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.

17 thoughts on “Our role as [beta] gatekeepers

  1. I was always of the opinion that when the news sites hand out the beta keys like an ice cream van at a cul-de-sac, that implies that they’ll be going out to decent gamers that know their way around a system already, tat are relatively up to speed already with the workings of the game, as well as getting a wide variety of people all over the world that can get involved with testing the durability of the servers in a closed environment.

    Things like trusted readers and commenters can work well for things like this. Kotaku in particular, with the way they handle their comment system in that certain people are automatically promoted to the front page because they’re either funny, or genuinely always have something decent to day when they comment that can spark a good discussion. It’s these kind of people that are more likely to leave feedback on the forums and sites and whatever else, rather than random grabbers if it was just placed on the marketplace, and I think that’s what they might be aiming for by using news sites as a go-between.

    Could be just me though, and they probably have a completely different agenda.

  2. As someone who received and distributed a handful of codes, it did leave me feeling conflicted, not because I’m worried MS would pull access in the future, but because I was, in a sense, accepting something of value. It’s not the same as, say, taking an expensive meal or free trip, but as you said, these codes draw a lot of attention. If you run a Web site or are in some way compensated by traffic, pulling in visitors is important and in this case it has nothing to do with your skills as a writer, reporter, promoter or SEO whore. It’s only because Microsoft decided you were worthy of passing on some codes. Ultimately my livelihood is not impacted at all by whether I get these codes, so I embraced the opportunity to do something nice for my readers.

    You make a valid point about the PR inherent in the giveaway, but that seems to speak more to any giveaway that happens on a blog or Web site, whether it covers movies, music or video games. Halo Reach is different because the giveaway made waves on Twitter and Facebook, but that wouldn’t have been possible if the game didn’t already have a high level of hype and hysteria around it. Giveaways for lower-profile games may be more suspect because they generate excitement where there otherwise might be none.

    One more thought: Is it a bad thing for journalists to directly connect to their readers and hear about what they want covered?

  3. Great post, Kyle. It saddens me to read, however. I feel a little bit like I do when I read Noam Chomsky. He points out the hypocrisies in the system, but he doesn’t propose any solutions. I’m curious as to whether you think there is anything to be done about the problem you shine the spotlight on.

    I’ve been writing lately about how insular the game media is, this little walled-up circle of writers and websites. I remember a time, before I entertained thoughts of becoming a games writer, when I paid attention to none of these people. I went to GameSpot for reviews, I had a subscription to GameInformer purely from getting my GameStop cards for 5% credit or discounts on trade-ins and used games respectively, and that was it.

    I have a good friend of mine who I game online with, and he reads my blog and commented one day that “Only the gaming media cares about the gaming media.” I remember being where he is, just playing games and not worrying about any of this other stuff. Hell, I didn’t even discover Penny Arcade until Episode 1 of their game series came out and I wondered who the hell those cartoon guys were.

    I didn’t know about Kotaku, Joystiq, 1up, GamePro, The Escapist, IGN or G4. I owned an XBox 360 for three years and didn’t bother watching the XBL spots with Jessica Chobot because who cared? I just wanted to play video games.

    Then one day I saw Jessica and two other people on an IGN video discussing Mass Effect 2, and I asked myself why I wasn’t doing what they were doing? I had the passion for video games, 15 years’ worth of writing to deadlines and editorial demands, and specific experience in entertainment writing to boot, so why not take a shot at a career writing about games?

    Then I learned how all of this really works. Turning press releases into “news.” Everyone pretty much getting the same interview with studio heads following an announcement. So much tabloid journalism. Blog sites that somehow become “news media.” I learned about Metacritic and gaming review scores and how the gaming media was just like the political media who has to suppress criticism to maintain access.

    It’s not all bad, but there’s very little actual conversation about video games. There are exceptions I can think of like N’Gai Croal, who seems to have a more erudite view of gaming, but there’s so much noise that it’s hard to find and isolate his sort of voices, for me, anyway.

    It seems to me that there’s this huge gap between the insular, closed gaming media which is more concerned with keeping itself employed and thus willingly allows itself to become an unofficial PR agency for all these publishers and developers, and the academics who actually have serious conversations about video games but who don’t reach the gamer audience.

    Is there a middle ground, Kyle, or does it really come down to this dichotomy? Be an entertainment writer, or study video games in the ivory tower?

