A Look At The Absence Of Objectivism Between Games Journalists And Their Readers
“Can I give you a Christmas card? Well, generally I think most people would say a Christmas card would not necessarily make you bias in some way. Can I give you a gift of some value? Well, maybe- but how much value? Can I give you a ruler that had my company’s name on it? You see what I’m trying to get at here (illustrates with hands) there’s this line, that you have to sorta go up the line- can I take you out to dinner?” – Dr. Greg Lisby, Professor of Communications at Georgia State University
“Absolutely. No doubt in mind whatsoever.” – Dr. Lisby
As I entered the industry as a journalist, there were many leaving it while in the midst of what is now called ‘Gamergate’. While many issues have taken its place within the movement, one conversation was washed aside; the question of objective journalism in videogame media, and the larger problem of fraud from within the industry. Since these are the early days of a budding and technological industry, video game journalism has come under scrutiny by many gamers accusing journalists of bias and coercion.
In August 2014, Stephen Totilo Editor-In-Chief of Kotaku made a statement about “the potential undue influence of corporate gaming on games reporting,” observing the “pitfalls of cliquishness in the indie dev scene and among the reporters who cover it.” Many publications are fighting for their credibility, in an industry filled with enthusiast.
Video game journalism, can be traced back to 1974, when Play Meter Magazine was first introduced as a trade periodical, focusing entirely on arcade machines. In its most recent editorial, Boonie Theard discusses the need to “preserve the industry from harsh regulations”.
The first magazine geared at consumers was Computer and Video Games, a U.K. based publication that hit shelves in 1981. The magazine was published by Future PLC, a publishing company based in the United Kingdom. They specialize in targeted advertising, and currently run GamesRadar, PC Gamer, Official Xbox Magazine, and various other PC based publications. They also promote upcoming games with “Food Truck Tours”, marketing campaigns for games like Elder Scrolls Online and Saints Row, and Best Buy’s in-store publication @Gamer.
By July of 1988, Nintendo released their first issue of Nintendo Power Magazine, a monthly news and strategy magazine covering Nintendo products. Produced entirely under Nintendo’s roof, the magazine provided walkthroughs, news, tips, previews and reviews. Throughout their publication, their flagship console the Nintendo Entertainment System’s review scores never got below 4.2, with games like Fester’s Quest, P.O.W. and The Three Stooges all above an eight; landing in the top 10 reviewed games for the console. They eventually contracted publishing and editorial duties to Future US, a subsidiary of Future PLC.
In September 2001, 3DO’s President Trip Hawkins wrote an angry email to John Rousseau, President of GamePro. His email express frustration towards the publication over its review of 2.3 out of 5 on the game Portal Runner. “We at 3DO were very discouraged by the slam-job,” the email starts with, going on to say “your reviewer blew it on this one. And we are re-evaluating our relationship with GamePro as a result.” Hawkins goes on to threaten Rousseau’s publication, saying “If you disagree with me, you do so at your own peril…As you know, most game publishers are losing money and have cut back on advertising. Many magazines and webzines have perished.”
Portal Runner currently holds a 2.5 on Metacritic, a collection of aggregated reviews from various sources.
Back in June of 2004, Atari was facing accusations by gamers that the developer Reflections Interactive had paid off several publications for favorable reviews of their newest game Driv3r. Future PLC’s publications gave the game similar, overwhelmingly positive review scores across their magazines, and lead to forum threads filling with outraged gamers who requested more details into their connections and motivations. These threads were quietly deleted, and the game was released with promotion stickers featuring these scores.
Xbox World Magazine, also owned by Future PLC, gave the game a 9/10 as well. When they received backlash, Nick Ellis who was the Deputy Editor at the time, went to their message boards to explain the score. “I’d like to totally refute the suggestion that magazines, and specifically XBW- take bribes- monetary or otherwise- to inflate review scores. Sure we might get the the odd T-shirt sent to us or a pint bought by a PR but never, in 4 years of working at Future, have I ever given a game an inflated score because I’ve been ordered to or I’ve been thrown a bung.” He continued by stating that he had in the past “over marked games- 9/10 for MOH: Rising Sun in OPS2 I will freely admit was a grave error of judgment but an honest mistake.”
“Further to this, the allegation that there is some grand conspiracy between ourselves and Atari – ‘you give it a nine, we’ll lob a sticker on the box and a page in the manual’ – is again wrong. The sticker was agreed on only after the review had been written and sent to press.” After standing by his team’s review, he did agree that “perhaps 9 was a little too enthusiastic.” He did clarify that his words did not speak for PSM2.
Around this time, two users went on Gamesradar’s message boards, under the newly created user names “Kingchopper” and “Billywigs”, posing as fans. Kingchopper posted “Got me my copy on release day! Still going strong for me, I’m quite surprised that some people find the controls hard or the out of car stuff awkward.” Billywigs confirmed, questioning someone for “comparing gta and driv3r? driv3r is a different game. imho it’s more fun.” Members quickly discovered that their IPs matched that of Babel Media, a PR company that promotes games. Once confronted, they admit they worked for the company, but just wanted to comment with their personal opinions. Shortly after, Gameradar deleted the thread, and it is still unavailable. Babel Media also altered their website, which had previously stated “we employ a team of native ‘guerillas’ to infiltrate forums and message boards.”
PSM2 on the other hand didn’t say much of anything on the controversy. They gave the Playstation 2 version of the game a 90% as well, and featured a sticker on the front of the retail version of the game also. PSM, the “100% Independent Playstation Magazine”, would received a name change in October of 2007, to PlayStation’s Official Magazine.
According to Metacritic, Gamesradar initially ran with PSM’s 9/10 score, which called the game “A technical marvel that sets a new benchmark. The plot may twist until you lose grip of it altogether, but the balls-out street-driving action saves the day.”
Gameradar now has an updated review, written by Mikel Reparaz over a year and a half after it’s release, calling the game a “slick knockoff (referring to GTA) that copies the form, but not the substance, of the original.” He suggested to me via Twitter, you could see that based on “the score and tone of the review that there was no coercion,” which rated the game 2 out of 5 stars.
Two years after the game’s release, Atari’s Sales and Marketing Vice President Nique Fajors called the controversial game a “half-baked product that was pushed out the door for revenue reasons” at their annual press event. This was only weeks after Atari sold the franchise’s rights off to Ubisoft.
In 2004, online matchmaking middleware company GameSpy was purchased by IGN, owned by j2 Global, and began writing reviews for games that it would host through its online service. Nick Marangos was hired to write a review for Nintendo’s Donkey Konga 2, giving it an initial 1.5 out of 5, but the company changed the score before publication to a 3. After online backlash, GameSpy quietly removed the review, and remained silent about it until their doors closed in March of 2013. Marangos said on his website’s about page, that working for a video game publisher divided into two catagories; “incredibly dull things” and “things I can’t talk about.”
“Ziff Davis wants to run an efficient, focused company,” said Dan Stapleton Editor-In-Chief of GameSpy in his farewell post, “and managing several different sites that all cover videogames isn’t exactly the model of efficiency. Even though GameSpy had its own unique voice that was separate and distinct from those of our sister sites, and there has always been value in that, it’s hard to argue with that logic. Even if it does totally suck.”
Back in late 2007, then editor for Gamespot Jeff Gerstmann posted a review for Kane and Lynch: Dead Men, giving the game a 6/10. Calling the installment an “ugly, ugly game,” citing “an ugly storyline, with characters that are impossible to like.” Eidos threatened to pull advertising from Gamespot based on the average score, and Gerstmann was deemed to be by his account “unreliable” by management, and was unceremoniously fired. At the time of his departure, News Corp, owners of Fox News and News of the World, was Gamespot’s parent company.
“We did what an editorial team does,” he said in an interview in 2008 after shortly returning to Gamespot. “We did what we were supposed to be doing. We reviewed games, we instructed people about the quality of games, and we were completely honest,” he added, summing it up by saying “this management team buckled when faced with having a lot of ad dollars walk out the door.”
In Janurary 15 of this year, Tim Clark the Global Editor-In-Chief of PC Gamer, had to publically acknowledge that their Executive Editor Tyler Wilde was dating a Communications Associate at Ubisoft, saying they met while “working at Future US.”
