John Walker's Electronic House

Games Journalists, And The Perception Of Corruption

by on Oct.24, 2012, under Rants

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.

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66 Comments for this entry

  • Pete Davison

    Excellent post, sir; thank you for writing it. I have little more to add save for the fact I agree with everything you have said. The GMAs always appear to be an obnoxious circlejerk of the “boys’ club” that the inner circle of UK games journalism has become, and I find the whole attitude surrounding them immensely distasteful — particularly the vitriolic responses to anyone who offers valid criticisms. One of the people quoted in Rab’s article even claimed that his piece was “slander” — can you believe it?

    Sadly, I can.

    Anyway, keep fighting the good fight. The industry needs folks like you.

  • Joe

    Thanks – that was a good read and needed to be said.

  • MacTenchi

    Those press trips make me pretty uncomfortable. There’s no reason the developers can’t just send you preview code and answer any questions over Skype. They’re clearly trying to control your experience and influence your judgement.

  • Michael Johnson

    The number of journalists who seemingly fail to grasp that the interests of their audience are not the same as the interests of a PR person is deeply disturbing. Either that or they don’t give a shit about their audience.

    That they mock the idea of having a professional relationship with PR people as some kind of wacky idea is both bizarre and deeply disturbing.

  • Frymaster

    In regards to journalists at preview events – as a reader, it’s simple. As soon as I see the word “preview” I understand that the article I’m about to see was written not based on someone experiencing the game by themselves, in private, as I will, but rather someone being spoon-fed an experience from a product that isn’t finished and so is subject to change, by the product’s creators, in the creator’s space under their rules.

    Regardless of what I may or may think about the likelihood of the writer to be swayed by hovercraft (personally I’d sell off most of my family into slavery for hovercraft access), under those circumstances of COURSE it’s not possible to have or write about the game in a fair way, which is why it’ll say “preview” instead of “review”, and I read the article accordingly.

    I hope knowing people in the industry doesn’t stop you writing discussion articles and participating in “RPS verdict” style features about their games, even if you can’t do a WIT

  • Dan Griliopoulos

    I’m travelling so can’t write much, but 100% behind you on this. I was at those awards, unthinkingly tweeted that hashtag, and regret it now. It’s hard to keep up to your own moral standards in this industry, but it’s the trying that counts. Glad to have people you and Rab around to remind us to glance at that moral compass more regularly.

  • Tim

    It’s interesting that you say that most reviews are, in fact, legit and not influenced by PR goodies or commercial pressure. I’m not saying you’re wrong, but that’s definitely not the view among me and my gaming friends, all of whom assume that most review sites out there are unreliable at best and outright shilling at worst.

    This may be a hangover from the really bad days of the 1990s, when we were growing up (I’m 31) and perhaps things have got better since then. But regardless of the present reality, games journalism has been bent enough for long enough that it has a terrible reputation among the gamers I know.

    If we’re actually being too harsh, and if things really have got better, then I’d love to know – any chance you could expand on the topic?

  • John Walker

    @MacTenchi – Actually, there are lots of good reasons, not least because code in progress would never, ever be let outside of some developers’ studios. Either a team of devs and their code and machines are flown to each country, or journalists from many countries are flown to them. The latter is much cheaper and more sensible.

  • Mark

    The industry is an odd beast. I run a gaming website along with my partner. While we certainly don’t profess ourselves as being “journalists”, we do try to remain professional and impartial at all times because anything otherwise is just beneath our own personal morals and we try to carry this stance on to all of our writers.

    The sad thing is, because we avoid all the back-patting and “drinks down the pub” stuff, we’ve been said to be elitist by others. It’s disturbing to think that the games industry has become so incestuous that by not participating in “the club”, it’s viewed as a negative.

    Without impartiality, however, journalists can’t be taken seriously.

  • John Walker

    @Tim – You are definitely being too harsh. And you’re being too harsh about the 90s, too. That was the era of Amiga Power, Zero, PC Zone!

    Conspiracy theories are rife, and for some reason people are much happier to assume a review that disagrees with their opinion must therefore be corrupt. I’m accused of corruption by readers via comments or email on a very regular basis, despite never having been. (Weirdly, I’m most frequently accused of an unexplained form of corruption that causes me to say mean things about a game.)

    And never forget incompetence – that’s a FAR more likely explanation for a review that seems inaccurate, rather than some easily exposed background bribery.

  • Tim

    @John – Interesting, thanks for the reply. If you think I’m being overly harsh, then I encourage you to write about it, because as far as I can tell (and obvious caveats about limited sample sizes apply!) it’s a fairly widespread point of view. I rely almost exclusively on word-of-mouth for games recommendations now. The only review site I read is RPS, and I’m not saying that to suck up – it’s the honest truth.

    My memories of the 1990s are that in so many magazines it was almost impossible for any game to score less than about 75%, almost no matter what it did (perhaps I was reading the wrong magazines…). Anyway, combine that with the fact that these mags were run on pretty thin budgets, and that the only advertising they attracted was from the firms whose games they were reviewing, and it didn’t seem unreasonable to assume that there could be a degree of self-restraint, conscious or otherwise, going on.

    I also think that the worst excesses are the ones that tend to stick in people’s minds and to colour their subsequent judgments. When Gamespot sacked one of their reviewers for a not-totally-favourable review of Kane & Lynch after they’d plastered the whole site with PR for the game, that was enough to turn me off Gamespot pretty much forever. I think trust is something that’s hard to build, easy to lose, and almost impossible to regain once it’s gone. That may be unfair – in fact it probably is – but I think it’s the reality.

  • Nicholas Lovell

    I’m one of those “mindless, lazy responses” that says you are bitter.

    Actually, I didn’t say you were bitter. What I said was: “I keep telling myself that you are not bitter, but it does make you sound bitter” (http://es.twitter.com/nicholaslovell/status/259017793645735936)

    And the tweet that made you sound bitter: “Hey folks. Remember that the GMAs are nonsense voted for by PRs and sponsored by the companies you’re supposed to report on. Best of luck!” http://es.twitter.com/botherer/status/259015918452097024

    I’m not disagreeing with you that there is an issue with the GMAs. I know that you’ve had issues with their structure for a very long time. I still feel that tweet made you sound bitter.

    (Also, it turns out I have a different opinion of journalism to some other people. I’m not sure I’ve ever really accepted the idea of a higher idealistic objective for journalism. It is basically entertainment, and all content has to considered for its innate bias. Just like everything on the Internet. And for that matter everything in the whole of history. Maybe this scepticism comes from being a historian by background).

    Tl/dr: Your points are important. Your tweets made you sound bitter even though you’re not. I assume all journalism is biased anyway, and try to adjust for that.

  • Josh Holloway

    Games journalism has a reputation of corruption, but it’s not because of tweeting hashtags, being flown out to release events, or being photographed next to towers of Mountain Dew. It has a reputation of corruption because immature gamers like to believe that games they hate got a good score because someone got paid off.

    That’s not to say that unsavory stuff never goes on in the industry, but you even stated it in your article — for the most part, games journalists are good people who want to do their best to serve the readers.

