#GamerGate might portend something ill for craft beer

I enjoy contributing Boak & Bailey’s calls for Beerylongreads because it’s a chance to exercise literary self-discipline and push myself to be a better writer, so I was thinking of saving this for the November 29th edition, but to be honest, it seems a bit time-oriented and might be a bit stale in seven weeks.

A couple days ago, I was reading Vox’s very illuminating “#GamerGate: Here’s why everybody in the video game world is fighting” (isn’t everything they write illuminating?), and I couldn’t shake the feeling that you could replace key words and characters in the article with parallel players from the North America craft beer world and this could be an eerily prophetic analysis of a very possible set of conflicts among said community. For that matter, some of the present conflicts represented by #GamerGate are perhaps on the cusp of outrage in North American craft beer. (I’m using craft beer as shorthand here, I’m not making an argument about what is or isn’t craft.)

I’m not going to explain #GamerGate in depth because Vox and Stephen Colbert do it much better and more concisely than I’ll ever be able to, so read Vox’s explanation for background, because I’m jumping right in.

Vox summarizes #GamerGate down into two basic conflicts (the second is more interesting to me, so bear with…), the first of which is:

1) The treatment of women in gaming: The start of the story (which is actually the latest permutation of a long-evolving firestorm) came in late August after indie game developer Zoe Quinn and critic Anita Sarkeesian were both horribly, horribly harassed online. The same harassment was later lobbed at award-winning games journalist Jenn Frank and fellow writer Mattie Brice. Both Frank and Brice say they will no longer write about games. The FBI is looking into harassment of game developers.

Craft beer has some pretty obvious weaknesses regarding the role of women, although it’s not even in the same hemisphere as the kind of uncivility that would require the FBI’s attention. And, there’s been improvement through groups like the Pink Boots Society and the increasing attention that female brewmasters command (especially coming from Europe). Still, the use of cartoonish, big-busted women as a selling tool is still too common. (And seemingly universal, I might add. The liquor ads here in Bolivia leave little to the imagination.) I doubt that the level of harrassment present in #GamerGate would erupt with such ferocity over beer, but I’m pessimistic enough to see how it could be a possibility.

The second conflict in #GamerGate rages over:

2) Ethics in games journalism: Some argue that the focus on harassment distracts from the real issue, which is that indie game developers and the online gaming press have gotten too cozy. There’s also a substantial, vocal movement that believes the generally left-leaning online gaming press focuses too much on feminism and the role of women in the industry, to the detriment of coverage of games. [Emphasis added]

Sound familiar? The coziness described here echoes Jeff Alworth’s third point in What We Write About When We Write About Beer, when he called on beer writers to

  • Be more critical. Critics rightly fault writers for fawning over breweries, but we do it subtly and inadvertently.  Many of the articles we write begin with the narrative as brewers would tell it, and then unfold from their point of view.  We select a topic, go interview a bunch of people, and then write what they say.  This is reportage, but it’s not great reportage.  As writers, we need to figure out a way to write about beer so that it’s not just a kind of soft promotion.

I think it’s fair to say that the positive attitude that goes along with the collaborative, fraternal good feelings of North American craft brewing is susceptible to cases of you-scratch-my-back-I’ll-scratch-yours journalism. My amateurish “attempts” at it are probably worthy of Alworth’s critique. A key difference is that in beer journalism the coziness is not with a particular critical school of thought so much as with swathes of the industry as a whole. So instead of critical pieces dominating, or at least threatening the hegemony of the overall discourse to the chagrin of the majority, it’s more that any critical piece is seen as being an affront to the spirit of “craft.” You can’t really say that there is a “generally left-leaning online [beer] press [that] focuses too much on feminism and the role of women in the industry, to the detriment of coverage of [beer].” Really, beer appreciation seems to span a pretty admirable swathe of political views and ages, something the polarized US could use more of. As a relatively neutral cultural artifact, it’s probably better that beer avoid politicization.

