All The Pretty Doritos: How Video Game Journalism Went Off The Rails

As reported by

Yesterday I wrote about the Robert Florence controversy and focused much of my post on the libel issues that make journalism in the UK a more precarious endeavor than elsewhere.

But if the threat of a libel suit is at the heart of Eurogamer’s amending of Florence’s article, why does the American gaming press, which exists with no similar Sword of Damocles hanging above its collective head, fall into similar traps?

In my article yesterday I posited a few things:

1) That the press can become too cozy with the industry they cover because it is natural and human for us to form relationships with one another, especially when we are invariably fans of much of the work done in the industry we cover.

2) That the dependence on advertising makes game publications too vulnerable to the demands of publishers, and that there is very little that can be done about this even if it only influences some reviews some of the time.

3) That for all the real problems out there, each is magnified by a sense of mistrust and the problem with perception and reality becomes cyclical and deeply ingrained.

4) That a need for access to publishers, developers, and titles makes journalists play softball rather than upset the powers that be far too often, and especially with AAA titles – the kind you often see plastered to the background of a site as you read the review of that very game.

There’s probably truth to each of these and there’s likely other reasons as well. It also almost certainly varies a great deal from one publication to the next. Some magazines, like Game Informer, rely a great deal less on publisher input than others – in Game Informer’s case this is largely thanks to its massive circulation thanks to GameStop.

Others, like the Verge’s brand new site Polygon, have come out with public ethics statements and are apparently doing all they can to bridge the trust gap.

But the fact of the matter is, articles like Florence’s and the fallout of that article do point to a widespread, deeply entrenched problem facing the gaming press and its lack of a uniform ethical code that often serves or at least appears to serve game publishers first and consumers second.

Of course, Florence’s article and subsequent departure from Eurogamer are only the latest in a long chain of similar events.

Drunk Tweeting

In a drunken Twitter tirade earlier this month, video game writer Rich Stanton took to social media to give the world, in garish detail, his opinion of the video game publications he’s worked with in his career.

Stanton minced no words, though he later deleted many of the damning tweets. Deleting tweets, of course, is futile these days. Like elephants, the internet doesn’t forget.

Stanton named names, pointed out publishers that pushed hard for good scores and magazines that changed those scores under the pressure. He labeled CVG as deceptive, saying that they would deliberately misquote developers or take their quotations out of context to drive traffic.

He also wrote about this at his blog where he said:

Two months ago I visited Platinum Games’ offices in Osaka, and one of the first things said to me was about CVG misrepresenting something their developers had said. I was there for CVG’s publishers Future, so I had to take shit because of their practices. CVG’s writers might recognise the piece that came from this, it’s the one that’s been giving them bylines for the past week.

But don’t take my word for it. Here’s Braid’s creator Jonathan Blow on his experience with CVG, an article called ‘CVG appear to be a bunch of lousy hacks‘. Sample quote: “CVG’s article is a deceptive, manipulative piece of sensationalist crap meant to drive hits by stoking the argument between Sony fans and Microsoft fans. It misrepresents the content of the interview almost entirely.”

Of course, Stanton had a bone to pick, and by the time he’d taken to Twitter admitted he was drunk. It’s never wise to trust the words of spurned lovers or employees exiting angrily to stage left.

Mad Men

Jeff Gerstmann

Jeff Gerstmann was fired after giving a low review score to the game ‘Kane & Lynch’

Then again, Stanton’s various accusations don’t exist in a vacuum.

Five years ago video game critic Jeff Gerstmann was fired from his job at GameSpot for penning a negative review of Kane & Lynch.

According to Gerstmann, the game’s publisher Eidos Interactive threatened to pull advertising from the site following the 6/10 review. This led to a sit-down between Gerstmann and management where he was admonished for the review – the second time a low-but-not-that-low score had gotten him in trouble.

Two weeks later Gerstmann was fired.

But this sort of overt pressure is almost certainly an exception to the rule.

Rock Paper Shotgun editor John Walker notes, in a long piece about the state of gaming journalism, 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.”

Often the influence of publishers over game reviewers is more subtle.

