It should come as no surprise that during the past seven months I’ve seen a lot of whispers and comments made in private about game developers being afraid to speak up about how they feel about the current climate of the gaming industry; how they feel about addressing progressive content, gender roles in games, dealing with tropes and the heavy hand of media censorship.
Nonetheless, very few developers can afford to speak up about these issues due to media backlash. We’ve recently seen Lionhead Studios being reprimanded for tweeting into the trending topic of #NationalClevageDay, as evidenced with the tweet below.
We’ve also seen the media take sides on how they how approach coverage for certain subject matter, opting not to run interviews or pieces that break away from a narrative they’ve built around controversial topics. For instance, the CBC chose not to run an interview featuring female developer Jennifer Dawe because she didn’t adhere to the victim complex that fit the narrative of their other pieces spread across the media network. The same applied to the ABC piece featuring Anita Sarkeesian, which was also purposefully sculpted around the harassment narrative, along with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, who also had a reporter ask for evidence of corruption in the games media but then chose to bury it in place of running a piece about harassment in gaming while attaching it to the GamerGate hashtag. In the case of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, that little stunt put them in trouble with the ACMA, opting for an investigation into the media outlet.
Well, another developer has fallen victim to the media’s intention of only telling a certain kind of story about the gaming industry. This time it was Aesop Games, a small independent outlet composed of two female programmers and a lead game designer working on a free-to-play MMO called Brunelleschi: Age of Architects.
An interview was supposed to run on Gameranx covering the new title and Aesop Games’ position on #GamerGate. However, things didn’t quite turn out so well when the editor-in-chief at Gameranx, Ian Miles Cheong, and Matthew Mitchum, the lead designer of Brunelleschi, butted heads over Mitchum’s stance regarding #GamerGate. You can check out exactly why Cheong decided to shelve the interview right here or read the entire unpublished interview and the e-mail exchanges in the pastebin here.
Moreover, I did reach out to Mitchum to get his take on the current media climate of denying developers a voice if they don’t align their political stances with the media’s. A similar situation occurred with Mark Kern from Mak Entertainment and VG 24/7 – where they refused to offer Kern a two-way conversation regarding the current rift in the gaming industry. You can check out what Mitchum had to say about the Gameranx situation and the media’s bias below.
Billy: There’s a lot to talk regarding the unpublished interview between you and the editor-in-chief at GameRanx, Ian Miles Cheong. He mentioned that he wasn’t comfortable running it after you challenged him on his viewpoints. Does it worry you that media outlets have consistently squelched interviews with developers who have not come out as being staunchly against #GamerGate’s goals of reforming ethics in media? We saw a similar instance before with the CBC opting not to run interviews they conducted with indie developer Jennifer Dawe and media personality Jennie Bharaj since neither of them went with the harassment narrative.
Matthew: I’m surprised that people are interested. I had promised back in January to make the conversation public after it was published, but as Gameranx seemingly ended the series of development interviews I thought others might want to see what we discussed. Going into the interview I had some sincere hopes that the clear connection between my studio which is composed primarily of female game developers and the issue at hand. That really didn’t come up, however, as there seemed to be a very limited pool of developers and experiences that were acceptable for discussion. Oddly enough I even had an anecdote about our Lead Programmer’s experience with online sexual harassment, but the conversation quickly focused on the reported and unverified experiences of a small number of heavily publicized developers.
Throughout the months of GamerGate there has been a clear pattern of so called ‘Pro’ and ‘Neutral’ parties being denied coverage, while news outlets and reporters have been overtly censured for choosing to display alternatives to the ‘Systemic Harassment and Exclusion’ theory. The overt rejection of the #LetMarkSpeak and #LetDevsSpeak plans made it pretty clear that most news outlets aren’t interested in even the opinions of established, AAA developers with strong fan support. That strikes me as extremely questionable, the idea that an Industry Veteran leading a popular campaign is somehow ‘not newsworthy’. When it was independent developers being silenced, the disparity was less obvious, but now that the few leading voices in the Industry who are able to speak freely are being actively ignored or silenced, the bias is incredibly clear.
Billy: Following up on the last question, it’s been repeatedly mentioned by various members of the media that Nathan Grayson did nothing wrong, and a few have even claimed that Grayson never wrote about Zoe Quinn, even though it’s been documented that he wrote two articles about Depression Quest without disclosure about personal ties to the developer. Do you worry about how the media might portray your content, or how they might portray you if you don’t say the right thing? And what do you think the community could do to better provide recourse in a situation where the media fabricates information and attacks various individuals while refusing them a platform for rebuttal?
Matthew: Anyone who’s faced the over-saturation of the modern Indie market with a product to sell can understand the amazing power of having a game subtly and consistently promoted by powerful people. An article titled ‘Admission Quest’ is worth more than money, it’s an unattainable quantity for most indie developers, something we couldn’t get in any reasonable or normal situation. I’d ask anyone gaining or providing that kind of advantage to consider the life of an independent developer. We can live and die on the basis of a few lines of copy. Having your game become an ‘Indie Darling’ can immediately catapult a person past what would otherwise be a 10-15 year grind of developing properties, cultivating audiences, and making sales. It’s not a trivial or minor thing to be featured in a prominent position on a major website, and anyone who downplays that power is insulting a huge community of hard working people who dream of having *anything* that we ever create featured to such a large audience.
Thankfully Gaming culture is changing in huge ways after #GamerGate . While many will not think it creditable, and most of the trends were pre-existing, I think this will just push more Gamers into the arms of Streaming and Youtube. As a developer I’m a huge fan of what’s happening, and would rather have my work reviewed by someone who provably loves the medium and has spent hundreds of recorded hours playing games for the amusement of a crowd. I’ve been heartened to see the amount of direct contact occurring between Devs and Gamers over the last months, and think that over time these changes may be able to percolate into the AAA companies, causing their customer service and quality assurance techniques to be more effective.