  • Dex

    Let’s play spot the difference:
    http://i.imgur.com/kLHUo.png
    http://i.imgur.com/J6umg.jpg
    http://i.imgur.com/Fig3E.jpg

    It should be a basic rule that you don’t at the same time write an opinion piece on a product while you run unmissable advertisement for said product on your site.

    Also Bioware/EA PR at work with Dragon Age II: http://www.abload.de/img/45vxxm.png

  • Alan W

    Well said, John.

  • ReV VAdAUL

    @ John Walker

    Regarding preview code being sent to journalists to be shown off by the developers, Jeff Gerstmann of Giant Bomb has stated that this often does actually happen. I would imagine that that is because Giant Bomb is based in San Fransico and is thus very close to a number of developers but it does suggest press junkets can be reduced to some degree.

    Cloud gaming may also work for previews just as it may well do a good job for demos in the near future. Of course any bad impressions could / would then be dismissed as lags or problem with the streaming service but still it is another potential way to cut down on events that the gaming public views as deeply suspect.

  • Jake Godin

    I’m attending a journalism school over here in the states (University of Missouri – Columbia) with the intention of going into games journalism/critiquing.

    I’ve had entire sections of classes devoted to ethics/bias/getting gifts and what to do in those situations. During these classes, and every other one I’m taking, I always try to make parallels between the journalism we’re learning and what I’d do in games journalism.

    If someone who writes about games as a career (especially those who consider themselves game journalists) tweets a hashtag to promote a game to win a PS3, well, that’s just bad. Even if that person has no intention of being biased towards that particular game, the fact that they took part in tweeting a hashtag that can be seen by all of their followers is still bad.

    I can see how people could get into the mindset to defend doing this, but…they need to learn that it is simply not ethical.

    I was going to write how one could compare this situation to something similar and hypothetical happening in the New York Times or Wall Street Journal but, uh, decided against it for rant-length reasons.

  • Eddie

    In the mid 80′s, when I graduated from college, it was common in the engineering profession for suppliers to take customers out for lunch, dinner, golf trips, and more.

    Whether that influenced decisions or not eventually the industry changed (in general, there are exceptions). Now every year I have to sign a form where I either state I have not received any gift worth more than a token amount or show evidence that acceptance was authorized by a senior executive. I don’t think the gifts ever influenced me but appearance is important.

    I nor most of the gamers I know are as negative about games journalism as he and his friends seem to be. But we are suspicious. It is hard not to be when events like E3 are touted as for the press only and then there is all the talk about swag. For something that games journalist seem to want gamers to think is insignificant (the swag), many of them spend a lot of time talking about how great it is and what all they got.

    The most recent example I can think of is the Darksiders headstone. Game journalists seemed excited to get this and those who didn’t seemed disappointed. On the PR side I’ve recently seen a tweet asking why a review code should be sent to a site that otherwise hasn’t covered a game. Which sounds like, “if you want a review copy, you better be advertising for me before the game comes out.”

    I’m not saying these things are wrong, but it is surprising that many don’t even want to talk about the possibility. That, as much the actual swag, is worrisome.

  • TonicBH

    Dex: John makes that abundantly clear in one paragraph how they don’t influence the ad department. I’d suggest reading that part.

    As for the rest of the article, I feel this is entirely true. It really saddens me that there are so many jaded gamers willing to just raise their arms and scream “BIAS! PAID OFF! CORPORATE SHILL!” because their opinions differ. We need to grow out of that mindset and realize that it really isn’t that bad.

  • Alan

    One of the big problems here is the popular perception of games journalists. The vitriol aimed at reviewers is extraordinary. Accusations of corruption, claims that journalists are biased, sneers that journalists don’t know what they’re talking about, all the way up to threats of violence for poor reviews. Look underneath almost any review on a popular gaming website and you’ll find dismissive comments, hostile comments, abusive comments, and rarely any constructive discussion. It happens almost everywhere there’s a comment form, of course, but there’s an edge to the comments on game sites that beats even the unpleasantness in the comments section of the Daily Mail or Guardian websites.

    It cannot be a pleasant experience to be a reviewer and see a review that amounts to ‘it’s not bad’ result in a torrent of abuse from slavish fans. And I think it causes a certain ‘turtling’ effect. If you’re subjected to daily unwarranted criticism you’re bound to automatically file any criticism with merit alongside it. I don’t know how you fix this without sending the world on an anger management course. But if you, as an example, look at the Reddit thread that links to Rab’s article, there’s a whole bunch of people nodding along, enjoying how it fits with their preconceived notion of an entire industry being corrupt. These people are going to think the same way whether there’s a screencap of a man alongside some Mountain Dew or not. They *are* mean bullies, most of them, and it’s always going to be difficult to get journalists to reflect meaningfully on how they are perceived when whole crowds are bellowing at them that they smell of wee.

    And, just as there’s a big problem with the popular perception of journalism, there’s just as big a problem with the popular perception of PR. I work in B2B tech PR, and oh I wish it were as easy as buying off journalists with a couple of pints and free t shirt and key fob. Generally, all a relationship with a journalist means, however ‘cosy’, is that they’re more likely to pick up the phone when you call. It definitely doesn’t guarantee coverage, and certainly doesn’t guarantee positive coverage. In my experience, there’s a trade-off – the journalist may be less likely to ignore you, but they’ll also ask themselves that they’re definitely not writing something as a favour. The idea of having a journalist ‘in my pocket’ is a weird, alien thing. Maybe I’m just not very good at PR.

  • Poday

    A very well written article.

    It seems like the root of the problem is that people have difficulty separating their professional and personal lives. A good PR department will exploit this weakness because it can increase review scores and awareness of the game fairly cheaply. The only way to prevent this is to have a good moral code and sticking to it.

    An example code would be something like:
    -The developer can pay transportation and accommodation plus lunches (limited to restaurants that the devs usually eat at). Anything above that are suspect.
    -If in a professional setting then the personal life shouldn’t be involved.
    -Never endorse/advertise anything. Give a fair and balanced assessment and let the reader determine their own conclusion.

    Beyond that reviewers could start shaming publishers that attempt the bribe mentality: “Publisher X had so little faith in their own game that they bought everyone gifts worth approximately $YYY”. This would probably burn a few bridges but people would quickly stop offering the perks to the reviewers that outed them.

  • Toby

    Nicholas — Your reply to John here makes about as little sense as your replies to his tweets, which you kindly linked. You’re using the word “bitter” plenty, but you’re not making any arguments about why he might (to you) sound bitter, nor are you rebutting any of the points that he puts forward in this piece. Also your point about “innate bias” seems like a cop-out; you’re basically using it as an excuse to avoid self-examination, it seems to me.

    Not to be rude (or perhaps to be a little rude) but I don’t see any reason why you bothered replying to this (apart from linking readers back to your website, perhaps?) since you don’t seem to have anything to add to or subtract from what John has said above, and you’re not expanding on your earlier tweets in the slightest.

  • Toby

    Apologies to John if his blog isn’t the forum for starting arguments.

  • Brandon

    It strikes me as being really important to draw a distinction between editorialists and journalists; if not categorically, then at least in talking about any given piece of work, or interaction with a publisher.

    I don’t mean that that distinction should be drawn in any kind of derogatory way, or to somehow imply that those who write editorials are less important than those who write objective journalism. Rather, I think the distinction is important simply for the fact that some of the activity you describe above is perfectly acceptable for an editorialist, and is unaccceptable for a journalist — or vice versa.

    If Ben Croshaw or Jim Sterling were to be entertained by Valve, I don’t think anyone has much to object to — in the same way that they might not object to Roger Ebert being shown around town by Scorcese. You might question how much that entertainment influences their opinion of a game, but that’s not corruption: only bias. Still to be considered, certainly, but there’s nothing illegal or illicit about it. Ebert, for example, will often write something like “It’s hard for me to separate this film from its director, who is a friend of mine.” No one’s castigating him for it. They just make a mental note, and then proceed to read his review.

    But if a JOURNALIST, on the other hand, is doing an interview with Gabe Newell about some recent controversy that’s taken place on Steam, and then after the interview they go out for drinks and hit a strip club, that’s an entirely different ball-game. THAT’S when you raise the specter of journalistic ethics, and are forced to go over every line and summation of the interview with a fine-toothed comb.

    This might be considered in much the same way that there are certain activities and interactions with politicians which would be considered A-OK for a political COMMENTATOR, but not a journalist covering a political story. John Stewart or Bill O’Reilly can say things to or of Barack Obama that a journalist for the New York Times could not.

  • A

    Very well written, sir.

    However, as an ex-games journalist working in the 2000s, I’m pleased, but surprised, that you don’t feel that there is a significant problem with advertising or PR activity greatly affecting content. I say this because, in the eighteen months or so that I worked on a games mag, I felt it was rife – and several of my colleagues would openly agree that this was the case. We didn’t like it and that’s one of the reasons why we’ve almost all left (many into PR it should be noted), but it honestly felt like part of the process.

    Yes, not everything was as blatant as people might imagine, but some of it was. I distinctly remember my Editor, on a number of occasions, agreeing to ‘exclusive’ or early reviews on strict condition that the review score was at least an 8/10. We hadn’t played the game at all and yet this was promised. Needless to say, the pressure placed on the team to write up an 8/10 review was immense. If everyone refused, which was rare, the editor would simply review the game himself or offer it to freelance upon that understanding.

    It was also common practice for magazines to contact games companies looking for decent front covers. The company I worked for couldn’t afford special foil treatments, spot UV and the like, but publishers would often shell out for a pretty front page. Of course, the price for this was always guaranteed positive coverage – clearly the company would never fund such a thing ever again if you failed to write what they’d expect.

    My review scores were frequently rounded up and always for the big titles – if anyone submitted a score for a AAA Ubisoft title that was less than a 7/10, it would almost always be bumped up for so-called ‘editorial’ reasons. Reasons that were never satisfactorily explained and often led to scores and text not matching up. Did this happen for low-budget Eastern European titles? Never, because such firms barely advertised. And were scores ever knocked down? Only once, in my very first week. And believe me, the advertising department would make it very clear to editors what was required in order to secure the big money.

    And yes, there were occasions when writers would bluntly be told to change their reviews as ‘we couldn’t risk upsetting’ certain big companies. Not all of us would be furious – some had worked there so long they’d just become used to it.

    This was typically avoided by selecting freelancers who never gave a bad score to anything. Maybe some of these freelancers were easily pleased, but certainly not all. I remember going on a press trip to Italy where one very experienced writer happily boasted that he’d reviewed several games without even installing the product.

    The trick, he told me, was simply to give virtually every game a 7/10 – ‘ as long as you don’t upset the PRs and you keep things general you’ll have no problem’.

    Of course, some people might think that this was the attitude of just a few ill-disciplined people, but it was pretty much companywide and part of the culture. A culture that is very easy to foster when most of the employees are 18-21 year old lads, blinded by the idea of working in their dream job and being paid minimum wage. On £11k basic salary you certainly couldn’t afford to be low down on the freelance list. And at 18 many people lack courage and/or wisdom and are very easily malleable by senior members of staff.

    Again, I’m pleased that you haven’t encountered too much of the above John, but I know a hell of a lot of writers have. I just expect that most won’t admit it in the fear that if they do, it would completely undermine the industry that they love being a part of.

  • Smoolander

    @ Tim

    I think one of the biggest issues with people’s perception of game reviews/journalism is that people tend to follow websites and not writers. Writers will change employers, and if a good writer happens to go to a shit site *cough* IGN *cough* it does not suddenly make the their opinion or quality of writing any less.

    You citation of Gamespot and the incident involving Jeff Gerstmann is an example of black listing a site when their may still be other writers of quality and conscious writing for them. For example in Australia Laura Parker is a fantastic feature writer for Gamespot. Just because she writes for them does not make her opinions more suspect to corruption.

    So I would say find writers who you think have integrity, and either shares similar thoughts on games to you (or not if you want to be challenged) and follow them instead of individual sites. The sites they write for may make stupid decisions but if the writers you follow have the integrity you are after they will either call them on the bullshit or end up some place else.

  • Brian 'Psychochild' Green

    Let me start off by saying that I love RPS, great site, and I think it does operate on a higher standard than most other game sites/magazines.

    That said, there are a lot of problems with “game journalism”. I’m a developer and I have helped a friend who ran a game review site by writing some reviews and attending press events. So, I’ve seen both sides of the issue.

    The main problem is that the games industry and games journalism are so closely linked on ever level. On the individual level, you have a lot of journalists that either want to be or do become commercial developers. So, you have a lot of journalists who will treat the industry with kid gloves for fear of offending a future employer or colleague. There’s also the fact that many game writers are enthusiasts rather than trained journalists, meaning that they do have a hard time separating out personal bias from information. On a structural level game journalism as a business couldn’t exist without the game industry, so you see some allowances there. Many sites live or die by the exclusive information they are given, and pissing someone off might mean your exclusive information is delayed or ad sale is a bit smaller.

    And let’s talk about advertising and how that messes up the power balance. Imagine reading Consumer Reports and seeing a glowing article about a car, only to turn the page and see an ad about that same car. Are you going to have 100% confidence that article was completely unbiased?

    Sometimes the bias is overwhelming. When I closed down my small game studio, a major journalism site absolutely savaged my company and insulted my work. When EA shut down a bunch of multiplayer servers around that time, the post was fairly neutral in tone. Obviously, my tiny defunct company was in no position to by ads, so I was fair game.

    As Mr. Walker says, though, it’s not that there’s necessarily any sinister motives here. A lot of it is just pragmatic behavior. When all you cover is games, it’s hard to get ads that aren’t game-related to seem relevant on your site. And, it’s possible for a good journalist to separate out personal feelings, but as I said there are few people trained to do so. I think the real problem is that bias can easily sneak into the process and there’s little way to actually tell how much bias has influenced the result.

    As a game player, game developer, and sometimes game writer, I think there is a lot of room to improve the way game journalism does the work. Just because something does work a certain way doesn’t always mean it has to work that way.

  • drewski

    I think it’s easy to be cynical of the big games does – IGN, Gamespot etc. because their coverage of games is relentlessly positive and commercial. I don’t thing there’s necessarily specific corruption – we pay you for a good review of X game – but rather their employees are affected by an institutional bias requiring positive coverage of big publisher games.

  • Tim M

    Bravo, John. All true, and all very well put.

