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RPG Codex Editorial: Games Journalism Scandal

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RPG Codex Editorial: Games Journalism Scandal

Editorial - posted by Crooked Bee on Mon 29 October 2012, 16:14:16

Tags: Games journalism

[Written by grotsnik]

‘Sad thing is, they’re all too horrid to see what they really are.’
Former PR rep and multi-award-winning game journalist Dave Cook

‘If a company is making money from your work then you should be getting paid for it.’
Multi-award-nominated game journalist and hopeful future PR rep Lauren Wainwright

There’s been a scandal. And even the RPG Codex, which loiters on the most remote, obscure, and inhospitable periphery of the melange of enthusiast blogging, barely-disguised vicarious advertisement, amateur comedy, Kotaku, gushing overuse of superlatives, pre-pubescent social-issue handwringing, cosplay, and press-pack-goodie-photoshoots that’s collectively and misleadingly described as ‘games journalism', just can't stay away. Because we love mainstream games journalism; we really do. And this scandal demonstrates exactly why.

If you aren’t already aware, the trouble kicked off with a short Eurogamer article written by Rob Florence, which comments upon the hilarious image of one Geoff Keighley, supposedly a gaming journalist, caught on camera setting a high bar for criticism as an art-form by advertising addictive junk for overweight American kids (as well as Doritos and Mountain Dew) with a facial expression that perfectly displayed his inner turmoil as he tried to figure out exactly how he could permanently end his own suffering with such a limited assortment of tools at his disposal.

Florence's article, however, only really touches on this photo as a springboard to talk about the Games Media Awards, which he characterises as an event at which ‘games PR people and games journos voted for their favourite friends, and friends gave awards to friends, and everyone had a good night out’. At this orgy of mutual congratulation, Florence continues, a number of journalists demonstrated their unshakeable integrity by advertising ‘groundbreaking transmedia experience’ Defiance (it’s an upcoming shitty MMO that’s going to be set in the world of an upcoming shitty SyFy Channel show starring Dexter’s wife and a guy from Ugly Betty, in case you were wondering about 'transmedia') to their own Twitter followers, as part of a ‘contest’, in exchange for free PS3s. A few commentators - including RockPaperShotgun’s John Walker - took public issue with the fact that a bunch of professional journalists, at an event celebrating journalistic quality, had allowed themselves to be bought off with a console that most of them probably already owned. To this a couple of his peers responded by snapping at him, ‘It was a hashtag, not an advert. Get off the pedestal’, (multi-award-winning journalist and former Ink Media PR man Dave Cook), and shrugging, ‘Urm... Trion were giving away PS3s to journalists at the GMAs. Not sure why that's a bad thing?’ (Lauren Wainwright).

And so Florence uses this story to put it to his readers that when a journalist like Wainwright publicly admits that they don’t see anything wrong with shilling for a game they haven’t actually played in exchange for free goodies, it’s kind of understandable that people might suspect that journalist of being a shill; and he quotes a tweet from Wainwright gushing about the upcoming Tomb Raider reboot as an example of how any sort of harmless endorsement can appear suspicious when you’ve already stated that you don’t have an ethical problem with making endorsements based on nothing more than receiving free shit in return.

This went down rather badly, perhaps because Wainwright, as it later turned out, had in fact worked as a creative consultant for Square Enix - Tomb Raider’s publisher - to the point of listing them as a current employer on Journalisted, and had provided several Square Enix products with previews and reviews for various publications, in which words and phrases such as ‘badass’, ‘awesome’, ‘innovative’, ‘deep’, ‘additive’ (sic), ‘fantastic’, ‘Lara Croft is a feminist symbol’ (sic), ‘breath-taking’, and ‘extraordinary’ predominate (after these revelations were made public, by Stu Campbell and others, this information began to magically disappear from the internet, although more material continued to surface including posts on Wainwright’s blog that reference her close friendship with Square Enix Marketing Manager Korina Abbott, repeatedly regurgitate Square Enix press statements, describe her trip to the Square Enix offices in Japan, encourage fans to vote for her in the very same GMAs organised by her employers at Intent Media who she later felt the need to defend against Florence, announce her intention to go into Games PR herself, show off the free ‘swag’ she’s been given by publicists, and explain that ‘when I was a little girl I wanted to work for Square Enix.’ Obviously, though, there's no way you can take any or all of this information to cast any doubt on the impartiality of the journalist.).

