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GamerGate and game reviews

A gamergate is a reproductively viable female worker ant that is able to reproduce with mature males when the colony is lacking a queen.

Wikipedia, defining what I wish was the only usage of “gamergate”

The web is a machine made to take in stupid ideas and put out overblown campaigns based on hearsay and ignorance. For reasons beyond sane comprehension, the “#GamerGate controversy” exploded onto the Twitterverse a few months ago and instead of being a short-lived, ultimately failing troll attempt, has become a horrible debacle and dragged on for far longer than anyone could have guessed. I think it could actually be over now, but that’s mainly because I’ve had most of this article sitting as an unposted draft for a week or two.

The first few times I saw the word “GamerGate”, I immediately scrolled away or went off to do something else, in determination to ignore something that was so obviously completely retarded. But eventually, as I’d kept on seeing it everywhere, I sighed, took the bait and had a look at what the whole thing was about.

The story goes as follows: An ex-boyfriend of Zoe Quinn, creator of Depression Quest, indicated in a lengthy blog post that she had slept with Nathan Grayson, a Kotaku journalist during a break in their relationship and then lied to him about it once the break ended, among other things that you can read about if you hate your time that much. GamerGate came about because someone decided that this affair of Zoe’s was a ploy to get positive coverage for Depression Quest, and that this was indicative of a giant web of corruption and general lack of journalistic integrity in the gaming media.

And yet Nathan never wrote a review of Depression Quest, nor did he cover any Quinn-related news after or during their relationship. The ex-boyfriend himself even decried the connection:

There was a typo up for a while that made it seem like Zoe and I were on break between March and June. This has apparently led some people to infer that her infidelity with Nathan Grayson began in early March. I want to clarify that I have no reason to believe or evidence to imply she was sleeping with him prior to late March or early April (though I believe they’d been friends for a while before that). This typo has since been corrected to make it clear we were on break between May and June. To be clear, if there was any conflict of interest between Zoe and Nathan regarding coverage of Depression Quest prior to April, I have no evidence to imply that it was sexual in nature.

Simply put, the entire controversy is based on a shaky train of logic unsupported by facts and built up from the foundation of a typo.

But you know, even if Grayson had written a review of a game made by someone he’d been in a relationship with – and I can’t imagine it would have been published, let alone without an acknowledgement of authorial bias, the whole controversy would still be entirely without merit, because it misunderstands the entire point and aims of a review.

The sentiment behind the movement stinks of the kind of thinking that unironically calls for objectivity in game reviews, as if there’s some pure, perfect way to look at every game ever made and order them on a single scale of quality/value from 1 to 100. The web of personal relationships between developers and journalists is imagined to be a threat to achieving this perfect objectivity and a conspiracy on the part of both parties to promote themselves and their friends and give each other high numbers that will trick innocent, impressionable players into purchasing objectively inferior games.

And that’s ridiculous.

I’m against assigning a numerical rating to the subject at the end of a review because of exactly this – the point of a review is to explain in some detail the experience the reviewer had with the work: what thoughts it provoked in them, how it compares to other works both in and out of the same field, and then, perhaps, whether or not they can recommend the work to others and what kind of people they imagine would get something out of it. And some kind of bias will always creep into these opinions, no matter how experienced the reviewer, because no human can look at something, especially not a work of art/entertainment, and judge it entirely without bias.

No sane reviewer is claiming that their body of work represents a perfect buyers’ guide for everyone who’s every picked up a game, because that’s impossible. And no sane reviewer is trying to trick anyone into buying games they won’t enjoy – if you make purchasing decisions based on look at a number at the bottom of a review, the buyer’s remorse is entirely on you. A game is not a utility purchase.

If we suppose that a review is just a number out of a bigger number that’s supposed to represent the absolute ironcast worth of a work, and that number can be raised by factors outside of the work, sure, the imagined foundation of GamerGate would have been a bad thing had it actually happened, but that’s just not what a review is. GamerGate is a lie backed by nice sounding words like “accountability” and “integrity” that have been misapplied in an attempt to give the movement some measure of legitimacy.

So, in summary, the call for accountability and fairness in game reviews is misguided because there’s no such thing as an objective review, no perfect long line of worthiness in which every game ever to be made is lined up in a perfect order from most enjoyable to everyone to least enjoyable to everyone, and no giant conspiracy to make anyone play artsy depression games they’re not interested in. This was not an argument that needed to happen.

There are, of course, many other unsavoury facets of the whole ridiculous movement I’ve not mentioned in this article, and from this it could be argued that all I’ve managed to do here is argue with an imaginary supporter of the movement who actually takes its stated aims at face-value, but I think there’s value in that. I leave the rest to others better qualified than I.