I want to get some thoughts down on paperscreen, and then out in public, about the recent brouhaha over games journalists’ behaviour and integrity, and the conflicts I see with the Games Media Awards. I also want to still have some friends in this industry, but sometimes the two don’t go hand in hand.
I also want to be clear that I don’t think any of these matters are clear-cut or simple, and that I certainly don’t consider myself to be a paragon, above all the accusations of corruption, or the activities that some consider compromising. So I want to explain the compromises I experience, too.
And incredibly importantly, I want to point out that the vast majority of the time, no matter which site or magazine you read, the chances are what you’re reading is un-bought, uncorrupted opinion. That’s the norm. Issues are the exception. Frankly, anything else would require more organisation and effort than most editors have the time or energy for. And of the very many games journalists I know, I know of not one who’s ever done anything openly corrupt, or written an influenced review. Most people, and most content, is exactly as you’d hope it was.
The fuss today emerged after it was spotted that a bunch of journalists at this year’s Games Media Awards (GMAs) had been encouraged to tweet including a hashtag for a particular game, so one of them would win a PS3. This seemed an immediately and obviously not okay thing for a games journalist to do. Advertise a product on your personal Twitter stream and you could receive personal gain. That’s an obvious no. But even so, I can see how people at an industry piss-up could get carried away, send off a tweet without giving pause to think that it was a mistake, do a drunken thing. What shocked me today was the vociferous defence of this in the sobriety of a Wednesday morning the following week. In criticising this on Twitter, I was met with a combination of disdain, incredulity, and outright mocking, because I thought it an issue. Arguments ranged from being told that journalists deserve it because they’re so poorly paid, to it just being a bit of fun and hashtags aren’t advertising. But more than anything else, either directly to me, or on other journalists’ Twitter feeds, so many people rolled their eyes at the discussion, dismissing it as ridiculous. And that I find bewildering.
Games journalism has always had its problems. When I started in 1999, I was told stories of antics in the early 90s. Later I learned of antics in the late 90s. But the big examples are all very rare. However, compromise comes in many forms, and the constant battle between editorial and PRs leads to a convoluted and often concerning mix. That’s why I have such a keen and instinctive dislike of the GMAs. These are awards organised by PRs, for which PRs are eligible to vote, all sponsored by publishers. I think just going along to this event is a compromising act, not because I don’t think journalists should attend events funded by publishers, but because this is an event put on by publishers and PRs, funded by publishers, in order to vote for their favourite journalists. It’s a very specific event, its outward facing purpose to reward gaming hacks with perspex blocks, but its more insidious and yet overtly obvious purpose being to further blur the lines between what should be two distinct sides. It isn’t a civilised awards dinner, but rather a big advertising-packed booze-up, with free drinks and food while various sponsors advertise their wares. A comedian comes on and awkwardly tries to do games-related material, and then often extremely deserving writers get given not only their award, but also a big bag of expensive loot that doesn’t get talked about. I know this because via RPS I’ve won two of them.
(Hopefully just the stupid fact that I’ve won two of these awards can push aside any of the mindless, lazy responses from other industry figures, who instantly label me (and anyone who criticises the GMAs) as “bitter”.)
So I’m left bemused that there’s such strong objection to anyone who questions it all. I’m also delighted to see Eurogamer running a piece by Robert Florence, questioning the whole matter, and exploring this debate. But it’s now absolutely fascinating watching the industry whirr itself into action to condemn Rab for absolutely legitimately pointing out things people said in public. Critics are rarely good at taking criticism, but what’s happening amongst many PRs and writers now is a Roman legion-style tortoise defence, as they loudly decry the piece without providing a glimmer of an argument opposing it, and hide behind their collective shields. The people who should be say, “Shit, good grief, look at how we come across” are instead saying, “He is a bad man!” and then sending each other reassuring tweets that the article is inaccurate (although failing to point out where) and calling Rab “bitter”. It’s sadly pathetic. And it’s deeply concerning, about an industry that now not only believes itself not deserving of criticism, but that criticism is an outrage.
