An Open Letter to Kotaku’s Joel Johnson

The article "The Equal Opportunity Perversion of Kotaku" with a picture of young men cosplaying.

The article "The Equal Opportunity Perversion of Kotaku" with a picture of young men cosplaying.

I just finished reading your article on Kotaku, “The Equal Opportunity Perversion of Kotaku,” a lengthier response than the one you gave me previously. In case you don’t recognize me, we had a conversation on Twitter about Dan Bruno’s recanting of his praise for the progressive development of the site. Your last paragraph originated from our discussion, and because you decided to take it to a public forum, I figured I would as well.

There is a reason I’m posting this at The Border House. A large part of our readership feels alienated by the content produced on Kotaku and deserves to have access to a dialogue with you that doesn’t require bearing the hostility your site is known for. To be fair, most gaming websites are hostile towards those who point out diversity related issues, and it’s easy to criticize you and Kotaku because you seem to know better. It’s a sucky position to be in, I empathize.

I remember the post that made me unsubscribe from Kotaku, before the good stuff started to roll in. Another gallery of naked women covered in video game accessories. It wasn’t because that post was SO offensive to me, but because I was TIRED of seeing articles like that over and over again. Seeing sexualized women isn’t bothersome to me unless I’m in a space that assumes I’m a heterosexual man, which is very, very often. Almost always when I check out my gaming sites.

What I am hopeful about is your willingness to discuss this issue. If there is something I’ve promised to my editors, it is a proactive outlook on solving the issues multiple identities have in the gaming community. However, I found both our conversation and your article little more than hand waving the issue, trying to be sympathetic while not actually committing to act upon the ideals you say to have.

Let me be clear, to both you and readers at The Border House: I don’t think censorship is a solution, I don’t think Kotaku has a civic responsibility if it doesn’t want one, and I’m completely fine with the expression of sexuality. What is problematic is the dissonance between what you describe as your ideals. The thing is, it’s actually NOT okay to have your cake and eat it too when it’s hypocritical to do as such. If you know that you’re adding to the misogyny and homophobia of a community that is extremely primed for it, how is that okay? You recognize that the columns about Japan rely on the “Asians are WEIRD” trope that is unhealthy, but you’re fine with it because it’s funny. The Male Gaze is mentioned and dismissed in the same breath, showing that you are aware it exists yet neglect to apply it to the kind of content Kotaku produces to explain why minority groups are turned off by the site. I don’t think you or any other writers are deliberately trying to offend anyone, but the intent to be generally open-minded to diversity doesn’t mean what actually happens is as well. How do you reconcile this? How do you tell people reading this at The Border House things are fine when you understand what’s going on is contradictory to what you know should be?

And what stung, both in our conversation and your article, was how you absolved yourself and Kotaku from doing anything by passing the buck to those who feel marginalized. Instead of aiming to produce a staff culture that shows their awareness and support for diversity issues through their content, you leave it up to those who feel unsatisfied to create that content for Kotaku. I don’t know how this is reasonable in any way. It sounds like Kotaku’s staff doesn’t want to do anything different, but still wish to come off as the good guys. That is having your cake and eating it, which is definitely not okay.

The problem is that Kotaku isn’t “equal opportunity” anything. You acknowledge that your staff tends to write towards one demographic and looks for content that falls into stereotypical expectations for what you’d find on a gaming. It’s the easiest thing to do, and doesn’t take nearly as much thinking as keeping in mind that there are more than the assumed immature young straight guy to pander for. That’s not equal opportunity. Equal opportunity would mean there is as much of a chance to produce content appealing for heterosexual men as it is for everyone else. And that’s not even recognizing the different expressions of sexuality for straight guys, just the mainstream one valorized by gaming sites such as Kotaku.

You misinterpreted me before; I don’t want to tag you with responsibility you didn’t agree to. However, it would show that you are a decent person when you are responsible for your own words and actions. If you “unabashedly” want to promote the voices and presence of minority identities in your community, then unabashedly do so. It’s fine if you don’t want to, but just say that.

I hope you can write back to me about this, and involve as many people as you can in this conversation. I would like to subscribe to Kotaku again, especially if more diversity-aware content becomes available. No ill will, just honesty with a wish for genuine, proactive change.


