Sunday, July 2, 2017

When the Bully Comes Out

I did a video on the recent VidCon drama between Anita Sarkeesian, a noted third-wave feminist and executive director of Feminist Frequency and Carl “Sargon of Akkad” Benjamin, as well as her later confrontation with boogie2988.  I also stated that I prefer to keep politics out of my alter-ego here, but the truth is that this deals with entertainment as well, and unfortunately politics will sometimes overlap with my hobbies and ideals.  So I’m going to get this out of the way: politically, I’m more moderate, though I find myself more right-of-center.  That does not mean I’m a Republican or die-hard conservative in American politics.  Far from it.  While I don’t subscribe to identity politics in the slightest, I recognize that in some instances it can have an effect necessary to change wrongs, and I fully support equality of the races and sexes, as well as orientations.  To that end, I support religious freedom, but also items such as gay marriage.  I am on record with my most recent college as having penned an article supporting gay marriage from a conservative standpoint (the conservative tag added mainly by the paper), and the like.  With that said, I am against third-wave feminism as well as ‘intersectionality’.  They are both toxic to the discussions at hand, but that is neither here, nor there.

I find that often, I can get my point across easier through writing rather than speaking.  I also find that even with a long post, people are more apt to pay attention to it rather than when I talk, because let’s face it my voice can be rather annoying.  That, and I’m not photogenic in the slightest.  Oh well!  With that being said, I want to expound upon the video, and give what I hope is a more focused and well-thought-out view on what happened, as well as what to expect.

The Players: A Dispassionate Explanation

Anita Sarkeesian is a noted third-wave feminist, whose webseries “Tropes vs. Women” deals mainly with several issues that she feels are damaging to women in the entertainment industry: objectification and oversexualization of women, especially in video games; a lack of “strong women” in video games; and the “damsel in distress” common to some games (Princess Peach, for example).  She made headlines in August 2014 when she claimed significant harassment and death threats, especially as the Gamergate controversy began to take hold and ramp up.  This allegedly peaked in October 2014, when Ms. Sarkeesian was scheduled to speak at Utah State University: several threats were made, and while university officials scoffed at it as ‘similar harassment she normally recieves’, Anita ended up cancelling the speech, citing security concerns because of the possibility of concealed weapons on campus.

Carl “Sargon of Akkad” Benjamin is a British YouTuber known for his videos focusing on third-wave feminism and ‘social justice issues’ as well as his ‘skeptic’ nature, namely in that he criticizes social justice ‘warriors’.  He primarily rose to fame during the Gamergate controversy, and has since been highly critical not only of Anita Sarkeesian, but many others as well (including Shaun King and Deray Mackesson of Black Lives Matter fame, among others).  Beyond that, he has other channels dedicated to gaming (as he is a game developer), and “Ancient Recitations”, in which numerous audiobooks of various historical texts from Greek antiquity and ancient Near East are featured.  He has taken criticism for his positions, as well as his 2017 position in support of PewDiePie, a YouTuber who was targeted in a Wall Street Journal piece for alleged anti-Semitic and Nazi videos, which were widely regarded as ‘jokes’, even by some of his detractors.  He regularly hosts livestreams with other well-known skeptics and personalities critical of third-wave feminism and social justice ‘warriors’.

Steven “Boogie2988” Williams is a YouTuber known for his rants on video games, as well as ‘unboxings’ of trading cards including Magic: the Gathering and Pokemon.  His focus, while on entertainment, is also on health (both mental and physical).  His created persona, “Francis”, pardodies what is referred to as “nerd culture” is quite popular.  Videos, as stated, range from discussion on recent video game and entertainment news, to serious topics such as his health.

It should be noted that there are also ancillary people who should be mentioned, as well as what VidCon is.

VidCon is an annual convention held in Southern California and previously hosted at the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza, and now at the Anaheim Convention Center.  It’s focus is on ‘content creators’, personalities who have cultivated a following, usually on the website YouTube.

Hank and John Green are the founders of VidCon, and YouTube personalities in their own right via the channel Vlogbrothers.