“It was subsequently decided to remove Tyler from reviewing Ubisoft games. What we ought to have done was remove him from all Ubisoft coverage, or disclosed his relationship as part of the stories he went on to write.” Clark continued, saying “Tyler will no longer write or assign any coverage related to Ubisoft. PC Gamer writers will continue to be obliged to disclose any significant personal relationships with people whose work they might cover.”
Tyler Wilde also commented, saying “I started dating my girlfriend in 2011,” two years before taking “a contract job writing for Ubisoft’s blog.” I continued to work on preview and news assignments related to Ubisoft games, and my editors trusted me to share my honest opinions about a company I had been writing about for years. I was open with them (and publicly) about my relationship, but we did not explicitly disclose it in those articles. That was a mistake. I should have taken that extra step to be completely transparent.”
“What happens if you’re a journalist, and I’m a friend?” An ethical question posed by Dr. Greg Lisby, a specialist in Journalism and mass communications at Georgia State University while being interviewed by Super Bunnyhop’s Chairman George. “Fine. As long as you’re not writing anything about what I’m dealing with here.” He goes on to suggest that “the minute you start writing about that, the minute happens where you run the risk of violating ethics, because you get so close to the source; are you bias?”
It was late August when Konami, developer of Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, hosted a slew of reviewers in their LA studio for five days in order to review the newest entry in their long running series. The game was marred by rumors of mistreatment of their developers, a nasty breakup with director Hideo Kojima and reports of in-game paywalls. Under the supervision of the company, reviewers from major outlets like Gamespot, Rock Paper Shotgun and Kotaku were given the exclusive first looks at the completed game. (Photo from Konami’s twitter account)
According to Dan Dawkins of Gamesradar, Konami required journalists to sign “strict NDAs,” with “no unsupervised play” during their 8 hours of continuous play. He goes on to explain this affectionately named ‘boot camp’ as “being gifted a bottle of Macallan 1946 whiskey in a frat house and being told to chug, chug, chug.”
Despite being compelled to run through the game at a breakneck speed, reviewers gave the game mostly positive reviews, with Metacritic currently sitting at a score of 93. IGN, Gamespot, Giant Bomb and many other sites gave the game a perfect 10/10.
Michael Thomsen of the Washington Post, who attended a “four-day review event by Konami” according to an Editor’s note, said that “Kojima finally found a technical platform broad enough to make sure of all of those tools and trusts players to build their own narrative drama.”
Peter Brown of Gamespot, who played the game and live tweeted from one of these camps, failed to mention this event in his review. He gave the game a perfect score, ending his review with “When it comes to storytelling, there has never been a Metal Gear game that’s so consistent in tone, daring in subject matter, and so captivating in presentation. The Phantom Pain may be a contender for one of the best action games ever made, but is undoubtedly the best Metal Gear game there is.”
Calling the game “tactical espionage excellence”, Vince Ingenito of J2 Global’s IGN gave the game his first ever 10/10 rating.
Youtube personalities have also been gaining more scrutiny. John Bain, otherwise known as Totalbiscuit, stated on Twitter that Shadow of Mordor review codes were “given out early to a bunch of Youtube channels for brand deals,” clarifying that he “very much disapprove of this practice, and hope it doesn’t become commonplace.”
Hired by Warner Brothers, promotional firm Plaid Social offered YouTubers pay and early review copies of Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor, as long as they only said positive things about the game. Anyone who refused to participate in this program were denied an early review code.
This contract stated that “videos will have a strong verbal call to action, a clickable link in the description box for the viewer to go to the game’s website to learn more about the game to learn how to register and play the game. Twitch stream videos will have five calls to action. Videos will be of sufficient length to feature gameplay and build excitement.” Creators were instructed to “persuade users to purchase the game”, and that “videos will promote positive sentiment about the game” and cannot “show bugs, glitches which may exist.”
The NDA also requested that promoters “not mention Lord of the Rings or Hobbit movies, or books.” Perhaps most telling of all, is that the company required the creators to submit their videos, saying “the company has final approval on the YouTube video”, and that the company could require revisions of their choosing.
Plaid Social Labs does tout working with WB, and many other companies by “connecting brands with online video influencers (YouTube, Vine, Twitch & Instagram).” The site features a quote by Ricky Ray Butler on it’s main site, saying “we operate on the belief that online videos will fully surpass the viewership of primetime television.” They also indicated on their website that they handled “every game” in the Assassin’s Creed series, by ‘using’ top YouTube channels to promote the games.
