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Ten Short Rants About #GamerGate

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If you know what #GamerGate is, I don't have to tell you. If you don't know what #GamerGate is, any description I give you will be attacked by hordes of partisans saying that I have described it unfairly and that the sources I have linked are biased. So I'm going to treat you, dear readers, as if you know what it is. Clark wrote a post about it last week. My take is different. I'm not going to offer you a timeline or an attempt at a definitive "what happened" or "who is right." Instead I'm going to rant about ten ways that this controversy illuminates how we're screwed up.

1. 95% Of Label-Based Analysis Is Bullshit.

GamerGate is label-heavy, and labels are lazy, obfuscating bullshit.

Labels are supposed to be shorthand for collections of ideas. I might say "I am libertarian-ish" because it's not practical to go around announcing the whole array of views I hold about demolishing public roads and privatizing the air force and so forth. This, up to a point, is useful.

It stops being useful when we argue over labels instead of over ideas. Take, for instance, "feminist." A person who describes themselves as "feminist" might associate that term with their grandmother being the first woman in the family to go to college and their mother defying a sexist boss in a male-dominated job and the development of laws saying women can't be relentlessly harassed in the workplace or fired for being women.1 Someone who routinely criticizes "feminism" might be thinking of Andrea Dworkin saying all heterosexual sex is coercive, or that time a woman snapped at him when he held a door open, or the time someone embarrassed his friend by saying his joke was sexist. When these two people use the term "feminist" in an argument, they are talking past each other and engaging with strawmen rather than ideas. The feminist is engaging the anti-feminist as if he opposes women in the workplace or supports gender-based hiring, which he doesn't necessarily. The anti-feminist is engaging the feminist as if she thinks all marital sex is rape and as if she thinks jokes should get him fired, which she doesn't necessarily. Neither is really engaging in the particular issue at hand — because why would you engage with a person who holds such extreme views? Why would it matter if the person you are arguing with has an arguable point on a specific issue, if they also necessarily (based on labels) stand for everything you hate?

Labels also make us lazy and insecure. If I identify myself as Libertarian — rather than libertarian-ish — then instead of asking whether an idea has merit, I might lapse into asking whether libertarians believe in that idea or not. But libertarians might be wrong about that idea, or their position on that idea might be some accident of history. Yet instead of focusing on substance, if I depend on labels I will be gripped by fear and cognitive dissonance. If libertarians believe in this, and I don't, does that mean I have to rethink my entire belief system? Will other libertarians reject me? Will Nick Gillespie stop letting me touch his leather jacket? It will be much easier and more comfortable to stick with whatever view is associated with my label.

#GamerGate dialogue relies heavily on labels — feminist, gamer, MRA, SJW, and so forth. That's why it's mostly noise. I've used labels before, and when I have, what I've written has been mostly noise. Labels are an excellent way to vent outrage, but a lousy way to argue about ideas or facts.

2. Timing Matters. So Does Your Chosen Vehicle.

At least some advocates of #GamerGate tell us that it's about ethics in game journalism. I'm willing to accept that some people saying that are sincere, and don't associate themselves with the hashtag because they like demeaning women.

But here's the thing: people will draw conclusions about your motives based on your timing and your chosen vehicle.

Video game journalism has been ethically troubled for decades. There was controversy in the 1980s, when I was reading Computer Gaming World on paper like a caveman, over game magazines reviewing the same games that they were advertising. Suspicion that dollars drive game reviews have persisted, and with good reason.

So if you choose this particular historical moment to become Seriously Concerned About Journalistic Ethics, and your timing just happens to coincide with a related pushback against women's activism in the gaming community, and just happens to be triggered by a campaign against a particular controversial woman, and just happens to be congruent with 4chan's declared campaign against "SJWs," people are going to draw conclusions about you. This is especially true if your sudden fury about ethics in journalism appears to focus on the coverage of tiny indie games instead of big-money games, which is just odd. It also doesn't help when your lists of demands for ethics reforms sound suspiciously like "apologize for hurting my feelings and only report on the things I want."

It's reasonable for people to draw conclusions from timing. If, immediately after the shooting of Michael Brown, I started a vigorous campaign calling on society to protect convenience-store clerks from assault, people would reasonably suspect that I had a political agenda related to the shooting, not a sincere concern for the welfare of convenience store clerks.

Moreover, if you chose the label #GamerGate as your vehicle, people are going to draw conclusions. If I put a Westboro Baptist Church bumper sticker on my car, people will draw conclusions no matter how carefully I explain that their children's choir program is awesome. That's because the Westboro Baptist Church label is very specific. It's not something broad like "Baptist" or "Agnostic" that you'd expect to encompass a wide range of views. #GamerGate is very specific too. The label #GamerGate has its origins in a freakout over a woman in particular, and gender issues in general. If you decide to adopt it, people are going to wonder if you mean to associate yourself with its origins, in a way they wouldn't if you chose a broader label.

When people complain that they are being associated with misogyny and threats for waving the #GamerGate banner, I feel (on a different scale) about the way I do when people complain that they are being misjudged for flying the Confederate battle flag. Sure, maybe it means Southern pride and heritage to some of them. But I'm not sympathetic when many see it another way based on its history. If you fly the Confederate battle flag, people may reasonably think you intend to send a message that contradicts your spoken claims of harmony and equality.

3. People Are Going To Say Things You Disagree With, And You Need To Get A Fucking Grip About It.

I've been saying for a while that talking about harassment in "geek culture" triggers disproportionate outrage.

Critiques of games and game culture also seem to provoke bizarre, disproportionate outrage. I find it very difficult to take that outrage seriously.

Take Anita Sarkeesian. Anita Sarkeesian offers gender-focused criticism of video games. This causes some people to completely lose their shit.

