The Death of Games Journalism — Part 5: A History of Corruption

Scrumpmonkey is here again with part five of his multi-part Death of Games Journalism series. Today, the prophetic history of games media gaffes

Header HistoryPart Five of a multi-part se­ries. Start from the be­gin­ning of the se­ries ‚vis­it the parts in­dex or read Part 4 – The Mobile Menace

The games me­dia has a long and check­ered past of not ex­act­ly liv­ing up to the high­est stan­dards of pro­fes­sion­al and eth­i­cal con­duct. With the harsh spot­light on more re­cent in­ci­dents of in­dus­try mal­prac­tice and — frankly, stu­pid­i­ty –, I feel it is use­ful to run through some of the events that led us here, and take a look at in­stances that I was sur­prised many peo­ple were not aware of. Going through some of these, I got struck by just how per­sis­tent and ba­sic these prob­lems have been. The same mis­takes, be­ing made over and over again in dif­fer­ent forms. Games me­dia didn’t just wake up one day and de­cide to be cor­rupt; it has been a long process with ebbs and flows. So let’s dive head­long into the sor­did his­to­ry of games journalism.

Prehistory: Print and Payola

History side 1As long as the gam­ing press and games jour­nal­ists have ex­ist­ed, so have shod­dy prac­tices. Before the days of im­me­di­ate in­for­ma­tion from the Internet, it was much eas­i­er to get tak­en for a ride by a crooked re­view. Bafflingly bad games could be giv­en good write-ups be­cause mag­a­zines had a fi­nan­cial re­la­tion­ship with de­vel­op­ers, or be­cause the per­son writ­ing the re­view sim­ply hadn’t both­ered to play the game. Reviews could con­tain wild in­ac­cu­ra­cies and even out­right fab­ri­ca­tions, since small­er gam­ing mag­a­zines had no kind of ed­i­to­r­i­al stan­dards or con­trols, and were main­ly ar­ma­ture out­fits or run by the peo­ple try­ing to sell the games. Things have great­ly im­proved since these “Wild West” days, es­pe­cial­ly in small­er mar­kets like the UK, most­ly due to the growth of mul­ti­ple re­view sources and con­sumer feed­back online.

One of the most long­stand­ing and ob­vi­ous im­prop­er re­la­tion­ships is be­tween GameStop and Game Informer. Here we have a games re­tail­er sup­pos­ed­ly pro­vid­ing con­sumer ad­vice. If that isn’t a gi­ant con­flict of in­ter­est, I don’t know what is. Claims of im­par­tial­i­ty can’t quite wash away the stench of hype-mongering and score in­fla­tion that would co­in­ci­den­tal­ly dri­ve up sales. When the peo­ple re­view­ing the games get their mon­ey from the same fi­nan­cial pot as the peo­ple sell­ing the games, you end up with zero steps of re­moval be­tween the two. Seen in the con­text of Game Informer’s, shall we say… le­nient scor­ing prac­tices and gush­ing, release-ready box-quotes, when ex­act­ly does this be­comes an is­sue of open­ly milk­ing your readers?


History side 2The swift and undig­ni­fied exit of Jeff Gerstmann re­mains one of the most bit­ter bones of con­tention in the his­to­ry of the gam­ing press. It’s worth re­mem­ber­ing that at the time this was large­ly swept un­der the rug, with Game Spot’s then-owner CNET putting out an FAQ say­ing he was re­moved from his ed­i­to­r­i­al po­si­tion due to in­con­sis­ten­cies in his re­view text with the score. Despite nu­mer­ous ed­its to the writ­ten por­tion, his video re­view was tak­en down and Gerstmann was prompt­ly fired — not only fired, but abrupt­ly locked out of his of­fice. All of this on the back­drop of Eidos hav­ing a very lu­cra­tive and ex­ten­sive ad­ver­tis­ing deal with Game Spot for Kane and Lynch, and Game Spot then go­ing on to ex­press their “dis­ap­point­ment” with the neg­a­tive review.

