PR power still paralysing video game journalism

The following was written a year ago and published here. However, after the recent incident by which one of the largest games sites in Europe, Eurogamer, according to journalist Rab Florence, was forced to post-edit his article after fear of potential repercussions, I feel it is relevant to post it again.

I in no way align myself or my opinions with luminaries such as Rab Florence himself, Destructoid commander-in-chief Jim Sterling or Erik Kain from Forbes. However, after having had some first-hand, albeit brief, brushes with both the industry and publishing companies, and it is an industry that houses a few I would class as friends, I deem it necessary to lend my support to Rab by posting my previous article which mirrors the sentiments that Rab Florence highlighted in his Eurogamer article.

The article begins below, certain aspects have been edited from the original to reflect the recent debacle.

After frequenting videogame websites for the best part of my adult life, there is always one overriding criticism of journalists and website alike that remains prevalent: the question of bias. Despite the claims of games writers to the contrary, the question of whether publisher power hinders free and honest debate amongst the videogame press, and/or defines a site’s corporate direction, crops up time and time again.

However, having worked and experienced the industry from the inside, I often feel that these, albeit sometimes overly aggressive and whiny criticisms aren’t given a fair hearing. I mean, we all know how businesses are run, right? We all know that there’s no such thing as a free lunch. So why should we simply trust journalists and websites whose existence is primarily controlled by the corporations they report on?

Is not fair to say that without a good relationship with a publisher a website would not get any exclusive content and therefore eventually fail to exist as a business? Is it not fair to surmise that if a publisher throws a games website a huge exclusive-interview-sized bone, it, as a business, expects a return of some sort?

Is it not fair to ask whether EA and BioWare now expect something in return after announcing the release date of the most expensive videogame of all time at Eurogamer’s in-house trade show (2011)?

The simple fact is, that without videogame advertising, gaming sites cannot exist. Site admin know this, publishers more than know this, and the strangest thing of all is, we know this.

As I stated earlier, I have worked in the industry and below are a couple stories that clearly underline the power publishers have over a large section of the videogame website industry:

I remember when a brand new trailer was being released for a highly anticipated RPG at a certain date, and a certain time – nothing out of the ordinary. We were all waiting to be allowed to publish it, fingers at the ready. Not only would this new trailer encourage traffic to our site, it of course, would also generate masses of new hype for this much sort-after sequel. However, about an hour before we could push the red button we received an email informing us that the video was intended for US audiences only.

Surely as soon as something is in the public domain, it’s public, right? Wrong. We put it live. We were immediately sent an email asking us to take it down or the publisher would never work with the site again. Our hands were tied.

There’s more: “Here’s some screenshots that we’ll allow you to publish so you can promote our game for us. But wait, you can only do it after a bigger site goes with them first,” or, “Here’s some review code, however if the score is less an ‘8’ please hold it back until the day after everyone else goes live or else we’ll never send you code again and thus strangle your traffic.” Better still, “We thought your review was unfair, we’re never going to talk to you again.” It happens every day. No-one does anything about it. It’s all part of ‘the game,’ apparently.

I seemed that sites such as Kotaku, IGN, CVG and Eurogamer could roll with the punches as their user base and following is such that they can continue to generate publisher-funded ad revenue regardless of the threat of a refusal to do future business. However, Florence intimated strongly in his guest post on John Walker’s blog (linked above) that even one of the world’s largest gaming sites, with literally millions of viewers a month, still has to play ball in order to survive. Or perhaps, still doesn’t have the confidence in its own stature that it would rather go to court if necessary. I hope none of what I have written is true but until we know what was said to editor Eurogamer Tom Bramwell, until we know what it was that forced his hand, we have to assume from Florence’s own words on the matter that whatever was said completely undermined any independent authority the site may have had in this affair. This is tragic and should not be forgotten quickly.

Now think about those who are just starting out: we already had publishers throwing their weight around like playground bullies, while larger sites look on perhaps disapprovingly but essentially not being able to do anything, helps no-one. Now we have something of a far more serious nature than some poor staffer’s lunch money being stolen.

Games websites have had an “I’m all right (financially), Jack,” attitude, and have not seen themselves a part of a journalistic collective. However, that attitude won’t improve the major sites’ status as wholly independent and free from bias; ones that are free to publish exactly what they want, when they want, without having to toe the publisher party line. It also sends out the signal that you have to play ball in order to succeed; you have to make concessions; you have to control your content.

So, let’s ask the question again, but let’s ask it as a community that wants video game journalism to be free of constraint and playing the game. Most of all, let’s hope for a straight answer:

What video game website publishes what it wants, when it wants, without fear of site-threatening repercussion? And, more importantly, if the answer is “none”, what are we all going to do about it?


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