The ethics of video game journalism — Feature

Consumers spend upwards of £40 on big-budget (‘AAA’) video games based on the reviews of trusted critics for whom impartiality and honesty is necessary. But many claim the relationships between corporations and critics makes that necessity an impossibility. Jon Norrey examines.

William Randolph Hearst famously wrote: “News is something somebody doesn’t want printed; all else is advertising” – a huge statement of cynicism as far as reviewing is concerned. Cynicism which is echoed by many connected to gaming culture and is clear to all who have at least a vague interest in it. Cynicism which even critics themselves often feel.

Tom Bramwell, Editor of Eurogamer, the largest independent gaming website in Europe, recently posed the question: “We have all developed relationships with people who work in games in order to get our jobs done. We all get sent free stuff. We accept these things because they are a means by which we can report on games, but how can we know they don’t influence us?”

This was done in the wake of an article written in November for Eurogamer by BBC writer, comedian and presenter, Robert ‘Rab’ Florence, on the state of the industry, which escalated scepticism surrounding games journalism to critical levels and sparked controversy regarding perceived scandalous ethics of the gaming press. One of his claims was: “Publishers are well aware that some of you go crazy if a new AAA title gets a crappy review score on a website, and they use that knowledge to keep the boat from rocking. Everyone has a nice easy ride if the review scores stay decent and the content of the games are never challenged. Websites get their exclusives. Ad revenue keeps rolling in. The information is controlled.” And you don’t have to spend long on any gaming forum before discovering a multitude of scathing allegations which concur with Rab’s statements. Claims are rife that all games journalists are ‘paid off’, that they are just marketeers whose job it is to promote AAA games, and that none of them give honest reviews. “If they don’t play ball, their site doesn’t get that sexy ad money, and they don’t get advance copies, so their reviews are late and their audience drops,” asserted one disgruntled gamer. “Reviewers are for the most part extensions of marketing departments. There is no such thing as scruples in video game ‘journalism’,” declared another.

Allegations such as these perpetuate the view that the gaming press operates in a way which is highly unethical. After all, they aren’t just being given free access to watch a screening a few days before the general public – like a film reviewer – or a free album to listen to not long before everyone else – like a music reviewer. They are given a relatively valuable copy of a brand new video game a week or two in advance, which some claim is enough to create a conflict of interest alone; while others save the cries of corruption until they discover that some game critics accept more extravagant gifts which aren’t so essential to their profession.

“We staged an experiential day – taking media to an airfield and had them fire rocket propelled grenades at disused planes, ‘urban surf’ on top of a speeding car and paraglide behind an armoured personnel carrier.” PR firm, Taylor Herring, proudly boast on their website after being commissioned by a video game publisher to entertain critics for the day to coincide with the release of their new AAA game. As well as this, critics have received free first-class flights to gaming events worldwide, free hotel rooms, free trips to theme parks, all-expense-paid visits to strip clubs, and more, as well as even their livelihoods in the form of advertising payments by publishers.

One journalist notoriously lost his job due to the latter. Jeff Gerstmann was dismissed as Editorial Director at Gamespot – the world’s second most popular video game website – after major games publisher, Eidos, threatened to pull advertising revenue from the site following a “less-than-glowing” review he’d written about one of their games.

Regarding these issues, Lauren Wainwright, former games journalist for The Sun, and game review sites MCV, Gamespot and IGN, said: “With video game journalism these things come hand-in-hand, and that’s not necessarily a good thing. I’ve had free flights, free hotel rooms and free dinners. When I went to review one game we stayed in this gorgeous hotel in Vegas. I suppose that can be questioned; but I wouldn’t be able to get a game early if I didn’t speak to PR, I wouldn’t be able to see games early at events. As much as I’d like to have instant access to all that stuff without having to deal with PR, I have to because they need to control all that. PR are painted in a horrible way and the reality is they’re lovely people who are just trying to do their job.”

But does taking part in these activities and even potentially receiving your income, create a conflict of interest for a critic who is set to review a game made by the company who has paid for it all? With regards to accurate reporting, the PCC Editors’ Code states that the Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information, and Reuters’ Handbook of Journalism states: “Where there is a concern about a potential or existing conflict of interest, a senior editor should instruct a journalist to unwind a transaction or take other appropriate action, such as reassigning the writing or editing to another journalist.” Should this perhaps be occurring more often?

Keith Stuart, Games Correspondent for The Guardian, doesn’t think so. He believes there is prevalent impartiality within the gaming press, despite admitting that publishers do attempt to skew opinions in their favour: “I actually think instances of ‘corruption’ are pretty rare; publishers will naturally do what they can to influence critical opinion of their titles, but most good journalists maintain objectivity – you’re nothing without that. The crucial thing is for games journalists, like all journalists, is to realise that their first duty is to serve their readers – nothing else is more important.”