  • Jason Saunders

    One thing I have found troublesome which seems appropriate in this context, is the way in which game journos are loosely referred to as working in ‘the industry’. I can charitably assume the best where someone leaves it unspecified, but judging by inference or direct statement game journalists are considered part of the games industry in some circles.

    In how many other industries is this a common practice, that the journalist covering a company or industry at large, is believed to be working in common cause with those actually doing the work? Few to none is my belief. Imagine a business reporter covering a mining investment story being referred to as part of the resource industry. A bit strange and highly questionable.

    It betrays a confusion of thought among people on both sides. How much harder is it to be independent when the default assumption is that the reporter is also a member of the industry? Would any of the journos or industry folks here know of any good articles or discussions regarding this question? I have never seen it discussed and would be interested to see some other views.

    This is getting longer than I wanted, but I should be clear that I am by no means blanket accusing anyone of anything. It is simply a mode of thought, and a casual use of terms I have noticed over years that led to me to wonder, and this looks like a useful time to raise the question.

  • Paul

    “evenings in bars, drinking lots. I can think of little I’d rather do,”

    I believe you want to say you don’t like to drink; the text says otherwise.

  • Merus

    @Dex: please explain who else is supposed to be advertising in their place. There is a reason why video game websites tend to have video game advertising, and also why ads for a new videogame tend to appear at the same time as editorial on said game (that reason is: it just came out). If a relatively thorough website is forced to refuse advertising from anything they’ve just reviewed then they’re not going to have anyone left to accept advertising from.

    @Nicholas: ‘bitter’ implies a certain amount of frustrated ambition. I don’t think John’s opinion there has anything to do with whether or not RPS is to be nominated, in the same way that I’m not bitter I missed out on a nod from the annual Stupid Bastards Society awards.

  • John Walker

    @ A – Would you care to name the company and magazines? At the moment the accusations get applied in people’s heads to every co. and mag out there.

  • John Walker

    @Paul – I really should be less drunk when I write such sentences.

  • Random Gamer

    As long as game journalists are plied with review copies, preview parties and other perks, and obey review embargoes, they’ll always be viewed as shills of the industry.

  • Random Gamer

    Also, defending all the publisher-paid trips and games as stuff-you-couldn’t-afford-so-why-not-just-let-them-pay-for-it…well, see, these things are business expenses to rational businesses.

    If I go to a conference in California my company pays for the flight and hotel accommodations, not the conference or the sponsors of the conference. And I file an expense report for the food or whatever else, which again, my company pays.

    You, the game journalist, are part of a business too, so start acting like it. That you cannot see the clear influence of all this free stuff is baffling, but it’s nice to see you are thinking about such things.

  • Chris

    Random Gamer : While if you obtain a copy through error, say a store sends it too early, I will agree that an embargo can and should be ignored. You didn’t obtain your copy at the hand of the developer/publisher, it’s yours to do with as you like.

    However, when you are given a review code of course there are going to be restrictions to abide by, it’s only natural. Sure, we all know the embargo is so if there is a negative review then people who are looking at buying right away/prepurchasing don’t read it and then think “I wont buy this then”.

    It’s still a simple issue that you are given a copy then you should at least have the decency to follow the simple rule set down of “Don’t publish your review until the morning the game is released” that most set. While your job is to give an honest view on the game itself, it doesn’t mean you have to be openly antagonistic to the people behind the game.

    Sorry, review copies are plying people? The value of a game is nothing compared to what would really be need to buy most people if they actually value their own dignity and opinion.
    High expense trips where you go skydiving with Russell Crowe or get to spend the day watching a naked Emma Stone dance around would be buying you, but a copy of a game, not a chance.

  • Ron

    @Alan

    I’ve worked with you as a tech PR, and I used to be a games journalist. You’re definitely not a bad PR – the dynamic is just almost opposite in games journalism versus tech journalism. Or it has been for me.

    Forgive me if I’ve not read all these comments, but has anybody actually stopped to discuss, or even criticise, the PRs themselves? The difference in attitude between tech and games PRs is really quite staggering. In tech they are friendly, but keep a respectable distance. In games, I was told early on, and it was proven to me on several occasions, that if you’re not palling up to these people, it’ll be detrimental to your publication. If advertising deals and exclusivity (oh, and GMAs) are truly made because of these relationships, I’d often point the finger at the hoary old PRs (okay, and certain ‘industry playa’ editors left over from the nineties) than the often blameless, entirely innocent games writers who know no better and are just shown constantly that these things get results.

    It’s about respect. PRs don’t always seem to look at games journos as adults, but ply them with trinkets and favours to keep them on side. Of course, the fact games journos are often so destitute they lap this up is more due to the utterly lopsided business models of certain publishers who employ them.

    The bottom line here is, there are multiple threads to this argument than just ‘journalists are corrupt’. The truth is, it’s an industry founded on nineties-style exploitation, and there are many at the top of their respective sides of the PR/journo fence who keep greasing those wheels to maintain their own positions while leaving their young wards utterly clueless as to a suitable moral and ethical direction.

  • Nicholas Lovell

    @toby if reading that tweet (the bantering tone, the snarky finish) doesn’t make you feel it was bitter, nothing I say will change your mind.

    And yes I participate in discussions on web forums simply to get links to my website*

    *this is sarcasm

  • Pele

    It’s all a bribe – any contact you ever have with a games company is corrupt.

  • Tim

    @Smoolander – that’s a good point, but I think it’s hard for a good writer to thrive while working for a bad employer. It’s Gamespot I distrust, not Gerstmann, because they’ve proven that they place the interests of their advertisers above those of their readers. I actually trust Gerstmann more because he made the very difficult decision that he’d rather be fired than change his review.

    @Nicholas “all journalism is biased” sounds worldy-wise, but it’s actually is a cop-out (unless you actually think there should be no ethical standards at all and therefore aren’t interested in trying to improve things). Everyone has irreducible biases that they can’t get rid of, that’s the nature of being human. But that’s no excuse for not eliminating the ones that you can easily fix. It’s certainly no excuse for pocketing hundreds of pounds worth of loot handed to you by games publishers, who are only giving you this stuff because they want to persuade you to write favourably about their products. You can very easily eliminate that bias by not taking the money.

    Money and freebies aren’t the only source of corruption, though. Things are often more subtle than that. Once you get to be friends with a PR rep, it can be very hard to write something slating them, or their company, even when they deserve it, because nobody likes dropping their friends in the shit. It makes you feel like a horrible human being and no-one enjoys that. Again, the easy way to avoid this dilemma is not to fall into it in the first place, and you do that by keeping a professional distance from the people you’re supposed to be reporting on.

    At the end of the day, this is about readers’ perceptions. If those are wrong and overly harsh, as I’ve been told mine are, then yes, tell them. But there are other things you can do to try to change their minds as well. If you don’t want to encourage the perception that much of the industry is in bed with the publishers, then don’t hang around getting drunk with their PRs, don’t let them pay for you to zoom around in sports cars all day and don’t accept the free loot they offer you. That this even needs saying is somewhat amazing in its own right.

  • John Walker

    I’m just not sure Nicholas knows what “bitter” means.