This is inexplicable, even in a subculture that already has people who are rendered unaccountably twitchy by bad reviews.2 I've viewed Sarkeesian's videos, and I've read the criticisms of her: that she's not a gamer, that she doesn't truly know her subject, that she uses unfair examples and ignores counter-examples, that she has an agenda, that she generalizes, and so forth. I think some of these criticisms are apt and others aren't. But my reaction to all of them is the same: Judas Priest, have you never encountered any form of cultural or literary criticism before? That's what it's like. Whether it's people saying that Harry Potter promotes witchcraft or other people saying that the Lord of the Rings is a racist allegory or Dan Quayle saying that a fictional character's fictional life choices disrespect American fatherhood, cultural and literary criticism is often stuffed taut with bullshit, no matter who produces it or what it's about. When it's good, it's provocative, and when it's bad, it's that essay you threw together through your hangover at three in the morning on the due date about what Shakespeare thought about Jews, writ large.3 Seriously. If Sarkeesian enrages you, don't let anyone show you Foucault or Derrida or you're going to have an aneurysm. And please don't come back with "but Sarkeesian fooled people into giving her money for her videos." Jack and Jill made $150 million, motherfuckers. People pay hundreds of dollars to see Nickleback in Temecula. Why are you freaking out over how people spent their money this time?

People are going to say things about your favorite parts of the culture. Some of these things will be stupid or wrong. It is swell to use more speech to disagree with, criticize, or ridicule the criticism. But when you become completely and tragicomically unbalanced by the existence of cultural criticism, or let it send you into a buffoonish spiral of resentful defensiveness, people may not take you seriously.4 Rule of thumb: a reasoned rebuttal of wrong-headed cultural criticism mostly likely won't require you to use the word "cunt."

I anticipate a response to this point: aren't cultural critics (for instance, people who offer gender-related criticism of videogames) also losing their shit and overreacting to stuff? No doubt some are. Let's make fun of them, as we would anyone else being silly. But for the most part cultural critics of games are complaining about things like how women are portrayed in games and how women are treated in the industry, not having a cow about being disagreed with or having their hobby critiqued. When cultural critics do pitch a fit about their views being disagreed with — say, for instance, Amanda Marcotte flaming out because people disagreed with her nasty totalitarian rumbling about the Duke lacrosse case — then by all means, mock away.

4. Live by the Sword, Die By The Sword.

If you encourage a cultural trend involving calling out behavior, you may not like the way it is used by others. This seems obvious, but apparently it's not.

If you encourage the overuse of the term "bully" until it means nothing, you can expect the term to be co-opted and aimed at you sooner or later.

If you cultivate a culture in which people react disproportionately to stupid or offensive jokes, sooner or later someone else is going to be freaking out — sincerely or cynically — over someone "on your side" telling a stupid joke.

If you cultivate a culture in which the internet lands on someone like a ton of bricks for being an asshole, sooner or later some segment of the internet is going to decide that you are the asshole, and pile on you.

If you cultivate a culture that likes to boycott media or its advertisers for content you don't like, sooner or later somebody's gonna boycott media over something you agree with.

Stretching words like "bullying" for political purposes, calling out people for stupid jokes, participating in gleeful pile-ons, and organizing boycotts are all classic free speech. They are a more-speech response to speech you don't like, a good alternative to government censorship, and an example of social consequences for speech. I'm not telling you to stop. I'm not saying all speech we decide to condemn is morally equivalent. I'm not telling you that such techniques are morally wrong. I can't, credibly, because I have participated in all of them. I'm reminding you that all speech has consequences, and all modes of speech have consequences. The consequence of gleefully piling onto some douchebag is that you normalize and model gleefully piling on someone you find offensive. The consequence of abandoning proportionality is that someday some segment of the internet may wig out and lose all proportionality about you or someone you care about. Recognize cultural cause and effect.

You're going to say "but the people I was piling on/freaking out about/boycotting are totally distinguishable from the people being victimized now by piling on/freaking out/boycotting." How nice for you. Explain that distinction to them and let me know how it works out.

(Clark has been making this point for quite some time.)

5. Your Insult-Parsing Is Bullshit.

Critics of gaming culture assert that demeaning people based on attributes like gender, ethnicity, race, and sexuality is wrong. I agree.5

But too many critics of #GamerGate seem to view it as a fine opportunity to demean both groups and individuals based on attributes like weight, appearance, social isolation, and non-neurotypical status. People (including, occasionally, me) employ "fat, smelly, basement-dwelling Aspie neckbeard" rhetoric to talk about misogyny or harassment in gaming.

If you engage in that rhetoric, many people will think that your objections to demeaning language about women is contrived and tribal rather than sincere.

I'm sure you can construct an excellent argument about how demeaning language against women occurs in a historical context and in connection with a power structure and patriarchal vertices and thus-and-such, and that it is simply different than making fun of people for being fat or unattractive or autistic. That's swell. It would get you a solid A- in your sophomore seminar at Brown. But most of the real world thinks it is an unconvincing rationalization.

Insulting people can be fun. A well-crafted insult is a pleasure. A stinging mockery can be very expressive. It's unflattering, but it's true. But speech has consequences. The consequence of indulging yourself by mocking people for being fat/unattractive/socially awkward/non-neurotypical/etc. is that people aren't going to take your indignation about gendered or racial insults particularly seriously. You may think that's unfair, but it's how people are. Govern yourself accordingly.

6. The Enemy Of Your Enemy Is Not Your Friend.

Social strife makes strange bedfellows.

It's a good thing to read the opinions of serious people "on the other side." They might be right about something. You might be wrong about something. You might improve your understanding of issues.

On the other hand, it's always good to exercise skepticism about how your anger about an issue is being monetized or weaponized by others.