I deserve criticism.
Being a games journalist is a confusing collection of compromises. For instance, we get games for free. I have a Steam account that automatically has most games appear in my list. If a game isn’t in there, I contact its representative and ask for a copy. You could argue that this compromises me. You could claim that I have a skewed perspective of the value of games because of this. I’d argue against it somewhat – I still buy games, mostly on console. I’m very conscious of how much they cost, and always consider this when reviewing. And as a freelancer if I had to buy every game I played, I wouldn’t be able to do my job. I think that the belief that getting a game for free is a bribe in and of itself comes from the perspective of someone who thinks, “I wish I could get games for free!”, and I completely understand that. However, from the inside, getting the basic tools you need to be able to start doing your job really doesn’t feel like a benefit, nor does it – in all of my experience – make me favourable toward that game. But there’s room for debate here.
Press trips are the other big issue. I haven’t been on one for years now (and in the last few years they’ve only been with Valve, who are quite exceptional in their doing absolutely no PR whatsoever – a driver collects you from the airport, drops you at a hotel, and then you get yourself to their office and back, and figure out food, entertainment, etc for yourself). Edit: It’s been pointed out to me that I recently went to a two-day, no-frills event in London to play SWTOR ahead of release, that involved an overnight stay. I’d quite forgotten. But let’s take the norm, for let’s say a trip to San Francisco to visit a developer and look at their game at some point during its development. In my experience (and I’m intrigued to learn this is not the norm for many American mags/sites) the trip is paid for by the publisher behind the game. This includes flights (absolutely always in Economy in my experience, with the exception of Valve), a hotel room, and meals during the trip. You are looked after by a PR, whose job is to ensure journalists go where they’re supposed to go and see what they’re supposed to see, and then take them out for dinner in the evening. And yes, obviously here there is lots of room for criticism.
Every aspect of that could be considered an attempt to influence my opinion of the game I’m seeing (although I’d argue flying twelve hours in Economy doesn’t quite fit that bill), and you can obviously see how it’s in the PR’s interests to keep the journalists content. Again, from the perspective of the writer, it’s hard to perceive any of it as a bribe. You need a plane to get to the developer, you need a bed to sleep in, and you need to eat. And since you can’t afford any of those things, it’s useful that someone else is paying. Whether that’s your employer/magazine/website, or the publisher, in the end is immaterial to you as a writer. Where things get more tricky is in the entertaining that might surround the trip.
I remember spending one day going to Universal Studios in LA. It was an absolutely brilliant day, not least because it was so far removed from what a press trip would usually try to do. At the time, the theme park was like something out of a Scooby Doo episode, run down and depressing, and I was with a group of hilarious writers – we had the best day laughing at the dilapidated ruin of a 1980s hangover, and then got to go down the road where Buffy lived. I couldn’t tell you what game it was for, and I can assure you that it didn’t influence whatever I wrote about whichever game it was when I got back. But if you want to criticise me, I absolutely got given entry to Universal Studios by a PR. That merits criticism.
However, I also made personal choices on such trips. Most journalists want to spend the evenings in bars, drinking lots. I can think of little I’d like to do less, and quickly learned to politely opt out of post-dinner activities, and head back to my hotel room. I’d get funny looks, but I’m comfortable enough with myself to ignore that. In the morning I’d not have any disturbing anecdotes, but I’d also not have a debilitating hangover. I’m also extremely fortunate that I’ve only once had to turn down an offer to go to a strip club. I’ve never been to one, have no desire to go to one, but have often heard about their being offered on such trips. That’s deserving of criticism.
