My friend Cameron made a game called A Ship Sailed Into Port, and I hate it.
Like I said, Cameron is my friend, and he even writes here at Paste, and here I am going on the record to say that I hate his game.
I’ve liked many of the other games he’s made. In fact, Alpaca Run—the game he co-designed with Samantha Allen—made my best-of list in 2013. I loved the game so much that when Samantha Allen came to Boston to be a guest of honor at MIT’s QUILTBAG game jam, I offered her my couch to stay on. I became best friends with Samantha that very weekend. Coincidentally, that same week, Cameron released A Ship Sailed Into Port.
Samantha and I sat on my couch, her laptop between us, laughing until we cried as we played A Ship Sailed Into Port over and over. “Do you think Cameron is okay?” I asked her, between giggles. “Maybe we should call him and ask him how he’s doing. Because this game makes no fucking sense.”
A Ship Sailed Into Port is a game about journalism, integrity, editorial oversight and, perhaps most importantly, how editors go about covering “controversial” stories. I am a journalist—one with far more “old school newsroom” experience than Cameron’s had—and perhaps that’s why I got so angry at the game’s portrayal of my field, so angry that my only reaction could be to laugh in indignation. The picture painted by A Ship Sailed Into Port does not match my experience at all.
Unlike journalism, this game progresses at a snail’s pace. A boat sails from one end of the screen to the other; when you tab away from the screen, the game freezes, waiting for your return. You cannot multi-task.
You aren’t in the boat, nor is it made immediately clear what the boat has to do with the game itself. You are actually playing as the editor of a media outlet, and you have to decide which stories to cover. Every few minutes, a handful of article pitches appear, floating in the sky on placards. You click on the one you like best, and then all three options fade away. Eventually, three more appear, and again, you must choose. Below these floating headlines, the boat also floats—with excruciating slowness—towards the other end of the screen.
Throughout the game, you know the boat is going to turn out to be important, but stories about the boat never appear in your options list. What the fuck is the boat doing there, you ask? You won’t get to know unless you wait until the end of the game. And by that time, you’ll hate it. You’ll hate the boat. You won’t be able to get yourself to care about it anymore, no matter what happens with it.
Turns out the boat is full of irradiated cargo. It crashes into shore, causing massive damage. Your media outlet covers the story, of course, but you don’t get to cover it until the day before the boat arrives, even though you’ve seen it coming the whole damn time.
Worse yet, it’s possible that no one will even read your boat story. If you’ve selected too many frothy, ephemeral articles in the lead-up to the boat’s arrival, no one will pay attention to your outfit’s coverage. If you’ve selected too many hard-hitting news pieces, no one will read your story either, because you’re boring so you don’t have any visibility.
I replayed the game tonight, alone in my apartment. There was no laughter, no distraction, no fun—only me and the miserable crawl of the boat and the lilt of the soft piano soundtrack. I chose my article pitches as best I could: here a frothy listicle, there a lifestyle featurette, next a cold news piece. Somehow—this time—I got the “best” ending. I managed to cover enough fun topics to keep readers interested while also tackling serious issues and penning even-handed profiles. When that boat came, I was ready to cover the story, and my readers were ready to listen. The game’s end-screen text assured me that I had even won “an important journalism prize.”
I still hate the game.
That night when Samantha was in town, after we had played Cameron’s game several times and elected not to call him and interrogate him about it, I told her I wasn’t sure I wanted to keep doing journalism anymore.
It was March of this year. That January, I had endured a two-week harassment campaign on Twitter for helping a friend do a talk about fighting games at a convention. Of course, I’d had beef with the fighting game community before that—in October of 2012, I had written a piece that had resulted in more than a handful of terrifying emails and tweets sent my way, not to mention real-life frightening interactions with fighting games folks at conventions and “fight nights” that I attended around that time period (I’ve since stopped attending such events entirely). I was sick of getting threats every time I did anything, no matter how benign. Even a free, 101-level talk about the broadest possible basics of fighting games had caused an uproar. How dare I? How dare I talk about videogames? How dare I even play them?
After my Twitter account became unusable for those two weeks in January due to the constant onslaught of abuse from complete strangers (interspersed, I’m sure, with very reasonable critiques that I never saw because I was trying to scroll past the crap and block the worst offenders), I felt exhausted. I still loved videogames as much as I always had, but talking on the internet about them had become not only difficult, but dangerous. I wasn’t just exhausted, I was scared. Thousands of men telling me to shut up or else seemed like more than enough motivation, to me, to get out while I still could.
Samantha told me to keep going. Ironically, she would quit games journalism herself after she and I both endured yet another harassment campaign a few months later. The Samantha Allen of the present day would, and does, give me very different advice. But all of that hadn’t happened yet. I know—it’s so hard to keep all of this harassment straight. Maybe we should start naming the campaigns after hurricanes.
Anyway, in March, Samantha told me to keep going.
Zoe Quinn had told me the same thing, that January.
Zoe Quinn knows a thing or two about harassment campaigns, or raids, or hurricanes … whatever you want to call them. She’s been putting up with one this past month, too. You might even say she’s been cleaning up the damage from an irradiated boat in a town where no media outlet felt quite equipped to cover the story, and no reader quite knew what they were reading about, either. Who could blame them? I don’t know what to say about it, either, and I’m in the middle of writing this article.
Last January, she offered to take me out for a drink because she heard I’d been getting some shit on the internet. She and I lived in the same town, at that time. I’d played her games. I liked them. But we weren’t friends, per se—not in the way that might cause a conspiracy theorist’s heart to flutter. We were just women who worked in the games industry. So we knew about each other. All of us “know” each other, in a sense. We were two irradiated ships passing in the night.
I guess I expected Zoe to offer me some helpful advice, so I agreed to the drink, even though I don’t drink and I don’t like bars and I don’t even like people, most of the time. As soon as I got there, I knew I’d made a mistake. The place was crowded; Zoe had invited a bunch of people I didn’t know and didn’t feel up to meeting. She asked me how I was doing, and I remember feeling like I was on the verge of tears as I said something like, “Oh, you know … terrible.”
She told me some platitudes then, like, you can change people’s minds if you’re patient, and sometimes people really do come back around and apologize months later, and you’ve just got to keep on going, you know? Even when all hope is lost. Blah blah blah.
Some guy I didn’t know butted into the conversation, at that point, to ask what we were talking about. I remember feeling like I couldn’t answer without crying, so I looked at Zoe, hoping she’d tell him to leave us alone. But she didn’t. Instead, she seemed confused that I wasn’t answering him, and eventually, the awkward silence forced both of them to change the subject. I kept sitting there in silence, wondering how long I had to stay before I could leave without being considered rude.
Women in the games industry put up with abuse, but we aren’t a monolith. Some of us are game developers, some work PR, some are journalists, and we all get assumed to be the same person, because we are so few and because our stories of abuse bear so much similarity. If you hate one of us, you hate all of us—not because we’re an organized defensive team, nor even a team at all, but rather because our detractors can’t tell us apart. We all know each other, more or less, but we’re not all friends. We’ve got a support network, but it’s not a social circle. We’ve got each others’ backs, up until we get too scared to do that, and then we stay quiet. We’re always afraid that we’ll be the next target. Even those of us who’ve denounced all other women in the industry, proclaiming that they “don’t care” and “aren’t like those other girls,” are afraid of this—perhaps they’re the most afraid of all.
We’re just a group of eclectic humans, complete with flaws, who have all happened to catch the same crappy illness. There’s nothing else we have in common. Shared systemic oppressions don’t necessarily unite us. We’re not organized. People think we’re all in cahoots, that we all collude to promote one another’s work, that we all wear the same Illuminati robes when we get together every week. It’s so much more ineffectual, so much sadder, so much lonelier, than that. Most of the time, we’re all too scared to do much of anything at all. Harassment campaigns can be surprisingly effective at keeping people down, especially a disparate group of women with nothing much in common other than fear.
Oh, and we all play videogames.
But so does everyone. So let’s stop pretending like that distinction matters or has served to bring us all together. It clearly hasn’t.
I guess some people are worried that women in games aren’t getting enough criticism. Maybe we’re getting too cocky, too powerful. I mean, heck, what if we start feeling safe enough to go on dates in public? What if we start actually feeling human and we start making the same kinds of mistakes that (gasp) men in the games industry have been making for decades (no one has noticed men making these mistakes, of course)?
Luckily for misogynists, the games industry is still a long way away from seeing women as humans.
First of all, harassment campaigns do a great job of encouraging women not to stand up for each other.
Second of all, women not only get criticized, they get criticized more often than their male peers. A man can become known as a “sexy bad boy” or have a “reputation” (e.g. David Jaffe’s entire career); women don’t have that luxury. It’s either be perfect, or be ostracized. No anti-heroines allowed!
Women and men just aren’t held to the same standards of conduct, especially not in male-dominated workplaces; like the tech industry. Women often can’t get the jobs or promotions they want, and when they do, people wonder how they did it—specifically, who they slept with to get there.
No one really questions the men who succeed in this business; we assume they’re qualified, and we don’t think too hard or much care about “who they know”. Our country’s favorite sexy anti-hero is the king of cheating and manipulative business deals, Don Draper of Mad Men. Or if you want examples of popular, non-fictional “scoundrel” types: How about Charlie Sheen, Arnold Schwarzenegger or Tiger Woods? All gamers can remember about Kim Kardashian is her sex scandal, but they don’t mind a bit when Tiger Woods releases game after game. It’s almost as though men have an easier time deflecting criticism in the long term than women do.
I look forward to a future in which women can be mediocre, imperfect, even boring—and still succeed in the games industry without anybody questioning how they managed it.
For the moment, you can only succeed as a minority if you’re exceptionally talented, as well as absurdly resilient about harassment. Because you’re going to have to keep proving yourself. Daily. Hourly. People are going to wonder how and why you’re still here. They have some theories as to how you did it. None of them are correct, but it won’t matter.
Feminism and journalism have one thing in common, in my mind. Both involve the practice of seeing humans as humans.
