On The Ethics Of Media And Industry Relations In Videogames
The past few weeks have left me incredulous; we’ve gone from being otherwise indifferent or relatively optimistic about the coming months in gaming, to ridiculous amounts of infighting and attacking anyone with an opinion about anything, and I can’t help but note that it all started after a German event… just saying.
In all seriousness though, after coming off E3 and the whole sexism debate surrounding Assassin’s Creed: Unity, and then having to endure the whines of console gamers over Rise of the Tomb Raider during Gamescom, I have to admit that when the whole Quinnspiracy scandal arose, I had reached a certain tipping point in the amount of positivity I could hold onto (but hold onto it I did).
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Now we’ve already discussed the allegations raised against Zoe Quinn and I’m not here to rehash that discussion — read: this is not an article about Zoe Quinn or sexism — but rather, I’d like to address possibly the most interesting and pertinent debate to come out of that messy saga, and probably the biggest missed point of a lot of the noise being made by SJWs and MRAs; that of the relationships, ethical or otherwise, between videogame developers and journalists in the industry.
Some might argue that as readers, all of this is not really your business. I disagree. You all have a vested interest in what goes on behind the scenes because, after all, we exist for you guys and we try to cater to you guys. In our own style, certainly. But still with the intention of entertaining and providing solid, informative content for you guys. Our reviews exist to inform you and allow you to make somewhat educated purchasing decisions, and if those reviews were influenced somehow then you deserve to know as much. This is why I’m doing this article and putting it out on the internet. This is why I’m daring to talk about otherwise sensitive stuff that might possibly get me into some trouble.
Let’s first go over a few things that were mentioned in the article linked above. I don’t consider gaming websites — especially local ones for reasons I’ll come to in a bit — to be strictly ‘journalism’ because for example, a political journalist is not a politician and a war journalist is not necessarily fighting in the war. Games journalists actually play the things they talk about. Games journalists, then, are writers with opinions that others care to read about. And that’s it, really. Here in South Africa a lot of our content is either paraphrased news from international websites or original local content including events, opinions and reviews (and the odd eSports outrage). This is more or less true for every local gaming website and while some might purport to be legitimate journalists, whether they have degrees saying so or otherwise, for the most part it’s usually just a bunch of people who know some stuff, writing about a thing.
Not necessarily very well in a lot of cases, I have to say, but they do try.
In that sense, it is no different to a political journalist, or a war journalist, or any other kind. We are writing about something for someone else to read. And since we cater to a community of readers, we owe it to them to remain ethical and honest. Integrity is a big deal for journalism, whether we call ourselves that title or not. And as anyone on the
eGamer EGMR team will tell you, I am quite headstrong in my views on integrity, to the point that I find it difficult to respect a person who would speak on behalf of a community and then work in a job that peddles to that community, ie. PR. I do however say this as an Xbox Promotions Coordinator, albeit one who never actually outwardly ‘pushes’ console sales himself, but rather exists as a presence as part of his job, and still answers questions honestly (always awkward when asked which console has the better exclusives).
So with all of that said, we can establish that while games journalism might not be strictly journalism, it is still liable to journalistic ethics and accountable to its community of readers. That means people who write about games should do so with transparency and honesty.
Now there are certain perks to this job, as there are perks to any job. For example, if you’re working for a big company then you have a retirement fund, medical aid and perhaps a fuel allowance over and above your salary. Likewise if you’re on Top Gear then you get to drive some of the coolest and most expensive cars in the world. As games journalists, we get to play the latest games on the latest consoles, sometimes before launch. This is not a boast, but rather a statement of fact. It is part of our ‘job’ so to speak. Why? Because we have to cater to our audience and just like how it benefits a company to give an employee who is considered an asset, a fuel allowance, it benefits both us, the industry and the gaming community (that’s you guys) for us to have these games and consoles early.*
After all, would you rather wait for us to purchase and play a game on release? Why, when we can get it a week early and play it and have a review out for you to read and be informed by, come launch day?
