Friday, October 24, 2014

Bringing the Soapbox Out of Retirement: Reviews, Reviewers and Ethics

What the actual fuck is going on with the internet these days? On one side we have rabid crybaby gamers doxxing women and forcing them to abandon their homes in terror and on the other we have an author who overreacts to such an extreme that she stalks a blogger.

And apparently* at the heart of both of these issues is ethics and reviews.


In one case a blogger "reviewed" (which from some reports isn't actually correct. Apparently it was a series of Goodreads status update) a book harshly, accusing the author of promoting bigotry and rape and using offensive language. Something which she is free to do, even if the author doesn't believe those issues are part of her novel. In the other a demand for stricter ethics in game journalism is being used as a fa├žade to level hate at women and minorities who dare enter the precious world of the "average" gamer. If you want to know more about either of these issues I'll link up some articles at the bottom of the post

And here's the thing both parties need to understand. Reviews can not be objective. It's impossible and, let's face it, it'd be boring as hell. By their very definition reviews involve someone giving their opinion on a product. Even if all they were going to do was rate the gameplay or grammar out of 10, how can you possibly do that completely objectively? Who is to say that my 10 is the same as yours? And as a casual gamer I may rate something an 8 where my heavy gamer boyfriend with a background in developing would think it was a garbage-y 4. Or if I mostly read classics pre-dating 1700 how do I rate a graphic novel? If it's a game or a book aimed at children do we allow for weaker game play and simpler graphics, bright pictures and small words? If they do well within those parameters, do they still deserve a 10? Does this call for pigeon-holing reviewers into very specific roles that they can never branch out of in fear of delivering an "unethical review"?

This is why reviews are rarely, if ever, a numbers game. I once gave an author a 3 out of 5 on Goodreads which I thought reflected my general enjoyment of the book, while also letting people know it was unlikely to be reread. The author thought my review spoke more to a 4 and asked me to change my Goodreads rating accordingly. To me a 3 isn't a failure, it's a strong book that I am unlikely to revisit. To him it meant I had found major issues with his work. It's why we usually add a large bunch of text before our numbers, because if you just went of the star ratings it might be hard to truly gage how someone felt about the thing they were reviewing.

Purely technical reviews don't serve either authors/game designers or readers/gamers. The way we read and watch movies and play games it intrinsically tied to our emotions. We get invested and addicted and obsess over the art in our lives. But it's more than that, you can't divorce art from the real world.  It is impossible to expect one person to react to something the same way as another person would. The author of that horrific Save The Pearls/Revealing Eden book might not have realised that she was invoking complicated racial and class issues in her narrative, but the majority of the audience did and they found it offensive. A technical review may include valid and helpful information, but it's only part of the picture. Art is subjective because we bring our own history into it. When you review Breaking Bad you may remark on the beautiful cinematography, or the starkness of the setting and the emotive dialogue, but you also look at it in terms of the greater picture. The narrative of Breaking Bad does not exist outside of a discussion on American healthcare, or teacher's pay or the drug industry that operates between the American and Mexican border. You could write an entire thesis on Skyler White and the changing role of women within the American family, or Jesse Pinkman and the nature vs nurture argument. You can do this because it is art. Vince Gilligan has often come out and exclaimed how shocked he was to see everyone react so negatively to Skyler when her husband is not only lying to her, but cooking meth and killing people! But that's the way it goes with art, the creator and the public may not always agree, but amazing discussions can come out of it.

Addressing issues that you think are prevalent in a game or book in your review does not make you unethical. Whether you are a blogger or an professional reviewer you are well within your rights to let your audience know what you've found. And if you disagree with that interpretation then you are entirely within your rights. That's how opinions work. If you think, for example, that Polygon was completely off base with their review about Bayonetta 2 and sexuality then great! Go to a different website, because I can guarantee you'll find another mass-media review that either doesn't acknowledge that angle at all or looks at it as a positive rather than a negative.

Definitely no reason to bring up sexuality though, noooope.


If your opposition to an opinion is so great that you need to create an entire movement to "take down games journalism" or that you travel to another country to smack a blogger over the head with a bottle of wine,** then you need to step back and think about where your life is headed. Before you hire a PI to get the address of that super mean blogger or illegally obtain and share the details of a person who opposes you, STOP. Whether you're a creator or a consumer, this behaviour is absolutely abhorrent. Let's start being honest with ourselves. Gamergate has nothing to do with ethics. If it did it would have been the male reviewer who was criticised, not the female developer. And Kathleen Hale has a history of outrageous behaviour that isn't simply kooky or offbeat, it's horrific and not to be lauded as "what we all wish we could do". 

I love having a blog and reviewing books. I might not be a professional writer but I deserve to be able to express an opinion without fearing that an author is going to set her fans on me (*cough* Anne Rice *cough*) or travel to my home and call me at work. I should be able to write positive reviews and negative reviews without fearing that blogging under my real name is a mistake. I should be able to post an article to facebook without someone talking down to me and telling me that I'm "supporting the true evil" by standing up for women who are being attacked. I should be able to talk about any aspect of a book or game or movie in my review, regardless of whether other people agree. 

The beauty of the internet is that you can find absolutely everything. You can find positive reviews of your book, or review sites that deal entirely in technical or genre based reviews. There are so many websites that it's almost impossible to find one that doesn't have a niche. Want feminist nerd culture news? Go to The Mary Sue. Want intelligent, inclusive and hilarious content? Go to The Toast. If you are anti-feminist or simply don't give a shit about those sorts of issues then maybe skirt past those URLs. I applaud anyone who is willing to challenge their own position by reading reviews that focus on issues that impact a different section of the community. That's how you grow as a person and it's especially how you grow as a writer or reviewer. But I completely understand if you want to stay within your own specific parameters of interest. As long as you aren't hurting anyone, we can absolutely still be friends. But when you start using violence and aggression and insults to silence people who think differently to you? That's when our friendship ends and you need to take a good hard look at why you're really so angry.


If you want to read up further on the wider issues involved in both cases, here are a few accounts. I highly recommend looking wider though.

Gamergate 
~Jesse Singal wrote a fantastic article  for NY Mag about Gamergate and the many problems emblematic of their cause.
~Badass Digest wrote up an article article on why the "ethics" aspect of Gamergate doesn't hold water.
~Polygon addressed their position on Gamergate, and the charges levelled against them regarding their Bayonetta review.
~Fellicia Day was doxxed within an hour of writing about Gamergate, The Mary Sue covered it.

Kathleen Hale
~Hale's controversial article that started the whole thing.
~Dear Author addressed a lot of the charges Hale levelled in her article and also talks about the importance of pseudonyms.

*I say apparently because it's pretty clear that neither issue is about a review, but rather about personal issues, prejudices and broader problems.

**A different case of an author behaving badly.

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