Denis Dyack Interview Part 2 – #GamerGate, the IGDA, and Censorship

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This is part two of my interview with veteran and legendary game creator, Denis Dyack. You can find part one here, otherwise, please enjoy the final part of our interview, below:

Brandon: So speaking about GamerGate, it’s really fascinating thing to watch….I spoke to a lot of people about it, obviously developers too. What are your thoughts about it? What got your attention with it originally? And I think the biggest question is, what’s your inspiration for speaking out and going public? It’s a pretty big risk, you know?

Denis Dyack: I was inspired by a couple events. The first being comments from Amy Hennig who I worked with on Legacy of Kain. In my opinion, out of the female developers who talk about GamerGate publicly, she is by far the most credible, she’s been in the industry a long time and she’s worked on a lot of big titles. She felt that as far as misogyny goes, and females having a hard time, (I’m paraphrasing here, of course) but she felt people were painting a false narrative of the industry, and it’s looking bad. I strongly agree with that. In my experience, the games industry is great place for women to work in and I believe that through years of experience and making games with many talented women.

I believe some of the developers spinning these false narratives should rethink their claims and have a serious look at what they’re doing. I’ve been in the industry a very, very long time; I have not seen large levels of misogyny. Most developers and colleagues I have talked to just shake their heads and like myself, have not seen any of what they have been claiming. The video game industry started as a tech industry, evolved into a creative industry. And like every tech industry in history, it’s typically dominated by males, as it becomes more creative, more females come into it. Everyone I know, all the major developers, directors…they’re all very encouraging for women. And it’s a great place for women, it’s a great place to be creative.

I completely reject some of the statements that are being said about it being hard for women to move forward. I remember thinking “Thank God someone finally said something”, so Amy inspired me to come out and speak on this topic. I hope other developers will also speak out. You don’t have to agree with everything in #GamerGate; I certainly don’t. Finally, I understand it does not mean as much coming from me being a male but I hope it means something.

The other event, which may surprise you, was on a David Pakman interview. What’s the football players name? Chris Kluwe? I think that is right. Anyway, he claimed that #GamerGate was a hate group. I just fundamentally reject that idea. Although, I think he might really believe that that’s true, I think that what it highlights is a fundamental misunderstanding of technology and how it’s affecting society, and what’s really happening with the internet and social media. I just think that so many people do not understand what’s happening with technology and how it’s affecting us and Kluwe’s comments are a prime example of that.

Making such a broad sweeping generalization is inaccurate, inflammatory and contradictory to some of his previous comments and should not be attributed to #GamerGate supporters. However, this all boils down to reciprocity and the removal of reciprocity through technology advancement in communication. Anonymity on the internet causes people to say things they would never say to people when they’re face to face. This is why you get such exaggerated comments, accusations, and anger. And I really think he doesn’t understand what’s fundamentally happening with pop culture and technology. These issues have to do with the entire internet, not just the #GamerGate and it’s unfortunate that he would say something like that because I think it’s really not true. So I felt that someone had to come out and say it’s not a hate group.

I’ve heard him say that #GamerGate is in the minority. Well, not where I come from. Most of the developers I know seem to be very pro-GamerGate. And what I mean by that is, again, they want journalistic ethics, they want their games reviewed fairly. They want to not go through having to jump through hoops. They just want people to look at, talk about, and enjoy their games. The anonymous interviews you posted from other developers are in line with groups I have spoken with.

To be clear, there’s also things in #GamerGate that I definitely don’t agree with. One of the issues I find particularly troubling, that I’ve heard anyway, is that academia in general has had a very negative influence on games because of extreme feminism and they also expound communism and socialism. That’s something I really reject as well. This is anecdotal, but all the academic groups I’ve worked with are really progressive, they just want to study games, they don’t really care about sexual politics and gender issues. They’re really just trying to figure out what makes good games and study the medium. I think academics are fundamental to the well being of the games industry, and something we should support, and we should work together to make games better. One of first announcements for Quantum was a donation of the sets from Lost Girl to Laurier University as a part of our ongoing efforts to build these relations.

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Brandon: A pretty good tie in to that would be this whole debate on viewing games as works of art. And coming from that, people trying to say that this is art, but this is not. I’ve even had people personally argue with me or on Twitter and such, where it’s a strange phenomenon where you have people dictating what can and can not be acceptable. What’re your thoughts on that?

Denis: Yes, I think that’s history repeating itself. If you look at every major form of entertainment that exists today – modern music, film, and radio – when these new types of media came out, they began as inventions of technology and technology based things, just like video games are. And a lot of people look at it and say “No, these are technical, not really art” and it’s just a fundamental human reaction to change.

I’ve done many talks on why I fundamentally believe that videogames are art. I feel very comfortable in saying that, and I don’t think there’s really a question anymore of whether they’re art or not. It’s just that the technology is so new, that people see it primarily as technology. I’m very technical, but at the same time, I really get excited when we start talking about the art form and how we can evolve Aristotle’s poetics into the medium of video games and how can we adapt some of those fundamental principles, and that’s certainly where the film and television industry can come in and help us out. As far as writing and telling stories goes, these industries have so much more experience in those fields than we have in games.

So yeah, I think games are absolutely art.

Brandon: How’re your views on censorship? I know I’ve spoken to a lot of developers about this, and I think obviously censorship is a hot topic in #GamerGate. You have certain websites like say, Polygon, who are actively talking about things they may not say they want censored, but they certainly sound like they would like to be censored. What’re your thoughts?

Denis: I’m very anti-censorship, which is why we continue to allow discussion on #GamerGate on the Quantum Forums, and we haven’t needed to moderate that discussion yet. I don’t think things should be censored unless it’s causing harm to somebody.

I think that’s one of the things that got the press in trouble with #GamerGate – when they started censoring all the threads about it. It really showed their cards on that topic, from the perspective of a nerve being hit, and there were some things they just didn’t want to talk about.

Let me try to put this into perspective. I think one of the unfortunate things with #GamerGate is that it’s hurt the reputation of the video game industry tremendously. When we look at all of the attacks of violence in video games by Lieberman, most of the industry pulled together to stop the false narratives being forwarded about games, press included. But with #GamerGate, they did not…some of the press made some mistakes. And rather than admit up to the mistakes, and say “Yes, we should corrected this, we’re sorry and we will make things better.” They jumped to what I think is this false narrative of misogyny in the video game industry to avoid their own issues.

Those sites talking about “Gamers are Dead” and those articles that all seemed to come out in collusion and echo chambers are really bad for the gaming industry on two levels. One, it isolated our audience. As developers, we ARE gamers and we work for gamers and from my point of view as a developer I find it hard to relate to sites that would publish articles that say gamers are dead. I really wish people would sit back and take a deep breath and cut back the hyperbole and look at what they’re doing. Secondly, it’s not true, gamers are definitely not dead. The gaming community is growing at a very rapid rate. And it’s expected to continue to grow into the foreseeable future. Gaming is not going away so this narrative was harmful and really disappointing and something most developers would never support. At Quantum, we plan on supporting a positive and growth narrative about industry because we feel is accurate and true.

I understand that there’s some threats being made and I think it’s awful. Its happening everywhere on the internet. You have to keep in mind that everyday is Halloween on the internet because there’s little reciprocity with anonymity. You can’t say for sure who is who. And those who know how can hide their identity very, very well.

Brandon: It’s definitely a very hot topic on our website for sure. For example, recently was Dungeon Travelers 2, and the publisher announced that they’re going to censor 4 of the images, and people were upset. How do you feel about that too? As far as games and their content?

Denis: I don’t think content should be censored. I think it should rated so that people are informed of what they’re buying, but that’s about it. I don’t think content should be censored at all. Unless, again, it causes genuine harm to people. Otherwise, no, not at all.

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The funny thing in the video game industry, it’s criticized so much. But it’s so conservative when you compare it to the television of film industry! As an example, you find a lot less nudity in video games than in television and movies. I mean, you go onto HBO and watch Game of Thrones – which I love, personally – and you’re going to see tons of nudity. You won’t see much of this in video games.

