The dying craft of the bullshit artist in an era of toxic bullshit.
Tokyo 42 images courtesy of Mode 7
Several years ago when this week began, after the white supremacist riot in Charlottesville but before the President of the United States finally gave up his pretensions of decency and publicly aligned his vision with their own, some people attempted to market a game and others attempted to write about it in the massive, ongoing LARP of normality in which so many of us take part every day.
On Monday, as his company published Tokyo 42 on PSN, Mode 7's Paul Kilduff-Taylor retweeted an odd accusation from a developer named Mark Followill that the Tokyo 42 was in fact stolen from his own forgotten ZX Spectrum game called Tokyo 41.
Various outlets reported on the story, and Kilduff-Taylor engaged in some clearly light hearted banter with other developers who made a show of comically castigating Mode7 for their lack of integrity. I only caught the start of the affair, but a brief glance at Followill's website made it pretty clear he was some kind of figment or sock-puppet. My own assumption was that it was some kind of joke on Mode 7, or a spectacularly half-assed trademark troll.
In the end neither assumption was quite correct. The entire thing was a hoax or a joke (depending on your view, the word choice matters quite a bit here) from Taylor and coordinated with some of his peers to help promote the PlayStation launch of Tokyo 42. He'd worked with independent developer BONERMAN to create the short "demake" version of Tokyo 42 that the "Followill" persona had used to pursue their claim of theft. Kilduff-Taylor published a Medium post explaining a bit more of the thinking and process behind it.
As he put it:
It's incredibly hard to get attention for a smaller game these days, especially for a new platform release of something which already exists, so I felt like I had to push the boat out a little bit.
It's also frustrating for developers when 'industry drama' is at the forefront of discussion rather than games themselves. There is, obviously, absolutely nothing to be done about this: scandal and outrage are embedded at the core of the human brain.
Not everyone felt the move was in good taste. Producer and PR specialist Felix Kramer pointed out that this was a bit like crying wolf about harassment, when so many people in games have suffered from both spurious personal attacks and the attendant gaslighting. Rich Stanton over at Kotaku UK (who is currently embroiled in a separate issue around a rather uncritical profile of TotalBiscuit—and how he fights harassment[!]— this week) didn't much care for the ploy either, and especially at how it attempted to use different outlets' reporting to convince other outlets into covering the story.
It's part of a worrying trend of extreme PR tactics where anything is permissible as long as it gets the name out there. It contributes to an erosion of trust between developers and the press, because now Kilduff-Taylor has set a precedent and you can bet there are a hundred hungry developers thinking 'that might work for me.' It is important to call things what they are, and this was not a prank: It was a calculated and organised lie designed to sell product.
Talking to Kilduff-Taylor about the campaign via email (Disclosure: I've had a friendly professional relationship with the Mode 7 team since Frozen Synapse), his feelings have gotten a little more complicated since his initial Medium post and some of his early, more defensive remarks on Twitter.
In the Medium post and over email, he argues that the sheer transparency of the ruse should be taken into account when people discuss what he did with Tokyo 41. As he puts it: "I made a deliberately ham-fisted use of awful PR tactics which should have been considered old hat ten years ago, I expected them to fail and for journalists to laugh at them; and they did fail...but not in the precise way I intended. I doubt others would consider doing the same. If they tried to do so earnestly, I've proved that they would immediately be shut down: It doesn't seem like that would incite anyone to do anything similar."
I think what Kilduff-Taylor, both in his original post and in our own conversation, tends to underrate is the degree to which its obviousness as a prank is diminishes across social media, where so much of this played out. To a degree it's that "inflection" problem that you find with instant messengers versus actual conversation: Tone is very easy to misread. What was obvious for someone who was so "in on the joke" that they designed it is obscure to someone just going through their day.
For Taylor, the character of Mark Followill was an enjoyably quirky buffoon whose fabulism could not for a moment be taken seriously. In addition to his mesmerizingly odd means of expressing himself to Ars Technica, he was engaging in a series of textbook-bad PR decisions. As Kilduff-Taylor says about his in-character emails to press, "They were a transparently absurd attempt to facilitate a variant of 'trading up the chain', a largely outmoded nefarious PR tactic which an experienced journalist would recognise instantly."
One of the striking things about the current tenor of reactionary politics in the United States is their fascination with the perceived power of victimhood.
But most people looking at this story would have likely experienced the story the same way I did: As one where a popular developer appears to be attacked with a bizarre, made-up accusation…only to later find that the whole thing was made up. It's possible that on another day, in a better year, the joke would have had more time to breathe, and more people would have had time to appreciate the absurdity. But even that assumes a lot of interest and foreknowledge of the actors involved. This Monday of all days, I doubt there were many people who were deeply invested in peeling back the thin veneer of plausibility on this story. I'm just not sure there's any day where this joke really comes across as charming, for the exact reason Kilduff-Taylor felt compelled to make it: we live in an era of constant noise and distraction, and ultimately the joke was about adding to it in an attempt to stand out.
A slightly more pointed critique of the Tokyo 41 campaign is that it was trivializing the real harassment tactics that people, particularly vulnerable people, encounter in the games and indie communities. It was something Kilduff-Taylor admits he hadn't thought through.
"An interesting point which was reiterated to me by several people on Twitter: Accusations which are intentionally fabricated have an additional power, which is that they can't be approached rationally and just serve as a lightning rod for anyone with a grievance. They're a common tactic used in harassment of vulnerable people. I hadn't considered that possible association here, and—while I don't feel that I'm diminishing the gravity of such things—it has highlighted the impossibility of perfectly pitching a stunt like this. It's hard to navigate those issues. As I said this is a one-off: Keeping the tone from going all over the place and tripping over people's own subjective experience is too challenging. I'm glad this was pointed out to me."
I mentioned to Kilduff-Tayor that my own chief misgiving is that ultimately this prank makes real one of the standard derailing or gaslighting accusations that harassment victims often face: the idea that they're just doing it for attention. One of the striking things about the current tenor of reactionary politics in the United States is their fascination with the perceived power of victimhood, and their tactics are often fixated on both painting themselves as the true underdogs while denying the experiences and pain of their targets.
Which is perhaps the other reason this joke fell so flat: around this time in 2014 is when GamerGate began, where in addition to the personal harm done we also saw for the first time the tactics that the Neo-Confederate and white power revanchists would employ moving forward. After seeing the damage wrought by the weaponization of doubt and confusion in the online gaming space, having those tools employed even in the most obvious jest was bound to sit poorly.
That's certainly not what Kilduff-Taylor meant to evoke, obviously, but the overall structure of the joke and its eventual reveal are both founded on the notion that being targeted by an accuser is a good way to get your name in the paper. And by creating a fake antagonist for himself, and a fake (if transparent) bit of public dogpiling, Tokyo 42 did indeed get some extra coverage. And that's an easy thing for a popular developer to play around with, and something that's far less benign if you've ever had people coming at you in public and you desperately need people to know that you're the one telling the truth, you're the person who was just trying to live your life in peace, not the people hiding behind alt-accounts and slapped-together Wordpress websites.
There's a lot of subjectivity here, and Kilduff-Taylor is still probably more entertained than I am by the conceit of the Tokyo 41 campaign. But he does acknowledge that, judging from how it was received, it was a flawed effort.
"I lost control of the tone. That was my fault, I own up to it, and I won't do anything similar again."