  • Toby

    Nicholas — Actually, nothing you say will change my mind because you’re not building a persuasive argument, you’re simply repeating the same statement over and over in the hope that it will somehow become self-evident. It’s not working.

  • Kirk Hamilton

    Hey, thanks for writing this, John. I generally stay out of this type of conversation on Twitter–I find that Twitter feels snipe-y even when it’s being used to express thoughtful, big ideas. Sort of like pointy tips of a more well-rounded iceberg. So, it’s nice to see someone write about this kind of stuff so openly and thoughtfully.

    It’s a dicy scene, entertainment reporting–something that I’ve certainly found as I’ve gotten more and more into doing it for a living. There’s always that fine line between doing what you have to do to get your job done right (“Here is an early copy of a game so that you can review it on time”), edging up to/over that line (“Here are a bunch of codes you can use for a giveaway to help get your website more Twitter followers”), strolling right across it (“Here is an exclusive review, contingent on the score you give the game”) and going the other way and pissing PR off (“No, I’m sorry, your game just isn’t very good, I think I explained why pretty well in the review.”) None of that stuff is easy to deal with, and I’ve become much more keenly aware of the various gradations after starting at Kotaku last year.

    I’m glad, though, that you acknowledge how the vast, (vast!) majority of the games press isn’t “bought” in any substantive way. This, to me, is the single strangest misconception I’ll see from readers in our comments and abroad. The mere idea of some shady publisher slipping us money for positive press is absurd. I’m so slammed every day that I barely have time to respond to most PR emails, let alone negotiate some sort of backroom deal! I’m sure most editors are the same way. But it’s not just because I’m busy. The idea of taking money to act as a shill for a game–no matter how much I may genuinely like it–is the opposite of what I want to do with my time. It’s the same with advertising–speaking only for myself at Kotaku, anyone who thinks that I have any clue what the heck the ads on our site are going to be on any given day should immediately disabuse themselves of this notion. Advertising and editorial are kept entirely separate, as well they should be.

    That said, I also understand why people detect corruption–it may seem outlandish to ME, but that’s because I live the sweat-panted, nose-to-grindstone reality every day. I’m sitting in my apartment, I play a game, I write something about it and publish it. I try to be thoughtful, I try to have fun and be challenging. But that’s as far as it goes. If a person didn’t see that part of it, the whole thing can seem much more monolithic, and the idea of corruption begins to feel much more believable. So yeah, I get why people feel that way. Which makes it all the more important to speak candidly about the gig, how it works, and why it’s mostly silly to believe that any large percentage of games journalists are somehow compromised or bought.

    But then, there are also always times where you wind up in a weird position. Kotaku doesn’t accept travel as a matter of policy, but hoo boy are we offered it–it is astonishing the things that big publishers will offer to pay for, should you allow them to. And there are certainly sites that accept all of that stuff with relish, that almost make it their mission statement to live it up as much as possible. And hey, more power to them–as long as they’re open about it, readers know what they’re getting.

    Recently, a couple of our writers and I had an awkward moment where we went out to lunch with some developers just to chat, and made them let us split the bill with them afterwards. Everyone got so uncomfortable! We were basically apologizing for making them let us pay for ourselves. It was so silly, and yet such a (necessary) breech of decorum. In the end, it was obviously the right call. But that sort of thing happens: Say, I’m meeting a group of people at a bar and some mutual acquaintances who work in PR are there. One of them buys the next round. It gets tricky.

    I think the toughest thing, for me, is the friendship thing. I have a few friends who make games, and I rarely feel comfortable covering their games, particularly if they’re indies. If I think their game is worthy of coverage, I’ll try to send it off to another one of our writers, but sometimes even THAT feels unfair. “Hey, I know this guy! A thousand indies are getting ignored, but this guy gets an article because he knows me.” But then, that’s just how it works sometimes. I read the email from the guy/girl I know, and write back, because I know them.

    Anyhow – There’s a lot more to talk about, but I’ve certainly overstayed my welcome in your comments section, so I’ll leave it there, I suppose. Cheers for this post, and for writing about this stuff so openly and thoughtfully. I liked Rab’s article as well, so cheers to him, too. I’ve always sat on this side of the Atlantic and overheard chatter about the GMAs with something of a bemused side-eye; I can’t help but wonder what it would look like if the US did the same thing. Would it be sponsored by Doritos? Would there be an award for “Best trailer reveal?” “Best Steam-pun?” “Most seamless transition into PR,” perhaps? Heh.

  • Bruce Everiss

    I think that today’s journalists could have learned a lot from this guy: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timmy_Mallett He really set the standards and his death was a very sad loss for consumer technology journalism. Nobody today gets near comparison.

  • Fede

    Do reviews still have enough importance to make it convenient for publishers to try influence the journalists? Looking at the success of CoDs, Diablo III, or at the US presidential election, I’d be tempted to say that publishers don’t need to fly journalists from abroad and entertain them, nor give them copies of their games, as marketing drives day-one sales (and votes) much more than critical reviews. They could just give previews and pre-cooked interviews. Reviews nowadays seem to be often used by the audience just to justify what they think of the game thay have already bought.
    So maybe the fear of losing their benefits could be a motivation behind some journalists’ defenses?

    Anyway, my opinion is that corruption in itself cannot work in this job. A journalist getting paid to give positive reviews would in the long term just lose credit. At the end, no one would care about his/her opinion.
    I’m more concerned about the constant loss of good and experienced journalists/critics (for example: KG, Troy Goodfellow moving into PR).

  • Lewis Denby

    The issue I took with Rab’s article wasn’t that he called people out for such practices, but A) that it sadly called out people who are by no means the worst offenders, and B) that his phrasing in one or two instances was straying quite close to being libelous. Saying “I’m sure what I just wrote isn’t actually true, but it is where my mind goes” or whatever doesn’t really excuse those sorts of almost-accusations.

    I also found it interesting that there was apparently no effort made to contact those individuals for comment, in an article that was all about journalistic ethics. So while I absolutely agree that Rab should have written the article, and Eurogamer were right to run it, I actually think they ended up shooting themselves in the foot by not actually upholding best journalistic practice themselves.

  • John Walker

    @Lewis – I think you’re quite wrong. Firstly, he didn’t “call anyone out”, but rather quoted publicly made statements that those who made them went on to vociferously defend. Should they not wish those comments to be in public, then, um, it was odd of them to do that.

    Secondly, to suggest it’s libellous to say what something makes you think is utterly ridiculous, and pretending it is throws your weight behind the idiocy of UK libel laws. I said the same to someone in conversation earlier that day – that with Lauren’s furious conviction that there is nothing wrong with advertising a game on Twitter to win a prize for yourself, it makes me wonder why her Twitter homepage is a screen-wide advert for the new Tomb Raider. It matters not one jot that she might have done it only because she’s excited about the game – she’s a games journalist, and it’s obviously massively improper for her to make her page look like an advert for a forthcoming game. Rab points out, with complete validity, that in her endorsing of one form of advertising games for personal gain, she certainly does make it appear that she’d have no problem with having accepted something in return for making her Twitter page look that way.

    Further, there’s no need to contact anyone for quotes when *quoting their publicly made statements*. If he were repeating rumours, then it would behove him to contact them. Merely repeating a statement that someone made does not require their further comment.

