Thursday, February 21, 2013

Journalism, Storification, and Harassment

This is just a quick post to bring up a recent trend in games journalism that is bothering me. So this is one of those 'writing about writing about games' kind of posts. If that's not your kind of thing, well, this is your warning.

I also want to stress that this post is not meant as an attack on either Kotaku or on Patricia Hernandez. Over the last few years, Kotaku has grown and matured to incorporate a whole heap of exciting writers and content, and I am sincerely glad that the site exists and that (for the most part) it does what it does. Some of my favourite games writers of anywhere write at Kotaku, including Patricia herself, who is a phenomenal writer and an editor of a phenomenal site.

This post is more an attack on a practice that I've seen on a range of outlets, and I imagine it is only going to become more popular and widespread in the future. It just so happens that the two particular cases that highlight the issue with this trend that worries me are written by Patricia on Kotaku. But I really want to stress that I mean this as an attack on neither of them but rather just exposing issues that have arisen in a form they have in part forwarded.

My issue, simply, is the practice of creating a story that consists of nothing (or very little) other than embedded tweets—worse, tweets on sensitive topics that are embedded in a story without the tweet writer's consent.

The games industry/culture is increasingly being sucked into Twitter, and important conversations are increasingly taking place there that deserve reporting on. My concern is that instead of reportage, we are getting storifying[1], the online equivalent of vox pops without any actual commentary to frame these opinions.

But my concern isn't the sacredness of journalistic integrity. Rather, it's the safety of those people whose tweets are being used to create the story. To continue the vox pop analogy, storifying tweets onto a website is like a vox pop segment of the news posting each interviewee's address at the bottom of the screen. From the story, responding to the people who wrote the tweet is just one click away, with a reply button embedded on the page right alongside the tweet.

Why is this a problem? Because, simply, a lot of really terrible people like videogames. I think it is great that Kotaku reports on issues of discrimination as often as they do. I think it is great that they have the courage to have a diverse writing crew and the courage to let that diverse writing crew actually write about sexism and racism and homophobia issues. However, mainstream outlets also need to acknowledge the fact that a lot of terrible people read their sites, and a whole heap more terrible people are lurking on forums waiting to pounce on anything on those sites once they hear about them. So by posting somebody's tweets on a mainstream games website, you're not just exposing somebody to a huge audience of terrible people who would love nothing better than to go harass that person, you are giving that audience of terrible people easy access to that person.

I have seen two particularly worrying instances of this recently. Most problematic was the whole tirade about 'Is Tiny Tina racist?'[2] Brief context: a guy on Twitter, Mike Sacco, had a really insightful conversation with Gearbox's Anthony Burch about the Borderlands 2 character Tiny Tina, a 'whacky' white girl whose wackiness is defined by the way she uses a lot of slang primarily associated with black cultures. It was a really great conversation! I had never before considered Tiny Tina like that, and it was insightful to see how other people might have an issue with her. Better still, Burch, despite being stand-off-ish to start with, was keen to listen to criticism, even going so far to say he would like to change Tiny Tina if people had issues with her.

It was this last, perhaps not well considered statement by Burch that got the Twitter conversation onto Kotaku. Here was a dev saying he might change a character because some people found her racist. (Obviously, this was just poor wording because of Twitter's character constraints. There is an update at the bottom of the story where Burch clarifies that he means he would take these concerns into consideration for future content. The fact this needed clarifiying further shows the problems with just storifying tweets as a story). Certainly, if Kotaku didn't post this story, someone else would've. So the story went up as a series of tweets. Unsurprisingly, a whole mass of, uh, what's the race equivalent of MRAs? WRAs? Let's just go with dickheads. Anyway, unsurprisingly, a whole mass of dickheads descended onto Twitter to 'educate' Mike and Burch about racism, many even creating new Twitter accounts just to do so! By 'educate', I obviously mean 'harass'.

This really bothered me. Here, a dev and a dude had a really great chat about something problematic. It wasn't even an argument! There was no controversy until it went up on Kotaku and the hordes of dickheads descended onto Twitter. My initial fear was Burch was going to get in trouble for talking about the game publicly. Instead, it was Mike who ended up losing his job. Mike has understandably been cagey about going into details, but essentially it seems that some really passionate dickheads went so far as to email the company he was working at (some WoW card game place) and told them they would no longer be buying their product as long as Mike still worked there. Company, in turn, told Mike to stop talking about it. Mike, understandably annoyed that his employer would try to silence his free speech because of some dickheads on the internet, refused and, hence, resigned.

