This is an open letter to Steve Butts (IGN), Stephen Totilo (Kotaku), Justin Calvert (Gamespot), Chris Grant (Polygon), Dale North (Destructoid), Ludwig Kietzmann (Joystiq), and all other Editors-in-Chief of gaming websites:
We have a problem and you can do something about it.
Our medium and the culture surrounding it is still in its adolescence and we’ve been experiencing a lot of growing pains lately. Those of us in the games community who are a part of marginalized groups have been going through hell lately. You can help us. You can do more than just express sympathy.
“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” You have a chance, right now, to shorten that arc. You are in positions of power and privilege. You have the luxury of being able to effect change at a level that we can only dream about.
When we tell the social history of our medium a few decades from now, we will either remember this as the decade when community leaders decided to transform gaming culture OR we’ll remember this as the decade when you remained complacent, reluctantly dragging your feet into a new era while allowing the most vulnerable members of the community to shoulder the responsibility for change.
This is not an overdramatization. We are in a pivotal moment and you have a choice. The purpose of this letter is to ask you to choose differently. You can do more than what you’re already doing. This is less a condemnation of your current practices than it is a call to action.
You can no longer treat sexism, racism, classism, ableism, homophobia and transphobia as niche issues. These forms of marginalization have real effects on real people and, as you know all too well from your vantage point, they are painfully exaggerated in gaming spaces. They are problems that permeate every aspect of videogames from their production, to their player base, to the websites that write about them.
The fact that these are all systemic problems in the so-called “real world” is not a valid excuse for condoning bad behavior online.
Just because the whole house is on fire doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to salvage our room.
You know that these are major problems and, what’s more, we know that you know they are. We know you’re just as ashamed of our culture as we are.
But I’m also concerned that you expect many of the people who visit your websites, comment on your articles and, yes, look at your advertisements to be the very bigoted folks who are holding our culture back.
When you encounter bigotry on your own sites, I often hear your staff (on podcasts, on Twitter, etc.), throw their hands up in the air and say, “That’s the Internet for you!” You adopt a posture of passive defeatism, suggesting that nothing can be done. This is where I have to be terse:
Your chagrin is not good enough. You have more power and authority than you’re letting on, you’re simply choosing not to exercise it.
Your sites set trends for the way people talk about, think about, and relate to games. Your readers spend hours watching you play games, listening to you talk about games, and reading what you write about them. Like it or not, you’re tastemakers.
Many of you have been diversifying your staff. When Polygon first announced itself as a reinvention of games criticism, many of us loudly guffawed at the overwhelmingly male staff page. Polygon has since hired more and more women and the voice of the site has improved as a result. Kotaku has also been hiring important, diverse voices. Please keep this trend up but remember that you, as a group of men, still have the most power in the online gaming sphere and you have a responsibility to use it for good.
You have control of a podium from which you can send a clear message, the message that those who adopt flagrantly sexist, racist, classist, ableist, homophobic and/or transphobic viewpoints are not the audience you want to reach. In this letter, I want to share two concrete ways that you can communicate this message on your sites:
1) Publish a highly visible reference statement explaining your site’s stance on sexism, racism, classism, ableism, homophobia and transphobia.
Over at The Border House (where I write regularly), we keep a permanent list of “Helpful Resources” on our top bar right alongside a detailed “Discussion Policy” for our comments sections. Any visitor to The Border House who consults these resources knows exactly what to expect from our space and how to participate productively in our community. While The Border House is an explicitly feminist blog, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t also take a visible stand, even if you think it should be obvious that your site does not condone certain kinds of behavior.
Rock, Paper, Shotgun has proved that a mainstream site can do something like this. Read how they did it. The e-mails and comments that John Walker got for publishing that piece are the sorts of emails and comments that many of us get anytime we publish anything on any topic. Publish RPS-esque statements, post them at the top of your site and refer readers back to them.
When few people besides straight men feel automatically safe on your sites, it’s not our responsibility to come in and change your communities for you. It’s your responsibility to take a bold stand for what’s right.
When Rock, Paper, Shotgun posted that statement, it sent a clear message to us that we should give that space a chance. That, maybe, it would be a place where we could participate in a comments thread.
On many university campuses, LGBT offices run Safe Space programs. Professors, staff, and administrators can attend trainings to learn how to better serve LGBT students. When they complete the training, they receive a fabulous rainbow sticker for their office door.
Safe Space programs aren’t perfect but they do convey key information at a glance. When I’m about to meet with a professor I’ve never met before, a Safe Space sticker on their door tells me that they at least have a cursory awareness of LGBT issues.
The visible reference statements that I am urging you to publish will function in much the same way as a Safe Space sticker. They won’t automatically transform the culture of your website. You’ll have to back them up with a clear editorial voice and with strict moderation of your forums and comments, but they will let people like me know, right away, that you are taking your responsibility as editors seriously.
Which brings me to:
2) Hire (more) people to moderate your forums and comments sections.
