Editorial: You Don't Talk About Video Game Journalism

I covered the video game industry from 2008 to 2011, doing things like volunteer blogging at 1UP, freelancing for mainstream sites and launching my own dot com (CriticalPixels.com, no longer up) dedicated to video game criticism. In that short time I witnessed one of the most insular, nepotistic and ethically obtuse communities I’ve come across.

In the past few days, the conversation I always wanted PR, game journalists and readers to have is finally starting to come to the surface. For those in the know, I’m referring to the floodgates opened by Robert Florence’s Eurogamer editorial entitled, "Lost Humanity 18: A Table of Doritos," where he used an image of Geoff Keighley, surrounded by a Doritos, Mountain Dew and a Halo 4 cardboard cutout as a springboard to comment on the state of video game journalism.

For a summary of some of the events that followed Florence’s editorial, read "The Wainwright Profile" over at Wings Over Sealand and check out this excellent thread on the video game forum, NeoGAF.

Journalist? Writer? Blogger? Critic? Gaming enthusiast?

A critical problem with the consumer press side of the video game industry is that one word: journalist. Those in the field -- like Geoff Keighley -- seem to have no problem referring to themselves as journalists, yet their behavior mirrors that of a blatant marketing personality and this causes understandable friction between themselves and their readers and viewers.

I come from a traditional journalism background. I have a bachelors in journalism, completed graduate-level program work at Georgetown’s Institute for Political Journalism and worked at several print newspapers, to name a few CV-related criteria. The majority of what you see on video game websites and in magazines would never pass for journalism.

Why? There's two components to this. One is that most game "journalists" either don’t have a journalism degree or any kind of journalism experience prior to being hired at a website or magazine. The industry is so flooded (and has been for a while) with those of aspirations of covering video games, that the cheapest and most ethically-malleable labor wins out.

Now, I'm not saying you should have to have a journalism degree to cover the industry, but some experience has to be required as a baseline. For example, knowing Associated Press style, how to attribute sources, the difference between a background and an anonymous source -- knowledge of these things indicate a potentially decent journalist.

However, as I alluded to in the previous paragraph, that’s not the way the industry functions. Cheap labor wins. Magazines and websites want high profit margins and many would rather cycle through hires on a regular basis than have an established staff of real journalists.

Ethics? I’ve got my "own" or : cognitive dissonance

Don’t worry: I didn't forget about the second component. Sure, a big problem is that most video game journalists aren’t actual journalists, but the greater problem is that of ethics.

In nearly every undergraduate journalism program, students are taught about ethics codes, such as the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics, which under its "Act Independently" section says journalists should:
  • Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived.
  • Remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility.
  • Refuse gifts, favors, fees, free travel and special treatment … if they compromise journalistic integrity.
  • Deny favored treatment to advertisers and special interests and resist the pressure to influence news coverage.
It is common for that bulleted list of ethics points to be routinely violated by writers, editors and so on up the food chain at video game websites and magazines.

Here are some examples of how I saw ethics routinely violated during my time covering the industry:
  • Journalists accepting free airfare, free cab fare, free hotel rooms, free meals and drinks.
  • Editors telling journalists to rate a game a certain score so the publication or website doesn’t get blacklisted and punished by having its ties to a game company severed.
  • Journalists selling review copies of games.
  • Journalists using events like press junkets to network for potential jobs at game companies instead of doing the job they're paid for, i.e., reporting on the event, gathering info on a game, etc.
A lot in the industry will say doing things like accepting free airfare or advance copies of games is no big deal and there’s no way of working with game companies without doing these things. However, this is a cop out. At the end of the day you can always not accept that free dinner. You can not accept the advance copy of the game that comes with a bunch of special goodies.

For example, do you really need to fly to an exotic locale and have everything paid for (transportation, food, drinks, etc.), to play a game and share your thoughts? No. Public relations and marketing will do everything they can to influence you in every way they can. That’s their job. Your job as a journalist is to say, "No."

Anyone who argues things are fine the way they are and have been is engaging in cognitive dissonance. Saying, "Yeah, I got an advance copy of the game but it won’t influence me," is lying to the inherent wiring of your brain. Sure, it sounds OK, but it’s an excuse.

It’s in our nature to practice self deceit, as this blog post entitled, "How and Why We Lie to Ourselves: Cognitive Dissonance," referencing Morton Hunt’s "The Story of Psychology" explains, "People quickly adjust their values to fit their behavior, even when it is clearly immoral. Those stealing from their employer will claim that 'Everyone does it' so they would be losing out if they didn't, or alternatively, 'I’m underpaid, so I deserve a little extra on the side.'"

From one side of the aisle to the other

Not only do we have the problem of ethics and Internet personalities masquerading as journalists, but the common-know, but rarely-acknowledged fact that many video game journalists ultimately see their job as a stepping stone to a position at a game company.

It’s a common sight to see a journalist spend sometimes as little as a year or two at a video game website or magazine and then get hired at a video game company for a position in marketing or PR like a community manager.

This hardly ever looks good to readers as coverage that journalist provided of that particular company and its products gets looked back over with a healthy dose of skepticism and cynicism.

I witnessed plenty of "journalists" using events like press junkets as just glorified networking opportunities and joking that they’ll do a sloppy job covering the event (often turning in their copy late), as the real goal is to exchange business cards, make friends and get those LinkedIn connections flowing.

(Almost) No one is clean, but we can be transparent

When I worked on my own, volunteer blogging at places like 1UP and for my own dot com, I stuck to my own standard, journalistic ethics. I never accepted a single product or favor as I was my own boss.

Confession time: When I was freelancing, I followed the policies of my editors and the higher ups. That is, I engaged in cognitive dissonance. Yes, I accepted airfare paid for by game companies. Yes, I accepted advance copies of games. I was told, "That's business as usual. It’s how everyone operates and we can’t afford to do it any other way. You want to write for us, you play by those rules."

Did it compromise how I covered things? Absolutely. Anyone that says it doesn't is lying to themselves. Sure, I can claim it didn't, but just the mere perception from readers that anything was accepted in exchange for coverage, can never look good, no matter how you frame it.

Anyone that’s covered this industry, going back for years, has accepted some form of freebie. Whether it was paid airfare, special advance copies of games or networking opportunities that turned into jobs.

Looking ahead

Like I mentioned in the introduction to this editorial, this is a conversation that’s been a long time coming. I'm glad it's happening.

While there are a lot of people trying to re-frame the argument by saying things like, “Why so serious about video games?” or, “It’s all conspiracy theories,” the readers and fans can see past that.

The boat has been rocked. A lot of people are nervous that business won’t continue as usual. It shouldn’t. I applaud those like Robert Florence that did some actual journalism and frankly, upset a lot of folks sitting in cushy positions that were never questioned.

To say any or all aspects of the industry are beyond criticism is individuals covering for one another. Any industry with integrity can stand introspection and should welcome it.

Trust is a fragile concept. It's one that's always assumed between readers and publications like websites and magazines. However, that trust has always been just that, an assumption. It’s something that needs to be earned from your readers, proven by your actions and defended as your most precious attribute.