Guest Editorial: We need to talk about ethics in games journalism

Image by Chris Remo, which is currently featured on Zoe Quinn's Twitter account

Image by Chris Remo, which is currently featured on Zoe Quinn's Twitter account

In this guest editorial, Brit McGinnis argues that the video game press’s silence over the Zoe Quinn situation speaks louder than words

A disclosure before I begin: I am a woman, and I am a feminist. But above all else, I am a journalist.

Video game journalism has always interested me because it’s a very new form of journalism. Many people will disagree with me on this, but in my head it’s somewhere between arts journalism and business journalism. It shares many of the perks (e.g. opportunities for analytical commentary on business decisions) and downsides of both (constant temptations to make the reporter/writer the center of attention).

The definition of video game journalism that I am using here doesn’t include video reviews, Let’s Play-style videos or feature articles in video games. Those features, while valuable in their own way, are not journalism in the strictest sense. They are commentary and features—very different sections of the newspaper. Knowing this, it has become clear that video games journalism has not yet decided what to do with semi-sensational stories. No one knows what should go on Page 1 and what goes on Page 6.

Here’s the real story behind the Zoe Quinn “scandal”: She allegedly slept with a journalist (among others, her ex-boyfriend accuses) in exchange for extended coverage of her game and perhaps to earn a favorable review. This was “leaked” by her ex-boyfriend in a very long blog post. And as a result of this allegation, she has lost credibility as a voice for feminist causes in video game ethics. Even her allegations of being harassed and hacked are being questioned.

That’s it. That’s literally the only newsworthy thing about this entire story. That’s all news outlets needed to write about when covering this event, perhaps with some debate about the ethical policies behind video game reviews.

Because let’s face it: The standards of what makes an ethical video game review are far from etched in stone. The industry’s still in its infancy, for Pete’s sake. I ask myself, would I ever review a game made by one of my friends? A year ago, maybe I would have. But now, no. That wouldn’t be up to a journalistic standard of impartiality.

Let me illustrate it this way: What if Geena Davis slept with the lead editor of Entertainment Weekly to gain ad exposure for her institute on gender equality? However noble Geena Davis’s work toward gender equality may be, this would be reported as an act of unethical exchange, and would be viewed through the lens of commenting on entertainment journalism at large.

Moreover, three things would not have happened in this hypothetical situation:

A) Geena Davis’s sex life would not have been brought up as discrediting information against her. This would have been viewed as an isolated incident, exception being if she had used sex as a commodity in other situations.

B) There would not have been a deafening silence from entertainment-focused news outlets, journalistic and otherwise.

C) They would not utterly refusing to cover the incident because there are sensational elements, leaving analysis to reporters and outlets not fully acquainted with the industry and this event’s potential implications.

It is the second and third of these hypotheticals that has recently come to pass in video games journalism. It reveals a lot about the state of video games journalism, particularly its refusal to define itself. As a result, journalistic ethics are neither defined nor assumed.

The Zoe Quinn situation is a test case for this fledgling branch of journalism, and one probably couldn’t have asked for a better one. Most of the details of this story have come out on small blogs, including that of the ex-boyfriend changing his story to say that the reporter Quinn allegedly slept with for a review didn’t coincide with her game‘s coverage. Where were the big outlets on this story? Why was the burden on small blogs to cover the story, whatever their degree of professional journalism and accuracy?

A few outlets have issued half-baked reports on how Quinn’s credibility as a feminist voice has now been shot out the window. A suitable story perhaps, but the hearsay and questioning within forums and news outlets alike leads to the conclusion that Quinn’s credibility may never recover from these accusations. It has, in fact, been in question for some time, ever since her infamous hacking incidents were suspected of being faked.

Another type of article would center around the longtime mistrust of people deemed “social justice warriors” within many gaming communities. I don’t need to tell you that gaming is historically a male-dominated hobby, and sexism against women joining in (in whatever capacity) can be inferred from that.

But there’s been a recent and troubling whiplash to this situation, in that video game journalists would actively defend Quinn’s honor in their writing. In their zeal to not blame the victim of alleged harassment (as well as not slut-shame any potential news subjects), these journalistic outlets have lost the actual story at hand.

They’re missing the fact that Kotaku has actively changed its disclosure policies to prevent further trespasses against supposed journalistic integrity. Perhaps it is time for more journalistic outlets to look at themselves and ask the hard questions. Is Patrick Klepek of Giant Bomb not reporting on The Quinncident because the two of them once did a panel together? Perhaps, perhaps not. But the lack of discussion around these boundaries is only leading people to assume the worst.

Even worse, non-video-game outlets seem to be pointing and laughing at gamers. The entire community, which includes more and more women all the time, is portrayed more and more as than a gaping maw attacking all ye who enter here. How is this helpful for the growth of video game journalism? Or worse, its legitimacy?

Misogyny exists in traditional video game culture. It is often distasteful, morally reprehensible, and makes many gamers (including myself) feel excluded from that community. But that is not news. It can be traced back to the debates surrounding video games started by Tipper Gore. The fear that liberal women who know very little about video game culture are going to swoop in and take the video games away is very real among a certain section of the gaming community. It feeds the ugliest parts of the culture, and explains some of the resistance against Anita Sarkeesian’s Tropes vs. Women video series a few years ago. Was she truly part of the community she was critiquing, or merely a critical interloper?

It doesn’t matter if Zoe had sex with dozens of people and then lied to her boyfriend about it. As morally reprehensible as some may find it, that’s not news. It doesn’t matter to anyone else outside of that relationship.

What is news is that there is a newly made list of supposed “social justice warrior” journalists. This means that these writers are seen by some as too culturally biased, too outspoken in their liberal beliefs (assumably so) to be taken seriously as journalists. In the eyes of their critics, these cultural figures have no credibility because they are white knights, riding in on behalf of women to the exclusion of objectivity.

One of the most interesting things about this list is that not all the people on the list define themselves as journalists. Jim Sterling is strictly a commentator, and while he makes videos expressing his opinion on certain issues, he never claims to adhere to a journalistic code of ethics. So why is he lumped in with Patrick “Scoops” Klepek?

Not everyone who makes a Let’s Play video and writes about diversity in video games needs to follow the standards of a video games journalist. But should a journalist be held to the same standard of ethics as someone making a Let’s Play video for pure entertainment value?

The Zoe Quinn situation was an opportunity to draw these lines, to discuss what is good form for video game journalists and what is not. This opportunity was passed up, to the detriment of all. I don’t care who Zoe Quinn slept with. What’s troubling is that others do care, and seem to wish to discuss nothing else.