Last week a rare, and rather industry shaking, event happened in the realm of video game journalism. Usually never being the source of news, unless an outlet awards a high profile game with a “shocking” low score which then results in countless inane forum debates, a truly important development occurred which made those within the field of journalism and those who enjoy it raise some important questions.
In case you weren’t already aware, last week saw the arrival of a rather interesting image showing Geoff Keighley blankly staring into a camera all while surrounded by Halo 4 adverts brandished on Mountain Dew and Doritos – two products that are the “go-to” snacks for gamers. Raising questions about advertising in games, the now infamous Geoff Keighley image resulted in writer Rob Florence discussing the relationship between game journalists and PR staff for video game publishers. A rather brilliant article that was far from being a scathing manifesto one would find in a forum post, the editorial, which was posted on Eurogamer, ultimately became the source of news since supposed legal pressure was put by one of the writers mentioned in the piece, Lauren Wainwright.
After causing a fuss with Eurogamer, Wainwright’s name was subsequently removed from the article and then Florence resigned, perhaps under pressure, from Eurogamer. What made this situation into an entertaining example of how much of a train wreck the video game press industry can be is that it was uncovered that Wainwright herself worked as a freelance consultant with Square Enix – all while she continued doing freelance writing gigs which included reviews and articles for Square Enix projects amidst Tweets proclaiming excitement for SE properties. This news came to light after members of NeoGAF and actual good journalists such as Ben Kuchera delved into the matter. Such a development of course made people question what exactly is the state of video game journalism if a writer can work for a major publisher and review their titles for different outlets. Is such a thing a true break in the code of ethics or are gaming journalists simply the mouthpieces of game PR?
As a writer (I won’t give myself the journalism tag and act all high and mighty) I don’t think the answer to such a question is immediately easy to come by. I won’t speak for all game journalists out there, but there are some who are truly passionate about gaming, in a positive way mind you, and care about doing proper coverage. Of course there’s a balance to everything so the Yin to the Yang of good game journos are those who simply want some goodies, interview people they love so they can be plastered on YouTube, and in the end have absolutely no scruples about being a puppet. While Florence didn’t call out anyone in particular in respect to having their strings pulled, I don’t think Wainwright is such a person or deserves to have as much vitriol aimed at her as she’s been receiving for the last week. The last thing a writer should do is work as a consultant for a company and continue to be a journo since that presents a huge conflict of interest, at least in my somewhat straight edged mind.
Perhaps I’m of the only differing opinion, but if someone lands a gig at a video game company in any capacity they should hang it up as a journo until their new gig is over. As much as I may like to entertain the notion of working for a game company someday, which is a common thing amongst most game journos in general, I won’t work for company X all while moonlighting as a writer since that’s a messed up thing to do. So Wainwright should certainly be given a proverbial slap on the wrist for having weak ethics as a journalist but in the end I think such weakness is more apparent than we may initially think.
In the last week or so since Florence’s article went up people have been debating or at least discussing the relationship between journalists and PR. There’s a somewhat common feeling that journalists are wrangled or at least partially controlled by PR and I’ll admit that I share a common feeling. It’s a tricky thing to discuss since once again it may be unfair to lump everyone, including me, in the same boat as those who love to receive swag, but the games press industry is in fact ruled by PR. It doesn’t matter if it’s a major site or one of a smaller scale such as Shogun Gamer, but in the end a game is constantly played with PR more or less.
When it comes to covering a game there are a few paths that can be taken: you can do the easy route by regurgitating press releases, shamelessly post screenshot articles daily, or do “original” articles like Top 10 lists in order to stay afloat with a decent number of hits. If a site wishes to do greater coverage they of course need to contact PR and hope they have a decent ranking on Alexa to garner coverage or at the very least have their stuff together and appear professional. Even then, the main goal of video game PR folks is to make sure their project/client looks good so they’re going to be selective about who they choose. In some ways a gaming site or journalist may have apparent fandom of a property that will result in good coverage so it may be easy to get a review copy, but then questions can be raised such as how much influence PR has in coverage or the all-important issue of when a review goes live.
We’ve already seen in the past that certain PR folks can have blow-ups about reviews as evident by the now legendary Redner Group Duke Nukem Forever debacle which saw Jim Redner post an upset Tweet about low review scores for DNF. It may be unfair to give Jim Redner a lifelong DNF tag of shame as he apologized for the Tweet shortly after posting in addition to losing the business of Take Two Interactive, but the main thing is that the bottom line is that PR cares about good coverage. So will a gaming site potentially test pissing off PR with a less than favorable review or impressions piece and in the process lose future coverage opportunities, free swag, or review units? Again, it’s not fair to say that all journos are of the same ilk, but there are those who may do anything to continue getting free stuff or could very well let a fancy press kit influence what their final review score could be.
