Can #Gamergate be rebranded? Should it be? Interview with Nick Robalik

It's difficult to keep up with gamergate, but the David Pakman show works hard at it. Pakman has interviewed John Bain (pro Gamergate), who says he was offered free swag for good reviews, as well as Arthur Chu (anti Gamergate) who defends tactics such as doxxing. Meanwhile Utah State University has made a statement that no credible threat to students, staff or the speaker was made, and are disappointed that students did not benefit from Anita Sarkeesian's presentation as she chose to cancel it. Mozilla is the latest brand to step on the #Gamergate landmine, when they offered Georgina Young a spot to rebut Audrey Watters post. Mozilla has apologised for allowing those two articles to exist, while The Verge has a copy of a recent email by Mozilla executive chairwoman Mitchell Baker who says Gamergate coverage was a mistake. With the controversy still causing such ruckus in the third month now, I wonder if it's even possible to rebrand gamergate.

Who better to ask than a Gamedev that works in advertising? Nick Robalik of PixelMetal Games, creator of the indie game Sombrero a fast paced Spaghetti Western-themed multiplayer game that looks like a truckload of fun judging by those smiles. Nick has worked at Razorfish and IMC2 on clients like M&M's and Diet Coke and Dove, now he runs HERO.

Dabs: The image of "gamer" has been tarnished by this. Lets pretend we have an Ad Council, but for games instead. Funded by Ubisoft, Electronic Arts, Activision etc. What could they do to change the image of video games, from what it currently has among a broader audience?

Nick Robalik : I don’t think, in general, there’s really an issue with games appealing to a “broader” audience. It’s one of the largest entertainment industries on the planet - larger than Hollywood’s film industry by a measurable margin - and it’s already been quite well accepted as a form of entertainment for a large, diverse audience.

The closest thing the games industry needs to an Ad Council is a ratings system - and it already has one of those. The ESRB is very detailed in terms of why certain games are rated what they are, more so than the MPAA in the film industry. I see little benefit, but many potential problems, in the game industry creating something more similar to the ad industry’s Ad Council.

Dabs: Did you have any inkling, prior to the birth of the hashtag #gamergate, that there were issues in the gaming industry and gaming press? Do you have thoughts on what caused this?

Nick Robalik : Absolutely. Having been involved in games either as a player or a dev for most of my life, outside of my work at some of the top ad agencies around, I’ve watched the quality of the enthusiast press drop significantly over the years. These last few years, the full commoditization of “clickbait” articles has assured that controversy now receives more clicks than honesty. GamerGate is simply the final straw for the general consumer audience, who seems to be tired of being told that they are unimportant to the multibillion-dollar industry they support.

Dabs: What do you think keeps this - for lack of a better term; movement - going?

Nick Robalik : I think that the movement is driven by a combination of passion and the ability to do the actual research that we expect journalists to be able to do. This consumer movement -- I know some would prefer to call it a “consumer revolt,” but I feel that “consumer movement” sums it up better -- has been building for years as the quality of reporting and reviews has been decreasing throughout the past decade or so. The final straw was when over a dozen articles were being published within 24 hours on over a dozen game industry news websites, stating that “gamers” no longer had to be their target audience. The cognitive dissonance in thinking that such an attack on their previously loyal base would net a positive result is mind-boggling.

For some time now, many of these sites have seemed preoccupied with pushing the notion that games need to be more “inclusive.” This idea, to anyone who’s been paying attention, is fairly ridiculous since gaming has never, at any point in its history, been more inclusive than it currently is. Gaming has become this way thanks to the industry being of a size - and monetary value - that allows it to be large enough to cater to anyone, anywhere, with any kind of game that a person may be interested in playing.

What these sites seemed to really want, in my opinion, is an industry that is less inclusive and caters to the tastes of only some - let’s call them “tastemakers” - who give games like Call of Duty or Bayonetta 2 bad reviews because, though all scientific research and evidence points to the contrary, they make people who play them more violent or more sexist. It’s blaming D&D for Satanism in the 80’s. It’s Jack Thompson blaming violence on videogames in the 90’s.

