Who Watches the Watchmen: A Secret Game Journalists Group May Shape the News You Read
At the start of a column last year, I made a joke about how every games writer seems to be in lock-step when it comes to major talking points. I wrote: “I’m convinced that there is a missive sent out to video games writers with talking points that we’re all supposed to stick to for a year.”
One year later, Breitbart, an American news site with a pro-conservative slant to coverage, has uncovered a secret mailing list of leading games journalists that suggests that my little joke might actually be reality. A mailing list of about 150 leading games writers may be shaping the discussion and coverage of major games industry stories on leading websites.
Breitbart London writer Milo Yiannopoulos was given some emails and other information about the secret mailing list / discussion group called “Game Journalism Professionals,” or GameJournoPros for short. While I’m sure we can debate if the name of the group is a bit of a misnomer since not much actual journalism happens in the games news industry, the term professionals is certainly the right word to use. The group is made up of 150 people who write for or edit most of the major gaming news sites.
The mailing list was compiled by Kyle Orland, the senior gaming editor of Ars Technica. The GameJournoPros include writers and editors for Ars Technica, Polygon, IGN, Kotaku, Joystiq, The Escapist, Giant Bomb and Destructoid among many other gaming, tech and mainstream outlets. There are a couple of PR people thrown in there for good measure like a marketing executive at Ubisoft and a community manager for Destiny.
Let’s leave the discussion about whether it’s appropriate for PR people to have access to the ears of the leaders of gaming news media for another day. Granted, the answer is obviously that they shouldn’t but both sides seem happy to work together to help the other out so maybe we’re beyond course correction on that. Ironically, though, Kotaku writer Jason Schreier brought that up in an email to the group about #GamerGate mentioning “the incestuous relationship between press and developers.”
The part of Yiannopoulos’s report on Breitbart that I want to focus on centres around the Zoe Quinn / GamerGate scandal. In my column about the Zoe Quinn scandal, I chastised the gaming media for ignoring the story. While the internet was lighting up with misinformation and spewing hatred towards Quinn and the press, they could have acknowledged what was happening and tried to set the record straight. Instead, they stood silently by and let chaos reign.
This may have been thanks in part to Orland. In an email dump on Yiannopoulos’s website, Orland starts the email thread about the Quinn scandal and stakes out his position on the matter very strongly. He told the group [email should be considered sic]:
“I don’t want to in essence reward the jerks doing this by giving their ‘issue’ any attention at all (I’m not even going to give the bullshit ‘journalism ethics’ excuse for these attacks the time of day. Even if there is any merit to those accusations, the sickening facts of these attacks easily overwhelms it)…
“I would LOVE to use my platform to reproach this kind of behavior… but that would go against Quinn’s valid and understandable desire not to have this personal matter publicized by the media. So what’s to be done? Maybe we should just stick to Twitter to boost the signal on this one, rather than our ‘front pages.'”
Whether by coincidence or by design, that’s exactly what ended up happening for the most part. Until the spate of articles declaring gamers dead, almost no one covered the story. It was the subject of discussion on forums and social media and mentioned by smaller blogs and news sites (this one included). Writers and editors of these sites did address the scandal briefly in tweets best summarized as “no, we’re not covering this” and a few scattered “leave Zoe alone because she wants us to.”
Orland wasn’t alone is advocating for no coverage of the scandal. Ben Kuchera (Polygon editor) seemed to be advocating for The Escapist to ban the topic from its forums. Andy Eddy (freelancer) and Chris Dahlen (freelancer and developer) advocated for the story not to be covered at all. Ryan Smith (who may be the same one that has written for AV Club) asked about the difference between covering a sexual harassment story involving Josh Mattingly and the Quinn story and was quickly shouted down by a number of writers for likening the two stories and questioning the difference in coverage. The Mattingly case involved him sending sexually explicit messages (no photos) to a developer while looking for a scoop. We can argue about the unsaid comparison to Nathan Grayson getting off comparatively lightly after sleeping with a source later. In the Quinn scandal email string, Schreier denied that Grayson wrote about Quinn or her game Depression Quest though Kotaku editor Stephen Totilo confirmed publicly that Grayson did write about Quinn but before the two allegedly slept together.
Orland also takes an opportunity to slag off gamers. In one email, Dan Starkey (a freelancer who has written for Destructoid) says that “Most of the time, I feel like I inhabit a relatively civil part of the internet” but was shocked by how uncivil the Quinn discussion was. Orland responds to him saying, “You’re involved in video games, Daniel, so I’m really not sure why you thought that.” And that man is a video games editor for a major tech site.
