Advertainmentorial: Blurring the ‘Journalism’ in Games Journalism (a rant)
IMAGE: Advertisement for Mass Effect 3 (Bioware)
The unprecedented fan backlash that emerged following the release of Mass Effect 3 early last year had a number of unforeseen consequences in the world of videogame journalism. Most immediately it revealed a stark and needlessly hostile division between the gaming press and a subsection of their readership; but it further exposed some rather complicated interrelations between those critics and the publishers they are tasked with reviewing.
In the wake of the negative fan response to Mass Effect 3, many in the press condemned those unhappy with the ending presented by Bioware as ‘entitled whiners’, describing them as indulged consumers who, in their opinion, threatened to irreparably damage the legitimacy of videogames as an artistic medium. In the opinion rant offered by Colin Moriarty (Playstation editor for IGN), his ferocious, infantile attack even refused any fan even the basic right to express their dissatisfaction once their purchase had been made. You either admit you liked it (as he did), or shut the hell up.
Frequently, these arguments boiled down to a variation of one rhetorical plea: how can games be considered Art if the audience dares to question the absolutism of its creator’s vision? It is a premise that embraced a reductive, narrow illogic that fundamentally misunderstood the whole history of art; but more than that, it revealed a self-righteous indignation at the heart of the gaming press itself.
After all, it was they in the press themselves who had spent years hyperbolically parroting the promises of Bioware’s publicity machine, ensuring player’s that, yes indeed, their choices would matter, that they would help shape the ending that they chose. Indeed, in an extraordinary amount of cases, it was they themselves that had repeated these very sentiments in their reviews of the game (your choices matter; you define your ending; you decide your fate), and yet they immediately sought to discredit the fans who wanted to question those statements after making their purchase and finding it a distinctly different experience from the one promised.
But as many in the games media shook their collective heads in disappointment, lamenting that their audience was failing to live up to their expectations, the heightened scrutiny that this controversy stirred soon revealed some rather glaring omissions and conflicts of interest – few of which had been previously disclosed – all of which left the moral high ground from which they clucked their tongues a little unstable beneath their feet.
After all, Jessica Chobot, one of the principle representatives of gaming site IGN (one of Bioware’s most vocal supporters throughout), actually appeared as a character in Mass Effect 3, muddying the journalistic distance one might hope for in a publication’s criticism or review. Indeed, it was a decision that made the ferocious screed Moriarty spewed at disgruntled fans appear a little personal. (At the very least it threw a glaring suspicion over his ugly, and weirdly wounded vitriol.)
Similarly, the majority of reviewers of Mass Effect 3 were sent copies that could not import decisions from previous save games (here) meaning that they had no way of speaking to what is arguably the central conceit of the game experience (a fact many did not disclose in their copy), with consequentially few (if any) speaking of the face import issues that spoiled the experience for a great number of players.
And amongst innumerable other such examples, the publication Game Informer was happy to publish pre-release quotes such as Case Hudson’s promises of no ‘A, B, or C ending’ in expansive, gushing advertorial articles (here), while going on to not only fail to question the hypocrisies in such promises in their 10/10 review, but actively dismiss fans who questioned such contradiction after the fact.*
Sadly, however, incidents such as these have proved to be merely the tip of the iceberg in an industry that appears to lack the necessary objectivity that a word like ‘journalism’ necessitates. As even a cursory exploration of the medium’s press reveals, in just the past several months a startling amount of evidence has surfaced that suggests that the relationship between publisher and reviewer has become, at times, uncomfortably cosy, with the average reader left unable to disentangle what is unsolicited analysis, and what is coerced, encouraged, or influenced by the very publishers who are supposedly being critiqued.**
* Jeff Gerstmann gave a negative review to Kane & Lynch and was summarily fired by Gamespot who caved to Sony’s threats to pull their advertising and exclusives. The reasoning offered for his termination was that he ‘couldn’t be trusted’ to be an Editorial Director (here).
* At the most recent GMAs, gaming journalists were offered the chance to win a Playstation 3 console if they Tweeted advertising for the upcoming Tomb Raider game. When a Eurogamer’s Robert Florence questioned whether or not such a practice was above board considering that they were meant to be the critics, not the cheerleaders of these products, he was fired (here).
* Publishers routinely send swag to reviewers as ‘gifts’ to accompany the review copies of their games – things like pens, clothing, crazy expensive chess sets (here), and offer expenses-paid ‘preview’ excursions to hotels and events.
* Activision blackballed Gameplanet, refusing them interviews with the makers of their games, because they wrote (extraordinarily briefly) about one such junket in which Activision invited a bunch of gaming journalists to an exclusive all-expenses paid hotel event, questioning the legitimacy of such an advertising technique (here).
