The video gaming industry has come a long way.
Starting with the simple Pong game three decades ago and evolving into lavishly drawn interactive epics, the scale of games and the size of their audience has grown exponentially, with sales in the billions of dollars and major multinational corporations clamoring for a piece of the action.
But despite these signs of a fast-growing industry, the print and online publications that cover video games often employ fans who unwittingly make poor ethical choices.
The first print magazine covering video games Electronic Games was co-founded by Bill Kunkel in 1981. Kunkel describes those early days in a recent interview: ?To an extent, we were cheerleaders for the industry -- we loved these games, we wanted to see more of them, we wanted to keep writing about them.?
Not much has changed in the past 20 years. Game publications and Web sites still mostly employ low-paid hobbyists who are easy targets of lavish marketing events that encourage inappropriate ties between game makers and game critics.
These unwholesome relationships were put under a spotlight by an article in the Los Angeles Times last August ?Gamers' Perks, or 'Playola'?? by Alex Pham. In an interview with Online Journalism Review, Pham said she was motivated to write the piece when she discovered that game journalists ?get to do outrageously fun things.? She noted that software publishers arranged for journalists to shoot guns, skydive and race cars -- all under the pretense of researching video games.
Nowhere was Pham?s article discussed more than FatBabies.com. Fatbabies traffics in stories of outrage in game development and game publishing -- gossip for game industry employees. Responding to Pham?s story, a Fatbabies writer ?FatGameSpotGuru? savagely derided most game journalists as biased amateurs who ?wouldn?t understand the concept of journalistic integrity if it came and bit them in the ass.?
Into the Breach
I recently attended a game industry junket hosted by Ubi Soft to promote their Tom Clancy military-industrial techno-thriller video games. Editors and writers from a wide range of game industry and mainstream media were invited to the Presidio, a defunct military base in San Francisco. There, we had a chance to play the latest games, mingle with some of the game developers, eat delicious sandwiches and drink at an open bar. And a lucky few of us were chosen to "undergo real counterterrorist operative training? from a decorated federal marshal and close-quarters battle instructor.
One game on display, Rainbow Six 3, included a portion modeled after part of the Presidio -- we were going to play that level in real life. We were suited up in flak jackets and received air rifles loaded with plastic pellets. In small groups, we were sent out to storm a building, shoot hostiles, liberate hostages and neutralize a dirty bomb. It was an event lifted straight from the screen, a real-life game action. The other journalists, all men, all looking under 35, were psyched. And when I left in an unmarked white van in a black suit with a black gun and a black Rainbow Six 3 balaclava over my head, preparing to move through a darkened building with broken windows lead by a gruff middle-aged SWAT team member, shooting terrorists with glowing plastic pellets, I was completely enthralled as well.
Junkets are nothing new in entertainment journalism. Writers covering the movie industry are invited to nice hotels to confer with stars over expensive meals. Pulitzer-prize winning film critic Roger Ebert says that when he first started working at the Chicago Sun-Times, reporters would accept any trip they were offered. Now, he says he pays his own expenses when attending industry events.
Aaron Boulding, editor in charge of IGN?s Xbox coverage, defends the professional standards of his writers and editors. IGN is a conglomeration of Web sites, each devoted to a specific video game console. Boulding says he allows his editorial staff to go on publisher-funded trips and junkets. The site?s policy, he said, is to let each staffer manage their own conduct: ?We all have training and enough experience to know better -- we lose our credibility if it becomes obvious that we're biased.?
Boulding argues that readers ultimately decide the proper level of journalistic integrity. If a publication pads its scores, favoring publishers, then fans will see that they have been lead astray and will seek authority elsewhere.
Gregory Kasavin, executive editor of GameSpot, a multi-platform game news and reviews site, said that the economics of video games places reviewers in a touchy position. ?Who cares about a movie review?? he notes. ?If you saw something bad, you lost two hours and 10 dollars, tough luck.? Most video games cost more than $40 or $50, while the systems sell for more than $200: ?With games, the stakes are a lot higher.?
