The Games Media Must Renew the Trust of its Audience
A culture of casual corruption has become ingrained in the games media - but this week's scandals give us a golden chance to change
It's been a pretty rough week for the games media. For those not keeping tabs, in the wake of an article on Eurogamer by writer Rab Florence decrying cosy relationships between games journalists and PR people, one of the writers named in the piece, Lauren Wainwright, threatened the site with legal action, resulting in the editing of the article - an act which led, predictably, to it being vastly more widely read and disseminated than it would have been otherwise. Reactions have been intense and polarised, from those taking this as proof that all games journalism is deeply corrupt, through to those accusing Florence of effectively bullying the writers named in his piece and of making a mountain out of something which barely qualifies as a molehill. Mud has been flung. Names have been called. It's all been rather depressing and squalid.
The sad thing is that in this silly, completely avoidable storm of outrage, Florence's original point seemed to have been lost - much to the relief of a cadre of games media who react aggressively to any accusations of impropriety, precisely because they know their actions would not stand up to the slightest scrutiny. A few people have wondered out loud why on earth Wainwright's industry colleagues did not talk her out of actions which anyone with media experience would have recognised as a path to disaster; I cannot help but consider how convenient it was for many people that Wainwright foolishly and unfairly became cast as the sole villain of the piece, providing a focus away from the industry's wider practices.
Florence himself is a divisive figure - abrasive, sometimes to the point of skirting on being abusive - and his decision to "name names" in his article, even though those names were cited based on their public pronouncements on Twitter, has also been deeply divisive. Perhaps his critics are right to say that he went about this the wrong way. However, one thing is perfectly clear to me, at least - whatever about Florence's methods, the point he was making was absolutely straightforward and completely correct.
"There is a deep and fundamental lack of professional ethics in the games media."
There is a deep and fundamental lack of professional ethics in the games media. It is not overt corruption, of the "you give us this review score, we'll give you this advertising deal" style conspiracy so beloved of suspicious commenters on Internet forums - that happens, but it is rare, confined to a certain minority of publications, and utterly despised and decried by the vast majority of writers and publishers. Rather, it is a matter of culture - a culture of how writers and publishers deal with PR people, and of how permeable (indeed, non-existent) the barrier between those professions is. It is a culture in which writers vie to win places on the most lavish press trips (and those PR people who always lay on great side entertainment and keep their cards behind the hotel bar until the small hours of the morning are well known and well liked), brag about their most beloved freebies and exclusive swag, and cultivate personal friendships with PR people, going for nights out with them, or to concerts or football matches.
It is a culture that is so absolutely ingrained in this industry that a great many writers (and PR people) would probably read the above paragraph, eyes rolling in their heads, and say "yeah, so what?". We are, as an industry, like a third world country where corruption has become so endemic that it's "just how things are done", and where the locals look at you askance if you suggest that their practices contravene some kind of morality or ethics. "It's just how we do things." As if that excuses anything.
Plenty of other excuses are trotted out. A common one is that "we're clever enough not to be influenced by any of this"; there's often a sense within the games media of back-slapping over getting as much as possible out of a PR person's credit card and access to gaming swag, of "getting one over" the publisher. It's nonsense, of course; publishers are canny, and they account for every dollar, measuring the influence it buys, the swings in positivity in press coverage, the boost in Metacritic scores. The entire reason they're willing to spend so much on PR is because it's a subtle form of influence, but an entirely measurable and valuable one all the same.
"Publishers are canny, and they account for every dollar, measuring the influence it buys, the swings in positivity in press coverage, the boost in Metacritic scores."
The reaction to Rab Florence's piece from within the game media has been telling. Initially, it was also very depressing. The loudest voices were those essentially shouting down any debate or discussion - and some of them were from very senior figures in the games media. Social media feeds filled up with snide comments which rarely addressed any of the issues head-on, but rather attempted to deride the discussion itself. "It's just games journalism, it's not important, can't you focus on something that's actually important?", went one common line of argument. "Oh god, more games media navel gazing," sneered another regular stalwart of discussion.
Let's get this clear. People who make these arguments are saying, in a nutshell, that games media - a multi-million dollar field in its own right, one which employs a lot of people (in the thousands worldwide, I'm sure) and which in fact pays the salaries of the very people making these comments - isn't important enough for its ethics to be worthy of discussion. In other words, the games media is just important enough to pay their salaries (and quite bloody large salaries too, in the case of some people who hammered at this line of argument), but not important enough to warrant any scrutiny. How terribly convenient! What a wonderfully useful middle ground this profession falls into, in which it is serious enough to pay your wages but yet so frivolous as to warrant no discussion of your ethics!
