It’s been an eventful week in gaming, and sadly not because of any great game releases. It’s been eventful because of something that you probably haven’t read about since it hasn’t been covered by any of the big gaming sites. It has to do with games journalism and ethics (or a lack thereof).
It all started on October 24th when Rab Florence wrote an article for Eurogamer. It centered around an image of Geoff Keighley (from GameTrailers, host of GTTV on SpikeTV) sitting in a chair flanked by bottles of Mountain Dew, a Doritos bag, and a Halo 4 cutout (all advertising a promotion Mountain Dew and Doritos are doing with Halo 4).
The article then dives into its real meat. Recently, some members of the press attended a thing called the “Games Media Awards,” and were encouraged by Trion to tweet using the hashtag #gmadefiance for a chance to win one of five Playstation 3’s. Trion is of course the developers of the upcoming MMO shooter Defiance. Rob mentioned a few people who participated in this giveaway contest or journalist who didn’t see a problem with what other so-called journalist were doing. Unfortunately, you can’t see what he said now in the article linked above.
It isn’t clear what really happened. There were supposed threats of legal action on the claim of libel (and this is all UK based and their libel laws are ridiculously anti-free speech and anti-free press), but this has also been denied. Whatever happened, Eurogamer edited a couple of paragraphs out of the article to appease a complainant brought forth by Lauren Wainwright (one of the people mentioned) and her employer MCV. This resulted in the departure of Rab Florence from Eurogamer.
And this is where things get unfortunate and a clear example of why people need to think before they do stuff. Rab wrote a great piece about something that absolutely needs to be talked about. Eurogamer did right by allowing it to be posted, but then backtracked (again possibly because of a legal threat) and censored the article. A good games journalist is out of a job (and even if he quit on principle, who could blame him?). This was all unnecessary.
The article was quite good, but it would have went away. Most folks who even heard about this would have forgotten about it. The name Lauren Wainwright means nothing to most gamers. But the wrong action was taken, and now the issue has ballooned into something that isn’t going to go away or be forgotten anytime soon. Supposedly, and again we don’t know, Lauren threatened legal action in the form of a libel lawsuit because of the brief part of the article that mentions her that has sense been censored.
For reference sake, this is the portion that Eurogamer cut from the article:
One games journalist, Lauren Wainwright, tweeted: “Urm… Trion were giving away PS3s to journalists at the GMAs. Not sure why that’s a bad thing?”
Now, a few tweets earlier, she also tweeted this: “Lara header, two TR pix in the gallery and a very subtle TR background. #obsessed @tombraider pic.twitter.com/VOWDSavZ”
And instantly I am suspicious. I am suspicious of this journalist’s apparent love for Tomb Raider. I am asking myself whether she’s in the pocket of the Tomb Raider PR team. I’m sure she isn’t, but the doubt is there. After all, she sees nothing wrong with journalists promoting a game to win a PS3, right?
Another journalist, one of the winners of the PS3 competition, tweeted this at disgusted RPS writer John Walker: “It was a hashtag, not an advert. Get off the pedestal.” Now, this was Dave Cook, a guy I’ve met before. A good guy, as far as I could tell. But I don’t believe for one second that Dave doesn’t understand that in this time of social media madness a hashtag is just as powerful as an advert. Either he’s on the defensive or he doesn’t get what being a journalist is actually about.
Any sane person can see that there’s absolutely nothing remotely resembling libel in the above paragraphs. He’s pointing out that a games journalist sees nothing wrong with other games journalists essentially advertising a companies product on their Twitter account to try and a win a PS3. Her not seeing anything wrong with this can then easily cause one to be suspicious of her apparent obsession with Tomb Raider.
The issue blowed up. Lauren has ended up making her Twitter account private and doing some backtracking to try and cover up some things. Take her profile on Journalisted for example: You can’t see anything wrong with that now, but before she edited it yesterday, her current employment section listed Square Enix; the people publishing Tomb Raider, a game she is apparently obsessed with.
It gets worse. She claims she only did consultancy work for Square Enix and that as a result she never reviewed their products. And what happens when people try to cover their tracks? People dig deeper, more stuff gets exposed, and even more damage is done.
