To my complete and utter surprise recent events within the gaming industry seemed to have alerted a large number of gamers to something I’ve always seen as so painfully obvious it caused my genitalia to retreat to a highly uncomfortable location – the levels of corruption, dishonesty and to put it bluntly, utter bullshit that plagues the journalistic aspects of the gaming industry today. Although many of us would like nothing more than to trust our favorite media outlets it simply isn’t possible when you actually spend time analyzing the business underbelly of the gaming industry. Honest gaming journalism just doesn’t pay but it is good fun.
An alarming number of the top dog websites of the gaming world have been linked with questionable practices regarding their coverage relating to the latest releases. Many have been accused of delivering a biased verdict due to potential financial benefits while others simply intentionally avoid agreeing with the majority to stir up controversy, which again is directly tied to the financial well-being of a media outlet.
I struggle to understand why many members of the wonderful gaming community have failed to see the obvious flaws in the system for so long. How can a website deliver a respectable level of honesty with their coverage when so many external factors are in place before pen touches paper?
I’d like to discuss two practices that are both very common and almost guaranteed to occur on any websites that can boast the pulling power of the top 2%. Have you ever visited your gaming website of choice and seen advertisements tied to a specific title plastered over every page? Banner advertisements adorn the sides of your browser, intrusive full-screen advertisements showcasing gameplay footage and convenient links to well timed editorial pieces littered across every page. These things do not happen by accident. Unlike the smaller media outlets the big names are usually tied to large advertising networks that specialize in providing exclusive properties on any given website. This allows developers, publishers and advertising specialists relating to a specific game to purchase large quantities of advertising for shocking amounts of cash.
Now, ask yourself this. Would you pay a large sum of money for someone to advertise your product if they were going to surround those advertisements with negative coverage and unfavorable comments? It’s unlikely. Amidst 100 pages of legal jargon in the contracts involved in these exclusive agreements are a number of potential conditions that often appear. Advertisers may ask that a website delivers a certain level of coverage over a specific period of time, provide both written and video content focusing on predetermined aspects of a game, or flat out demand a certain score or rating in a review – although the latter is never usually delivered in such an obvious way. When analyzing this element of running a financially successful website from business perspective, it’s a no-brainer. If big name website A can charge $130,000 for a 30 day campaign whilst obtaining exclusive information and early access to that specific game, the level of honesty and response from the community becomes a distant concern passing by as quickly as a fart out of a car window. That’s the bottom line. If the site can guarantee that any seedy dealings remain private between very few people, they can simply fall back on plausible deniability following any unfounded accusations.
As a wise man once said, every man has a price, and that is never more true than in the world of business.
The second practice I want to discuss is the vast array of financial benefits that accompany good relations with developers and publishers, resulting in an awkward atmosphere of nepotism. PR within the video-game industry is really only about one single aspect – exposure. If you’re going to offer exclusive content or a lucrative opportunity to a video-game website, you’re going to want to maximize the benefits for both parties. Providing a website that attracts millions of readers on a weekly basis with early access to a game, exclusive news prior to release or invitations to private events provides the PR company with the maximum level of exposure while rewarding that site with unique content that could easily drive hundreds of thousands of visitors to that website. As with the shady practices surrounding advertisement agreements, this system benefits both parties while the average gamer is forced to visit a specific outlet or get left in the dark.
And that is where I see the biggest problem in the industry today. When we launched Gamers Heroes in 2010 we did so with the intent of providing the gaming community with a brutally honest and transparent approach to gaming coverage. 4 years later I’m proud to say that we have stuck to those founding principles like glue to pubic hair but more often than not, it does more harm than good. I’m not under any illusions. We don’t boast the greatest level of journalistic talent here at Gamers Heroes and I can only wish I had the ability to confuse the average reader with overly complex expressions and witty comparisons but even still – refusing to bend to the will of big name publishers and developers only adds to that disability.
We’ve had certain developers and publishers ignore all contact following a poor review score, while some refuse to communicate whatsoever. Occasionally this means we’re not provided with the same information or early access opportunities that other websites may receive, which instantly gives those willing to bypass any moral standing a rather ugly advantage. The big gaming websites of today have a monopoly on the industry and that is not something I expect to change any time soon.