Florence claims that Wainwright or one of her superiors made a libel threat against Eurogamer after the article was published, forcing them to remove the paragraph that mentioned her. Wainwright’s boss, Intent Media’s Michael French, who’d incidentally provided Defiance with some free advertising himself in an MCV article announcing the vital bit of retail news that Defiance would be sponsoring the drinks at his company’s awards show, dismisses this as a lie; ‘there was no legal action taken from Intent. We asked Eurogamer to remove cruel content about a staff member. They obliged.’ Either way, Eurogamer edited all reference to Wainwright and Cook out of the article and apologised publicly (again, on Twitter) for the emotional distress they’d caused the two journalists by cruelly reporting the truth about them. Florence quit his job in protest, then proceeded to tell all of his followers online exactly what had happened.

The story exploded. Wainwright closed down her Twitter page, so as not to feed the trolls who were criticising her maliciously based on nothing more than the various things she’d done and said, while Cook began to communicate with Florence, complaining that republishing something he’d written on a public social network ‘makes me look like a cunt’, that the article ‘could have done without it,’ and that all of the negative attention made him ‘properly miserable.’ Our sympathies must surely go out to Cook, who can be read here describing his thoroughly uncunt-ish attitude towards journalism with the memorable words, ‘We only report on what Sony tells us’.

And on the larger scale, gaming journalists everywhere took to each other’s Twitter pages to rally against the charges that they were a chummy, insular community with an unhealthily comfortable, even downright incestuous relationship with PR representatives, a bunch of deluded hypocrites who preferred to close ranks, justify their friends’ misconduct, and attack their own readers than consider the possibility of any sort of collective wrongdoing. ‘In theory I don’t have a problem with this article’s point,’ complained Mark Lawson of Britxbox, the UK’s ‘best XBox fansite’. ‘How he hurts (Wainwright) and (Cook) sucks though’; a sentiment which Lauren Alesandra, PR manager for Gaming Union, agreed with (‘As someone who’s apparently a “journo” he should know better’) as well as Cook himself (‘We’ve been singled out and dragged through the muck about it, which is fun’). ‘Wondering if publicists are actually as all-powerful as message board conspiracy theorists make them out to be,’ chortled N’Gai Croal, formerly a gaming journalist and currently the head of creative consultancy firm ‘Hit Detection’, which, as he described in a Game Informer article, provides feedback on gameplay decisions and ‘shapes public relations plans’. John T Drake, Director of Communications and Brand Management at Harmonix, Matt Helgeson of Game Informer, Chris Norris of Ubisoft, Kotaku’s Evan Narcisse and Jason Schreier, Maurice Tan, Community Manager at Deepsilver and formerly a Destructoid editor, and Ryan Luckin, a PR Manager at XBox, all shared their own amusement at Croal’s silly joke about these paranoid internet weirdos who believe that some games journalists and games publicists have become basically interchangeable. Joseph Walsh, a PR guy at Namco Bandai and former writer for Entertainmentwise, argued fiercely that ‘Rab Florence’s article on Eurogamer is massively flawed and a bit out of order towards nice and honest journalists’, before telling Wainwright herself that ‘it’s badly written, inaccurate and clearly written from (sic) a bitter individual’; Wainwright’s response is not visible, although it led to Walsh replying, ‘Pleasure. There aren’t enough letters in a tweet needed to embarrass this sorry so and so’. And so on, and so on. Not so much a circlejerk, perhaps, as a large group of people simultaneously burying their heads up one another’s arses.