Besides, the games media does matter, even if sometimes it wishes, perversely, that it didn't. In financial terms alone, it matters gravely. The tone of coverage around a forthcoming release in major publications can shift the share prices of publicly traded corporations by tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars. Review scores, aggregated on Metacritic, not only influence retailer stocking decisions and publisher share prices, but can also trigger payouts of bonuses for development staff. This isn't all abstract stuff; most publishers give their rank and file staff share options. Words written on sites like IGN, or Gamespot, or Eurogamer, can directly impact the finances of other people working in the industry, or even their future prospects of employment; media coverage is also taken into account when publishers make their crucial decisions on which studios to shut and which to keep alive. Anyone arguing that the ethics of an industry with such wide-reaching effects aren't worthy of discussion is someone whose motives need to be questioned.
"The games media does matter, even if sometimes it wishes, perversely, that it didn't. In financial terms alone, it matters gravely."
Something worthy of highlighting in the preceding paragraphs is this - we're not really talking about newcomers and wet-behind-the-ears kids here. In fact, I have a large degree of sympathy for Wainwright, who has had her professional practices and ethics ripped open and dissected by an often abusive and unpleasant band of self-styled Internet sleuths over the past week. She is a young and inexperienced writer, and honestly, young writers who come into this culture haven't got a hope; when all of your peers merrily eat, drink and holiday on PR cards, post pictures of their latest swag on Facebook or Twitter, and occasionally saunter down to a trade-in shop to cash in the stacks of free games they've accumulated, when all of this is seen as perfectly normal and reasonable, what hope has a young writer of emerging without a jaundiced ethical viewpoint?
This is why the discussion which emerges from this has to be about culture, not individuals - because the culture which permits and encourages this action comes from the top. Indeed, it is often the older, more experienced and more senior staff - often, in fact, those who have left behind journalism and moved into publishing roles - who are most to blame. They're the most egregious abusers of the system, the most enthusiastic consumers of corporate hospitality and the countless bounties of PR credit cards; in some cases, even the most willing to accept outright bribery, in the form of genuine free holidays, press trips to exotic locations where they are not even expected to turn up to the events or write any copy. They encourage staff further down the chain to mirror their lack of ethics, because otherwise their activities would stand out and be commented upon. What, did you really think that in an ethical, honest media company, a young writer could simply take it upon themselves to accept gifts, freebies and lavish trips? The decision to endorse and encourage that comes from much higher up, and it is much higher up that culture must change.
"Let he who is without sin cast the first stone"; I've heard plenty of variations on that this week, too. It's a useful term when trying to stop a village of backwards peasants from murdering a woman, but in the hands of those who stand to lose from whistleblowing and honesty, it becomes an odious and weaselly defence. Sometimes those who have sinned are the only people who know where to aim the stones. We are truly speaking of a pervasive culture - few writers could claim to have a clean report card. I certainly can't. I've been on trips that were much too lavish for their purposes, attended plenty of launch parties and eaten a fair few free dinners. It took exposure to the wider world of journalism, and how codes of ethics work elsewhere (especially in financial journalism, which some of my work now borders upon and which has especially strict standards) to realise that this wasn't normal, wasn't acceptable, and was in fact outright wrong in many cases. Withdrawing from this kind of culture hasn't always been easy; it's meant turning down a fair bit of work, and I know few of my peers ever have the luxury of doing that. Hence why this culture must change, not just individuals.
"Withdrawing from this kind of culture hasn't always been easy; it's meant turning down a fair bit of work."
After the storm, there are rays of sunlight through the clouds. A few days ago I feared that nothing would be learned from this utter debacle; positions seemed too entrenched, hearts too hardened. It has been wonderful, then, to see some journalists and publications openly stating that they have come to understand how important it is that they should at least consider the public perception of their actions, and that their practices must change. There will be a struggle for those practices to settle into something acceptable; I think, for example, that some people go too far in calling for outlets to buy their own copies of games or their own flights to events (these are things which are requirements of the job; teachers aren't required to buy their own blackboards), but perhaps there are middle grounds to be reached on such issues. What matters is that there must be a discussion of them - a clear, public, transparent discussion, where writers and readers alike engage and rebuild a spirit of trust that's better than what came before.
Some will argue that it's only the good, trustworthy writers and outlets who are engaged in this process anyway, but that's fine. If they can place more clear blue water between themselves and the murkier end of journalism - the end where endless PR hospitality really does often go hand in hand with dodgy deals over scores and exclusives - then that's all for the better. And if they create a culture where new young writers entering the media who accept a lavish night out on a PR credit card receive from their editors a slap on the wrist rather than a pat on the back, they'll have achieved something which I, being a cynic, never thought would happen in this industry. I'd raise a glass to that - and I'd pay for the beer in it myself.