Not that this always happens; in fact lots of times there aren’t really as many perks as you would think. The odd review copy (remember that reviews are shared between teams of five or more, on local websites), press event invite or closed screening (assuming you stay near where it’s being held, or get ready to splurge on fuel or flights) and of course, some ad revenue of which there typically isn’t enough to go around — and that’s kind of the problem a lot of the time. At least locally, the gaming journalism thing is not very lucrative; very few people locally exist on just their pay from writing about games. In a way, these so-called ‘perks’ that help us to do our jobs are actually all the recompense we get. Remember that, next time you’re hating a game reviewer for getting a game early.
Mix this in with having other employment because again, gaming can’t pay the bills in South Africa (mostly), and you get what is effectively someone writing part time and trying to play games (not for leisure, in most cases, but with purpose and while being critical) that take forever, and have a relevant and helpful review out on time. It can be a job sometimes, a proper slog at other times. And yet people like myself do it with smiles on their faces.
With all of this in mind, you start to see why sometimes, emphasis on sometimes, the ethics will slip.
You need those extra views. You need to impress sponsors and create more ad revenue. You need to build up a healthy readership. And you need to make it profitable at the same time, so that you at least get something out of what is hours upon hours of hard work. So you accept some favours and give some cool reviews because fuck it, why not? Other sites are going to do the review anyway, so why not get something out of the deal? And then the slippery slope becomes a full-on avalanche and integrity is forever lost in the depths below what was once a peaceful mountain… of… journalism stuff.
You needn’t look much further than Kotaku’s coverage (or lack thereof) of the Quinnspiracy and subsequent post-coverage of the accusations that have followed. One of their writers has been implicated and they’re not saying much (at the time of writing this). Why, when they typically bury their noses into everything? Is it because they’re too close to this matter? Is it because they don’t want to now be outed as a biased website?
But how much of it is wanting to save face, and how much of it is genuinely corrupt dealing? Through the Quinnspiracy a lot of just plain disgusting practices have been revealed, and I really hope that we in South Africa have not been guilty of this ourselves. Oh there are certainly some common beliefs amongst local websites and even their readers (judging from conversations I’ve had with gamers), of how things work here.
I’ll go ahead and risk talking about it: It’s a common belief that Megarom and LazyGamer are close to each other, likewise that El33tOnline (RIP) and Ster-Kinekor had a solid partnership given all the giveaways they had that involved SK games. It’s a common belief that some sites get preference based on either their proximity or the people involved. But it’s nowhere near on international level, to my knowledge, and for the most part we kind of get why things are this way. For example, LazyGamer has an undisputed amount of views compared to other local sites, so of course a distributor looking to push its content will look to LG. In that same respect, we at EGMR also get a lot of cool things from the likes of Megarom, SK, Apex and Xbox — hands-on play sessions, interviews and the like. But it’s mostly just because locally we have a very small and close-knit community and there is a lot of love and mutual respect (for the most part) amongst the websites and distributors here, because we all understand that we’re trying to do a job and the only way to do it properly is to work together. Why there are press events for some events like game launches and just because lol, I don’t really know, but there is no ‘corruption’ so to speak, although I do stand corrected because I’m speaking only from what I know.
*hugs to all my SA games journalists*
Anyway back to the international scene, it’s not nearly as close-knit in this case. There are just too many people involved in any particular place for this to be a thing. And there is therefore a lot more competition, and when there is competition you really need an edge above everyone else. This is typically why I cannot respect, for example an Electronic Arts game reviewed by IGN when they’ve been doing a month of EA-exclusive coverage. But how do you work around it? Further, how does this tie into favourable coverage, or is that more in the realm of journalists simply losing their ethics and engaging in illicit practices because they can?