Like this image that Mark Brown uncovered on Lauren’s personal website: her review of Deus Ex: Human Revolution for The Sun. Deus Ex of course being a Square Enix game. Maybe Lauren wasn’t doing consultancy work for Square Enix at the time the game was released last year. Maybe she didn’t do consultancy work for that game, but either way the line has already been crossed and there’s now reason to be suspicious about anything she writes regarding a Square Enix title. We do know she did consultancy work for Square Enix on Final Fantasy XIII-2.
Even more recently, there’s this glowing preview of Sleeping Dogs (another Square Enix game) written for The Sun. “Sleeping Dogs is an additive open-world adventure you need to get your hands on,” writes Lauren. Now Sleeping Dogs is a great game; Brian Hall gave it a superb 9.0 in his review of it. The difference of course being Brian has never met or communicated with a PR person from Square Enix, never received a hands on preview, and had to buy the game to be able to review it. Lauren here has done work for Square Enix, has tried to hide and cover stuff up, and that in turn makes anything she writes about any Square Enix game all the more suspicious (especially when it’s a glowing preview/review).
It also doesn’t help that she once wrote an article talking about how to get free games, and in the process mentioned she had an “unfair advantage” with Ubisoft due to her best friend, named Korina, landing a job with Ubisoft in the PR department. Once this was uncovered, it didn’t take Internet detectives at NeoGAF long to find out who this Korina person was and where she’s at now. It’s Korina Abbot, and she’s no longer with Ubisoft. The image going around (seen below) is from her LinkedIn account linked to above, it list her as being Marketing Executive for, you guessed it, Square Enix in the UK. She’s no longer with Square Enix, she’s now at Bethesda UK according to her Twitter page.
I don’t know Lauren Wainwright; I don’t have anything against her nor do I think anything she’s done over the past couple of days makes her a horrible person. People make mistakes, hopefully she learns from them. And as a “games journalist” it will take some time for her to regain any trust or be taken seriously by a rather small segment of the Internet. If ever. It’s just too bad she couldn’t have handled the situation better; practically everything she has done in response has been the wrong action to take, and each step has only made things worse. It’s quite sad to see.
I think more attention needs to be placed on Rab’s original article though, and less on the fallout of it and Lauren Wainwright specifically. Lauren isn’t the problem; she’s a symptom of the problem. Yes, she deserves to be called out on all of this, but she shouldn’t become the focal point. The much larger, and much more dangerous (from an ethics and trust stand point) problem is more deserving of all the attention.
I agree with Rab when he says:
The GMAs shouldn’t exist. By rights, that room should be full of people who feel uncomfortable in each other’s company. PR people should be looking at games journos and thinking, “That person makes my job very challenging.” Why are they all best buddies? What the hell is going on?
Indeed, what is going on? The GMAs are one big party for the European games media. PR folks give awards to their favorite writers. As Rab put it, “Games PR people and games journos voted for their favourite friends, and friends gave awards to friends, and everyone had a good night out.”
That’s a problem. Read about the GMAs on MCV (Lauren’s current employer and the ones who filed the complain with Eurogamer) and look at the pictures. It’s a disgusting event. Game publishers giving awards to journalists as they commingle with free food, free booze, and swag bags. And these are the people whose opinions you’re expected to trust when they write about games. It’s a big reason why gamers are and should be skeptical of almost anything written by a large site.
Take E3 for example. It’s the big press-only (mostly) gaming event in the US every year. Games journalist flock to L.A. from all over to get hands on with the upcoming games from almost every publisher. There’s free food, free drinks, and parties with PR people. And booth babes everywhere. Because nothing is more important to the gaming press than pretty ladies dressed in almost nothing pretending to care about a crappy video game as journalist clamor for pictures. It’s all a little too friendly. And then the gaming press in attendance cheer like 12-year-old girls at a Justin Bieber concert for almost every product shown during the press conferences. And at the mention of free stuff; and there’s a ton of free stuff
Skip ahead to 22:50 and then listen to the gaming press cheer Microsoft generously giving everyone in attendance a brand new Xbox 360 Slim.