Brandon: So when you mentioned censorship when it causes harm, what are your thoughts on things like docking points off reviews for things like that. Like someone at Polygon pointed out in their review of the Witcher III that one of the major characters has her shirt unbuttoned with a clear view of her bra underneath. Do you think that this type of personal morality being put into a review is fair to the game itself?

Denis: That’s very interesting. When you’re doing a review I believe there are some things that you can look at objectively: frame rate, stability, multiplayer, performance, graphical resolution etc.   There are others that are subjective and subjectiveness is fair game.

If a journalist wants to put in his personal opinion, I believe that’s fine ethically. However, if I read something like that as a consumer I would probably say, “What are you talking about? A low cut top and you’re reducing a review score because of that? Seriously? I’m not going to listen to your review scores anymore.” Journalists also work for their audience and they need to relate to the people they are working for. I believe they are going find that if they continue to write articles that do not resonate with their audience, darwinism will win out and consumers will stop listening to them.

If there’s full nudity in a game, I don’t care as long as the game is good! If there’s pointless nudity, it might bother me and I’d ask why they did it, but if it’s for a purpose and it makes an impact, then great!

I look at Anita Sarkeesian in this regard, her points have been very provocative to some people and she’s got a lot of attention. However, I have not seen any evidence or any research that says anything she’s talking about is true. I’ve seen some reference to outdated research that tries to link video game to behavior, the same way they did with violence in video games, and it’s all been debunked.

The industry is open minded in general and is listening, but let’s see some research showing that anything she’s saying is true. Unfortunately, some of press latched onto this narrative and its polluting their review of games as the review we are discussing.

There has been a positive to all this debate though, I think many of the game industry sites now have really fixed their ethics policies and it’s a move in the right direction.

Brandon: Do you think that #GamerGate, at least the core group of supporters, have they had success with this, where you’ve seen websites like Destructoid, who I think was the most recent site to start disclosing if people are backing KickStarters and such. So having disclosures like that, is it good for the industry?

Denis: Yes, I think transparency and ethics are tremendously important. I think it’s a big step forward for the GamerGate hashtag. I don’t think they’ve ‘won’ per se, but it was certainly a victory. Disclosures are important and should be adhered to.

As I mentioned before, I don’t really understand the strategy that some of the press are implying with like the ‘Gamers are Dead’ articles. You’re attacking your own audience! We work for gamers, and I don’t understand the ideologues with that and I think that at some level, people have their own echo-chambers and I think they should just concentrate on looking at the games and reviewing the games.

Brandon: That’s a really good point. And you mentioned the press not talking about it, or just fanning the flames. What do you think about, say, certain groups like the IGDA refusing to speak about it―or the whole thing involving their use of the block bot, that automatic thing that blocks people who are pro-Gamergate?

Denis: Yes, that was a huge mistake by the IGDA. The ongoing use of the block bot is unethical and anti-consumer in nature and if it’s endorsed by the IGDA, it should rescind its advocacy. I remember at one point, someone from the IGDA came out and said “Warning people about speaking about GamerGate, #theinternetisforever.” I fundamentally reject that idea. Anyone who’s making games these days needs to be very in-touch with their audience, you have to be in touch with the consumer. You should feel free to speak about these things, especially if your customer cares about them. And as the #GamerGate movement continues to grow, it is pretty clear that they do.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with standing up and saying, “I believe in journalistic ethics.” And I do, and I’ve stood up before. Yeah, you might take some damage. If you want look for a poster child who has taken damage in the past from the press, you need look no further: here I am. (Laughs.) I’m a member of the IGDA, and I generally support them, but I don’t support this issue. I believe they need to be more careful with what they endorse and advocate. Someone needs to make the point to them that we work for gamers.

