argument less about journalistic ethics and framing it as a clash between misogynist male gamer stereotypes and women in the game industry, they managed to get everyone up in arms about the subject.
Feminism has and will always be a hot button issue in any first world nation, guaranteed to bring everyone out of the woodwork for having an opinion or even having no opinion. Once again, the number of people who care about feminism/don’t care for feminism exceeds by magnitudes the number of people who care about corruption in game journalism (or for that matter, game journalism at all). This is a high-risk, high-reward PR move; on one hand it gains you massive amounts of support from those who see any attack on a woman as an attack on all women, but on the other it also gains you massive pushback from women who claim you don’t speak for them/people who can spot the deflection and reframing for what it is and hate you all the more for it.
With retrospect, I believe both things happened: they gained legions of support from people who already believed in the old stereotype of a misogynist gamer manchild, and gained similar pushback in the form of the #notyourshield movement. This war became about many more things than just a simple sex scandal – about sexism within the game industry, about censorship, about journalistic ethics, and even agenda-driven and hit-driven gaming news. By framing the argument as a far bigger issue than it was originally, the ‘gamejournopros’ unfortunately all but guaranteed this movement would have actual legs (at almost a month and counting). If their actual intent was to defuse the issue and move past it, we can consider this an absolute failure on all counts.
Scenario: Evidence has been found of collusion among the gaming press and active attempts to drive specific narratives. A list of names has been leaked to parties who have an active interest in airing your laundry out in public.
Unfortunately, you’re fucked.
In this situation, I’d actually let it burn to the ground and start over. If your name is on that list I’d be very, very scared right now. You could call it harassment, you could call them liars and misogynists and whatever names you please – nothing stops the fact that somewhere out there is a list with your name in it, a list that could destroy your career for good or drastically limit your career path if the right people got their hands on it. And all that’s stopping them is a simple Google search. My honest advice would be to start fresh.
Try a rebranding – as many of these sites and communities start smoking and collapsing there’s ample business opportunity in starting up competitors. A whole range of previously unknown games sites have been thrust into the spotlight as a result of this mess, and one in particular – goodgamers.us – has gained massive points by stating simply and cleanly that their writers will not be paid for what they write or the number of clicks they get, and will do so simply because they enjoy writing about games.
The internet allows you the ability to write anonymously; write under a moniker or pseudonym. There are no voices being stifled, no information being withheld. That is the nature of the internet. We do not forgive, we do not forget, but we do lose interest because you are one voice in the ocean. Rather than feeling lost, you can be judged solely on the quality of your writing, just the same as everybody else. You could be an actual journalist for once! Or an actual game developer! Or maybe you really want to change the world and push forward an agenda you believe will improve all of us – how about working in politics?
Burn the bridges. Burn them all. At some point the bridges are no longer bridges but liabilities, and the closer you stand to this the higher chance of you going up in flames yourself. Out in the real world, where the black and white communities are tearing each other apart over the fallout from Fergusson, Obama declares war on ISIS and Ebola is racking up kills by the day, none of #gamergate actually matters. But as far as the gaming community is concerned, you’re persona non grata. These are people who remember frame data for games released over a decade and a half ago, for crying out loud! They’ll remember. And they’ll tell everyone they know.
What Kotaku Actually Did:
Distraction: Six Month Old Bomb Threat Story on Anita Sarkeesian
At this point, I’m actually a little bit sorry for Anita. I mean, I believe she’s an intelligent woman who is using her gender to gain as much influence and power as she can and con people out of money. That I believe. It’s a way better explanation than Anita actually being dumb or naive enough to believe even half of the things she says, because that just makes me sad and tired. “Gamejournopros” are only repeating the above step; using Anita as some kind of shield to cower behind just so they can label all criticism of them misogyny. Using Anita’s own damsel in distress arguments, you have to admit that many of them rallying around Anita’s defense bears worrying hallmarks of this trope. But to dig up dirt from six months ago and air it as news just as things look incredibly bad for your side is a sign of desperation on your part and everyone knows it. People are already suspicious of collusion and agenda-pushing, and you air and spread a piece that not only helps support your preexisting narrative of “gamers are misogynist manchildren” but nobody with even the slightest suspicions as to your ethics and standards would believe. If they believe it, so much the worse, because your job as journalists and reporters would be to report this as it happens, not six months after the fact. This means that one of two things happened:
- You received this story back in March and did not believe it was news until this moment.
- You received this story back in March, realized what this could mean for your agenda, and left it in a glass case labeled BREAK IN CASE OF EMERGENCY.
In the first case, this raises the questions of what made you believe it has become news since in the last six months? If you declined to report on this then and decide to do it now, what were you doing the last six months when you were supposed to be doing your job? If it wasn’t news then, why is it news now? At the very least this makes you out to be incompetent as journalists (the thing you’re pretending to be) and at the most this makes you willing to actively censor a story until you believe it is to your benefit. The second is far more insidious. It implies premeditation, calculated thinking, and an idea that they knew well in advance that they would receive large amounts of pushback.
The sympathy Anita can garner because of a bomb threat on her life – false or not, unproven or not, from an anonymous source or not – is very real. Your average layperson who knows nothing about #gamergate or this surrounding mess would just see a labeled group sending a woman bomb threats because they don’t agree with what she’s saying. Anyone with a higher brain stem would rush to her defense, regardless of what she’s saying. She could spout hate speech for hours on end, deny the Holocaust and claim live babies are a health food supplement and still your average human being would not wish her to receive bomb threats. To turn a bomb threat into positive press that paints Anita as a brave heroine and people who like video games as cowardly, anonymous villains is extremely, extremely bad PR. To wait on said bomb threat is arguably even worse. This is merely an escalation of the previous PR method stated above – to distract the mob, re-frame the issue. Their PR is equating people who like video games to people who send women bomb threats.
Can anyone tell me why this is a bad idea?
Good PR is almost universally positive and inclusive. People respond to positive messages far more readily than they do negative, exclusionary ones, especially in marketing. This is negative PR of the worst kind – the kind that sinks into binary coding and ensures both sides fight to the bitter end, coloring the air around them with extremist opinions. Remember, only a Sith deals in absolutes. You drink Coke, but you can also drink Pepsi. You like Nike sneakers, but you can also like Skechers. You watch BBC programming, but you can also watch House. There are no walls there, and no clean sides. This is not about MRAs vs SJWs – the sheer readiness with which both groups accepted and claimed those labels I thought of as extremely worrying and disturbing. Hell, even when it comes to politics I can’t claim to be either conservative or liberal.
I’ve tried my best to be non-judgmental regarding this entire mess. I’ve tried – I’ve tried quite hard, because I’ve already seen this industry try and push me out once already, and to see the people rise up to defend and argue for #gamergate leaves me feeling a little bitter, but this past week has seen me truly drop off the fence.
All the same, I’m willing to admit I’m a bit of a mercenary opportunist, as anyone who ever really wants to get published should be. If anyone wants to hire me as a PR consultant, they need only ask. Hell, I’d even work for Silverstring Media, if they were willing to reclaim their position as a PR agency.
I doubt it.