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On Ethics, Friendship, and Crowdfunding

So, heard any good discussions of game journalism ethics recently? Me neither. I’ve heard plenty of discussions, mind you… just not many good ones. So I thought I'd dust off my old Ombudsman hat and try to fix that.

To start, let me be clear that I’m trying my best to disentangle this ethical discussion from the recent, troubling wave of harassment against female/”social justice warrior” voices in game journalism and game development, and from the widespread counter-criticism of a segment of “gamers” that seems to encourage such harassment. Valid concerns about game journalism have become hopelessly wrapped up in these tangential issues, to the point where trying to actually talk about the ethics supposedly at the core of the debate is like stepping on a third rail nestled inside an active minefield. Amid all the hate and stereotyping and conspiracy-minded nuttiness and screaming past each other on both sides, there are some reasonable questions about the relationship between the press and their sources being raised, and that’s what I’d like to address here.

I’d also like to point out that this discussion is not a new one for all of us in the game press. I’ve been personally thinking and writing publicly about these issues since 2003, and pretty much every professional game journalist i know takes discussions of ethics similarly seriously. Just because these discussions have gained new volume in recent weeks (thanks largely to some truly hateful stuff) doesn’t mean they haven’t existed beforehand, even if some of the specific issues (such as crowdfunding) are relatively new.

So, let’s get right to it:

Is it OK for game journalists to be friends with the developers they cover?

I would say yes, to a point. Part of our jobs as game journalists/critics/writers/call-it-what-you-will is talking to the people that make the games we cover. This should be a somewhat adversarial relationship, where the journalist presses the developer on issues with the game and doesn’t take claims made by the developer at face value. That’s especially true when dealing with major corporations, with marketing departments designed to obfuscate the nature of a game in pursuit of glowing pre-release previews and reviews.

Some might hope that we as journalists would hold all of our subjects at arms length and treat every interview like an interrogation, bright lights in the eyes and all. But that’s just not the way it works in practice. For one, we’re usually talking to the people who make our favorite games; the ones who are often the reason we got into this business in the first place. In return, these developers are often some of the most passionate readers of our work, and share a love of gaming as a medium. Some level of admiration and mutual respect is normal and expected; anything less would come off as a bit passionless and dry.

For another, being friendly with sources is an essential part of a journalist’s job. Treating all development sources as the enemy is likely to get those sources to treat a journalist similarly in return, which is not good if you’re trying to get forthcoming quotes either on or off-the-record. Some of the best information a journalist gets often comes over friendly drinks with sources well after the “official” interview is over. Some degree of professional friendliness is necessary to be a good journalist.

There are limits to how far this friendliness should go, of course. It’s important to keep things cordial but professional. You don’t want to get so close to a source that you no longer feel comfortable criticizing them publicly, or that you feel the need to promote their work out of a sense of camaraderie. If you’re at the point where you’re romantically involved with or living with one of your primary sources, that line has almost definitely been crossed (this sentence is not meant as a specific accusation against any specific person, though I’ll not that this level of closenss is nothing new in game journalism) . At that point, you should recuse yourself from covering that source’s work or at the very least disclose the relationship when you do.

In most cases, though, I think journalists are perfectly able to keep a friendly-but-professionally-distant relationship with any number of developers without bringing any undue influence into things. It’s part of the job, and it’s part of being a social human.

Should game journalists be able to back projects on Kickstarter/Patreon? Is this any different than simply buying/pre-ordering a game?

This is tricky, largely unexplored territory in game journalism ethics, and people in good faith are going to come to different conclusions. Personally, I feel that backing gaming-related Kickstarter/Patreon projects in gaming should be actively discouraged for journalists, and should at the very least be disclosed when it happens.

My thinking on this grows out of what should be the bright dividing line that separates the role of a journalist/critic, who covers the industry, from the role of a developer or publisher, who actively contributes work within the industry. Journalists should do everything they can to avoid becoming part of the story, and to avoid influencing the industry they’re covering through anything but the words they write/say.