Disappointingly, I saw signs up this years (2015) at Game Developers Conference about harassment, “Seriously?…”

I have never seen harassment at any GDC, and I’ve been going to GDC since it was first formed before it was in San Francisco. I’ve never seen or heard of a problem until the #GamerGate debate. And suddenly this year, we had signs up, and it made me think, “The world is crazy and the inmates are running the asylum.” Again, I’ve just never seen it before―and you just have to wonder how far has this gone and if we are focusing on the right issues? I feel we should just focus on the games at the conference.

Brandon: You made a good point there, when it comes to this “safe space” type of mentality. Do you think this has come into gaming quite a bit lately? I’ve spoken to a lot of developers, and many of them seem like they’re afraid to make a game that is potentially provocative or offensive. Do you think this sort of thing is coming into gaming, and might be hurting the industry?

Denis: It is definitely hurting the industry. I think it’s not good for the industry. I think the reason you haven’t seen a lot of developers like myself come out and talk about this is because there’s a huge possible downside. The worry of being accused of misogyny is a real concern, it may happen to me after this article if published. Someone told me today, before this interview, they tweeted me and said that I was 100 percent pro censorship. (Brandon laughs.) I was like, “Huh?” I think a creator should feel free to create what he or she wants to create. When it comes to self-censorship, I think it’s fine. If you’re looking to hit a certain audience, and you think a certain thing might not be appropriate for that particular audience, and you wanna change it, I think that’s okay. I’ve done that in the past, but by in large I haven’t, and we usually make what we want.

I think every developer who has to censor themselves, and are afraid, I really feel for them. And my advice would be, “put in what you want, if people are gonna criticize you for something you had a reason for putting in, whether it’s race-related, gender-related, sex-related, whatever. Just do it, make your game good, go with whatever you think makes the creation the best. If someone were to come up to me and say “you shouldn’t do this because X or Y,” then I will probably go the opposite way.

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Let me tell you a story about Eternal Darkness, and how the insanity system was created on Eternal Darkness, I know this going long so, are you ready for this?

Brandon: Absolutely.

Denis: So, here’s an example of reaction to this kind of sentiment in general. Before Eternal Darkness, we were working on all kinds of titles, and all kinds of concepts before we decided to move forward with Nintendo. I was on IGDA committees with a couple of professors, going through the research and looking to see if there was any research to support that violent video games lead to violent behavior. We couldn’t find a single thing. The response we got back from others on this was the same, there was no evidence, this appeared to be mostly political with no facts or research to back up the claims whatsoever.

Despite this, the attacks kept coming. “Violent videogames are changing our behavior” some would say. So I remember being really frustrated and I said, “Okay, fine. We have these people saying video games are changing our behavior? Well, I’m gonna make a game that’s gonna try to screw with your head and change your behavior.” The sanity system in Eternal Darkness was born out of that.

Very Lovecraftian, of course, since Lovecraft loved to deal with insanity. The idea was “Let’s screw with the player’s head here and let’s really try to screw them up.” And we did tons of focus testing to freak people out. I…(laughs) we spent hours and hours and hours (doing this.) with a good friend and colleague of mine, Dr. John Mitterer, who is a Psychologist and Professor at Brock University. We had a great time doing things that would just freak people out. We purposely tried to screw with people, and that was my reaction of what I thought of violence in video games attacks so long ago. A lot of people seemed to really like the sanity system in Eternal Darkness so I think there is an example such frustrating things can be directed in a positive way.

Brandon: That’s really cool. Going back to a previous discussion, have you had any other experiences with yellow journalism, or–?

Denis: Sure, yeah! So here’s one I find ironic to this day, and I still find people talking about it. To be fair, this is more Canadian political press, and the gaming industry press picked it up in a secondary fashion. Around one of the provincial elections in Ontario, Silicon Knights was awarded a grant from Ontario government, to grow the company. They announced this just before the election. The local MPP that helped us get approved for this grant won the election. So we were awarded this grant, however before we received any money, Silicon Knights suffered some layoffs. There was this other political opponent, I think it was a minority government at the time, and there was this one MPP, Horwath, leader of the NDP who continually brought up our name in Parliament, accusing us of mismanaging this award. Ironically, we never got this money! (Brandon laughs)

Over time, she kept bringing this up in the political assemblies, every week we would have people pinging us saying, “She’s talking about you again, asking where this money is,” so we tried to reach out and contact her to say, “Hey, let’s talk, because we never got this money” We couldn’t have spent it irresponsibly because we never got it! But she never returned our calls. And, at the end of the day, it was very much like the Lieberman situation, in my opinion, where it was all political with no facts.