There was bit­ing crit­i­cism in lat­er years from gam­ing sites that saw the event as a clear-cut case of a pub­li­ca­tion re­mov­ing a writer for not co­op­er­at­ing with the strong-arming of on-site ad­ver­tis­ers. Much of this (pret­ty jus­ti­fied) anger game from Destructoid, whose 2007 and 2008 ar­ti­cles feel like they come from a par­al­lel uni­verse to the ul­tra P.C. Destructoid of the present. It be­ings a smile to my face to see them uniron­i­cal­ly self-identify as “The hard­core Gamer com­mu­ni­ty” in the con­text of all the hand-wringing over the la­bel of Gamer late­ly. Not least be­cause it took un­til 2012, five whole years lat­er, and the pur­chase of Gerstmann’s Giant Bomb by cur­rent Game Spot own­er CBS, to bring about an ad­mis­sion of what every­one had al­ready as­sumed to be true: that Gerstmann was shoved out of the door by man­age­ment due to dis­agree­ments over the low score and neg­a­tive re­view for Kane and Lynch.

This was not just iso­lat­ed to Game Spot by any means; it is part of a wider pic­ture of ed­i­to­r­i­al and ad­ver­tis­ing in games jour­nal­ism bleed­ing into one an­oth­er. It’s not even a unique­ly “west­ern” prob­lem ei­ther. Famitsu in­fa­mous­ly gave MGS4 a whop­ping 10/10 whilst car­ry­ing a high-profile cam­paign trum­pet­ing the game. Whenever you see a site tout­ing a re­view and also hav­ing gi­ant flash­ing wrap-around ads for the very same game on their front page, the spec­tre of Gersmann-Gate rears its ugly head. In most of these cas­es you can’t prove any­thing, but in a world where any­thing be­low an 8.5 is con­sid­ered a slap in the face and any­thing be­low a 7 an act of all-out war, you be­gin to take these re­views with a few ex­tra pinch­es of salt. If you can’t act as an in­de­pen­dent out­let, then there should at least be a brick wall be­tween ed­i­to­r­i­al and ad­ver­tise­ment. In an age where mon­ey is tighter than ever and com­pe­ti­tion more cut-throat, I have no doubt the Game Spot case was not an iso­lat­ed incident.

Capcom Captivate

Many of you will not have heard of this event, but I was stunned at the time, and I’m still stunned to­day that any­one thought this was in any way a good idea. Captivate 2010 was a press jun­ket, an event where mem­bers of the gam­ing press get to pre­view up­com­ing games the pub­lic didn’t yet know about and get a heads-up about up­com­ing prod­ucts. Captivate was held in Hawaii that year, and Capcom paid for jour­nal­ists from al­most all ma­jor gam­ing out­lets on what amount­ed to an all-expenses paid va­ca­tion, in­clud­ing free food, lux­u­ri­ous ho­tel ac­com­mo­da­tion and un­lim­it­ed free booze. One jour­nal­ist re­marked that how pos­i­tive or neg­a­tive people’s cov­er­age of the games were was di­rect­ly linked to how much they had been drink­ing. Again, all free. This event was run and pop­u­lat­ed by Capcom PR per­son­nel, which jour­nal­ist Matt Chandronait ca­su­al­ly re­marks are very close friends with the jour­nal­ists they are host­ing. I’m go­ing to have to quote this sec­tion of Matt Chandronait’s dis­clo­sure piece, be­cause it is both val­i­dat­ing and troubling:

There’s an­oth­er as­pect to this. Robert Fisk, a jour­nal­ist for The Independent in the UK and for whom I have the ut­most re­spect, has said that one should nev­er be ‘friends’ with those whom he is cov­er­ing. Granted, we’re cri­tiquing prod­ucts, not peo­ple and gov­ern­ments, but you un­der­stand the prin­ci­ple. You can get to know peo­ple. You can even get to like them, but be­ing a friend is per­haps too far. Melody is my friend. I have sev­er­al oth­er friends in PR and amongst the game de­vel­op­ment com­mu­ni­ty. How ‘com­pro­mised’ I am is per­haps some­thing I’ll nev­er be able to an­swer, but if it’s a ques­tion of dis­tanc­ing my­self from the wide va­ri­ety of won­der­ful, tal­ent­ed peo­ple I’ve got­ten to know so well over the years in or­der to main­tain my un­tar­nished im­age to the Internets, then com­pro­mised I shall remain.”