He tweeted this. And Kotaku made another storified story. The dickheads all over the internet found out via this post, and harassed him even more on Twitter, so happy they were that they had protected the status quo of videogames and cost this 'whiner' his job. A while later, Mike got a 'cease and desist' letter from his company since he kept talking to the media—which he hadn't!

Obviously, it is not Kotaku's fault that Mike lost his job. The conversation was public when it was happening before they came along. But being 'public' doesn't necessarily mean 'everyone' is going to see it. 125,000 people have read the Kotaku article, and it has been reposted all over the internet on other outlets and forums.

I think Kotaku (and all videogame outlets) have a responsibility to acknowledge that by amplifying messages like this, they are putting the original tweeters at great risk of harassment simply because of who, regrettably, reads their site.

Another example from yesterday (which fortunately hasn't cost anyone their job), was when Leena van Deventer tweeted a very succinct tweet in disgust at the lack of any women on stage during Sony's Playstation 4 event. Leena' tweet topped a storified story about the lack of women at the event—a story that consisted of nothing other than other equally frustrated tweets.

I saw this story as soon as it went up, and I knew what was going to happen. I searched Leena's twitter handle on Twitter and, sure enough, the mansplaining dickheads were starting to roll in to give her shit for 'making this a sex issue'. I only imagine that many of the other people linked in the story had the same thing happen.

Again, it is great that Kotaku is willing to follow up a massive, generation-defining event with an article about the fact not a single woman was present at it. That is excellent. The problem is, this style of reporting is, I think, borderline unethical. Just as with Mike, putting this tweets on a mainstream games outlet, with only a single click required to reply to the tweeter, achieves nothing other than telling the angry mob of terrible dickheads where to take their anger. Here is this person on Twitter claiming something is sexist. Sick 'em!

Obviously this was not Patricia's intentions in either case. And it is worth noting that Patricia gets just as harassed for posting these stories as the tweeters themselves. It takes a huge amount of bravery to expose yourself to that bile and hate and to talk about these issues on a mainstream site like Kotaku, and I greatly respect Patricia for doing it as often as she does. The issue is that neither Leena or Mike put themselves out there—they were put out there. Their tweets were lifted and placed on Kotaku and that was that.

So I think this practice of just storifying tweets and calling it an article is unethical. I think it is irresponsible. For all their good intentions, mainstream outlets that are trying (commendably) to be progressive, need to accept that a huge contingent of terrible people read their sites (which, it is worth stressing, is not to say that everyone who reads their site is a terrible person), and they need to first and foremost protect their sources.

So two solutions I can think of. First, simply, ask the person whose tweet you want to storify if they mind being included in the post. I think that is the bare minimum that needs to be done. Just because someone's tweet is public doesn't mean they want it amplified to the kind of people your story is going to amplify it to. Second solution: don't embed tweets. Write your own opinion about this issue and, if necessary, post screenshots of the twitter conversation (with the tweeters' consent) that prompted it. At least this way that reply button won't be right there, begging to be abused.

So that is my concern. I don't want Kotaku to stop talking about race and gender issues in games, and I commend them for talking about them as much as they do. Patricia, among other writers, is fighting the good fight against the toxic parts of our culture, and that is something I greatly admire and appreciate. I just have my concerns about this particular way of going about it.

I stress again, this post isn't trying to point fingers at Patricia or Kotaku, they just supply me with the most succinct examples of a wider trend that I have concerns about. Simply: can we please just stop storifying people onto articles without their permission? That is all. Thanks.

UPDATE: I want to stress one last time, that I do not think Patricia is in any way a lazy or unethical games journalist. The ability to embed tweets into a post is a relatively recent thing that people have been able to do, and it is a mode of reporting on conversations that happen on Twitter that was worth exploring and experimenting with. But now it has been experimented with, we can see these issues arising, and that is worth acknowledging. So, one last time, I don't mean to imply that either Patricia or Kotaku are unethical in themselves, but that the ethics surrounding this new tool need to be considered, and I apologise to both if that was unclear.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Several people on twitter have raised the question of retweets. Don't retweets serve a similar function in exposing something someone said to a wider audience. Indeed they do! And I think they also deserve a more nuanced consideration. Specifically, I think people should consider their clout (urgh) when they go for that RT button. I've certainly before RT'ed friends with only about a dozen or so followers to my 2000+ followers, and then immediately regretted the barrage of angry naysayers I sent their way. So that is certainly something worth considering!