That is a view which is shared by Wesley Copeland, Editor-in-Chief of game review site Video Games Interactive: “There’s always pressure. If I’m being honest, a publisher paying for ad-revenue does stay in the forefront of your mind, even if it’s subconscious, it’s there. It’s just most won’t admit it; but it’s up to each journalist to decide if they want to p**s all over the trust they’ve built up with their reader base. Most of us have spent years building that trust, and losing it for the sake of a slightly higher pay-packet, isn’t worth it. Without readers, we are nothing. What is the value of a writer’s words if there’s no one around to read it? When it comes to the actual score of a game, they don’t have the control the public thinks they do. There will always be at least one site that loves their latest product, no matter how rubbish it is, and if there is at least one, they’ve got a site they can use on their campaign.”

But Rab’s piece didn’t merely cease at criticising the gaming industry as a whole; he went on to call out a few individual journalists for what he believed to be poor practice – much to the dismay of Lauren Wainwright. Rab wrote: “Instantly I am suspicious. I am suspicious of this journalist’s apparent love for Tomb Raider. I am asking myself whether she’s in the pocket of the Tomb Raider PR team. I’m sure she isn’t, but the doubt is there. After all, she sees nothing wrong with journalists promoting a game to win a PS3, right?” This was in reference to Wainwright’s Twitter page which was adorned with images of Lara Croft – the game’s protagonist – and a ‘tweet’ highlighting Wainwright’s obsession with her, along with another of her ‘tweets’ declaring that she didn’t see anything wrong with fellow journalists using a ‘hashtag’ to seemingly promote a game for the chance to win a PlayStation 3 games console. This section of the piece was quickly removed by Eurogamer after Wainwright threatened legal action, claiming that Rab’s comment was libellous, but despite this other sites posted the original piece in its entirety and Wainwright decided to take it no further.

Unfortunately, calling Wainwright out led to unbridled abuse, severe anguish and eventually being let go by her employer, MCV. She explained: “Obviously as someone in an industry that has to be trusted for their work and for that kind of comment to go on one of the biggest European gaming websites is quite a bold statement to make. I was very upset, I burst into tears at work, I got home and had a bit of a freak out because I was getting abuse on Twitter calling me a shill and a whore. What happened was a witch-hunt – 2 months of my life of constant abuse and even death-threats! It was just a huge mess and in the end the company I worked for couldn’t deal with it and I got let go – but these are problems that go way beyond me.”

She was backed up by Wesley Copeland: “Be sceptical, by all means, but don’t become blinded. Ask the tough questions when they need asking, but don’t follow what others say. People don’t want logic and reasoning, they want a witch-hunt. The downside of this whole mess is that witch-hunts only end one way: when a witch gets burnt. Wainwright’s name has been dragged through the mud, and she no longer works at MCV. Is that being sceptical and raising questions when needed, or just the internet forming a gang and mass-bullying someone they’ve decided they don’t like because some comedian told them to?”

Conversely, John Walker, Editor and Co-director of PC gaming site Rock, Paper, Shotgun, condemned Wainwright’s actions in an article he wrote about her and implored young writers getting started in this business to avoid getting ‘embroiled in the cosy world of PR-journo group hugs’, before stating that if they ever think they might want to prevent another journalist from publishing their thoughts they should instantly quit and get a job where they won’t be ‘a disgrace to our industry.’

With the whole saga causing much tumult, the emerging demands are ones for better conduct and greater transparency from critics – is it necessary for journalists to be more open about any potential conflicts of interest which may arise from the way the industry currently operates, and adhere to stricter regulations? Keith Stuart believes it’s essential: “In the wake of the scandal in games writing, several sites, including The Guardian, re-asserted and tweaked their codes of conduct in relation to reviews – and this was important and necessary. Readers need to know that they can trust reviews, that there is nothing going on that could influence a reviewer.”

Patrick Garratt, Editor of VG247, concurs. He recently implemented a new code of conduct for his site, becoming the first gaming site in the UK to adopt anything of the kind by no longer accepting flights, hotels and hospitality, and by disclosing any potentially influential factors in reviews. He stated: “I wanted to create more distance between us and PR. As VG247 got larger, so did my sense of unease.”

The debate rages on, and queries are constantly raised about journalistic ethics within the games industry – some of which have been since the 1980s and will continue. As John Walker said: “Scrutiny is a good and vital thing, and the perception of poor practice should always be questioned.” But games journalism does need to learn from its mistakes, try to move on and adapt. With 33 million gamers throughout the UK, all using a plethora of devices – be it consoles, PCs, phones, tablets, etc. – and the industry currently worth £1.92bn in Britain alone, satisfactory solutions need to be found quickly under ever-increasing scrutiny.

Follow me on Twitter: @JonNorrey

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