  4. “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).”

    Did we really need a beta to clue us in on how much people want to play a new Halo? I’m curious as to how you think the coverage will be influenced, specifically. By virtue of being a huge franchise, I think it’s expected that the frequency and strength of coverage should match. Some of the sites giving away codes don’t even offer reviews, and I’m not sure that those who do are going to be swayed into reconsidering their judgment of the final product.

    “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?”

    You’re absolutely right that giveaways like this are a great way to boost communities and traffic, but I’m not convinced that constitutes an endorsement of the product. Why does it carry the idea that something is desirable if it’s given away for free? Joystiq does giveaways every single week, and that often includes review copies obtained through exclusive channels — whether we liked them or not. Are we saying Rogue Warrior and Tony Hawk: Ride are worth buying?

    Even if you do view it as an endorsement, how is that different from writing an isolated, glowing preview that is much less verifiable to readers? How do those 25 additional strangers in the beta influence my judgment of the final game?

  5. Mana bar is getting one and it is going to be available to the gaming populace of Brisbane to play, and play while drinking.

    There is little to no opinion control in that environment. The owners cannot sit there and enforce positive opinions. It is quite free and open. To anyone whatsoever that wanders on in and plays.

    May be worth watching.

  6. I already said as much via e-mail to Kyle, but Ludwig, the issue is not really whether you’re getting a boost to your traffic/Twitter followers/etc. with the help of a corporation you’re supposed to be covering objectively. The question is whether a critic or skeptic could point to what you’re doing and say, “This looks fishy,” or “I wonder how Journalist X is scratching Game Company Y’s back, seeing as how Game Company Y clearly helped out the journalist.”

    Whether anything shady is going on or not, it should be in the interests of most media to try to avoid anything that even creates a window for someone to call your objectivity into question. Your ability to maintain your professional distance and objectivity, while laudable, is nearly irrelevant, since the majority of your readers don’t actually know you and could never divine what’s in your heart.

  7. Journalist have to have full disclosure about if they get any gifts from companies but bloggers don’t. However game reviewers constantly receive free games and swag. Is it a conflict of interest to receive something for free when you are going to review it?

  8. Interesting post Kyle. It certainly made me think. As for my site, we only received one code. But if I did receive more, I probably would have given them to my staff. I guess I’m just selfish like that. We do offer giveaways, but with one exception it was all items that I bought personally.

    This topic bring up a larger and more interesting issue, integrity in gaming journalism. Its a difficult line to tow. For many sites, getting access to what you need is a double edged sword. Unless you are a big name site or mag, the balance between gaming publisher/developer is skewed. PR reps need places like Kotaku and Game Informer, they don’t need small sites or blogs and because of that some of them are willing to be compromised.

    For our site, with the exception of downloadable titles, we don’t accept review copies of games for review. We buy them all ourselves, which makes our reviews come out later than everyone else, but at least they’re 100% honest.

    Its a tough thing to do, but we try. Does this mean we don’t let our own biases or preferences shine through or that we’re immune to the lure of PR? Hell no. If that was the case we wouldn’t have used our Reach Beta code. But it does put us in a bit of a hole. Which goes to show how hard it can be to cover gaming if an organization DOESNT get help from a PR/publisher/developer.

  9. Eric,

    I completely agree with your stance in general — the appearance of impropriety is no better than acting improperly — but I think we’re losing sight of a specific, unanswered issue. You say journalists should avoid any window that that calls objectivity into question … and you’re right. But how is forwarding codes to readers doing that?

    I can’t speak for every outlet, but Joystiq’s complete ethics policy is available on the site and our giveaway checks out against it. Microsoft made no demands for the codes to be given away and if they did, our behavior would have been different. If we’re dealing with the assumption that we’re going to lose objectivity when it comes to reviewing the game … well, the review’s going to be subjective no matter what (but at least it won’t be “exclusive”).

    That leaves news coverage — and I don’t think you can point to any of it and say, “This looks fishy.” At Joystiq, we can’t get rid of free junk forwarded (unsolicited) by publishers fast enough. What’s in it for us when we give out 25 beta codes to our readers beyond the satisfaction of making 25 of our readers happier? Are they really thinking, “Wait a minute, what puff piece did Joystiq have to write for them to get these?”

    I’d concede that there could be explicit transparency with these giveaways, but I’m not convinced it’s as dirty as some think it looks. If we’re worried about these windows of objectivity coming into question, how will readers ever know that we’re not just being paid for a good review or a news article about some new DLC? There’s a point where you kind of slip into paranoia, isn’t there?

  10. @Zanduar How, exactly, do you distinguish “journalist” from “blogger,” especially given that the line between the two is becoming increasingly blurry? Take, for example, this whole thing with Gizmodo and the iPhone, in which Gawker lawyers say that shield laws, designed to protect journalists, should prevent the seizure of one of their bloggers’ property?

    Is someone like me — who blogs about video games but also works on the news and sports desks at a newspaper owned by a Fortune 500 company — a blogger or a journalist?

    What about a blog that does original reporting?

    Coming up with arbitrary definitions of who is and is not a journalist or blogger is an issue of semantics, and makes intelligent discussion needlessly difficult. There shouldn’t be one set of rules covering one set of people who write about video games while another set follows different (or no) rules.

    @Ludwig I wasn’t intending to impugn Joystiq, a site I really like, with my comments, merely shed light on what media watchdog-type folks might find objectionable about the giveaways. But as for what’s in it for Joystiq, I think it can be shown pretty clearly that giveaways bring in additional traffic/Twitter followers/page views/whatever. If I posted on Twitter tomorrow that I’m going to be giving away a free video game, and do this somewhat regularly, I’d guess that I’d pick up a few dozen extra Twitter followers who were hoping to get in on the freebies.

    (For what it’s worth, my employer, which recently clarified its policy, forbids me entirely from staging giveaways for promotional purposes, but doesn’t bar me from, say, donating age-appropriate games to a teen center or children’s hospital, something I’m looking into.)

    @Terry and @Zanduar,

    Many publications have ethics policies in place governing what can be done with review copies of games. Many allow for the receipt of review copies of games, as it’s just not feasible for most reviewers to buy dozens or hundreds of games every year. But there are typically rules governing what can be done with games once they’ve been reviewed. My employer allows me to keep games I’ve reviewed for subsequent reference (which, in the age of DLC is useful), but forbids me from giving them away to friends or selling them and requires that I “destroy” anything I’m finished with. Donations to a charity are permitted, so long as I can be confident the charity isn’t going to turn around and pirate the game or something. I believe Joystiq has rules in place for this, too, but Ludwig could speak more to it.

  11. When Halo: ODST came out, the biggest question I had as a gamer was whether it was worth $60 or not. Short campaign, Firefight mode, a bunch of Halo 3 maps which people either didn’t buy because they weren’t interested in them, or which they had already purchased.

    The average age of the gamer is 35. That means most of us are paying for games with our own hard-earned cash. I think, therefore, it is reasonable for responsible video game journalists to review games from this perspective. Are they worth the money we’re being asked to pay? I decided to take a look at the reviews of ODST from Kotaku, Joystiq, and Destructoid to see what they had to say about this.

    Joystiq begged the question throughout the entire review and then waved off at the end with the cop-out “It’s Halo, we’re going to buy it anyway.” Kotaku admitted that the value of the title “will vary” more than most new releases do, but then removed the assessment of cost from the equation before the end of the piece. Destructoid skips the issue of value altogether within the review proper, sticking into the italicized explanation of their numerical score that the game ‘is worth the cash.”

    Joystiq, Kotaku, and Destructoid all received 25 Halo: Reach Beta codes for distribution.
    Clearly they have a happy relationship with Bungie to receive these nice perks to hand out to their audience.

    I received no Beta codes, because I am just a humble blogger. My assessment was that I would have preferred it if the campaign and Firefight had been released as DLC, so that gamers would have the choice to only purchase the content which was new, and nothing they either didn’t want or had already bought. I think that is an entirely reasonable observation for a video game journalist to make.

    I think what Kyle fairly points out, is that when I don’t see Joystiq, Kotaku, or Destructoid really pondering this question of value in any substantive fashion, does that have anything to do with fear of losing access, and those high number of Beta codes they get to dole out?

    To Kotaku’s credit, they just threw their Beta codes up on the site, first come, first serve. Joystiq used them to garner Facebook group memberships. Hell, I think I signed up in the vein hope of getting one. Destructoid used the codes to generate Twitter followers. Good business thinking for the latter two sites, I guess…

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