On Saturday, Marcus Beer aka Annoyed Gamer took to GameTrailers to fire off this missive against gaming blog Kotaku:
http://www.gametrailers.com/videos/vsbyd5/annoyed-gamer-fishing-for-outrage (forward to 6:15 for relevant video).
First, let’s lay out the argument as Beer presents it. Then, we’ll unpack and analyze the claims therein to see if they hold any validity.
Beer’s primary complaint is that writers from Kotaku (he focuses specifically on Patricia Hernandez and Jason Schreier, the former more than the latter) have an agenda to push, and that they use their platform at Kotaku to inundate readers with hateful, inauthentic “troll jobs” designed to engender clicks and ad revenue, making themselves and Kotaku (and parent company Gawker media) boat loads of cash. He claims that neither Hernandez nor Schreier “give a shit about the facts or anything else,” instead being content to push obviously-false rhetoric for monetary gain.
His first example of such a troll job is Patricia Hernandez’s examination of a gay joke in Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon. After reading the piece, I’m not sure he’s read it, to be honest. In it, Hernandez doesn’t actually put forth an argument for or against the joke. She refers to it as offensive and homophobic in her eyes, but doesn’t go as far as to argue for its removal, or to even argue that it’s harmful. Instead, the post is ambivalent about the joke, using it as a jumping off point to explore the idea of “harmless jokes” in general, including quips from family members about marriage or about weight. To hear Beer recount the piece, one expects that Hernandez shouts from the rooftops about the ugly homophobia in the game, which simply isn’t the case. Instead, it’s a considered, thoughtful piece that ultimately (and this is important) does not offer a moral judgment on the game at large. In fact, reading her preview post written a month earlier finds it to be positive, and it doesn’t even mention the joke, despite the fact that it occurs in the opening 2 minutes of the game.
The second example is Hernandez’s piece on the Sony Playstation 4 press conference, specifically, the lack of a female presence. Again, Hernandez is decidedly non-committal in the piece, focusing instead on the reaction to it by other writers and observers. Hernandez’s larger point in the piece is that we’re at a stage in gaming where people notice when a major console announcement is surrounded by a decided lack of diversity. She even admits to not noticing at first, much like Beer, and wonders if this is a symptom of something larger. Much like the piece on Blood Dragon, it’s a deeper exploration than Beer gives her credit for, an exploration which goes even deeper in a follow-up piece posted two days later. I think Hernandez’s initial assertion in the follow-up about the consensus surrounding the reasons why there were no women presenters was lazy, to be honest, and it probably should have been removed from the piece. Regardless, the piece is buoyed by words from Kellee Santiago, famous for her work with Thatgamecompany, creators of Journey. Santiago argues that there are women in the pool of people from which Sony chose presenters, but they were simply overlooked. Hernandez closes the piece with hard information provided by the US Economics and Statistics Administration, as well as by Harvey Nash, a British technology recruitment group. Beer derides Hernandez specifically as someone who doesn’t care about facts in reporting, but she makes a compelling case here which invokes scientific analysis to buttress her larger point that a conversation needs to be had about the lack of representation in the conference. Again, she doesn’t go as far as Beer does in slamming the subject of her criticism, instead using this situation to launch into a larger cultural examination.
It’s a tactic used in many of Hernandez’s posts about social issues (which, coincidentally, make up a rather small portion of her total posts and traffic, as a look at her Kotaku posting history will attest to): take a situation in gaming that’s problematic and use it as a launching point to report on or write an essay on a larger, societal issue. There isn’t much by way of invective, which isn’t reciprocated in Beer’s takedown.
Beer then turns his attention to Jason Schreier and the controversy surrounding George Kamitani and the art of Dragon’s Crown. Schreier’s original piece on the art of Dragon’s Crown was indeed immature and needlessly snarky, and Kamitani’s follow-up was gross and immature in kind. Follow-up posts by Schreier and the ongoing conversation between the two after have been anything but, however. Again, I’m left wondering if Beer read beyond the headlines and actually examined the arguments presented in the pieces. Schreier’s problem with Dragon’s Crown‘s art comes from a place of embarrassment more than anything else. He wants to like the game, it seems, but the exaggerated art prevents him from doing so, especially in public, as it is also a game for the PS Vita.
Schreier’s work is less considered and thoughtful than Hernandez’s, which to me reads as more a fault of the medium (blogging) or a deficiency in the writer rather than a need to push a specific, site-wide agenda.
My biggest problem with Beer’s whole thesis is that it hinges on one specific assumption that I (and he) should find problematic: that the writers of Kotaku (and specifically Hernandez and Schreier) don’t actually believe what they’re writing, but that instead the content of Kotaku is specifically designed to draw in readers (how Beer can claim this while himself using populist rhetoric in the video is problematic in and of itself) in order to sell ads and make money. This has been a conspiracy theory thrown around the Internet in the last few weeks, and it’s worth unpacking.
This argument assumes many things about you, the reader, the most insulting of which is the insinuation that you are mindless moths, drawn to the flame of social issues. Beer assumes that you simply can’t control yourselves and must click on posts invoking social issues, which should feel insulting, because it is.
Furthermore, Kotaku has a handy traffic counter on each post that shows just how little these issues contribute to Kotaku’s overall traffic. Hernandez herself posts somewhere between 5 and 7 times per day, and in the last 6 weeks or so, dating back to the beginning of April, she posted between 4 and 6 articles on “social issues” depending on your definition of what a post about “social issues” is. Assuming a 5 piece-per day output for 5 days per week the ratio of “social issue” posts to others is about 1-33. Roughly 3% of Hernandez’s posts revolved around social issues over the past six weeks. Certainly a far cry from the rampant trolling she’s being accused of.
There’s also the question of how pay is done at Kotaku and how that might affect the choice in article. Stephen Totilo confirmed to me via email that writers at Kotaku are salaried employees without a pure traffic-incentive (though, he explains, the site collectively can earn a bonus for attracting new readers), which calls into question why they’d go through the trouble, especially when news, trailers and pieces that some would consider fluff outpace those based around social issues and are far easier to craft. Some in the community seem to want it both ways, as they both complain that sites regurgitate press releases without examination and when writers do examine certain issues. Beer doesn’t make this point, but it’s an observation I’ve made on the community at large.
Speaking of going through the trouble, I’m not sure the attention afforded to Hernandez or Schreier is the kind of attention any writer wants. It’s fame, relatively speaking, but it’s the worst kind of fame. Any writer would rather have someone do just about anything but accuse them of misrepresenting for the purpose of attention. It’s the worst, most cynical thing a writer can do outside of outright fabrication, and I can speak personally that accusations like those are supremely hurtful.
There’s a certain myopia about the argument that is dangerous to the culture around games. Beer and other purveyors of this argument are so incredulous that someone can think these are problems that the only answer must be that it’s being made up to pursue an agenda. Even if you agree that the writers themselves are being disingenuous (which I do not), there are members of the community who agree with and feel these things. These are community members who see this incredulity and the accusation of misrepresentation and feel marginalized and alienated from the community they love. It’s one thing to disagree with a writer’s politics or takes on certain topics. I don’t agree with everything that Hernandez or Schreier post, nor do I agree with or even like everything Kotaku posts, but the jump from “I disagree with this” to “this is an orchestrated troll job” requires evidence beyond what Beer and others have been able to provide.
None of this is to say that Beer is a bad guy or a sexist or homophobe; he isn’t, or at least doesn’t appear to be. I do, however, feel like Kotaku is a convenient scapegoat facing an attack for something I still don’t quite understand (being too liberal?), but that the growing pains this industry is facing are a positive step, even if they’re painful to experience. I feel like it’s a good thing that writers are inserting personal politics into essays and opinion pieces about topics in gaming. This is a medium just finding its way into adulthood (both figuratively and literally), and the more we poke and prod at the culture surrounding it, the better it will be. That’s not to say I want a sanitized version of the games industry. I don’t. I partake in problematic media all of the time, but we should be thoughtful in our approach to game criticism, and part of that is holding creators accountable and not just writing off problematic things that happen in games as “silly fun.” I feel like Hernandez and Schreier are genuine in their writing. The evidence is just not there to support the thesis that they aren’t.
We live in a time when everything that doesn’t fit into our pre-conceived ideas about the world is automatically viewed with skepticism and “trolling” has morphed into something we use to describe things we disagree with. I wish Marcus Beer didn’t fall into this trap, and that he considered that perhaps being earnest and genuine still exists on the Internet, even if we disagree with what those being genuine and earnest have to say. He has a platform with a sizable and passionate audience (the wrath of which I’ve experienced first hand), and I feel like he could be more careful and judicious in how he presents arguments to that audience.
I do believe that Hernandez and Schreier have an agenda. We all do. When writing opinion pieces, our inherent bias comes to the forefront. It’s what dictates our opinions, thoughts and feelings. However, there’s no evidence that the agenda is anything other than a passionate desire for this industry to grow and be better. I think we all share that sentiment, we just reflect it in different ways.