Wednesday, October 31, 2012

#45: Gaming Journalism and Journalistic Integrity: The Charge of Corruption

In the past, I have had certain critiques of the machine that fuels game reviews. While many people out there think of game reviews as simple buyer's advice, I called on major game review outlets to do more in the way of critical analysis of the games that they review. That is an opinion that can be up for debate, but it is not the subject of this piece. Recently, a series of events have occurred that shine the spotlight once again on the game review industry. On the 16 October 2012, an interview with industry veteran Geoff Keighly, executive producer of Game Trailers TV and the Spike TV Video Game Awards, was published on the YouTube channel “Shifted2u.” For the duration of the interview, Mr. Keighly was shown sitting with a bag of Doritos and several 2-liter bottles of Mountain Dew to his left, and a display stand of Master Chief, promoting Halo 4 and sponsored by Doritos and Mountain Dew, to his right. A particular image from this interview, one the pictured Keighley in a particularly lifeless state, spread rapidly on the internet.

Later that month, on 24 October 2012, writer Robert Florence published an article (Note: This is a reprinting of the original article, not the copy on Eurogamer's site for reasons that will be detailed shortly.) on, posting the image along with a scathing critique of game reviewers and their relationship with the PR representatives of many large game publishers. In this article, he mentioned that during the Game Media Awards, many notable game journalists were seen taking part in a publicity stunt in which a certain publisher was giving away six Playstation 3 consoles to six lucky game journalists out of all of the ones who tweeted their excitement for their upcoming game, using a particular hash tag. (To avoid giving that particular company further publicity for this stunt, I have elected to avoid mentioning their name directly. If you are curious, you may wish to look this incident up for yourself.) In this write-up, he quoted the twitter responses that some journalists made regarding the backlash they received from these tweets. One quote, from game journalist Lauren Wainwright, in particular reads: Urm… [redacted] were giving away PS3s to journalists at the GMAs. Not sure why that's a bad thing?” Because of the use of said statements in the article, Intent Media, a firm that Ms. Wainwright works for, allegedly threatened to file a lawsuit against Eurogamer claiming libelous use of her words. Due to the resulting pressure, Eurogamer had no choice but to release Mr. Florence from his employment with the company. Furthermore, they had to edit the article, removing the quotes used. The revised version remains on Eurogamer's site for all to see.

The combined weight of these incidents has rekindled charges that the gaming press is corrupt and “bought” by the major publishers of the industry. After looking at all that has happened recently, I can understand why people would say that. It is even easier to see how something like this might happen. Game journalists and PR representatives both have a passion for the games on display and love to talk about games. Furthermore, PR representatives need to find a way to release the information they want to be released to the audience for their products and game journalists want information to release to their audience, which is, of course, the exact same audience publishers wish to give information to. Since these two sides have similar goals, interests, and audiences, it is no surprise that there is something of a symbiosis between them. They rely on each other in order to be successful at their jobs. This, unfortunately, makes it easy to lose sight of one's responsibilities. When game journalists start to think of the people they get press releases and information from as friends, things start to go awry. This can easily cloud their judgment when writing reviews and previews, discussing the games in their queue, and even when contests and special events are run. I do not mean to imply that these relationships between PR and journalists are necessarily bad things. However, they must be kept in check by both parties, else people may (as has already been demonstrated) begin to question the validity of the whole process. Both sides of the relationship need to be vigilant that friendship does not cross into professional responsibilities. Most likely easier said than done, but it is necessary if journalists want to maintain their legitimacy.

Another factor in contributing to this air of corruption is the fact that game journalists are essentially just fans of the games. Again, this is not necessarily a bad thing, but it does help contribute to all of this nonsense that we are seeing. Very few personalities in gaming journalism actually have training and/or education in Communications or Journalism. Most are just people who began to write about video games, either on small start up sites or just for fun in their spare time, and rose to their positions through meeting people, generating a solid fanbase, and/or sheer tenacity. The one thing they all have in common is a passion and fandom for video games and the medium as a whole. Just as with their relationship with PR, this can cloud their judgment when not kept in check. With the advent of blogging and other means of releasing opinions for the world to see, it is even more important to do so. If people find that a reviewer's fandom is clouding their better judgment and leaving them susceptible to corruption, then their audience can easily move to one of the thousands of other competing outlets and ignore them entirely.