There are other matters that are discussed among the group that aren’t really relevant to my look at groupthink in the games press. I’ve linked all the Breitbart coverage and the email dumps on Yiannopoulos’s site at the bottom of the article. If you’re interested, there are discussions about support letters or gifts for Zoe Quinn, discussion about how a Vice interview with Eron Gjoni (Quinn’s ex-boyfriend who posted details on her personal life and extra-relationship affairs which sparked GamerGate) was too soft on him, criticizing popular YouTuber TotalBiscuit, and the aftermath of #GamerGate.
And while not everyone is going to toe the group’s line just because the biggest names in gaming press have a list of talking points, that doesn’t mean that the opinions sent around don’t have some impact on what some writers say or write. One group member told Yiannopoulos, “I don’t post but I do read it, almost religiously. And yes you do get affected by what Ben [Kuchera] and others are saying. After all, they are big names. It makes you reconsider your choice of words and how you say things.”
That’s the crux of the whole problem. If there was a secret forum where everybody was having a discussion or sharing information or arguing about hot topics in gaming, that would be okay. Discourse (civil discourse, at least) can make gaming news better. If everyone has good reasons for their positions and stakes that out in a discussion but doesn’t waver on it, that makes journalists better as a whole. When a few people in the industry dictate what is published and how it is written, it’s not really journalism any more. There’s a big difference between what a discussion among peers could and should be and what it seems to have turned into.
One thing that I advocate for from journalists and PR agents is being independent in fact and independent in appearance. One can apply the same principle here. Is there any truly independent coverage from any of the 150 writers on this list if they all appear to be succumbing to the groupthink that is permeating Game Journalism Professionals? I pointed it out 13 months ago when every changed talking points from 2012’s infallible artistic integrity to 2013’s avocation for censorship and outrage over Hotline Miami 2 and Dragon’s Crown. The comment about talking points issued for media members was a joke but almost seem proven true with these emails as context.
Orland wrote a column on Ars Technica defending GameJournoPros stating that it was organized as a discussion group, not where they come up with and agree to talking points for issues that they want to cover. That may very well be true but, like I said, there is independence in fact and independence in appearance. One without the other doesn’t really matter. Perception is reality and if people perceive Game Journalism Professionals as a hive of groupthink, the readers won’t take their opinions seriously. So long as it appears that a small group of writers dictates what and how people write, readers will struggle to trust the people on this list and games journalists as a whole.
I think I will close by reiterating what I said at the end of my Zoe Quinn and GamerGate columns: This industry is really depressing sometimes. I got into blogging to write about games. Games I loved. Games I hated. The dollars, cents and sense of games. I love it all. I hate spending my time writing about bullshit like this but an uninformed public has to be informed of what’s happening behind the scenes that might impact them. Now, let’s try talking about games again.
Sources: Breitbart (1), Breitbart (2), Breitbart (3), Breitbart (4), Yiannopoulos (1), Yiannopoulos (2), Kotaku (Mattingly story), Ars Technica (Orland apology)
Banner by: Critical Miss via The Escapist
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Posted on September 24, 2014, in Games, Long Read and tagged Game Journalism Professionals, GameJournoPros, GamerGate, Games Journalism, WPLongForm, Zoe Quinn. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.
This article puts it pretty succinctly:
The key is that this is a major ethics violation in any industry, but that the rules for these lines have blithely been crossed ad hoc among certain professions, particularly as it relates to PR people like journalists, mass media, politics, financing, law, “scientists”, etc.
As an engineer, I’m not supposed to even talk to competing elements or subjects that have an interest in the feasibility analysis of my projects, specifically because it can influence my decision-making process to the detriment of the customer and his requirements – objectivity is not the issue; if you’re objective, the point is, you don’t even have contact with the principles, vendors, PR divisons, etc when making such evaluations (similar to these gaming reviewers reviewing games and making their evaluations to their “customers”).
You certainly don’t collude with them using under-the-table, secret modes of communication to try to push a certain product which is the subject of your analysis.
To say nothing about the rest of the stuff they’re doing like trying to shape the opinion of the customers, using their position to suppress any conflicting information, etc nevermind the open channels and impropriety with the developers and PR people they’re evaluating.
With something like this, I’d be fired and my professional reputation would be junk status.
I should also note that if I ever did come into contact with anyone, even accidentally, who was doing a similar analysis (let alone a direct competing/independent analysis), it would be considered a serious contamination of the process.
It would most definitely have to be reported and declared openly.
The lack of integrity of these people to set up back-channels to manipulate information in secret is galling, and you probably don’t have to be a project manager to comprehend why.