Gaming Culture War: It's hard to establish notions of fairness when the point of contention is a hashtag

The complainant, Derek Soulliere as well as some others wrote to say that an interview on Q with game developer Brianna Wu was biased and inaccurate. Referring to the online movement requires nuanced language. The interview worked; the introduction didn’t.

COMPLAINT

You complained that an interview with Brianna Wu on the CBC Radio One program Q was biased and unfair. Ms. Wu was interviewed by guest host Rachel Geise about an episode on the NBC series “Law and Order SVU” in which a female video gamer is harassed and kidnapped. She was interviewed because she had written a blog about the episode, as it was widely believed that it was based on her experience and the experience of some other women involved in the gaming industry.

Ms. Wu had written a blog about the episode, entitled “I’m Brianna Wu and I’m risking my life standing up to Gamergate.” It was this and other references to #GamerGate that was the cause for your complaint. You believe that the characterization of #GamerGate was false, and it misrepresented a “consumer movement as nothing but a cabal of misogynist harassers, even despite many of its foremost figures being women themselves.”

You thought that CBC took Ms. Wu’s narrative at face value and should have challenged her claims. You said Q has an obligation to bring on “supporters of Gamergate and its ideals” in order to provide needed balance to this interview segment. Other supporters of #GamerGate complained about this interview as well, much along the same lines as you did.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

Lynda Shorten, Director, Network Talk, is the manager responsible for the program Q. She apologized for the very long delay in answering your complaint. She acknowledged that “GamerGate is a controversial issue” and that it would have been preferable to acknowledge that some who associate with the hashtag see it as a movement to improve ethics in the gaming industry and reject its reputation as misogynistic:

Some of those using the hashtag argue – as you do – that their goal is to improve the ethics of online video game journalism. And I agree with you to the extent that the program should have acknowledged that point of view. But if the hashtag started with that intent, as with most online headings, it was soon broadened to include other issues. For the six months or so prior to this story, GamerGate had attracted public attention largely because of those who used the hashtag to make bullying and misogynistic attacks on female gamers – developers Brianna Wu and Zoe Quinn and feminist social critic Anita Sarkeesian perhaps chief among them.

She explained that the producers of the program decided to air an interview with Ms. Wu because of the Law and Order episode, and the fact Ms. Wu had written about it. She said that the interview was about Ms. Wu’s reaction to the TV drama, and the broader issues of sexism in the gaming world. She emphasized the story limited itself to Ms. Wu’s experience and was not an examination of the ongoing controversy around #GamerGate. She thought that it was a respectful examination of some of those broader issues “including gamer culture, misogyny and social media criticism.”

She added that this was not an examination of #Gamergate, so there was no need to provide a variety of perspectives and points of view. She said that balance and fairness is not based on a mathematical formula, and according to CBC policy could be achieved over time.

REVIEW

Ms. Shorten’s response came to you over five months after the program aired. Q has faced many challenges this season, but this still is an unacceptable length of time to answer a complaint.

#Gamergate is a hashtag associated with an ongoing controversy within the gaming community. The battles are largely fought in social media, notably Twitter, hence the hashtag. Some in the gaming community believe it is a movement seeking to improve the ethics of the gaming industry, specifically the large game developers and the media that covers them. Others, including women who have been subject to threats and harassment, see it as a symbol of a strain of anti-feminist and misogynistic behavior in the gaming world. It erupted a little over a year ago when Eron Gjoni, a 24 year old American, posted a blog implying that his ex-girlfriend, game developer Zoe Quinn, exchanged sexual favors for good reviews of her work. It escalated from there. Other women were harassed and threatened, Brianna Wu among them.

There are those who claim that #GamerGate is a consumer movement and it is protecting the gaming world against censorship. #GamerGate supporters insist that those who associate with the hashtag are not responsible for the attacks, and question the integrity of the women involved and the veracity of their claims of harassment. They accuse some women and their supporters of being “social justice warriors,” politically correct to a fault and lacking understanding of the culture of gaming.

No matter what the intention, the level of hate and vitriol online escalated after the hashtag appeared. In a battle of competing victimhoods, #GamerGate supporters point to times supporters of the hashtag have also been threatened. Recently, for example, around 200 people sympathetic to #GamerGate meeting in a bar in Washington, D.C. were forced to evacuate it because of a bomb threat. There seems to be very little middle ground, and a level of emotional investment in a particular view of the word that to an outsider is surprising. As William Cheng, an assistant professor at Dartmouth College, wrote in a HuffPost blog “Gamergate’s cold war”:

Both sides of Gamergate believe they occupy the high ground: anti-Gamergaters strive to reform the video game industry's dismal representation and treatment of women, while Gamergaters purport to combat corrupt ethics in game journalism, the crusading of Social Justice Warriors, and the stigmatization of male nerds. Both sides cry bully, claiming to be the real victims amid the strife. The result is fire fought with fire, vigilantes run amok, dark knights rising.

