Conflicting Interests

I’ve written a lot about gaming and journalism on my Twitter account, but it’s always in pieces and probably a bit scatterbrained; that’s not surprising since I think the myriad topics that converge under the heading “games journalism” are not easily spoken of on a small format like Twitter. In fact, each piece of the overall puzzle can easily span thousands upon thousands of words under its own merits before the writer could even begin to discuss how it converges with the other parts. With that in mind, just sitting down to write a larger (blogs are now larger) post about gaming journalism is a bit daunting. And that’s not because there isn’t a lot to say; sadly, it’s that there is so much someone could easily miss. So this is my out, my get-out-of-jail-free card, it you will: I’m only going to touch one piece of the puzzle, and likely do it in a very brief manner. After all, no newspaper would likely commit more than 15 inches to a story about games journalism.

Games writing is and has always been a segment of journalism the industry refers to as “enthusiast press.” The initial groups that put together ‘zines and then publications about games were always fans first, not reporters given a beat or assigned to a story. And that’s a pretty normal concept for magazines and publications in the arts/media in the U.S.; plenty of big-time, established names like Rolling Stone started because people wanted to write more about the things they love. But the problem for almost all of these publications when they’re starting out is twofold:

1. They necessarily have a niche audience (which is normally only a small piece of that niche)
2. They have roughly zero credibility

And given that most of these publications are not started by Bill Gates, money is always at a premium; maybe not when the first issue rolls off the shelves, but money eventually catches up to everyone. Money is of course earned in two main ways, through advertising and increasing sales of the publication. For video games, on paper both of these jobs are fairly easy: there are always new games coming out that companies want to advertise, and there is always new content that can draw readers in because of those games. Now, the problem comes when those concepts intersect with established norms of journalistic ethics.

The problems of games journalism are tied into that need for money (obviously). If the magazine pulls good advertising revenue from a company like EA, there is always pressure (even if unsaid) on writers at the publication to NOT ATTACK EA. This is because 1. EA is probably providing free copies of its games to the publication (saving money!), 2. EA could pull its advertising dollars due to bad press, and 3. Irritating EA will not likely grant any scoops in terms of new game announcements or early-build previews (which are the very things that will draw people to your publication!)

To break this down a bit more, I’m going to go in order:

1. Gaming sites and magazines and, hell, even Youtube celebrities (I’d wager) are given free copies of the games they review. This is a well-known fact and nobody even tries to hide it. On that fact alone, several possible conflicts of interest can arise. Maybe the reviewer is more likely to be less harsh regarding a game he paid nothing for, or perhaps (for smaller publications) editorial is trying to leverage making sure this company sends another game after this one. These can both be cut out by purchasing all the games on your own, but for many sites that is simply not economically feasible. However, even if it were feasible your publication then runs into the problem that everyone who is getting the game from the company is getting an early copy, which they can have a review ready by the day the games releases. So, in that way you’re doubly losing already: you’re losing money paying for games, and losing eyeballs because all your competitors are beating you to the story.

2. This is easily the simplest of the three, and anybody who remembers the Kane & Lynch fiasco that ended with Jeff Gerstmann leaving Gamespot already knows how this can play out. For those who don’t, the short story is that Eidos had taken out big advertising space on Gamespot for K&L, and Gerstmann was set to review it. According to Gerstmann, his overall opinion of the game was “softened” by editorial at GS out of fear that Eidos would pull their site-wide ads and so he quit GS and eventually founded Giant Bomb. It’s important to remember that advertisers have the power everywhere: most publications rely on a combination of ad revenue mixed with sales to make a profit (online it’s basically only ads). You simply cannot piss off every advertiser (in most cases) and expect to stay afloat, without some form of revenue taking its place.

3. I think a lot of people who read gaming magazines and websites hardly think about this one. Access is and has always been a huge part of journalism; who has access in most cases has the power. This is especially true in the mainstream media in terms of the U.S. political/military systems. This is probably best exemplified by the scandal involving former CIA head David Petraeus who had an affair with his biographer (and former New York Times, and Boston Globe-published writer) Paula Broadwell. Now, this situation can be looked at in several ways.

The quickest way to look at this story is that Broadwell was simply “sleeping with the enemy,” and most ethical journalists should be able to avoid that. However, reality is a lot more complicated than that. In order to get the scoops that your paper/mag/site needs to stay ahead of the competition, it pays to be cordial to the people/companies you cover—this is pretty obvious. Over time, though, when reporters and subjects see each other every day a rapport gets built; the line between professional courtesy and personal relationship starts to blur. At this point, a reporter should recuse themselves from the story, as they are starting to become the story. But, again, access is power and a newspaper/site/mag will always go to the experienced correspondent who has a full Rolodex instead of hoping that a junior reporter can pull the big story out in short notice. It’s simply smart business.

The only other option is to try and strip that away, to construct a solid wall between reporters/writers and the people they cover. But then how does a publication build credibility? To get the inside scoop, whether it be playing an early build of the game in a private showing or even playing the game early at E3, the publication needs to have the brand strength to make companies want that coverage. And how does a publication have brand strength without coverage that can compare to sites willing to hedge their ethics a bit? YouTube performers have touched on some possible avenues to avoid this, through viral marketing, but almost no major publication has any qualms blurring the lines.

So, in the end, you’re left with a catch-22: you can’t get readers because you don’t have the content, you don’t have the content because you want to uphold journalistic ethics, and yet because you’re upholding your ethics you don’t have any readers. But if you DO get the content and the readers you’ve sold out the very ethics you hoped to uphold.

Of course this is not zero-sum game anymore. Crowd-funding and the aforementioned YouTube have allowed some people/publications to get off the ground without big corporate sponsorship. However, crowd-funding is a tenuous means of supporting a business, AND brings its own questions about conflicts of interest. In fact, all journalism that is paid for brings these questions. The only conflict-free journalism—at its face—is journalism that is not paid for in any way. But if that’s the case, no reporter/writer could ever support themselves. Hell, a lot can’t now.

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