Then came the weekend; and our stalwart journalists decided that it was time to stop fellating one another on social networks and address the subject in their own publications, sort of like real reporters might do. Kotaku editor Stephen Totilo took to the comments page of a ‘Best Of This Week’ article to explain why his website hadn’t covered the affair: ‘I don’t think it’s a pretty important story. I think it’s the same tired nonsense about games journalism that some folks love to carry on endlessly about. If we had more clear facts about whether one journalism outlet or journalist really threatened to sue another and if that other outlet buckled under that needlessly, then maybe we'd have a small story. But that would take reporting to find it out, and I just don't care enough about the latest supposed media scandal to ask my reporters to look into it. You know what's important? Doing good games journalism, which is what we did this week and highlights in this list above.’ Well said, Stephen. Who watches the watchmen? Who the fuck cares about that? Now let’s all get back to genuine quality reporting such as Sexy Video Game Hallowe’en or It Only Took Seven Months For Apple To Make Me Feel Like A Chump. More depressingly, even the articles that acknowledged and condemned a substantial industry-wide problem took pains to emphasise that the silly old gaming public was kicking up a fuss about nothing by suggesting that there might be a substantial industry-wide problem. ‘I’m not going to recount the series of events,’ GiantBomb’s Patrick Klepek declared, rolling his virtual eyes, ‘that lead (sic) to much of the Internet getting up in arms for the umpteenth time about the supposed widespread impropriety of the profession I dedicate my waking life to.’ ‘Llama-drama’ was the verdict of professional hippo Jim Sterling.

Spare a thought for these wronged souls; it really must be irritating to keep on hearing that same tired old canard about misconduct, foul play and publisher influence in gaming journalism, just because a journalist, having made the tentative suggestion that somebody (who after five minutes of investigation turned out to have worked for Square Enix) was reviewing Square Enix games while cheerleading Square Enix products and that might look a bit bad to some people, was immediately dogpiled upon, rubbished, and censored by his own colleagues. And actually, the journalists (such as RPG Codex alumnus, games critic, and amateur PR man Ian Miles Cheong) who bleated that ordinary gamers didn’t have the whole story and were just wildly speculating as usual based on what little they could see of the inner workings of the media, are quite right to say as much. Ordinary gamers don’t know exactly how much journalists allow themselves to be affected by publisher influence, possibly because ordinary gamers don’t put in the hours at the publicists’ parties, preview events and launch events, or the various free publicist-organised jollies at castles, hovercraft classes, nightclubs, Porsche driving schools, etc, that would be required to make a fully-informed judgement on this subject. Ordinary gamers can't witness first-hand whether reporters are gently implicitly nudged towards favourable judgements, or, as in the case of Wainwright, whether they appear to have a blatantly obvious bias based upon personal relationships and career hopes; all they can see is the plethora of near-perfect scores and the meaningless superlatives that are farted out from the back end of the press machine with a disheartening regularity. All that ordinary gamers have to go on is the image the gaming media presents, which, to put it mildly, does not inspire confidence - and, every so often, a toxic story or memoir that comes seeping out through the cracks.

This is the real, harmful, bloody-minded naivety of the gaming media community; a collectively-affirmed belief that their closeness with the industry makes them specially qualified to pass judgement upon it, without being able to accept that it might also have legitimately compromised their opinions - a little in the manner of a mother who believes it’s perfectly okay for her to be a juror at her son’s murder trial because she knows him much better than anybody else. And this translates into a defensiveness on behalf of the entire profession; Klepek's article, and to a lesser extent Sterling's, takes a moment to acknowledge the inexcusable (of course it isn't right to consult with a company whose products you're reviewing) before avoiding any in-depth commentary on this undeniable glimpse of an industry operating like a swingers' party - in which journalists are invited to become PR reps by PR reps at PR events, transform into creative consultants, then turn into reporters again, jumping back and forth directly between poacher and gamekeeper without ever having their credibility questioned until a bunch of internet detectives on Neogaf happen to notice their CV details - in favour of abstracts and private reflection; really, this story is all about trust between you and me. Really, it's all about how us critics sometimes can't take criticism. Even John Walker and Rob Florence themselves issued milquetoast oil-on-troubled-waters follow-ups to their initial condemnatory statements, urging the gaming public not to think too badly of gaming journalism as a whole, since from personal experience they can testify that most of the people they know are hardworking, decent, and trustworthy.

