Don’t move. Don’t breathe. Don’t generate any smells. And whatever you do, don’t say anything, because for a while the eyes of lawyers around the world will be watching internet writers like us, looking for the opportunity to pounce. So just keep still, they’re waiting to be given a reason.

I’m sounding a little paranoid, aren’t I? I’d better explain myself before I start getting odd looks. You see, at the moment there is a very interesting court case in America, one that could affect sites like this one very badly if it goes in a certain direction. I’ll get the backstory out of the way, because… Well, it’s mostly backstory at this point.

Jim Sterling vs Digital Homicide

Have you heard of Jim Sterling? If you go on a lot of gaming sites and like watching “let’s play” videos, you probably have. He’s a sort of gaming journalist / critic /podcaster / internet  personality / man who wears hats indoors / cultural commentator. I admit right off the bat that I quite like him, and not just because he’s a fellow Brit with a penchant for writing. I admire him because he’s an uncompromising consumer advocate who’s always willing to go for what is moral over what is convenient or easy, a rare trait in gaming journalism.

Sterling’s also made a habit of playing Early Access Steam games on his YouTube channel for a while, usually without any background info to gain a first impression, which he’d then convey to the audience. Fair enough, a lot of YouTubers have done that. He’s not the first, he won’t be the last, and Early Access games have always been interesting… One way or another.

But in 2014 Sterling came across a game called The Slaughtering Grounds, and decided to give it a go on camera. How to put this next bit diplomatically? Well, he was not impressed. Not a bit of it. He said in a later statement that he could not think of a single thing that he liked about the game. In his mind, it was irredeemable as a creation.

The Slaughtering Grounds by Digital Homicide

Now, I should also mention that I too have played The Slaughtering Grounds, and (still keeping it diplomatic) I understand his distaste for it. Right now it costs the same as a bar of Cadbury’s Dairy Milk, and given the choice, I’d take the chocolate anytime. You could read that line either as a damning condemnation of the game, or just an honest truth about my deep love of Cadbury’s. One way or another, it should be enough distance to keep the lawyers off my back for now.

The point is that Sterling’s opinion wasn’t met with a huge amount of public resistance, as most of the reviews were unfavourable and several YouTube stars went on to name The Slaughtering Grounds as the worst game of the year. The only people who seemed willing to fight this critique at the time were the developers themselves, Digital Homicide. They retaliated with two videos that had some rather… strong comments about Sterling, his personality, review methods and character, using the kind of language that your mother would never allow under her roof. How scandalous! Those videos have long since been withdrawn, but Jim Sterling made a point of archiving them and keeping them on his own channel.

And honestly, it’s been escalating ever since. Sterling has made a point out of critiquing Digital Homicide’s business tactics and reviewing all the games that they’ve put out, none of which have amounted to much in his eyes. The developers, in turn, have challenged him in numerous ways online, even going so far as to interview him directly over a Skype call and try to derail him with unexpected questions. As somebody who listened to the whole hour and a half of awkward back-and-forth dialogue, he did not seem very derailed.

Jim Sterling Digital Homicide interview

I’m trying to be objective, I really am, because I don’t want to attack Digital Homicide when the internet is doing it already. But this became very difficult to be objective about when, on March 16th, it came out that they decided to submit a lawsuit against their arch-nemesis, claiming that they were going to sue him for a gobsmacking $10.76 million dollars. Look guys, I know Sterling is successful, but I doubt he’s THAT successful. Even PewDiePie would struggle to get hold of that sort of cash.

Pewdiepie scared at Digital Homicide text

What are they suing him for? Let’s see… “Assault, Libel and Slander.” Bold stuff, but let’s be clear about what’s going on here without sticking it behind legal jargon: Digital Homicide are claiming that Sterling hurt their business with his various comments, and want him to pay up money to fill the gap where they should’ve had income.

How does that add up to over ten mil? Let me see… That’s 2.26 million for the money they lost, 4.3 million for distress to their finances, emotional state and reputation, and just to top it off, another five million in punitive damage requests. What are punitive damages? Well, I’m not a lawyer, but a friend of mine in law school reliably informs me that (in layman’s terms) it’s a “you’ve been a naughty boy” tax, which the court can add on if it thinks you need an extra financial whuppin’ for your misbehaving ways.

Jim Sterling with a bat

Oh, and Digital Homicide want every video and article of Sterling’s with their name mentioned to be replaced with an apology, as well as a new video with the same message to be stuck front-and-centre on Sterling’s main YouTube page for at least five years. Come on, guys. If you win the case you’ll probably have put the poor guy in financial ruin, you don’t need to upset his blog pages, too.

Now, the overarching opinion from the public sphere is that Digital Homicide aren’t likely to win this case, and there’s been some resentment over them starting it at all. Sterling himself has barely bothered to address it the event, tweeting on the day the news came out:

“I have nothing yet to say about any legal situations. In unrelated news I am in a very confident mood today.” – Jim Sterling

Blimey, that’s an impressive stance to take. Does he also plan to walk into the courtroom in one of the Spartan soldier uniforms from 300?

Jim Sterling Boss Mode

There’s a lot of factors in play here – free speech, honest representation, whether malice played a part of any of this, or whether it was objective analysis or not – but this subject just isn’t my field and I wouldn’t dare comment on the technical side. All I can say is that I really, really hope that this case is thrown out of court.

Why? Because if it isn’t, there would be a precedent for censoring or punishing criticism. Look, I admit that journalists should be absolutely sure about the facts that they’re writing, but the idea of creators having a legitimate foothold in the legal system just because they’ve received a bad review is… frightening. I gave Superhot a less than perfect critique that just might lead a few people to avoid it (though it was still above average, go look for yourself). What if the developers decide to take me to court because I might’ve damaged their business?

Superhot gameplay

Uh, that’s purely hypothetical, by the way. Please don’t take me to court, I don’t have any money to give you. I’ve spent the last three years eating the mushrooms growing in my bathroom, I can’t finance your hurt feelings too.

In that review, all I was doing was stating an opinion, yet if this lawsuit gains some traction then the wrong opinion might land me in some serious hot water. Any developer or publisher with an axe to grind would be able to find a precedent for their case – and that’s enough axes to fill a World Of Warcraft server.

So I hope it fails for that reason alone because the impact would be far, far bigger than just these two parties. It could damage a lot of critics, journalists and “let’s play” performers, which would suck for the viewing public as well. So keep an eye on this one, because on the off-chance it succeeds… Well, this could get very, very bad for honest criticism worldwide. So bad that I can only express my thoughts on it by saying something very rude that –