A guest post by Stephen Beirne.
This week saw major videogames publication Kotaku updating its ethics policy in an unpopular direction. Given that games journalism is generally notorious for corruption and nepotism, Kotaku opted to mend the field’s reputation by barring its writers from supporting the potential subjects of their reporting via Patreon, a platform for creators to fund their work through patronage. By banning its writers from backing any game developer on Patreon, Kotaku hopes to present the staff as personally, emotionally and financially detached from the developer’s professional success. By this policy they believe an ethical standard is met.
However, Kotaku still allows its writers to directly purchase a game for reviewing, or to back projects on Kickstarter and Indiegogo, two other, more established platforms for people to crowdsource revenue, despite the fact that both of these transactions also involve the writer financially supporting the developer. Where Kickstarter and over-the-counter purchasing differ from Patreon, according to various writers and figureheads at Kotaku, is that through them you support the product, whereas through Patreon you support the person.
That is the logic they have outlined. To briefly recap: supporting via Kickstarter is ethical; supporting via Patreon is unethical.
While there are many problems in this new policy, two particular concerns stand out in my mind. The first is that the reasoning behind it presents ethics as rooted in the extent to which a trade relationship resembles traditional capitalism. The further removed a creator is from the thing you’re buying, the more dehumanized your purchase so the more ethical it is. Although on Kickstarter you’re still funding a developer’s livelihood and receiving a game in return, the sense of removal is familiar and comforting, and has grown normal as Kickstarter has melded into common usage in the industry.
Since patreon phrases payment as if to a creator’s work in general, rather than in exchange for a specific product, investment doesn’t result in property for a patron to claim and consume, conflicting with the values of a consumer-orientated culture.
My second concern is with who this policy targets. Patreon users tend to be those creators who have found little support through mainstream industry channels, notably in this case for structural reasons, and so migrate to the more-accommodating patronage model. By this, under-appreciated and marginalized game developers and writers find an outlet for their work. In essence Patreon is a way for marginalized voices like women, queer and trans identifying people to find their work rewarded by a hungry audience. Out of the mutual support and interest this platform facilitates, a self-sustaining community has formed among marginalized developers and writers.
While Kotaku is quiet as to whether its writers may pledge to the Patreons of other writers, by disallowing pledges to devs, it threatens to nip this community in the bud. Now, if a freelance writer with a Patreon wants to have their work published for Kotaku, they must distance themselves from the support they give to other creators and presumably discontinue the pledges they receive from their peers.
As well as driving a wedge into the community of marginalized creators, this could also be a tactical move on Kotaku’s part. By monopolizing the sources of revenue of its writers, Kotaku is guarding a treasured resource—its pool of freelance writers—by restricting them from turning to Patreon as a viable alternative to mainstream publications. In doing so they simultaneously drain away Patreon’s clientele, thinning the damage it could do to the gaming press status quo. As many outlets seek to court marginalized voices and tap into their previously dormant audience, by making its writers financially dependent on the outlet Kotaku is acting to control and exploit the workforce.
It should be noted that Polygon has published an alternative policy for journalistic ethics surrounding Patreon support. From now on, Polygon’s writers must disclose whoever they pledge to when it might be relevant to the story. That’s all it takes.
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