Discussing your bi­as­es does not ful­ly mit­i­gate them. I think Matt is wrong here, and the ad­mis­sion to be­ing close friends with PR peo­ple should mean you are not el­i­gi­ble for cov­er­ing them, but at least he dis­closed it and dis­cussed it hon­est­ly. Even if what he is dis­clos­ing is hor­ri­fy­ing in re­gards to ob­jec­tiv­i­ty, it gives us a win­dow into just how non-existent any kind of pro­fes­sion­al deco­rum in games jour­nal­ism is. Disclosure in 2015 is some­thing done be­grudg­ing­ly and un­der duress; now it seems re­port­ing on friends is not only nor­mal, but some­thing jour­nal­ists won’t even dis­cuss with­out read­er outcry.


The thing is, up un­til 2013, Captivate was an an­nu­al event. It seems Captivate 2010 was so ex­trav­a­gant, that a few peo­ple de­cid­ed to break ranks. Two of these peo­ple were Kyle Orland and Ben Kuchera, who only four years lat­er were at the very heart of the Game Journo Pros scan­dal, with Kyle Orland be­ing its founder. I can’t fath­om how they can re­port on un­eth­i­cal con­duct, and then a short time lat­er, en­gage in some of the most dam­ag­ing in­stances of un­eth­i­cal con­duct in games me­dia in re­cent mem­o­ry — com­plete with the cosy re­la­tion­ships with PR peo­ple that they were pre­vi­ous­ly call­ing out. Like with the Destructiod ar­ti­cles, I can scarce­ly be­lieve these were writ­ten by the same peo­ple we see to­day. The double-think and hypocrisy is stag­ger­ing. What process takes some­one from be­ing one of the only voic­es will­ing to call out cor­rup­tion, to be­ing the loud­est cham­pi­ons of it?

Mobile Games: Cash for Reviews 

As I’ve said be­fore, the tra­di­tion­al gam­ing press was kind of caught with their pants down with the rise of mo­bile gam­ing — lec­tur­ing gamers about in­clu­siv­i­ty whilst at the same time fail­ing to give any mean­ing­ful cov­er­age to mo­bile are­na. This gave rise to a great many sites promis­ing ex­po­sure in the crowd­ed games mar­ket in ex­change for a fee. Thankfully, the bad ac­tors were sin­gled out and re­port­ed on by oth­er, more scrupu­lous mo­bile gam­ing out­lets, with one site even main­tain­ing a “naughty list.” More-established out­lets, like Tech Radar, also cov­ered the prob­lem, ex­pos­ing the shod­dy prac­tice to the pub­lic. In any emerg­ing mar­ket, there are al­ways bad ac­tors, but you should nev­er trust a site that ac­cepts mon­ey in ex­change for a pref­er­en­tial re­view ser­vice — or to even have games re­viewed at all. Sites tak­ing ad­van­tage of small, and some­times des­per­ate, stu­dios to write re­views that may or may not have any im­pact, is about as low as the games me­dia has gone, in my view, and the prac­tice is right­ly re­gard­ed with scorn.


history side 3What is there to say about the Doritos-Pope him­self, Geoff Keighley, that hasn’t al­ready been im­mor­tal­ized in internet-meme in­famy al­ready? Well, what some don’t re­al­ize is that, be­hind the cheese-powder and corn-syrup fa­cade, lies an at­tack on eth­i­cal jour­nal­ism and an at­tack on some­one do­ing much the same as I am here: call­ing out the short­com­ings in games journalism.

Rab Florence wrote an ar­ti­cle en­ti­tled “Lost Humanity 18: A Table of Doritos” lament­ing the “trag­ic, vul­gar im­age” that be­came so in­fa­mous. He wrote:

Geoff Keighley is of­ten de­scribed as an in­dus­try leader, a games ex­pert. He is one of the most promi­nent games jour­nal­ists in the world. And there he sits, right there, be­side a ta­ble of snacks. He will be sit­ting there for­ev­er, in our minds. That’s what he is now. And in a sense, it is what he al­ways was. As Executive Producer of the mind­less, hor­ri­fy­ing spec­ta­cle that is the Spike TV Video Game Awards he over­sees the de­liv­ery of a tele­vi­su­al ta­ble full of junk, an en­tire fes­ti­val of cul­tur­al Doritos.”