In the #GamerGate context, take Milo Yiannopoulos, who writes for the Breitbart sites. Yiannopoulos has hurled himself into #GamerGate like a stoned bassist into a mosh pit. That's clearly because #GamerGate advances his chosen narratives, and Breitbart's: the media is a bunch of biased liberals! Feminists are destroying society! Progressives are fascists!

Some fans of #GamerGate have reacted with uncritical delight, increasing his traffic and praising his work.

Yet before #GamerGate, Milo was happy to use gamers for another purpose — to advance the cultural conservative narrative "Gamers are freaky dorks!" He says he's a non-gamer. There's absolutely nothing wrong with that, but weren't people just criticizing Anita Sarkeesian for being a non-gamer?

Look, if you see #GamerGate as a vehicle to advance cultural conservative messages that you believe in, more power to you. That's free speech. But if you are genuinely someone who only cares about journalistic integrity, and you promote Breitbart and Yiannopoulos, aren't you being a useful idiot?

Yiannopoulos is by no means the only example. There's also the feculent two-faced pack of scribblers at Gawker Media. Gawker Media, through Kotaku and Gawker and Jezebel, is consistently outraged at the misogyny of #GamerGate, and has retreated into pearl-clutching couch-fainting at the attacks it has recently endured on its own work. But Gawker Media loves feminism like a glutton loves his lunch. Gawker poses as high-minded for the outrage clicks, then returns to its cash cows: self-righteously promoting revenge porn, ridiculing women based on their appearance, paying sociopaths to describe the pubic hair of women they don't like, gleefully outing people, shrugging at systematic harassment of its employees, leering at hacked nude pics, and generally being about as progressive as a late-night advertisement for Schlitz. If you rush to Gawker Media's defense because it's #GamerGate who is attacking them, aren't you being a useful idiot?

If #GamerGate is wrong-headed, it isn't because Yiannopoulos supports it or Gawker Media opposes it. But when someone enthusiastically agrees with us, and seeks to leverage that agreement for profit, perhaps we should be skeptical about their motives, and resist citing them as support.

On the other hand, it's also good to be a little skeptical of the "you are just pawns of [interest group]" rhetoric. Sometimes very different people reach the same conclusion for different reasons and with different motives. Much of the "you're a pawn" rhetoric is just a way to dismiss viewpoints without engaging them. For instance, I remember how irritated I was when a pair of notorious hacks suggested that outrage about TSA fondling was just astroturfed to undermine public unions. Ridiculous. I've hated the TSA and our subservience to it for years. I hate public unions for completely different reasons.

7. The Media Is Usually Banal, Not Motivated Enough To Be Conspiratorial, And Not Your Life Coach.

Some supporters of #GamerGate like to point to an abrupt flood of "anti-gamer" articles that hit early on during this controversy. They assert this is proof of corruption, collusion, agenda-driven journalism, and attempts to impose new norms onto a culture.

That's giving journalism too much credit.

Look: journalists are herd animals. They tend to write about the same thing other journalists are writing about, because they tend to have many of the same cultural and social values, and tend to be aiming at the same thing (prestige and more readers). In the 1990s, when the media started to tell us that crack babies were going to become "super-predators" and kill us all in our comfy beds, it wasn't because journalists had conspired to become racist or gullible or stupid. When the media jumped all over "Satanic abuse" panics, it wasn't because they all abruptly became born-again Christians. When the media stalked the Casey Anthony murder trial like they expected Jesus to show up and give out free Teslas, it wasn't because there was some collective decision that this was a legally significant case or a vehicle to send a coordinated message. It's about greed, ego, and a shocking lack of imagination. The media conspires to tell the same story in the same way that the TV networks conspire to flood the schedule with CSI clones.

Does the media tend to have a bias? Sure. It trends towards white, college-educated, middle class, and interested in telling people about things and having them listen. But saying it has a "liberal bias" is a oversimplification. The media has a pro-media bias, a corporate culture bias, a self-indulgent my-views-are-objective-truth bias. If it pushes a "OMG gamers harass women!" story, a large part of that is because stories about sexism sell, even if they are completely wrong. There's nothing "liberal" about having your lips planted firmly on the sweaty ass of law enforcement, yet the media is too often deferential to law enforcement, because deference gets access and access gets blood-and-guts and blood-and-guts sells.

So, when #GamerGate fans talk about media conspiracy, I really have to wonder whether they have ever observed the media before.

Then there's the fundamental question about what you should expect from the media. Do you want ethics? Fine. Would you like fairness? Great. But are you in the market for a fluffer? Look elsewhere. Some elements of #GamerGate, with their Nixonian enemies lists and concern with being "insulted" by the media, strike me as very entitled. Maybe it's because I'm a lawyer, and used to being automatically categorized as a scumbag by the media and society, but I think the "game blogs have been hurtful to our feelings" is unbecomingly needy.

If you don't like the views of the media, there are ways to handle it without being entitled. Are media generalizations of gamers bogus? Then take the example of Anita Sarkeesian — produce more detailed speech saying exactly what's wrong with them. You're on the internet, for God's sake. You have historically unprecedented publishing power. Be like the #GamerGaters who have decided to start their own what-we-want-to-hear review sites. Take a page from political conservatives, who went from ineffectually mewling about media liberal bias to creating the implacable-if-somewhat-dim media juggernaut that is Fox News. But if you want to stand around and insist that the media not run any stories that you don't want to hear, and that they apologize for being mean, or else you'll boycott their sponsors, FacepalmAcademyor tell game companies not to work with them, I don't see why I should take you any more seriously than anyone else who does that. I don't have any respect for someone who wants a code of journalistic ethics that boils down to "don't challenge me or insult me."

Also: some of you — you know who you are — stop saying that the media is censoring you by criticizing you or your viewpoints. Speech is not tyranny. Criticism is not censorship. You don't have a right to be liked, taken seriously, respected, or agreed with.