  • RevStu

    Let’s make something clear at the start: I have nothing but respect (okay, respect and jealousy) for the way RPS has conducted its business, becoming an enormous success while upholding honourable principles and it would be hard to overstate the absolute certainty that I have that people like John and Jim Rossignol are not corrupt in any way whatsoever.

    Nevertheless, some of the pressures that journalists claim are unavoidable in the modern industry are entirely self-inflicted. If a company won’t let you have preview material unless you go to their big junket at the Monaco Grand Prix, *don’t write the fucking preview*. What are you, short of games to write about? You think your two million readers will abandon you overnight because you didn’t run a preview of one game?

    Cover something else in the space instead. The argument that you HAVE to cover a specific game at a certain point in time is bollocks. People will come to your site anyway. As far as I can see nearly all games sites now are news-focused: people come to see what’s the latest news this minute.

    If everyone else has a preview of WAR SHOOTER X and you don’t, put up a short post saying “We don’t have a preview of WAR SHOOTER X because Warsoft wouldn’t let us see it unless they could ply us with champagne and booth babes at the same time. We’ll cover it when they send us preview code”. You’ll still get the clicks (because people want to read that story), you won’t compromise your principles, and just maybe you’ll shame the competition into doing the same.

    The really dismaying thing is that gaming sites, especially ones with huge readerships, have all the power. Publishers are DESPERATE for coverage in them, yet have cleverly managed to convince the sites that the publishers are the ones doing them the favour. It’s embarrassing.

    It doesn’t help if you turn up and accept things like GMA awards, of course. But they’re the symptom, not the problem. If gaming sites stopped acting like doormats, they’d get trodden on less.

  • Tim Smith

    I was around in the early 1990s at Future Publishing. I still write about gaming. It’s refreshing seeing this sort of self examination. It’s terribly sad to see some of the responses to it coming from the “Are you disrespecting my family? Do you fink you’re better than me?” school of analysis. After all, we are as journalists or simply as trade writers who are advising other people, supposed to be able to analyse and communicate, or did I miss a meeting?

  • Lewis Denby

    John: The issue wasn’t the quoting of statements, but what could potentially have been construed as Rab leading his readers to think that someone who is simply a very big Tomb Raider fan is actually being paid by Square Enix. The comment wasn’t libelous, to my mind, but it strays close to the grey area. I’d have been unsure about publishing it.

    I stand by my feelings that it’s a shame that the people who were singled out were the people who were singled out, if that makes any sense. I should, however, also disclose at this stage that one of the journalists quoted in Eurogamer’s article is a former housemate of mine, so I really shouldn’t be commenting on the specifics at all. I come to the situation from a position of bias.

    Really, though, I’d have liked to see the finger pointed at the publications who employ these writers and the poor standards of ethics training that exist within our field. And the magazines that actually *are* knowingly engaging in corrupt behaviour. (In fact, I spent 1500 words doing just that: http://beefjack.com/news/games-journalism-ethics/)

  • Tom Hatfield

    I agree with Lewis. I think it’s important to state that putting something on the front page of Eurogamer is very different from calling someone out over twitter, or posting it on a personal blog. Only the most dedicated of your fans are likely to read this, more measured, better thought out piece, but a huge amount of people will read the Eurogamer article, and it will confirm to them their unjustified opinion that all of games journalism is corrupt.

    My issue with Rab’s article is that he leaves no room for debate, for disagreement or for people like Dan who changed their mind. His is a reductive argument, an appeal the to black and white morality of easy heroes and villains. Well the world isn’t like that, but claiming it is is a compelling narrative.

    Its very easy to present PRs as villains and feed this silly notion that we all need to keep our distance lest we be infected with bias. But that is not how people work. Its time to stop thinking of corruption as magic, as an infection, as the dark side of the force. It is not your job as a games journalist to avoid anything that might influence you, because that is impossible, it is you job to interact with those things and not be influenced anyway. You either have integrity or you don’t, everything else is, as you say, just a show for the readers.

    One last thing to say. I don’t think the average reader realises how hard it is to change a critic’s mind about something. It’s the hardest damn thing in the world. They think a few t-shirts will change a game journalist’s mind? Death threats don’t change a games journalist’s mind. Every one of your peers disagreeing and writing opinion pieces about how you’re wrong won’t change a game journalist’s mind. If we didn’t think we were right and you were wrong, we wouldn’t have taken the job.

  • Tweet4PS3

    This changes nothing as far as i’m concerned, i stopped going to gaming review sites around 2 years ago and i’m much better for it, i suggest people find a forum with people that have similar opinions on games as yourself and use them to determine what games you purchase in the future.

    Gaming journalism is a joke.

  • RevStu

    “Rab leading his readers to think that someone who is simply a very big Tomb Raider fan is actually being paid by Square Enix”

    1. She IS being paid by Square Enix, by her own account. Her Journalisted entry lists them as one of her “current” employers.

    2. What Rab actually said: “And 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?”

    Isn’t leading people to believe anything. It’s saying that her actions plant a seed of doubt, even if it’s unmerited. That’s perfectly true.

  • Dan Forinton

    Reading Nicholas Lovell’s comments makes me want to quote William Goldman:
    “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
    Personally, the original tweet re: GMAs registers as mild disgust at the whole thing (possibly not all that mild…).

  • Adam M. Pick

    There never were many professional game reviewers anyway. And same as with any kind of journalism there are almost none left.

    Most writers are neither good at what they are doing, nor professional about it.

    In that point I am wholy on John Walkers side of the argument. There will always be free perks, free games, invitations and such. Condeming everything you get for free would be foolish and very costly.
    But, sometimes you have to make a stand for the people you write for and those should not be the publishers, but the gamers.
    In Germany we had this discussion some years ago, when one of the biggest and most influential games print magazine refused copies of a particular game, because they were attached to certain legal limitations. The publisher stopped all free copies to this magazine, for every title.
    The writers were heralded as the champions for gamers and the magazine became ultimatly THE magazine. Then slowly but surly one by one the writers went other ways and ex-interns took over.
    No one knows if the internal pressure to be more publisher friendly drove them away, some got better paying jobs in other pc driven industries, some went after their spouses. One thing is clear, some of them wanted a good and professional magazine, because the core of the team made their own magazine not once but two times. The first one is still around, with ex-interns as writers and the other one went under after a perticular bad legal snafu which could have been intentional payback from a publisher, an oversight from the magazines intern or both.
    And now they try again with an online portal and have to defend themselfs from legal and other trolls.
    It is impossible to be fair and professional, if you do not have someone with big shoulders standing behind you, either a big company or many, many fans. Most of the time the big shoulders behind you are there to intimidate you as writer, then the publisher.
    I guess what I am trying to say is: free stuff is great and whoever says otherwise is just jealous. Being professional about the game itself is more difficult them even most of the reviewers realise. Reviewers are but people and entitled to their own opinions, but those should be marked as such, in a way that is instantly recognised by the reader.
    The best way I ever saw were smal “personal statements” from several other writers about the game, which sometimes may differ very much from the main article.
    As said by others already, there is almost no journalism or ethics left in that particular field of writing. But how could it be? If someone writes more then ten “reviewes” per month and is doing that alone?
    Yes, todays games are way shorter then they once were, but how can you expect journalism, with articles written in half a day or less, while still traveling around? Or with “reviewes” based on unfinished games someone showed the writer for some hours?
    You cannot. It is not possible, even if everyone has honest intensions, talent and integrity.

