I'm here to question their sincerity, honesty, and moral well-being.
Brevity does not grant me wit in my writings, so please try to bear with me.
Jerry Holkins. Mike Krahulik. I'll refer to you by your actual names because this is indeed a serious matter.
Most of you reading this blog will have no doubt heard by now of the recent controversies surrounding Mass Effect 3 and BioWare. Something about an ending to a trilogy or along those lines. I can't really be arsed to give much of a damn about the Mass Effect series as it seems like a rather generic space opera to me, but I did hear some rather interesting news about it.
There was apparently some form of discontent among the most dedicated fanbase over suspicions that Electronic Arts and BioWare may be trying to string along further purchases of downloadable content from fans in order to receive some sense of closure in what has often been touted by my friends as one of the most ambitious narrative-based games series ever made. Apparently the folks at Extra Credits, champions of the slogan "Because Games Matter," do not share this concern (I'll allow you, the reader, to speculate why).
However, some ME3 fans took it upon themselves to channel their scorn into something constructive by encouraging donations to Child's Play, the biggest video games-based charity I can think of and symbol of all the good that gamers are capable of in contradiction to their depiction in the media as selfish and immoral. They had, at last count, raised $80,310 for charity before Jerry Holkins pulled the plug on it all due to some apparent confusion by several donors over where their donations were going. The following is what Mssr. Holkins had to say about the whole affair.
Which is a fair point to make. There were certainly a lot of logistical headaches that may have come with such a thing and I sympathize with that, but Mssr. Holkins went out of his way to bold a certain statement in that post:
"Child's Play cannot be a tool to draw attention to a cause. Child's Play must be the Cause."
A very admirable stand for principle if not for the fact that it goes completely counter to how the charity has been run since its inception.
Using an otherwise neutral charity organization as fodder for your consumer cause = bad. All right, I get that. That was clearly the crux of his argument and the ultimate message he wanted to send. However, quite a smattering of major corporations have used Child's Play as a public relations tool with nary a protest by either Holkins or Krahulik before. Here's a quick sample.
- In the lead-up to the release of Gears of War 3, Epic Games began selling digital XBOX avatar T-shirts and physical T-shirts at Comic-Con as a way for their fanbase to vote on the fate of a character named Carmine (I suppose auteur theory doesn't apply in the case of gag characters). They raised $150,000, nearly twice as much as Retake Mass Effect did. All of the proceeds would go to Child's Play and, fittingly enough, Epic Games would be able to keep all of the positive goodwill it would generate from the media (not to mention viral advertising, but perhaps I shouldn't harp on that).
- Harmonix, the creators of the Rock Band series, released a DLC song pack called the "PAX pack," featuring artists who had performed at the Penny Arcade Expo the prior weekend. Those songs are still on sale, though since it's not the Holiday 2008 season anymore, Harmonix no longer has any obligation to donate any further proceeds to charity.
Unless they happen to sell a rather bitchin' guitar peripheral, of course.
- The Humble Bundle Mojam, led by the famous Markus "Notch" Persson of Minecraft fame, raises $440,000 for various charities, among them Child's Play, by selling 77,000 copies of games produced by Mojang, Wolfire, and Oxfire. There were other charities as well, but charity:water and the Red Cross don't seem to have quite as much of a connection with the gaming community and media.
Indeed, Mssr. Holkins.
Here are some other corporate organizations who have publicly donated to Child's Play as well. I'll allow you to do the rest of the research, though a simple Gamasutra search seems to yield a decent list.
- Rad Game Tools
- Cerulean Studios
- BAWLS Guarana
- CCP Games
Now, what sort of distinction should be made between corporate donations and consumer ones? In short, there isn't. There shouldn't be.
However, corporations can expect to receive some sort of personal financial return in the long run with any good public relations image they present. Consider why McDonald's television commercials present such a squeaky clean image of the brand through its family-friendly animation and music, with animals and bicycles and spacemen, oh my! What's the obvious reason for this? To appeal to a certain target demographic, in McDonald's case, children.
Of course, most of those children will not have heard about some of the seedier aspects of the McDonald's corporation, but presenting a commercial image as if the McDonald's Corporation has their best interests at heart can be quite effective. It's had its ups and downs, but it's been mostly effective for the last 70 years. The very fact that they're still standing is a testament to this, though some cracks in the system are arguably become more exposed, what with social media and the like (*ahem*).
Which brings us back to Child's Play. If you act like you care about other people, people will buy your products more. People will support you more. And that's fine, so long as that care is sincere. There may be a degree of sincere compassion when a corporation such as Sony, Blizzard, or Electronic Arts sponsors a charity movement, but I'd be hard-pressed to find an individual who believes that corporations are any more sincere in their motivations than the average citizen or consumer.
Let's not even get into the tax cuts.
What the Retake Mass Effect movement ultimately represents, as difficult as it may be for some pundits to believe, is one of the ultimate signs of goodwill that the gaming community has ever demonstrated. The donations may have been able to earn some disgruntled consumers a revised ending for their video game, but those donations were largely anonymous without much in the way of a public face. Except for that alien looking fellow plastered on all of their banners.
The donors of the Retake Mass Effect movement weren't in this to flaunt a corporate brand image and shill their products so that they would be able to make a profit return. Retake Mass Effect was intended to be a gesture of goodwill to the very developers that all of the donors came to love and respect while playing the first two games. Any money they donated would have ultimately been lost. Even the ones who honestly believed that they were just trying to fund a new DLC ending instead of making a simple presentation of good faith to BioWare through civil protest would not have gained money from this. If anything, the entire movement was intended to nudge BioWare in the right direction so that they could save their brand image for future consumers. The movement, if anything, was intended to help BioWare, not destroy them.
I repeat, when a corporate entity makes a public donation to charity, they can expect a financial return through their investment. A grassroots consumer movement with largely anonymous donors does not typically gain that same advantage.
In the end, it doesn't even really matter who donates. The Red Cross doesn't make distinctions between receiving donations from Republican or Democratic American politicians. Médecins Sans Frontières does not discriminate in who is allowed to participate in their missions so long as they're capable and qualified.
Penny Arcade should not deny donations to their multi-million dollar charity because they don't want to be associated with a grassroots consumer movement.
It's really that simple. Perhaps Retake Mass Effect would have done better to donate to the Red Cross instead of the very symbol of charity, Child's Play, that shows just how generous and good the gaming community can be.
Food for thought, everyone.
The obvious question to be raised now would be:
Why would Holkins and Krahulik, authors of Penny Arcade (one of the most popular webcomics today), creators of the Penny Arcade Expo (one of the largest electronic entertainment conventions in the United States), owners of the Child's Play charity (the largest video games-based charity today), and perhaps some of the most eminent figures in the "nerd community," have any reason to "suck up" to corporate interests?
If you need an answer to that, I suggest you repeat the question to yourself a few times until the reason becomes apparent on its own. If logic still fails, I shall explain further. But it can be summed up rather succinctly in one sentence.
The more they have, the more they have to lose.
Remember that. When you go to PAX East this year, keep track of how many big name studios will be showing off exclusive access to their new games. Think of all the flash and pizzazz and the crowds generated from all the journalists and consumers who want a piece of the action and all that nice swag.
Now think about how PAX would be like if none of them were there. If there were no corporate sponsors due to bitterness and mistrust because Holkins and Krahulik dared to ask some tough questions. Not tease and insult in a round-about way, but asking the really difficult questions, at the cost of corporate sponsors and the bags of money they make every year, but at the gain of their ethical credibility (I can hear Jim Sterling snorting in disbelief right now).
But it seems like they prefer to serve as corporate shills.
And then we come to #BioWarePAX. What baffles me is why Patrick Weekes, of all the writers on Mass Effect 3, has been chosen to stand before the crowd at PAX to answer fan questions and potentially receive the full public fury of the masses over the quality of the game. He wasn't even given any special billing in the credits as a lead writer.
See? Hold on, what's this here...
Ah, of course.
It all makes sense now. The Penny Arcade forum moderation staff carrying out BioWare's dirty work while Weekes is forced to make retractions under duress.
It seems to me that Weekes has been sent alone as a symbolic disciplinary measure for any other BioWare staff who step out of the acceptable boundaries of conduct that the upper management and Electronic Arts have set for them. In short, this was designed to be tantamount to a public crucifixion. Whether you consider this to be acceptable practice, I'll leave you to judge.
I'd like to close with this.
I am not some person clinging to a vague past grievance looking to settle some petty score, as perhaps Mssr. Timothy Buckley would. I am, however, sickened by the moral grotesqueries Mssrs. Holkins and Krahulik perpetrate, not only in the context of their beloved artistic medium, video games, but also upon the children who would have benefited from the money donated to Child's Play by future Retake Mass Effect supporters.
This stopped being silly and petty when a children's charity got involved. It cuts both ways. More so than the consumers at the Retake Mass Effect movement, however careless they may have been, I'm in fact more disgusted with the way the folks at Penny Arcade have handled this entire affair.
I understand how important it can be to have some form of diversion while awaiting treatment at a hospital. I myself have a cousin suffering from a terminal illness at this moment. As it is, however, it is no charity that I would any longer would want to be a part of or condone, and I'm sure that anyone with any shred of moral decency would agree. I'll buy some games for her myself, thank you very much.
As it stands, Mssrs. Holkins and Krahulik are nothing more than corporate patsies. Any sign of moral high ground they may have displayed in the efront scandal several years ago is long gone.
They are not brave. They are not honest. They are not good people.
I hope that's enough to simmer over for now.
Have fun at PAX, everyone! Try not to be too harsh to Mssr. Weekes.