Firstly, I just want to say that I really appreciate the tone of the comments on my previous piece.
For the most part they were civil, intelligent, and reasoned, and - even when people didn't agree with one another, or me - they were respectful about it, more or less. No name-calling. A first for the Internet!
Given the reputation that the games industry has, and how things often tend to go online, it's gratifying to see. I'd like to think that, on some level, the tone of what I wrote at least in part contributed. You get what you deserve, and reap what you sow, and what goes around comes around... and all that.
Secondly, I wanted to address something quite a few people pointed out, which is this: I didn't say much about Digital Homicide's role in the whole thing. I'm going to attempt to explain why. Best strap yourselves in, though - we're taking a detour along Hard Truths Lane.
For the record, I never set out to defend Digital Homicide by not focusing on their actions.
My intention was to explore why Jim Sterling pushed my buttons in his dealings with them (and in general, to be honest). I was angry, but I didn't immediately understand why.
I also wanted to work out what might've driven a small, indie, developer to try and sue a games critic. Because the thing is... in the event that Digital Homicide is successful, it could potentially impact on everyone who writes about games, or puts stuff up on YouTube.
When I write these longer pieces on here, I'm frequently finding my way as I go. I'm trying to work out what my position is, exactly what I'm feeling, digging a little deeper into myself. In doing that, I'm trying to offer something different. I can't compete with other sites in terms of having huge teams of writers. I can't cover every news piece, every fact, every game. I don't have much in the way of budget - as appreciative as I am of everyone who does contribute to my Patreon fund.
The only thing I can truly be an expert on - with absolute authority, above anyone else on this planet - is what I feel. And that goes for everybody, potentially.
When I write, I try to come at it from the gut, rather than an intellectual place that's more about facts and figures.
Partly, that's because I want to offer something different on Digi. Something that's a bit more honest, that isn't over intellectualised, or playing to some agenda.
I think that's the only way I can write about events involving third parties in a 100% honest and truthful way: by saying how it impacts me. You simply can't argue with that. Same as you can't argue with Digital Homicide feeling hurt by Jim Sterling, or Jim Sterling feeling attacked by Digital Homicide. Those are clearly evident.
However, there is a gulf between saying "I feel attacked" and "you attacked me". One is owning and acknowledging your feelings. The other is putting the responsibility on the external party. We all see things through our own filters, and rarely in any debate or discussion or argument does anybody stop to realise this. What one party may be experiencing may not be the intention of the other party.
And nobody ever stops to ask why their backs are up, and whether their emotional response is proportionate to what triggered it. Generally, we don't want to admit that we're puppets to our buried needs, baggage, and prejudices - but every single one of us is.
I'm fascinated by the emotional and psychological subtext of human interaction. It's partly why Gamergate has been so interesting to me, because it's so driven by subconscious and unconscious emotional needs. It's simultaneously complex in its subtleties, yet incredibly simple and predictable at its core.
PLAY THE TRIANGLE
There's this thing called a drama triangle. No, it's not a musical instrument. It's a social model of human interaction, specifically depicting a type of destructive interaction that can occur between people in conflict. Oh - look! Here's one now:
However, the person playing this second role often feels the need to enlist other people into the conflict for support, back-up, whatever... Then that third party (or parties) becomes the rescuer ("I'm such a good person!"/"This is a righteous crusade!"), trying to help the "victim" while actually keeping them stuck in the triangle.
Each participant in the situation is getting some sort of subconscious psychological need met, in a way that feels utterly justified to them - without bothering to see that it's actually a dysfunctional relationship. What drives a drama triangle is always selfish behaviour, rather than anything genuinely altruistic or principled. A need to be right. A need to feel that you're a compassionate person. Or a need to feel supported or cared for. That sort of thing.
It's often a form of codependency - the victim needs to feel like a victim on some level, so they need a persecutor. Likewise, the persecutor needs someone to pick on. The rescuer needs to feel helpful... And round and round and round.
Roles change: the persecutor can feel like a victim, the victim can become a persecutor... etc. etc. It's classic transactional analysis.
THE SATANIC VERSUS
I see it often within the whole Gamergate vs Social Justice Warrior thing. I see it in Jim Sterling vs Digital Homicide. It's not as simple as going "he's right and they're wrong".
Go deeper, and you see there's a form of codepency at the heart of all these conflicts. And that's why - unless people step outside of the triangle, and look at what's going on beneath the surface - nobody will ever back down. It suits them to stay there. They're getting dysfunctional needs met, even if they're stating otherwise. It's comfortable, in its own messed-up way.