Coming back to #GamerGate, Vox poses a few basic and seemingly obvious questions that also have some easily connected counterparts in beer:

  • The counterpart to “What is a gamer?” might be who is the craft beer drinker? While many involved in craft beer-related cultural institutions such as the AHA, GABF, BJCP, BA, and so on target a general audience, pictures like this one of the judges at the 2013 GABF indicate that in terms of diversity, craft beer looks quite Caucasian (by my count, there are two people in that picture who aren’t; although I will say that the male:female ratio is probably better than that of the crowd that self-identifies as “gamer,” but that’s a massive assumption on my part and not in any way backed by data). This isn’t to drop accusations of discrimination or conscious exclusion, but it does broach the question: what will happen when power eventually shifts away from the thus-far default demographics? (Let me throw in a positive bone here: the beer appreciation crowd seems command a lot of diversity in terms of age.) And will that transition be as painful as the one evidenced by #GamerGate? I’d argue that the fundamentally physical act of consuming beer is actually a good sign by comparison with #GamerGate: beer festivals and bars force consumers into situations where interacting with somebody different makes it harder to dehumanize them because they are physically present and thus perhaps avoids some of the keyboard cowardice of an anonymous Twitter feud.
  • “What is journalism?” is a great question that needs little elucidating because it applies directly to those who are indeed beer journalists and those of us who might harbor aspirations to the title. Frankly, reading the Vox article brought up a number of questions about my own attempts at writing about Bolivian craft beer. Is it even worth writing with a veneer of journalistic intent given that many of the people I write about share their beer with me and we hang out when we have time? Indeed, the actual constructive aspects of #GamerGate really focus in on the need to firm up journalistic integrity:

A large part of #GamerGate stems from a fundamental disconnect between what those who read gaming media believe journalism to be and what it actually is. Put simply: cultural journalism (which includes video game journalism) is bound by the same strictures as traditional journalism — get the facts right, don’t plagiarize, don’t write glowing stories about friends or family, etc. — but at the same time, its very existence denotes a kind of built-in critical judgment. Put bluntly: if a cultural journalist writes about a game or movie or book, the implicit assumption is that this is worth you knowing about on some level.

What strikes me as most interesting, though, is when beer journalism moves past being pretty pictures and captions plus a rehashing of the subject brewery’s “About Us” blurb or the technical specs of the sampled beer into actual kind of story territory that requires Alworth’s “great reportage?” Latching onto that last quote, the next sentence is, “But when that springs up around nontraditional games, it leads to a disconnect between the primary audience of gaming publications and those who write about games.”

What will happen when beer-related journalism begins to push past neutral territory and begins to yield a disconnect between its primary audience and an increasingly diverse subject matter? To be fair, the craft beer periodical audience strikes me as a somewhat interested crowd, so I doubt this will be the real issue long-term, but there might begin to be pushback against pieces that offend the fraternal, we’re all-in-this-together sensibility. Something like this might come up:

…[I]t’s also led to more and more articles about the poor relationship individual titles and the industry as a whole have with women and minorities. These articles are often poorly received by the core audience. This has slowly but surely widened a divide between those who might just want to hear about how video games are awesome and those who want forthright coverage of problems within the industry.

Beer’s outright poor relationships could include women (albeit probably not to the extent of the gaming industry), but even more likely, good labor practices. Rogue shot down a union a few years ago. Workplace safety is gaining more attention as a problem, and one of the larger beer magazines featured a story on it as well (I cannot for the life of me find it after a week of searching). Both of these topics might represent issues that the average consumer might not want to read about when they’d prefer tasting notes of that rad new sessionable whatever. It seems a fair assertion to make since the content of many publications are often written for “those who might just want to hear about how [craft beer is] awesome.” Obviously there’s a need to seek a balance.

  • “What is a video game?” has two potential parellels. First, it could be applied to “what is beer?” when thinking about how to incorporate ciders, “indigenous” beers like chicha, and so on into the overall conversation, but thus far the holders of cultural power have demonstrated a generous openness to taking it all in. (Which is a bit humorous, because calling chicha “fermented corn beer” is a real stretch once you’ve had a good bit of it.) So, little conflict seems likely here. However, the second parellel to this question might be, “what is craft beer?” and touches the nerve of the debate over the ownership of the term or identity of “craft.” Obviously this is already a bit of battlefield within the beer-consuming world, as evidenced by the fact that while the “craft vs. crafty” firestorm of 2012 seems to mostly have died down, some people are certainly still rattling their sabers on the issue. But as we’ve seen, it was and is an ugly fight. Certainly it was fought with a more civil and (at worst), passive-aggressive, tone than some of the fodder spewed by #GamerGate supporters, which was enough to drive multiple journalists out of covering gaming at all.