There’s also the big gifts that publishers send to the big gaming sites, who happily show off their latest acquires in unboxing videos that scream “look at this awesome thing Publisher X just sent that you totally wish you could have but it’s not something that’s actually going to be sold.” Some people/sites will give these things away, as they should, but most don’t. Well technically they should let the publishers know not to even bother sending them the crap to begin with.
We’re a small blog, anyone can look and see that. I’ve never been to a press event (I have been invited to one), I’ve never met a PR person, and I’ve never received a swag bag. We don’t pretend to be good games journalist either. Most of what you see here are trailers, stuff from press releases we get, and game reviews. We don’t have the contacts (or the clout to the get the contacts) or resources to do any real investigative journalism. In fact, the only contact we have with PR people is in sending them links to coverage of their games (which is a courtesy) and requesting review copies (mainly of games we’re actually interested in to which we get some, we don’t get some… It’s not a big deal).
Any game we receive for a review is disclosed at the end of the review. Our readers know which games were provided to us for free by the publisher. We don’t allow a free game to sway our opinion of it though; we give an honest opinion of what we thought of the game. You may look at our review index and see a bunch of games scored rather highly, and the reason for that is most of our games have been bought… and we don’t make a point to buy stuff we think will be crap. Every game we’ve reviewed that has received our highest mark, the subjective and totally not perfect 10, has been bought. The most recent game I received was 007 Legends, my first free title from Activision; I gave it a 5.0 because that’s what the game deserved.
With all of that said, there’s nothing wrong with the gaming press receiving review copies either before or after a game’s release. If it fell on the reviewers to buy every single game that gets reviewed, well there wouldn’t be many games being reviewed. I think things become questionable when certain outlets start receiving multiple copies, collector’s editions, swag, and exclusive reviews before everyone else (while having a huge ad for the game engulfing the site).
Speaking of ads, we’re proudly hosted for free on WordPress.com. We can’t run ads that take over the site, nor can we sell ad space. We did recently opt in to the WordAds program to try and make a little money off the site. But the ads aren’t gaming related. I know most of you don’t even see them. We make like a dollar for every 1,000 people who see the ad. Most of us use adblockers, so the ad is rarely seen. In the three months we’ve been a part of the program, we’ve made $10 (I’ve spent $50 on the site this year). You can’t even get the money paid to you until you have $100 from it… Sometime in 2014 I suppose.
If you haven’t seen an ad on our site (they’re videos below each post, or only below the first post on the home page), this is what you’re missing:
Yes, that’s an ad for Cheerios asking the question “do big kids still like Cheerios?” (YES!) Everyone who reads this post can see the video above; 75% of you will not see the smaller version below that is listed as the advertisement that would give us a few cents because of your ad blockers. I’m okay with that; it’s why we’re freely hosted on WordPress.com rather than spending a hundred plus dollars a month on real hosting and having to annoy you with large ads and pop ups..
Big sites require more bandwidth and more space, and that means spending big bucks, which means ad space needs to be sold. I understand that and I’m fine with it; I think most rational people are. But it’s easy to see a huge ad for a game on a big site while reading their glowing review of it and not wonder if maybe the $$$ had something to do with that arbitrary numerical score that gamers spend way too much attention focusing on.
It wasn’t so long ago (2007) that Jeff Gertsmann was fired from GameSpot for calling Kane & Lynch out for being a bad game in his review even though GameSpot had received quite a bit of money to advertise the game. Unethical, shady stuff happens all the time in the gaming industry (either in the press or because of the press). Game studios have been closed down because the team didn’t hit some magical number on Metacritic. That’s ridiculous.
Rab Florence wrote a great piece and made points that needed to be made; It’s not just about Lauren Wainwright and her unethical dealings. She’s far from alone. I’m naturally skeptical of most in the gaming press, particularly from the big mainstream media owned sites (like IGN, GameSpot, etc.) But Rab’s larger point, which has sort of taken a backseat to Lauren Wainwright, is absolutely correct.
The gaming press shouldn’t be so cozy with and practically in bed with the PR people from the publishers. Having corresponded with some of these PR folks via email, yes some of them definitely seem like they’re nice, cool people. But then friendly, polite email correspondence isn’t the same as accepting essentially an all-expenses paid free vacation to be wined and dined by PR folks in between getting a hands-on preview of their upcoming games. And that happens.