The Incidents

The first incident occurred on 22 June, when Anita Sarkeesian and several other women were part of a panel titled “Women Online Discussion”.  Carl Benjamin as well as several other known YouTube personalities critical of what they refer to as the ‘victim complex’ of third-wave feminists attended.  Towards the beginning of the panel, Anita Sarkeesian is quoted as saying the following:

* * * * *
“If you Google my name on YouTube you get shitheads like this dude who are making these dumbass videos that just say the same shit over and over again; and like I hate to give you attention because you’re a garbage human being.  Whatever dude.”
* * * * *

Anita was specifically motioning and speaking about Carl.  She went on to say:

* * * * *
“But the fact that these dudes are making endless videos going after every feminist over and over and over again I think is a part of the issue.  Why do we have these conversations?  We don’t just get to be online.  We don’t just get to participate like everyone else.”
* * * * *

It should be noted that Carl and the others who attended with him were paying members of the audience, and had been quiet the entire time.  Video evidence shows this to be the case.  From a logical, dispassionate viewpoint, there seems to be no reason for Anita, using her position on the stage, to call out and insult members of the audience, critics or not.  They had done nothing to warrant such treatment.  In fact, those who were with Carl say that he said nothing until targeted, in which he responded that he just ‘wanted to talk’.  This was a violation of VidCon’s harassment policy (more on that in a bit).

It could be argued that more incidents occurred during the “question and answer” portion of the panel, where several audience members (none of which were Carl) asked questions specifically of Anita, including one asking her if she truly believed what she said/wrote.  Anita was hostile and demanded security remove anyone from the line who asked similar questions, or questions that were deemed ‘confrontational’.

The second incident occurred on 24 June after a panel titled “End Cyberbullying”.  During the closing remarks of the panel, Steven Williams said that cyberbullying wasn’t a “womens’ rights issue, it’s a human rights issue”, apparently angering Anita Sarkeesian, a co-panelist.  Afterwards, Anita allegedly cornered him, and said something along the lines of, “I think it was very fucking uncool what you said there at the end, knowing no one else would have time to respond.”  This incident hasn’t received as much press as the Anita/Carl incident, mainly because it was captured on video, while Anita’s alleged attack on Williams was not.

Critical Responses and The Fallout

Here’s where I drop the wholly informational explanations and start juxtaposing my own thoughts.  Following the videos surfacing of Anita attacking Sargon and his friends (I’m referring to them as the “Sargontourage” from now on, sorry Carl!), opinion was mixed.  Many who were critical of Anita doubled down and said she was the bully she always claimed to be fighting and they knew her to be, and that her position of power (the stage and microphone) turned her into the privileged individual, while Sargon was powerless in this instance to halt or prevent the attacks that occurred.  Others who supported Anita claimed that the Sargontourage’s presence in the first three rows of what was widely viewed as an empty auditorium was harassment enough and her response was understandable.  In fact, Hank Green penned a response to the drama which I will get to in a moment.  I’m firmly on the side of the former and not the latter, not because I view Sargon as incapable of defending himself from such attacks, but because the evidence shows it to have been purely unprovoked, and that her actions were detrimental to the causes she claims to fight for.  Her outburst and her language were not in keeping with what was expected of a panelist, let alone what should have been a professional appearance.  She allowed emotion to cloud her judgment, and whether it’s because she wanted to say what she did and not give him a chance to respond, hoping for a “mic drop” moment or because she legitimately was “triggered” by his presence and had an uncontrollable urge to defend herself from what she viewed as harassment is anyone’s guess.  Going by her past actions and words, and her attempts to play the victim for years I am strongly erring towards her trying to have that moment, and not because of any actual perceived threat from their presence.  I will admit, however, there is also the possibility that Anita and others like her have allowed this victim complex to so take hold of their lives for years that it has become a significant part of their psyche, and that they are incapable without professional help of losing this mindset.  That is also a theory I would subscribe to.  In general, I don’t believe she felt she was threatened by their presence, she didn’t feel harassed.