    I know some writers realy try. And those who openly misuse the whole system piss them off. But the system is broken right now. There are no good game reviews anywhere today. Neither in print media, nor online. Even the best ones are biased and watered down beyond recognition.

    The corruption does not lie in bought articles, but in the lowering of quality. In the short lifespans of games and reviews speed is everything. Sadly speed does not mean quality. In the days of print media you could work a whole week on a review or even more if the game demanded it. Now even one day late is most often then not, too late.
    In that short lived environment cheaters and fakers have it easy and are seldom cought or brought to justice. There haven been several scandals in the past years, but no one realy cares after a week or two.

  • CalmDownTom

    If I could hit a like button for everything Tom has said so far I would.

  • sinister agent

    Oh wow, this exploded, huh? I caught sight last night and meant to comment later, then read more about what’s gone on via Stuart Campbell’s site.

    I’ve not read the next bit (will do though), but just wanted to say how glad I am that you said all this. I grew up thinking the games press were mostly corrupt (or rather, were compromised enough by some instances of corruption that the trust wasn’t there, so the distinction became academic), and it’s only in recent years, due to finding several reliable sources, growing up as a person, and doubtless to some extent the changes the internet has brought, that I’ve changed that view.

    I don’t have much more to add, other than that I appreciate what you in particular do for games, and for the people who play them. Your honesty and willingness to examine the social and moral issues of your trade are exactly what games journalism needs if the culture is to mature.

  • vwpunk

    A few years ago I worked as a lowly bookseller for a very well known chain of high street bookstores. Now back in those days the lowly booksellers had complete autonomy over which books were sold in their individual sections (I ran the sci fi dept), and reps from various publishing houses would come in and try to flog their newest books. Quite often publishers would hold corporate events, we would be invited along got to meet some (occasionally) quite big name authors and be wined and dined, got given goodie bags with unreleased books and free booze. On one occasion I got to see a major film before release due to the novelization of the film. Now, not once did any of these freebies influence my decisions about which books to stock, or whether they got preferential placement in the store, I (we) knew what the publishers were up to, I also knew that I worked in a low paid job so took these “perks” and went I did exactly what I would do whether I received the perks or not. My point is this happens in all sorts of jobs in all sorts of fields, and you have to take on trust that yes, sometimes people will accept various perks that come with their jobs, but their integrity will not be called into question because they can see through it as well as you can and also, especially if their job involves giving their opinion based on neutrality they declare their interests/involvement

  • Rodti MacLeary

    Very well put John.

    Only a very tenuous link I know, but all this talk of PR trips (and the 90s) reminds me of Charlie Brooker’s trip to DMA Design in Dundee to review what I think was the first Grand Theft Auto. Ultimately the majority of that article revolved around him deciding how he’d off himself if the light aircraft started plunging to the ground. I believe he settled on the plastic knife that came with his breakfast driven into his eye socket, with the caveat that if it didn’t kill him outright he’d probably crawl alive from the burning wreckage and spend the rest of his days as a grotesque freak with melted plastic cutlery for a face.

  • Random Gamer

    “Do reviews still have enough importance to make it convenient for publishers to try influence the journalists?”

    Yes. They matter so much it’s frightening.

    http://penny-arcade.com/report/editorial-article/the-power-of-review-scores-why-critics-have-more-control-than-we-think1

    They could very well be the MOST IMPORTANT thing that influences consumers.

  • justsomeguy

    @Bruce – Mallett ain’t dead.

  • MoreAt8

    [WARNING: wall of text incoming - and no, I don't have a blog for this.

    TL;DR:
    1) Timing *is* everything
    2) There is no such thing as a sustainable good-journalism audience
    3) Entertainers shouldn't try to be journalists (and that's okay)
    4) There's no such thing as a free quality journalism
    5) RPS is an unscalable, unreproducible, exception. A wonderful one, indeed

    Here we go...]

    1) Timing *is* everything
    RevStu: “The argument that you HAVE to cover a specific game at a certain point in time is bollocks” – In a logical world, yes. In the real world, no.

    I wrote several articles (reviews/coverages, etc) for a somewhat-popular-website-in-its-country (nb: it’s not in english), for free (everyone there was working for free, including the owner, there was only 1 banner ad and the owner was spending any extra on game servers for the community), and I learned the value of timing.

    Rather than making a full coverage of a news, with a 12-hours delay (making enough researches on the context/game/people involved, digging information elements on forums/outdated website (sometime on web.archive.org), rewriting 2 or 3 times the article, etc), I was told by my peers (who were very friendly and nice), and noticed (in the comments and number of views), that timing was “everything”, at least a 99% “everything”.

    Example: a publisher cancels a game, or delays it.

    a) Write the factual news, post the latest screenshots and trailer. If you’re more a “subjective” type of website, add 1 sentence about your feelings (sad / don’t care / expected / necessary).

    => The result ? at least 70% of your usual readership read the news, you get 50 comments (adding nothing to the article, but still comments).

    b) Take the time (from 12 hours to 48 hours depending on your availability) to see who is that publisher, what are its current projects, same with its IPs, its current and past financial states (look at the public quarterly financial reports if something looks suspicious), which developer studio is concerned, its previous games, IPs and publishers, see if the developers and the publishers aren’t in some kind of fight over the game design/schedule, etc.

    Then rewrite your story several times, to make sure you convey the right information and don’t make false claims, remove anything that isn’t solid enough. Then publish it.

    => The results ? 20% (at most) of your readership is there, less than 5 comments (none about the questions/hypothesis you wrote in the article).

    Meanwhile, TF2 hats were added, a new funny machinima video is making the headlines, a publisher sent 3 new screenshots (showing nothing new) about its upcoming game, and a new drama of the week just started (DRM-issues, Support-issues, “omg we can’t resell our games on digital distribution platforms that’s so unfair. That’s like, sooo *Not Cool*.”).

    2) There is no such thing as a sustainable good-journalism audience

    That’s where your employer (or your peers) come to talk to you, and try to gently tell you that, sure you’re working hard, but you see, you don’t fully understand what kind of work you’re expected to do.

    That every journalist, even in the old newspapers, wish they could take the time to verify everything, to deliver the ‘perfect’ article, but we’re living in an economy and we have to be efficient to be relevant, and what you’re currently doing is not.

    Look at the reality, people are ignoring your stories, they don’t want that kind of content, they’re not looking for it when they come to us, they want a lighter, easier-to-digest, information, they don’t really care about all the details, your job is not teaching them, it’s delivering information to them, in the most efficient and comfortable way possible.

    If you want to write a whole book about it, go ahead, even though I doubt much people will buy it, but this is not the place for this.

    nb: that rant was entirely made up by me, but it kinda sums up the biggest ‘mental’ issues faced by journalists trying to make good journalism -> there isn’t a place and an audience for it.

    The problem with good journalism is the further you go into the quality, the less (in quantity) positive (in terms of readership, visibility, revenues) feedback you get.

