The 5 most significant video game controversies in 2012

Controversy defined 2012. Gamasutra's Leigh Alexander rounds up the five biggest, as the voice of our community, the spirit of social change and the very shape of games crashes hard against old ways.
Here at Gamasutra, I've been rounding up the annual biggest firestorms for some years now, yet this is the first time I've felt truly challenged. Last year, I highlighted the "line in the sand" passionate gamers had drawn in a period of cultural growth -- by which I meant it's become clear more gamers than ever now have a zero-tolerance policy for prejudice, insensitivity and exclusionary attitudes witin our community. This year bore that out in spades. This year we experienced equal parts righteousness and anxiety over the role and the portrayal of women in our industry, from arguments over "fake geek girls" to the truly humiliating wave of abuse and negativity that followed Anita Sarkeesian's Kickstarter to research stereotypes surrounding female characters in games. That our most heated conversations this year took place surrounding allegations and analysis of sexism is simultaneously heartening and troubling. On one hand, that so many voices have swelled to fight old prejudices and boys' club attitudes in an industry that is by all metrics for everyone now is nothing short of amazing. On the other hand, it prompts us to carefully consider our responsibility to educate, connect and empathize on these issues so that they become battles that rational people can share. It's also an issue of concern to me personally that so often the conversation is about sexism, when in fact the bigger issue is assuring an inclusive industry for all, where everyone, regardless of class, orientation, color, age, heritage or creed, feels welcome and respected. So I could do a top five list only about controversies over sexism -- and honestly, it's tempting, because so many of us have been waiting so long to be heard, to feel cared for in an industry we all deeply love, and as one of the more vocal women in the press on this movement I can't help but feel responsible. Yet I made an effort this year to focus not on smaller fires, but on broader trends toward the maturation of games and their relationship with their audience. Many small fires become an inferno, after all.

Mass Effect's Ending

After three installments in BioWare's widely-celebrated franchise, the saga of Shepard came to an end. And yet it was far from over -- the ending of the game caused a vocal outcry of fan dissatisfaction with everything from the tone to the logic of the story itself. Particularly damning was the allegation that fans didn't have enough choice and control over their destiny, given that one of the strengths of the series is that it works to give players exactly that. me3.jpgFans can carry over their protagonist from one game to the next, deeply invested in a character who by him or herself is mainly a cipher, but through player choice becomes someone with an identity and a destiny elected by the game's audience over years. Players saw the fact that they felt such little control over the story's final outcome as nothing short of absolute betrayal, like BioWare had reneged on its commitment to them. Many fans were happy to eventually receive a new ending and to be heard. What was interesting about the controversy was that it called into question the auteurship of a developer. BioWare's decision to release a new ending provoked much discussion -- should a studio rewire its vision if fans don't like it? Will gamers regularly be able to petition studios to gratify them, and how important is it that fans be totally content with a plot? The goal of massive franchises for years has been to create a sustaining, even deeply personal relationship with players. But clearly that success comes with a cost.

Anita Sarkeesian, the tall poppy

Feminist media critic Anita Sarkeesian launched a Kickstarter campaign hoping to fund a web series, "Tropes vs. Women," that would enable her to present an exploration of the portrayal of female characters in games. It was a fairly simple ambition for which she asked for $6000 -- and got much more than that, in every sense of the phrase. Criticisms of the project's purpose or why someone would want thousands of dollars to make videos were to be expected in the demanding crowdfunding age. But what was truly horrifying was the backlash, with vocal online communities mounting hate campaigns and viewing intimidation and harrassment of Sarkeesian as a personal mission. Someone even made a Flash game about beating her face black-and-blue. Their goal was to get her to give up. But regardless of one's opinion of her work and its goals, the level of purposeful, high-volume vitriol cannot be excused. Calls for change are threatening to a community that particularly values its escapism, its places safe from judgment, and too often men hear the word "feminism" and jump to the conclusion they're being attacked or accused of sexism personally. But there's just no way to rationalize what Sarkeesian endured. The silver lining is that in a show of support, the community gave Sarkeesian many times what she asked for. The spotlight will be on her intensely now, and the results of her research, the status of which importantly isn't yet known, will be closely scrutinized. But anyone who loves games is obligated to be incredibly conscious of how ugly is the underbelly of our community and how far we have yet to go. We've looked into the abyss.

Are the crowds wise?

This year we witnessed how broad-ranging the impact of crowdsourcing is on determining what products get made, and on the very shape of our industry. In the online age we've talked a blue streak about listening to your players, and about putting the shape of a living, always-on product into the hands of your community. Now, from a mass rush of Kickstarters to Valve's placing the power of decision in players' hands with Steam Greenlight, the business itself is now increasingly player-led. Largely this has been a good thing, sensible for the allocation of resources and letting demand lead supply at the end of a late console cycle where risk-aversion and uncertainty are watchwords. But a private anxiety roils beneath the surface of this unprecedented content democracy. To what extent can we trust the wisdom of the crowds? I recently wrote about how a group itself can become just as risk-averse as any investor the more information they're given, and game developers and fans alike are getting increasingly vocal about best practices. greenlight.jpgSteam's Greenlight program faced some criticisms from the start, as amid a rush of content fans cleaved loyally to familiar concepts, and it soon became clear that crowdsourcing might not be the best engine to direct the spotlight onto new and difficult ideas. Kickstarter saw a retro boom this year -- turns out what people mostly want is things they've already had. The extent of the power that crowdsourcing gives its community was poorly-anticipated; the initial wild west age has ebbed, and the results of many of the earliest-funded titles have yet to be seen. There's anxiety now, and both sides of the aisle -- creators and consumers -- will be keeping a close eye on that balance of power. We're learning what it really takes to make it in the era of crowd vote, and not everyone likes that. The rumbles of uncertainty have begun, and will likely reach a fever pitch in the year ahead.


