A cost of games journalism

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Microsoft versus Sony, Battlefield versus Call of Duty and Forza versus Gran Turismo. These are some of the rivalries that can get people talking about console wars. “Game On or Game Over” is your place to get inside the minds of Nicholas and Andy as they seek to find the true meaning of gaming and tackle some of gaming’s most controversial subjects. Both are award winning authors – although the awards haven’t been mailed or created yet — but trust them. Would they lie to you?

Nicholas: A few weeks ago Kotaku published an article titled ‘A Price of Games Journalism’, and in it they spoke about their alleged blacklisting by publishers Bethesda and Ubisoft. The article spoke about how they’ve been cut out of media emails, don’t receive review copies of games in-time or at all and how neither publisher respond for comment whenever Kotaku have questions regarding current or upcoming stories/affairs.

From what Kotaku believe, this blacklisting started when they leaked information about upcoming unannounced games, at the time being Fallout 4 and Assassin’s Creed: Unity. In their article they speak about these leaks as delivering truth and news to their readers, something their readers deserve, but it seems the publishers think otherwise.

To kick things off I wanted to ask what your opinions are of the above and the article itself. Do you think Kotaku deserve to be blacklisted for posting leaks, and on that point, do you think news sites should be posting leaks to begin with?

Andy: To be honest I don’t really pay that much attention to Kotaku. A lot of their stuff seems to be clickbait-type hyperbole. I can’t recall the article but a while ago there was a headline on Twitter from them with an attention-grabbing headline. I clicked (I should have known better) and after the headline the entirety of the article was “Check back soon for more details.” Of course my Ad Block said it blocked 17 ads on the page too.

To get back on topic though, I read that post you mentioned above, complete with the sad headline, and I must say good for Bethesda and Ubisoft. To me this comes across as Kotaku acting like a small child getting called out for bad behaviours. The relationship between a game journalist and a developer is a very symbiotic one. They both need each other to varying degrees, yet at the same time being a journalist you need to report on news, events, and critique games. The couple instances Kotaku talk about in that article is not reporting news, rather in my opinion it’s them making news.

There is a reason why developers are tight-lipped about their games, ideas, and pretty much everything else that they are planning. Some ideas don’t work out and get scrapped (e.g. Prey 2) and some ideas take a while to really develop and get out there (like Fallout 4). A lot of things can change during development so announcing anything too early can actually do harm as fans get excited, the hype slowly builds up and then the game goes dark and isn’t heard from for an extended period of time or it gets pushed back. Both of which can cause fans to think something is wrong with the game. Which than can affect sales.

In all honesty, if I was a developer and Kotaku did the same things to me I would have zero issue with cutting them out of the equation. In my opinion there is a great deal of difference between a game journalist and a TMZ tabloid style of “reporting” things. More often than not, Kotaku falls into the tabloid stuff to get those all mighty clicks and they throw journalistic integrity out the window. Before I go into too many specifics and my thoughts, I’m really curious to hear what you think of that article. Is it a legitimate complaint, or is it merely a case of them reaping what they sowed?

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Nicholas: It really does come across as a ‘poor me’ type of article and it’s a little embarrassing and dare I say pathetic, to be perfectly honest. As a reader I don’t care about politics when it comes to the relationship between the site and the publishers. For me, I’m just interested in reading something that’s interesting and that can keep my attention for the duration of the piece. This article here though just seems to make Kotaku out like they’re being bullied and Ubisoft and Bethesda are horrible companies. You’d expect better when it comes to a major site like that.

Perhaps the biggest issue with the article is it seems so spoilt because the ‘ramifications’ seem so insignificant. So Kotaku doesn’t have access to review copies of games for all titles as early or at all – big deal. So Kotaku doesn’t get answers to some of their questions, should they even have a reason to reach out to a publisher – big deal. Writing an article like that makes it seem like it’s the end of the world, but really, it’s just two publishers in the scene of many.

As far as the reasons behind the blacklist, I think it’s perfectly valid. We aren’t talking about Ubisoft ignoring Kotaku because they didn’t like Assassin’s Creed Unity, they’re (potentially) ignoring them because they leaked significant details before they were ready to announce it. Kotaku disguise it as delivering news, but it comes across as a big spit in the face for all those people who would have been working at Ubisoft on a big announcement. It screams of being the bully and then having a cry when other people don’t want to hang out with you anymore. They really did bring it upon themselves.

It seems like you are I are thinking along the same lines here, but let’s play devil’s advocate shall we? Let’s say you’re an editor and you’ve been told by a source that a certain large-scale game is in development, of which it hasn’t been announced yet. It’s going to generate a lot of traffic to your site to break this, and after all, isn’t that what all sites are hoping for? Do you not post the article or do you share it, thinking that the issue isn’t lying on you, but the person who shouldn’t have leaked it from the publisher to begin with? I guess do you see any reason why it’s justifiable to take the action Kotaku did?