YET ANOTHER UPDATE: I have changed the second last paragraph as the way it was previously worded may have implied that Patricia and Kotaku only post about gender and race issues for hits, which is not something I believe and certainly not something I want to imply. What I meant to demonstrate was simply the ignorant/privileged position from which I am writing this post, as someone who has never faced the pressures of an actual games journalism job. Anyone who writes about gender or race in relation to videogames is putting themselves way out there and that is something I only have the deepest respect for.


1) I don't know if it is actually the program Storify itself that Kotaku uses on these specific stories to embed these tweets, but just like 'google' has become a verb for 'using a search engine', I am using 'storify' as a verb here for 'make tweets into a story'. Update: Storify the actual company replied to me on Twitter since this post went up and noted that, indeed, it is not Storify being used in the specific stories I speak about in this post. They also pointed out their Privacy page that does indeed suggest asking people if they mind their tweets being archived.

2) As a(n angry) side note here, I really fucking hate it when outlets post stories like this as "Is X Racist/Homophobic/Sexist?" (note: Kotaku didn't do this, but I saw many other outlets re-post it on their Facebook pages with this question) as though what their readership of primarily white/straight/male readers think in any way matters. When someone finds something discriminatory in any way, we don't sit down and have a fucking vote with the question "Is this discriminatory?". We stop, shut up, and listen to that person to understand why this thing offends them, and we fucking learn something about the world. So outlets: stop asking your readers this inane question for the illusion of participation and, instead, just tell them that someone did find it discriminatory. And, people, if you ever find yourself trying to convince someone who had a problem with something that they are wrong to have that problem: shut the fuck up and try listening for once.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

On So-Called Ungames And Why You Don't Need To Define 'Videogame' To Talk About Them

So Harry Lee and Chad Toprak organising these lecture-like things the last couple of weeks. If you don't know Harry, he is an incredibly intelligent and engaging game designer who creates the most delightful games. He also studies medicine. He also co-directs the Freeplay Independent Games Festival. He's an all-round pretty great guy who you should be keeping an eye on if you dig videogames. Chad, meanwhile, makes all kinds of whacky things at RMIT's Exertion Game Lab. He is also an all-round pretty great guy but I don't think Kotaku have posted a profile about him before.

Harry asked me last week if I'd like to give a small talk as part of these lecture-like things that he is doing. I had probably been saying ridiculous things on Twitter that day and suggested I could do something about the whole un-games/non-games monicker. Specifically, why I hate the idea of some videogames being labelled non-games or un-games on both a linguistic and a political level.

So I gave a small rant about that to my impressionable audience. And since this same discussion has been rearing its ugly head on Twitter time and time again since Proteus's release (often entirely my own fault) about a week ago, I thought I'd record it and put it online.

Before you go "URGH" (too late, right?), I am not engaging in the "what is game?" debate so much as actively decrying its very existence as something that is damaging to our medium (which, yes, okay, is a kind of engagement with the debate). As something that both jars with how language actually works and which, usually unintentionally, excludes a whole range of experiences and identities that happen with videogames.

But yes. I am not going to defend those points here. I am just going to point to the recording and say it is there if you want it. I will note that I am not a particularly great public speaker, so there are a lot of 'ums' and 'likes' and embarrassing ableist adjectives sparked by nervousness that I apologise for (feel free to comment on this post about how 'stupid' isn't ableist so I can delete said comment). Also, things go off on a tangent at one point as I made the thoughtless mistake of thinking I could use QTEs as an unproblematic example of something. Sorry about that!

But yes. As I told the audience, this was more of a rant and a musing of half-formed ideas than a well thought-out lecture, and I welcome your challenges to things I say that perhaps could use some clarification.

Anyway. Here is the talk if you want it. I call it "On So-Called 'Ungames' (in scare-quotes) And Why You Don't Need To Define 'Videogames' (And Why You Can't Define It Anyway So Stop Trying Already)". It is 25 minutes long. Enjoy!

(tl;dl: 'videogames' is a tree that is constantly growing in all directions, not a static box that all videogames have to fit inside)


Dear Esther:
Thirty Flights of Loving:
Howling Dogs: dogs.html
Rise of the Videogame Zinesters:

Further Reading!

Merritt Kopas (Lim) on how "non-game" is gendered:
A recent, fascinating article on how 'traditional' games depict movement as easy and unproblematic while queer games present it as difficult and full of hurdles, reflecting the identities of the makers of these games:
An article I wrote on Edge last year where I spoke to the developers of Proteus, Dear Esther, and Journey about redefining videogames: