With Friends Like These: Screw Ups and Patterns of Power in the Games Industry

All games reviewers need are a little hug to be kind.

Randy Pitchford is a happy man. Sure, the last couple of major titles he’s overseen as head of Gearbox Software have had their share of detractors, but that’s not going to be any skin off of his nose. If someone eventually suffers in the wake of our collective gangland beatdown of the shoddy stillborn mess that was Aliens: Colonial Marines, it’s not going to be him. It’ll be someone who we as an industry have decided is more expendable. Maybe it’s going to be whoever textured the sliding space doors, or maybe the employee who coded the pathfinding AI on the xenomorphs, or maybe even whoever was responsible for the flaccid, revisionist narrative. Maybe the seemingly bogus finger-pointing at TimeGate Studios will cast enough doubt and they’ll absorb all the damage instead. Whoever gets the blame, their releases from the company will most likely transpire without a sound. They’ll be out on the street, while somewhere in Dallas will be Randy Pitchford, unfazed. It’s good to be Randy. Randy is untouchable.

It doesn’t matter whether his studio releases an open target for near-universal critical panning, a competent multiplayer shooter almost suffocated by Family Guy levels of un-humor and questionable “aesthetic borrowing” practices, or dressing up the beaten carcass of a crass 90s FPS in extra layers of puerile filth. Pitchford is the one at the studio’s helm, and until the whole operation goes under, he’ll be right there, and the people he hires will by and large be sympathetic to his guiding vision. He’ll always have a couple of reliable fans who’ll pony up their $60 cut, and enough warmly-remembered handshakes with the press in his back pocket to weather any storm. He came through the release of Duke Nukem Forever without a scratch, and that was a jittering, broken mess that also came jam-packed with horrific misogyny and racism, both in the game and in its promotional tactics. What could a paper cut like Marines possibly do to someone who’s quickly becoming known best for running his mouth and shooting himself in the foot?

Should've done something here with more memes; more Reddit-friendly. Their input is PRICELESS to me.

Not everyone is afforded the Pitchford protection plan, of course. If the team at Mollieindustria tries to sell Phone Story on the App Store, they’ll get pulled. If David Gallant makes I Get This Call Every Day and the Toronto Star outs him as the designer, he’s out the door and can only hope his game sales keep him and his family afloat. If Everyone’s Twitter Buddy Mike Sacco so much as suggests that Pitchford and his flunkies might be unfunny hack writers at best and racially insensitive at worst, Kotaku goes and fires up their gossip engine, setting events in motion that force Sacco to either be silenced or leave his job. Gawker Media’s redheaded stepchild will even get a second headline out of the exchange for their troubles! We can be as justly incensed at all these outcomes as much as we want, but ultimately there will be many of us who are still going to perpetuate the kind of industrial climate that made those things happen. Guess it didn’t bother us that much, then, did it?

Those who claim the mantle of journalism and reporting aren’t exactly a collection of saints, either. You can talk as much game about social progressivism as you want, but at the end of the day, when you answer to the guidelines vetted by Stephen Totilo, you’ve put your paycheck in front of your idealism and the size of your audience in front of its quality. You’re also faced with well-seasoned glad-handers like Ben Kuchera, who can do things like refuse to condemn a game like RapeLay without “first-hand knowledge”, openly wish ill on another writer’s career the second he sees the word “emulator”, and make a habit of smug dismissal to anyone with the backbone to call him out on his behavior. (Points still due to the man for “broken clock” moments, like bashing targets as easy as DNF, of course.) But that was then, and this is the now when Kuchera is writing for Mike Krahulik, one of the reigning champions of Dumb Internet Drama for Man-Children.

And yet I'm still going to Boston in March. Yes, I am an idiot. Please berate me.

But here’s the thing: he’s the man-child with the money. Video games, despite all the incessant straining for validation via being “art” now (and at no prior point in their history) through tortured academic analysis, are a multi-billion-dollar capitalist industry. If he is one of the men who have a decade under his belt of accruing a fan base and a war chest, then he gets to speak loudest. You can compound that with being a gatekeeper for the premier industry charity, where the people who play and make and cover games all pay their Catholic-style moral indulgences as if by default. You can compound that with running several of the premier fan conventions / press junkets for that same industry. What you get is an indelible mark on the rickety excuse for a “gamer culture” that follows in his less-than-stellar image, and enough clout to overcome and marginalize PR damage in any situation ranging from rape victim harassment to promoting similarly questionable card games to self-subsidizing through the wallets of your fans and beyond. There’s much to laud about the industry-wide unity that admirably gets people running to the aid of those displaced by layoffs and closures, make no mistake. But that same atmosphere becomes insularity when it keeps around its toxic relics indefinitely, and broken when strikes down anyone like Sacco who might see something in need of repair.

Money is the most obvious conduit of power, and power in society is not entropic: it pools and aggregates with people who already have it and can exert it, who can maintain it and accrue more. It’s what makes corporate-friendly mouthpieces like Kuchera froth at the mouth the second he misinterprets Kain as so much as excusing a single instance of quasi-piracy. It’s also why, from the side of users and consumers, issues like backwards compatibility and always-online DRM and preventative measures against the used game market are perpetual sources of contentious rumors for next-generation consoles. It even gets to the root of why the medium lags so pitifully behind on tackling issues of race and gender or any kind of social justice: the financial barrier for entry on both creators and audiences is drastically higher than literature or film or theater or painting or sculpture or any other format on the other side of arts funding. That baked-in privilege (multiplied by the long-standing historical biases in STEM-intensive studies and pastimes) is a stumbling block we are perpetually clawing our way over, and why we’re forced to replay every wave of every modern civil rights movement back from square one as the rest of society clucks its tongues at us. We’ve only just started winding down after the latest act in a 20-year parade of playing political scapegoat for greater societal issues. And after all this time, statements like Simon Parkin’s brilliant Eurogamer piece on games with licensed guns are exceedingly rare in their willingness to raise questions and accept at least some responsibility. The rest of the time is spent wading through entrenchments of snide dismissal, defensive posturing, and embarrassing babbling about the First Amendment in the service of a collective victim complex.

Trying to resist complicity in that money trail is where the entire concept of the “independent scene” comes from, and why it’s so important as a production ethic. It involves operating at a smaller scale and trying to mitigate at least some of that participation bias. Phone Story used its medium and design ethos to bolster its message about the horrible prices others pay for our luxuries: four mini-games in a looped “Obsolescence Mode” with each cycle representing a new model of the phone you’re probably playing the game on. Sure, the “indie game” scene in conjunction with “New Games Journalism” generates plenty of auteur worship and faux-academic navel-gazing. It’s aggravating when relatively smart people fail to realize both “input without player agency” and “Slavoj Žižek analyses without self-awareness” are usually just Really Tedious Exercises, and you can get anxious all that passion and creativity is going to go to wasted on some pithy salon culture. Even so, underneath all that preening and posturing, there is ultimately a kernel of truth with a far more valid claim at the populist spirit than the AAA system could or would ever offer.

There’s nothing that confirms this way of analyzing the world than the framing we use to predict the future of the current studio system in our worries over another “collapse”. But just because Call of Duty has to start receding sometime doesn’t mean anyone’s can scry the coming of the next epoch from sales figures alone. Despite Gearbox’s colossal efforts, the landscape is too diverse for any single game to cause an Atari E.T.-level fiasco that cripples the whole industry. For big-ticket developers, the talent pool changes every time new crops of fresh-out-of-school undergraduates from college “game design curricula” hit the job market. (And having an industry perpetually overfilled with workers sure hurts efforts to make unionization seem realistic, doesn’t it?) You’ll never be able to simply wish away the smudges and stains that Pitchford and Kuchera and Krahulik and Kotaku and turbulent employment practices have left on us all. The only threat to the status quo comes when you start working with models and ideas that would make them obsolete. If they start treating you like a threat, then you might just be onto something.

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