I think we can all unanimously agree that accepting sexual favours, money and any other kind of, let’s say extra-curricular perk, in exchange for favourable coverage, is an absolute no-no. But what in your eyes constitutes a fair and ethical relationship? After all, you as the reader can benefit from some of the relationships between the industry and journalists. For example with hands-ons, early impressions and developer interviews — on that note, I’m still awaiting the South Park: The Stick of Truth interview I sent through a while back… it had such cool questions.
With a corrupt police force (typically) you get internal affairs officers who will basically police the police, to ensure that they’re doing not just a good job but the right job. So who are these people for games journalists? Who comes in and draws the line between industry and journalists and says, “That’s it! Enough is enough. Take that dick out of your mouth, sir.”? Is it our readers? But how would they even know if something was amiss? I mean, look at the whole Quinnspiracy thing and some (stressing: some) of the evidence provided of illicit dealings.
I can certainly tell you who it’s not, and that’s Social Justice Warriors. Really, sometimes they are just as bad as the people they speak out against. Sometimes.
I don’t care to discuss sexism, feminism or the so-called white-knighting any further, but accusations of taking money from a Game Jam are quite serious and have nothing to do with sexual favours. Why are people not talking about this more? Although I suppose that’s the problem with society; we mull over the wrong parts of a problem. For example, if a building is on fire, do we blame the hot and dry weather, the person who started the fire, the person who contained the fire, or the person who designed a building without fire protection? What is really the problem here? Certainly not sexism. It’s not just Zoe Quinn; she was absolutely just a victim of a nasty breakup. But she is not the first and won’t be the last developer to have had any kind of relation with a journalist (I don’t give a fuck about what else she’s done with Phil Fish though, developers are free to frolic with each other) and gained from that relation.
So how do we now draw the line?
It’s a very difficult question that I think can only be answered in one way: Full disclosure*. I think it’s vital to the close relationships that we build with our readers. Fair enough, a lot of the internet is filled with vile and atrocious people who exist simply as cave trolls, spreading hate and animosity online and feeling better about their loneliness through the vitriol they bring. These types of people cannot be avoided, and so there will always be people who take issue with the way that things are run. But I do think that if we are 100% honest with each other, then we can at least earn the respect of our readers and try to do our best for them, and if you don’t approve of a particular practice then you are welcome to call us out on it.
It’s a very trusting and perhaps even naive thing to consider. Who would even play along with such a notion? But right now it seems like all we have and like it or not, if a website or journalist wishes to engage in unethical, corrupt dealings — for example, defending a game they know is shit, because they’re close to the developers involved — then there’s really nothing we can do about it unless we somehow find out, and what are the chances of that happening? I’d like to find out what you guys think, so please hit the comments and share your thoughts.
For what it’s worth, I love doing this job and I know a lot of others who do to. I’ve actually been accused of wanting to ‘date’ EGMR because of how fervent I am, about it. You guys just don’t know how many hours I spend on here, sometimes, in the background, doing background things. It’s a passion as much as gaming is, and it’s almost never about reward to me. When I first started writing, one of our older writers told me that the feeling would fade and I’d become cynical like the rest of them. I’m happy to say that four years later, it just is not the case. Oh I’m not as into gaming as I once was, but I love writing and I love this site and its readers… most of them. It’s such a crying shame that some of the other less ethical journalists in the world are giving the rest of us such a bad rap.
* Full disclosure: Last week the local XBOX ZA crew held an event in Joburg in which a selection of local gaming websites were handed free Xbox Ones, as well as a bunch of games to play. We got one too. Now while this might irk some local gamers — please consider that we at least did not plaster social networks with pictures of the thing, because why do that to your community — we see it as a thing everyone can benefit from: We get an Xbox One for review purposes, Xbox ZA gets exposure for its games and an install base amongst websites, and you the reader can get Xbox-relevant reviews the likes of Sunset Overdrive and (sigh) Halo, in the coming months. Everybody wins, in this case. (Reviews coming soon.)