It’s Dangerous to Go Alone
In Fall of 2012, tragedy struck the gaming industry when popular freelance writer Matt Hughes took his own life. That incident changed Russ Pitts’s life, and encouraged him to get out there and do something about depression and mental illness in the gaming industry. His response was Take This, an organization he co-founded with Susan Arendt, current managing editor of GamesRadar+, who happens to be Pitt’s wife.
“I was working with Polygon, and Susan with Joystick at that point,” Pitts recalls. “We got word that Matt [Hughes] had taken his own life, and had been struggling with depression, and no one knew, none of his close friends knew. We’d never worked with him directly, but Susan and I had collectively worked with hundreds of freelancers at that point.”
Pitts continues, “We realized that the type of person who could be active online, but secretly struggling with depression – that could be anyone we knew, anybody we worked with. That hit us especially hard, and we realized that there had to be something we could be doing.”
Arendt and Pitts asked themselves, ‘What is it that makes people struggle in silence? Why do folks feel as though they can’t ask friends for help, or ask anyone for help? What would we do if Matt Hughes had been someone who worked with us, who was one of our close friends, and he came to us, seeking help?’
“That’s when we came up with the idea for Take This,” Pitts says. “We started a blog and started writing stories and publishing stories from other people about how they discovered they were dealing with mental health issues, what that was like for them, and how they found help. Just really simple stories that we could share with people to let them know that whatever they’re dealing with, they are not the only one dealing with it.”
Roughly 25% of Americans deal with some sort of mental illness. However, we still treat mental illness with this stigma, this fear, like it’s some unusual thing that no one knows about. The reality is, mental illness touches almost everyone, whether directly or indirectly, but the majority of folks who deal with it are afraid to speak out, or they simply don’t know how to seek help. “We started Take This to give people the idea that it’s okay to not be okay and that there is help. From there, we’ve expanded to a larger organization,” Pitts explains.
“I know there’s been quite a bit of negativity surrounding video games and the games industry in the last few years, but that hasn’t diminished my perception that gamers are, as a whole, the kindest, most generous, caring people,” Pitts shares. “I’ve worked in all kinds of media – from film to television to theatre. You go to a gaming convention like PAX, and it’s just non stop positive interactions with people who are overjoyed to be a part of this community. That’s the spirit we get when we go anywhere as Take This.”
Pitts also notes that as a whole, the video game community and video game development community tend to attract folks who are more susceptible to mental health issues. “That’s for a variety of reasons, and it’s something we have data on. It’s a fact. A lot of folks who are creative and intelligent and work in the technology field, they are just flat out more susceptible to mental health issues,” he indicates. “There are a lot of folks coming to the gaming and to the online gaming communities as a way of self-medicating and escaping the difficult interactions they have in other spaces. At Take This, we encourage healthy gaming. We try to let people know that the more comfortable you are with getting help, the faster you can get that help.”
Stage of Development
Before co-founding the popular, Vox Media owned video game website, Polygon in 2012, Pitts worked at The Escapist, and often wrote stories about specific types of people who made and contributed to video games. He says, “I was fascinated by all the different pieces of a video game and all the different types of people who are part of this culture because its united. When you look at the credits of a game, you see this list of hundreds of people who contribute – and it’s not like a film where you can recognize some of those people. People who work on video games are largely unknown.”
After starting Polygon, Pitts and co asked themselves what they considered the best content out there in terms of video games. Those stories came up, and soon enough, the opportunity arose to start a web series with documentary style videos about the people who contribute to the culture of the video games industry. That series was titled ‘Human Angle’, and had twelve episodes published in its first season, although eighteen were shot (the remaining six were published independently of the title ‘Human Angle’).
“It was such a great experience. We got to meet with so many different types of people, and that really stuck with me. In fact, it’s probably my favorite thing I’ve been involved with in my career,” Pitts recalls. “When I left Polygon, I came back to that. There’s something about that type of work that speaks to me and drives me. I enjoy sitting down with people, learning more about them, figuring out what makes them tick, and translating their idea of themselves into a story that others may find interesting.”
Pitts founded his own production company, called ‘Flying Saucer Media’, to do that sort of work. From there, he figured, “I’ve got a company, I’ve got cameras, I’ve got equipment – we should do a second season of Human Angle under a different name.” This came in the form of ‘Stage of Development’, an ambitious Kickstarter project, which unfortunately failed to get funding. Stage of Development is a documentary series featuring the human stories of real people whose lives have been touched by video games.