Ultimately the responsibility falls on the publishing and PR aspects of the gaming industry. Someone needs to take a stand and make a change. Treat outlets as equals, don’t force the gaming community to remain attached to outlets they no longer trust just because they get information before anybody else. The relationship between a journalist and PR rep is equally beneficial to both parties but once a website gets to a certain level of popularity that relationship changes. Instead of a flowering partnership with bountiful rewards it becomes a tangled web of demands and mistreatment as PR cannot afford to lose coverage on a certain website, and those that pull the strings are all too aware of that and abuse it.
I’m not currently sitting atop a VW van splashed in colorful flowers counting the singing faeries as I come down from an acid trip, I’m aware that certain elements will always remain. Advertising exclusives are a necessary element of maintaining a financially profitable website. Certain requirements and specifications between PR and journalists are required to ensure the interests of both parties are represented. But these can be present without the aura of misinformation, dishonesty and lack of transparency that are so predominant today. Is it right for a publishing company to offer a YouTube personality $500 to provide coverage of their latest product? Sure, and what an opportunity for the YouTuber. However the grey area between compensating for publicity and using the allure of financial gain to sway the underlying opinion of the coverage, that’s a different ball game.
When I write a review I do so from an unbiased perspective with my only goal to deliver an honest opinion without taking financial pressures and professional relations into account, and that is a belief our editors all share. That doesn’t necessarily mean a review needs to be filled with insults and disrespect but all too often a negative opinion can be perceived as so. We implemented a number of features to provide our community with the highest possible level of transparency. At the end of every review we inform readers on whether the game was provided for free, purchased physically or downloaded from a store, and the majority of our editors also have incredibly detailed biographies that show favored genres, past reviews and highest scores. This allows an interested individual to directly compare articles to gauge the levels of honesty themselves. But does any of that matter when our reviews are 7 days behind those websites that have access weeks before? Not really.
Many figures within the gaming community have urged gamers to talk with their feet. Stop visiting the sites that have seen their shady business practices exposed. Take your loyalty and time to an outlet worthy of your trust. But what’s the point in that when the websites in question are still given the content people desire? If you’re looking to read a review before purchasing a game, you want to read it as soon as it’s available. Would you delay the purchase of a new game for a week just to wait for a review from another source? Most people wouldn’t.
The powers that be are also incredibly skilled at deflecting any negative attention their questionable morals may bring about. The Zoe Quinn situation is a perfect representation of this. A large number of people expressed their disappointment with Quinn after rumors surfaced that suggested she attempted to alter the outcome of coverage on multiple sites through means of a sexual nature – although this rumor was started by an ex-partner so its credibility was immediately suspect. Thousands decided to express their frustration through social media outlets and rightly so. Male, female, young, old, drunken monkey – if a person in a position of trust abuses that trust they should be held accountable. The anonymity the internet provides did encourage an alarming number of people to take things way too far but it was the response of certain figureheads in gaming that really demonstrated their ability to manipulate a situation. Instead of focusing on the core reasons for the barrage of abuse Quinn received, as a potentially corrupt member of the industry, it was instantly turned into a ridiculous debate surrounding misogyny in the industry which prompted thousands to leap to her defense. Don’t misunderstand my point here. I don’t condone mistreatment due to something as petty as gender, I’m merely providing an example. When potentially corrupt elements of the gaming industry were revealed, it was spun and turned into something else entirely – and it’s not the first time.
Well, if you’ve made it this far, kudos to you. I can hold my hand on my heart when I say Gamers Heroes is an honest source of video-game information and although it has cost us many potentially lucrative opportunities, I am happy to smile each and every time I read a crappy 20 word “breaking news” post based on a single sketchy tweet – or week early 10/10 review adorned in a painfully obvious attempt at maximizing an advertising deal.
To those in the industry that contribute to the systems that breed dishonesty within our communities, I say this: (warning: not safe for work)
I would rather live a life of honesty and integrity in a tent surrounded by cow shit than a life of deceit in luxury. Honest gaming journalism doesn’t pay but boy does it feel good.