The Death of Games Journalism — Part 5: A History of Corruption
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
As 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?
The 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.
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.
What 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 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
Swag, 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.
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
Edit: IndigoAltaria came in with a late grammatical pass-through on May 15.
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