About Mattie Brice

Mattie Brice is a game critic, designer, social justice activist, and student at San Francisco State University. She focuses her writing on diversity initiatives in the video game community, often bringing in the perspective of marginalized voices like transgender and multi-racial women to publications like Paste, Kotaku, The Border House, and Pop Matters. Mattie also consults and speaks at gaming related conferences like the Game Developers Conference and IndieCade. Her studies have led her to explore narrative design and plans to push the borders of how we think of the medium. Tweets at @xMattieBrice.
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32 Responses to An Open Letter to Kotaku’s Joel Johnson

  1. Mantheos says:

    Boom! That was some terrible, terrible damage!

  2. Nick LaLone says:

    Really hope he responds here. I tried to have this same conversation with him yesterday but he walked away after some ad hominem. For me, I believe the posting of content he is defending doesn’t do anything but reinforce the stereotype of “who reads Kotaku.”

    I look forward to this conversation!

  3. René says:

    Saving up my comments for when I am done reading more about it all.

  4. Patches says:

    This will start OT, but I’ll get back so sit tight.

    I got into feminism because of Dickwolves. I read your comments here and on Shakesville and was deeply disturbed that I was possibly not as good a person as I thought I was. I was raised to try and treat people like people. I give most that I meet the benefit of the doubt on all things until they prove otherwise, but as I read more and more and came to understand kyriarchy and privilege something changed. For weeks I did little but re-read the 101 articles looking for some indication that I wasn’t a danger to women and minorities just by existing. I did not feel good about myself.

    Of course, through talking to people and thinking and reflecting I came to the realization that being a good person is hard work that comes from constant examination of what you’re doing and advocacy, advocacy, advocacy. It’s not enough to say, “I like black people, so racism doesn’t affect me.” Or, “I don’t rape people, so rape culture isn’t something I participate in.” It required/requires constant reexamination of everything I know/knew about the culture in which I live, and it takes time.

    Thing is, as a person in the process of making that change, I can empathize with Mr. Johnson. If you are not closely examining your life in these terms, it’s easy to say, “I support diversity” while still not doing much about it because you’re pretty sure it’s not your problem. You would encourage writers/sources on these issues to step forward, but championing them? It might not seem necessary.

    I’ve gone round and round with my friend on this core idea time and time again. I think the issue is more that these people don’t understand the damage caused by passing the buck. Sure, you are entitled to write what you think/feel/want to express, but to claim that diverse points of view or stories is someone else’s business is to defend the status quo.

  5. Mire says:

    Great post! I stopped reading Kotaku myself a while back for the same reason – “Yes, I *get* it, can we please talk about something else now??”. Of course, you could say the same thing about current gaming trends themselves. I don’t even think it’s a matter of being overtly inclusive. Rather, just stop it with the giant tits and guns and childish humor. Why is it that I feel less immature playing a Kirby game than I do playing one of the umpteen gritty shooters about humanity fighting for survival that came out this year?

    As for the Dickwolves/male feminist thing Patches brings up, I’ve thought about that a lot. I understand why @kirbybits and others feel the way they do about it. If someone I know had gone through a similar experience (threats of violence, etc), I’d probably take the same view of the whole community. But I *still* feel like the whole thing was based on misunderstandings and overreactions on both sides, and initially poor direction from the PA guys. I don’t think there’s any essential conflict between saying “the joke was funny and they shouldn’t have retracted the comic to appease a few offended readers” and “the community leaders should have handled it better, and the people who sent death threats are fucking animals”. The two issues have become so intertwined that it’s impossible to have a productive discussion about the whole thing with anyone who already has an opinion on the matter. But, I don’t think that being able to laugh at a joke about rape in a certain context makes me a silent contributor to “rape culture” – indeed, I think saying that it does only antagonizes me and belittles the concept itself. I don’t think rape or threats of such are OK, and it’s insulting to imply that I do simply because I don’t find the word itself inherently offensive. Kind of like the “Mario wears fur” thing PETA started a few days ago. I think that feminism is a good thing, but that people with extremist viewpoints tend to give it a bad rap.

  6. Alex says:

    Really well said, Mattie. Nicely done.