She was just making a political grandstand for the upcoming election, so she was saying all kinds of incendiary things. To this day, we still get hounded, “mismanaging that grant” in which we never got. The only contact I ever got back from her was a Christmas card while all this was during the holiday season. I remember thinking ‘that was kind of nasty.’ Ironically, or I guess not ironically, more like karma―when the elections came around, her party went from having influence in minority government to the opposition getting majority and her losing most of her influence.

When it comes to tax credits and government grants, what a lot of people don’t know is I was one of the primarily people involved in forming Game Developers of Ontario that later merged with Interactive Ontario. I spent a lot of time lobbying the government of Ontario for tax credits for everyone. I spoke to the Premier, I spoke to many of the Ministers. I was very adamant that we had to bring a big publisher into Ontario, which resulted in Ontario bringing Ubisoft to Ontario. I did a lot of work for just improving the game industry in general and others in Ontario well beyond Silicon Knights.

I’m a big believer in the industry, I want to continue to build it. But when people think about tax credits, they just fall back to this one issue that isn’t true. It just doesn’t go away. It’s really unfortunate, when this story first hit, I was away getting inducted into the video game hall of fame in Montreal. So I wasn’t even in town. (Laughs.) So when I got back and said we never got this money, it didn’t get picked up, few wanted to print it, they didn’t care.

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Brandon: Going back to the whole Lieberman thing, and violence in videogames making people violent, it’s clear you’re against that, the whole cultivation theory thing–

Denis: There’s no evidence to support it. Of all the research I’ve seen, there’s nothing out there that shows any link whatsoever with violence in videogames. So yeah, I’m totally against that stuff. I look for facts! Let’s use research, let’s use science.

Brandon: I don’t want to broadly generalize here, but I think you’ll find that a lot of people don’t really like facts. It’s kind of saddening. But it is what it is.

Denis: It’s difficult to know what to say to that. When you have your own facts, it’s kind of hard to come to any consensus, which is sad. I think a fact is a fact, and if you can’t agree upon facts, where are you gonna go? I think because videogames are the newest form of media, statistically every new type of medium that emerges is attacked. People are afraid of it, they don’t understand it.

Exponentially, more people are adopting new technology―the rate at which cell phones were adopted is significantly higher than the rate at which house phones were adopted. People tend to always assume technology is good, but technology is not always good. I’ve been called a luddite before, and I found that funny (Brandon laughs) but people in general think technology improves our communication. It actually doesn’t, what technology does specifically is it increases the number of ways in which we can communicate. However, the bandwidth of that communication is restricted, and the reciprocity of that communication is restricted, which causes people to be more quickly aggravated and angry. It increases the amount of miscommunication. When I go to a movie theater and I see a young couple, and instead of talking, they’re texting to one another, that’s something I never would’ve done as a teenager, because cellphones didn’t exist.

“That damn autocorrect,” or you’re gonna say something you didn’t really mean to say. And that’s how I think these arguments get skewed to these ends, and it’s not really good for anybody. Understanding technology and how it affects how we live and breathe is really important. I don’t think we have enough people who focus on those issues. Everyone is either excited about technology, or they just don’t understand it whatsoever. This brings me back to the Chris Kluwe’s comments. But it’s really important to know how technology affects us socially, and I think if he had a better understanding, then he wouldn’t be making the comments that he’s making. I think that’s where more dialogue needs to be, and I wish more people would have it.

