The video game industry’s reputation is suffering from a culture war that reflects a sector grappling with its own growth and the emergence of new stakeholders and voices within its ranks, say PR professionals.
That battle has manifested itself in GamerGate, the online social movement that has generated headlines in major news media for threats made against women developers, critics, and journalists.
GamerGate is the result of "serious growing pains" of a "rapidly maturing young media that is becoming more mainstream," notes Philip Trippenbach, account director for strategic innovation at Edelman in London.
"What we’re seeing with GamerGate is a small minority of people" – often described in the media as young white men that the term "gamer" used to accurately describe – "resist that change," he explains. For the past four years, Trippenbach has organized an annual event for about UK 300 game-makers to talk about issues with the sector’s maturation.
"It has been a painful development for the entire video game community," he says.
GamerGate – named after the Twitter hashtag that fueled the movement – represents some consumers railing against changes and practices in the video game industry, from ethics in gaming media to perceived liberal biases. Coverage in The New York Times and CNN, among others, has focused on a minority of gamers who are trying to bully women from being part of the industry.
Media critic Anita Sarkeesian, who advocates against sexist and misogynist depictions in video games, canceled a speaking engagement and fled her home earlier this month after receiving death threats in connection with GamerGate.
Some gamers have also threatened to boycott corporate sponsors that speak out on the topic. Intel pulled ads from gaming site Gamasutra, due to external pressure, after the website’s editor-at-large said the traditional identity of a gamer was no longer relevant. Intel later apologized for taking an action that "created a perception that we are somehow taking sides in an increasingly bitter debate in the gaming community."
According to the Entertainment Software Association, US sales of computer and video games hit $15.4 billion in 2013, a figure that has more than doubled over the past decade. It hit a record of $17.1 billion in 2010.
ESA, which represents the public affairs interests of computer and video game publishers, issued a statement against some GamerGaters this month.
"Threats of violence and harassment are wrong. They have to stop," the industry association stated. "There is no place in the video game community – or our society – for personal attacks and threats."
The ESA did not return calls or e-mails from PRWeek seeking an interview.
Clint Schaff, VP and GM of the US for creative agency Dare, asserts that the amount of negative press "could potentially turn off new customers and new generations of customers."
Schaff has worked at multinational PR firms on behalf of video game publishers, including Activision for its popular shooter games Call of Duty and Destiny and children’s title Skylanders. He has also worked with Nintendo.
"There is no one monolithic voice on either side of the debate," he explains. "Those in the GamerGate movement come from all different perspectives, from a political ideology standpoint to concerns about media conspiracy to the contribution of women in the industry. It seems like GamerGate has become an umbrella for everyone to throw in their critiques founded or unfounded against gaming."
That context is making it difficult for stakeholders to have a civil conversation about the issues. Schaff says developers and publishers need to think about their core customers and reinforce their commitment to them.
For some publishers, "it could be an opportunity for them to pursue markets that are looking for games" that cater to more mainstream tastes, he explains.
Publishers of games that are deemed gratuitously violent or sexist by critics can do the same, pointing out that video games are an art form, similar to films.
"To one person, Quentin Tarantino makes films that are very violent and have a lot of profanity, and, yet, to another, he is an Oscar-winning storyteller. Neither person is necessarily wrong; in fact, they are both factually correct," Schaff explains. "There can be room for debate while drawing the line at threats and other unjust behavior."
Yet in terms of an industry-wide response to the controversy, Schaff says, "I don’t know that the whole industry has to respond uniformly."
"Individual gaming companies could respond in a way that is true to their own brand," he contends.
PRWeek reached out to a number of major brands in the industry. They either did not return messages or declined comment.
Nick Shepherd, account manager and co-lead of the gaming practice at LaunchSquad, says he is recommending that his clients stay quiet on GamerGate, at least for the time being.
"We followed GamerGate to see if there was anything we could do marketing-wise with some clients and considered a lot of different approaches," he recalls. "Ultimately, we decided against it. Right now, it is just so incredibly inflammatory and too controversial."
Shepherd adds that "mainstream media has taken hold of this and interpreted it as an incredible black eye on gaming in general, so a client inserting itself at this point is risky."
Still, he says the video game industry is overdue to have a conversation about some of the issues that have divided gamers, particularly the depiction of women, which, in his opinion, can be derogatory at times.
"There is a good conversation for the industry to have if it can be done without it getting as ugly as it has," Shepherd adds. "I would hope [the fallout from GamerGate] would encourage companies to play a stronger community role in the future."
Others who talked with PRWeek about the issue suggest GamerGate will have little impact on the video game industry in the long run.
Andy Cunningham, president and founder of SeriesC, who helped to launch Asteroids for Atari in the 1980s, notes that the gaming industry has evolved from a hobby among young tech geeks to mainstream entertainment. Just like TV- and movie-makers cater to specific audiences, she says eventually the gaming industry will do a better job communicating to distinct groups of gamers.
"It will be like how the movie industry has its chick flicks and violent movies targeted at men," says Cunningham. "Gaming has just become part of the entertainment industry. Entertainment is a very volatile, of-the-moment industry, and gaming will now have the same ebbs and flows."
"This will end up just as a blip," asserts Cunningham.