It is important to note here that Stage of Development is far from canned. Since the Kickstarter ended without funding, Pitts has held talks with a variety of different people regarding alternate options. “There’s a very good chance we’ll have a sponsorship to be able to continue the series we had planned,” Pitts assures me. “We’re still working hard on it, we’ve got the first two episodes shot. The first episode is entirely done finished, ready to go. We’re considering a few options regarding the second episode.” The important thing here is that Stage of Development is still very real, and very likely going to happen.
In addition to the episode above, the team has shot an episode featuring John and Brenda Romero, true pioneers in the gaming industry. Additional episodes include the stories of Gavin Dunne, as known as “Miracle of Sound”, who creates fantastic original works of music based on video games, Mike Bithell, creator of Thomas Was Alone and Volume, Lorne Lanning, creator of Oddworld, and John Bain, also known as “TotalBiscuit, the Cynical Brit.”
John Bain is a man shrouded in controversy, mostly due to his position, and the position of those who support and follow him, regarding a certain movement that overcame the industry over the past two years, called GamerGate. In fact, many folks who otherwise supported Stage of Development withdrew their financial and moral support of the project upon receiving news that Bain would be involved with it.
“I knew when I asked John to be in the series, that it would generate controversy,” Pitts says. “Frankly, that’s why I wanted to speak with him. Anytime I hear about someone who all these people over here think is great, and all these people over there think is horrible, and there’s very little in between. That’s quite interesting to me, and suggests there’s something deeper going on,” he explains.
“I try not to invest too much in controversy because I honestly don’t find myself ever completely agreeing with one side or another. It can become hard to have conversations on the Internet because you end up getting yelled at by both sides,” Pitts continues. “What interested me the most in talking to John is finding out if he really is this horrible human being that people on one side make him out to be, or if he’s the second coming of Elvis like folks on the other side make him out to be. To me, it was just, I’m going to talk to this human being, someone controversial, and try to deduce that they actually look like when not filtered through the opinions of others.”
“I received a good bunch of backlash after announcing Bain would be a subject of the project, and naturally, that made me want to speak to him even more, but it did suggest that I would need to take a different approach to interviewing him than I usually do.”
Typically, Pitts intentionally steps into interviews without a ton of background knowledge about the person he’s interviewing. “I may have made up my mind regarding certain topics, which is the danger in doing research on a subject,” he explains. “With John Bain, however, that’s not going to work. People already have their minds made up about John. Most of the folks I interview, are people who are relatively obscure, and I see something in them, that I think others will find fascinating – so I try to expose those people who are pinned into little corners.”
“John Bain is not unknown. People who are going to watch that video about him already have an idea and they’ll want answers to specific questions. They’re going to want either their opinion validated, or to get some clear evidence that they should question their existing opinion about him. We’re going to go in completely different with him. We’re going to do some pre-interviews, and just conduct the entire thing differently than usual. My hope is to tell a story that people aren’t expecting. I don’t yet know what that story is, but that’s part of what I do, is find that story about people that other’s won’t expect.”
I too fall on the fence regarding many of the issues in the gaming industry specifically, which makes discussion difficult. Sure, having views on both sides has made me valuable allies, but it’s also generated lots of hatred and harassment directed at myself, and those I hold dear. Regarding Mr. John Bain, I’m not entirely sure how I think, which is why I’m looking so forward to Russ’s interview with him.
“Interestingly, the series I did with Polygon, Human Angle, was predominantly concerned with indie game developers, and spoke to a lot of folks from various facets of the social justice movement,” Pitts says. “We delved into aspects of the Oregon county where I think most people were aware of the diversity and minority groups. We got a lot of support on Stage of Development from folks who expected a total line of ideas in that same direction. It’s not like I’ve had a change of heart, I still find diversity issues absolutely fascinating and important to cover.”
He continues, “I’ve been trying to get to Africa for three years for example. There are a lot of people there starting up this really interesting and exciting independent game development scene and distribution scene. It’s just, if I had become aware of John Bain while we were doing Human Angle with Polygon, we would have wanted him to be on an episode.”
A Price of Games Journalism
Yet another gaming industry controversy ensued in November of 2015, when Kotaku’s Stephen Totillo published his piece, ‘A Price of Games Journalism.’ The piece alleges that for close to two years, Kotaku has been blacklisted by both Bethesda and Ubisoft, therein prevented from conducting interviews, acquiring review copies, attending certain press events, and more. This comes as a consequence of Kotaku’s frequent publishing of leaked documents from these corporations, containing information such as the code-name and location for future Assassin’s Creed games, the location of Fallout 4, and more. Mr. Pitts reacted to this incident through Twitter, where he disagreed with Kotaku, believing they had every right to be blacklisted. This also happens to be my own stance on the issue. It does pose quite legitimate questions: how do we approach the relationship between publishers, developers, and press? How do we maintain and facilitate this relationship, and how should it be treated?