8. Women, Minorities, and LGBT People Are Not Magic.

The "#NotYourShield" hashtag is apparently intended to convey that #GamerGate can't be sexist or racist or anti-gay because there are women and minorities and LGBT people who support #GamerGate.

This is an irritating and faintly condescending fallacy that pops up now and again. Look! Bill Cosby criticized "black culture!" It must be right because he's black! Look! Morgan Freeman criticized black history month! It's convincing because he's black! Look! Christina Hoff Sommers criticized feminism! Her criticism has added weight because she's a woman!

It's as if people are trying to apply some twisted rule of evidence in which a statement by one member of a group is a binding admission on the whole group.

But people can be wrong whatever gender or color or orientation they are. Doubt me? Let me ask it this way: are Michael Moore's generalizations about white Americans automatically more right because he's a white American? How about Nancy Pelosi? Noam Chomsky? No? No. Because that's obvious bullshit.

A woman saying she supports #GamerGate and doesn't find it misogynistic firmly establishes only that this particular woman hasn't experienced misogyny, or didn't perceive it misogyny, or didn't care. She doesn't speak for all women any more than a "SJW" critic of #GamerGate. Everyone's millage may vary.6

Ironically, the #notmyshield meme repackages a notion that you'd normally expect to hear from "SJWs" — the idea that only whites can be racist and only men can be sexist. This is a cherished doctrine in academia but provokes eye-rolling nearly everywhere else.

Also, different people have very different tastes about what is offensive and demeaning. I'm crazy, and don't find the term "crazy" offensive. Some people face mental disorders and find such language extremely hurtful. Neither of us is "right." I'll probably keep saying "crazy," at least about myself, but I'll probably avoid using that term against someone who finds it hurtful. Unless, of course, I'm trying to be a dick. As Oscar Wilde said, "a gentleman is someone who never hurts anyone's feelings — unintentionally."

9. Stop Trying To Be A Special Snowflake.

You are not the first to discover journalistic corruption. You are not the first discover media bias. You are not the first to discover media double standards. You are not the first to have the media generalize fecklessly about you. You are not the first to discover activism. You are not the first to discover free speech. Stop pretending otherwise. It's embarrassing and juvenile. Hippies and Ron Paul supporters are cringing.

10. On Threats.

There's no excuse for threats to anyone, whatever "side" they are on. Posting someone's home address or private phone number or financial details will almost never be relevant to a good-faith dispute7 — it's clearly intended to terrorize, and it risks empowering disturbed people to do real harm. These things are wrong no matter who does them, no matter the motive, and no mater the target.

Yet those things are common in the gaming community. They've been familiar in the context of casual contact for some time, and more serious and frightening threats have become more and more of a problem. That's why I think the claim "these people are making up the threats" is unconvincing — it's happened before under even less controversial circumstances. Whether or not more women are threatened than men, numerically or as a percentage, being a woman and articulating a viewpoint seems like a very reliable way to get threatened. You may not be happy that it is an element of gaming culture, but it is.

The reaction is disappointing. We're seeing a lot of "you're making it up" or "it happens more to our side" or "men get threatened just as much" or "they did it first" or the like. There's an undercurrent of "they made up all those things, which they deserved." We're also seeing people attempt to discredit the discussion of threats by using the word to describe mere insults and criticism.

Most people say they oppose the threats. How many mean it? How many of you think that death threats and having a Google Earth picture of your house is just "part of the game," like towel-snapping in the locker room?

I'll start believing that people are really against threats and doxxing when they act like it. Would you be a member of a club that routinely tolerated members posting death threats against a rival club on the club's bulletin board? If not, why do you participate in sites where such threats are an accepted part of the culture? Do you know people bragging about terrorizing enemies with true threats? If so, why haven't you turned them in? Do you continue to treat people who use threats and terror-doxxing as friends, or do you treat them as pariahs? If you are proud of your l33t hacker skills, do you use them to attack those who say things you don't like, or do you use them to identify the people who make true threats and threatening doxxes?

I'm a rather strong supporter of free speech. I donate a lot of effort helping to protect it. But true threats are not protected by the First Amendment. They represent an effort to silence speech through physical fear. I'd like to see more done to fight the people who use them. Help stomp some cockroaches.

So, What Now?

So how will this play out, and where do I stand?

Some people assert that #GamerGate would end quickly if game journalists would simply articulate and hew to satisfactory ethical standards. No doubt some people would be satisfied with that. But I think that many supporters in #GamerGate — egged on by cultural conservatives who view the movement as a ideological opportunity — will not be satisfied unless "journalistic ethics" is interpreted to mean "don't discuss cultural issues and don't say things about my community I don't like." Some won't be satisfied until only approved bien-pensants are game reviewers, and companies restrict access to only those reviewers who don't discuss social issues. On the other side, the fight will be bitterly extended by the self-indulgent frothing by a civic illiterates who see it as an ideological opportunity. Too many enjoy the fight for the sake of the fight.