On the Boogie2988 incident, my opinion (assuming this entire thing has been offered without embellishment from the multiple sources who provide it) is that this was her acting a bully, which is ironic considering she had just finished a panel on ending cyberbullying.  However, lacking evidence, I can only assume this to have happened.  Many took to Reddit and YouTube to support Boogie, with many (myself included) referring to the attack on him as the “moral equivalent of kicking puppies in front of kindergartners”.  Boogie is a gentle giant, he seems like a genuinely caring man.  He hasn’t been confrontational, and says that he intentionally crafted his talking points in a way so that he wouldn’t offend or upset anyone, especially Anita.  He spent days doing this, ran it by several people (including a co-panelist) to see if there was any way someone could be offended.  Because he suffers from severe anxiety and he has had issues with Anita in the past (or, at the very least has not supported her viewpoints), he was especially nervous about dealing with her.  Again, she was in the wrong, and attacking someone for his opinion in such a way is unacceptable, no matter who it is.

VidCon ended up posting a response to the entire incident.  In part, it read:

* * * * *
This year, we had a contingent of attendees (some who paid, some who snuck in with fake passes) who had been either perpetrators of this harassment, or had, for years, watched as the outrage they cultivated resulted in followers doxxing, harassing, intimidating, and even threatening the lives of the creators on these panels.

"It is difficult to imagine that this group of people (who are aware that their channels have been base-camps for years of harassment of some of our panelists) did not realize that their arriving early to fill up the three front rows of a panel was going to be intimidating. In any case, it looked like intentional intimidation to most people in attendance, and the panelists were understandably on edge throughout the discussion.

During the panel, a panelist called out one of the audience members for being someone who has made her life very difficult, and wished she didn’t have to give him attention because he was a “garbage human.” Look, we don’t want our panelists to insult our audience members, even when we completely understand that the comment exists in a much broader (and pretty messed up) context. Even when people have said hateful things that everyone in our office disagrees with, we have a policy, and it exists not just to protect people at the show, but to protect our ability to have these conversations.
* * * * *

It goes on to say that Hank Green informed her that her comments had violated VidCon’s policy on harassing attendees or panelists, but that looking at it from a broader contect he was understanding.  He also apologized for not being aware of the situation before the event, “which resulted in her being subjected to a hostile environment that she had not signed up for.”

So, Hank chastised her, but it didn’t mean a damn thing because he apologized after.  This brings up the question: why?  Why would he apologize, when the evidence shows her to be in the wrong?  I think their response actually gives us an insight into why.  The beginning of the post states the following when talking about people who are invited: “They just aren’t on our radar because we were looking in the wrong place, or they got very popular very recently.”

Speaking to that, I believe that they are intentionally ignoring members of what is dubbed the “skeptic community”, and those critical of third-wave feminism and social justice/intersectionality.  This is shown by their list of creators invited, among them noted social justice ‘warriors’ such as Anita Sarkeesian, as well as Cenk Uygur and Ana Kasperian from The Young Turks.  Notably, aside from Philip DeFranco there seems to be no one of significance that has been skeptical of feminism in particular as part of the featured creators (note: I did a cursory glance of the invited people, and no one struck me as being part of that clique).  This has me asking why that is, of course.  If it’s an ideological issue, then that’s understandable why they wouldn’t be asked to attend as featured creators.  I mean, it’s not like Sargon’s channel popped up overnight and became popular this past week or something, he’s been known about for five or six years now.  His channel has 655,516 subscribers, a number that I can only dream about (then again, if I was more consistent in putting out quality products…maybe one day!).  MundaneMatt wasn’t invited, hell even someone like Thunderf00t wasn’t invited!  A lot of skeptics simply don’t appear in that roster.  Maybe they all declined?  I doubt it, to be honest.  And keep in mind, this is conjecture.  Short of them admitting this is the reason, I can only go by what it looks like.

So, is Anita likely to be disinvited from attending VidCon next year?  Unlikely, because she has a personal connection with the Green Brothers (Anita and John Green pictured).  In fact, Hank Green says that people who violated VidCon policy are given second chances on acase-by-case basis.  Does this mean that Anita will be disinvited next year, or will she be given another chance, assuming her attack on Boogie2988 is true?