In February, I wrote a guest editorial for Kotaku. I enjoyed writing for a mass audience and I would sincerely love to write for Kotaku again. I’ve seen Stephen Totilo dive into the fray when a blogger on N4G produced an elaborate conspiracy theory that Kotaku was seeking to generate revenue through feminist articles. I appreciated seeing Stephen Totilo articulate his strong stance off site and I wish he would do so in a perma-linked resource at the top of Kotaku.
All this being said, my one experience with Kotaku commenters was brutal. Like many internet authors, I have a standard byline, a brief blurb that describes who I am. Mine mentions that I am a transgender woman, a detail that I include deliberately.
I never had to be out online but I chose to be as a display of solidarity and as a pathmaking gesture for others in my situation. Because of my blurb, for example, many transgender women have reached out to me so that we can form networks of mutual support both on- and offline.
I considered changing my bio for my Kotaku article because I had a sinking feeling in my stomach about what might happen when my piece went live. I undid and redid the deletion of the transgender detail at least a dozen times.
I ultimately decided that it would be an important gesture, that I should show that Kotaku publishes transgender voices, that I should not be ashamed to be visible to the tender, closeted fifteen year-old transgender person just because I would get harassed by a few dozen fifteen year-old cisgender boys.
[Trigger Warning for this paragraph only: transphobic language]. But when I finally made the mistake of looking at the comments on my Kotaku article, I wanted to throw up. One of the first comments that appeared was: “I like my videogames like I like my women. Without a penis.” Many comments were about my byline and not about the article itself. On The Border House (where I write regularly), the commenter who made the “penis” comment would be excluded from the site. To this day, he remains one of Kotaku’s most prolific commenters.
There are a hundred stories like mine.
You need better moderation on your forums and in your comments threads. In this letter, I’m speaking to a group of people with varying policies; I can’t speak to each of your sites individually but I know you need to do more, and to do what you’re already doing better.
You need to stop hurtful comments before they appear, not after. At The Border House, we screen all incoming first-time commenters and then watch their words carefully. We are always ready to punish people who break our Discussion Policy. We’re a small site with relatively few comments, yes, but we also have very few resources.
You, on the other hand, have money. Many of you fly your entire staff to PAX, PAX East and E3. You send correspondents to GamesCom, Tokyo Game Show, and GDC. Use that money to change the kinds of words that appear on your websites. Take responsibility for those words. Realize that they are archived as a permanent record of your failure to properly maintain your sites.
Hire people. Hire moderators. Hire someone to screen comments on particularly controversial threads (like Feminist Frequency releases). Hire an outside consultant to come in and help you understand what your site can do to reach out to women, people of color, disabled people, LGBT people and anyone who feels excluded. Learn what words should be permanently banned and don’t allow comments that include those words. And, please, someone ask John Teti over at Gameological how he keeps his comment threads so pristine and then do that too.
Those are two concrete steps but, if you would prefer a succinct overarching philosophy, try this third step on for size. It’s simple, and I’m borrowing it, with my thanks, from Todd Harper who runs the MIT Game Lab:
You will anger readers by taking a stand. Some of them will leave. Some of their threats to leave forever are not, in fact, empty. You’ll get flak from NeoGaf and Reddit. 4Chan will make the same ugly threads about you as they do about me and my friends.
Do it. Piss them off. Take the risk. Make a decision now that they are not worth your time and that the ad revenue they provide is not worth the toxic atmosphere they bring to your sites. They’re not worth continuing to bear the reputation of being an unsafe place for people who are not straight men.
A story about taking a bold stand: For a long time, the Mormon Church banned anyone with African heritage from holding a position of leadership. When the Church still hadn’t changed this racist policy in the 1970s, major media outlets started to take notice. The New York Times publicly shamed the Church in its editorial pages. Property owners refused to rent space to the Church for conventions and conferences. College football teams refused to play games against the Mormon-owned Brigham Young University and some teams threatened to wear symbolic black armbands during games as a form of protest. After several years in the shaming spotlight, the Church changed its policy in 1978.
The analogy isn’t perfect and struggles for racial equality do not map neatly onto all forms of social justice work. But when a particular subculture remains embarrassingly regressive in an increasingly progressive era (and I think gaming culture definitely fits this description), we have to be clear that bigoted voices are not welcome. Neutrality is not an option. Neutrality means stagnancy.
Neutrality means the status quo forever.
If you tell certain readers that they are not welcome, they will squawk like parrots: “Free speech!” Let them practice their “free speech” somewhere else. They can start their own blogs or they can go find a website that still condones their behavior. Your websites are not public parks. You have no obligation to let people say whatever they want on your sites.
In the piece that I’m drawing inspiration from, Todd Harper wrote that “if you are interested—really interested in [changing gaming culture] then you are going to have to fight for it.” We know that you know what needs to happen: you need to fight. You have the necessary clout to take on this fight. This will mean shedding some readers, burning some bridges, and suffering harassment. But you need to take that risk.
It’s scary to change, but think about how scared we are to visit your websites. It’s exhausting to battle bigoted commenters, but think about how tired we are of the abuse that we receive. It’s horrifying to see the sort of hatred people spew when their primacy is challenged, but it’s terrifying to have it aimed at you.
Try to remember, though, that it’s exciting to head off in bold new directions and try to think about how excited we would be to see you do just that. You can help. Take the risk.