What am I going to do? I'm going to call out idiots and assholes and thugs. I'm going to watch, with interest, for game reviewers saying meaningful things about journalistic ethics. (For instance, I'd love to see a major site dish on how game companies have tried to influence their reviews, or confess times they caved, or a discussion of how a site separates out its editorial and advertising functions.) Even though I am interested in that subject, I am sure as hell not going to associate myself with #GamerGate. I'm going to watch, with interest (and skepticism), to see how #GamerGate responds to reviewers that articulate ethical rules but continue to talk about social issues. I'm going to watch, with interest, whether #GamerGate focuses on big money corruption, or whether it focuses on indies that just happen to feature women or social issues. Will #GamerGate be vigorous in pursuing how, say, Sony tries to get good reviews, or is it going to be oddly preoccupied with how an obscure indie developer was once a walk-up apartment roommate of a blogger? I'm not going to follow craven sites or reviewers who kowtow to #GamerGate by stopping any social comment. I'm going to keep disagreeing with "SJWs" when I disagree with them, but I'm not going to let the existence of their critique unbalance me. I'm not going to start taking people seriously when they say that criticism and dissent censors them or that unflattering coverage of a subculture "slanders"8 them. I'm not going to start taking people seriously if they suggest they have a right to be free of reviewers talking about social issues. I'm going to offer to help find pro bono help for people who are terrorized and threatened. I'm going to continue to be a defender of the First Amendment, but I'm not going to let myself be used for cynical propaganda or as a conduit for threats and abuse.

Also, I'm going to keep playing games. Right now, Age of Wonders III, Wasteland 2, and Divinity — Original Sin are on deck.

Ten Short Rants About #GamerGate © 2007-2014 by the authors of Popehat. This feed is for personal, non-commercial use only. Using this feed on any other site is a copyright violation. No scraping.

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1332 days ago
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7 public comments
donkeyrock
1332 days ago
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Mostly good.
superiphi
1332 days ago
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mostly talks sense. And great taste in turn based rpg :)
Idle, Bradford, United Kingdom
kazriko
1332 days ago
Eh, I actually agree with most of what he said. Of course, #4 is equally true of the opposition in this case, and perhaps even moreso since they had been doing it for years before GamerGate started. Personally, I think both sides should just let the whole thing die down and quit calling each other names.
jsled
1332 days ago
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So much goodness herein, not really specifically about #GamerGate, even.
South Burlington, Vermont
Manzabar
1333 days ago
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Some of most insightful info on GamerGate I've seen.
Cedar Rapids
acdha
1333 days ago
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A much better piece than Clark's muddle last week
Washington, DC
hannahdraper
1334 days ago
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This. All of this.
Washington, DC
gangsterofboats
1334 days ago
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Interesting.

August 25, 2013

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Friend of SMBC Theater Greg Platt is running to support research for Crohn's Disease! Please take a look!
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WebWrangler
1758 days ago
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Nothing like looking on the bright side.
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kalupa
1758 days ago
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Hahaha
Vancouver
Romanikque
1758 days ago
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ROFL
Baltimore, MD
kleer001
1760 days ago
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Oh god, more feels, I have them.
satadru
1761 days ago
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A billion times this.
New York, NY

LEGO Announces Two New ‘Minecraft’ Sets, The Village and The Nether

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LEGO Minecraft

Following the success of the first LEGO Minecraft set released in 2012, LEGO has announced two more sets, The Village and The Nether. With The Village set, users can build houses, grow crops, and explore mines with the Pig, Villager, and Zombie figures. The Nether set lets players build an Obsidian Portal to The Nether where they will find Netherrack, gravel, lava, and bedrock, as well as two Ghasts and a Zombie Pigman. The sets will go on sale on September 1st, 2013.

LEGO Minecraft

image credit LEGO via Leg Godt

via Leg Godt

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Officially, Google killed Reader because “over the years usage has declined”.1 I believe that statement, especially if API clients weren’t considered “usage”, but I don’t belive that’s the entire reason.

The most common assumption I’ve seen others cite is that “Google couldn’t figure out how to monetize Reader,” or other variants about direct profitability. I don’t believe this, either. Google Reader’s operational costs likely paled in comparison to many of their other projects that don’t bring in major revenue, and I’ve heard from multiple sources that it effectively had a staff of zero for years. It was just running, quietly serving a vital role for a lot of people.

This is how RSS and Atom have always worked: you put in some effort up front to get the system built,2 and in most instances, you never need to touch it. It just hums along, immune to redesigns, changing APIs, web-development trends, and slash-and-burn executives on “sunsetting” sprees.3

RSS was the original web-service API. The original mashup enabler. And it’s still healthy and going strong.

Mostly.

RSS grew up in a boom time for consumer web services and truly open APIs, but it especially spread like wildfire in the blogging world. Personal blogs and RSS represented true vendor independence: you could host your site anywhere, with any software. You could change those whenever anything started to suck, because there were many similar choices and your readers could always find your site at the domain name you owned.

The free, minimally restricted web-service-API era has come and gone since then. As Jeremy Keith wrote so well a few weeks ago (you should read the whole thing), those days aren’t coming back:

But [Facebook] did grow. And grow. And grow. And suddenly the AOL business model didn’t seem so crazy anymore. It seemed ahead of its time.

Once Facebook had proven that it was possible to be the one-stop-shop for your user’s every need, that became the model to emulate. Startups stopped seeing themselves as just one part of a bigger web. Now they wanted to be the only service that their users would ever need… just like Facebook.

Seen from that perspective, the open flow of information via APIs — allowing data to flow porously between services — no longer seemed like such a good idea.

(He also addresses RSS. Read it. I’ll wait here.)

This isn’t an issue of “openness”, per se — Twitter, for instance, has very good reasons to limit its API. You aren’t entitled to unrestricted access to someone else’s service. Those days are gone for good, and we’ll all be fine. We don’t need big web players to be completely open.

The bigger problem is that they’ve abandoned interoperability. RSS, semantic markup, microformats, and open APIs all enable interoperability, but the big players don’t want that — they want to lock you in, shut out competitors, and make a service so proprietary that even if you could get your data out, it would be either useless (no alternatives to import into) or cripplingly lonely (empty social networks).

Google resisted this trend admirably for a long time and was very geek- and standards-friendly, but not since Facebook got huge enough to effectively redefine redefined the internet and refocus Google’s plans to be all-Google+, all the time.4 The escalating three-way war between Google, Facebook, and Twitter — by far the three most important web players today — is accumulating new casualties every day at our expense.