  7. ProdiGal says:

    This sums up exactly what bothers me about Kotaku and posts involving diversity/feminism/etc… they write articles that are extremely equivocal, such that they are both supportive of the “diversity” perspective but still not firm enough to risk alienating their [presumed] readership, all while inciting rage and ranting from their commentariat and ***generating pageviews***. It’s the same reason why when there is a picture gallery full of all different kinds of shots, the preview pic for the article itself is almost always the one with the typical thin, busty, scantily-dressed woman, even when she has almost next-to-nothing to do with the content of the article.

    Unfortunately, controversy and sensationalism sells. I guess total cognitive dissonance is a small price to pay for padding out that bottom line.

    Fortunately, I recently discovered and while I’m not completely sure of how conscientious it is about these sorts of issues, I’ve ready a few posts that give me hope. And it seems to put out as many articles as Kotaku. So here’s to hoping!

  8. Kasey says:

    The elephant in the room here is the fact that Kotaku is a Gawker blog, which means their writers are paid (partially?) by page views. The entire Gawker network depends on attracting massive amounts of hits at any cost and there are both great and terrible consequences for that. For one, the is a TON of content, and writers get to eat. On the other, there is a low bar for content, and a lot of pandering. I would have appreciated an acknowledgement of this from Joel.

    I’m especially fascinated by the relationship between the content on a site like Kotaku and its readers. While more thoughtful and diverse content would certainly make it more interesting for me to read, it’s not clear how effective a shift in content production is on changing the perspective of the readers. If Kotaku changes focus and its readers just go to IGN or somewhere, can we really claim to have made any meaningful progress?

    This is similar to an issue faced by print newspapers. The Village Voice, for instance, is currently under fire from church groups for allowing adult services in its classified ads, which are sometimes used for incredibly heinous purposes. Of course, like most papers, the Voice gets something like 30% of its revenue from classified ads. Is it better to have a Village Voice that can be exploited by criminals occasionally, or no Voice at all? Or a smaller Village Voice, or one that doesn’t pay its writers? Where do you draw the line?

    I do hope this dialog continues. I’m glad Joel has put thought into this and I’m glad people here are holding his feet to the fire a little bit!

  9. Sif says:

    Interesting article Mattie, thanks.

    “Instead of aiming to produce a staff culture that shows their awareness and support for diversity issues through their content, you leave it up to those who feel unsatisfied to create that content for Kotaku. I don’t know how this is reasonable in any way.”

    It’s not. “Well why don’t YOU make X if you’re so sick of the way it’s done bugs you so much?” is an irritating diversionary tactic/solution that sidesteps the issue completely.

    • Mire says:

      ““Well why don’t YOU make X if you’re so sick of the way it’s done bugs you so much?” is an irritating diversionary tactic/solution that sidesteps the issue completely.”

      Well, does it really? I agree that it’s a bit of a copout on the part of the person using that excuse, but I think it’s also a valid question. If the reason that so much of gaming culture is so focused on emotionally immature heterosexual males is that the people who are busy creating it are largely emotionally immature heterosexual males, and that bothers people who don’t fit into that mold, wouldn’t contributing to that culture yourself be a step toward fixing the problem? It’s not terribly realistic to sit still and demand that people who don’t share your experiences and worldview express your viewpoint in their work.

      It’s great that blogs like this exist, but the kids spouting racist/misogynistic/homosexual slurs on XBL aren’t going to seek them out. You’ve got to say these things in a place where they’ll come across them if you want them to be part of the larger conversation. I’m not saying Joel’s not simply trolling for pageviews, but he *sounds* sincere enough. If he’s offering you a microphone, why not take a chance?

      • Kat says:

        Because not everyone knows what to say when handed a microphone. Not everyone has photography skills to share cosplay photos nor writing skills to submit compelling articles.

        If I were to criticize a novel or an oil painting for its flaws, that doesn’t justify its huffy artist-creator to say, “I’d like to see you do one better!” The audience is allowed to critique what a creator creates. They are voicing their desires as consumers. That’s the way constructive criticism works.

        Turning around and telling consumers to become creators is an irrelevant, derailing argument.

      • Sif says:

        It’s great to invite people with other view points to speak up, and I applaud that. But it’s not actually my job – as a reporter, it’s his, if he wants to take it on and change his website for the better. I shouldn’t feel obliged to.

