Objective Game Reviews and #GamerGate

I am Danny, the creator of Objective Game Reviews. I run this website, and of the 99 game reviews published on it, 93 were written by me. (The others were written by the people listed on the Contributors page.) I also conducted the interviews for the three Subjective Reviewer of the Month articles and wrote the rest of the content on the site (like the About page) and the twitter account is mine and so on.

A quick glance at this site will show that it has been dormant since May of this year. This is for many reasons – I have a more than full time job; I have other things going on in my life, many of which make it tough for me to keep the site humming along; I’m a terrible person – but the reason I want to discuss today is that it turns out that reviewing games, and just generally posting about games, is hard.

If you are in the enviable position of not knowing much about what #GamerGate is, here are a few links to bring you up to speed:

Garrett Martin at Paste summarizes the ordeal so far.

Liz Ryerson talks about the roots of this movement and gaming culture.

Cameron Kunzelman discusses the participants in #GamerGate.

That last piece begins with a link to a twitter conversation that Kunzelman had with Adam Haux, one of the many people forming the mass of #GamerGate participants – people who, in Haux’s words, “wonder how CoD or gone home gets the review scores it does when both are mediocre as a game” and who worry that “games that are mediocre are given that score when there can be objective critic” [sic in both cases]. That last quote was a bit of a jumble, and Haux clarified: “Journalists are pressured and influenced by said developers to give scores based on bias instead of fair critique” [sic again].

These are the kinds of criticisms that drove me to create Objective Game Reviews.

The perception that games are receiving reviews contrary to what they should receive because of bias, because reviewers aren’t being objective, is why this site publishes objective reviews. With the possible exception of the number at the end of the reviews (the provenance of which is left obscure, for various reasons) I think the reviews this site publishes are indisputably objective and unbiased.

The perception that reviewers let their subjectivity infect their work, and that women are particularly biased and thus unfit to write reviews, is why this site’s “Subjective Reviewer of the Month” interviews focus on, among other things, the thought process behind reviewing a game, and why the interviews have featured women, including Carolyn Petit, whose 9 out of 10 score for Grand Theft Auto V earned her a significant amount of abuse in one of the innumerable instances of abuse that predate the full-on #GamerGate blitzkrieg and which reach back to a time long before video games existed.

The perception that games like Gone Home or Call of Duty are unjustly lauded because of a feminist cabal that is out to ruin gaming or because the Call of Duty franchise lives a charmed life is why this site made (makes?) a special effort to review games from across the spectrum of what gaming has to offer, from notes from the casketgirl and Queer Pirate Plane to Titanfall and Far Cry 3.

I had (and I suppose I have) other plans for the site too: more reviews, of course, seeing as the site currently lacks any reviews of the Call of Duty games, and also more features akin to Subjective Reviewer of the Month, which I hoped (and hope) could similarly contribute to the conversation that is always brewing about objectivity, bias, and game criticism.

As of right now, this site is silent, though, and the conversation that is always brewing is bubbling over again. And in a way these are both linked to the issue I mentioned a the beginning of this article: reviewing games is hard.

Reviews here at Objective Game Reviews try to stay under 500 words. We only need one screenshot. Having written almost 100 of these reviews, I can tell you it’s hard, and that it’s also hard to write a subjective (read: normal) game review, which are longer and probably require more screenshots. A lot goes into the process, and to some degree it’s different for every reviewer. Writing criticism of games is a complex process (something that I think comes through in the Subjective Reviewer of the Month interviews) and I think a failure to appreciate what goes into game criticism drives a lot of the #GamerGate anger.

It’s telling that in the context of the conversation with Kunzelman, Haux expresses opinions on the spectrum from ‘I am upset about the high numbers Call of Duty and Gone Home got in their reviews’ to ‘Deus Ex: Human Revolution is a 7/10′ to ‘you can’t score a game any more than you can score a book.’ I see similar confusion infecting claims made by other #GamerGate participants. Compare, for instance, points #2 and #4 about games journalism in this manifesto, which is edited by “Gamers,” and try to tell me that the #GamerGate people know what they want in any detail more specific than ‘fewer women writing about games’ and ‘a lower Metacritic score for Gone Home.’ As Matt Lees points out, many of the specific demands are based around misconceptions in the first place. I imagine many of them are unclear not just about what they want but why they want it.

So, forget all the stuff about too-cozy relationships between critics and game developers. They could live on separate continents and I suspect people would still complain if Gone Home or other games ‘on the outs’ with gamer culture got a ten out of ten review score anywhere. The people behind #GamerGate want certain things out of reviews. They don’t know what they want or how to articulate this, but they know when they don’t get it, sometimes, and right now they’re fighting against this perceived injustice, even if they haven’t worked out quite what to fight for.