Google Reader is just the latest casualty of the war that Facebook started, seemingly accidentally: the battle to own everything.5 While Google did technically “own” Reader and could make some use of the huge amount of news and attention data flowing through it, it conflicted with their far more important Google+ strategy: they need everyone reading and sharing everything through Google+ so they can compete with Facebook for ad-targeting data, ad dollars, growth, and relevance.

RSS represents the antithesis of this new world: it’s completely open, decentralized, and owned by nobody, just like the web itself. It allows anyone, large or small, to build something new and disrupt anyone else they’d like because nobody has to fly six salespeople out first to work out a partnership with anyone else’s salespeople.

That world formed the web’s foundations — without that world to build on, Google, Facebook, and Twitter couldn’t exist. But they’ve now grown so large that everything from that web-native world is now a threat to them, and they want to shut it down. “Sunset” it. “Clean it up.” “Retire” it. Get it out of the way so they can get even bigger and build even bigger proprietary barriers to anyone trying to claim their territory.

Well, fuck them, and fuck that.

We need to keep pushing forward without them, and do what we’ve always done before: route around the obstructions and maintain what’s great about the web. Keep building and supporting new tools, technologies, and platforms to empower independence, interoperability, and web property ownership.


  1. Over the years, comma usage after prepositional phrases has also apparently declined.

  2. Then you spend twice as much time figuring out how to deal with poorly crafted feeds, ambiguities, and edge cases — especially for Atom, which is a huge, overengineered pain in the ass that, as far as I can tell, exists mostly because people always argue with Dave Winer and do their own contrarian things even when he’s right, because they can’t stand when he’s right.

  3. They never hear about it, and don’t know what it is if someone starts explaining it. To most “business” people, RSS might as well be NTP or SMB. “Something the servers do.”

  4. This plan is particularly problematic because Google+ is, relatively, a clear failure so far.

  5. Apple dragged Google into a similar war for extreme mobile-OS lockdown — that’s why Google had to do Android.

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1814 days ago
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14 public comments
esch
1807 days ago
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Well, fuck them, and fuck that.
Minneapolis, Minnesota
brico
1814 days ago
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+1
Brooklyn, NY
subbes
1814 days ago
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Tch, eh?
SF Bay Area
KimKane
1814 days ago
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historical perspective on death of G Reader
MotherHydra
1814 days ago
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Slowly the net is regressing back to the days of information silos controlled by a few, big players. Fight the future, I say. I don't miss AOL's mono-culture and I sure won't miss Facebook when it finally dies. I hope that Google reaps the karma from killing off reader, especially since they moved into the RSS space and nearly killed it off. Oddly enough it was an evil move to begin with, but no one wants to discuss that minor point. Glad RSS survived Google's scorched-earth policy.
Space City, USA
hooges
1814 days ago
I agree. He makes a point in this article about how we don't need the big players to be open - that is crazy! We do need them to be MORE open because otherwise we are regressing.
pberry
1814 days ago
I'm not convinced the numbers support that. You would be hard pressed at this very moment to say that there isn't more open content now than in the past.
phrakture
1814 days ago
I agree with pberry. This whole thing stinks of "oh the times were so much better *back then*".
skorgu
1814 days ago
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Sigh.
petrilli
1814 days ago
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Standards will set you free. Unfortunately, most people don't actually want to be free.
Arlington, VA
clinthowarth
1814 days ago
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Excellent and depressing summary. Marco is a smart guy.
Cafeine
1814 days ago
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Views on WHY (really) Google killed reader.
Paris / France
bluegecko
1814 days ago
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This is, by far, the best analysis I've seen of why Google killed Reader, and includes some great insights into the general ecosystem, too.
New York, NY
rosskarchner
1814 days ago
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I really wish there were some sort of 'like' button I could click to signal my approval here.
DC-ish
wingnut2600
1814 days ago
(liked)
ichdarfdas
1814 days ago
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Now is the time to take back the Internet, one feed at a time.
octplane
1814 days ago
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Nice article...
Paris
kicking_kk
1814 days ago
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Excellent article on the philosophy behind the Google Reader shutdown. This is why I support app.net & Newsblur.

Gordon Walton: Publishers see devs as "replaceable meat puppets"

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Gordon Walton has been building computer games for over 35 years, and recently was laid off as VP and executive producer of Playdom's Austin studio as Disney shut down that operation. Prior to his time at Playdom, Walton was VP and co-studio general manager for BioWare Austin, and before that held a similar role for Sony Online Entertainment, Maxis (managing The Sims Online), Origin Systems and numerous other game companies. Walton has been responsible for managing game projects such as Star Wars: The Old Republic, Ultima Online, and The Sims Online.

Walton's vast experience in the game business gives him an interesting perspective to view the massive wave of change sweeping over the game industry. GamesIndustry International sat down with Walton at GDC to talk about the changes he's seen and what's coming up next.

Walton spent many years building games to put in boxes for retail stores, and over time began concentrating on online games, which demands a relationship between the company and individual gamers. That's a difficult transition for publishers used to the old way of doing business. "Most of the big companies I work for think about the consumers like a faceless mass, and not about people," Walton said. "People are the ones using our stuff. Even in the mid '80s, when I was doing games then, I always went to alpha as quickly as I could. I was on the online services and I would recruit people who were interested in the topic and I would have forty or fifty people playing my early game and giving me feedback, because you can't see the forest for the trees when you're making the game. Just because you made it for yourself, and your team, and they all think it's cool, doesn't mean a damn thing if customers don't think it's cool."