My firm belief is that had the roles been reversed, we would find Sargon having been kicked out almost immediately.  In western culture, we tend to protect women more-so than men when it comes to harassment.  We tend to assume men can take it, but that women are delicate flowers, and thus need extra protection.  In some instances on both sides, they do.  But equality being what it is, what you hypothetically would do to Sargon you should also do to Anita.

Some people have pointed out that extra security was requested in the auditorium, possibly by Anita (she’s seen using her phone when she realizes who is there, then security shows up).  They also wonder why security didn’t remove the audience members to begin with if they were such a problem.  Two reasons: first, the audience was almost empty save those three rows, and two the PR would have been absolute shit had they done so.  Removing paying members when they have done nothing to warrant it would be a huge public fuckup.

Oh, and Patreon ended up doing an “investigation” into Sargon’s account, and two hours later was cleared of any wrongdoing.

My final point is purely conjecture, and on Sargon’s likely attendance next year.  The VidCon post states that creators can be kicked out if “they have previously been told not to attend after intentionally endangering our attendees or being violent with our staff.”  To date, Sargon has not had such a warning foisted upon him.  However, I expect that when he shows up next year (after he’s paid for his ticket, airfare, room and board, etc.) assuming he does, he will be told he’s not welcome because of what happened.  They will cite Anita’s outburst as proof positive of his “intentional harassment” and will decline him entry.  As a private affair, they are more than able and legally allowed to do so.  They will refund his money for the ticket (they can’t rightly keep his money after denying him entry), but he’ll still be out thousands on the other things.  The PR will be in overdrive, because I expect a significant shitstorm brewing if and when it happens.

And a message to the Sargontourage: if you can be spotted as being with him, you’ll likely face the same punishment.

Speaking of legal, does Sargon have a defamation case?  This is the United States, you can sue for damn near anything.  I think, however, any defamation case would be farfetched, as he has no actual damages right now: his brand hasn’t been hurt.  Perceived damages are a possibility, but it’s hard to defend them in court.  At the moment, I don’t see much of anything, and he’d have to take a “wait and see” approach before engaging in this.

Additional Material:

1.) Sargon’s take on the matter
2.) Phil DeFranco’s take

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Early Access and The Liberties Taken by Studio Wildcard

It’s been close to a year since I’ve written here, and while I’ve been doing some streaming and working on a video or two for YouTube, I’ve really let this slide.  With a bit more time available, I’m going to be working on this, as writing is one of my favorite past-times.

For years, early access has become more and more common amongst indie developers in the gaming world, who take money up-front, often for the purpose of fulfilling their dream of creating an engaging game.  This isn’t necessarily relegated, mind you, to Steam, but there are game companies out there that use GoFundMe and Kickstarter to get the cash infusion they need.  Valve, to its credit, has attempted to get more and more small game companies into the business with their early access program, which debuted officially in 2013 (though there had been a pilot program in 2012, and only nine titles were made available in this manner).  Game companies view the early access concept as a win-win scenario, though the truth is that the concept heavily favors the developer and not the player, who essentially becomes an unpaid tester, and in many instances will not see games come to fruition.  In 2014, Patrick Walker wrote an article on the phenomenon of the early access craze, which had picked up significantly in 2014 compared to 2013.  In the article, he stated that only 25% of the games in early access have released a finished product, which is a pitiful percentage all things considered.  In many instances, players are paying the full price of a game (upwards of $60.00 USD) for an early access title.  When games are not finished—timely manner or not—it casts a shadow on all early titles, not just that one.  Also of note, Steam makes it very clear that they take a more hands-off approach concerning early access, to quote:

"You should be aware that some teams will be unable to ‘finish’ their game.  So you should only buy an Early Access game if you are excited about playing it in its current state.”

As such, if a company cannot finish their product, Valve won’t necessarily punish them directly.  More than likely, Valve will be hesitant to offer them the ability to put other games up for early access in the future.

All this aside, there have been some great early access titles that have gone on to be solid finished products.  My personal favorite to this day is Path of Exile, and there are certainly others that have made it through this gauntlet. That being said, yes, to this day most games do not make it to a finished product.