* Sony felt comfortable threatening Kotaku with blackballing when they tried to report on an upcoming Sony service, even emailing them some borderline extortion menace that included the lines:
‘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.’ (here)
* Electronic Arts seemingly sought to manipulate reviews of Battlefield 3 in Norway by withholding review copies to reviewers that gave bad reviews to previous installments, and forcing reviewers to fill out questionnaires about what they might score it (here).
So to summarise: confirmed cases of obscuration, extortion, enticement, coercion, all in a systemised ongoing blur between advertising and criticism…
Many in the games industry claim that such actions are uncharacteristic and minor aberrations in an otherwise ethically sound field. They would argue that it is unjust to look upon such incidents as anything more than the misbehaviour of a misguided few who stepped way over the line and were swiftly corrected; but to me, dismissing them as isolated events completely at odds with the standard practice of this field is highly disingenuous. Rather, these events are evidence of an ongoing systemic pattern of behaviour that has shown no signs of cessation or legitimate regulation.
The firing of Robert Florence happened only months ago – and that decision has not been reversed. Sony’s and Activision’s bully tactics appear to be ongoing – or at least have adapted over time. Game publishers continue to send swag to reviewers along with copies of their game; still preview their games in exclusive expenses-paid junkets; and utilise their marketing divisions to determine which outlet will be provided what level of access and which exclusives.
While I agree that people need to exercise reason and personal assessment in their purchasing, to pretend that the division between PR and critique in this industry has not been inextricably blurred, to dismiss the reality that there are few (if any) places to seek out analysis that has not been clouded by the uncomfortably close relationship of publishers and reviewers, is wilfully naive.
While it is not (and is never) as simple an arrangement as ‘I will give you this ludicrous, expensive chess set and you will give me a great score for my game…’ it is instead a system of comingled marketing and analysis has become so engrained – indeed, so expected – that the discerning consumer looking on is now incapable of reasonably drawing a line between what is unsolicited, honest review, and what has been swayed by an undisclosed familiarity with the publisher.
There are innumerable means of influence and persuasion – and yes, they are a part of every business that employs advertising to survive – but when it is common industry practice to ply games journalists with merchandise to invite them to linger longer upon, or think better of a game***, and then those very same people are later tasked with the analysis of that finished product, a line has been crossed that I believe must be considered with reservation. (And again: the recent game-journalists-tweeting-publicity-to-win-a- PS3 scenario is a worrying product of a system that currently appears to be functioning without strict regulation.)
Indeed, the fact that the ‘reviewers’ of games are thought of as potential advertising opportunities in such a manner – potential billboards that can be won over and utilised to spread product awareness – is precisely the issue that makes trusting any opinion offered by these figures suspect. Roger Ebert may get free tickets to the films he reviews, but he is not pictured wearing a Spiderman 6: Rise of the Arbitrary Sequel hoodie at the time; he won’t be denied access to interviews with directors and programmers if he slags off a movie (because publicity is not part of his purview); and the advertising that keeps his job afloat comes from a more diverse field of companies than merely the makers of those film themselves.
When I disagree with Roger Ebert – and I frequently do (the man loved Speed 2) – I do so because it is his personal perspective that I conflict with, not the entire perpetuation of the publicity/critique system that he works within. At present those divisions have not yet been established firmly enough in this medium – and until they are, until such gratis gifts and payed, wooing previews are the exception rather than the rule, such scepticism will, by necessity, always persist.
So no, this is not a field swimming in fraud and dishonesty, but it is hardly a paragon of incorruptible principle, either – and when onlookers of the whole Mass Effect saga see two facts: ’75 perfect scores’, alongside a player Metacritic score of 1.5, I think a little more scepticism on both sides is healthy.
* And Game Informer (a publication owned by GameStop) announced that Mass Effect 3 was their Game of the Year for 2012 on the very same page that they advertised the release date and details of the ‘New Wii-U edition!’
** And an article like this one by Erik Kain at Forbes is an extraordinary (and rather disheartening) place to start (http://www.forbes.com/sites/erikkain/2012/10/26/all-the-pretty-doritos-how-video-game-journalism-went-off-the-rails/)
*** Ninja Stan, a moderator on the Bioware forum who has previously worked for Bioware (and with whom I had the original discussion that evolved into this rant), confirmed that Bioware, like innumerable other publishers, has routinely employed techniques such as supplying free beer to games journalists at events like PAX in order to entice them to linger longer at their booths and think more favourably of their games.