Brandon: Yeah, I’ve seen this exact thing. Here’s an example: Brad Wardell and Brianna Wu. People will think that Brad is some sort of woman-hating, regressive monster, but I’ve met the guy, and he’s an incredibly nice person―I had coffee with him and chatted with him. And things change when you actually talk to somebody in person. There was another time that I posted something, like, “Oh, it’s sad that this man has this doll that he pretends is his daughter.” And they thought that I meant that he was sad as a person, but no, it made ME sad as a person, because I have a son and all. So I don’t know, it’s really interesting how that can happen on Twitter.

Denis: There’s all kinds of studies that show reduced bandwidths of communication, and reductions of reciprocity lead to very bad communication. Lots of miscommunication, lot of anger. It’s funny, I’ll use League of Legends as an example. The community gets so angry when you play that game, and it’s a very tough game, the learning curve is huge. You wanna solo queue, and that’s what I do, and I’m not the best at it, but I enjoy the game. But there’s a lot of people that say a lot of hateful things, and I’ve been threatened along with my family so many times while playing this game. I think one of the fundamental reasons why this happens is that there’s no voice. When you’re just using text, it’s very hard to play the game while typing. On top of that, you’re so limited in text compared to voice, and it’s really hard to communicate things.

You can use skype while playing, but in general, people don’t―so a lot of them are just really angry. I think, looking at League of Legends, if they just put voice chat in there, It would reduce the hate significantly. It’s not the same as being in person, playing a board game two feet from someone. I mean, sometimes it can get heated, especially when you’re playing a war game, but you don’t hear things like, “I’m going to kill your entire family,” like you do on League of Legends.

Don’t get me wrong, they’re making a ton of money, and I think it’s a great game. But adding voice chat would make things better. I think I remember reading an official statement on the forums saying the people working on League thought voice chat would make things worse, when the opposite is true. The more you can communicate, the better things will be.

Brandon: I definitely agree. For #GamerGate supporters, though―people who believe in journalistic ethics and are anti-censorship, things like that. What do you think that #GamerGate can do to better the industry?

Denis: I think a lot of positive changes already happened. I think, you know, vote with your dollars. Go to the sites who seem to really be following these codes of ethics, and for those who aren’t, don’t. I think journalism in the game industry is really important. Take for example, The Witcher 3. That’s a huge game! And to review that game is really hard. It’s not like a movie where anyone can review it, because it takes two hours to watch. These are things that take a significant monetary investment, and a significant time investment. So it’s really important that we have these reviews, and have integrity in these reviews. That’s what gamers want. That’s what game developers want!

They don’t want to have parties and schmooze people. All the game developers I know just want to make their games, and want them to be judged fairly, that’s it. They want people to talk about the games. And I think that when groups start not talking about the games, and try to make more of a social commentary than talk about what the games are actually about, I think people should just walk away from those groups and go toward what they need, and what they want.

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Brandon: So, for both Quantum, and for Shadow of the Eternals, you have to consider Silicon Knights, and things that have happened in the past. And, as you’ve said, some people won’t let them go. Do you think that these people should give you a chance, and are you confident moving forward that you can win back the fans that you lost in the past?

Denis: Yeah, and I think it’s gonna come down to making good games. We are gonna make some good games, and hopefully people will like them and support us! I personally have had to deal with a lot of attacks, and that’s okay. I’m comfortable talking about what we believe in, and what we’re striving for, and I think it all comes down to making good games. I’m looking forward to when our next game comes out, and when our next film and television series comes out, and hopefully others will like it as well. I think it’s the best way to get people back. I think it’s attainable for us, just how it’s attainable for everyone. It’s all about making good games.

Brandon: Alright, well, thank you for doing this, and I hope to do this again sometime!


I’d like to thank Denis Dyack for being so kind as to be a part of this entire interview, and for being patient while it was broken up into two parts. Make sure you check out the official website for Quantum Entanglement Entertainment, as well as giving Denis a warm welcome on his new Twitter.

Niche Gamer regularly interviews developers on a variety of subjects—if you’re a developer and want to chat with us, please contact us!

Brandon Orselli

About

Big Papa Overlord at Niche Gamer. Italian. Dad. Outlaw fighting for a better game industry. I also write about music, food, & beer. Also an IT guy.