Stephen Williams, a YouTube personality with over 2.5 million subscribers and 390 million views on his Boogie2988 account also came out about paid promotional gameplay, saying “Yes, I signed a contract that said if I created the video, I couldn’t talk about the downsides. But that’s not all there is to it. I also negotiated an “out” for these types of contracts. The ones that I sign give me an option to back out of the deal at any time.”
In a video titled ‘The Truth about Youtube Brand Deals’, Williams comments that “A lot of the times, these deals have been called shady, and a lot of the times they’ve been called negative for a lot of different reasons; and people wonder why YouTubers accept that.” He tells his audience that “The money is a necessary evil,” stating he has a need for the additional funds, following it up with “Some people, who are more cynical say that means we’re more susceptible to this type of corruption; I don’t necessarily agree that it’s corruption of any type.”
On September 2nd 2015, the Federal Trade Commission formally charged Machinima, Inc. with “deceptive advertising” under Section 5 of the FTC Act. The report describes the company hiring “‘influencers’ to post YouTube videos endorsing the yet unreleased Microsoft’s Xbox One system and several games. The influencers paid by Machinima, Inc., failed to adequately disclose that they were being paid for their seemingly objective opinions.” These videos were published on YouTube, and Microsoft’s Smartglass app.
In the FTC’s public release on the matter, Jessica Rich states that “when people see a product touted online, they have a right to know whether they’re looking at an authentic opinion or a paid marketing pitch. That’s true whether the endorsement appears in a video or any other media.”
Starcom MediaVest Group, advertising agency for Microsoft is indicated in the report, as the managing party of “an Xbox One marketing campaign.” According to the report, Machinima guaranteed Starcom “19 million” views, by employing users like Jahovaswitniss, who described receiving a “bonus” for his video. TheRadBrad is a listed employee of Machinima, and also uploaded several positive videos the day before launch of Dead Rising 3 and Ryse, no indication of it being a paid advertisement. Adam Dahlberg of SkyVSGaming was paid $15,000 for his two videos as well. They didn’t disclose their conflict of interest, because as the same report indicates, “Machinima did not require any of the influencers to disclose they were being paid for their endorsement.”
Tom Cassell of TheSyndicateProject received $30,000 for a couple of non-disclosed paid videos. When asked about it on twitter by Keemstar, a youtube journalist, he replied that he “genuinely cannot remember the facts of this cause it was 2 years ago”, but continued by saying “I like Xbox one so… lol eazi money?” [sic]
Machinima’s 5,000 contracted video producers who garner over 3 billion in monthly views must now follow a set of rules outlined in the order, stating they “shall not in any Influencer Campaign misrepresent, in any manner, expressly or by implication, that an Endorser of such product is an independent user or ordinary consumer of the product or service.” It goes on to order that they must “clearly and prominently disclose a material connection, if one exists, between the Endorser and the advertiser whose product is being endorsed.” It also says that Machinima must take “reasonable steps to ensure that its Influencer Campaigns comply” with the order.
Microsoft was absolved by the FTC of this case, stating that while the company and Starcom “were responsible for the influencers’ failure to disclose their material connection to the companies,” they appeared to be “isolated incidents” that wasn’t due to negligence on Microsoft’s part.
The FTC guidelines state that “Truth in advertising is important in all media, whether they have been around for decades (like, television and magazines) or are relatively new (like, blogs and social media).” For more information on FTC’s updated guidelines when it comes to disclosure, please visit here.
During this promotional time period, the crew behind Inside Gaming, listed as the editorial section of Machinima, also provided content around the console and games’ November release date.
In January 2015, shortly before Machinima was hit with this FTC order, Machinima announced via Twitter that the crew behind Inside Gaming were “moving on and we really wish them the best!” They were quickly hired by Rooster Teeth, LLC., where they continued on with a show entitled Funhaus (pronounced ‘Fun House’) in early February.