Sometimes it comes in the form of gifts. Apparently some video game writers not only receive review copies of games, they receive a bunch of swag on the side – like expensive chess sets for instance.

With my copy of Max Payne 3 Rockstar included a little pen designed to look like a bullet, though I’m apparently not big time enough to receive anything more overt, and that funny little pen didn’t make me like Max Payne 3 any better. No amount of gratuitous swag would have caused me to enjoy the game more than in a very middling sort of way.

In one of the more grotesque instances, IGN host/entertainer Jessica Chobot was included in BioWare’s Mass Effect 3 as a fully-voiced NPC. Chobot had previewed the game on G4TV and written that she was a huge fan of BioWare.

The conflict of interest isn’t hard to spot even though both G4TV and IGN made sure to point out that Chobot would not review the game in an official capacity after its release, as did Chobot herself. *


* The above two paragraphs have been edited for clarity and links have been added that were left out of the original copy.

I originally described Chobot as a “writer” for IGN. She has pointed out on Twitter that she is in fact a host/entertainer. I have seen blog posts by her, as well as videos, posted at IGN in the past – hence the term “writer.” However, I did not claim she was a reviewer for either site, only that the sites in question said she would not review Mass Effect 3. See the links to those sites above for quotations.

This brings up another set of questions, obviously. Is there a difference between journalist and host/entertainer? Or between journalist and blogger? Chobot has a blog at IGN where she writes, much like I have a blog at Forbes where I write. I’m not sure where we actually draw the line or how ethical standards vary, but it strikes me that if you’re in a position of authority within a media organization – even if that authority is only over the flow of information – you ought to be held by the same journalistic standards as less entertaining people like myself.

End update.

In 2010, video game site Gameplanet revealed that select publications had been invited to attend an event in Santa Monica where reviewers would be able to play the latest upcoming Call of Duty game.

Journalist’s accommodations would be paid by the publisher, Activision, as well as outdoor activities and other expenses.

“It is Gameplanet’s belief that such gratuity compromises the integrity of any review and as a result, this publication has never and will never accept such an invitation,” the magazine noted.

Later in an update, Gameplanet added:

Gameplanet has been contacted this morning by Activision’s local representatives who have informed us that, as a result of our publication of this article, our scheduled interview with Call of Duty: Black Ops’ military advisor Hank Keirsey has now been cancelled.”

RPS’s John Walker has been on similar trips.

“One time I was sent to London for a preview event for the game Auto Assault,” writes Walker. “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.”

Of course, the real problem isn’t that any one gift or trip will influence a specific journalist, it’s that the culture created by all this chuminess can become itself a systemic problem.

Other Peoples’ Money

There’s another side to this coin.

Game writers often make very little money, and the appropriate sticks and carrots can be even more influential when your pocket book is thin.

One former video game writer living in the UK who prefers to remain anonymous wrote to me about this problem. For the sake of this article, we’ll call him John Smith.

In 2006, the publication he worked for paid staff writers just £11,000 or $19,800 up to £12,000 or $21,600. Section editors made little more than that, and full deputy editors and editors-in-chief were paid  from £17,000 / $30,600 upwards, but below £22,000 / $39,600 according to Smith.

He left after six months, taking a job as a proof reader at a mainstream publication. Starting salary for proof readers there was £22,000 or $39,600 – a significantly higher rate than what full staff writers were earning at the gaming publication, and higher even than editors.

Compound the low pay with the unpaid overtime, the in-house free-lancing, and often the lack of any lead editor (requiring section editors to do that job on the side) and you begin to paint a very bleak picture.

“Due to the low wages you’re crammed into a small crummy flat,” Smith says. “One group of three lived in the worst neighbourhood in town and couldn’t even afford a tumble drier between them. You’re forced to flat share because there’s no way you can pay rent for a single apartment. I couldn’t afford food. Once a month, on pay day, I’d go to the local Asian Goods store and buy a cheap 5kg bag of rice, and then I’d measure myself a small portion each day for my meals. I supplemented this with cheap tinned fish and industrial vodka. Several writers I know, for a fact, were alcoholics. Another committed suicide.”