“This is a topic that’s come up basically everywhere I’ve worked and I know my colleagues and I at Polygon certainly crashed on this at times,” Pitts begins. “Perhaps this is a function of my having had other careers of if I’m just not the game journalist other folks are, but I just don’t see games journalism as equivalent to mainstream news journalism.”
While Pitts recognizes the demand for the work that games journalists do, and lauds it as good work, even saying that the work he’s done in this industry is the best work he’s ever done, he doesn’t believe that information about video games is in the public interest. “Information about video games is a far cry [editor’s note, this is a clever pun] from information about the President’s secret deals with third world countries, or whether or not our justifications for going to war in Iraq were valid. As such, we need to treat these two subjects differently from a journalism standpoint, and from an ethics standpoint,” he says.
Pitts makes the observation that he spent an enormous amount of time playing Fallout when it released, but that didn’t stop him from being able to differentiate the real world from this virtual world. “There’s another world where I have bills to pay, people to talk to, and things to do,” he says. “You have to be able to make that separation, even if you spend the whole day every day reading about or making content related to video games.”
He continues, “Yes, that sort of content is hugely important to a lot of folks, but it’s not journalism. It’s not journalism in the classic sense where we say, ‘There are no rules so long as we get people the information that they want.’ The justification for printing the Watergate Tapes, the Pentagon Papers, or Secretary Clinton’s emails – people need to know, that’s in the public interest; that the people who are responsible for being our leaders are doing things that we wouldn’t necessarily approve of.”
“Whether or not Bethesda’s next Fallout game will be set in Boston, that’s not public interest, its public curiosity. There’s an argument to be made that that demand needs to be satisfied, but that’s tabloid journalism. Bethesda and Ubisoft are publicly traded companies that have responsibilities to their shareholders, they have business plans, and they’re building products. I don’t think it’s reasonable to subject them to the same sorts of investigative methods that we have an obligation to subject our public officials to. It is no one’s constitutionally given right to know what Bethesda’s Fallout plans are. That’s ridiculous.”
Pitts makes it clear that he’s heard from folks on both sides of these types of debates, and can see and sympathize with both points of view. That being said, Pitts believes that, “Companies like Bethesda and Ubisoft, when dealing with media outlets such as Kotaku, who continue to strip the line, embarrass them, ruin their plans, and potentially damage their value by leaking these details, it hurts their reputation with their stakeholders. That’s real horror they’re doing to these companies, and they owe Kotaku nothing.”
Pitts provides an example to mull over: “If you’re Bethesda and there’s this guy who is costing you real money by publishing material that they shouldn’t have access to, from an employee whose violating their contractual agreement – it’s time to cut the bleeding. I’d do it in a heartbeat. Whether or not that’s controversial, I’m not sure, but that’s where I come down.”
He continues by relating gaming journalism to product journalism. “The people we’re interfacing with are marketing and PR professionals. They have a product they’re trying to sell and that is the entire reason they’re speaking with us. A lot of folks fall down on this; they see what we do as the equivalent of war journalism, and it’s not. We are parties to marketing. Even in the best circumstances what we are doing is helping someone who wants to sell a product. We are working with marketers to tell the story of a product.”
“Their goals are to sell a product, and ours are to tell an interesting story about that product. When our interests are aligned, it’s awesome. When our interests are not aligned, they do not owe us a thing. They can cut us off, stop sending us absolutely free games to which we are in no way entitled, stop giving us interviews with people who have better things to do. I love Kotaku, and I love what they’re doing. I respect every single one of their writers. That doesn’t mean I always have to agree with them, though. You can’t violate a trust with these companies and expect them to take it lying down or to agree with you, that they’re entitled to support you. Especially not now that YouTubers and Twitch streamers are making traditional games journalism obsolete.”
As an industry, we most certainly don’t have all the answers, especially when new questions arise on a daily basis. The games industry is important, influential, and valid, but it is also experiencing growing pains; the industry is growing too fast for it’s own good. While games journalism still needs to evolve, new methods for games media are arising, and overcoming games journalism.
Russ Pitts is at the forefront of our industry, doing groundbreaking, important work in more ways than one. Take This is doing work with regards to mental illness in the gaming industry. This is work that needs to be done, but is often frowned upon. Stage of Development is a new and unique documentary series not afraid to venture into speaking with controversial figures, such as John Bain. I look to Russ Pitts as an inspiration, and a mentor, and I implore readers to do similarly. He can be found on Twitter at @russpitts