The last few years have been a strange time for the gaming community at large — if such a thing even exists as a single entity any more — with one of the most surprising incidents being the apparent fall of NeoGAF.
I won’t be shedding any tears over the site’s possible demise, since its shift into heavily left-leaning progressive politics, the idolisation of women and minorities as infallible beings to be worshiped and unquestioningly protected (as opposed to regular human beings, the same as anyone else) and the immediate, uncompromising exclusion and demonisation of anyone who didn’t fall in line with these values had made the site a laughing-stock for anyone who just wanted to, you know, talk about games. Plus, most relevantly to us here at MoeGamer, many readers will know that the site had been unfriendly to discussion of many modern Japanese games for some time now, with threads on some titles such as Criminal Girls completely banned, and the entirety of the site’s substantial Senran Kagura community unceremoniously ejected one day without any prior warning or explanation.
But the fact remains that what was once a proud institution in gaming culture — one of the longest surviving gaming forums, and formerly a hangout for journalists, developers and gamers alike — now lies in ruins. And that’s significant to anyone who was ever part of it.
Despite the preamble, I’m not going to talk too specifically about NeoGAF as I was never a member, nor am I going to delve too deeply into the reasons that NeoGAF has seemingly fallen right now. At the time of writing, various investigations are still ongoing and at present it is very much a case of “he said, she said” — quite literally. Whether or not there is any truth to the claims of sexual abuse being directed at site owner Tyler “Evilore” Malka is almost beside the point so far as the site itself is concerned, though; since there has already been a mass exodus of both users and staff from when the accusations originally emerged, it will be very difficult, if not impossible, for NeoGAF to recover its former glory; the community, as it once was, is dead.
This community aspect is something I’d like to explore today via a personal story, if you’ll indulge me.
Although for many people gaming is a solitary pastime — yes, you heard me right, EA — there is great value to there being places for people to discuss and enthuse about the things they’ve been enjoying between actual play sessions. It can allow one to feel a sense of “belonging” to something bigger — particularly important for those who are introverts, or who have found themselves with interests that don’t fall in line with their immediate peers — and to feel like they are understood, appreciated and perhaps most importantly, included. (Of course, in NeoGAF’s case, the site has a long history of being exclusionary, from its longstanding requirement to sign up with a paid email address right up to its most recent “if you’re not with us, you’re against us” mentality when it comes to progressive politics, but I’m talking more generally here.)
I’ve been a member of a number of different communities over the years, and I’ve always found that sense of “belonging” immensely valuable; conversely, when each of them eventually died a death for one reason or another, there was a tangible sense of loss — that an era had come to an end. And that’s always a sad realisation, since there’s not always something to readily replace it with.
One of the earliest gaming communities I was a member of was that of the sadly defunct 1up.com. My original reason for joining the site was the fact that my brother John Davison was, at the time, in charge of the whole shebang and I of course wanted to support him, but it didn’t take me long to discover a passion for blogging and engaging with the broader community. The site’s tools were well ahead of their time in allowing the community to “self-publish” their own articles and interact with others — this was the early 21st century, well before Facebook and Twitter came to prominence, remember — but the real attraction for many was the forum that the site offered.
1up’s forum was pretty diverse in terms of subject matter, running the gamut from platform-specific boards to areas for discussing broader subject areas relating to gaming and the site.
I forget exactly how I found myself in there in the first place, but my main haunt became the “1up Radio” board, ostensibly a home for discussion of the site’s podcasts but also a virtual locale which had gradually shown itself to be the haven of choice for the more articulate members of the community; those less interested in fanboyism or trolling, and more in thoughtful discussion of what they had been playing.
One episode of 1up’s podcast 1up Yours brought up the topic of the “Pile of Shame” — the games you had bought, but which you had never gotten around to for one reason or another. The intention was for the cast to tackle these games one at a time and discuss them, but sadly it was quickly abandoned amid their other commitments. Several of us in the site community thought it was a good idea, however, and decided to pick up the baton, organising our efforts via a combination of the 1up Radio board and the site’s “Club” functionality.
The “Squadron of Shame” was born, a group that gradually defined itself as being those keen to champion the overlooked and the underappreciated games of yesterday and today. Over the course of several “missions”, we became known as a group of community members that discussed games in great depth — and explored games which typically didn’t get a lot of attention in the press or from the community at large. Our in-depth, wordy threads were a welcome sight on the 1up Radio board, and we often got a shout-out on the podcast for continuing the hosts’ aborted mission to tackle their own Piles of Shame, an endeavour which had failed almost as soon as it began.
As you have probably surmised by now, the Squadron of Shame’s attitude towards games is one that I maintain to this day; I’d much rather explore those games that barely get talked about than those which are hyped up for months prior to their release and dissected in exhaustive detail by mainstream gaming sites. MoeGamer is built around this entire philosophy, and over the years I’ve consistently had far more interesting gaming experiences this way. I know it’s not how everyone likes to do things, but it most definitely works for me — and it worked for the other members of this little community we’d built, too.
All went well for a while, until the inexplicable decision to consolidate most of 1up’s disparate individual boards into just two NeoGAF-style “Games” and “Not Games” sections — a decision which would ultimately all but destroy the smaller subcommunities that had been quietly forming on the various boards over the preceding few years. One such casualty was the Squadron of Shame; our first “mission” thread after the board merger was quickly derailed by posters who were unaccustomed to our rather verbose style and decided that the mature thing to do would be yell at us and insult us rather than simply leaving us to it and retiring to their own threads.