Ark is an interesting case of a developer failing to meet the expectations of many of the people who have bought into early access.  Going for $30.00 on the Steam store when it first debuted, it has had several sales on Steam, dropping to $10.00 this past weekend before going back to it’s original price.  It has been one of the top early access titles Steam has ever had, and I’m sure it has made a lot of money for both Studio Wildcard and Valve.  Players seem to be very interested in the game, as shown on this Steam Chart, but it’s a matter of time before people become fed up with it, as the game continues to slog on in early release—referred to as “Pre-Alpha” in a January2016 Tweet by Jesse Rapzcak, co-founder of Studio Wildcard–and that self-imposed due date for a finished product has passed: the game was supposed to ship the finished version in June 2016.  It has been, to date, ten months since that went by, and there is no end in sight for the move from “pre-Alpha” to even Beta.

In essence, Ark’s problems lie with the developers, who have pushed off deadlines more often than they’ve met them.

Now of course, no plan survives first contact.  You can’t plan for every eventuality, and even I accept that as a cost of doing business in this area.  I’ve made promises I had to back out of, sometimes because of legitimate issues, sometimes because *I* screw up.  In each case, I am honest about the reasons.  Studio Wildcard is an interesting case of honesty and obfuscation.

Let’s start with the biggest issue at hand: the deadlines.  Patches are routinely days after their initial announcement.  A patch that might be announced for, say 04 April might likely be pushed back to 07 April, because of bugs in the programming, or for “more QA testing”.  Routinely, these patches will also break something that requires an immediate patch in order to fix something that became broken.  Technologically, it’s difficult to tell what will work and what won’t on a live server compared to the test server: CCP Games has this problem every now and again, for example.  To date, over 50% of the patches have not met the initial “ETA”, and Studio Wildcard’s response (and often parroted by strident defenders) is that it’s simply an estimate, and that they have no requirement to deliver it to us at that time and date.  Not completely true, though, as these are self-imposed deadlines, and they have often failed to meet them.  If a company can’t meet its own deadlines on small things like this, it bodes ill for large deadlines…like the finished product release date.

Hand-in-hand with this is the fact that many of the patches do not have complete patch notes.  As shown in the stickied patch notes on their Steam discussion thread as well as the official forums, you can clearly see “More Notes To Come” in both.  Ubisoft took a huge hit in ratings for incomplete patch notes for The Division being far more common, because it seemed like stealth nerfs were intentionally being hidden from players (and routinely on The Division’s livestream with Hamish, players would be the ones asking about these nerfs with Hamish being unable to confirm their presence), and it seems that Studio Wildcard has decided to follow in this same “lazy” tactic.  For a company that routinely puts out minute-cinematic trailers for new biome and dinosaur updates (individual updates, mind you), it seems rather silly that they would take this route, when it would take minutes by comparison to simply type up all the intended changes.

Obviously, they are going to have issues crop up.  So long as those issues are taken care of quickly, I don’t think it’s fair to chastise them if this wasn’t in the patch notes.  However, more and more Studio Wildcard has opted to warn people of impending changes, and then not tell people or engage in a discussion about those changes until they drop.  This seems an odd thing to do, considering the players are supposed to be the ones acting as your quality assurance team.  An unpaid quality assurance team.  Scratch that, we paid to be that quality assurance team.  That's even worse than being unpaid!

This has happened in the past, but recently the players have entered into an uproar over changes to the 'flyer' nerf.  Studio Wildcard said last week that a nerf was incoming to flyers, but not what it would be.  Of course, this led to speculation, but it all came to a head when the patch dropped, and players were left wondering what in the hell had happened.  There were no details on the nerfs until a player took to Reddit to note his findings.  Studio Wildcard eventually came out to tell players what they had done, but this was too little, too late in many instances.

This was on the heels of several recent creature additions, including the Troodon (a small dinosaur that has an attack that drains stamina to zero before disappearing), eels and jellyfish (capable of "stunlocking" players and dismounting them from all mounts except the basilosaurus), microraptor (capable of dismounting players out of nowhere), and others.

As stated previously, it would seem odd that Wildcard would willingly ignore the playerbase when putting in such large changes until after they were implemented, and after the players have begun, essentially, an open revolt.  If you're going to use the players to test your product, it seems reasonable that you would keep them apprised of changes in the pipe, not unload them without warning.