It’s a pity. Because what the Walkers and Florences (who must genuinely want to improve the situation, indeed, who wouldn’t have spoken out in the first place if they weren't passionate about doing so) have to understand is that for them to start producing apologetics on behalf of a silent majority of honest hacks is completely futile, since nobody believes that every single gaming journalist is corrupt. What people believe is that gaming journalism is institutionally corrupt, built around an imbalanced professional relationship that frequently challenges (and, if appearances are anything to go by, frequently overcomes) writers' principles, and this image is not going to improve as a result of journalists penning earnest columns about how, a few bad apples aside, in their personal experience journalists are honest, (honest!). This image is going to improve if the wider public is provided with tangible evidence that games criticism can occur in a reasonably effective vacuum - that the clowns who announce quite gleefully that they're riding the gravy train of expensive press tours, who copy-paste press statements into their articles and use the word ‘awesome’ in their ‘previews’ and who think they might get a job in the industry themselves one day because that nice PR man gave them a business card are not the same people providing supposedly in-depth objective analysis of any commercial product, that critics are sending back or at the very least declaring the free tat they’ve been plied with (no, saying after the event that you’d meant to give it to charity all along doesn’t count), that editors never have the ability to alter review scores or excise harsh criticism, that advertising is entirely divorced from the journalistic process - and that writers can and will speak up and be heard by the public whenever they encounter misconduct both on the part of the industry and on the part of their peers. Continuing to say, ‘You don’t have the full story, but we do, and we’re telling you that aside from the specific stuff that you already know about, everything is fine, trust us,’ after everything that’s happened, is simply indefensible.

In the wake of the UK phone-hacking scandal last year, in which the fields of political and celebrity journalism were found to have undeniable systemic problems with misconduct, unethical behaviour, and an extremely troubling hand-in-glove relationship with the subjects of their own reportage, journalists were at pains to explain exactly why any form of regulation, transparency or scrutiny of their activities would be a very bad thing; regulation, they argued, would provide the government with opportunities to bully them into censoring their stories, it’d diminish the free press. Gaming journalists, alas, have no such excuse, which is why their arguments in favour of being trusted to keep their own houses in order tend to carry the distinct whiff of undiluted delusional bullshit. ‘I agree that games media should always be scrutinizing itself and trying to get better. I don't necessarily agree that games media should be scrutinizing and criticizing each other, you know?,’ reasoned Kotaku’s Jason Schreier on Neogaf, before adding, ‘I criticize Kotaku (especially my own work on Kotaku) all the time! Just not publicly. Internal criticism can lead to improvement; public criticism leads to nothing but embarrassment. That's one of the reasons I try to think twice before publicly criticizing one of my colleagues or fellow media outlets. It's often a lose-lose situation. People are far more inclined to listen to advice or criticism when you approach them privately and politely rather than calling them out on a website read by almost 5 million people a month, you know?’ (Thank God we have professional journalists like Jason to tell us that he isn’t afraid to do the right thing and keep the public uninformed when he thinks informing them could cause embarrassment to his colleagues). In the same thread, an anonymous journalist, nicknamed Dawg, explains why he can be trusted to remain unstained by publisher influence even while he's wallowing in a colossal muddy pool of it; ‘I'm a VIDYA GAME JOURNALIST for an European gaming website (which I shall not name for obvious reasons). I've had my fair share of PR events, previews and such. During one of the previews, we dined at an expensive restaurant with the PR guy from a publisher I will not name (again, for obvious reasons). It's fun and all, but at the end of the day, I just care about the game and I write my opinion about that game. Sure, dining at a fancy restaurant is fun and all, but it shouldn't cloud your judgement. If they want to give me free food, that's their decision. It's not hard to still write an unbiased (although every review is subjective because of OPINIONS) article after getting all sorts of things from them.’