Billy: Cheong implies that the 8chan board Baphomet is aligned with the consumer revolt using the GamerGate hashtag, even though it was proven that some members have been actively trying to dox people they claim are SJWs and put the blame on #GamerGate. When Cheong insists that /Baph/ is associated with #GamerGate – despite some on the /Baph/ imageboard mocking #GamerGate and actively trolling the hashtag – how do you convince other developers and neutrals that some of the trollish behavior from these third-parties aren’t representative of the consumer revolt when the media has already made up their mind on how they’re going to spin the story?
Matthew: Baphomet seems to have been a short-lived phenomenon, which thankfully seems to have been more smoke than fire. For all the concern about 3rd party trolls it seems like the vast majority of people are able to see through that sort of behavior. A lot of the attempts to intimidate or harass public figures by various groups have been unsuccessful, whatever their intentions. Liz Finnegan, for example, far from being suppressed is now being heard more widely than ever. Observers, devs included, can learn from watching others survive and thrive in the face of ‘Internet Harassment’ that it is both constant, and 99.9% of the time completely harmless.
Billy: Have any of the arguments that some media outlets have made about #GamerGate being a harassment campaign ever swayed your opinion about the consumer revolt?
Matthew: I’ve been concerned at times by the behavior I’ve seen firsthand, but the media’s incredible ‘over-spin’ of the issue tends to push me away from the harassment narrative more than anything. Internet Culture can be very rough for new folks, but it’s a direct demonstration that words, however foul, don’t actually cause physical harm. The constant attempt to fabricate a connection between sequences of what amount to threatening letters and actual physical violence tends to remind me of how rarely that actually happens.
Billy: Having your interview shelved on Gameranx could also affect the exposure of your title Brunelleschi: Age of Architects, the free-to-play MMORPG. Do you, in any way, regret not altering or withholding your opinions in order to have the interview published on Gameranx; if for nothing else than to get the exposure for Brunelleschi?
Matthew: I was really hoping that Mr. Cheong would be able to see the clear connection between a game named after a Renaissance sculptor, programmed mostly by teachers, and the goals of ‘Progressive Media’. For many years I’ve been a large proponent of the same things that are supposedly so very important to that viewpoint. Our game is Educational, Socially Aware, and free of any Gender Bias at all. We have female Popes and Generals, as well as a huge focus on Culture, Religion, and Philosophy. Our goal was to create a game that demonstrated very clearly that those concepts are not mutually exclusive from things like Strategy, Combat Mechanics, Game Balance, and even Monetization. In the end I’m a little disappointed that the ‘Socially Progressive’ crowd doesn’t appreciate how hard we worked to include their favorite concepts, but not at all surprised.
Billy: Following up on the last question… coming off the incident with Gameranx, would you consider being more discreet with how you express opinions about divisive or explosive subject matter tied to #GamerGate knowing that your opinions could cost your studio media coverage for your game?
Matthew: Our company’s self-supported and player-focused, so I can get away with being a little more candid than most. The ‘Social Strategy’ aspect of our game makes it likely that success or failure will depend more on our ability to motivate players towards recruitment than on PR. That said, we have an advertising budget that rarely breaks into the triple digits, so any loss of public exposure is keenly felt.
Billy: Regarding the broader scope of the industry… how do you feel about the current climate between gaming media and the smaller development studios? Do you think that the fear that developers have of expressing their opinions is legitimate or do you think that it’s just a rare case of a few studios getting on the bad side of some gaming media?
Matthew: For the developer of the average game, a ‘Tower Defense’, ‘Platformer’, or other genre-specific game, a good review can be the difference between success and failure. Most people trying to break into the industry do so part-time at first, and something as simple as being included in a blog’s ’10 hot new games / apps’ list can be a huge motivator. The modern gaming Industry is very hard on independent creators, and the majority eventually have to give up on their dreams and return to work they find less satisfying. People barely getting by at their dream job are particularly vulnerable to the kind of pressure created by Blocklisting, Blacklisting, and negative Publicity, and everyone has to transition through that ‘struggling’ phase unless they are boosted up in some way.
The combination of power to elevate and power to destroy creates an unreasonable ‘Gatekeeping Effect’ by which Curators, Reviewers, and Promoters can do basically whatever they want. Beyond that, the uncertainty inherent in making statements is more than can be safely risked for most developers. For all that some controversial opinions will go unnoticed, there’s always the chance of something being taken out of context. Even further, any developer hoping to collaborate with others wants to avoid even the appearance of controversy or inappropriate behavior.
Billy: What would you like to see happen to help improve the tumultuous climate between gamers and games media, and what do you think developers can do to help while retaining impunity from a media smear campaign?
Matthew: The most obvious part of the entire equation seems to be disclosure, and that applies to Devs as much as Journalists. When thousands (or millions) of dollars are spent on games, be they AAA or Kickstarted, and the quality is low, most gamers simply want to know why. Transparency and availability have been clear requests and I think developers have a great capacity to step up and involve their games’ communities in the process. Most of the really successful studios are already bringing their most devoted fans (dare we call them Gamers?) into the fold with AMA’s , Steam Discussions, and more. Establishing the links between audiences and creators more firmly will reduce that ‘Gatekeeping Effect’ and reinforce the benefits of Factual, Objective journalism.
(Huge thanks to Matthew for answering the questions. You can learn more about Aesop Games and their upcoming title, Brunelleschi: Age of Architectus, by paying a visit to the official website)