November 7, 2011
I’ve had a complicated relationship with Kotaku. They’ve run pieces from some of my favorite games writers, from Stephen Totilo and Leigh Alexander to Maggie Greene and Tim Rogers. (Even me, a couple of times!) They’ve done bona fide journalism in a field where regurgitating news is the norm (Tracey Lien, on the Australian offshoot, has been particularly great recently). All together, they have some of the strongest editorial voices in the industry.
However, Kotaku has historically posted a lot of bullshit too: sexy cosplay galleries, and gratuitous shots of booth babes, and vaguely game-related antics from porn stars, and the inexplicable “What Is Japan’s Fetish This Week?” series. Stuff that reinforces the stereotype that all gamers are maladjusted, oversexed teenage boys. Stuff that sets the tone for the more noxious comments, which too often represent those stereotypes most forcefully. Stuff that, as I called out back in January, makes their attempts at more serious coverage seem half-hearted and disingenuous.
To be clear, Kotaku is of course allowed to post whatever they want. Mostly I was just disappointed that, given the choice, that is what they decided on. They were clearly excluding a large part of their potential audience — you know, the people who might not stay for the incisive commentary if the article above the fold looks like this (picture likely NSFW). In short, it seemed they were missing the chance to leverage their popularity and move the community forward.
Now, it seems like they’re trying to do just that by injecting more social consciousness into their writing.
I’m not sure who to credit for this shift. One possibility is Joel Johnson, who migrated back to Kotaku from Gizmodo earlier this year and took over as Editorial Director. He’s written posts like this one questioning why there aren’t more gay protagonists in games, and this one in support of Gamespot reviewer Carolyn Petit, who is transgender. I don’t know if he’s responsible for killing off that fetish column, and for the apparent decrease in titillating nonsense posts, but I’ll give him credit anyway. And he followed that up by hiring Kirk Hamilton, who he rightly describes as “one of gaming['s] most exciting writers.”
Whether it’s Joel’s doing or not, the change of pace has been refreshing. Look at these posts from the past month: Kirk Hamilton wrote about the worrying fixation on using “bitch” as an insult in Batman: Arkham City. Denis Farr wrote a powerful and heart-rending guest editorial on the word “faggot” and its hidden personal implications. Leigh Alexander wrote about sexism, and how tired she is of having to write about sexism. Stephen Totilo wrote about Capcom responding to misogyny in the Street Fighter community — and then ran a guest editorial from Nicole Leffel about how their response wasn’t good enough.
Compared to the Kotaku of a year or two ago, this feels like a pretty staggering improvement. Naturally the commenters have not all taken to the new direction, and there are still some posts that don’t seem to either, but that will hopefully improve further with time. Meanwhile, the writers and editors deserve an enormous amount of credit for what they’re attempting here. As Kill Screen’s Chris Dahlen said on Twitter: “It’s rare to see a publication work as hard as Kotaku to drag its audience kicking and screaming into maturity.”
Kudos to everyone trying to make Kotaku, and the games community more generally, a better, more thoughtful and more inclusive place.