I have no way of knowing if this is still the case in the UK, or how this compares to average video game salaries in the United States, or really whether it’s a huge part of the problem or not, but it isn’t hard to see how people making very little money might be a bit dazzled by the promise of free trips, lavish parties, access to industry celebrities or Twitter events in which free PS3s are handed out.

La Mesa de los Doritos

All of which brings us back to the Florence article and that nightmarish picture of video game writer Geoff Keighley surrounded by Halo 4, Mountain Dew, and Doritos.

“Geoff Keighley is often described as an industry leader,” writes Florence. “A games expert. He is one of the most prominent games journalists in the world. And there he sits, right there, beside a table of snacks. He will be sitting there forever, in our minds. That’s what he is now. And in a sense, it is what he always was. As Executive Producer of the mindless, horrifying spectacle that is the Spike TV Video Game Awards he oversees the delivery of a televisual table full of junk, an entire festival of cultural Doritos.”

How many other game journalists are sitting at that table?

Spike TV’s GMAs may help shine a light on that question.

“The GMAs shouldn’t exist,” Florence argues. “By rights, that room should be full of people who feel uncomfortable in each other’s company. PR people should be looking at games journos and thinking, “That person makes my job very challenging.” Why are they all best buddies? What the hell is going on?”

Well, it’s complicated, obviously.

“The games press is almost entirely dependent on access to information, people, and products that only game publishers can provide,” Gamasutra wrote in 2007. “You want the latest details on a game that’s still a year away from release? What you get, when you get it, and who you get it from are ultimately decisions made by that game’s marketers.”

They describe it as an information spigot. PR constantly trying to woo journalists and journalists extremely reluctant to be wooed and overwhelmed by PR (trust me, you get overwhelmed by PR extremely quickly.)

This means lots of pressure especially on the PR people who have to work hard to get good scores and well-received exclusives early on.

Former Rockstar PR representative Todd Zuniga told Gamasutra that even half a point on a review score was a big deal, and that PR people would pick and choose which publications to give exclusives to based on how friendly that review was likely to be.

“At Rockstar there was a fear factor,” says Zuniga. “Our bosses tried to intimidate us into doing everything we could—it was total mental warfare. The big guys knew in their hearts that we couldn’t change a journalist’s mind, but they still pushed hard for us to try, just in case we could.”

“It’s a business,” Marketing and Communications Director for developer Flagship Studios Tricia Gray also told Gamasutra. “The good of my product comes before all other considerations. And if I deem Magazine X is the best option with the most numbers, I go with it. There’s no sinister plot, no conspiratorial agency, no bribes, buyouts, threats, or clandestine operations.”

Manufacturing Consensus

But there are threats, and they’ve been made public in the past.

Take the case of Trip Hawkins, president of 3DO, who wrote an angry email to GamePro in 2001.

“If you disagree with me, you do so at your own peril,” Hawkins wrote after 3DO’s game Portal Runner was given a poor review at the publication. “And do not patronize me by telling me the reader is the customer—your real customer is the one that pays you your revenue. And it is game industry advertisers.”

Hawkins continued: “I should mention in passing that 3DO has been one of your largest advertisers. Effective immediately, we are going to have to cut that back…In conclusion, I think you owe us one because you took us by surprise and threw our review to a wolf. And you accepted his word as God without even checking in with a major advertiser.”

When Kotaku published a rumor of an upcoming PlayStation service prior to its official announcement, Sony attempted to persuade the site to refrain from posting the piece, even though it was information Kotaku had discovered on their own.

When Kotaku refused, Sony Senior Director of Corporate Communications David Karraker wrote an email to the site’s editor, essentially blackballing them.

“…I am very disappointed that after trying to work with you as closely as possible and provide you and your team with access and information, you chose to report on this rumor…. I can’t defend outlets that can’t work cooperatively with us. So, it is for this reason that we will be canceling all further interviews for Kotaku staff at GDC and will be dis-inviting you to our media event next Tuesday. Until we can find a way to work better together, information provided to your site will only be that found in the public forum….”

Of course, no publisher is obligated to provide the press with information, but blackballing may actually be a losing strategy.