I am not a gaming journalist: All I am is a lowly blogger, in a sea of lowly bloggers, with a passion for the industry. I will not make the claim that the gaming press as a whole is corrupt. I follow many of them on Twitter and have even had very interesting conversations with a few of them. However, what we have all seen in recent times is indicative of a problem. There are indeed some people in the gaming press that do not understand the need to stay on the high and narrow and not fall victim to many of the tactics that PR use to spread information. Clearly, some do not realize how much value can be lost to unprofessional conduct and behavior. Regardless of whether or not there is actual corruption in the gaming press (and, let us be honest, there definitely are very sketchy, at best, news outlets in the industry), there is, at the very least an appearance of corruption, which is a very big issue in and of itself. If even a select few make the press look disingenuous and corrupt, then that has severe negative repercussions on the whole industry and how people think of it. It is vital that the press clean up their act and begin to look more like professional journalists. This does not mean that they need to stop being silly, making jokes, or enjoying their jobs, but it does mean that they need to maintain a level of transparency with their readers/viewers. As one Escapist Magazine News Team Staff Member, Jonathan Grey Carter, said, “Taking your job seriously does not equal taking yourself seriously.” With regards to gaming journalists themselves, he added that “You are not an important person, you write about toys for a living. Perspective always helps.” While I like to think of games as slightly higher on the totem pole than “toys,” the point is still valid. Journalists can maintain transparency and a sense of integrity while still being passionate gamers that care for the industry. All it takes is a little bit of thinking before taking part in certain contests or giveaways and an acknowledgment of mistakes when they happen. This is not a call to get rid of the advertising money that major publishers spend on the gaming press. Let us be honest, the press is a business and the money needs to come from somewhere. It is simply a word of caution. To the gaming press, please be a little more careful and understand that when we raise issues with things you do, it is because we want you to do better and we believe that you can. Like many of you do to the games themselves, we criticize because we care.


newdarkcloud said...

This is an interesting post by Mr. Jim Sterling on the subject.

Anonymous said...

I see what you're saying. If Wainwright hadn't reacted the way she did, I don't think it would have been such a big fuzz. But like Jim pointed out: Her choice to react that way made it *seem* like something dodgy was going on, regardless of what the actual truth is.

Game journalism is rather misnamed, since as you mentioned practically none of them have any sort of journalistic degree. I do understand why it's accrued that name, but it's misrepresentative.

I don't really see a problem in how they do things though, so long as they remain transparent. I don't even necessarily see anything wrong with them having a good repoir with people in the games industry, so long as they're open about it.

But if a major site is going to run what is essentially a fan review, perhaps they should offer up an alternate review as well by someone who still understands the genre, but isn't specifically a fan of that game series. Or just admit that they're blogs and bloggers rather than trying to come off as 'journalists' writing for 'online newspapers'. There is nothing wrong with being a blogger, but trying to come off as a 'journalist' might be misleading.

newdarkcloud said...

I think it's as you said, the biggest issue here is one of trust and transparency. Let us know the perspective from which you write, so that the more critical and cynical among us may better understand your viewpoint and any potential for extraneous biases (because reviews are, by definition, biased).

Indy said...

You could have brought in Jessica Chobot's appearance in Mass Effect 3 (but I have a feeling you've had enough of that game). How is IGN supposed to rate a game with one of its own journalists in it? A high score was always expected because reviews strangely ignore the game, but Chobot's role couldn't hurt the score.

Chobot was a woman who loved games, started writing, got into the industry and then was invited for a walk-on role in a triple-A title. Is there an ethical question here? Was her role because of her hobby or her job?

I personally don't see it as corruption but I can certainly empathise with the people that do.

newdarkcloud said...

In the interest of full disclosure, that totally slipped my mind, yet it is a perfectly valid example. Doubly so since the character is so superfluous and obviously shoved in a accommodate Ms. Chobot.

Again, it's this issue with the appearance of corruption. I was almost prepared to mention IGN by name, but nobody honestly trusts IGN anymore.