There has been a pair of incidents in the past week that have brought the thorny topic of game journalism ethics back to the fore. First Microsoft thought it wise to bring their E3 conference to a close by handing out a free brand new ‘slim’ X-Box 360 to every member of the press in attendance. Then later in the week RPS broke a story about how the review embargo for Realtime Worlds new game ‘APB’ was being set ten days after the game was on sale.
Perhaps the most saddening thing about both of these stories wasn’t the actions of the companies involved, though those were eye rolling acts, but the reaction of some commentators rushing to say ‘it’s no big deal, after all it’s only video games journalism’. I’m not sure if this reaction was due to a continuing lack of respect for the people in the trade, a disbelief in the usefulness of the trade itself, a disbelief in the power of bribes and information control or a disbelief in the value of games themselves as a worthwhile endeavour. I don’t agree with any of these positions and I thought it might be worthwhile to explain why.
As a game developer I believe in the value of games as entertainment, as teaching tools and as an art form that can give us powerful experiences impossible anywhere else. To me it is the most exciting and novel field of entertainment with so much still left to say and do. I think it’s a completely valuable activity to try to bring about the best possible game experiences. They aren’t ‘just games’ to me and making them isn’t about just messing around to avoid doing a ‘real’ job.
If you believe that games are important then you should also believe in good games criticism. Almost nothing worthwhile in philosophy or science has been done that hasn’t been improved by well targeted criticism. If philosopher’s had just accepted Plato’s forms unquestioningly why might still be enjoying learning about his theories today. Creation so often starts with pinpointing the flaws in what exists already and then looking for a better alternative. If there is no one looking for any flaws then there is no reason to change, no reason to reject the status quo, no reason to create. In such a world perhaps chess could be the last word in games and we would all play it for eternity. You can get criticism from everywhere of course, from the man in the street to the creators themselves but there is no substitute for the practiced, professional critic. Criticism is a hard skill. It’s not enough to just feel that a game is ‘a bit off’ you must pin point exactly the reason why, you have to be able to compare and contrast with the features of thousands of games at your finger tips, you must be wise enough to prise the gleaming diamond of a great mechanic buried deeply in an otherwise terrible game. Most of all though you must be completely honest in your assessments.
I don’t think its possible to be honest as a journalist in any field if you are accepting gifts from the people you are supposed to be holding to account. It is human nature to feel a need to reciprocate any act of kindness, it’s one of the principles of honest human civilization. No matter how convinced you are that a ‘gift’ could never affect your incorruptible judgement, the chances are you are wrong. Just as everyone believes that they are not affected by advertising, and everyone else is the bad drivers making the roads unsafe, it’s usually a safe bet that no-one is infallible given the right conditions. Most responsible publications are well aware of the dangers of allowing their staff to receive gifts from public relations firms and have strict policies requiring the return of any such items. If modern game journalism with its click driven website model wants to be respected then it needs to maintain these same policies.
You also can’t be an honest journalist if you agree to not report the truth when it’s most needed, too many journalists now appear to be accepting ‘hush money’ or more commonly, increased access in exchange for keeping quiet. If actions like the APB post release review embargo are allowed to stand then why not start allowing the PR firms to have copy approval on reviews for increased access as well? There has to be a clear line drawn; and that line must be when you have to start keeping quiet or lying to your audience, especially when not doing so would be in their interests.
Luckily, for those of us who develop games, there are good journalists out there. There are people who grasp all these points completely and feel as passionately as I do about the importance and value of games, and who care about their journalism and the ethics of it. I even link to a few of them over on the side of this site; in particular Rock, Paper, Shotgun stands out for their courage in exposing unethical behaviour in the industry, but there are many more. Nobody should despair overly about the games industry while voices like these remain active, caring and honest. They help keep the game developers honest and as such are just as important as those of us making the games in the first place.