To me, funding a gaming project that wouldn’t exist without such funding crosses that line in a way that makes me uncomfortable. With a contribution to Kickstarter/Patreon, you are essentially becoming an investor in the game industry, using your money rather than your words to shape what games do and don’t get made, and thus crossing the line between observer and participant in the industry.

It doesn’t matter if it’s just a few dollars going to some tiny indie game. It doesn’t matter that the journalist doesn’t expect or want any monetary return on the investment. It doesn’t matter if you think there’s very little chance a professional journalist will actually be swayed in their coverage of a project because they have “skin in the game” via Patreon/Kickstarter (though even the appearance of that kind of conflict can be just as damaging to reader trust, in this case). Separate from all of that, I still feel that contributing to these kinds of crowdfunding projects crosses a line between covering the industry and contributing to the industry in a pretty big way.

Many people say this argument twists the way people actually use Patreon and Kickstarter, and that backing projects on these services is no different from pre-ordering a game or simply buying it from a store. After all, those kinds of purchases also give money to developers, who will use it to fund future projects, in effect shaping the direction of the industry. Should game journalists just never buy a single game, for fear of putting undue influence on the industry?

The distinction I make here has to do with when the funding comes. With a traditional retail or downloadable game, a journalist makes a purchase well after the development of that game has been fully funded by outside sources (even in the case of pre-orders). With Patreon and Kickstarter, a journalist is usually contributing money to a project that literally would not exist without that kind of direct monetary contribution. To me, the latter is a much more direct and troubling example of becoming a part of the industry, rather than a detached observer, even if both pscenarios are similar contributions of money to a developer.

(Some make a distinction here between Kickstarter, which is usually pledging money to a single, defined project, and Patreon, which is usually more amorphous monthly funding for less defined projects. This distinction cuts things a bit too thin even for my tastes, but some might see Patreon as a bit more suspect because of it)

Is this an unfair double standard for the usually smaller, more marginalized developers that tend to use Kickstarter and Patreon? Maybe. For some journalists, simply disclosing these kinds of contributions, rather than banning them altogether, is probably sufficient. If you feel your readers will be comfortable with the knowledge about your relationship with the project or game, and you can sleep at night while making those disclosures, then feel free. Personally, though, I think this kind of direct funding crosses an important line.

How should journalists handle all the free stuff they’re offered from developers and publishers

I first wrote about this nearly 11 years ago and I think it still applies today.

I’ll add that, in general, I encourage all journalists and critics to note the source of the game they cover with a quick message at the end of their pieces (“This review is based on a pre-release copy provided by the publisher” or “This analysis is based on the following games purchased directly by the author”).

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David Jaffe is a liar. Do we care?

Pants on fire"[W]e are not making a new Twisted Metal altho [sic] I think doing one WOULD be fun...but we simply are not. Also a game by Eat Sleep Play will NOT be at E3 2010."
-David Jaffe, to Joystiq, on May 24

"Hey everybody, I'm David Jaffe and this is Scott Campbell and we're the co-founders of Eat Sleep Play, and we're really excited to show you guys the next edition of the Twisted Metal franchise [for the PS3].
-David Jaffe, on stage at Sony's E3 press conference, today

The above quotes prove David Jaffe is a liar. This is not up for debate. There is no way he could show this game off today and truthfully say he was not working on it on May 24. The lie is a fact.

Given that fact, how should we, as journalists, respond?

My first instinct is to respond with anger. Our goal as journalists, first and foremost, is to report the truth, and Jaffe's lie forced us away from this goal. I suppose technically you could argue we still told the truth ('All we said was that Jaffe said he wasn't working on Twisted Metal. Which was true... he did say it!') but in effect Jaffe's lie made us complicit in misleading our readers regarding this game's existence.

In general, when a journalist catches a source in a lie (especially about something big), it's a story in and of itself.  If a politician is caught lying, it can lead to resignation or even impeachment. If an executive is caught lying about his business dealings, it can lead to criminal proceedings. If a journalist is caught lying about the source of their writing, their credibility is forever ruined.

I know Jaffe's lie doesn't quite rise to these level of a lying politician or high-powered business tycoon, but even if we just hold him to the standards of our own profession, shouldn't we at least have the deceny to never believe another word out of his lying mouth?

In a post that's just gone up, Jaffe defends his lie by arguing it was all in service of the surprise reveal at the show. He wasn't trying to maliciously lead us off the trail of his game's existence, you see... he was just trying to maintain the "sense of surprise and discovery has all but vanished from the E3 experience." (The post also suggests Sony urged him to lie to maintain the surprise, making them at least somewhat complicit in all this)

Sorry, but that argument doesn't hold water for me. It's possible to maintain secrecy about a project without outright lying about it. How many gamers knew about Retro's Donkey Kong Country revival before it was revealed today? How many knew Harmonix was working on a dancing game for Kinect before it was revealed yesterday?

Sure, there were rumors suggesting both of these revelations, but there are rumors about all sorts of crazy things in the lead up to E3, and most members of the public have no idea which ones are going to turn out being true and which one are just so much hot air. There have been rumors about a Kirby game on the Wii for years, but they didn't turn out to be true until this year.

Other companies, when asked to address rumors, almost invariably offer up a curt "no comment." They don't actively lie to the questioner (and, by extension, their readers). Instead, they just shrug it off and let everyone continue to do their job without obstruction. I know Jaffe knows how to do this -- he did it with regard to this very question back in 2008, even adding an expletive for good measure. (Yes, I do recognize the irony of literally preferring a source offer up a "no comment." Here's how it works: When addressing a rumor, "the truth" is better than a "no comment," which is better than "a bald-faced lie." Still with me?)

Yes, Jaffe's lie did help tamp down the recent rumors of the PS3 Twisted Metal game (rumors Jaffe himself helped start with his loose lips at this year's DICE, I might add). But the lie didn't remove the very question from all recorded history. Addressing a rumor with a lie is not a permanent solution. All lying does, in essence, is take the small problem of an inconveniently timed rumor and trade it in for the big problem of a plain-as-day lie in the very near future. Did you think we'd just forget about your previous statements? Did you think we wouldn't care?

Maybe you did. And maybe we won't or shouldn't care. Maybe I'm being too sensitive and most of my fellow journalists don't mind game makers actively lying to them. After all, Spong said they "expected that of [Jaffe]" after his lie was revealed. G4's Andrew Pfister predicted Jaffe was lying just before the press conference started. Maybe I should accept that game companies are constantly lying to us and just loyally report whatever load of bull they hand us without worrying about whether I'm serving my readers or serving the companies I'm covering.

Personally, though, I'm not happy about our profession being used to willfully mislead people, even if it's just in the service of "the sense of surprise and discovery." I didn't get into journalism to help maintain the timing of a company's marketing plan. I got into it to report the truth. So I still get a little mad when liars prevent me from doing that. So sue me.

[Update: 8:34 a.m. BST, June 16 Commenter R Bee made an excellent point that I was probably too blinded by rage to consider in my original post. The takeaway from this is that journalists should continue to be extremely skeptical even of official statements from game makers. Especially game makers like David Jaffe.]

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Should E3 time also be party time for journos?

Party hard party hard party hardBy the logic of the  press corps, these White House social events have no real effect on the news narrative. I find that interesting. There are some very smart people in the the White House. It would seem that by now they would know their soirée press strategy has been a miserable failure. And yet they press on. I wonder why?

-Ta-Nehisi Coates, "The Biden Beach Party"

With E3 and its attendant array of late night press parties coming up next week, the above quote could easily be used as a challenge to the video game press as well as the political press. Just replace "The White House" with "big name game publishers" and the essential question remains: If these lavish parties really have no effect on how a company is covered, why do all these savvy game PR firms continue to waste money on them?

There are a few possible non-sinister answers, of course. Publisher parties aren't always just for the press -- they're often for all the employees and developers and retailers and distributors and dozens of other people a party-thrower is trying to impress as well. Even when they're press-only affairs, these parties are sometimes the best opportunity for many journalists to play some games that are hard or impossible to try elsewhere at E3 (I distinctly remember placing my cheese plate on the floor and tearing in to 30 minutes with a Super Mario Galaxy demo at a Nintendo party one year).

And even if there are no games at a party, the events are great opportunities to network with game-makers and executives in a casual environment, getting off-the-record information or even stealing away from the thumping music for a quick on-the-record interview. These parties are also the main place where journalists from competing outlets meet and chat with each other at the show, passing on tips about the sleeper hits of the show and helping to form the conventional wisdom that will shape what games and companies come out as the "winners" of the show (a concept that deserves a post of its own).

But even with these mitigating factors, some of these lavish parties are a bit hard to justify. I say this as a person who's gladly eaten endless smores and ridden a mechanical bull courtesy of Bethesda Softworks, left a massive dance party at Dodger Stadium with a free travel suitcase courtesy of Sony, and gotten to see Queens of the Stone Age and The Who at exclusive concerts courtesy of Harmonix. And that's not even counting the dozens of open bars and re-warmed hors d'ouvres I've had to endure on a publisher's dime since becoming a game journalist.

So I'm obviously not above dipping into the trough at these things. And if pressed, I'd probably offer up the same defense as political reporter Marc Ambinder: that the relationships between the press and their subjects "can be cordial, occasionally cozy, and they can simultaneously be professional and skeptical."

But part of me worries, as Glenn Greenwald does, that attending these kinds of parties "helpfully reveals what our nation's leading 'journalists' really are:  desperate worshipers of ... power who are far more eager to be part of it and to serve it than to act as adversarial checks against it..."

OK, I've extended this political metaphor without really settling anything for long enough. How do you think we should fight for the public's right to know while also fighting for our right to party? Oh look, there's a comment link right down there!

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Our role as [beta] gatekeepers


If you currently have early, "Friends and Family" access to the highly anticipated Halo: Reach multiplayer beta, you probably fall into one of three camps.

  1. You are actually "friends and/or family" with someone who works at Bungie or Microsoft
  2. You are a journalist who has a legitimate work reason to have early access.
  3. You got a beta code in a giveaway from someone in Group No. 2.

It's this third group I'm concerned with in this post. Or, more accurately, why the second group is being used to facilitate the third group's early access.

If Microsoft and/or Bungie wanted to give a limited set of lucky gamers access to this beta (before the hordes of Halo 3: ODST owners get their hands on it May 3), they surely could have come up with a contest or random drawing of their own to facilitate it. Instead, they've handed handfuls of extra beta codes to seemingly every game journalist on god's green Earth and given these journalists free reign to hand out the codes in whatever manner will attract the most page views, Twitter followers, Facebook fans, etc. (and trust me, a giveaway for access to an anticipated game like this has the potential to attract a LOT of attention).

Now I'm almost positive there's anything so tawdry as a journalistic quid pro quo going on for access to these giveaway codes ("Hey, Microsoft, for every five codes you give our readers, I'll guarantee an extra 1/10th of a point on the final review score"). In fact, I doubt access to these extra beta codes will directly affect the impression journalists eventually make about the game in the slightest.

Of course, there is a small chance that an outlet with access to extra beta codes might be less likely to antagonize Microsoft in the future -- for fear of getting cut off from the lucrative giveaway spigot. Of course, these outlets are likely already sufficiently afraid of losing access to press preview events, live press conferences, early reviews copies and a host of other necessary information that Microsoft directly controls, so this concern is probably a bit moot.

But think for a second about the image of the game press that this journalist giveaway system conveys to the readers. Throughout the week, anyone who pays attention to the game press has been inundated with tweets and blog posts and "news stories" (note the subtle scare quotes) featuring journalists hawking beta codes like a barker at the county fair. Even the low-key giveaways carry with them the idea that Halo: Reach is a game worth playing -- after all, you can't really offer a contest for something without implicitly endorsing it as something that is desirable to win. Is it really possible to enthusiastically push beta access to a game one day and then credibly critique that game the next?

Appearances aside, I can't help but think Microsoft knows these kinds of giveaways have a subtle effect on the way a journalist sees a game and its fanbase. Sure, as journalists we might know abstractly that a lot of gamers are really excited about Halo: Reach. But in giving away beta access, journalists  are put directly in touch with the most rabid fans of a game, who will be clamoring for those beta keys via e-mail and comments and twitter replies and all sorts of direct appeals. By making journalists intimately aware with how much their readers want this game, these giveaways can't help but influence the way it gets covered in the future (and if you think a journalist is going to ignore the directly demonstrated passion of their readers, you're nuts).

Of course none of this is new, or really much different from what game journalists do every day. We often give up a bit of independence for access, be it to a beta code or a hard-to-get interview. We often give up our appearance of impartiality so we can get the Google juice from being the first one to repeat a hot press release verbatim. We often pay attention to the games we know our readers are already excited about rather than trying to expose them to hidden gems they might not even know they want to know about.

But I guess the implicit boosterism on display among journalists in these Halo: Reach beta giveaways struck me as a little less subtle than usual. The next time you wonder why game journalism is often seen as just an extension of video game PR, remember "events" like this.

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Quote of the Moment: Question-able Justification

This will make it all better

UPDATE: Sorry folks, this one has turned out to be a hoax. Don't be too disappointed – we did put a question mark in the headline!

-MCV updates a story on rumored Natal support for an upcoming Metal Gear Solid title, because, as we all know, "if you put a question mark at the end, you can basically say anything."

Also, apparently, if you put "Surfer Girl" in the title of your blog, people are prepared to believe anything you write. Thus I am changing the name of this blog to "Surfer's Girl's Game Beat" starting immediately.

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Making your story presentable

With reports of more developers leaving Infinity Ward seemingly coming by the hour these days, it can be tough for the average casual reader to keep up. How's a journalist supposed to convey the ever-increasing scale of the departures without losing count or resorting to a pedantic list.

Well, the folks over at PC Gamer UK came up with a rather clever solution -- a video of the Modern Warfare 2 credits with the departed developers crossed out in red. Not only does it give a good idea of the extent of the problem Activision and Infinity Ward finds itself in, it does a good job of clearly and concisely showing exactly which roles in the development from the mega-hit game have been affected.

The only potential problem I can see is that some departing developers are listed (and therefore crossed out) in multiple places, making the exodus look larger than it actually is. Then again, if a departing developer really held that many roles in the game's development, their leaving probably hurts the company that much more.

Anyway, props to the crew at PC Gamer UK for figuring out a novel and interesting way to present what's becoming  a depressing slow-drip of a news story.

[Via Phil Kollar's Twitter]

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How to write for Kill Screen… or anyone, for that matter

Let the Wookie pitchThe wholly excellent Kill Screen magazine finally threw up a "Write for Us" page today outlining how to submit pitches for their upcoming third issue (Which is known as "Issue #2" because, see, the first issue was "Issue #0" and OMG WHY ARE WE COUNTING MAGAZINES LIKE COMPUTER PROGRAMMERS?)

This is notable for a few reasons. The first is that the page confirms "as of Issue #1, we are able to pay writers for content," which is actually a change from the status quo of Issue #0. This is a pretty good sign that the magazine's boutique publishing model (i.e. selling a few thousand high-quality issues at $20 or so a pop) seems to be working out OK, at least in the short-term. From what I've heard, the freelancing rates aren't spectacular, but they're comparable to the depressed rates for freelance work across the industry. The deal looks even more attractive when you consider that Kill Screen's publishing rights are non-exclusive (so you can try to sell the same story elsewhere, as well).

The second reason it's notable is the really fantastic ideas the "Write for Us" page provides for freelancers. They're meant to apply specifically to Kill Screen, but most of these tips could be applied to pitching any outlet out there. Here are my two favorites:

- Think hard about why you’re uniquely positioned to tell this story. Are you an oceanographer who can talk about how games connect to deep sea exploration? An inmate with a story to share? Shoot us a line.


- But remember: If you write about a game everyone’s already played, please bring a fresh angle. We know about the Little Sisters in BioShock. We know about the thing you can do with the hookers in Grand Theft Auto.

Whenever I get asked about how to break into this business, I always end up gravitating to something along the lines of these two tips. There will almost always be at least a billion other people out there who are willing and able to write that review of Splinter Cell: Conviction, to write about that new trailer to Gears of War 3, to snarkily comment on how Activision is suddenly the devil. Unless you can prove that you are head and shoulders better than almost all of them, your chances of breaking in with just those kinds of articles are mostly dependent on luck and timing.

