Journalistic integrity and the games industry

As is so often the case, this very interesting piece was shared with me via Extra Credits. It starts with encouragement to consider and analyse this image:

1

…and goes on to discuss the problematic relationship between games ‘journalists’ and game company PR people. Namely, that the PR people tend to provide comfort, entertainment, and free stuff in copious amounts and to be friends with the people who write about and review their games. This compromises journalistic integrity, the author ‘Rab’ Florence says. It doesn’t mean all journalists always write what they’re told and not what they think – but it opens up a strong chance that they will.

As an anthropology student, the logic of bribes – overt or subtle – is obvious. Reciprocity is one of the core concepts of anthropology. If someone gives you a gift (and you accept it), you are in their debt. There is a social pressure to offer something in return. When a games company offers something to a reviewer ‘for free’, they are in fact initiating a relationship… and when a writer has a relationship with a company, it is more difficult to be impartial. It is not longer a matter of facts, but a matter of social dynamics. You can’t publish unkind things about your friends, and gift-giving is a typical way of building friendships. In the theory of the gift, there is no such things as free.

So naturally, it is in the interests of PR agents to initiate relationships with noteworthy journalists. It’s exactly what the Guild Wars 2 Fan Day was all about. This is a good example, because ArenaNet are a company I like. I admire them, for their game philosophy and yes, for what I perceive as their integrity. I would love to work for them one day. This makes me substantially impartial, even without receiving any free stuff, and I do believe that I feel so strongly about them because for two or three years they built a relationship with me through the development process. It was a masterful, subtle PR strategy, and it has produced some pretty devoted fans. I don’t resent them for it, not at all! But I do try and offer disclaimers when I write about Guild Wars 2: I am a fan. I love these guys. I’m probably biased towards saying good things about the game, even when I try to be balanced.

But, back to the games industry. If it’s in the interests of PR people to initiate relationships with games writers, it’s the responsibility of games writers to maintain a certain distance. Asserting this distance is not, I think, likely to endanger your relationship with a games company that much; maybe you won’t get invited on so many swanky trips, but you’re still in a valuable position as a writer. What it does is signal, ‘I cannot be bought. I am serious about this; I intend to critique you.’ It also says ‘let’s not be friends,’ but it needn’t say ‘I hate you people.’ The people we critique shouldn’t be our friends. It makes it exponentially harder.

I think Rab Florence highlights an extremely important issue in this piece, and I echo him in encouraging us all to think about it – whether we be game writers, professional journalists, or just players. It made me think about our own NZGamer, a site which I dearly want to love and support, but which feels prone to this kind of pandering on occasion. I don’t think they are ‘corrupt’. If anything, they are a smaller publication, who need the advertising income, draw a lot of attention with competitions (for free stuff donated by game companies), and are excited about the access to the industry that their positions as journalists grant them. That doesn’t mean they’ve sold out, not at all. But they’re vulnerable, and the PR people are good; it’s a subtle manipulation. Most games are kind of fun in some capacity, and it’s easy to just say some nice things.

John Walker of Rock, Paper Shotgun discusses Florence’s article extremely well, He highlights a number of more blatant, less subtle abuses of PR, where the entertainment had little or nothing to do with the game in question – the whole event was simply to make journalists like them. I was appalled to hear that he had been offered (and refused) a trip to a strip club while visiting a studio – however off the record that was, if it was from a company representative rather than another journalist, it’s not ok (I’d love to see how that would go down with a female games writer around; we need more of them!). Walker backs up Florence’s disquiet with his own observations on the GMA Twitter fiasco:

“What shocked me today was the vociferous defence of this in the sobriety of a Wednesday morning the following week. In criticising this on Twitter, I was met with a combination of disdain, incredulity, and outright mocking, because I thought it an issue.”

I agree with Walker; to do this would have been forgiveable, and many writers might not have thought about it at all. If the PR people encouraged you, you might go along with it. But to deny criticism in this way is extremely defensive. It dismisses very legitimate concerns, expressing a desire to ignore them. Again, that’s not necessarily corruption… but it does display a disturbing lack of reflexivity and critical thinking on the part of our writers and reviewers.

The sad fact of the matter is that writers who insist on their integrity are not likely to do any better than those who give in to temptations like tweeting to win a PS3. They may even do worse, systematically punished for a behaviour the industry does not approve of. As others have pointed out, we – the fans – aren’t helping. We, too, buy into the PR. We have franchise loyalties. We lash out at reviewers who dare to say anything unfavourable about our favourite games, and in true internet fashion, we sometimes lash out awfully viciously. Guild Wars 2 fans are prone to it. If we are to see honest, meaningful opinions and critiques offered of our games, we’re going to have to reign ourselves in too. Support writers with integrity!

Then maybe we can get out of the cycle we seem to be in:

Read about new game –> New game looks awesome! –> Buy most expensive edition of new game –> Play for three weeks –> This game actually sucks! –> Express outrage –> Read about new game –> This one actually looks awesome! …

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