After all, it’s bad PR.

Those emails are more harmful to the reputation of the companies and representatives of those companies than any low review score could hope to be.

And it’s not as though gaming outlets can’t retaliate themselves.

If they have less information and access to a game, they may simply cover it less. No press is bad press.

Being yelled at by a publisher might sour members of a publication to that publisher’s games in the future, even subconsciously.

The stakes in all of this are high.

A crummy review can help sink a game’s sales, which in turn can help sink peoples’ careers.

Millions and millions of dollars are on the line, and the PR people are working in their best interest to make sure those millions are protected.

The Press and the Perception of Corruption

It’s the job of the press to keep everyone honest.

Whether the gaming press is upholding that end of the bargain is a question without easy answers.

There are big, obvious breaches but overall the situation is murkier.

As John Walker notes, most of the time you’re more than likely encountering honest opinions.

“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,” writes Walker. “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.”

This is where the perception factor comes into play, as well as the systemic problems I noted above.

It doesn’t take many instances like the Jeff Gerstmann firing or the Jessica Chobot NPC or the angry emails from 3DO or Sony or the stories of lavish PR parties to start questioning everything and everyone in the gaming press, even if the real corruption is extremely rare.

As Florence wrote in the unamended version of his article at Eurogamer, noting the gushing over the yet-to-be-released game Tomb Raider from another journalist:

“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?”

In some ways, it doesn’t matter how widespread the influence of PR over journalism is, or how deep the corruption actually goes, or whether or not the heavy hand of advertising dollars is directly or indirectly influencing review scores. The knowledge that it has happened, and that it does influence scores from time to time, is enough.

The perception of corruption is there, and too often the media has done nothing to change this perception.

Rather, the complaints are dismissed: gamers are “entitled” and journalists who call out the GMAs are “bitter” or are merely chasing clicks.

This furthers the mistrust and the sense that something untoward is going down behind the pixel veil.

The systemic problems persist even if the truly outrageous examples are infrequent outliers.

No Easy Solution

It’s funny, actually. I’m still fairly new to this business. When I first began writing about video games I imagined it would be a lot less controversial.

Mass Effect 3 enlightened me, quite quickly, to how wrong that assumption was.

There’s a lot going on in the gaming world.

Companies are pushing toward somewhat dubious business models like free-to-play (F2P) and questionable DRM and DLC policies.

The gaming press is deeply distrusted by its readership.

Gamers themselves range from totally reasonable to downright insane depending on who you talk to and which controversy arises.

The existence of such things as “console wars” proves this point well enough.

The same problems that exist in the real world – from sexism to homophobia – also exist in the gaming world. Still, after a while one wonders what happened to the whole playing games side of things.

Deep down, I think the most intractable problem with writing about video games and especially reviewing them is that we are all inevitably fans, and that a review is an inherently subjective thing that does its best to dress in the drag of objectivity.

I am a fan – sometimes a raving fanboy – of many games.

More broadly, I’m an advocate for gaming. I think video games do make the world a better place in real tangible ways.

I want as many people in the video game business to succeed as humanly possible, because success points (theoretically) to more great games being made.

This, perhaps more than anything else, makes me at times an unreliable narrator.

My bias is unavoidable, and all the other details are just small flies buzzing about the fringes of my awareness compared to the great big elephant in the room that is simply my personal suite of tastes and preferences.

This is more important in video games because to review a video game you must spend an inordinate amount of time playing that game – much more time than movie or book critics spend.

The only solution to any of this – to bias, to influence from PR, to all the little factors that may sway a review this way or that – is to try to be transparent whenever possible. We may not always remember or even be aware of the things that might influence what we say and write, but it’s a worthy effort. And even that is only half a solution.

Meanwhile, the rise of grassroots journalism and the speed and ad hoc organization that fuels the internet these days is making it harder and harder for shenanigans to go unnoticed.

This isn’t unique to gaming journalism by any means and is impacting much more important realms like politics and the media which has failed so miserably to cover politics over the years.

There may be no easy solution to this bind, but there’s no doubt at all that the times they are a’changin’.

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