I think what made many games jour­nal­ists squirm in their seats is the re­peat­ing prob­lem we see in this rogues’ gallery of events: PR and the need to have close re­la­tion­ships with ad­ver­tis­ers and spon­sors. He called out the in­sane sit­u­a­tion where these two par­ties be­come in­sep­a­ra­ble, in­ter­twined un­til you end up with a sit­u­a­tion where you have pro­mo­tion­al prod­ucts stacked around your ears whilst try­ing to talk about in­tegri­ty in the games in­dus­try.  The bull­shit was sim­ply too much for Rab Florence and he named names, he told it like it is; and for his trou­ble, he got threat­ened with a vague li­bel suit to which his em­ploy­er com­plied al­most glee­ful­ly. His piece was cut down, and cer­tain para­graphs ref­er­enc­ing tweets from oth­er jour­nal­ists, re­moved. Eurogamer did not lift a fin­ger in their journalist’s de­fense when de­fense in­tegri­ty was need­ed most. Rab Florence short­ly af­ter left Eurogamer, who I re­gard as ful­ly com­plic­it in this fail­ure to call out bad habits that shame­ful­ly led to even worse practices.

Erik Kane summed up the prob­lems in games jour­nal­ism at the time in his follow-up piece: “All The Pretty Doritos: How Video Game Journalism Went Off The Rails,” which in the end goes fur­ther than Florence ever did — demon­strat­ing that, as long as some­one out there is will­ing to tell it like it is, then try­ing to sup­press the truth is not only fu­tile, but coun­ter­pro­duc­tive. Writing about eth­i­cal mis­steps is a dan­ger­ous game, it seems, and it al­ways has been.

Industry Parities

history side 4Industry par­ties are an open se­cret, and so are much of the slimy and vul­gar ru­mors that come out of them: PR peo­ple mix­ing with de­vel­op­ers and press, all lu­bri­cat­ed with free booze. Alcohol on tap seems to be a run­ning theme in these in­stances, doesn’t it? Perhaps a good rule of thumb should be “don’t get drunk when you are sup­posed to be pro­vid­ing cov­er­age.” These events have of­ten been mut­tered about as the in­ces­tu­ous lit­tle breeding-pits of the gam­ing world, but it does not help when William O’Neal, editor-in-chief at TechRadar,  says “Who here hasn’t slept with a PR per­son or game de­vel­op­er? #AMIRITE” to a mail­ing list full of jour­nal­ists and PR people.

There is al­most an un­writ­ten rule that peo­ple don’t talk about these em­bar­rass­ing “net­work­ing” events that hap­pen at al­most every ma­jor con­ven­tion or in­dus­try event and gen­er­al­ly op­er­ate on an invite-only sys­tem. Back in 2010, Activison de­cid­ed to turn their E3 pre­sen­ta­tion in a $6 mil­lion sta­di­um event; again, beer was pro­vid­ed, and even strip­pers as well. But as for­mer Escapist ed­i­tor and now de­funct Joystiq ed­i­tor Susan Arendt re­marked to me at the time: “The girl wasn’t a strip­per, she was an ac­ro­bat.” Well, thanks for that dis­tinc­tion, Susan. I see girls in tiny biki­nis swing­ing on polls at sup­posed press events, and I jump to con­clu­sions. This de­fen­sive­ness is com­mon; no one thinks to them­selves, “Hey, should we re­al­ly be at­tend­ing these events if we want to ap­pear pro­fes­sion­al?” It’s com­pound­ed by the gam­ing pub­lic re­al­ly not know­ing much about these events, apart from when off­hand com­ments are said or pic­tures come out on so­cial me­dia. If the gam­ing press wants to re­gain some pres­tige at some point, then the par­ty has to end.

Swag Swag Swag

History side 5Swag, at one time, seemed to be ubiq­ui­tous in the gam­ing press: you couldn’t go ten min­utes with­out some jour­nal­ist wav­ing some over­sized plas­tic piece of im­prac­ti­cal, collectors-edition weapon­ry that had some­how made its way into his re­view SKU. Small scale swag is most­ly harm­less, to be hon­est; no one is sell­ing out for a slight­ly shit stat­uette worth ten dol­lars. The prob­lem comes when these gifts be­come rare and are kept by, and even at times resold by, jour­nal­ists. Some of the more ex­clu­sive items can be worth hun­dreds of dol­lars, and many com­pa­nies will sup­ply things with an even high­er face-value than that to reviewers.

