What We Can Learn From the Ashes of Polaris’s GAME_JAM

In any type of entertainment, advertising is one of the necessary evils of the trade. In the more indie scenes like YouTube—although I hesitate to call it indie these days—making the decision to monetize one’s channel is almost treated like an offense against the purity of the art. No matter what viewers may think, people do like getting paid for their efforts. And for the most part, advertising affiliates and subsidiaries don’t actually impact the quality or content of the videos they pay for. However, sometimes things can go wrong. In the case of Polaris’s newest venture, dreadfully and horridly wrong.

Polaris BannerFor fans of Let’s Players such as Game Grumps, Markiplier, and TotalBiscuit, the monetized conglomerate of gamers and gaming news on YouTube known as Polaris isn’t anything new or particularly amazing. It’s almost frightening how quickly the group gained power and popularity, to be completely honest, but not entirely surprising. (With the sudden Let’s Play boom, companies would have to be stupid not to try and capitalize on the audience.) I’m not a fan of the channel itself per sé, but its content is usually good, if not entertaining. In fact, it’s really one of the main places where viewers can see an equal distribution of male and female gamers. And get this, they even interact with each other. It’s fucking amazing.

If nothing else, Polaris is clearly comprised of people that do their damndest to make sure all types of gamers are presented, and given their subscriber count of 500,000, this can have a dramatic impact on the perception of gamers as a whole (it’s not just a sausage fest, isn’t that obvious by now?). The channel doesn’t go out of its way to promote equality; it just happens. So when higher ups at Polaris decided to create a show about indie game development—dubbed GAME_JAM—that happened to include two very talented women in the industry, the point was clearly to showcase these ladies’ talents as developers, not to have token females.

I’m not going to get into the whole debacle of GAME_JAM on this blog. Before you go any further, your assignment is to read this very well written expose by indie game journalist Jared Rosen, as he explains the event better than I ever could. For those who are completely uninterested and don’t mind being completely lost, the short version is that Polaris fucked up. In attempting to bring indie game developers and other notable figures in the internet gaming community together, they ended up hiring a sexist douchecanoe from Pepsi. With this man’s attempts to stir up drama between the participants (in the name of “good” television) combined with the tireless efforts to make the jam more about advertising than the actual process of developing a game, he ended up ruining the entire project in one day. One. Day.

Now that the whole mess is on the internet for thousands of prying eyes to see, my intent isn’t to analyze what happened. It’s quite obvious what happened: in addition to overbearing marketing schemes, the inescapable cloud of sexism that hovers over the gaming community was amplified by someone from the even more sexist advertising community, and things went down just as anyone would expect they would. What I want to start thinking about is what we can learn from this, using the industry’s underlying sexism as a jumping off point; and the answer isn’t just “sexism is bad”.

Invited developers already had their feet in the industry, why question their qualifications? (Check out Zoe Quinn's game here)

Invited indie developers already had their feet in the industry, why question their qualifications? (Check out Zoe Quinn’s game here.)

Given that a large portion of the details pertaining to this event have been made known to the general public, this case is a good arena to discuss which parties we should blame. Or at least which parties should be scrutinized. There is no one who argues that Matti (the catalyst for catastrophe) was actually in the right, and to say that most of the fault lies on him would not be incorrect. However, that’s also too simple a conclusion. There’s more at work here than the underlying misogyny of an entire facet of media or the folly of one man. As Adriel Wallick, one of the women involved, writes:

When you choose to work with a person and allow that person represent your brand in any way, you damn well better make sure that that person’s beliefs and actions align with yours.

Much of the responsibility lies on Polaris’s shoulders as well. To their credit, participants had barely anything but words of kindness about the channel’s conduct and enthusiasm for GAME_JAM. Yet a common complaint among the invited devs concerned a lack of research. In their excitement, it seems that Polaris forgot to examine or interview the person they ultimately put in charge of the creative direction of their collaborative efforts. If they had simply taken the time, perhaps they would have been able to prevent this from happening in the first place. Again, to their credit, Polaris has already apologized for their role in the discomfort of their guests, and has tried desperately to make amends. Even if it’s not entirely from a place of sincerity—not all press is good press, after all—it’s nice to see the channel that’s becoming a figurehead in the online gaming community act like an adult.

Jumping the gun isn’t the only issue, though. Much more than a business falling victim to the sexism in our media world, we must ask ourselves why barely anyone spoke up against Matti’s disgusting actions while they were happening. Of course there’s always the hope that when someone starts being an asshole, they’ll get the message on their own and cut it out, but this type of passive wishful thinking only leads to a perpetuation of the idea that it’s okay to ask harmful questions or say derogatory things that hurt the community. If the issue is left until people are visibly uncomfortable, instead of the request coming off as “what you’re saying is harmful and you need to stop”, it’s presented as “I didn’t really have a problem with it, but you’re making other people uncomfortable”. The same can be said of playing along for the sake of not rocking the boat. Understandably it’s not good business practice to come off as combative with business partners, but sometimes the boat needs to be rocked so hard it capsizes. Those who did not speak out must carry the guilt and remorse of allowing the situation to fester to an unbearable level. I sincerely hope they feel guilt over it, in any case.

Tangentially related, this is also a good lesson in discretion. Even in a community that makes claims about the tightness of their various groups, we’ve got to realize that the people we work alongside end up defining us as much as our own actions. If you willingly work with people who constantly make kitchen jokes and gripe about gamer girls, I’m going to think you’re a bit sexist. I’d be willing to bet that eight times out of ten I’d be right, too. The image you present to your audience directly reflects not only your personal views of what’s okay from a social and moral standpoint, but also lets the audience think that it’s okay to act how you’re acting. I talked about this already in a previous post: it doesn’t matter how much you say “I’m not racist” or “I really love gay people”, if you make racist or homophobic jokes, you’re perpetuating discrimination on an insidious level. Or, to contextualize it with GAME_JAM, if you present the image that you’re willing to include everyone, but then hire people who clearly don’t hold that belief, you’re damaging your own reputation.

Unfortunately, this disaster is just another reminder of how rampant sexism still is in media. We’ve got people crying out, “it’s 2014! What the fuck?”and yes, we should be beyond this by now. However, the lure of drama caused by carved-in-stone gender roles and the unwillingness to adapt to the flexibility, and ultimately non-existence, of said gender roles is too strong to be ignored for many. Too easy and comfortable to sink into. Luckily, this side of YouTube and the developer scene seems more ready to speak out against this. The way people have responded to this is inspiring, and the strength of the women involved gives me life. I hope that in the future Polaris can continue this idea under different management because it’s a great idea. I just hope they’ve seriously internalized what happened here and are willing to be more supportive, earlier, to their guests.

Further reading:

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About Tsunderin

Greetings and salutations! Feel free to just call me Rin—we’re all friends here, or nemeses who just haven’t gotten to know each other well enough. I’m a video game lover from the womb to the tomb, and Bioware enthusiast until the day they stop making games with amazing characters that I cry over. And while I don’t partake as often as I used to, don’t be surprised to find me poking around an anime or manga every once in a while either. A personal interest for me is characterization in media and how women in particular have been portrayed, are being portrayed, and will be portrayed in the future. I’m not going to mince words about my opinion either.