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What's fueling GamerGate?

An attempt to acknowledge legitimate (but largely unspoken) grievances that have kept gamers supporting the cause

About six years ago, I sounded a lot like a GamerGate supporter. I was hosting a podcast for GameSpot, and expressing my reservations about the incredible success of the Wii. Nintendo's new console was still facing supply shortages well over a year after launch, and motion controls were suddenly ever-present. Publishers who lamented the rising costs of AAA were making fewer bets on traditional console games but tripping over themselves to churn out casual-minded cash-ins.

As someone who still plays mobile games lamenting the lack of a d-pad and actual buttons, I couldn't help but be frustrated by the situation. Happy as I was to see the world at large develop an appreciation for games as a medium, I was concerned that this appreciation was coming at the expense of the sort of games I played and loved my whole life. I worried that publishers would look at the opportunity cost of making the games I wanted to play and say it was more effective to chase the hot new trend instead.

"GamerGate is not about ethics in game journalism so much as it is about losing control of our hobby."

It wouldn't have been the first time my preferred style of game was tossed aside by the industry. I loved arcades, the dimly lit, dimly social water cooler for gamers to gather around when I was young. I loved offline games, because online multiplayer modes always seemed to be a losing battle to prevent people from exercising the worst aspects of their humanity. I loved the Dreamcast for its incredible assortment of fighting games, 2D shoot-'em-ups, weird Japanese games I would import but never fully understand (Roommania #203, I'm looking your way), and weird Japanese games Sega would import in its desperate death throes as a hardware manufacturer (Seaman, Typing of the Dead). But over time, I watched all of those things disappear or become unrecognizable.

As GamerGate has unfolded in recent months, I've tried to empathize with the movement's supporters, at least the ones who have distanced themselves from the shameful harassment campaigns conducted in its name. What I keep coming back to in this exercise is that feeling I had six years ago, or when the arcade I used to manage closed, or even when the Dreamcast failed to find an audience, the helpless feeling of realizing my hobby was changing, and I had no say in which direction. I suspect the sentiments ultimately fueling GamerGate supporters are the same ones that were behind my podcast fretting. It's not about ethics in game journalism so much as it is about losing control of our hobby (of which game journalism is merely one aspect).

There is only so much control to be had in gaming, split between customers, developers, publishers, retailers, and the press. Every time one group increases its control of the business, it comes at the expense of another. For gamers who grew up in generations past and who liked things the way they were, most of the changes of late have come at their expense. Digital-rights management has taken away their ownership of the games. Always-online schemes and games-as-a-service have taken away their permanence. Downloadable content and microtransactions have allowed publishers to take what was previously a very simple value proposition--X amount of money in exchange for one (1) complete game--and obfuscate it as a way to get more money out of players.

"There is only so much control to be had in gaming, split between customers, developers, publishers, retailers, and the press. Every time one group increases its control of the business, it comes at the expense of another."

To be fair, customers have been given more control in some respects. There's a greater diversity of offerings on the market for gamers to choose from than ever before. Free-to-play models let them try games out before spending money on them in a more direct way than demos and rentals ever could, and social media has given them direct lines of communication to creators that they never had before. However, these advances may have limited appeal to gamers who liked the old system just as it was. That added diversity largely consists of games aimed at different audiences. With free-to-play, the massive player bases required to make the model work have negated the import of any individual player, lessening the effect of individual feedback (and that direct link to developers). Analytics have further eroded the value of that feedback, as companies don't need to care about what gamers say they want if ignoring that produces demonstrably better revenues.

Gamers are by no means the only group losing out as the balance of power shifts. Retailers are scrambling to find new roles in the industry ecosystem as digital distribution takes off, and the press is increasingly being cut out of the loop as publishers use their own sites and social media to speak directly to consumers. But even though it's the retailers and the press losing leverage in those instances, some ill effects still trickle down to gamers. Retailers push for preorders with exclusive digital freebies, denying gamers the option of getting a "complete" experience at launch by splitting up sometimes desirable bonuses between competing chains. And without a powerful independent press, gamers are subjected to more marketing hype and uncritical coverage instead of thoughtful criticism and substantial reporting.

So why is this "uprising" happening now when these trends have been going on for years? I would say in large part it's actually just a continuation and amplification of what we've seen before, when SimCity launched as an unplayable mess, or when the Xbox One was unveiled with an online requirement, even for offline play. The difference is that SimCity (and Diablo III, and other such launch debacles) are limited in scope. Servers get fixed, or players stop trying to log on. Either way, it's over and done with in a matter of weeks. And in the case of the Xbox One, Microsoft simply saw the outpouring of anger and caved. Selling a console with required daily online check-ins is not dogma to Microsoft, so there was little incentive to dig in.

"As the industry changes, many of those changes are at best messing with a status quo you quite liked, and at worst working directly against your interests."

That's a very different case from what we've seen with GamerGate. From the beginning, there have been very visible actions of misogyny and harassment perpetrated under the GamerGate banner. For some journalists (a profession that attracts people willing to speak truth to power) and developers of indie games (people who have eschewed the comforts of mainstream development to make the games they want to make with the messages they want to convey), there was all the reason in the world to stand up and fight against that misogyny and harassment, no matter the sacrifice involved. So for months now, we've seen gamers with years of frustration to vent pitted against communities of people who are fighting back as a matter of principle. It's not that we hate gamers. It's that we hate the awful things being done in our hobby's name, and many of us will fight those things, even in the face of great personal cost.

I'm writing this in the hopes that articulating the legitimate grievances fueling much of the rage behind GamerGate may convince supporters that those of us in the press and the development community are not the enemy. We understand (at least some of us do) that as the industry changes, many of those changes are at best messing with a status quo you quite liked, and at worst working directly against your interests.

That said, right now you are working against history. The gaming industry has changed, and it's never going back to the way it was, much as we might cherish certain aspects of the way things used to be. Save your energy for fights with concrete goals and worthwhile causes that haven't been co-opted by vile miscreants, and you will find all the support you need within our ranks.

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Brendan Sinclair avatar

Brendan Sinclair

Managing Editor

Brendan joined GamesIndustry International in 2012. Based in Toronto, Ontario, he was previously senior news editor at CBS-owned GameSpot in the US.

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