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 1010 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.

https://supernerdland.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/Header-History-.pnghttps://supernerdland.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/Header-History – 150x150.pngJohn SweeneyEditorialDeath of Games Journalism,Doritos Pope,Editorial,Games WritingPart 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…
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John Sweeney
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.