Meet NeoGAF, the hardcore community shaping the games media agenda

Image source: NeoGAF, natch.

Adam Orth’s apparent departure from Microsoft last night might just be NeoGAF’s defining moment, for better or worse.

In Orth’s sad tale we can see The NeoGAF Effect in action. It is a videogame forum with a voracious appetite, its members perpetually scouring the web for fresh information. It has unearthed countless news stories over the years; news stories that the games media is all too happy to pick up and run with. It was once described to us years ago by a contemporary in the business as their ‘secret weapon’ – a crowdsourced goldmine of news that other outlets might not have picked up on just yet.

Times have changed. NeoGAF is becoming more conspicuous and influential with every controversy it fuels, and every leaked screenshot it houses. It spotted Orth’s tweets, dissected them, and brought them to the games media’s attention, prompting an apology and now, apparently, has played its part in someone actually losing their job.

There’s little sympathy for Orth on NeoGAF. We ask its founder Tyler Malka if he worries about just how far NeoGAF’s members go in pursuing individuals in the games business. “If detective work strays into the realm of revealing personal information or facilitating potential for harassment, it is dealt with appropriately,” he tells us. “Holding the spotlight to asinine comments doesn’t constitute harassment, nor do harsh characterizations. The NeoGAF userbase is not a uniform entity; at the times when thousands of voices align on one position, however, we can often see a tangible result.”

“The NeoGAF userbase is not a uniform entity; when thousands of voices align on one position, however, we can often see a tangible result.”

That’s putting it lightly. Previous ‘tangible results’ of NeoGAF’s hivemind in action are legion, but Malka describes the 2007 incident involving Jeff Bell as NeoGAF’s watershed moment. Bell, who had been mocked for his performance on stage at E3, sent a private message to fierce NeoGAF critic ‘a Master Ninja’, responding to his criticisms with the legend: “And your contribution to society is…what?”

A Master Ninja made this public, and Jeff Bell’s identity was confirmed through NeoGAF users’ detective work. “Jeff Bell had to make a public apology and quietly resigned soon after,” says Malka. “I later ran a ‘Contribution to Society’ NeoGAF charity drive in honour of the scandal.”

Silicon Knights president Denis Dyack joined NeoGAF to promote Too Human in 2008, and was the next industry figure to feel its wrath. “He called out the entire NeoGAF userbase by making a thread entitled ‘Too Human – stand and be counted,’ where he insisted that NeoGAF members pledged to be either for or against Too Human, with users in the ‘losing’ camp being branded depending on the game’s critical reception,” explains Malka.

Dyack’s post read: “When the game is released and everyone plays [the] game all the speculation will be over. If I am wrong and gamers in general think the game is ‘crap’ then I am comfortable with getting tagged ‘Owned by the GAF’. However, if I am right and it is received well, I would like to see those ‘Against’ to be tagged with ‘Owned by Too Human’.”

It ended badly. The title was released to critical indifference, and amid ever-escalating criticism on the NeoGAF, Dyack launched a tirade against the site on a 1UP podcast. Malka banned Dyack as a result, and the matter was reported across the games media, just like the Bell affair.

NeoGAF founder and owner, Tyler Malka.

Malka describes NeoGAF as his life’s work. He joined the community when he was fourteen, took it over when he was 19 and has been running it as a full-time job since 2006. He is now 28, and tells us that he has turned down seven-figure offers from large corporations and gaming networks to buy his site.

NeoGAF might be seen by some as a lawless playground for harder-than hardcore games enthusiasts, but that’s not the case, Malka contends. “We have strict rules about user behaviour, strict rules against bigotry and discourse that resembles Youtube comments, and the enforcement of these rules is backed by the difficulty in obtaining an account,” he tells us.

NeoGAF is free to use and fully browsable even if you’re not a member of its community, but registering as a user is subject to the site’s approval. Get yourself banned, and it’s unlikely you’ll be allowed another account – there must be “real consequence for breaking the rules,” says Malka. “Arguments can become incredibly heated on NeoGAF, but the emphasis is always on evidence-based discourse,” he tells us. “Claim something? Back it up. If you do, even if it’s inflammatory there likely won’t be any consequences, but drive-by trolling isn’t tolerated.”

Increasingly, the games industry is keen to woo the NeoGAF community, such is its influence. Type ‘NeoGAF’ into Scribblenauts and its logo will appear. Naughty Dog invited its users to its studio after they complained about the controls in Uncharted 3, and later addressed them with a patch. GAF members are developing a game, Dudebro II, and one its moderators, m0dus, has been hired by companies like Konami and Sega based on the graphic design work he has posted on the site. When Blazblue was released in Europe, it was a NeoGAF forumite’s artwork on the cover; its publisher ran a competition on the site to whip up interest.

NeoGAF forumites helped smooth out Uncharted 3′s controls via a patch, after Naughty Dog invited them into its studio.

“When I travelled to Europe last year for four months, I met up with dozens of NeoGAF members, and stayed at the home of two NeoGAF members in Switzerland,” says Malka. “They met each other thanks to the site a few years prior, and she moved from the United States over there and got married. We’ve had several other marriages under similar circumstances.”

Happier tales like these won’t be told in the games press; instead, NeoGAF will continue to be the origin of crowdsourced detective work and fierce opinion, each subtly – and sometimes not so subtly – feeding into the specialist media’s coverage. Where once it sat outside looking in, it is becoming part of the games media it derides so heavily. So why do NeoGAF’s discussions so often revolve around the games media’s presumed corruption, or incompetence?

Why do NeoGAF’s discussions so
often revolve around the games media’s
presumed corruption, or incompetence?

“NeoGAF’s membership includes thousands of press and industry accounts, but among those with a negative attitude toward the enthusiast press, it comes down to the sentiment that it is primarily a credulous PR arm of the video game publishers,” says Malka. “Access to preview coverage, interviews, and early review copies is tremendously important to most of the games press, and publishers dictate that access. If a website is pushing an exclusive review of the next hyped triple-A game, it’s likely that those involved managed to pander to the game’s publisher harder than everyone else did, and that is usually reflected in the tone of the review.”

However much one might disagree with this – and we do in the strongest possible terms – there’s no dispute over the fact that these views are out there, and they are dominant on NeoGAF. Perhaps it’s little wonder – when it digs up stories, as it has with the Orth furore, it is setting the news agenda, and beating the media at its own game. Malka is absolutely right when he tells us that “crowdsourced investigation and fact-checking can be extraordinarily potent tools” – it is the reason his community finds screens posted on obscure Russian forums first, and unearths references to next-gen games on LinkedIn before news sites can.

There will be other Jeff Bells, Denis Dyacks and Adam Orths. It’s not always comfortable viewing, but NeoGAF’s influence is nonetheless a reflection of how the lines are blurring between the media and the communities its serves.

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