My suspicion is that a number of journalists share Dawg’s perspective; that it’s perfectly acceptable to enjoy the attentions and the courtship rituals and the little gifts provided by the industry, because like Penelope refusing her army of suitors or the goddamned Batman, you’re basically incorruptible, immune to external influence, and the gaming public should just be able to trust you about that. But the logic of this deluded self-belief, this talk of, 'Yes, I receive free goodies and I enjoy a cordial relationship with PR reps, who court me as if I was a potential business client or someone thinking about buying a timeshare, rather than a supposedly detached commentator on their products, but that's never influenced my critical judgement. I mean, I'd know if it did, right?' doesn't even stand up to scrutiny in a vacuum, since none of the luxuries are necessary for the journalist to do their job; the risk of being unduly influenced simply doesn't need to exist in the first place. The PR rep has no reason to offer these perks other than as tokens of small-scale, soft bribery, and the journalist has no reason to accept them other than being a greedy, unprofessional sucker (hey, we're all human, right?!), someone who thinks that if he knows it's a honeytrap he can go ahead and marry the Russian prostitute anyway without fear of being compromised. And when a group of professional reporters (some of the best ones in their field, according to the GMAs!), like a shit version of the Stanford Prison Experiment, prove under laboratory conditions that their ethical code and good sense can be swayed in thirty seconds by exactly one Playstation 3, when professional reporters shout down and censor one of their own for naming names, when major publications refuse to cover misconduct in their own profession, the idea of games journalism as a medium being just fine and dandy where industry influence and peer-to-peer cronyism is involved becomes utterly laughable; an infant bawling that it doesn't need nappies but continuing to wet the fucking bed all the same.

What those journalists who count themselves as honest have to accept is that what they see as an unfair, cynical caricature of their vocation is not the result of wild conspiracy theorising and groundless internet paranoia on the part of the gaming public, but stems from the collective perception of a system that has quite visibly been formed around a particularly wealthy and disproportionately powerful industry with an eye towards manipulating, wooing, and managing a particularly inchoate and frequently impecunious press - some of whom would apparently be delighted to be invited over onto the other side of the fence anyway. Even more worryingly, it's a system that continues, despite the protests and the eye-rolling, to give the outward impression of being compromised, frequently to the point of absurdity, from the inbred closeness of that relationship. Defending their profession might be their first reaction to all of this mess, but regulating their profession is the only sensible reaction. If gaming journalists and editors want to enjoy genuine credibility amongst their public, untainted by any suspicion of misbehaviour, they’re going to have to demonstrate that they're bold enough to take three steps back from that system, that they have proper visible safeguards in place to maintain a healthy, professional distance between themselves and the manufacturers of the product they’re supposed to be commenting on, and that any misconduct will be recognised, publicly acknowledged, and stamped out, whether by whistleblowers or by watchdogs.

Obviously, none of this is ever going to happen. So we should be glad at least that consumers can (probably) rely on amateur reviewers and niche review sites which are, if nothing else, small and arcane and (in the case of the Codex) completely beyond-the-pale enough to avoid getting themselves caught up in this kind of nonsense; and in the meantime we’ve got Stu Campbell’s unequivocal statement that IGN’s Colin Campbell, yet another multi-award-winning games journalist, is directly implicated in selling review scores for advertising. Since Colin himself, having won his second ‘Games Media Legend’ award at the GMAs, told MCV just last year that ‘it would be great to see more searing reporting exposing corruption,’ presumably in the next few days we’ll see some of our self-proclaimed honest gaming journalists giving column space to these serious allegations against a reporter at one of the biggest gaming publications out there, before investigating them thoroughly and without any fear of stigma.

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