The ongoing concern of gamers over whether they can trust the journalists who write news and reviews has been at a near boiling point for the last year or so. There was the battle between gamers and the press over Mass Effect 3’s ending. Journalists at the Games Media Awards were encouraged to tweet about Trion’s upcoming Defiance with a reward of a PS3 being available for one lucky winner. Then there are the regular accusations of good or bad reviews for certain games being bought by publishers.
What brought this issue to a head for me was the recent revelation in a GameTrailers interview that Hideki Kojima had run his marketing plan by Geoff Keighley some two years ago at Comic Con. While it’s okay to play along with Moby Dick Studios and The Phantom Pain, what Keighley did and what the rest of the press did is different. It’s one thing for outlets without inside information to connect the dots to give us the likely scoop. It’s another for Keighley to withhold information when he knew the real story of Moby Dick Studios and The Phantom Pain and hype a fake interview on his show that was just a marketing sham.
It’s not like Keighley is a stranger to controversy or questions about his journalistic integrity. After all, that picture to the right is one of the most infamous of the past twelve months. That’s Geoff Keighley doing interviews promoting a Doritos and Mountain Dew sponsored program that promotes Halo 4. Here’s a respected journalist actively doing marketing work for sponsors and a publisher. The term Doritogate that spawned from this became synonymous with all the gaming press controversies of the last year.
In addition to these marketing tie-ins with the likes of Kojima and 343 Studios, he’s also made money off of his close relationships with publishers. His Final Hours series (also known as Behind The Games) has given inside looks at big releases such as Metal Gear Solid 2, Portal 2, Mass Effect 3 and Tomb Raider. While these do require some actual journalism and writing work, both Keighley and the devs/publishers profit from these products. Keighley gets money and the devs get exposure. It’s easy to perceive this as a journalist (Keighley) doing marketing leg work for a publisher.
And don’t think I have something against Keighley. I’ve been watching him since he got his start on a little Canadian show called Electric Playground when he was a simple field reporter. He’s come a long way in the ten years since we first saw him on Space in Canada. Seeing him make it big as the face of the gaming media in America gave me someone I knew and could trust bringing gaming news to the mainstream. Well, that was before recent circumstances gave me pause.
The problem is, and will continue to be, that the gaming media are reliant on publishers and developers to get stories, be it previews, features, interviews or reviews. This reliance is both in terms of access to content and advertising dollars that support the media. Publishers leverage this though review embargoes and limiting what content in a game can and can’t be written about. It’s hard to see content creators as journalists when the scope of their content is often dictated to them.
The key to a strong media is its independence. There are two types of independence. There’s independence in fact which means that you are actually independent of any interest you would have in writing about a subject. The other is independence in appearance which is looking like you’re independent of having any interest in writing a certain story. That independence in appearance is the hard one for the gaming media to deal with.
I know that this issue isn’t new. Whether I wrote about it now or six months from now or six months ago, I’d be writing about an old topic. There’s another problem. Gamers realize there’s a problem. The gaming press realizes there’s a problem. The thing is that no one has done much about it.
Sure, we’re more aware of the issue that there could be influence over the gaming media. I haven’t seen a change in how things are done. I think this independence issue has introduced a degree of cynicism to how I and many others view gaming news and reviews. Just check out the comments section of any review and you’ll likely see accusations of writers and sites being paid off by publishers for a score (good or bad). You’d like to think that everyone is on the up and up but it’s hard to think that when EGM gives Aliens: Colonial Marines a 9/10 when the GameRankings average without EGM’s score is only 48.34% and the review’s page borders are Aliens: CM ads.
The problem is that there isn’t much that the big sites have been willing to do to correct things and it’s the big sites (the IGNs, Joystiqs, Gamespots and GameTrailers of the world) that have to lead to way. The easiest way to get around independence issue is to disclose all dealings with the developer or publisher. Fortunately, most sites disclose if they got their reviewed copy of a game for free or if their attendance at an event was subsidized by a publisher or dev.
However, there are many other things that we don’t know about like the review embargo time or the list of things that the publisher has put an embargo on being discussed in reviews. Both of these are standard industry practice but the public doesn’t know about these and the effect it can have on reviews and their buying decisions. Maybe these can be disclosed in a separate post. In addition, there are advertising deals with publishers that could have a perceived influence. If a site has a large ad campaign to coincide with a game’s launch, we’ll see it (unless you run AdBlock) but it should still be disclosed so a site is up front about a perceived conflict of interest in reviewing a game.
I’d say that the easiest way to get away from issues over perceived independence issues would be to get rid of scores at the end of reviews. If you didn’t have scores, the only thing that people could argue about is the actual content of a review. The problem is that scores tend to drive conversation, conversation drives clicks and clicks drive ad revenue. That’s a cynical way of doing things but I get more from reviews that are written as critiques rather than justifying a score. Of course, devs wouldn’t want that model to change either since some are incentivised based on Metacritic scores.
Let’s get back to that Games Media Awards incident for a moment. Eurogamer columnist Robert “Rab” Florence left the site after a post he wrote about the trouble with the press promoting a game on Twitter at the GMAs was edited. The whole saga doesn’t need to be fleshed out for the sake of this column. What’s important was Florence’s perception of gaming news both before and after that incident. In an interview with Kotaku, Florence said, “I think we’re in a horrible position right now, where most games coverage is almost indistinguishable from PR.” Says it all, doesn’t it?
Banner image via Nerd Rage.