To some degree I think this issue infects all games criticism, not just the bigots behind #GamerGate, but also interesting, thoughtful writers of games criticism. We’re at a point in time in games where you have people who talk about the “games industry” as if it’s coextensive with what gaming is, people for whom games are emerging finally from the confines of capitalism, people who see game reviews as akin to Consumer Reports evaluations of a product, people who see game reviews as criticism like movie or book reviews, people who who think a phrase like “ludonarrative dissonance” signals a profound misunderstanding of what games are, people who invented the phrase “ludonarrative dissonance” and who have worked on some great games, people who think the future is review scores that are updated in real time as a massively multiplayer game’s servers go up and down, people who think review scores are the devil, people who think review scores would be fine if we could just use the whole scale, people who have been photographed in front of three bottles of Mtn Dew and a bag of Doritos near a poster of Master Chief with a facial expression that speaks volumes, people who don’t think it’s relevant to mention that they’ve been paid to talk about the game in their YouTube video,  and so on.

All of these people are right, kind of. Although I don’t eat Doritos and although I may have sounded snarky somewhere in that paragraph, there’s nothing facetious there. Things are muddled. That muddled space is where and why this site exists. This site, I hope, is in its way one clear, bright line in this space. This site is clear about what it is and what it does, in the sense that it declares what it is right there in the title. Objective game reviews.

There is a larger conversation to have about what games criticism and game reviews should be. This is what Jake Rodkin, a developer on The Walking Dead and now Firewatch, has to say about Objective Game Reviews on an episode of the Idle Thumbs podcast. It occurs after a discussion about subjectivity in game reviews with other hosts of the podcast, a discussion that recurs two weeks later. These discussions, like discussions about what a game is, are ones that “gamers” need to have. They can take us from where we are to a place where I could call myself a gamer without wanting to hang myself more than I usually want to, this despite the fact that these conversations would get you laughed out of the room if you tried to have them about any other media (imagine someone demanding an objective book review) and despite the fact that these conversations and issues are themselves typically just ways for people to indirectly, and sometimes unknowingly, silence extant marginalized voices.

But we can’t even get there, to those discussions, I guess, because we’re mired in things like #GamerGate. This post, if I’m going to keep it to ~2,000 words, can only talk about those things so much before it circles back to its reason for existing in the first place, that CamelCase hash tag abomination that’s eating my twitter feed alive. And that, plus specifically the virulent harassment of women that it is built on and that it reinforces, and the roadblock this forms in the way of getting to the other conversations I mentioned above and the eventual existence of “gaming” as something you can proudly claim as a hobby, is of course the real story of #GamerGate, as opposed to the accusations of bias and collusion or whatever. Which just sucks.

Part of me just wants to shut up, forever. (Sometimes I think that part of me has won, and is why this site has gone dark. I don’t think that’s the case, but maybe I’m deceiving myself when I say that if it were the only issue, I’d be diligent enough to keep the site alive at the price of wading each day into this bullshit.) This is because I think this will all sort itself out, in a way. Gaming is going through some growing pains, now that we’re seeing the maturation of a generation of people who played games while growing up on their cell phones, on their Wii with their grandparents, at school and with something more exciting than Oregon Trail, and in other contexts where they could do so without also being a “gamer.” As these people mature, they’ll be the gamers, not the folks behind #GamerGate. (Which is not to suggest this future as a panacea. I do think it’s progress, though.)

But of course, not everyone is as fortunate as me. I can just shut up and nothing happens, aside from my website lying fallow and my self-loathing ticking up another notch. My chosen career is not games criticism, and even if it were, the hate mail that Objective Game Reviews got in its heyday, and will ever get, is nothing compared to what #GamerGate is daily churning out against all sorts of people in games criticism who have nothing more substantial to earn abuse than being a woman, or knowing a game developer. I don’t have to face this kind of hate to do something I love, to interact with and think fruitfully about a central part of my life, because I have the luxury of having been able to steadily divest myself of emotional and intellectual attachment to games whenever things get as shitty as they are right now.

So in a way that’s the takeaway of what I’m writing. I began this article by talking about how writing game reviews is hard. The part that makes it hard for me is the part that makes criticism hard for everyone, and as I argued above, I think it’s the cause of a lot of the hate. For people more resilient, talented, and driven than me, this is something to overcome, and often it’s probably precisely this challenge that they relish, that gets them out of bed in the morning to write about something that much of society thinks of as a waste of time.

But that’s without #GamerGate. And from a quick glance at something like Gamasutra or an E3 press conference it’s clear that even people more central to games and more coherent than your average reddit user are still as often against inclusiveness and the moral evolution of the medium as anyone tweeting in support of #GamerGate. And that makes it hard for people who aren’t in my privileged position, ensconced above the bullshit. This kind of hard is the wrong kind of hard, and it’s the kind of hard that’s an effect, not a cause, of the hatred we’re seeing. This is the kind of hard that doesn’t energize people and make them excited to exist in the formative years of a genuinely new creative medium. It’s the kind of hard that drives people away from what they love, leaving us bereft of exactly the kind of voices that make things worth talking about in the first place. Nothing should ever be that kind of hard.

Game reviews that are fact, not opinion