One time I was sent to London for a preview event for the game Auto Assault. What I didn’t know was that I’d spend the day riding on quad bikes and hovercraft. I had a great day, by coincidence with a few good friends, and at the end of it we were shown the average-looking game. That I’d wasted a day pratting around on bikes didn’t make me want to like the game more – if anything it puts the mediocrity of a game in perspective – and the game went on to be a disastrous flop that few journalists sought to defend because they’d had a nice day going on a quad bike. But that day is definitely deserving of criticism – it had nothing to do with the game, and had no purpose other than to try to entertain us. And the publishers had no reason to want to entertain us other than to have us like their game more. It didn’t work, it’s damned stupid. But I was a part of it, and you’d be right to criticise it. (Although at least I didn’t write about the day for any press – I’m concerned to see today people on some jaunt in Paris where Microsoft pay for a bunch of journos to race cars, who are then writing about it.)
Heck, I’ve written content for a game! I wrote a bunch of material for the remake of Broken Sword, by Revolution Software. As such I have said that I will never review any of their games again. But when they recently had a Kickstarter for Broken Sword 5, in my role as a writer for RPS I posted about it. I don’t think I should have. While I wasn’t encouraged to post about that particular Kickstarter because I’d worked with the developers, but rather because it was a news story our readers cared about, it could appear as corrupt. Criticise me for that – call me out. I declared my interests in the posts – that’s a good thing to do in such circumstances. But such circumstances probably shouldn’t come about.
Similarly, there are a couple of developers whose games I won’t review, because I feel I’ve become too friendly with them. That’s an interesting peril of this job – you see someone often enough in a work context, and you might get on with them, want to be friends. It’s happened to me twice in 14 years, but it’s happened. And for me, that means it’s absolutely inappropriate to review their games – but you could criticise me for not having boundaries in place to prevent this.
I want to add here, however, that a mistake an awful lot of people make is the belief that advertising regularly influences editorial. Again, yes, it has in various generally well known cases. But again, that’s very unusual. For example, PC Gamer is written each month with the writers mostly not having a clue which ads will appear between the articles, and more significantly, not caring. A part of an editor’s job is to keep the idiotic ideas an ad department come up with at bay, and also ensure his/her writers never have to hear about any of it. That’s normal. And at RPS, we have absolutely no idea who will be advertising on our site. That’s all done by the ad staff at Eurogamer, with whom we partner for advertising content. The only influence we have over advertising is to have them changed or removed when we object to them, either because they objectify men or women, or contravene our rules on intrusiveness. What they’re advertising – well generally I don’t even notice they’ve changed since the previous week until around Wednesday, because my brain ignores them. And they certainly don’t influence our content – as is regularly demonstrated by our slagging off names currently shouted down the sides of the site. And we, personally, couldn’t give a flying fuck if a company’s ads people wanted to have a strop because they didn’t like what we said about their game. We’d likely never hear about it anyway.
I am deeply disturbed that this UK games industry is behaving as if it’s above criticism. Everything I’ve described above is normal, and its normality is such that it just happens without anyone giving it any thought. And most of it isn’t corrupt, no matter how it may appear. Most of it is practical and pragmatic, along with a PR with a corporate credit card who quite fancies a nice dinner himself. Everyone experiences biases and influences, in every field, and no one is free from it. Journalists who last, without being called out as shills, tend to do a good job of not letting it affect their writing or opinions. I like to think I have. But then I’m a grumpy old sod, and don’t really have trouble distinguishing a comfy hotel room from a game.
In response to the fuss from the morning, and Rab’s piece from this afternoon, a lot of incredibly lazy parodying and exaggeration is being used by those who don’t want to confront these matters. And that’s ridiculous. Crying out that it’s a fuss about nothing, or decrying Eurogamer and Robert Florence for having pointed out things people said in public, is cowardly. Inventing straw man arguments that people are suggesting that journalists should always be antagonistic and confrontational to PRs, rather than asking questions about the appopriateness of their relationships with PRs, is far easier. And it ensures that the industry continues to be perceived as corrupt, despite the paucity of actual corruption taking place. Today is an opportunity to ask questions of yourself, and wonder what you do that you could improve. Not a day to rally around each other and pretend those who criticise are just mean bullies.
I really hope today leads to at least a few more journalists considering whether they wish to continue endorsing the GMAs in their current form. But more I hope it has journalists challenge themselves, think where they merit criticism, and attempt to improve. It has for me.