All this “Gamers are Dead, Gamers don’t have to be your audience” nonsense seems, to me, to be more of an interest in censoring things certain people find questionable which, if they want games to be considered “art” as they propose it can be (and I would argue that it already is and has been since the foundation of the industry), they don’t get to censor anything. Art is Art, with a Capital A. Artists shouldn’t have limitations placed on how or why they can make art.

It often feels like these are the same people who would demand a curtain be used to hide from view the more “problematic” parts of the statue of David because he’s nude. Their approach to inclusivity feels overtly puritanical, ethnocentric, and close-minded. My own approach to games I don’t particularly care for, or which contain content I don’t like, is simpler and less demanding: I don’t play those games.

Dabs: Makes sense, neither do I. So, in the current status, lets be honest the "#gamergate" brand is suffering some really bad press, in many readers minds it's synonymous with threats of violence and anti-feminism. Can the "brand" #gamergate ever be separated from the image painted by countless established news sources?

Nick Robalik : As those news sources begin doing more actual research into the issues and not just taking the word of game bloggers, the narrative will continue to move back more into the reality of the situation. For example see "Developers On 'Gamergate:' Misogyny Isn't A Gaming Problem, It's An Internet Problem"

The idea that the overwhelming majority of this movement hates an entire gender and are trying to keep women out of games is ludicrous, considering they’re half of the consumer market in games. It doesn’t make a single bit of sense to alienate half the core audience in such a way.

We need to keep in mind that those participating on the #GamerGate hashtag on twitter are not, for the most part, media personalities or in the field. They are consumers. They are not angry at being attacked by those who receive ad revenue from their pageviews. To them, #GamerGate is not a brand - it is a place where people across the entire political spectrum, of all genders, sexual orientations and races, of all ages, gather to discuss their concerns about the way their hobby is treated by the industry’s own media outlets and the complete lack of balance on reporting on the issues surrounding #GamerGate outside of it.

Dabs: Some people argue that #gamergate should simply abandon this hashtag and start working within another hashtag, to disassociate from the "misogynistic hate group" image. Since #gamergate is a name given to this movement by the press, is this even possible? It's not like we're renaming a soda-pop here.

Nick Robalik : I think that would be a mistake. To me, that seems like a way for narrow-minded opponents to the kind of honesty and integrity that we’ve been fighting for to attempt to diffuse the #GamerGate movement. Even if a new hashtag did start -- and anti #GamerGate people have already attempted to do this, multiple times -- whatever perceived baggage the existing tag would just be placed on the new one. As far as I can tell, the general opinion of #GamerGate supporters is that there’s simply no viable reason to do so.

Dabs: Any speculations on how #gamergate will end? Can it end, now? There's been quite the escalation of events, threats made and so on.

Nick Robalik : It will end when those who support #GamerGate are able to speak their piece, and when their concerns are addressed. Sites like IGN, The Escapist and others have already begun publishing -- and more importantly, following -- ethics policies that address many of the concerns supporters have in relation to the media that makes money off of them. It seems most #GamerGate supporters are prepared for this to go on into the future, until their needs are met, by a media that exists solely because of those who have loved, even sometimes irrationally, a hobby that they’ve had and supported for decades.

The Gamergate hashtag and consumer revolt is either that or a sexist anti-feminist attack mob, depending on who you ask. Yellowbox advertising and Digitimes are doing their best to keep track of the story from the advertising and marketing p.o.v.
Since we wrote the Gawker is Toxic article, several other brands have said, off the record, that they never partnered with Gawker. Now, there are actually rules for this sort of thing, and if companies don't follow them, consumers can make a complaint via the FTC complaint assistance or a 1-800 number. The big game companies are very quiet on the topic, as they already have the money to survive a press climate where you simply buy the better reviews. Indie developers aren't so lucky. When even Mozilla, who famously lost Brendan Eich as CEO when the Firefox browser was boycotted, can't allow two articles with opposing views on their OpenStandard site without getting backlash, we have a firebrand. I've never seen anything like it before.
Correction, Nick Robalik still works in advertising, as an independent vendor for bigger agencies with HERO. Previous version of this post stated he "used to work in advertising". Apologies for the misunderstanding.
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