But, it’s easy to get the sense that the current push for quality control–while objectively not objectionable-might also be a smokescreen for larger, more established craft breweries (I’m referring to the category that is now establishing their second brewing facility across a country or an ocean) as a means for differentiation. The key contrast with the prior conflict is that whereas craft vs. crafty was about smaller breweries trying to differentiate upwards against larger and massive breweries, you get the feeling that quality control might be a cover for mid-sized craft breweries differentiating downward against small start-ups. The former enemy that was going to ruin it for the rest of craft beer were the wolves-in-sheep’s-clothing Blue Moon, et. al; now, the enemy is a legion of small, amateur nobodies with delusions of grandeur, poised to ruin it for the rest of craft beer. This was a thought that occurred to me while reading about #GamerGate, but Craig at drinkdrank this week minced no words in making the point even more directly.

Granted, that’s not a very generous reading of the overall dynamic, especially given that improvements in quality control would benefit the industry as a whole. On the other hand, isn’t that critical element what Alworth is calling for? Personally, I think this is only adding an element of suspicion to Stan Hieronymous’ recent comments: “Wait, so now quality isn’t enough? It must be of the highest quality? And aren’t there times when a beer that does not demand to be memorable, and duly entered in Untappd, better aids and abets memorable conversations or experiences?”

At this point I sense myself entering a vortex of metacognitive self-doubt: Am I being unfair? Wait, why do I think I have an obligation to generosity and the benefit of the doubt? What is fairness in this case? Is it just that I’m completely out of my depth? Perhaps the salient conclusion in this case is to recognize the value of an editor, a gatekeeper of some kind for the press. It’s the Achilles Heel of blogging. Yes, I have a voice, but is it one worth listening to given that I’m commenting on trends in a craft beer movement a continent away that I am only attached to via my RSS reader? I guess that’s up to the reader to decide.

The conflicts in beer seem primarily to erupt out of dents in profits and competitiveness, which makes sense since brewing is a business, after all. Larger scale means more efficiency to the detriment of the small guys, while poor quality dents the overall reputation of everyone. The possible future conflict that’s actually interesting to me might emerge when countries with nascent-but-strong craft beer movements like Brazil and Argentina actually come to the point of competing with their Northern counterparts for shelf space and–the interesting part–influence over beer-related cultural institutions, i.e. style guidelines and definitions.

I’d say the economic side of that conflict is a long way off, but cultural conflict is already rearing its head as people push back on excessively-parsed out and delimited styles that bear little resemblance to the mess that is history. If reading Ron Pattinson’s work for the last few years has made anything clear, it’s that differentiating between stout and porter using historical evidence is a bit of a fool’s errand. And yet there are myriad subcategories of stout and porter in both the dominant sets of style guidelines. Add to that last year’s kerfluffle over the content of the BA’s Grätzer definition, and you see evidence that there is increasing pushback against a cultural institution that wields influence in the beer world. Of course, that’s north-to-north, but it’s an example of the pushback you might see. Which broaches another question: could the BA be considered as having hegemonic status over American beer, or does the presence of another schematic of definitions from the BJCP push back enough to at least define it as a duopoly? Sounds like a topic for an anthropology master’s thesis.

I don’t think anyone’s hoping to see the craft beer world devolve into an ugly mire of insults, threats and online libel, and I doubt it’ll come to that. (Although with the rise of the celebrity brewer, how long until we at least have a beer-dedicated tabloid leaking shots of middle-aged bearded brewers on the beach? Surely there’s a Tumblr for that by now.) And my point is certainly not to ascribe discriminatory intent to anyone. But, as the profile of craft beer grows, there most certainly will be growing pains, and  #GamerGate is the warning shot across the bow of changes gone ugly. The parellels are not quite direct between #GamerGate and craft beer’s internal conflicts, and gaming’s dirty laundry is probably magnitudes worse than the beer’s, but it’s worth paying attention to if only as a cautionary tale.


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