The Fallacy of Objectivity

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Things have not been good in the world of video games.

Anita Sarkeesian of Feminist Frequency, famously a target of an onslaught of abuse thanks to her Tropes Versus Women in Video Games series, once again had to leave her home due to death threats and misogynistic attacks, while indie developer Zoe Quinn received a constant barrage of threatening e-mails, phone calls and online messages after accusations were made that she engaged in relationships with games journalists for good reviews of her game Depression Quest (all of which were quickly debunked, not that that stopped the attacks). Under the hashtag #GamerGate, 4Chan users organised attacks against a number of critics, most of whom were women, claiming to be driven by a desire to unmask corruption in the world of gaming reviewing and journalism.

This is a field which has encountered a number of claims of conflicts of interest, putting honesty second to pleasing business. Jeff Gerstmann was famously fired from GameSpot for giving a negative rating to Kane & Lynch: Dead Men, while Rab Florence left EuroGamer after being threatened with libel for (rightfully) drawing attention to some potential journalistic missteps. Writers in the world of gaming regularly face claims that they are in bed with big developers, getting too friendly with those they write about, and taking expensive freebies. All of these are issues every reviewer has to face on some level, and sometimes the lines separating professional and personal blur. This is all true.

But honestly, it’s not as big a deal as you’d think.

I’ve been reviewing books for 4 years now. I started out blogging partly to entertain myself and partly to gain a wider understanding of a field I was interested in (young adult fiction). Between then and now, I have befriended many reviewers and even a few authors. I’ve received books to review for free and taken part in promotional blog tours with publishers. These are all normal parts of being an established reviewer, amateur and professional. It’s part of the business. You trade your time and skills for a review. It’s work, even if you’re like me and not being paid for it. It’s a given that professional critics receive a copy of the reviewed material for free, be it entry to a pre-release screening or early access to a game or an advanced reader copy of a book.

None of this is evidence of corruption, as some have come to believe. It’s a business transaction. A reviewer will not instantly give something a more favourable rating just because they didn’t have to pay for it. If that were the case, you’d never see bad reviews of anything.

It’s also interesting that many of the misogynists demanding ethics in gaming are the same ones who cry ‘troll’ when a popular game receives a less than perfect review. Carolyn Petit gave GTA V 9/10 and people petitioned for her to be fired because of it.

The other major accusation against Quinn and other journalists is the claim that she formed close personal relationships with journalists in exchange for favourable reviews. This was disproven very quickly yet continued to be used as a stick to beat several individuals with. Any sign of a friendship or vague acquaintance is immediately declared to be solid proof of corruption. I wonder if these people are aware of how the world of business works. A game developer’s been chatting with a journalist on Twitter? They took selfies together at PAX? Welcome to literally every industry ever. Nothing would get done without solid, friendly working relationships on every level of the industry. That’s not to say everyone’s in bed with one another, literally or otherwise, or that we’re sending birthday presents to each other. Publicists exist for a reason. It’s a big industry, sprawling and often hard to follow, and not hard to see how it can be daunting or shifty to those who aren’t familiar with it. But it’s not corruption. Not even close. It’s certainly not going to destroy the industry. A big portion of indie developers are barely scraping by and, like their more profitable counterparts, they make connections and do business to survive. It doesn’t mean they’re guaranteed glowing reviews and millions of customer purchases.

Ultimately, we come back to that word time and time again – objectivity. We strive for it, or at least try to do so, when we review anything. We’re crafting a universal narrative, one that anyone can dive into and receive information from. That’s the intention, anyway. Or is it? I’m not so sure anymore. I’ve talked a few times before about the role of the critic. One can often tread in murky waters. A publisher sends you some gorgeous promotional materials and you quietly wonder if your opinion of their books will be influenced by it. You talk frequently with some authors to the point where you consider them friends and ask yourself if a line’s been crossed. The longer you spend doing it, reviewing and making a name for yourself, the more you question if your biases show.

We all have biases and conflicts of interest in some form. There are writers we subconsciously give an easier time to because we just love their work too much, a personal passion that overtakes a more impartial analysis. Some genres just don’t click with us like others, and there are days when you sit down to watch a movie, having had a bad day or just no feeling great, and that can make a difference. None of this renders out conclusions null and void, and the idea that cold hard objectivity is the ultimate goal of criticism wipes away a lot of good work. Supposed objectivity can also be more harmful than helpful – think of the ‘common sense’ critic who treats misogyny in the industry as ‘not the real issue’ even when it’s the only issue.

Perhaps our aim shouldn’t be objectivity, but rather a more transparent subjectivity, one where we’re open about personal biases, preferences and other such issues that shape our opinions and judgement. A quick disclaimer over possible conflicts of interest can go a long way. I doubt this will satisfy the misogynists looking for more figurative straw-men to thump, but it might make things a little clearer for the rest of us.

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