    3) Entertainers shouldn’t try to be journalists (and that’s okay)

    If you look at websites often called out (IGN, Gamespot, or Kotaku)(nb: I know a few writers might still be worth it – that’s not the question), what kind of content is used to show these websites are corrupted/sell-outs ? Entertainment. Information entertainment.

    Oh, I just noticed Wikipedia has an article on it: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Infotainment

    Gamers are blaming news website for providing entertainment rather than information. Can we seriously blame companies and people for providing something the consumers are looking for ?

    When she tweeted that hashtag for the PS3, it was part of the entertainment experience: “look, I’m having fun at the GMAs, we can even win a PS3 with just a single tweet”.

    For a split second, people are living “that dream”, people are within reach of a PS3 with a single tweet, if they trade-off a little of their integrity – exactly what people dream of doing every single day of their life: look at the level of corruption around you, from the parents association to your office, it’s all there for a good reason.

    Sin my opinion, she acted very professionally as an entertaining writer, and very unprofessionally as a journalist. If you chase two rabbits, you will not catch either one.

    The same is happening in the other media and journalism sectors. Take a look at the old irl newspapers: the most profitable, most read and most sold are the ones featuring more entertainment than information.

    The few remaining ones doing actual “journalism” are struggling to stay afloat, are really expensive (because of reduced readership and growing costs), have less and less reporters doing months-long missions (and they’re no longer in-house, only young freelancers often working with NGOs), and are now mainly owned by companies not really looking for profits, but wanting to make sure they can control it, by having a say on who’s getting hired/fired/moved to another position, and how big is their budget.

    And regarding entertainment as an experience, TV show are doing the same thing she did: you can win various prizes by doing nothing but being lucky or famous, and millions of people are living through these “chosen ones” people.

    Actual, real, information is not fun. It’s the last thing you’ll want to do after an exhausting day at the office or at school. It will make your life and your thoughts more complex, more difficult to understand, more depressing. It will not make you feel better without any effort. It is the exact opposite of what most people want from a media company.

    Let’s just stop calling the people doing information-entertainment “journalists” and everything will be clearer. And there’s no shame in providing entertainment to people, if done well it’s making their life less harsh to live and that’s invaluable.

    This is where I think all these people writing for magazines and news websites should make sure they understand what is their job, and act accordingly. And if they’ve got ethics or remorse, they should simply and only tell their readers what kind of job they’re currently doing: entertainment or information.

    4) There’s no such thing as a free quality journalism

    I’m also troubled that the readers/gamers are not getting any flaks regarding this.

    The vast majority of them want free (as in free beer) and ‘uncorrupted’ journalism – like the information-entertainers, they’re chasing two rabbits and won’t catch either one.

    I’m pretty sure that most of the writers/”journalists” on “shady” websites/magazines, if given a secured position (job security) and a decent salary (no need for side jobs), would provide a much better journalism. If you’re left begging for goodies and job opportunities, you’ll feel loved even with a simple candy bar basket.

    5) RPS is an unscalable, unreproducible, exception

    Since we’re on Walker’s blog, many people mentioned RPS (that I often read). Some people also mentioned how it’s an exception.

    And let’s not forget: 1) There’s ads on it 2) Eurogamer provides the advertising deals 3) Very few people pay a subscription (but it’s still there) 4) Many/most writers have other activities beside RPS (writing for other websites, working on books/movies/comics/games).

    TL;DR:
    1) Timing *is* everything
    2) There is no such thing as a sustainable good-journalism audience
    3) Entertainers shouldn’t try to be journalists (and that’s okay)
    4) There’s no such thing as a free quality journalism
    5) RPS is an unscalable, unreproducible, exception. A wonderful one, indeed

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  • A Random Lurker

    As a teenager, I naively trusted everything from gaming Magazine reviews, to sites like Gamespot, IGN, etc.

    The only place I go for trusted reviews now is Amazon.com user reviews. It’s not a bullet proof method, but one that works quite well for me.

  • Interested reader

    The mere fact that you take freebies from a publisher automatically disqualifies your ‘journalistic’ integrity.

    It is quite easy for me to deduct from your article that you have never had any sales experience whatsoever. You believe that you and most of your colleagues are not influenced by the PR guys. It is their job to influence you, to sell you. It is their only job. It is a well paid job too, better paid than yours I’m sure. Theoretically assume for a minute, that these guys and girls are of a much higher social intelligence than you are. Sales people, (that’s what PR is) are extremely intelligent on a social level, and the best thing you can do as a salesman is make your target unaware that you are selling to them. Hey! that sounds like someone I’ve just read an article from; an article where he is being a little bit critical about the 1 hand washes the other situation in gaming land:P

    You are deluding yourself to a blissfully ignorant extent.

    Normally I never post on game sites anymore, since I can’t really take the culture serious at all. But since you are on the right path of exclaiming what is painfully obvious to anybody with half a brain or any sales experience.. I guess I’d reach out and help you understand it a bit better.

    I guess it takes bravery from you, mr. Walker. To write this article, and for your limited cone of vision, it’s probably a very open article. So I commend you on this feat.

    But lets be very clear here.

    Every freebie you receive as a journalist comes from the publishers, which indirectly comes from the consumers. Consumers pay the wages of the game ”journalists” of the major free game websites. That’s how it was, is and will remain.

    So there are 3 groups in this merry go round:
    - consumers
    - publishers(pr)
    - journos

    Whenever you have a system of multiple interdependent factions interacting, always look at who is paying who, and who has the highest leverage (usually the one paying). consumers pay PR, PR pays popular website journos, journos pay nobody but ‘inform’ consumers.

    In the case of this industry, where the biggest part of the consumer base are made up of children and people of lesser social milieus, if you will. Calling them gullible would be stretching it, but the average game consumer is certainly not the most critical of customers. Anyone who has ever chatted up with customers in a gamestore will be able to affirm this…

    consumers are either of the easygoing kind (the kind that also loves michael bay movies) that will believe anything they read, or they are critical (minority) and dont gobble up everything you write, and are constantly aware what hand feeds you. They do utilize it because a ‘free’ website is always cheaper than actually buying a fullprice release.

    None of the people with half a brain ever takes a game ‘journo’ seriously, ever. The games industry is easily the most facile of all entertainment by its product, consumers and behaviorisms outside of the product itself, and I honestly can’t think of a single journalistic branch where corruption.. I mean!!1 conflict of interests between source and reporter isn’t known or reported.

    It reminds me a bit of the whole embedded journalism the american army has set up after the vietnam war. I remember from my time at a game company we were able to ‘rectify’ a journalist AFTER an interview. Really? rectify a journalist? Really??? … just let that sink in. Oh no.. wait, I’m pretty sure you’d consider this normal behaviour, haha.

    Just giving you a heads up that there is a small minority who knows what goes on. And if, by any chance, you believed that you weren’t influenced by PR people, well I hope I put you up to speed.

    Still, thank you for at least coming out. I wonder why nobody would speak up at what would be an extremely fun and controversial issue to cover. Any REAL journalist would immediately blast this wide open haha. It’s just too big for its own good now. It’s too streamlined and disgusting. Meanwhile you could get a real job, or use that piece to go to a paid source, like a newspaper, who could actually use a good games journo that isnt on the take of publishers.

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