        • Zom-B says:

          I come late to this, only having heard about this site and the Mattie Brice/Joel Johnson conversation via Kotaku today, but I wanted to come here and read a bit for myself. I also find myself compelled to comment.

          I agree that it’s a reporter’s (though I’d say applying the title “reporter” or “editor” to anyone at Kotaku is a stretch) job to bring to light certain things, but at the same time, reporters are human with their own biases.

          If you expect Fox News to begin championing LGBT issues any time ever, I think you will be waiting a very long time. Sometimes, when there isn’t a voice for a certain viewpoint, someone has to step up and fill the void, rather than wait for it to “just happen”, because it won’t.

          You aren’t obliged to change Kotaku or any other website. Just like a customer voting with their wallet, you must vote with your mouse. Don’t like Kotaku? Don’t read it. Expecting it to change is pointless. If we all sat around waiting for change, nothing ever would. Eventually someone has to step up and create the spaces that are needed or we’ll never get them. It might not be you and it might not be me, but if that’s the only way we ever think, it’ll never happen.

  10. Brinstar says:

    I haven’t regularly read Kotaku since late 2004, and to be honest, it has been mostly downhill since. I’d welcome an inclusive editorial direction (I had a lot of hope when Totilo joined, but have been mostly disappointed), but unless that direction is applied holistically, across the board to all of its content and extending to enforcing community standards, the efforts to increase diversity of perspectives would be hypocritical, just like that strangely dissonant article by Johnson that this blog post references above. Either one is for inclusivity, or one isn’t. You can’t say you are inclusive without ACTUALLY BEING INCLUSIVE–whilst allowing community members to abuse each other or whilst posting ridiculous “articles” that disturbingly exoticise and other Japanese women, for example. Those things are not inclusive. Those things are precisely why many gamers belonging to marginalised groups do not feel welcome at places like Kotaku.

    It’s weird that a few excellent articles that challenge entrenched straight white male gamer hegemony exist in an environment in which that same hegemony thrives via its vile, hateful, and abusive community and the questionable editorial standards that apply to the bulk of its posts. To be honest, true inclusivity that is welcoming of marginalised gamers, at a site like Kotaku will alienate its core privileged male gamer audience. It’s precisely because of their privilege that they will feel alienated when others who aren’t like them are also welcome to sit at the same table.

    They dont even have to take a new editorial direction for one to witness this playing out. You can see this alienation of their core audience in the comments sections of posts that actually do make them think about the fact that others don’t have the same experiences and privilege that they have. They hate stepping outside their own perspectives, and they will abuse, attack, and harass people who don’t share them. I’ve experienced the bigotry, hate, and abuse from Kotaku readers spilling over to my blog when a post I wrote was Kotaku-ed. I would have probably received less bigoted abuse if the referring site didn’t have community standards in which such abuse was acceptable amongst its own members.

    I don’t think a major game site with an established community and readership composed almost entirely of privilege-bros is prepared to take the risk that comes with the holistic approach I described above. Kotaku is what it is. Kotaku is very clear about who its audience is. Random efforts (i.e. posts that challenge their privileged perspectives) to try and raise their readership out of the Stone Age, whilst good, and whilst they may sway a few here and there, won’t change their core audience or community.

    It’s cool that Johnson seems open to a dialogue, but I am not sure it will net productive results, given what he is up against if he was to do things in a way that would create actual, meaningful, broad-based change.

    • Mire says:

      If you think that even a random effort that isn’t likely to produce far-reaching results is still a good thing, why not try it? Even if you’re pessimistic, that audience isn’t going to become any less ignorant by your silence. Waiting for a silver bullet isn’t going to fix anything.

      • Alex says:

        Speaking for myself, it’s not about waiting for a silver bullet, it’s about self-care and being unable to be constantly educating in the face of abuse. It’s exhausting. Not everyone has the energy for it, and no one can do it forever.

      • Brinstar says:

        I have been blogging for years and I have seen and been a part of these debates between the privileged and those who are marginalised. I’m exhausted. The exhaustion of having to explain the same things over and over to different people in an effort to get through to someone, anyone–and with no one listening or learning–is emotionally draining.

        I’m not waiting for a silver bullet. I have tried, but I can’t keep trying to educate people forever without seeing results or progress, and do this in the face of abuse and willful ignorance from the very people whom I seek to educate, and still continue without that having an impact on me personally. Sorry, but I value my health more than trying to enlighten some random privileged dudebro on the internet, whom I’ve never met and whom I will never meet, in the slim chance that he might see beyond his privilege and have some sliver of understanding.

        Like everyone else, I have to choose my battles and engage where I feel I might do some good. This is usually not on the internet debating with random men. I am more likely to attempt to educate people with whom I have personal relationships, because at least I stand to benefit from their enlightenment when I personally interact with them. At least if I try with people I actually know, they might think twice in the future before saying sexist things when engaged in conversation with me.

        Educating people I don’t know on the internet? If I get through to them, they benefit from a wider perspective and point of view and go on their merry way, possibly enriching the lives of people with whom they interact with on a regular basis in the future. Me? I would have finished an exhausting discussion with someone I will never meet, with only hundreds more random priviledged dudebros on the internet sitting around, waiting to be educated. There is no personal benefit to me, and I would have depleted my own mental and emotional energy in the process.

        I admire Mattie for her saint-like patience and tolerance in engaging with these people. I choose my battles carefully now because I am burned out, just like so many other feminists.

        • Mire says:

          I’m not saying it’s easy or pleasant, I just don’t see how else it can possibly happen. Pick your battles for sure, but giving up on the conversation… not that I can blame you, but :(

    • Expreig says:

      This is my first time being on this site, and my first time commenting on any website ever. I just wanted to post this kotaku article​im-tired-of-being-a-woman-i​n-games-im-a-person because I think it’s comments are the perfect example of what you are describing. I remember being so upset after reading those comments that I reconsidered ever going on the site again. What made it worse was that the first comment was a featured comment, meaning that someone on the kotaku staff had to have thought the comment was worth everyone reading, since it’s at the top off the list. The way I interpreted the comments was “if you are minority, don’t say that you are or it is inevitable that you will be bullied” their was this idea that if you were a minority and had a problem with being mistreated or misrepresented, you shouldn’t complain about it, because kotaku commenters don’t want to hear it.

  11. Veyz says:

    Seeing sexualized women isn’t bothersome to me unless I’m in a space that assumes I’m a heterosexual man, which is very, very often.

    This isn’t meant to be a challenge, but an honest question;

    What about a space that features sexualized women but doesn’t assume the viewer is a heterosexual man look like?

    I ask because you’re one of the few people I’ve run across that didn’t immediately equate ” has sexualized women” with “a male-only space” which is something I personally agree with, but putting the pieces together into a space which is friendly to everyone (including aforementioned het male) is something I’ve been thinking about alot lately. I would love to hear your take on it.

    • Mattie Brice says:

      This is a great question, one I’ve been thinking about and will struggle to answer. This might not be satisfying, so take this with the caveat of “I’m still thinking on it:” I see spaces that assume I’m a heterosexual man rely on aesthetics specifically found in pornography, but because a lot of that is hyperbolic Male Gaze, so it’s hard to say where one start and the other ends if they aren’t the same thing. That would also necessitate imagining what media looks like without the Male Gaze, and that kinda blows my mind because I’m totally unsure. What I was thinking was something more pornographic, and the spirit of the letter didn’t have room for this musing. But it definitely needs to be done!

    • Kat says:

      I feel I could see two different pictures of a naked sexualized woman and think, “This is for me; this includes me,” and “Yuck. Male gaze” about another. I think the main difference is the expression posture on the woman. Is she enjoying herself? Does she seem aroused and interested for her own sake? Or is she twisted in an awkward position and draped across a car for no one’s enjoyment but an onlooker’s?

  12. Deviija says:

    I used to be a daily commenter on Kotaku. I started reading back in ’04 and began posting regularly around ’07 or ’08. I felt briefly invigorated when the staff added Stephen Totilo and the journalism pieces he did on diversity and some other issues… but that seemed to fade out over time while more Bashcraft ‘woohoo fetish Anime/NSFW/cosplay/babes/Japanese quirky sex sells’ stuff cropped up. It is alienating.

    For as much vitrol and bigots that were there on Kotaku from ’08 to about ’10, there were also quite a number of lovely social justice defenders I friended/followed and many that were simply decent human beings that were not threatened by inclusivity. But after Gawker had its hack debacle, and everyone needed to change their passwords/make accounts again, I just couldn’t be bothered. It became too taxing. There was less content that interested me, and more content about Kotaku moving into a media-centric avenue than specifically gaming. I can’t say how it is *now*, but it was enough to drive me off for good. I did not feel welcome by the articles, some of the staff, or the comments.

    I am happy to dialogue with others on social justice issues, but not in an environment that feels alienating to me and like I am not a welcome/acknowledged/accepted part of the community.

    Out of the Gawker blogs, I do still frequent io9, however. The community mentality and readership there is a lot more inviting, imo.

  13. DudeBro Matt says:

    Well for all the complaining about picking your battles and the worthlessness of trying to skim off one dudebro from the giant ball of hate we all live in: I’d just like to say: “sup.”

    I come from Kotaku, and I come In peace. I may not understand your strange ways, but I read this article and the ones linked to it, looked up male gaze, and Kyriarchy and am interested in this topic.

    I have no ability to discuss this topic with you at the level at which you guys are doing battle, but I will say that Patches’ post that starts “This will start OT, but I’ll get back so sit tight.” and Mire’s post that starts “Well, does it really? I agree that it’s a bit of a copout on the part of the person using that excuse, but I think it’s also a valid question.” are the ones closest to the way I am thinking about this.

    also Ves’ comment starting “This isn’t meant to be a challenge, but an honest question;” is also extremely interesting to me.

    Anyway, keep up the good works

  14. roomforplay says:

    Hi Mattie! I just wanted to say thanks for shaking things up at Kotaku today. The response–regrettably–seems to confirm your point more often than not. Nevertheless, I think it’s always a good thing to challenge people…whether they rise to it or not.

    But what I really wanted to thank you for is introducing me to this blog! It seems like ya’ll have a nice little community here. I’ll be sure to visit again.

  15. Kellen Dunkelberger says:

    Hey there.
    I thank you for your editorial about Kotaku today and for this post. I’m not certain your point is being made as well as it could be. You spend a lot of time in both of these articles simply attacking heterosexual white males for being heterosexual white males.

    Causing people to put their defenders on will close them off to your points rather than open them up.

  16. Jordaan says:

    I’m a Kotaku reader, following up from the article that was posted today, because I’m both intrigued and confused by your stance on this topic.

    So, I figured this would be as good a place as any to ask:

    What is the ideal scenario, how would you like Kotaku (or any similar blog) to be structured? You emphasised how the content presented on the site made you feel unwelcome, and call out the site for not presenting enough content to combat the diversity issues of the industry, so, what sort of content would you prefer, and who would you have write it?

    What would the community do to make you feel more welcome?

    I’m looking to do a bit of writing, and this issue does seem to inspire a lot of community activity from many different perspectives, so I’d really appreciate a response, that I might use to eventually forge into a sort of manifesto proposition.

  17. ProjectPat says:

    I’m not a regular Kotaku reader, but saw the article through a friend’s twitter and wanted to chime in briefly.

    Let me state first, that I am a straight black male, so that is where I’m coming from.

    In short, demanding inclusiveness is the wrong way to go about it. No one inherently deserves to have a business create content catered to them. If the mass media is not appealing to your desires, create your own. See BET, Jet, Ebony, Univision, etc. When the audiences of those get big enough, the mass media will realize they could be making more money and start to try and cater to your demographic. This doesn’t mean that your criticism that it is not inclusive is incorrect. But there is a difference between being exclusive by not allowing people in, and being targeted to a demographic that isn’t you. I don’t care if a dance club wants to cater solely to Rumba music, even though that doesn’t interest me in the slightest despite my love of dancing and music. I will however fight it if they won’t let me in the door because I’m black.

    Just wanted to add my voice. Thanks for generating discussion. Making contact with people different than you helps open minds, even if it won’t necessarily change editorial policies. And finally, good on you for creating your own outlet. The more diverse gaming audiences are, the more diverse the products will be.

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