Critics. Whether we adore them, despise their very being, or simply agree or disagree with them, we cannot deny that critics are vital forces in shaping how we interpret the things that make us culturally diverse individuals. Independent studio Digital Homicide can’t deny this fact, either, and they’re none too happy about it. For over a year, they’ve been exchanging digital blows with popular YouTube-based media personality and video game critic, Jim Sterling, after he posted a scathing video review of one of the studio’s games: The Slaughtering Grounds. The most recent culmination of Digital Homicide’s ire has materialized in the form of a lawsuit and an attempt to sue Sterling for a whopping $10 million US in “damages.” What follows is a saga of intrigue, witty wordplay, and a maelstrom of events that ultimately invites us to question the meaning of free speech and the limits – if any – of critics when it comes to reviewing pieces of pop culture.
Our story begins with a review of The Slaughtering Grounds that Sterling posted on his channel on November 1, 2014. After laying bare many of the games numerous faults in his usual wry manner, Sterling denounces the game as being “beyond the pale.” You can view the original review below:
Sterling’s review began to quickly make its way around the Internet, and it wasn’t long before The Slaughtering Grounds rose to notoriety on Steam as being a particularly awful game; its aggregate reviews are listed as “mostly negative.” What Sterling had not anticipated, however, was a “meltdown” emanating from Digital Homicide itself, whose anger manifested in a flurry of DMCA takedown requests for Sterling’s video and counter-videos attacking Sterling himself (which have since been taken down, but are nonetheless archived on Sterling’s own channel).
This chapter of the Sterling-Digital Homicide saga reached its peak in July 2015, when Digital Homicide requested an interview with Sterling. The ensuing interview lasts nearly two hours, and mostly consists of grown men talking over one another. You can listen to it here; though, all notions of objectivity aside, it’s rather painful to listen to.
To be sure, this was not the first time Sterling had locked arms with a Steam Greenlight developer. But it was certainly one of the most explosive conflicts in which the popular critic had participated.
Over the past year, Digital Homicide has continued to produce games, and Sterling has continued to make video critiques of said games. Life goes on in the world of independent gaming, albeit contentiously.
Last September, Sterling investigated a spat of games which were allegedly published under the company ECC Games, but were actually made by Digital Homicide. After Sterling uncovered their farce (and the real ECC Games expressed their furor), Digital Homicide once again went quiet.
This is where the second chapter of the saga begins.
On March 16 earlier this week, Digital Homicide co-founder James Romine formally filed a lawsuit in the Arizona District Court against Sterling – whose real name is James Stanton – for “assault, libel, and slander.” According to the official court documents for Romine v. Stanton, Sterling has “falsely accused [Digital Homicide] and caused damage” to Digital Homicide. The charges: $2.26 million in direct product damage; $4.3 million in emotional, reputational, and financial distress; and $5 million in punitive damage requests, all of which add up to a staggering $10.76 million US lawsuit against Sterling. In addition, Digital Homicide wants “apologies [from Sterling] in place of every offending article and video for a period of no less than 5 years,” as well as “an apology video in the primary youtube location on [Sterling’s] channel front for a period of no less than 5 years.”
Digital Homicide will be representing themselves in the case. They do not have an attorney.
In an exclusive interview with Kotaku, Romine stated that the lawsuit has been brewing for “roughly four months,” and that Sterling had “crossed the line” with “continued coverage and harassment of every single title we [Digital Homicide] have ever posted.”
Here is where things get interesting, from an ethical point of view. Digital Homicide claims it has been harassed by alleged Sterling fans. Among the attacks are verbal statements; “harassers donating amounts specifically to cause charges rather than donations and charge backs to cause financial fees” on Digital Homicide’s (now closed) crowdfunding page for the lawsuit; and a mail package containing, of all things, feces. This latest mess has sparked discussion all over the Internet’s gaming corners over how much control critics have over their fans, and whether critics are responsible for the actions of their more puerile and spiteful followers.
We’ll let readers determine their own stance on the matter of unruly fans, though this writer can safely say that, to his knowledge, most critics do not establish psionic links with their fanbases and command them to commit heinous acts as if they were their personal army. Considering Sterling has never implored his fanbase to send game developers packages of body waste, it’s probably safe to say that he, too, has no psychic powers over his followers.
In any case, it would be myopic to view the actions of a few particularly nasty individuals as representing an entire critic’s following. More foolish still is Digital Homicide’s handling of the case, which, as can be seen in the handy summary provided in the above Kotaku article, seems to be rather sloppy.
Dialectics of free speech aside, the entire case sets a dangerous precedent for critics in general. To what lengths may critics go before their views are considered slander? Are we to view harsh criticism as an attack on an individual’s or a company’s integrity? How do we approach the cults of personality that both game developers and critics build around themselves, and are we to see them as uniform cultures, or nexuses around which numerous fans build their own viewpoints on popular culture? If we are to take anything from the Digital Homicide saga, it’s questions along these lines.
As for Sterling’s stance on the chaos that has erupted around him and a small independent studio? He’s been quiet lately, but he posted yesterday that he is in “a very confident mood.”
I have nothing yet to say about any legal situations. In unrelated news I am in a very confident mood today.
— Jim Sterling (@JimSterling) March 16, 2016
Expect to hear more about the Romine v. Stanton case in the coming weeks.