by Jed Pressgrove
Kotaku. Zoe Quinn. Gamers. Patreon. Kickstarter. Buying games. Conflicts of interest. Ethics. If you’re connected to the online game community, perhaps you’re sick of seeing some or all of these phrases. “Why can’t we just talk about games?” Depending on who you are, that question might appear selfish or distracting, or it might match your feelings. Regardless, the reality is that we can’t focus on games because the online gaming world is full of fear, hatred, and confusion.
A big source of the confusion is a refusal to engage with journalism history and practice. In response to concerns about a lack of transparency between game writers and game developers, Kotaku crafted a new ethical policy that bans its writers from supporting game developers via Patreon. Rightfully, many have pointed out how this policy singles out Patreon and ignores a potential conflict of interest in, for example, a writer supporting a game developer via Kickstarter. Indeed, why focus on Patreon?
The answer for Kotaku appears to be “Zoe Quinn.” Her ex-boyfriend told the game community that Quinn had been sleeping with different game journalists, including “Friggen Nathan Stupid-Red-Pants-Wearing Kotaku-Writing Grayson” (I’m convinced the ex needs better therapy). When Quinn was tied to Kotaku by her unstable ex, people started raising questions about journalism ethics (unfortunately, neanderthals who harass/threaten Quinn and other women muddy ethical concerns). Quinn happens to have a Patreon, so Kotaku banned its writers from supporting game developers via Patreon.
Kotaku looks dirty right now for more than one reason. First, Kotaku should have drafted an ethical statement in regard to supporting projects from developers a long time ago. Things like Patreon and Kickstarter raise new ethical concerns that journalists should have addressed at the start, not years after the fact. Second, the current ethical statement from Kotaku doesn’t say anything about writers supporting developers via Kickstarter or Indiegogo. Why ignore the real or perceived conflicts of interest that might arise with Kickstarter or Indiegogo? The third reason Kotaku looks dirty is much simpler: Kotaku has a longstanding “AAA” bias that results in unbalanced coverage and unthinking ethical statements, such as Stephen Totilo’s embarrassing lecture on anonymous sources (which I critiqued here).
Stephen Beirne recently wrote a succinct, intelligent response to Kotaku’s new Patreon policy. One part of Beirne’s piece needs further exploration:
However, Kotaku still allows its writers to directly purchase a game for reviewing, or to back projects on Kickstarter and Indiegogo, two other, more established platforms for people to crowdsource revenue, despite the fact that both of these transactions also involve the writer financially supporting the developer. Where Kickstarter and over-the-counter purchasing differ from Patreon, according to various writers and figureheads at Kotaku, is that through them you support the product, whereas through Patreon you support the person.
That is the logic they have outlined. To briefly recap: supporting via Kickstarter is ethical; supporting via Patreon is unethical.
In the first paragraph above, Beirne draws a comparison between supporting developers via Patreon, Kickstarter, and Indiegogo. More importantly, he also mentions direct purchases of a game. Even though his second paragraph makes the comparison more about Kickstarter and Patreon, Beirne’s first paragraph leaves some room for interpretation. Surely we could safely amend the first part of Beirne’s recap to “supporting via Kickstarter or Indiegogo is ethical.” The more provocative question is this: does directly purchasing games belong in this comparison?
The answer is no, and there’s a good reason for that: the history of journalism ethics. The question of whether a journalist should receive products or services for free in order to write a review was a concern before Patreon and Kickstarter even existed. One classic question involves food criticism: if a food critic receives a free lunch from a restaurant up for review, is that critic more likely to write a review that doesn’t reflect the critic’s honest opinion or address the potential concerns of readers? We can’t say for sure, but it’s a legitimate concern, whether the conflict is real or perceived. One way for a food critic to avoid this question is to pay for the meal. One might argue that paying for something might influence the critic to justify the purchase through positive thinking, but the important point is that when a critic pays for a product or service for review, the critic is more on the level of the reader rather than part of a privileged club that gets things for free. (One should note that Indie Gamer Chick is known as a trusted game critic for making it a point to pay for all her games. You might disagree or dislike Indie Gamer Chick, but I’ve never heard anyone reasonably question her integrity.)
To put this another way, ethical concerns involving Patreon or Kickstarter are relatively new; ethical concerns related to the review of purchased or free products are quite old. Additionally, from the standpoint of a reader/consumer, buying a completed product is much different than supporting the development of an uncompleted product. With that in mind, why should we pretend that these two things are the same for journalists, especially given the history of ethical concerns?
Overly sentimental, anti-intellectual junk like Brendan Keogh’s story refuses to acknowledge the real or perceived conflicts of interests that have driven the development of journalism before Keogh was born. Such junk also dismisses the newer ethical questions that Patreon and Kickstarter raise for journalists — questions that Kotaku can’t even formulate.
But this isn’t the real reason the gaming world is lost. Ethics, harassment, half-assed policies, and the dismissal of journalism history are big deals, yes, but they also distract us from the real problem with gaming: almost everyone’s in it solely for the money and popularity. Big studios want your money and attention, Kickstarter developers want your money and attention, Patreon developers want your money and attention, almost everybody wants your money and attention. And if you don’t give them your money and attention — your undying, unequivocal support — something must be wrong with you. Do not dissent or question! Nevermind that anybody from one of these groups could be full of shit at any given time. I live in a society that values money over integrity, money over honesty, money over intellectualism, money over history. The online gaming world just follows that lead.
What games are you talking about, what are you saying about them, and why are you not talking about other games? Are you really interested in fairness and perspective? Journalists need to ask themselves these questions. So should everyone else.