I won’t say that even those in the PR field are all the same necessarily since there are those who care about their given projects and will admit that prior games were garbage. In my time I’ve met some PR folks who are genuinely cool and have no problem talking openly about things while others are either rigid in following their memorized script or have no clue about what they’re talking about as their main goal is to wrangle the press and make sure they don’t do anything they’re not supposed to such as asking a tough or provocative question during an interview. What I do find interesting is the somewhat constant patting on the back that goes on amongst game journos, those within the press field, and how the two groups sometimes intermingle.
Whenever a journo may be debated in an open medium or criticized there almost seems to be a sense that other journos should come to their rescue or that they should stand united, as evident by when Justin McElroy (formerly of Joystiq, now with Polygon) was criticized for a rather piss poor article only to ask GiantBomb’s Patrick Klepek to defend him more or less instead of raising questions. Even with the debate stirred up by the Florence incident there were those who somewhat laughed at the notion that games PR controlled certain journalists. Former game journo N’Gai Croal made a Tweet that those who feel that PR controls game journos are akin to conspiracy theorists, perhaps inflating things far past what they actually are. Maybe in a few cases some things are blown out of proportion, but I also think it’s unfair to say that those who like to question things are two steps away from being similar to 9/11 truthers or those in a similar Jesse Ventura camp of craziness. At times it almost seems like the industry itself is blind to what is plaguing it and that ultimately means one thing: nothing will ever change.
As it stands the games press industry is fueled by fandom more or less. Established sites obviously have more clout to them and a façade of professionalism amidst otherwise mediocre if not laughable content, while smaller sites are driven by their passion of gaming – sometimes to a near blinding state which results in one note coverage that would be better off as a Tumblr page. With the status of the industry being rooted in fandom, the games PR industry essentially controls the flow of coverage and who gets what in terms of “exclusive content”.
This almost symbiotic relationship results in a level of fear or laziness amongst some journos, at least in my mind, since it kills any likelihood of investigative journalism. True journalism often involves investigating the facts to deliver an accurate or informative piece and that’s something that’s consistently lacking in the industry. The lack of true investigative journalism can both be chalked up to laziness amongst those who rely on receiving email press releases to create coverage while others are afraid to bite the hands that feeds them. Why would an outlet potentially risk losing key coverage by exposing something or raising questions about something that gamers are interested in? Wouldn’t that be pure madness?
There are some sites that do brilliant investigative journalism from time to time but when such a thing does pop up it goes either two ways: it fades away unless it's about a major topic (CoD, Elder Scrolls, etc.), or it gets retooled on other sites in a simple post that loses the essence of the original article, which exists only as a hyperlink in which most of the audience won't bother to click on. The state of things today dictates that everything is good enough so there's really no pressure amongst some to change things, especially for those who are living off of simple articles that net a nice bonus upon reaching six thousand views.
I would like to remain optimistic about things, but deep inside I know that literally nothing will ever change in the games press industry unless two things happen: 1. The industry suffers a crash that makes the one in the 1980s look like a cakewalk, and 2. Multiple sites are uncovered to be taking obvious bribes aside from one or two journos taking a freebie from time to time. The games press seems to have settled in a routine more or less of receiving coverage when it’s given to them, writing predictable nonsense that is devoid of any emotion or originality, hyping up stuff endlessly, and then following the hivemind mentality to provide a review that perfectly falls in line with others – perhaps even pleasing the PR team if it ups the games score on the all-important and overwhelmingly powerful MetaCritic.
At times there may be the thought that video games will ultimately transcend other types of media and the issues which plague things now (pointless battles on violence, content, etc.) will cease to be since those in power would have grown up playing Call of Duty or Angry Birds, thus they understand gaming and it’s in their DNA. Sadly I don’t think such a possibly positive change will occur in the press/PR field since some writers already want to work in games PR, basically ensuring that the cycle will continue since those who have questionable ethics will only be moving up in the world. I wish things will change but you know that a month from now everyone will forget or hardly remember the Florence incident and the now infamous Doritogate of 2012; ensuing that the video games press/PR industry will continue as is.