But a unique feature pitch immediately sets you apart and above those throngs of me-too wannabe reviewers/news writers/editorialists in an editor's eyes. Of course there's no simple formula for coming up with a unique pitch, but the above tips provide two good places to start --your unique experiences and your unique knowledge. Looking over my own writing history, my "unique experience" pitches usually stem from time spent with my family, while my "unique knowledge" pitches often come from my ability to manipulate statistics. For you, it's probably something else. Maybe you're the world's foremost expert on Jazz Jackrabbit. Maybe you lost your virginity playing a game of Super Mario Bros. Maybe it's something much better than those two awful examples.

The point is, figuring out what makes your perspective unique is key to finding out what makes you most valuable as a writer, and the key to getting your pitches noticed.

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Welcome back my friends/to the show that never ends…

Does anyone reading this actually own this comic? It looks awfulHi there! Welcome to The Game Beat. That's not to be confused with gaming-business site GamesBeat or consumer-gaming site GameBeat or rhythm-gaming site VGBeat, although it probably will be. "The game beat" is the beat we game journalists cover, or it would be if we were all newspaper reporters in the '50s that still had anything as quaint as assigned "beats."

This is basically a place for me to write out my thoughts on things going on in the field of video game journalism in a format that allows for more than 140 characters at a time. It's targeted mainly at video game journalists and people who want to be video game journalists, but gamers who merely consume game journalism will hopefully find it interesting as well.

I know a lot of people think this kind of meta-journalism is counterproductive; that we, as game journalists, should spend more time writing about games and less time writing about the people writing about games. That's a fine point, except for the fact that there are already way too many people writing about the games themselves and, for my money, way too few people writing about the people doing the writing.

General-interest journalism has numerous scholarly reviews and media analysis columns and blogs and even a Sunday morning TV show on basic cable all focused on the media machine. Game journalism has... Game Mag Weaseling, I guess? Occasional rehashed stories on how to become a game journalist? The odd blog post when yet another game journalism outlet has yet another round of layoffs? Say what you will about game media self-analysis, but it's hardly drowning out the dozens of largely identical articles parroting the Green Day: Rock Band set list, for instance.

Of course, you may believe that even this low level of coverage for game journalism is too much. That's fine, but I believe some level of collective self-analysis is critical if game journalism is going to continue to grow and change into something better than it is and has been.

Game journalism is young enough that we're still trying to collectively agree on the answers to some pretty fundamental questions. What makes a good review? Should we be evaluating games as consumer products or works of art? What role should scores or grades play in the review process? How should we deal with Metacritic's outsized influence? What can game criticism learn from existing critical theory, if anything? How close should game journalists be with the publishers and developers they cover? How can journalists get around the information control of the PR machine? How should outlets handle gifts and publisher-sponsored junkets? How are we supposed to make any money off any of this in the age of the Internet? And so on and so on.

Besides, I've been doing this shtick way too long to stop now. It started with my cocky, chip-on-my-shoulder game-journalism-student blog, The Video Game Ombudsman (back in the dark ages of 2003!), then with the more-professional-looking-but-still-kind-of-whiny Video Game Media Watch blog, and most recently with a series of now-defunct weekly/bi-weekly columns: GameDaily's Media Coverage, GameSpot's PressSpotting and Crispy Gamer's Press Pass. Feel free to wade through those archives if you want to find a lot of broken links and explore my ever-evolving views on a lot of the issues I mentioned above.

And yet somehow, despite all those hundreds of posts and tens of thousands of words I've written about game journalism in the past seven years or so, the medium refuses to be perfect. I hope this blog will continue to chip away at that sad fact, but even if I'm just shouting into the wind, so be it.

Anyway, it's not just about me. I hope this site will develop into a place where the game journalism community can gather to discuss issues of collective interest, so please, let me know you're out there. Get in touch and let me know if there's something you'd like to see discussed here. Leave a comment on a post to keep the discussion going. Heck, write a reply on your own blog if that's the sort of thing you're prone to do.

And remember, a little navel-gazing is the best way to prevent the accumulation of lint.

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