Friday, February 23, 2024

As Launcher ends at The Washington Post, its mission endures

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(Alejandro Parrilla for The Washington Post)

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It’s not over. Yes, Launcher is ending — officially closing as a subsection of The Post on March 31 following a series of newsroom layoffs — but the mission does not die.

When we first set out to build Launcher in 2017, the goal was to focus attention on an industry that has become the top provider of entertainment on the planet. For an ever-growing number of young people, gaming holds more influence than TV or film, and the online stars of YouTube, Twitch and TikTok command audiences that rival those of Hollywood or the sports world. And yet gaming is often written off as trivial, some niche, childhood hobby … even as 3.2 billion people worldwide regularly engage with games on PCs, consoles and mobile phones.

With an audience so broad, it is inevitable that stories involving video games will overlap with major social, economic and political issues. And so it was that over the last five-plus years we uncovered stories that recounted online bullying and toxicity, dubious revenue-generating practices and the power games held as a political tool. We also reported on how gaming has been used to raise millions for charity, helped people navigate the isolation of the pandemic and cope with disabilities by immersing themselves in virtual worlds. These were the types of stories you’d expect to find in The Washington Post, only they were found in a cultural pocket some people seldom think to check.

From March 2021: Madison Cawthorn wants to get the GOP on Twitch. Will it work?

Gaming provides a window into a number of crucial societal topics, so long as you possess a basic understanding of the landscape. Start with the definition of a “gamer.” A gamer is anyone who plays video games. Full stop. There are no other conclusions to be drawn about their social habits, profession, culinary tastes, education level, anything. Gaming is one aspect of a person’s life. We wouldn’t regard “TV viewers” as some kind of monolith. Why do so with games? Gamers are lawyers and doctors and politicians and, yes, journalists. Any inclination to paint gamers with the subtext of stereotypes should be banished.

The “gaming world” is not some alternate plane of existence. It involves issues that extend far beyond entertainment and affects people from all walks of life, from children to policymakers. It is an increasingly prevalent (and prescient) part of modern society.

Our goal with Launcher was to create a team of journalists who understood and appreciated the gaming landscape, who knew gaming’s potential perils but also recognized how it can spark joy, make people laugh, help parents bond with their kids, or help scientists better comprehend the spread of viruses.

We tasked Launcher’s staff and freelancers to report striking stories that provided a window into gaming culture, while holding to account the industry’s most powerful figures. Launcher debuted on Oct. 15, 2019, and served as the hub for The Post’s gaming coverage. It was not, however, a silo. Our daily collaborations spread to every department of the newsroom — Features, Tech, Financial, Politics, Sports, Foreign, National — providing context around stories they were working on and fielding pitches from them when gaming intersected with their coverage areas. In the process, we were able to share our knowledge and experiences with writers and editors throughout the newsroom, showing what games coverage should look like at The Post and why this coverage is vital.

Since work and socializing were pushed online at the start of the pandemic, more people are getting a taste of communication methods gamers have embraced since gaming platforms introduced live voice chat nearly two decades ago. Long before the cryptocurrency crisis, gamers were mining and spending virtual currencies via in-game economies. And even as companies like Facebook (now Meta) seek to create the next iteration of online interaction with the metaverse, games like “Fortnite” and “Roblox” have already realized many of its promised features.

From April 2020: Silicon Valley is racing to build the next version of the Internet. Fortnite might get there first.

Given their age, the majority of people prescribing policy and walking the halls of government may not be paying attention to what is happening inside the games industry, but they should be. We all should.

While instances of truly insidious behavior account for a small minority of online interactions in and around games, they are not anomalous. And the impact of toxic behaviors from bad actors can be profound and far-reaching.

In 2014, an online movement known as Gamergate saw social media users shout down, harass and outright threaten influential women in the games industry. The tactics utilized during Gamergate impressed upon Stephen K. Bannon, then overseeing conservative news outlet Breitbart and later an adviser to Donald Trump, the effectiveness of harnessing like-minded, largely anonymous online users and then unleashing them to further an agenda. As Bannon told author Joshua Green for the book Devil’s Bargain: Stephen K. Bannon, Donald Trump, and the Storming of the Presidency, “You can activate that army. They come in through Gamergate or whatever and then get turned onto politics and Trump.”

Bannon was found guilty of contempt of Congress for ignoring a subpoena from the House panel investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.

From Dec. 2016: If we took Gamergate seriously, Pizzagate might never have happened

We ignore issues fomenting in the gaming space at our own peril. Overlook them or dismiss them and we’re more likely to be caught surprised and off-balance when they manifest in other aspects of society.

Attention to a part of our world as massive and influential as gaming is not optional. It is essential.

Even as Launcher disbands, The Post will continue to pay attention — with Launcher’s remaining members, its departing staffers and our colleagues in other departments around the newsroom. Launcher may have been the face of our efforts to bring greater attention and scrutiny to gaming, but it was far from the entirety of them.

It is my hope that these efforts will be matched by others outside The Post who understand and appreciate the totality of gaming’s relevance to life in the 21st century. There are already some journalists doing so, including some that predated and inspired Launcher. But there needs to be more.

There are stories that need telling. There are issues that deserve scrutiny. Our efforts are not over. I hope our work — past, present and future — inspires other journalists and outlets to do the same.



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