By May 29th, 2015, Rooster Teeth’s news-based series The Know uploaded a video titled ‘Xbox SAVES Silent Hills?’, in which the comedic group reported that Microsoft was looking to purchase the game for their new Xbox One. Quoting an anonymous source, hosts Kovic, Greene and Lawrence Sonntag told viewers that the game was reportedly “80% done, and if all of that is true, the game could come out as early as March of next year.”
The video suggested that Microsoft’s offer was “in the billions, which is a ridiculous amount of money for a franchise that isn’t that popular anymore, and as far as I knew nobody cared about until P.T.”, the original name of the demo. They went on to suggest that Konami pulled the demo off of Playstation’s store “as a show of good faith towards Microsoft.” They continued, suggesting that if the deal actually happened, Microsoft would’ve announced it at E3 back in June.
The original video also suggested that Sony might buy the exclusive rights to Metal Gear Solid V; none of these deals were heard of again. The video garnered a quarter of a million views. The Know currently has nearly 700,000 subscribers, and have accumulated over 100 million views. They have yet to retract their statements.
“If you’re the writer,” Lisby continues in his video interview, “and somehow we have a monetary relationship, that we hope is going to result in my success, than for you to write about me- that’s unethical.” In response to being asked if sharing fiscal responsibilities, like sharing a flat, Lisby laughs stating “that’s even worst.” When asked about having a romantic relationship with your source, he responds with an even more amused face and one word; “Absolutely.”
In 2013, Kotaku writer Patricia Hernandez wrote six articles, providing positive coverage for her close friend and eventual roommate Anna Anthropy. Each article failed to mention their connection, and failed to acknowledge the conflict of interest, although some of them were eventually updated.
In addition, Hernandez admitted to dating visual novel developer Christine Love, and wrote about her game ‘Hate Plus’ on two separate occasions without disclosure, but have since been updated to reflect this relationship. The article also encourages the purchase of the game through a link. She still writes for Kotaku.
One year later, another Kotaku writer Nathan Grayson came under fire, and eventually lead to the Gamergate movement. Zoe Quinn’s game Depression Quest was accused of receiving unfair treatment after it was revealed she was romantically involved with Grayson, and also exchanged money with her. Grayson had written two articles about her game, but according to Kotaku, it was before their relationship started and that no wrongdoing was done.
Grayson is also listed in Depression Quest’s special thanks, which was published a year before he first covered her work at the GDC and at the failed Doritos Gam Jam, both in March. He failed to mention their past in the ladder. It was also discovered while responding to a question by The Ralph on Twitter that he beta tested the game, revealing that he had “tried a tiny, super early build of dq once.”
In an interview with TotalBiscuit, Editor-In-Chief of Kotaku Stephen Totilo responded to criticisms thrown at his site, stating “My priority was to make sure that there was no clear impropriety that had occurred, that the worst of what was being said either happened or didn’t happen and we’d come clean about it either way.” He goes on to question, “when are we friends enough that I should be disclosing in an article?”
Totilo went on to say that he doesn’t want to consider himself a friend of anyone he might have to cover, but followed that by saying “every good reporter should develop connections and sources, so if a developer who I think is interesting is coming to New York, I might say to them ‘hey, let’s get dinner!’ It doesn’t mean the next time I write about that developer, I’m going to say ‘by the way, I had dinner with this person.’ That’s not how reporting works.”
He did concede that “when you have some people who live together, even if they weren’t that close, even if they were just housemates, there’s no harm in mentioning that.” TotalBiscuit then agreed with this sentiment, quoting the interview with Greg Lisby the associate chair of communications at Georgia State University and a journalist, “when he was asked about how having a roommate as a potential source, he said that is probably one of the worst things you can possibly do; even worst so than financial connections.” Totilo concedes the point, saying that she’s a “young reporter, who I should’ve done a better job of pointing things out to.”
Totilo recounted that his ethic professor once told him that “reporters shouldn’t have friends,” meaning that reporters should spend their time “pursuing the truth as a reporter,” and that doing so “is going to piss somebody off.” Totilo spent the rest of the interview refusing to elicit an apology from his writers, or giving one himself regarding the concerns of transparency.