Andy: I honestly don’t. Here’s the thing, if they were reporting on an actual issue within the gaming industry such as poor work conditions, a developer getting close to being shut down or something along those lines where you need someone on the inside to give information then that I’m OK with. Because that’s a true human interest type of story. I mentioned the word before but ethics in some gaming news sites is neigh non-existent. Some of them will go out of their way to print something to generate clicks. Ethics be damned, it doesn’t matter what they say or how they say it as long as they get those all-important clicks and get that ad revenue.

By posting that article Kotaku really comes across, to me, as a passive aggressive bully. Even in that article Kotaku says it’s the second time they have been blacklisted by Ubisoft. If a publisher has blacklisted you once, and then decided your punishment was enough and resumed communications with you, don’t you think you’d go out of your way not to piss them off? I think it’s important to note, these issues with Ubisoft and Bethesda is not a case of them simply not liking a review score. It’s about much more than that. Publishing the entire script from Fallout 4 and then throwing a temper tantrum when the developer refuses to make members of its team available for you to talk to, and won’t send you a review copy of the game.

So, aside from getting those all-important clicks for the site I really don’t get why Kotaku keeps doing it. It’s not even an isolated incident, there is a history of them doing it. I was thinking about this topic last night and my mind started processing things, and then I put myself in the shoes of the developer. What would I have done? Cutting off contact is certainly near the top of the list, but it got me thinking. With the amount of leaks that we see in gaming news, and things along the lines of what Kotaku has done why do you think we’ve never seen a publisher/developer go after those who do it? I’m talking civil action, injunctions, cease and desist and punitive damages type of things? I know it’s against the law to leak trade secrets for companies how are these things any different?

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Nicholas: I suppose it’s a publicity thing more than anything. Yes, Ubisoft can go to court against Kotaku for leaking information about an upcoming game, but I think it would look bad. Dare I say that it would make the publisher look worse than the site. If we go down the legal side of things it shines light on both parties, but by blacklisting the site and not speaking about it, which is what we think Ubisoft and Bethesda are doing, then the only thing that happens is the news site is unable to get their stories out on time (or to compete with other outlets who are receiving those review copies in advance). If it wasn’t for Kotaku deciding to have a cry then the gaming community wouldn’t have known about it to begin with. As it stands though, it just makes Kotaku look childish.

I like that you mentioned the issue of ethics (or a lack thereof) at the beginning of this article, because I think it’s something that isn’t nearly as discussed as often (or as in-depth) as it should. Sure, some claim we touched on it with gamergate, but that was so in-grained with the topic of sexism that I think anyone who used it as a platform to discuss journalistic integrity was essentially ignored. Gamergate was almost instantly made about misogyny from the outset, rather than discussing the allegations that sparked the entire blow-up to begin with.

So, if I may, do you ever see the issues of a lack of ethics or integrity being truly spotlighted and addressed in gaming journalism? There are times when articles and reviews have been questionable from some large sites, but it’s always dismissed as the comments of trolls and ‘haters’. What do you think it would take for people to really want some of these outlets to clean their act?

Andy: I’m not sure we will ever really see it truly addressed to be honest. Partly because of how messy relationships are within the industry. Not shady or sneak, but more just how dependent both sides are on each other. Consider the events that publishers throw for their games where they invite the media and where there is food, drinks and sometimes more. Also because developers and publishers would also need to be held accountable for the fakes “leaks” that happen and have become part of the hype machine for them.

I think there is definitely room for improvement from both sides, but from a personal view I would like to see less of the click-bait type articles. I am all for the investigative-type articles or the hard hitting critical pieces as there is certainly a need for those and they have value. I would like to see the game media get away from the types of articles that have no substance, no meaning or the ones that due to privacy restrictions/embargos don’t need to be posted. Look no further than right before Fallout 4 was released a couple gaming sites had posts about the Fallout 4 embargo and when they could post about it. Are posts like that necessary? I don’t think so. But it had ‘Fallout 4’ and ‘embargo’ in the title so people click on it.

The idea of ethics and this Kotaku situation is not really much different than a beat reporter for a sports team. I know this example won’t mean much to readers in Australia but I think the point will make sense. A beat writer for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Michael Russo,  that covers the Minnesota Wild hockey team gets access to the team on a daily basis. He writes stories about the players, breaks down games and writes other opinion pieces. Yet, with that access to the team he learns a bunch of different things like who’s hurt, players butting heads with each other, etc. Some of that stuff shouldn’t be printed, or talked about, so ethically he doesn’t talk about it at all. The off-the-record type stuff is just that. Is some of that stuff Minnesota Wild fans would want to know? Yeah probably, but Russo respects them enough to not talk about it. Plus he knows that if he pisses off a player it will be hard to get a quote or two from them down the road. With all that said though, he still is critical of the players’ play when he needs to be but, he’s fair and honest about it. Never once have I seen a clickbait-type headline from him.