The gaming press, whether big or small, certainly does need to show some restraint and some shred of ethical sensibility. Not being best chums with the PR people, and certainly not an employee of a publisher whose games you cover, would go a long way. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with showing excitement for a game though. I initially didn’t see anything wrong with Lauren’s tweets about Tomb Raider and being obsessed with it on her personal Twitter account. Of course it becomes an issue when it comes out she does/has worked for Square Enix in some capacity. Even still, I think she is just really excited for that game and it doesn’t have anything to do with any association with Square Enix. But when you travel down that road, you can’t blameg can become suspicious.
I’ve made it no secret that I’m incredibly pumped for Assassin’s Creed III, or that it is my favorite franchise of the current generation. It is my most anticipated game of the year, and I do have incredibly high expectations for it. I’ve covered the game (news and trailers) pretty extensively here on the site. But I don’t work for Ubisoft. I have no review copy of the game (my Amazon pre-order of the standard PS3 version will be here Tuesday). I’ve not attended any Ubisoft event’s or had any “hands on” with the game prior to its release on Tuesday.
My excitement for the game is genuine; this is a hobby blog site (not a job), so I have no problem exclaiming my excitement for the game. It could be the most disappointing game of the year, and if so the review will reflect that. Excitement can be good if there is no conflict of interest involved (like receiving a bunch of free crap, being best friends with the PR person, or having worked for the company).
The gaming press needs to follow the old rule of not mixing business with pleasure. That means don’t work for publishers or PR firms handling games for publishers and then cover those games on the sites you work for. Let someone else cover those games. Don’t go out partying with PR people and accepting free gifts (and review copies aren’t free gifts) from them. Really, it should all be common sense stuff. There’s no reason why it should operate like a good old boys club of “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine.”
The industry definitely needs to change, and that has to start with the journalists actually developing some understanding of ethics and where a line should be drawn at. Gamers could help by stop making a big deal out of review scores and visiting Metacritic. Metacritic shouldn’t exist, or at the very least it shouldn’t carry anywhere near the amount of clout that it has with publishers.
It’s bad enough that a lot of folks don’t even bother to read the reviews, instead skipping down to see what it scored, we don’t need another site trying to average review scores together to come up with a new number. And people lose their jobs because of this? I really don’t understand why the sites, especially the big ones, don’t tell CBS Interactive that they can no longer use their review scores in their Metacritic average. They can’t possibly be getting that much traffic from the site; after all, the people can already see what they want to see on Metacritic: the arbitrary number that means absolutely nothing without reading the text that comes before it.
And finally the publishers could stop treating the gaming press like royalty by sending PR people out to treat the journalists to dinners and parties, and stop giving free stuff. For all the studios that have had to close down and all the people laid off, I’ll never understand why marketing folks think they have to waste money creating swag to give to “games journalists” who are going to cover the game anyway.
For just two notable examples this year: the Assassin’s Creed III cloth flag that went out to some big sites and the Darksiders II tombstone made out of actual stone. You would think given all the problems THQ has had, they’d have better things to spend money on than creating the likes of the thing below; but you can’t put a price on sending big sites free crap, especially during review time.
And note that I actually like and respect Jim Sterling (and Destructoid as a whole). I don’t think Jim Sterling cares for crap like this or allows it to sway his opinion of a game. So even though he received that thing, I don’t for a minute think it had anything to do with his giving the game a 9/10 (I gave it an 8.5 myself). But publishers should be above sending this kind of crap out anyway. Provide a review copy and spare the rest of this nonsense.
If you want to read more about the Rob Florence/EuroGamer/MCV/Lauren Wainwright scandal, check out the links below. It should be covered by every gaming site, and the silence of the bigger ones is really quite telling.
Worth Playing: Media, Ethics, Tomb Raider and the Streisand Effect
Botherer: An Utter Disgrace
Botherer: A Bit of Perspective
And posted today on Botherer, an article written by Robert Florence himself addressing the situation after departing Eurogamer: