Making sense of the Star Citizen/Escapist controversy

 

For those with an ear to the ground of video gaming, it’s been a rather stressful week. Much like the ill-fated “Gamergate” controversy of last year, a scandal has broken out once again. Unlike Gamergate, however, this controversy actually has to do with ethics in video games journalism. It has to do with a piece published by the Escapist that fails on all counts to follow the necessary ethical protocols. It has nothing to do with feminists, the sex lives of strangers, or imaginary ‘cabals’ of insiders. Yet, despite the lack of a hashtag activist movement, the Escapist’s Star Citizen debacle is far more relevant to the average gamer. It’s far more serious than the ‘he said she said’ sad and discouraging drama of last summer. This one kinda matters, because depending on how it all plays out; it might have a devastating impact on the credibility of any high profile Kickstarter campaigns in the future.

star citizen

For those who don’t know, Star Citizen is the biggest crowdfunded game of all time, literally. The company that makes Star Citizen is called Cloud Imperium Games, or CIG; and they’re led by a man named Chris Roberts. With $90 million already put forward by legions of  pledges, Star Citizen has earned that money by promising a lot of things to a lot of people. Though there are playable beta builds of the game currently available, the controversy began over the question whether or not CIG could plausibly deliver everything they’ve advertised.

This question was put forth by a man named Derek Smart, an infamously vocal figure in the gaming world. Smart was formerly employed at CIG, and he maintains that no form of the game will ever see the light of day. Smart’s twitter and other social media accounts have been working overtime dispensing negative press, rumors, and distortions that appear designed to harm his former employers. Not many people took Smart’s claims – who, it should be mentioned, is an avid member of the Gamergate movement – too seriously. That is, until the Escapist ran their article, and then this follow up article.

In those pieces, writer Lizzy Finnegan dropped a series of potential megatons against CIG. Finnegan, who quotes from a number of anonymous sources, alleges that CIG is not only unlikely to ever deliver on all their promises to backers. But also, Finnegan alleges that the company engages in illegal, discriminatory hiring practices, embezzlement of backer funds, and other generally negative behavior. The articles in question are highly accusatory in tone, and seem transparently directed towards harming the credibility of CIG as a company.

That’s not even close to all.

Star Citizen

It turns out that the Escapist ran the story without even receiving a follow up email sent to them by Chris Roberts; which the Escapist claims simply got lost in a spam folder. They also ran the story without properly vetting their sources. For example, Finnegan claims in her piece that one of her informants proved his employment at CIG by a company issued ID card. According to CIG, they don’t issue any such cards in the first place. And if the picture floating around social media is the one used by Finnegan to confirm her source, it’s obvious that she didn’t confirm her source at all – since the card contains no name, corporate ID number, or any other identifying information.

There’s also some doubt as to whether or not Finnegan’s sources were real in the first place. Many of their comments printed by the Escapist were also found on an Australian gaming forum called Glassdoor – in some cases, with word for word similarity. It’s also worth noting that many of Finnegan’s allegations dovetail back with similar charges put forth by Derek Smart in recent weeks and months. Though the Escapist ran this follow up follow up piece explaining their editorial process, it’s done little to quell the rising tide.

Clearly, CIG agrees with the idea that Smart played a role in the Escapist’s hit piece, since in their open letter/ legal threat to the Escapist they flat out say as much. In that list of demands, CIG implores the Escapist to hire a third party to “investigate…any bias of your staff and their involvement with other interested parties and any conspiring arrangements between them.”

The legal notice, which can be found here, has taken things to an even crazier level. Now the Escapist are edging closer and closer to a full blown legal war between themselves and CIG games. And, if CIG can be believed, the Escapist did it to themselves. CIG alleges that the same group of troublemakers – who, clearly, are six or seven jilted ex employees working in concert – took their ‘story’ to several gaming sites. Only the Escapist ran with their ‘insider information’, because all the others rightly recognized the legal risks of committing perjury in making such extreme claims.

Yet it would be a flat out lie to say that the Escapist are alone in running with such a story. Many different prominent gaming news sites have, over the years, ran some version or another of this same kind of story. Even if those specific stories were better sourced and more ethically created, their ultimate goal to defame a developer without all the facts remains the same. After all, the heated allegations of former employees hardly make for the best evidence.

It’s not that whistleblowers aren’t a necessary reality from time to time: they are. But in general, the more extreme your claims are, the more airtight your credibility needs to be. The Escapist’s article makes some pretty massive claims about the way CIG is run – and makes repeatedly awful claims about Cloud Imperium Games Vice President of Marketing Sandi Gardiner personally. Considering this story’s potential impact not just on Star Citizen but on crowdfunded video games in general, the Escapist were undeniably remiss in not better fact checking/ source vetting/exercising editorial ethics.

In most cases, sensationalistic journalism is bad for everyone. Considering the lousy year that crowdfunding has had( see here and here for just two examples), a smear campaign against such a high profile, currently in development title is the last thing the industry needs…provided the allegations found in the Escapist story are untrue. Yet, even if they are, the Escapist’s story would have been all the more effective and damning had they done the necessary legwork in confirming the identities of their sources, fact checking their claims (such as the claim that the Austin branch of the company is closing, as just one example that could have easily been fact checked), and allowing Chris Roberts et al time to respond.

The way the Escapist rushed the story without doing any of these tasks – tasks considered necessary by most established codes of journalistic ethics – is a scandal in of itself. And their doubling down (see here) threatens to escalate matters even further. Hindsight is 20/20, but you have to wonder if those responsible for the story aren’t kicking themselves right now.

What’s even more frustrating is that few of the allegations made in the article seem provable in the first place. The only element to the Escapist story that might have a ring of provability, as far as I can tell, is the as yet un-clarified statement that CIG have run out of money. CIG have yet to publicly spell out how much of that $90 million is left. Did they, as the Escapist charges, waste all that backer money on misallocation? Do they have enough money to finish the game or will they need, in the words of one of Finnegan’s sources, a “Bail out”?

Only time will tell. Just as only time will tell the role Derek Smart played in all of this.

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Tweets like these don’t inspire much confidence that the man had nothing to do with defaming his former employers. Until we have more facts, we can’t say for sure.

Still interested? Read more here or here.

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