The group survived, however, initially by retreating to the Club page on 1up, which by now had its own message board, and subsequently as the site as a whole appeared to be at risk of closing, to discussing matters via Twitter and various attempts at our own self-contained community sites. It was around this point we started our own podcast. It was a natural evolution of what we had previously been doing; since many of the prior “mission” threads had involved the same voices, why not just record ourselves discussing these games “in person”?
The “SquadCast”, as it was known, lasted for a good while, moving through a number of different formats, including focusing on both individual games and broader topic areas of interest. It proved popular with listeners, both those who had followed us from the 1up Radio boards and those we had picked up since, and all was going well for a while; we developed some solid community sites to complement our podcast, and we were never short of things to talk about.
The Squadron’s regrettable downfall wasn’t immediate, but it was a gradual process that began in 2012 with the release of Katawa Shoujo, a title which a number of us found absolutely fascinating in terms of its concept and origin story, and thus we knew we pretty much had to talk about as soon as possible. Despite the resulting episode of the SquadCast being one of our most well-received ever, it cost us two of our most longstanding members and most frequent podcast participants, who did not wish to be associated with what they referred to as “loli cripple porn”. They instead chose to jump ship and start their own podcast that is still going strong today; clearly the right decision for them, so I bear them no ill-will whatsoever and indeed enjoy their show whenever I remember that podcasts are still a thing.
The incident itself shook the foundations of what our little community had been built on, however. The group had long been based on a core precept of acceptance and the willingness to step out of one’s comfort zone in the name of finding interesting, unusual or just plain overlooked experiences, and this was the first time someone had put their foot down and said “no” quite so forcefully, on grounds that some of us felt to be unreasonable and ill-informed. The SquadCast continued for a few episodes, but it unfortunately didn’t last; the community continued to discuss things on the boards, but interests and viewpoints started to diverge more than they had done previously.
It was around this time that the current “progressive” push in modern games journalism had gotten underway, with things like Anita Sarkeesian’s notorious Kickstarter and incidents such as the Mass Effect 3 ending debacle showing us that the mainstream press was starting to develop a noticeable dislike for its supposed target audience as well as a desire to prove itself to be considerably “holier than thou”. Attitudes and political stances started to shift and, whether intentional or not, people found themselves drifting in different directions.
For me, the discovery of Katawa Shoujo had confirmed something that I had known on one level or another ever since I played my first JRPG back in the PlayStation era: I was in love with the way Japanese developers did things, particularly with regard to storytelling, and these games were where I consistently got the greatest satisfaction from my hobby. These were games that “spoke” to me, that I related to, in which I found characters that resonated with me on an absolutely fundamental level. They were some of the most personally important pieces of entertainment I had ever engaged with.
Unfortunately, it seemed, they were also the sort of experiences that were lambasted by the press, often without the critics in question bothering to explore them in depth. They were often written off purely based on their art style, and these opinions put out by the “opinion leaders” of the world tended to filter down to the public — a fact I decided to investigate myself with my own little experiment back in 2013. Those unwilling to engage with them would describe the games using pejorative adjectives like “fetishised”, “creepy” and their own reactions with terms like “eye-rolling” and suchlike; intensely negative responses that went beyond simply not wishing to play the games and into the territory of casting aspersions on those who did. This latter aspect was given weight through the growth in popularity of Sarkeesian’s work and the general trend towards declaring things “problematic”, “troubling” or other similar words that conjured up the image of Mary Whitehouse types brandishing a Daily Mail.
The frustrating thing about all this was the fact that, as someone who had actually played many of these games rather than rejecting them outright purely on the grounds of their aesthetic or character designs — what was that saying about books and covers? — I knew most of the arguments being made were, not to put too fine a point on it, bollocks.
And yet I discovered with increasing frequency that many people — including members of this once incredibly accepting, tolerant, open-minded community, people who had played and loved Katawa Shoujo alongside me — wouldn’t listen when I explained things, even when presented with clear evidence from the perspective of someone who had spent a considerable amount of time with these games rather than just going “ugh, boobs” and leaving it at that. And this is something that still goes on today. All too frequently.
I knew at this point that some combination of the community I had once loved to be a part of, myself and the general atmosphere of the games industry at large had changed, and things would never be the same again. It was the end of an era; although attempts could probably be made to “rebuild”, the damage was done, and it was time to move on if I wanted to remain true to the things I found most enjoyable and inspiring.
I was sad — I still am, to be honest, particularly any time I write an article here on MoeGamer and figure it would be exactly the sort of thing the Squadron would be all over, but the group as a whole has since scattered to the four winds. Having experienced what I’ve just described, I have a certain degree of empathy with those who feel like they have been displaced from NeoGAF through no fault of their own by the furore surrounding the site, as well as those smaller subcommunities such as the Senran Kagura fanbase and Japanese game fans in general, who had previously been forced out by a larger group that no longer “approved” of them.
The death of a community is a sad thing, regardless of the circumstances surrounding it. And it can have a much greater impact than might initially appear; it’s the loss of something that was a precious part of many people’s lives. That’s why, while I personally found latter-day NeoGAF to be a pretty hateful place, particularly for those who are into the kind of experiences you might read about here on MoeGamer, I feel for those who have lost something important to them.
I’ve been there too; I know first-hand how important it is to have a place you feel like you “belong”, where people understand you, and how much it can smart when you feel like it’s no longer there for you. After the experiences I’ve described, I am, to be honest, still looking for a new place to call “home”…
…although in some ways I feel I may have already built it for myself, right here.
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