This is why wars, arguments, and pretty much any conflict between two parties happen. Nobody ever tries to understand, or even cares, what the other side is feeling, or look at what's really happening - because they're too wrapped up in their own emotional shit. They don't step outside the triangle. They don't look objectively. They fall into one of the roles.
And in the case of Jim Sterling Vs Digital Homicide something about it pushed my buttons. I felt angry. I felt weirdly protective of Digital Homicide. I'm not for one second saying I was right to feel that way, but we don't always have a full grasp on our feelings once they bubble up from the gut. Different things affect people differently. And something about this got to me.
I realise now that I'd slipped into the drama triangle. I was teetering on the edge of becoming the rescuer to Digital Homicide's victim, to Jim Sterling's persecutor...
In the interests of balance, then - because I didn't mention much of it before, as some of Jim Sterling's rescuers have pointed out - here are the broad strokes of the Jim Sterling/Digital Homicide timeline, as I understand them:
- November 2014, Jim Sterling publishes a first impressions video of The Slaughtering Grounds - then priced £8.99, or thereabouts - in which he calls it a contender for "New Worst Game of 2014". The game is published by Digital Homicide, a small, independent development studio.
- The following day, Digital Homicide publishes a video entitled "Review the reviewer", in which it calls Sterling a "fucking idiot", among other things - and accuses him of not properly playing the game.
- Sterling publishes a "review of their review of his review" which is essentially a re-upload of the Digital Homicide video, albeit with Sterling laughing over the top of it, because "it was bloody funny".
- Users on Steam start to give the game dozens of negative reviews.
- Fans of Sterling lay into DH on Steam forums and elsewhere, pointing out that their game is made up from assets taken from elsewhere (many of which were purchased legitimately from the Unity Asset Store, others lifted from places such as Google Images).
- Sterling alleges that Digital Homicide run a Steam forum competition entitled "Win a copy of the game if you talk some mad yang" - where entrants who bashed the game are, according to Sterling, "banned".
- Digital Homicide post a video review of Sterling's review of their review of his review. Sterling later describes the tone as changing from the previous video's "bitter sarcasm" to "just plain bitterness". Among the criticism DH levels at Sterling is this: "You, as a reviewer, contribute nothing to the gaming community" - before accusing Sterling of using game footage without permission. "Your existence is the very definition of being a leech," they state.
- Following what Sterling would go on to describe as "its weird little breakdown", Digital Homicide hits Sterling with a copyright claim over footage of their game, and the video is taken down for a couple of weeks, before being reinstated by YouTube.
- Jim Sterling continues to publish videos ether focusing on DH's games, or which include further broadsides at the company - including one that tells the story from Sterling's side, entitled 'A Steam Meltdown Saga'. All broadly criticise DH's game for, among other things, being slightly tweaked versions of earlier games. His videos include another where he wholesale demolishes games which "asset flip" - taking elements created by others, and make games out of them. He accuses the people responsible for these games as being "Motherfucking vampiric pricks".
- July 2015 - Digital Homicide threaten Sterling with a lawsuit. JS and DH's Robert Romine record a podcast wherein both go at one another for over 90 minutes, literally getting nowhere.
- September 2015, Jim Sterling posts: "Digital Homicide’s latest shenanigans are confusing and based on several allegations, so I cannot present everything in this article as verified fact. However, due to digging around by myself and several users on Steam, we appear to have a pretty clear picture of the company’s latest, bizarre get-rich-quick scheme". I can't be bothered to summarise Sterling's accusations, but you can read the post here.
- March 2016 - Digital Homicide hit Sterling with a $10 million lawsuit, demanding damages for harassment caused to them by Sterling's fans, Sterling himself, and blah-blah-blah. Bored now.
How's that? Did I miss anything big? Happy now? Again, the full sorry saga is broken down in better detail here, including the possibility that Sterling's departure from The Escapist may have stemmed from the feud.
It doesn't really change anything for me though, because the thrust of the previous piece wasn't Digital Homicide's actions.
I wasn't trying to say that indie developers can't be criticised if they're small.
Or that you can't criticise somebody's game on the off chance they're vulnerable.
I was suggesting that calling anyone a "fucking idiot" or a "motherfucking vampiric prick", or laughing mirthlessly in someone's face, is perhaps crossing a certain line... but that's me.
It's something I do consider when reviewing indie stuff, because I don't want to steamroller through life hurting individuals, when there's usually a better way. I'm a human being, a dad, a son, a partner, a person, above all else... I'm not particularly wedded to this meaningless concept of "duty" a games journalist has: we have a duty to one another first.