Studio Wildcard, however, has a habit of keeping important information out of the eye of players as long as they can.  In December 2015, Trendy Entertainment filed a lawsuit against Studio Wildcard.  Trendy alleged that Jeremy Stieglitz, who had previously left Trendy after allegations of sexism, fear of retaliation, overworking, and a general feeling of a hostile work environment was actually working on Ark: Survival Evolved as well as attempting to "poach" developers from Trendy, in violation of his contract's non-compete clause.  It wasn't reported on until March 2016, and Studio Wildcard said that the claims held no merit and asked the suit be dropped.  They claimed Jeremy Steiglitz was only consulted on the product, not actively working on it.  His wife is a co-founder of Studio Wildcard, so it's very clear why Trendy would have looked into this.  In April 2016, it was confirmed that Studio Wildcard had settled the suit to the tune of $40,000,000.  Susan Steiglitz claims she and the lawyers did not want to settle, but others in the company felt "intimidated".  It should be noted that routinely, lawsuits are settled in such a manner so that the accused doesn't have to admit wrongdoing.  Had Stieglitz waited until August 2016 (when that portion of his contract was up, which he had negotiated), the lawsuit wouldn't have had any merit.  He didn't, the company had to pay for it.

Move forward to September 2016.  Studio Wildcard is now down $40,000,000 that should have been spent on the game.  They are now three months past when they had originally promised to release the finished Ark.  They haven't even left Alpha status.  Studio Wildcard decides to release a much more polished paid DLC, called Scorched Earth.  Understandably, players were angry that an early access game had a paid DLC released.  As the blowback from this decision continued to build and reviews on Steam and elsewhere began to turn negative, Studio Wildcard released a statement to the media, in which they claimed they were simply following through on their plans for additional Arks (meaning DLCs).  This didn't really help anything, as it was touted as "finished" and "polished", where-as the base game was...well, quite the opposite of that.  In fact, they had fully intended to release this paid expansion that month in the expectation that the finished game would have launched in June, so they decided to carry through with it!

Going back to a previous point, it seems odd that they were able to stay true to this timeline, but almost any other the company seems to fail at maintaining.  To an objective observer, you might almost think that Studio Wildcard decided to bank on some extra money, no matter the excuses, now that Ark likely was not going to make them too much additional currency.  And similar to this decision that had a negative impact on the playerbase, Studio Wildcard was able to have a sale for Ark.  In this most recent development, a similar thing happened: the price dropped temporarily.

In short, the problem is that Studio Wildcard seems more interested in keeping the players in the dark concerning negative impacts to the game, rather than being honest and engaging the community in a discussion until the negative feedback is too much to ignore.  This seems particularly true when the Steam reviews suddenly go from "mostly positive" to "mixed", as was the case with Scorched Earth and this recent creature nerf.  If the players are supposed to be the ones playtesting the game, they should be included in these decisions.  Yes, Studio Wildcard has said they are going to be re-tweaking numbers, but that doesn't undo the damage done, especially concerning the loss of faith players have had after being kept in the dark.

I admit to having played 1,881 hours on Ark, but the decisions have caused me to re-evaluate how highly I rate the game.  Did I get my money's worth?  Sure I did.  I spent $50.00 between Ark and Scorched Earth, but that doesn't mean I should stop pushing for a finished product, and neither should you.  

Studio Wildcard’s continued delay in releasing a finished product—whether because of feature creep or what-have-you—points to a company seemingly more interested in maintaining the “free” quality assurance they get from the playerbase eager to engage in their product.  The release of a more polished paid DLC before doing the bare minimum of releasing the base game points to a company that might be making a decent product, but appears to be more interested in making money.  That’s fine if they choose to do this.  But considering the negativity regarding the constant delays in Star Citizen—to include lawsuits in the pipes for lack of accountability in finances and refusing the give refunds in contravention of their terms of service—and the lack of honesty and forthrightness from Trendy, the implications will be far larger for indie companies in the future, as possible investors consider the negativity associated with early access from two widely-anticipated games, and make their choices accordingly.