From the point of view of making judgments about journalistic balance, there is a further complication. #GamerGate is the umbrella under which this heated culture war is being fought. As I said in an earlier review, #GamerGate is not a traditional organization with designated leadership or a manifesto that one can clearly point to and say this is what it stands for, and this is the position it takes on the issues it cares about. There is no one person or even group of people that can be said to hold the views of a collective, or formal organization. You say #Gamergate has nothing to do with the harassment of women. That is the meaning you claim for it. But there is equal weight to the notion that it has become a focal point for people who do harass women and have strong views about changes in gaming culture. Sites dedicated to the support of #GamerGate have a range of posts on them, but there are many that are demeaning, degrading and violent toward women. You and others who write whenever there is a discussion of #Gamergate say that it is being entirely misrepresented. Your saying so does not make it so. Your links to articles that say it is so does not negate the other links and articles that associate it with negative and unpleasant activities.

Against this background, Q broadcast an interview with Brianna Wu after Law and Order SVU aired an episode about the kidnapping and harassment of a female gamer. You believe that CBC had the responsibility to check out the details of Ms. Wu’s claims. You may reject any proof, but there appears to be enough evidence that she and other prominent women have been the focus of some pretty nasty attacks. And the context in this case was an episode of Law and Order that was derivative of her experience. Q is a show about culture and cultural trends. The producers of a mass audience entertainment program like Law and Order thought there was enough interest to create an episode about the threats and treatment of women within gaming culture. A woman who has experienced that behaviour first hand was interviewed. That was completely acceptable. This interview was framed as Ms. Wu’s reaction and take on what is happening. It is clearly her opinion and point of view, and for that reason having her on air is well within the bounds of CBC’s Journalistic Standards and Practices.

However, I think Ms. Shorten is wrong to say that because that was the focus and context, there was no need to address the issue of #GamerGate. At least some framing that notes this is a polarized and contentious term would have provided some needed context. The program did not live up to a commitment to providing more than one perspective in the way the introduction to the interview was phrased. The guest host said:

Well in lots of ways that episode hit home for Brianna Wu. She is the co-founder of the video game studio Giant Spacekat. She has also been one of the more public targets of what’s been called GamerGate. GamerGate is an on line movement that harasses and threatens women, particularly with those who have spoken out about sexism in the video game industry. Brianna Wu recently wrote about the Law and Order SVU episode and her experience of harassment in a piece for bustle.com, and she joins me now by phone from Arlington, Mass.

Given the level of controversy, to state that “GamerGate is an online movement that harasses and threatens women” is too unequivocal. CBC journalistic policy demands clarity in its use of language. I strongly suggest that when harassment of women gamers is being discussed the language should be very precise and nuanced. Like many controversial issues, both sides point to definitive ‘facts’ or narratives to prove their point. This is far too amorphous for that to be the case. A mention that there are people who understand #GamerGate to be something different, a reference to gamers who harass and threaten women, would be a more precise and accurate way to talk about this culture war.

The fact that Ms. Wu shared her assessment and analysis of what has happened to her and how that played out in a fictionalized form is valid and not a violation of policy. The conversation was about more. It explored her reaction to seeing the episode on air, based on her personal experience. That is legitimate. She also emphasized more than once that there is a systemic issue that goes beyond individual games, or gamers that send nasty and threatening messages. She pointed out that she has received over 20 emails from women who are thinking twice about getting into the industry. She compared it to other industries, like journalism, that were once male dominated and had to go through a culture change. She talked about her own change of perspective in the light of the harassment of women:

I think you should just do your work and people leave you alone. My views on this they gotten steeply changed in the last 5 years because people here might not want to admit it, but this is an industry that’s terribly sexist in ways it doesn’t understand. It’s not that the men that work here are sexist, it’s that they have so much unconscious bias from the kind of frat house mentality of games they’re just simply unaware of. So I got into video games to make games. And what I’ve found is that since I’ve been here, I have to speak out on women and tech. It’s a question of whether or not I can have a career.

Looking at the big picture, The Pew Research Centre conducted a study of online harassment which it published in October 2014. It describes two types of harassment, the first being name-calling and embarrassment, and the second, which overlaps with the first but is more serious, that encompasses “more severe experiences such as being the target of physical threats, harassment over a sustained period of time, stalking, and sexual harassment.” The target of the second category, the study finds, is disproportionately young women. The study also probed which online environments were perceived to be equally welcoming to men and women. This is what was reported:

Respondents were asked whether they thought a series of online platforms were more welcoming toward men, more welcoming toward women, or equally welcoming to both sexes. While most online environments were viewed as equally welcoming to both genders, the starkest results were for online gaming. Some 44% of respondents felt the platform was more welcoming toward men.

I provide this background not to condemn men or gamers, but to point out that along with the high profile cases of women being attacked, there have been other reports of women feeling less than safe or welcome in a variety of gaming environments, real and virtual. #GamerGate is not the whole story, but it is a legitimate journalistic pursuit to examine examples of sexism in contemporary society.

There have been enough high profile stories in the past 12 months to prove this is still an issue worth discussing. The introduction of the piece fell short of standards. While I think CBC News and Current Affairs needs to be mindful in its coverage about how it characterizes something as amorphous as #GamerGate, the interview with Brianna Wu and her experiences falls within the bounds of policy.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman