Setting the Record Straight on The Escapist Magazine

By now the news is spreading across the Internet: The Escapist has been bought from Defy Media by Enthusiast Gaming, with Russ Pitts (somebody who I have worked with in the past) as its new Editor-in-Chief. But, some claims have been made about the Escapist between 2014–2018, specifically:

To make matters worse, beginning at some point in 2013 or 2014 The Escapist’s former publisher had allowed the website to become a home to political extremists. Whether right- or left-wing doesn’t matter here, although you may know which. It wasn’t a secret. It also isn’t interesting. For a time before it was allowed to begin dying, The Escapist’s editors routinely chose and created content based on a political agenda over journalistic insight. As a result, those not willing to put their political opinions in front of their journalism left The Escapist behind.

As one of the content creators at the Escapist during that time (Garwulf’s Corner ran there under contract from March 2015 to March 2016, and as part of a partnership between September 2016 to September 2017), the fact is that I was there, and that was not my experience at all.

Being the owner of a small publishing company (among the many hats I wear), I was able to negotiate my contract a bit differently than a number of others did. For one thing, I retained the rights to Garwulf’s Corner and Fooling Garwulf (and the negotiations to keep them all on the site will hopefully be starting soon). Far more importantly, my non-disclosure clause was limited to two years after the end of the contract, which means that I am now free and clear to talk about it — all of it.

So, buckle up, ’cause I don’t think this is going to be the story you’re expecting.

I have to start during Gamergate. I didn’t see most of it play out — August 2014 curled me up into a proverbial fetal position, and September and October 2014 reduced me to a near-literal wreck. I had been one of early writers of the modern video games media — the original Garwulf’s Corner on Diabloii.net had been one of the first, if not the first, computer games issues columns in the English language. As such, there was a couple of blocks in the foundation of the video games media with my name on it. A small achievement, but a proud one.

And as I watched, Gamergate was doing everything they could to tear it down, up to and including issuing black lists (Joseph McCarthy, anybody?) and harassing writers and cheering as one or two of them quit. Want to know what it feels like to have an entire media that you helped create face an angry mob? It isn’t pretty. By November, I had to stop reading the coverage for the sake of my health.

I was doing the publicity for the book collection of the original run of Garwulf’s Corner (the one published between 2000–2002 on Diabloii.net) when Gamergate first broke. The worst day — and possibly the day I decided that once the publicity on the collection was finished I would join some of the others in walking away from the video games media — was when somebody using the Gamergate banner threatened to shoot up a school where Anita Sarkeesian was planning to speak. I had been involved in the fight against the moral guardians who had declared that violent video games turned children into killers — I’d even written about it on The Escapist. With a single threat, the work of years of every single one of us involved in that fight against the Jack Thompsons of the world was thrown out the window.

I’m telling you this (and reliving the pain of this) so that you understand where I stand regarding Gamergate: I hate it with a passion. I hate it for every single tweet and post that tried to tear down a legacy that was partly mine. The trained historian part of my brain understands that it will probably go down in history as a growing pain of the video games media, and that it was a good thirty years coming, with causes ranging from high school bullying culture to games and gamers being on the receiving end of every moral panic imaginable, all of which created an under siege mentality that can be very hard to break out of. But that doesn’t change how I feel.

Obviously, I came back — and it was LoadingReadyRun and their video game streams on Twitch that made me re-engage and decide that it was worth coming back.

Now, I can’t speak to any of what Russ Pitts wrote and said about Alexander Macris. By the time I starting looking for a place that might buy a column from me it was around February 2015, I’d missed months of coverage, and my only contact with him was contract negotiations, which were done in a professional manner. The finished contract itself was never sent my way for signing (I only received the next-to-final draft), but all the discussions had been by email, and the terms had been agreed to in writing (and that does more or less make it binding).

What made me think of pitching to the Escapist was that the layoffs of people like Bob Chipman had been public, and that suggested that the Escapist might have room for a pop culture commentator. So, I contacted Joshua Vanderwall, the new Editor in Chief, on February 18th, 2015, and pitched.

Josh Vanderwall is about the last person I’d expect to be a culture warrior or a member of outrage culture (in fact, he hates it at least as much as I do). He was about as hands off as one could get — with almost no restrictions, he allowed me to write about whatever I wanted. To give you an idea of my politics, I’m a centrist, through and through. I’m even a member of the Liberal Party of Canada (which, due to Canadian politics being REALLY weird, is a centrist party).

There’s quite a few people who see centrism as combining part of the left and part of the right into a sort of mash-up…and that’s not really true (at least not for me). The centrism that I practice involves rejecting the right and the left in favour of building my perceptions from the ground up based on the hard facts, and going wherever they take me (another word for this might be “skepticism”). Perhaps a good way of imagining it would be some idealistic lunatic in little boat rowing between the massed fleets of the right and the left, and firing a cannon at both of them…at once. The idiot in the boat, well, that would be me.

There were one or two restrictions, but they weren’t ideological in nature. Bob Chipman’s parting with the Escapist had been extremely acrimonious, and there was an agreement that the Escapist would not mention him. So, an early installment titled “Fishy Tweets,” which used a twitter spat between him and somebody on the opposite side (I don’t actually remember who) as a jump-off point, had to be changed to remove his name.

In fact, only one installment of my column ever required or received serious content editing, and that was my coverage of the Hugo Awards and the Puppy Wars. The draft that got sent in was, in a word, a mess. It had been a complicated situation with nearly daily developments, and I had been adding them into the draft as they played out. The result was a column that was long, rambling, and anything but to the point. My editor at the time, Jonathan Bolding, and I spent a couple of days working on it, removing redundancies, and fact checking — every single claim I made in the installment had to have a direct source to back it up (so, a Reddit comment saying “person X tweeted Y” wasn’t good enough — I had to be able to provide the actual tweet). Where it got funny was after publication, when I saw at least one comment declaring that my take was the Escapist’s editorial policy on the matter — in reality, I hadn’t received so much as a single direction on what stance to take.

But if there’s one incident that captures my experience at the Escapist, it was what happened with For the Digital Green Fields of Aldamar.

For the Digital Green Fields of Aldamar was one of the reasons I had broken with the Escapist for a few years back around 2008. It was a story about a future society where people were controlled through subliminal messages in video games (“be a good citizen,” “be a happy citizen,” etc.). It was sent in for a fiction issue, and accepted. The editor it was handed to, who will go nameless (for reasons that will soon be clear), had no business touching fiction to begin with. He butchered the world building, and even the title. But what was far worse was what had been done to Skazz.

Skazz was a character based on my best friend from high school, Franklyn Dawson, who was an immigrant from Zimbabwe. I didn’t give Skazz Franklyn’s physique (Skazz was tall and lanky, while Franklyn was shorter and bulky), but I did give him Franklyn’s intelligence and skill with computer programming. And, in the single descriptive sentence Skazz received, I gave him Franklyn’s skin colour. When I got the edit back, one word was removed from that descriptive sentence: “black.”

When I fought it, I was caught off guard. “What does it matter if Skazz is black,” I recall the editor saying. “Isn’t caring about Skazz’s skin colour kind of racist?”

To my unending shame, I came back with a kind of tepid “I guess?,” and the change remained. Today I know what I should have said (“YES, it matters that Skazz is black! It matters because he’s based on my best friend from high school, and HE was black, and it matters because the future is going to have a place for all of us, and black people will be present and accomplished in it, and it matters because if it isn’t specified, just about every reader will assume that he’s just another white guy, but most of all, why the HELL do YOU care about whether Skazz is black — isn’t THAT racist?!”), but I’d never encountered that sort of slimy, cunning racism before. And for years, I was ashamed of that moment. And, as Garwulf’s Corner began its second year (this time funded by a Patreon), I took the risk and asked if I could be allowed to publish the proper version, the one with a Skazz who was not whitewashed, and make it right.

I have never seen anybody say “yes” to something as quickly as Josh Vanderwall said yes to For the Digital Green Fields of Aldamar. It went up on October 5, 2016, and at last, I had my little moment of redemption.

But that was par for the course with Josh Vanderwall. Josh had been a community manager before being appointed Editor-in-Chief, and the main thing he seemed to want was for everybody to just stop fighting and enjoy video games and pop culture together. When he was originally considering the column and reviewing my previously published work, he told me that he hoped that my more mature and measured tone would be a unifying voice in the video games media. I don’t know that I ever believed that it would play out that way, but damned if I didn’t like the dream, and wish that it could have been true.

And, I won’t lie — I tried. Hell, I even managed to succeed a bit. Readers are savvy, you see — they’ve seen a lot of writers claim to be champions of free speech and advocates of the marketplace of ideas, and then transform into vicious demagogues the minute somebody suggests something they disagree with. So, when somebody makes the claim, they don’t take it at face value. They wait and see. And with me, they got the real deal.

The way I proved myself was with the feedback columns, which I called “Emails from the Edge” (a holdover from the original Garwulf’s Corner a decade and a half ago, where the feedback came directly to me as email). Every seventh installment was all about reader feedback. I tried to ensure that for each topic there was at least one opinion for and one opinion against, and they were presented, with very rare exceptions, without comment from me. My selection standards were as simple: any quote had to be the best form of the argument (factually correct, convincing, etc.), it had to take no personal shots at anybody (about the ideas instead of the person), and there could be no pejoratives. And, it worked. Topics like the white privilege debate saw discussions without the extreme toxicity that appeared everywhere else. By the end of it, I knew that I could tackle any topic at all, and my readers would meet me halfway.

I wasn’t the only one, either. From what I saw of my fellow contributors, the Escapist had managed to attract more centrists than any other political leaning. Liana Kerzner, a fellow Canadian, had been drawn to Gamergate’s claims of journalism reform, but then driven away when she tried to raise the alarm bell about the growing influence of figures like Milo Yiannopoulis. She spent her time covering cosplay, and had come to the Escapist because it was the only venue she had found that saw a problem with publishing articles about feminist issues while posting pictures of scantily-clad female characters.

Lizzy Finnegan, who had also started as a member of Gamergate, leaving in January 2015 after being doxxed, spent most of her time handling news stories, with the occasional investigative journalism thrown in. In fact, while Kotaku UK ran a number of articles about the behind-the-scenes troubles of Star Citizen, it was Lizzy Finnegan who had broken the story a full year before, resulting in a legal squabble that took over a year to resolve.

Ironically, there was one definite right wing writer who had been recruited — Brandon Morse — and he was also the one of us who never published anything on the Escapist. I don’t pretend to know why his own work didn’t end up on the site — if I had to guess, I’d imagine that contract negotiations fell apart somewhere between his involvement being announced and his content getting started, but I wasn’t privy to any of it.

My involvement came to an end as the site was winding down. I knew well ahead of time that the Escapist had entered a death spiral — in fact all the signs were there by the end of the first year of the column, although it would take a few months to come to grips with it.

The contract I had negotiated with Defy Media had been set up with a one year duration for Garwulf’s Corner. If neither party told the other that they wanted to terminate the deal, it would automatically renew for another year. Around the middle of February, I received an email from Josh saying that Defy was not going to renew. The performance of Garwulf’s Corner had been monitored in five categories (he didn’t say what they were, and I didn’t ask), and it had only met its objectives in one of them. I was disappointed, but not too gutted — around two decades as a professional writer had prepared me for things like that (which happen all the time, and it’s almost never personal — it’s just business), and I knew that the main thing would be to move on to my next project.

The final contracted installment of Garwulf’s Corner went up on the site on March 16th. At the time, I had no reason to believe that it was anything other than business as usual (a column hadn’t gotten enough page views, so replace it with something that would). But then came the end of March, and the bloodletting.

In one fell swoop, almost everybody was cut. The Escapist office was shuttered and its staff laid off. Only Josh Vanderwall, Lizzy Finnegan, Ron Whittaker, and Ben Croshaw managed to keep their jobs. When I wrote in to offer condolences, Josh told me that he was right now scrambling to get as many of his former editorial staff on as contractors as the now-shoestring budget would allow.

But, we all held out hope — after all, the advertising revenue could come back, right? It could have been a momentary downturn, right? If Garwulf’s Corner hadn’t hit the numbers (yes, part of me still thought it was about the numbers at that time), then maybe some other project would…

If I’m being honest, even though it look a few more months to sink in, deep down inside we knew it probably wasn’t going to get better. But I was missing writing Garwulf’s Corner, I still had lots to say, and I had seen Jim Sterling and Bob Chipman strike out on their own with Patreon to huge success, so I thought it was worth a shot. Garwulf’s Corner could come back, this time hosted by the Escapist in a business partnership, and paid for by my readers via Patreon. I even got Liana Kerzner, who had a successful Patreon of her own, to offer some sage advice for making it work.

In retrospect, I suppose I should have tried to find a new home for the column if I wanted to resume it. But, my readers were there, and so was the marketplace of ideas that they had helped me create. Unfortunately, when the attempt to pay for the column via Patreon sputtered out at less than $20 per month after trying to make it work for a year, I had to move on something that would help pay my mortgage and raise a family, no matter how heartbreaking it was to stop.

It’s all really un-dramatic, I guess. It would be exciting and controversial to have tales about articles being killed because they didn’t support the alt-right, or editorial pressure to write about SJW conspiracies, but none of that was happening, at least not to me. I was given near-complete freedom to write about whatever I wanted, and I was never asked or instructed to take a specific political stance.

I’m proud of what I did at the Escapist, and it was a rewarding couple of years. At a time where we were (and still are) surrounded by echo chambers and “Thunderdomes” of ideas (“Two ideas enter! One idea leaves!”), I managed to build a marketplace of ideas and a safe space for discussion. And, I’m thrilled to see that the Escapist will get another chance at being amazing, regardless of whether or not I’ll be allowed to play a part (and I very much hope that I will), and I hope that Russ will knock it out of the park.

At the same time, though, the truth about us needs to be told. We weren’t chosen because of a political agenda (hell, no sane person with an alt-right political agenda would have picked Liana Kerzner or myself to write anything), and we weren’t trying to recruit people to the alt-right. We were throwing around ideas about the things we loved, and freely speaking our minds. Although I have no doubt that a lot of other places shunned us, I still got to work alongside people like Joshua Vanderwall, Liana Kerzner, Lizzy Finnigan, Shamus Young, Ben Croshaw, Jonathan Bolding, Ron Whittaker, Ian Marter, and a whole bunch of other worthy souls, and we did some damned fine work. And if you don’t believe me, just go to the Escapist and take a look — our words speak for themselves.

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