AusGamers and the fight for a better game culture

By Seamus Byrne in Media News on
AusGamers is approaching its 20th anniversary, a rare feat of longevity in the digital domain. But its success is in no small part thanks to a passionate core of staff and fans who have known and loved the site since its earliest days as a file mirror and forum.
 
Stephen Farrelly has run AusGamers since its shift toward covering games, and with a monthly audience in the 250,000 per month ballpark he’s proud of what the site has become since then, and proud that he pays the people who contribute to the site.
 
“We were the first site that Metacritic invited from Australia, we were the first site invited to be part of Geoff Keighley’s voting processes for E3 judging and The Game Awards,” says Farrelly. “From those early times we got access to all the good stuff and all the good people.”
 
Farrelly is quick to call out Kosta Andreadis as a big part of the site’s success – “I think he’s the most underrated writer in the country” – and that it’s the passion for games and the deep knowledge of the industry and its history that they bring that makes the site work well.
 
But it’s also a hard road for a site with such vintage, balancing the desires of the existing community against the shifting sands of what audiences want today. And questions of whether sticking to core values is enough to win in the long run.
 
Lifting up
 
As our conversation progresses, Farrelly is clearly troubled by many of the ongoing battles in the games industry. The fight against the trolls. The desire to make the industry better for more diverse audiences and developers. And the fear it’s a battle we’re not winning.
 
“We give too much time to the review bombers,” says Farrelly. “It validates their actions. We, as ambassadors, as voices for the industry, as art critics, can call it out and unpack all those issues. But by unpacking it are we not trumpeting the Trumps? Like Trump, they do what they want because of the social interaction it gives them.”
 
“It’s become this beast. Raising alarms and responding to alarms has become the norm. Petulance gets the headline and I’d rather be talking about great works out there. Like the folks from Metroid Prime and God of War making a new game called Where The Heart Is about living through life choices with really meaningful differences in game paths depending on your choices… but people don’t talk about that as much because it’s not a headline grabber – it’s just pushing the medium and the art forward.”
 
Farrelly also has an eight-year-old son who, given his parents, has a deep love of games. Farrelly finds he’s not worried about what his son learns from games as much as the darker aspects of online culture his son is picking up from kids in the schoolyard.
 
“Despite our best efforts at home, where he gets a nuanced understanding of games and does not get to exist in the wider internet culture, he comes home from school and talks about memes as if they’re really important. We’re always saying they’re not a great source of information, or they’re grandstanding, or they’re just meant to be funny. But the schoolyard is driven by this so he comes home talking about it all as fact.
 
“I worry that people like us and people like Mark Serrels, David Milner, Lucy O’Brien, Rae Johnston… people who have been in the industry long enough and have a voice… are we breaking through?
 
“Is it enough to lift up the good work? Is that enough to overcome the bad stuff out there? Has this become a fight between good media and fail videos?”
 
We shift back towards the better personal perspectives. Like how his son is now researching samurai history thanks to seeing Ghost of Tsushima. And while we circle back to these questions of the next generation of media this time there is a sense of the ‘breaking through’ of more positive forms and formats after a recent #MeToo moment where many games industry figures – from developers to influencers and streamers – have been ousted from the industry for abuse and mistreatment of women.
 
“I’m hopeful the next wave of influencers is less about grandstanding. More about actually trying to have a positive influence,” says Farrelly. “I tell our kid that at the end of the day you want to help people understand games better. That’s where I am at peace with the way the world is shaping.”
 
Shifting sands
 
Every site strives to find its next opportunity to build engagement, and for AusGamers the big question currently (apart from the eternal hatred for a legacy CMS) is around whether a lack of comments is a cause for concern or if it’s just the way things are right now.
 
Readers have to be members of the AusGamers forum to comment, and while the traffic is high to stories it’s always a strange question when no one leaves comments.
 
“Is it because they agree with our line? Or do we need to do something to shift that? There’s many tiny questions we need to ask ourselves as content producers, especially on an established platform like ours.”
 
Even the nature of reviewing comes into question, and the difference between those who grasp that our connection with ideas and experiences can change with time. The subjective versus objective debates over giving games scores and the trolls who will “live and die on the same hill forever”.
 
That feeling that people want to hate, dislike, fight and demand from the industry they claim to love is a hard one for every games outlet that wants to elevate the discourse. So for Farrelly he feels AusGames tries to maintain a position of being articulate and thoughtful, while worrying it sounds “wanky”.
 
“We just need to keep coming back to the humanisation. Who we are, what we are, and giving each other room to explore and exist.”
 
For all the tools that game companies offer to protect kids on game consoles as a means to offer a more positive experience, Farrelly says we really need to make these ideas of giving each other room to be ourselves and tell our stories through games more prominence. The culture itself has to change because the tools don’t deal with the toxic actors, they just try to disguise it.
 
In recent months AusGamers has tried to tackle this in its own house. Reducing the space for inappropriate political arguments in its forums as part of trying to elevate the discussions on its platform. 
 
There are no easy answers, just a journey from here to whatever comes next. But that drive to keep asking questions of what a site should be and what it should stand for always feels like its editors are caring about wanting to serve its audience as well as it can – today and tomorrow.

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