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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