Because it is such a persistent, burning question when it comes to journalism (or when it comes to putting on your best fedora, insisting that it be called a trilby and telling women to shut the fuck up about games on Reddit), I feel like the time is ripe to address the burning issue of ethics in games journalism. Our first game review, penned by the ineffable Jun Joestar, resulted in one reader’s critique of “Jun likes LISA!”—as if that was somehow a failure; as if it is absurd to imagine that when comparing a terrible game with a game that gives a nuanced portrayal of amorality and existentialism, the reviewer may actually like the game she uses as a measuring stick. This is the sort of smoking gun that starts conversations about ethics in games journalism, a sort of paranoid investigative counter-journalism conducted by “anti-SJWs” with the ideological acumen and conspiratorial thinking of Alex Jones.
I missed a lot of the initial kerfuffle around “GamerGate,” and although i watched the SVU episode on the topic, I’ve never really fully understood what people mean by “ethics in games journalism.” I know plenty about how unethical and fundamentally shady games journalism has been for most of my life. In the print era, every single game preview from a AAA project made it seem as though the final product was going to be viable (even terrible fucking games like Daikatana), and assembled screenshots and interviews with PR teams were treated as the word of God on the final product. Recently, Gamergaters (at least in some comments sections) have been unhappy with the treatment of Peter Molyneux, a man who skated by on the uncritical reception of batshit claims for years.
Let me be clear, I don’t think Molyneux is a terrible person, but a good journalist in any field other than video games would have scoffed at his claim that Black And White would have “dynamic AI capable of learning for your animal companion.” Even military drones in 2015 don’t learn (although they have some remedial pattern recognition to allow them to turn a wedding into a fiery death zone), and the best interests of disappointed kids when it came out (including me) would’ve been served by some critical questioning. Ditto for his claims of dynamic character effects on the environment in Fable. It isn’t because I want to watch people crush his dreams, it’s because by not asking the hard questions about developers’ promises of actual content—especially when coding is so complicated and system limitations are so real (particularly on consoles)—he does a disservice to the public.
Of course, until the infamous Rock, Paper, Shotgun interview, no one thought to sit Peter down and ask him if he could deliver on his promises, or if descriptions were tied to actual coding rather than him projecting hopes and dreams onto a bunch of sprites (I think this is especially prescient in terms of his idea of what the romance system in the Fable system was versus what was actually delivered by the game—and also why no one asked him why, in Fable 2, getting divorced was worth more negative balance than murdering your spouse, but you know, baby steps). And this is where the actual problems with games journalism come in. GameSpy paid a not insignificant amount of money for access to developer journals to Black and White. Fable was backed by Microsoft as an exclusive and a killer app. Project Godulous is Kickstarted and backed by 21cans, so consumer advocacy isn’t suicide—which is why, for the first time in his life, Peter Molyneux faced harsh criticism on failure to deliver.
What I mean is that games journalism is often about access to information, and information comes at a price. If an alpha version of a AAA game is given to a publication, it is because that publication has the reach to seed interest, and the developer or publisher of the game trusts the reviewers to treat it with some sort of respect (i.e. they present the potential ceiling of the game and talk about good gameplay moments rather than any glitches or bugs, they do not question if the demo is a reflection of the completed game or is a showcase allowing more player freedom than the final product). To review a AAA title on launch (well, to have your review out in time for consumers to actually care), you have to have a good enough relationship with the publisher that they either send you a copy before retail release or take you to a “boot camp” where they to some degree invest in wowing you before you get to play the game in a highly controlled environment.
Let’s acknowledge that I’m not the first to argue the industry has some ethical problems—even on the basic level of how we talk about video games, there are serious problems (as Errant Signal pointed out). Even someone as divisive as Jim Sterling left a (presumably) lucrative career with Destructoid and The Escapist to have greater creative freedom (it probably didn’t help that he gave 4/10 to Assassin’s Creed 2, breaking with the rest of reviewers and earning a blacklisting from Ubisoft). At this point, the venue where someone can have access to the worst commentariat and greatest exposure (YouTube) is riddled with DCMA takedowns, unless you submit to revenue sharing with the original producer of the content. What this means is that Why EA Treats You Like A Little Bitch wouldn’t need to use stock transitions if some of the revenue were shared with the company that Samyoul is urging consumers to boycott.
Thus: we provide reviews that are not about objectivity (which is a meaningless term in the discussion of video games, and in our opinion a meaningless term in ALL good journalism) but about illustrating some particular interesting point (be it political or personal). This was never intended to be a video games blog, but i feel like it is necessary to be clear on this point: we lack the market capitalization to keep up with AAA releases, and the working relationship with companies to get free shit.
Art by Jun Joestar.