Women aren’t angels—not perfect goddesses—not paragons—not little baby doves to be protected or worshipped. We’re just plain ol’ human beings. Women don’t deserve equal rights because we’re “better” or “purer” or “never fart” or whatever, and if you go in believing that, you’re going to be disappointed. Because we’re people. And I’m not sorry about that.
Journalism is about humanity, too. It’s done by humans, and humans have biases. That’s true of editors, and it’s also true of readers. You can try to eliminate those biases, or you can just accept that you’re a real person who knows other people in real life. I try for the latter, personally.
So, consider this my “disclosure”: I’m human. Keep that in mind when you read my work.
I’d prefer to be a robot. I’ll make the switch as soon as it becomes available. Until then, you’re stuck with me.
On August 16 of this year, we all watched a ship sail into port, and games journalists had absolutely no idea what to do about it. It’s not worth covering women’s personal lives, especially since no laws were broken, not even allegedly, but could it be worth pointing out that we don’t think people should receive death threats? Should we all take a firm stance against death and rape threats and harassment? That seems fair … but, hey now, we don’t want anybody to think we’re biased, so maybe we better just write up a quick policy about how “ethics” matter and, uh, does that seem like we’re capitulating to the death threats? Probably not, who cares, it’s fine.
Men I don’t know have been telling me for years now that I should be raped and/or killed for playing games, writing about games, and even for applying to get jobs and/or promotions within games journalism. Have they ever been “right”? Have they “made good points,” in between insults? Sure. Plenty of times, my detractors have made some good points. They often point out some error, some typo, some factual inconsistency … but then they extrapolate that to mean that I don’t deserve to be here, on this planet, alive. Does that mean I believe I should never be criticized? No. It’s a question of scale. And, you know, the whole bit where it doesn’t happen to my male colleagues. There’s that, too.
Some of my fellow colleagues in the field of games criticism and design decided to hang up their hats this week for a variety of reasons. They all happen to be women. I’ve seen a lot of passive voice used in response to these departures—“we’ve lost a great voice,” for example, as though this were about losing the rights to the usage of a mascot. As though being a “great voice”—underpaid, underappreciated, and thoroughly unsupported—would be enough on its own. As though the design and coverage of games is done by talking heads on a roster of colorful characters.
It’s easy to blame harassment campaigns on the literal harassers, to take a firm stance against harassment—a stance no one could ever argue against, by the way. Institutions have failed, as well. Twitter has failed, by continuing to not give a crap about how many burner accounts 4chan sends down its pipeline. Local police forces have failed, by not yet knowing how to deal with online harassment and threats. Games journalism failed, too, as it has continued to fail, by responding to accusations of “corruption” and “bias” by promising to be even more objective, as objective as possible, in the future.
I don’t mind “disclosing” that I often meet people and I often write. Sometimes meeting an artist, even just reading a personal blog post or a tweet they’ve written, changes how folks feel about their work—for the worse, or for the better. Of course, you can meet people, too; you don’t need some journalist to do it for you. Game developers are at PAX. They’re at Gaymer X. They’re at the Boston Festival of Indie Games. They’re human beings. They exist in the world. They make things, and your experience of those things will not be the same as mine. Your relationship to their work, and to them, won’t be the same as anyone else’s, either. All we can really do is try to write about what our own experiences with our lives and with art and with each other. You don’t have to read about mine if you don’t want to. But I can assure you: I will be honest. And that means that I will be biased.
A Ship Sailed Into Port seems to believe there’s some perfect, objective middle road that you can take in order to “win” at journalism. I hated the game back when I thought you couldn’t win it, but I hate it even more now that I know there’s a “best” ending. Because, see, that implies some journalism is “good” and some is “bad,” and we’ve got to give readers their medicine with a spoonful of sugar. Because, apparently, people are too stupid to know which stories matter, and we need to trick them into caring about the “good” journalism by cajoling them with just the right dosage of cutesy listicles.
There is no perfect middle road for journalism in the real world. It’s not even about which topics you cover, anyway—it’s about how you cover them, and in what context. When that big controversy comes, people will read about it regardless of what you’ve covered in the past, and they will judge you based on how you cover that controversy. Are you a god damn human being? Or are you a faceless sky god who just clicks on topics in order to orchestrate The Platonic Ideal of Media? I’d prefer to read a story written by the former.
So, here’s me, writing a story about an irradiated boat that no one else saw coming a mile away. I would guess most readers don’t understand what this story is really about, so I’ll lay it out as clearly as I can: the basic safety and mental health of women in the games industry. Maybe other publications haven’t made the issue feel accessible, choosing instead to focus on murky discussions of “ethics” and “cliques” and “bias,” ignoring the part where women live in fear and, often, leave the industry due to the fear that one of these faceless strangers might make good on a threat. It really only takes one. And there are thousands.
The problem, in my mind, is that for most people, the fear isn’t real. They can’t empathize, maybe. The boat isn’t on their shore. It’s still so far away. It’s not their problem.
I don’t think I know how to get them to care.
Hyper Mode is an occasional column by Paste’s assistant games editor Maddy Myers. She tweets @samusclone and co-hosts a weekly gaming podcast called Isometric on the 5by5 Network.