Sure there will always be people that nit-pick and look for the negative things, but if the gaming media wants to be taken seriously some things need to change. I think the struggle that the gaming media is having right now is a lack of identity. They want to be taken seriously, but they also want what they know and enjoy from the past without and consequences or questions. Use Kotaku as an example; they want people to click on their stories and read them. They want to be a go to site for gaming news. Yet, when they cross the line and a couple developers hold them accountable they throw a playground tantrum and scream to their friends about how wrong it is. What do you think though, do you think this is a case of the gaming media wanting to be respected for journalism but not wanting to change past practices? Could the gaming media scene be seen as adolescent who is growing up and going through some growing pains while they figure things out?

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Nicholas: Mark Ankucic once said (and I paraphrase) that the gaming media should be lucky that they even exist, for their work is the product of what most people consider a hobby. Now while I mightn’t be doing his quote justice, the point I’m trying to make is important – despite the media trying to be professional and despite any efforts to seem ethical, we need to remember that we’re talking about at the end of the day is video games. It all stems from games of Pong or Super Mario Bros that we played before we knew what multiplication and division was. So I think that whenever the media wants to take themselves seriously, or when you see people who put themselves on a pedestal above others, just remember what you’re job entails – talking about toys.

Now of course, don’t let that belittle the hard work that so many writers and editors place into their sites or publications, but I think it just puts everything we do into perspective. When outlets like Kotaku write a piece about how two publishers don’t like them, the writer needs to take a step back and really evaluate what it is he is doing, and what he’s being given the chance to do… and get paid for.

Is the gaming media scene adolescent? Absolutely it is. I don’t see how it can’t when too often we see articles that still get hung up on people being trolls online and how a female character with large than usual breasts is killing society. Sure both topics have merit to discuss, but it seems like we’re always going in circles, trying to beat our chests and be dominant over one another. I’m still not sure the media knows what it wants to be, but I think too many want to be seen on the same level as mainstream news media without necessarily following the same rules.

As we approach the end of this week’s article I wanted to get your thought on what I’ve just said, and what your opinion is on the gaming media as a whole? Is this all just a fortunate side-effect of a popular pastime and should a gaming media even exist? Should the gaming media act on the same level as your current affairs news journalists? Are we taking something too seriously that should at its heart, simply be about having fun?

Andy: “I’m still not sure the media knows what it wants to be, but I think too many want to be seen on the same level as mainstream news media without necessarily following the same rules.” I think this one sentence sums it up perfectly. They want to be taken seriously, they want to be the go-to trusted source and they want to be known for breaking stories. Yet, at the same time, they want to be laid back, play games, go to press events and not really have a defined code of ethics or really much in the way of integrity.

I think we have come to the main part of the issue in that, the gaming media – or at least each individual site that covers gaming – need to figure out just what they want to be and embrace it. If you want to be “professional” then write thought-provoking articles on any number of gaming topics. Cover games with a critical eye, point out what works and what doesn’t work. On the flip side if you want to be more fun and write more fluff pieces then do it. Cover those things that are fun, cover games and be sarcastic, be funny, be different. Where some writers/sites are getting confused is they are trying to be everything and by doing so have no identity. If I am looking for a more serious article I should know what site(s) I am going to go to. If I want a more fun/laid back read the same thing should apply. When readers have to spin the roulette wheel when they click a link that’s when they get confused.

I don’t think anyone is saying we only want professional/critical stuff all the time. When I click a link to an article I just want to know the writer is being honest. Here is the thing about gaming media though – we are all here to cover the news and goings on in the world of gaming. One of the first things they teach you in journalism classes is “report the news, don’t be the news.” Which is exactly what Kotaku didn’t do. By making that post they are essentially trying to stoke the fires, get their minions on board and go after Ubisoft and Bethesda. What was the purpose behind that article? Nothing aside from creating more animosity and distrust. Neither publisher is going to read that and think “Oh, man we made a mistake we really should call Kotaku and straighten this out.”

At the end of the day, everyone that has the opportunity to write about games should treat it as an honour and be respectful to all those involved. The men and women who make these games spend a ton of time doing so and having someone actively looking for leaks, to be the first to report that new armour in Mass Effect is purple is just not things we need. (That was just an example I have no idea what colour the armour will be). We get to write about games… we even call it playing games. It should be fun. Yes, be honest in whatever you write. Report the news, don’t create the news and the readers will read it. Maybe not all of what you write, but once a reader trusts your opinion and what you have to say then that’s all that matters. But, trying to take on a publisher for a perceived slight by posting an article where you come across as a toddler throwing a temper tantrum… yeah, there are probably better ways to go about that one.

Tune in next time for the next instalment of Game On or Game Over. If you have any ideas for our next article, feel free to contact Andy or Nicholas on Twitter.