"Just because you made it for yourself, and your team, and they all think it's cool, doesn't mean a damn thing if customers don't think it's cool"

Walton believes that customer feedback is integral to making better games. "It's not just any customer feedback, it's the customers that you're actually going to target with the game," Walton noted. "Particularly the early adopters who are going to be your mavens for everyone else. If I can please the most demanding consumers, I can probably please a lot more."

Walton sees the greater community involvement with game development as a good thing, but he cautions that the feedback you receive has to be analyzed carefully. "I think the challenge with Kickstarter, as with any online community, is realizing the vast majority of people look but don't talk," Walton explained. "You can over-react to the vocal minority, but what you can get from the vocal minority is the big ideas, the big trends. What really engages the passion? Typically it's not 'If you give me a button right here that makes it easier for me to do this, that's going to engage my passion' that's not what they're talking about. They're talking about the core experience that really engages their imagination."

The increasing quality of graphics has not been an unalloyed benefit to games. "If you think about the games we made a long time ago, the games were more imagination and less exposition. We've come to a place where it's more exposition and less imagination," Walton said. "It's challenging, because people are just not as engaged if their imaginations aren't engaged."

Walton agreed with the comment that Jordan Weissman made when he said he wants to use the Infinite Resolution Rendering Engine inside people's heads. "Will [Wright] says similar things. It's about building the mental models that the player's going to engage in, that lets them have ownership. Both of them are right about that," Walton said. "You can see it proven out when you look at Sims 1. Sims 1 was bigger than Sims 2 and bigger than Sims 3, and it was the least high-res. It gave you iconic stuff instead of expository stuff. And you were listening to that simulation, making up what it meant in your head. You were looking at their tiny little animations and you were putting the emotion in there."

"The business that we've had is not so much coming to an end as it's transitioning pretty radically"

"I worked there, and we had research around this. One of the biggest fears in doing Sims 2 was when you make it more expressive, you're going to lose a lot of the player connection where they're making up what it means. Ten players might think it means three different things or more, and it was all OK. But if you actually see the character make an expression, then you go 'Oh, that's not what I was expecting' and there's more disconnect at some level. I think the numbers prove that out; even though all the products were successful nothing was a s big as Sims 1 because you could put more of you in it rather than it putting it on you."

This is part of what Minecraft has going for it, according to Walton. "It's so iconic that you're filling in more of the blank areas," he noted. "You have to engage your imagination to make that blocky guy look like what he really is. When you look at some of the early phone games you're back to a more iconic thing and just raw fun, rather than it has to be perfect animation and perfect exposition of the character."

The PS4 announcement had a lot of people talking about the innovation it will bring, but it really wasn't clear how this new hardware or other new consoles will drive innovation. "That's not unusual when a new hardware platform comes out," Walton said. "I think more of the innovation now is coming in business models and distribution models than it is going to be in super-duper hardware. The real key in game design is still interaction, and does that interaction set up the flow, which creates the endorphins and that sense of mastery that makes you feel like you're winning."

Walton's experience leads him to think big companies will continue to struggle in addressing the variety of business models and platforms and customer relationships. "I think it's very difficult for the big companies to change their DNA on the fly," Walton said. "If we were just getting better graphics, we'd be fine. When the fundamental underlying business model, when the fundamental margin structure and the way that you actually reach customers changes, I think it's very difficult for companies to say 'Oh, we're going to be an expert at putting boxes in stores, we're going to be an expert at doing online stores, we're going to be an expert at partnering with other people and ecosystems to make it happen.' A lot of their DNA conspires against being all those things."

"The business that we've had is not so much coming to an end as it's transitioning pretty radically. Because of that we've seen THQ go out of business, we've seen other businesses struggling, we see other businesses appear not to struggle - but it may be the innovator's dilemma, where they're right at that peak couple of years where they're going to look like they're God and then all of a sudden the bottom falls out from underneath them."

Looking at specific large companies and their recent performances, Walton had some incisive comments. "I give JR [John Riccitiello] a lot of credit for trying to change EA," Walton said. "He really worked hard at it. I think it's hard to change the DNA of a company, and that's the real struggle there. The struggle is not the leader saying 'We need to go into online.' The struggle is how the entire company structure works, how all the reward cycles within the company, how all the people in the company in positions of power grew up and what their muscle memory is. Their muscle memory is completely contrary to to many of the things that are going on now, and it's really hard to change."

"One day [Activision will] be the big fish at the bottom of the pond, and there'll be almost no food left and no water, and it's going to be hard to breathe. That's how that ends; it ends in catastrophe"

Gordon Walton

Conversely, Activision has not made the sweeping changes that EA has, and has performed well in the last few years. But that's not necessarily a great indicator of future performance. "Here's the Activision situation from my point of view," Walton explained. "Because they didn't spend energy trying to change, what they've done is gotten sharper and sharper at the things that they do really well. So they're looking like the cock of the walk. They look awesome because they haven't tried stuff that's failed, other than the normal trying new franchises and they're used to those kind of failures. They've haven't said we're going to fundamentally change our company, so they're going to be that last guy standing in the console world. One day they'll be the big fish at the bottom of the pond, and there'll be almost no food left and no water, and it's going to be hard to breathe. That's how that ends; it ends in catastrophe."

Walton continued, "From my ten thousand foot view, it always has amazed me that these companies don't have the discipline to spin off real independent business units that can actually make autonomous decisions. They always want to make them part of their core culture, and the core culture is antithetical to new business models. The culture is part of the problem if you want to do something different. What they always want is the business to conform to them, not to conform the business to what the context is. This is an old human story."

"Like when <a href="http://EA.com" rel="nofollow">EA.com</a> got created, the first time JR was at EA, this was the real problem. They tried to do <a href="http://EA.com" rel="nofollow">EA.com</a> inside of EA, and I had a conversation with JR in the formation meetings. 'We need to get this out of the building, it needs to be in its own building somewhere else, because the culture of EA is not gonna work with this whole online thing.' It was hard to explain, obviously. It was always 'oh, we can save money by sticking it in Redwood Shores.' 'Ask all the divisions to send us the people they don't want to staff it, so you don't have to lay 'em off.'"