There were two editors from GameSpot at the Tom Clancy party, but GameSpot?s product reviews were written by freelancers. Kasavin says that GameSpot does not allow game reviewers to attend promotions for products they are writing about. ?Our reviewers are completely distanced from the developers and publishers,? he says. ?They have no other goal than to scrutinize a product and decide whether it?s worth recommending to people who spend money and time on games.?
Not all product promotions involve SWAT team training, sports cars or parachuting. Most are a simple invitation to a game development studio, an ordinary office where editors sit with game developers and check out the latest products over soda pop. Kasavin says he works to keep reviewers from these events as well, fearing that such familiarity has the potential to breed a conflict of interest. Unethical behavior, he says, ?happens much more subtly. People become friends with people in the industry and then give more favorable coverage to their products.?
Interviews with game developers yield insights into game production. But more often, these casual events feed into previews of upcoming titles. These preview pieces are typically breathless, upbeat and nearly always positive. Some editors think this is only fair. IGN?s Boulding says, ?Up until a game is released, it has the potential to be perfect.? Game publishers trust certain publications to handle their upcoming games with this kid-glove approach.
Any player can write a review of a game, but only sanctioned media outlets have access to games before they are available to the public. Brokering these agreements falls upon an untoward mix of editorial and promotions. Los Angeles Times reporter Michael Cieply, who writes about the film industry, says that within entertainment journalism there are junket-driven celebrity stories, coverage that is generally favorable by unspoken agreement, and just-the-facts coverage that doesn?t take any perks from publicists or publishers.
Between this, Cieply says, there is a place of compromise, where major magazine cover stories are decided between editors and publicists, where photos and text might be subject to consent by handlers. He favors uncompromising entertainment journalism; speaking of publicist-managed reporting, he says: ?people who get on those bandwagons cheat themselves and cheat their readers.?
While introductions and access can make for good coverage, editorial-promotions relationships can cause writers to neglect their role as critics and arbiters of game quality. A recent example of the rift between readers and reviewers came with the arrival of one of the game industry?s most highly touted titles. The Sims Online married a hot concept -- multiplayer online gaming -- to The Sims, the best-selling PC game series of all time. In addition, it was designed in part by Will Wright, one of the game industry?s most renowned developers. All of this combined into a rich maelstrom of hype: The Sims Online was featured on the cover of the Nov. 25, 2002, issue of Newsweek and GameSpot posted a 13-page behind-the-scenes feature. Mainstream press and hardcore game publications touted The Sims Online as the first mass-market online game.
Then the reviews came out. A meta-rankings site that compiles review scores from professional game reviewers ranked The Sims Online at around seven out of 10. But user reviews on Amazon.com, scored The Sims Online at around four out of ten.
Fortunately Internet readers have easy access to multiple viewpoints. Sites like GameRankings.com or MetaCritic give review overviews, listing scores and blurbs from a wide variety of game critics. Researching through Web search engines or meta-rankings sites like these offers users a wider range of sources, including game criticism from non-professional sites.
One leading example is GameCritics, an independent game commentary site offering reviews among the most thoughtful on the web. Run by two high school friends from New York, GameCritics is establishing a middle ground between the junket-fed hardcore game review sites and the general audience reviews published on newspaper Web sites.
There is a place for interviews with game developers and journalistic exploration of game culture outside of products. Strong separation between reviews and party-fueled, influence-peddled previews is a good way for game journalism to develop meaningful ethical standards. Then we might see more game industry coverage written, as Ebert put it, ?without benefit of the insights gained from free buffets.? Fortunately low-cost publishing on the Internet is fueling the development of independent game criticism, generated by writers with only brains, experience and a desire to play better games.
Justin Hall is a freelance writer based in Oakland, California. He is the proprietor of Links.net and a frequent contributor to Game Girl Advance.