On September 18 of last year, Kyle Orland took responsibility for a group that he had created called “Game Journalism Professionals.” Otherwise known as GameJournoPros on Google Groups, the site was invite only and has since been abandoned. This group was “a place to discuss your impressions of that embargoed game you’re reviewing and maybe find a multiplayer partner to help test it. A place to bounce ideas for editorials before committing them to digital paper or discuss possible angles for a news piece.”
During the emergence of the Gamergate movement, Orland requested those in that group should give “extra attention” to Depression Quest , and that journalists should “organize a public letter of support” for Quinn. He also said in a mass-email that this was a “personal matter”, that any “bullshit ‘Journalism ethics'” wasn’t grounds to cover the story, stating he would “love to use (his) platform to reproach”.
According to Milo Yiannopoulos, a columnist and reporter for BreitBart, as many as one hundred and fifty members from all of the major gaming media (including Dan Stapleton), but also included game developers. One developer, Kyle Horner, who worked at WB Games from 2010-2014 was connected to this group.
Andy Eddy, former editor-in-chief at IGN and Executive Editor with Future US, said this of the Grayson scandal, “This is barely a game-industry story, no matter how some people want to frame it. This is a story about a person who happens to be in the game industry and their personal relationships (no matter how it may weave back into “the industry” and however poor the person’s judgments may have been) and public expose of private materials by that person’s partner as revenge, so I don’t think we, as games press, should support furthering the story by commenting, editorializing or even allowing others to ruminate on it.”
At the time Andy Eddy made this suggestion, he had been working for Movoto an online real estate agency, writing it’s company’s blog.
Speaking to Mike Futter, News Editor at Game Informer, about the group, he confirmed the group’s existence, and said it “might even be in the article you cite,” referring to Yiannopoulos’ claims. At the time of Kyle Orland’s requests to provide favor in Quinn’s situation, leaked communications show that Futter said “I would prefer not to be associated with this. It feels wrong to me. I think it feels very off to reach across the fence from journalist to subject in this way. I prefer professional distance, especially given the accusations being levied at us from outside.”
In a response made to me via email, Futter said that this conversation was “one that was not acted on. It was suggested, I and others expressed reservations. Nothing ever came of it.” When I asked him when the line between discussing current events and coordinating a plan with peers has been crossed, he stated “I think you have your answer. There was no coordination, as nothing ever happened. It was a matter of conversation that started and died with a suggestion.”
Orland would go on to call Depression Quest “one of the most gripping and educational views on the subject [of depression]” after making these suggestions.
Futter has written about projects that Horner has helped develop, including Infinite Crisis. They share conversations on twitter, and were both in GJP. When Futter was asked about his connection with the developer, he confirmed that Horner “Follows me on Twitter. I follow him on Twitter,” and that he’s never met him, or had “more than a quick Twitter exchange with him.”
Brandon Justice, seen in this twitter photo promoting “Broforce”, is the CCO of KBJ games, and has worked for IGN, Sega, 2K, EA, EGM & Retro Magazine according to his twitter account.
Brandon Justice was fired from his position of IGN’s Editor-in-chief after calling Nintendo fans at E3 2001 “nazis.” He wrote “Nintendo did little more than show up, and everyone is cheering like a bunch of skinheads at a Nazi rally. If they really took any time to think about the message, they’d realize that they’re being filled with little more than quick-fix titles that Nintendo intends to use as a hold-over distraction until the REAL compelling content hits in 2002.”
Writing fo EGMNow and an ‘Executive Editor’ in 2013, Brandon Justice wrote an overwhelmingly positive review for Aliens: Colonial Marines, in which he called the game “much more than a loving homage; it serves as one of the most robust story-driven co-op experiences to date.” He reviewed other Sega and EA games as well, including Borderlands 2, Anarchy Reigns, NBA 2K13, NCAA Football 13 and Hell Yeah: Wrath of the Dead Rabbit.
Steve Harris wrote an article on the site, letting readers know that Justice was let go shortly before his review of Alien: Colonial Marines reached publication.
I reached out to Future PLC, Gawker, EA, Microsoft, Atari, Konami, Plaid Social, Jeff Gerstmann, Nick Ellis, Jim Sterling, Stephen Williams (Boogie2988), Bradley Colburn (TheRadBrad), John Bain (TotalBiscuit) and Greg Lisby for comment, but they did not respond in time for publication. John Rousseau was unable to be reached.