I was, however, trying to explore the idea that Jim Sterling wasn't coming at things because he was fighting for consumer rights, but because he was one point in a drama triangle.
Ultimately, though... I was trying to explain why I felt the way I do. Why the Sterling/DH situation mattered to me. Why I struggled to separate cold, hard, logic from my own emotional response.
For the record though, if I step outside the emotional bubble, it's worth stating that to me Digital Homicide behaved in an unseemly and - frankly - ill-advised fashion. All they succeeded in doing, instead of continuing to improve as developers beneath the radar, was draw attention to how raw and broken and just plain bad their games were. Also, they made themselves look a bit on the mad side.
Rest assured though, that lawsuit or no lawsuit, the ones who came out worst in all of this were Digital Homicide - at least for the time being. Slapping a copyright claim on JS's videos wasn't ever going to significantly damage his business or income or brand - or threaten his entire YouTube channel, as a few Sterling defenders have suggested to me.
On the other hand, regardless of whether you believe Digital Homicide were peddling substandard products which ripped off the customer, their business, livelihood and integrity were attacked. They were accused of pretending to be a different company, of stealing assets, of running fake competitions... All were allegations which the Romine brothers refuted. And it happened, in video after video after video, which stoked some of Jim Sterling's followers into embarking on a crusade to further prove how wrong and awful Digital Homicide were.
Little wonder they felt like victims... before slipping into the role of persecutor when they attacked Sterling. Yes, they had a knee-jerk overreaction to Sterling's first video, but Sterling could've ignored it. He didn't. And then they didn't ignore his response. And on it went.
The Romine brothers were always onto a loser as far as taking on Jim Sterling goes. Sterling knows how to control the media narrative, and has a following that was prepared to echo his sentiments and act in kind, and in greater numbers than Digital Homicide had on their side. He's an expert at stoking up passions and getting his following riled up.
It's interesting that he does choose a sort of Nuremberg Rally format for his videos - standing behind a lectern, the black, white and red etc. - because he's pretty good at whipping an audience into a frenzy, making his outrage their outrage. Stating his point in a way that is compelling, intimidating, and patronising. Recruiting rescuers, essentially.
What's more, Jim seems just as obsessed with Digital Homicide as they are with him. To my eyes, he seems as triggered by their attacks on him, as they do by his attacks on them. He is every bit as defensive, and counter-attack-y, as they have been. He shuttled back and forth between victim and persecutor... just like Digital Homicide have done.
I mean... look at this thing, written as part of Sterling's introduction to the aforementioned podcast between him and Digital Homicide's Robert Romine: "Listen as Digital Homicide talks over me, attempts to use mad scientist tropes to prove I’m a bad person, tries to invent a conspiracy theory about me..."
It's both offensive and defensive at once. In just a single sentence he manages to be both persecutor and victim. Attacking and self-pitying. "Poor me" and "They're twats" all at once. He has no interest in reconciliation, or seeing their point of view. And because people listen to him, and nobody really gives a damn what some little indie developer has to say, Digital Homicide were hugely outgunned.
Sterling might be articulate and make good points - certainly more than Digital Homicide manage to do - but in his own way he's lashing out. It doesn't matter who started the fight between the two sides... because nobody backed down, it simply escalated. They became locked into the drama triangle.
The Romine brothers were victims, persecutors, and each other's rescuer. Jim Sterling was also victim, persecutor, and his fans were his rescuer. They were the ones coming to me stating I'd been unfair to poor Jim Sterling because I hadn't mentioned that - in their eyes - Digital Homicide had fired the first shot. And I accept they may well have been doing that, because I'd unconsciously become the rescuer.
And I became that, because Jim Sterling - even if Digital Homicide threw the first stone, and may have released terrible, questionable games - became the bully in the situation. He took it too far. He was too aggressive, enjoyed his role too much. He couldn't let it lie, and he exploited his platform of privilege.
And I thought of one of my kids - or, let's face it, myself - on the receiving end of that... and it set me off.
Thing is, "He started it"... "No, he started it"... aren't we capable of better than that? Lawsuits are a last resort, when it has descended to an endless cycle of "He said/she said", and your only available recourse is to get mum or dad involved.
It literally doesn't matter who started any conflict - what matters is that somebody ends it before Japan gets nuked. Yet in this instance, nobody did. It escalated, and escalated. Consequently, Jim Sterling is now facing a lawsuit which, in the event it's successful, could have significant ramifications for games media.
JIM STERLING: A CODA