YouTube per­son­al­i­ty and gam­ing crit­ic TotalBiscuit re­vealed in an in­ter­view with David Pakman that he had been of­fered a high-end lap­top worth around $2000 on which to play a game. He even had the balls to name the de­vel­op­er whose PR com­pa­ny tried to pull this off with him, that de­vel­op­er be­ing City Interactive. This isn’t un­usu­al; free hard­ware is pret­ty com­mon prac­tice for PR firms, as we saw in the Ubisoft Nexus‑7 de­ba­cle, in which it was con­firmed that Ubisoft gave each and every jour­nal­ist at­tend­ing its Watch Dogs pre­view event in the UK a free Nexus 7 tablet. Ubisoft scram­bled to say they had no idea what their own PR was do­ing, and many of the press, to their cred­it, im­me­di­ate­ly said their poli­cies did not al­low them to hang onto the tablets. This was still an in­stance in which large num­bers of press were giv­en — and in some cas­es ac­cept­ed — high val­ue gifts un­re­lat­ed to any prac­ti­cal ne­ces­si­ty for coverage.

PR gifts are some­thing that has been “nor­mal­ized” in the games in­dus­try. Without dis­clo­sure and whistle-blowers, we sim­ply don’t learn about the deals be­ing made un­til they have al­ready hap­pened, in most instances.

Wrapping Up

So where does this leave us? Well, there have been ar­gu­ments made that these glar­ing in­ad­e­qua­cies in games jour­nal­ism some­how in­val­i­date the most re­cent set of con­cerns aris­ing from gamers. These do not in­val­i­date our con­cerns; in fact, they com­pound them. The press seems to be will­ful­ly con­tra­dict­ing it­self, with every­one from Leigh Alexander to an anony­mous Destructoid con­trib­u­tor con­de­scend­ing­ly telling us what “the real is­sues” in games jour­nal­ism are, as if we have been asleep for the past ten years.

We are see­ing the same prob­lems still in many cas­es: lack of dis­clo­sure; lack of trans­paren­cy; a lack of crit­i­cal dis­tance be­tween sub­ject and writer; cosy re­la­tion­ships be­tween PR, in­dus­try and press. Publications, pun­ish­ing good prac­tices and re­ward­ing bad prac­tices. It’s the same is­sues on a loop: eth­i­cal vi­o­la­tions, fi­nan­cial con­flicts of in­ter­est, per­son­al con­flicts of in­ter­est. There is more will­ing­ness to talk about them now, as a des­per­ate redi­rec­tion; but when these events were sti­fled, there was no uni­fied out­cry un­til now, and the mo­ment there was one, sud­den­ly all talk of eth­i­cal is­sues in jour­nal­ism are some­how taint­ed with misog­y­ny. These pre­vi­ous events don’t in­val­i­date what I talk about in the rest of this se­ries; they vin­di­cate it. That’s why they are here, and that’s why it’s so im­por­tant to keep this pic­ture in mind: we have pat­terns where mal­prac­tice is con­tin­u­ous­ly oc­cur­ring and rou­tine­ly be­ing swept un­der the rug. In the gam­ing press, where so much cov­er­age is ei­ther PR fluff or emo­tion­al click­bait, jour­nal­ists don’t get fired for ly­ing; like Rab Flourence and Jeff Gerstmann, they get fired for telling the truth.

Continued in Part 6: The Degeneration of Games Writing

Visit the the Parts Index

Scrumpmonkey can also be found on YouTube, on Twitter and on Medium. You can also read more about him in his writer in­tro­duc­tion for SuperNerdLand

Edit: IndigoAltaria came in with a late gram­mat­i­cal pass-through on May 15.

The fol­low­ing two tabs change con­tent below.
John Sweeney is a ter­ri­bly British man with a back­ground in en­gi­neer­ing. He writes long-form ed­i­to­r­i­al con­tent with analy­sis of gam­ing, games me­dia and in­ter­net cul­ture. He also does the oc­ca­sion­al video game ret­ro­spec­tive with a week­ly col­umn about Magic the Gathering thrown in for good mea­sure. He also does most of our in­ter­views for some rea­son, we have no idea why. A staunch sup­port­er of free speech and con­sumer rights; skep­ti­cal of agen­da dri­ven me­dia and sus­pi­cious of un­ac­cou­table au­thor­i­ty but al­ways hope­ful for change.
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