Hark! A controversy!
If nothing else, 2012 will go down as the Year of the Controversy in gaming. For the most part, this has been a good thing. Controversies have brought issues such as punishing DRM practices and gaming culture’s treatment of women to the fore, and these are issues that need to be discussed. However, it’s difficult not to be cynical and think ‘Oh, here we go again’ every time a controversy pops up; as nice as it is that important issues are being discussed, I feel that all too often, people take the wrong lesson away from a controversy.
I fear that’s what’s happening with the recent brouhaha over Robert Florence’s Eurogamer editorial about the relationship between game publisher PR and the gaming press. Quick recap: Florence wrote his editorial in the wake of the Games Media Awards (GMAs), an awards show recognizing talent in the UK gaming press. The show featured a contest where gaming writers could Tweet about the upcoming video game Defiance for the chance to win a Playstation 3. When some pointed out that there could be a conflict of interest there, MCV UK writer Lauren Wainwright Tweeted in defense of the contest. In his editorial, Florence pointed out that Wainwright’s Twitter page had a huge Tomb Raider background and that earlier she had Tweeted about being “obsessed” with the game, which according to Florence could arouse suspicion that she was working with Square Enix’s PR Team. Later, after the apparent threat of legal action from Wainwright, Eurogamer removed all references to her in Florence’s piece, and as a result, Florence resigned from his editorial position at Eurogamer. (The redacted passage can be viewed here.)
Perusing the comments sections of the various editorials on the subject, one can read many calls for games media to sever their relationships with PR. In a follow-up piece, Florence himself put most of the blame for the situation on PR. But he’s missing the point. They’re all missing the point. Nobody seems to be talking about the all-important third element here: the reader. As someone who isn’t involved in the games media, I think it’s time to provide an outside perspective.
Here’s the thing: games media don’t operate in a vacuum, which should be self-evident, seeing as their output is produced to be read by other people. Thus, games media have to be sensitive to readers’ demands. Gamers want to read previews about games and consoles; they want to know how spend their hard-earned cash, and previews help them make up their minds. Thus, gaming writers and PR folks have entered into an uneasy and at times uncomfortable relationship with each other, with writers trying to get as much as info out of PR as they can, and PR trying to control the message in order to put their product in a positive light.
Trying to determine what’s kosher and what’s not can be a tough balancing act. If you’re at a PR event for an upcoming game, do you refuse the free hors d’oeuvres? Or do you draw the line at the bag full of swag? Honestly, it’s not for me to decide. But it is for me to know. I need to know where a writer draws the line, so that I can know where he or she is coming from and incorporate that knowledge into my reading of their work.
And that’s exactly what the root of the Wainwright controversy is: gaming writers failing to engage in full disclosure. As reported by the PA Report’s Ben Kuchera, Wainwright has done and/or will do freelance work for Square Enix, the publishers of Tomb Raider, but hasn’t disclosed this fact in her writing about the game for MCV. This is something that MCV readers might want to know, and while it would be disingenuous to suggest that Wainwright is hiding it, seeing as the information is publicly available on her Journalisted page, she isn’t really “disclosing” it either; she hasn’t mentioned her involvement with Square Enix in any of her pieces about the company’s games. Such a failure to disclose is dishonest and damages the integrity of both Wainwright and MCV.
Unfortunately, people are taking this a step too far. For example, UK gaming writer John Walker has used this incident as an opportunity to decry the cozy relationship between PR and the gaming press. This doesn’t get to the heart of the issue. Wainwright isn’t in the wrong for having a cozy relationship with Square Enix; she’s in the wrong for failing to disclose that cozy relationship with Square Enix.
You see, games media don’t have a universal code of ethics. People draw the line at different places. Some might accept swag but won’t accept free trips. Others may flat-out refuse to talk to anyone involved in PR. And that’s fine. What’s not fine is for Walker to impose his own code of ethics on other writers. He might not want to participate in the PR-journo love-fest. He might even see it as sleazy. Heck, I kind of do too. But I can’t wish it out of existence, and neither can he. I don’t even have the right to wish it out of existence. Ultimately, it’s for readers to decide what they want to and don’t want to read. The best thing that writers can do is to disclose where they’re coming from when they write.
That’s why every gaming writer should have his or her own publicly viewable code of ethics, or at least should write for a site that has such a code of ethics. This code should detail what kind of swag the writer can accept, what sort of preview events he or she will attend, what outside contracts or job he or she participates in, etc. That way, the PR-journo love-fest can continue, but at least readers will be made aware of PR’s involvement. Moreover, if a gaming writer does contravene his or her code of ethics, he or she can be held accountable.
As Gamasutra’s Leigh Alexander points out, serious games journalism and enthusiast PR-fuelled press can exist side-by-side. They aren’t even necessarily mutually exclusive. What’s important is that those who write disclose anything that could be important to the reader in understanding their work.
Of course, the smart-asses who are reading this have probably realized that in order to make gaming sites disclose a code of ethics, they would need a code of ethics telling them to disclose their code of ethics, or at least the disclosed code of ethics would need a provision indicating that the code needed to be disclosed. Fine. I’ll grant that. But we need to start somewhere, and I’m in no mood for getting overly philosophical. Right now, games media are swimming in a goop of insinuations and ass-covering. Some games writers think that others are corrupt. The others, rather than engaging in an honest and substantive discussion of what they do and where they stand, choose to get defensive, or worse, threaten legal action, like Lauren Wainwright did. It’s a mess, and it’s one that games media need to dig themselves out of.
But they’re not going to get anywhere until writers establish their own codes of ethics. Until then, nobody really knows where anyone else stands. Once everything is out in the open, readers can make better judgments about the kinds of gaming media they want to consume, and writers can criticize each other’s moral stances based on known facts, not just assumptions. But everyone has a right to add their voice to the discussion. Games media need not solely consist of writers of the most upstanding morality, nor of glorified PR shills. There’s room for both of them and everything in between. All I ask is for every one of them to stick to one guiding principle: remember your readers, and tell them everything they need to know, lest it be revealed during the next big gaming controversy.
Update: (October 28, 2012) It has come to my attention that relatively new gaming site Polygon actually has its own Ethics Statement. This is exactly the kind of thing I’m talking about.
Update: (October 30, 2012) I have amended the piece to state that the video game that people were asked to Tweet about at the GMAs was Defiance. Before, I had merely stated that they were asked to Tweet about “a video game,” which was a little vague and misleading.
Update: (October 31, 2012) Rock Paper Shotgun says the threat of legal action came from Wainwright herself, not from MCV UK or from Intent Media, owners of MCV UK and organizers of the GMAs. Until this is confirmed by Intent Media, a third party, or Wainwright herself, I won’t amend the piece.
Update: (February 6, 2015) I know this is a very old piece, but it’s being linked from Reddit now, so I feel compelled to make the amendment that the threat of legal action came from Wainwright, though she claims not to have consulted any lawyers.