Passionate gamers have mistrusted the games press for years, scrutinizing review sites and their writers closely to ensure that they're receiving a trusted, objective opinion that hasn't been massaged by free drinks, marketing swag or corporate pressure. The Kane and Lynch scandal that led Jeff Gerstmann away from Gamespot years ago shows that there is some foundation to their concerns -- advertisers are aggressive. Marketers have gotten adept at controlling the information cycle that surrounds new releases, and while the online age and the rise of independent outlets has punctured some holes in the old bargaining relationship between print magazines and advertisers, those advertisers still stamp their influence all over us, as Mountain Dew holds hands with Halo and Geoff Keighley is infamously photographed beside a bag of Doritos. New concerns came to a very ugly head earlier this year at the UK's Games Media Awards, when at Eurogamer Rab Florence criticized the event -- where the nation's games press is recognized at an event plush with sponsors and a cabal of publishers -- as emblematic of the fact that the relationship between supposed journalists and the companies they're paid to cover is still too buddy-buddy. Individual writers were slammed widely for participating in a hashtagged Tweet-off to win a free PlayStation 3. Amid the controversy one of the accused writers was ultimately dismissed from her job, the final punishment after a virulent outpouring of criticism some likened to witch-hunting. Before that, Florence resigned from Eurogamer as his piece was edited under fear of reprisal from the accused. It was a painful experience for all who cover games in the UK, and even on our shores it prompted much soul-searching on our role and identity as professionals -- or whether some of us want or need to be "professionals" at all. It was a watershed moment in a burgeoning identity crisis for writing on games, which increasingly serves many different roles and many different audiences. Games writers are now critics, essayists, industry experts, news reporters, authors of buyer's guides, comedians, diarists and community leaders. "Objectivity" is not only overrated, but impossible outside the discipline of reportage. But many of us will have to define our roles -- and then act in accordance with those roles -- if we hope to sustain the trust of our readership.

Failure to communicate

Back to the small fires, and to the inferno: The issues that raised our hackles the most this year were led by major communications failures. Borderlands 2's decision to include a mode that encourages a non-gamer friend or partner to have an accessible playtime along with you was clearly a sound one -- it was just those two little words, "girlfriend mode," that made people angry, as they perhaps suggested a wider prejudice. Hitman made not one but two marketing gaffes: The stripper-nuns yielded a bewildered apology, and a Facebook app that essentially gamified bullying to sell the game after it launched to mixed reception showed a baffling failure of judgment. It was live for just an hour before outrage got it pulled. The apology was already prepared; someone's legal department had been ready to pull the trigger. They knew it was stupid and they did it anyway. hitman.jpgThough I've admittedly not seen it myself, by all the early accounts I've heard the new Tomb Raider game, with Rhianna Pratchett as writer, is actually shaping up to be an interesting portrayal of a younger Lara Croft, who's made a long and often-awkward journey from 90's sex doll toward actual character. But you wouldn't guess it by the game's early reveals, which featured Croft's torture-porny grunting and moaning as her exposed body took injury after injury, nor by the revelation that essentially the game was going to shape her character by having her endure a rape attempt. We got only enough information to make a negative conclusion -- did anyone actually believe we'd hear that and go, "wow, sounds fun"? E3 was ugly, too. Our Frank Cifaldi already outlined how uncomfortable our staff felt seeing colleagues and fans rise to cheer for a shotgun blow to the face. Many of us shared our private uncertainty: Tons of us started in this field as barely older than kids ourselves; now many of us have our own, and feel anxious about how an environment where scantily-clad women parade around a celebration of violence reflects on our choice of career. Following the event many women were outspoken about how unwelcome they felt. We want to believe that developers are still doing rich, diverse work -- but it sure doesn't look that way to see how Los Angeles celebrates our industry with that tone. Or with the recent Spike VGAs, which while much improved tonally on recent years, still featured a Wayans enthusiastic about his son, who by according to him hasn't yet grown pubic hair, getting to shoot people in the face thanks to gaming. "Without characters, how can you shoot someone in the face?" joked presenter Samuel L. Jackson. We don't need always to be reverent; nobody wants to live with their finger constantly hovering over the "I'm offended" button. There are all kinds of games out there, from tiny homemade essays on the self to big-budget retail war orgies -- and that's good. There's room for all kinds. We are entitled to be silly and violent just as much as we're entitled to be sincere. The problem is that in spite of the vast array of game development going on, the solving of design problems, the success of games of all sizes and budgets for bigger, richer and more passionately-engaged audiences than ever, most people think this is all we are. What if they think this is all we can ever be, no matter how hard we're trying to tell both the creative industry and the rest of the world who we really are, what we're really doing here, why we love video games? That should outrage everybody. More Gamasutra 2012 roundups: The 5 trends that defined the game industry in 2012 The 5 events that shook the video game industry in 2012

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