"They had a particular set of objectives, and it was hard to hit 'em without doing some crazy stuff, and they didn't hit 'em. I think JR learned a lot from that experience when he came back the second time. I was much more happy with him the second time than I was the first. The first, it was 'Oh my God, we're steaming toward the iceberg and it's gonna hit us.' The second time he was trying to do the right thing. I think he underestimated just how entrenched that culture was, and how hard it was for him as a leader to get people to move in the direction he wanted without being probably being even more vicious than even he's capable of being."

Walton is philosophic about the overall game industry. "Change is going to continue to happen at an accelerating rate. That's the only truism of my entire adult career. You're either going to be surfing the wave or it's going to crash down on top of you."

"Nobody has all the answers, and we're discovering the answers. We're trying to make them up as we go along, so there's opportunity"

The current environment is one Walton finds invigorating. "I remember making three games in a year, and now that's possible again. It's a really exciting time to be in the business," Walton said. "I got that invigoration when I got involved in online back in '95, because at that point I'd already been in the business for 18 years. I knew how to make games, but making online games there were new rules, and we didn't know what they were. With these new mediums, it's the same thing. Nobody has all the answers, and we're discovering the answers. We're trying to make them up as we go along, so there's opportunity."

Walton feels there may be bigger changes ahead. "The thing that's most exciting to me is there are opportunities for complete disruptive innovation," he noted. "If you can think far enough outside the box, you might be able to come up with something that might turn the whole thing on its head again. The one thing we can reasonably predict is that we don't know what's going to happen in three years."

The big struggle of the early days of gaming was to find a way to reach a mass market, and Walton is pleased we've finally done that. "We won. Gaming has won," Walton proclaimed. "If you have access to an electronic device, more than likely you game; 80 to 90 percent of the people who have access to any computing device game. There's no battle there; it's just which gaming are they going to do."

The victory is not without its drawbacks, though. "We were so excited when the core gaming business went from being a hobby into a mainstream, semi-mass-market hobby," Walton recalled. "You could reach what we were calling mass markets; selling ten million games was a mass market. What it was was a very robust premium hobby business. For people who grew up on that, a lot of them are distressed by the fact that gaming has been completely democratized and exists on this giant palette of different devices."

"This giant ecosystem of diversity is in my mind fabulous," Walton said. "But if you were the major leagues, which is kind of the way the AAA guys think of themselves, all of a sudden the little leagues and the home teams and the company teams were all more important than the AAA teams, you would probably feel disenfranchised. It's very threatening; any time you get to the top of a plateau you want to rest, you don't want to say there's a whole 'nother mountain to climb."

It's not just daunting for publishers - it's tough on developers too. "For the individual developer, it's about achieving mastery and then realizing, 'Oh crap, I have to completely reinvent myself,'" Walton said. "While this experience I have is valuable, it doesn't make me a master at it. I have to go through and crawl from a beginner back up to a master, and it's not overnight. It's not one year. It's not like someone is coming to get you; the world is changing, that's all."

"If there was a Making Game Companies For Dummies book, that should be the core of it - how important coherent teams are"

What's next for Walton, now that Disney has released him into the wild? "I'll certainly try to do something interesting," Walton said. "The metagame that I play, since I'm a manager, is how to make people better at this business when they leave me than when I got 'em. Two, what can I do that can actually change the fundamentals of the business? How can I help move the business forward? I've done almost everything I always wanted to do and more; now I have to think up bigger challenges."

Does Walton aspire to be the new CEO of EA? "No thank you," he said quickly. "I had that thought once when I first worked for EA. I thought, 'If I really did this right I could probably end up there, and I'd be just like those guys when I finally got there.' The process you have to go through shapes you. And the whole reason I'd want to go there is because I have a different vision."

Perhaps EA's board would be looking for someone to ride in on the white horse from out of town and be the new CEO. "Yeah, but they have to be really desperate," Walton laughed. "For a long time in my career people sent for me when they were really desperate, and I kind of like that. It means they had a really big problem. I used to think of myself as the fixer, or the cleaner." The cleaner as in Harvey Keitel's character in Pulp Fiction. "'We have a mess, it needs to be cleaned up.' I've always liked big challenges. When I look at my career, I was always looking for something that would stretch me, something that would really be hard to do and worthwhile. Sometimes I've been tricked into doing hard things that probably weren't worthwhile, but mostly I wanted to do hard things that were worthwhile if they succeeded. Sometimes you fail; I've learned a lot about my limits over the years."

Walton has some advice for executives in the game industry. "You can't play it safe in our business and succeed," he noted. "There's a time when you can get away with, but it's not a repeatable pattern. It's a hard truth, but it's one that people don't want to embrace."

The constant layoffs, hiring and reshuffling of staff that's commonplace in the game industry distresses Walton. "A shocking thing about our business is how little attention and value is put on coherent teams," Walton said. "At a certain level of abstraction at almost all game companies, there's almost no appreciation at all for the team dynamic. 'They're just replaceable meat puppets,' and that's never, ever true. The value of a coherent team that knows how to work together is not on any balance sheet. So they regularly destroy really good functioning teams and then remake them with all the inherent risks that come from remaking a team. Even people who've advanced in the game business to the higher levels, who actually know that shit, seem to forget it. It always shocks me. If there was a Making Game Companies For Dummies book, that should be the core of it - how important coherent teams are."

Walton is looking forward to whatever lies ahead, but he's interested in working with smaller teams. "I know more about big teams than I ever wanted to, and I never want to know it again if I can avoid it," he said.

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