A Look at the Questionable Ethics of Gamergate

This post was originally submitted as an ethical analysis case study for a university essay in 2015
All opinions expressed are my own.
Featured Image: Al Jazeera

The internet has provided a new class of communication professionals who can post and upload stories free from the gatekeeping role of an editor. As a result, ethical questions have arisen over what information is acceptable and factual, and how journalists and other professional communicators should report this information. An ethical analysis of Gamergate explores the relationship between journalists and game developers, coupled with the power consumers have and the complexities of the two when united. Gamergate began in 2014 with a sex scandal involving newly acclaimed independent game developer, Zoe Quinn, after her ex-boyfriend, Eren Gjoni, posted a long and detailed online accusation of her infidelity. He claimed she slept with other people during their relationship, one of which was a reporter for popular gaming news website Kotaku, and another her supervisor. Gamers quickly accused Quinn unethical practice through trading sex for positive reviews and individual career advancement, despite no evidence. Kotaku publicly clarified that their reporter never wrote a review of Quinn’s game, and she was hired after her relationship with her supervisor had ended (Romano, 2014). Even so, supporters of Gamergate argue that the close relationship between journalists and developers provide evidence to an unethical conspiracy for reviewers to focus on certain social issues (Eördögh, 2014). However, there remains ongoing debate over the legitimate cause of the Gamergate controversy. Supporters oppose this, expressing that their actions are based on concern for ethics in videogame journalism. Others believe that it desperately attempted to explore gamers’ persistent dissatisfaction with games journalism, yet resulted in the harassment of individual women as an attempt to control who video games were for.

The issue brings to question the ramifications of professional communicators in a number of different ways. Firstly, we must ask is there any validity to the Gamergate claims of bias in games journalism? In September 2014, British journalist Milo Yiannopoulos of Breitbart published leaked discussions from a mailing list for gaming journalists called GameJournoPros, which included events related to Gamergate (Stuart, 2014). Yiannopoulos and his supporters saw this as evidence of involvement between journalists, rather than a standard practice to have an informal venue to discuss matters related to their profession. Some Gamergate supporters further believe that co-ordinated academic research on video games was in fact working with other journalists to advance a feminist agenda. While this idea has been dismissed as conspiracy, it shows the reach of opinions of some journalists who agreed with the Gamergate movement. Escapist magazine interviewed male game developers of which most were pro-Gamergate. Only independent developer Greg Costikyan stated that Gamergate was “repulsive,” and writer Tadgh Kelly called it a war against “an imaginary enemy” (Romano, 2014). The accompanying interviews consisting of female game developers was completely anonymous due to fear. As such, it is essential to explore the ethical role of professional communicators through Gewirth’s argument for the principle of generic consistency (PGC) and dual obligation information theory (DOIT). PGC argues that people are purposive agents with individual freedoms and well-being that applies equally to all, everywhere at all times. DOIT builds upon this, exploring how media practitioners are committed to ethical norms as information (Spence, 2011). The inherent epistemological truth of disseminators of information committing to certain ethical principles and values of honesty, sincerity and justice was unfortunately seen as circumstantial and optional. Communicators engaged in purposeful abuse of information, a violation of universal rights, specifically that of freedom and well-being. The responsibility of fair and accurate information was missing, and professionals encouraged misinformation and disinformation. While there may be some validity in the argument for bias in game journalism, their attempt to answer the authorative question of “why be moral?” was done impractically. The journalists and bloggers who shared the harassment and misinformation of Quinn did so believing their rights had been infringed upon, not to protect others. Ultimately their methodology did not adhere to moral expectations for news media.

Secondly, the game developers, critics and female professional bloggers relentlessly remain harassed in the gaming community. In response to women discussing their wish to be treated respectfully, some male gamers saw these concerns as ruining the fun of their gaming experience (Romano, 2014). Several professional women received so much media attention and public threats they have been forced to flee. The first was Quinn, chased out of her home the first weekend of Gamergate, female critic Anita Sarkeesian who was inundated by rape, death and a bomb threat, followed by Bioware’s senior writer Jennifer Hepler who resigned last year after enduring harassment (Stuart, 2014) (Romano, 2014). The lack of PGC followed caused a violation of ethics and justice that led to substantial social consequences from poor decisions as a direct result of Yiannopoulos’ unethical reporting. The Kantian theory of Contractarianism (KC) explores how ethics should be applied to the media. It believes “each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive basic liberty compatible with a similar liberty for others” (Singer, 1993). This view is that each person matters, and matters equally, and as such is entitled to the same consideration creating a natural duty of justice. When looking upon the reporting of Gamergate highlights the complete lack of empathy for Zoe Quinn and other female game developers and critics, completely undermining the value of liberty and social freedoms, and further highlighting the ways in which individual rights were abused completely lacking justification.

Thirdly, the power of social media overwhelmed and shadowed unbiased, factual reporting and we must be cautious of what precedence this may set. In Gamergate, sensationalised and exaggerated reporting by professionals who should know better led to a minority attacking what they disagreed with. Supporters were critical of articles calling for diversity that followed the controversy believing them to be an attack on gamer culture. They responded with an email campaign demanding advertisers to drop several publications (Eördögh, 2014). One main advertiser withdrew an ad campaign in October 2014. This could have had potentially disastrous effects on free speech through supporting the harassment of the female game developers. KC aims to create a mutually beneficially agreement between communication professionals and consumers, free from social constructs and prejudices, complimenting the DOIT/PGC providing a framework which for an objective and independent basis for morality through human rights (Singer, 1993). Together, they overcome moral relativism allowing for the fair assessment of information, however, the lack of knowledge and truth being reported in Gamergate has led to their original message to become clouded with hate, bias and personal opinion. Information can be used to benefit or harm, and Gamergate chose to engage with the latter, ignoring the intrinsic ethical character of knowledge and fairness. They had lost the trust of a large proportion of their audience due to their own negligence, and lost the power to express their original message (Burns, 2002). Gamergate did not utilise the most efficient means to achieve one’s ends, and as a result is instrumentally irrational.

The case study of Gamergate offers insight into the complexities of professional communication when individuals choose to ignore the universal framework of KC and DOIT. Ethical frameworks exist to ensure the fair, honest and trustworthy spread of information while simultaneously protecting the rights and freedoms of individuals. Gamergate grossly ignored such ethical responsibilities, putting females at risk, and jeopardising their whole message.
Burns, L. (2002). Journalism in Action. In Understanding Journalism (pp. 16-30). London: Sage Publications.
Eördögh, F. (2014, November 25). Gamergate and the new horde of digital saboteurs. Retrieved from The Christian Science Monitor: http://www.csmonitor.com/Technology/Tech-
Romano, A. (2014, December 21). The battle of Gamergate and the future of video games. Retrieved from The Kernal Magazine: http://kernelmag.dailydot.com/issue-sections/features-issue-
Singer, P. (1993). Social Contract Tradition. In A Companion to Ethics. Wiley-Blackwell Publishing.
Spence, E. (2011, September). Information, knowledge and wisdom: groundwork for the normative evaluation of digital information and its relation. Ethics and Information Technology, Volume 13, Issue 3, pp. 261-275.
Stuart, K. (2014, December 4). All Gamergate has done is ruin people’s lives. Retrieved from The Guardian: http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2014/dec/03/zoe-quinn-gamergate- interview


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