As a former video game journalist of little to moderate success, I’ve found that the industry has kind of passed me by since I quit a little over two years ago. Still, with my experience as a games journalist at independent sites (and some bigger ones too), I do have a sense of what is ethical and what is not. While I’ve moved on to working in SEO and focusing my creative energies on my my comic book work and this blog, I often look back on my time as a game journalist and question some of the ethics in games journalism. Despite what people may think, ethics in games journalism, and all journalism for that matter, is a legitimate issue. With that in mind, here are some ways I’ve found whether or not to tell if a publication is acting ethically or not.
Is There a Personal Relationship Involved?
If it seems like nepotism, it’s probably nepotism. One of the first rules about journalism is that colleagues normalize ethics for each other. This means that if there are journalists that are uncomfortably close with PR representatives, then they probably also have friends who are also uncomfortably close with PR representatives. This has become a real problem in all forms of journalism, but particularly in product journalism. In terms of the ethics of games journalism, PR representatives manage all aspects of a publishers contact with the games press, from reviews, to previews to interviews, and define the standard of ethics in games journalism.
What this means in practical terms is that PR representatives tend to largely control the narrative around game releases. While larger outlets do have some autonomy due to brand recognition, blogs and mid-size publications are almost entirely beholden to PR representatives for access. This includes embargos on reviews – which are often not allowed to be posted until after a game is released. This often is not the case in other forms of product journalism, such as film or tech.
How is the Quality of the Content?
One of the biggest indicators of a publication’s ethics is the quality of content. This is particularly true in game journalism, where newsjacking s a prevalent part of most sites’ coverage. With newsjacking, publications are not actually putting any effort into doing any of their own research or reporting. Instead they are relying on other outlets (and sometimes PR representatives) to do their coverage for them. They then regurgitate the story with their own slightly different personality-driven spin, giving credence to the argument that there is a lack of ethics in games journalism. This is all done while promoting the same content assets (screenshots, trailers etc.) and acting as hype men as opposed to critically reporting on and analyzing culture and games.
Ethics in Games Journalism Is Likely Not a Solvable Situation
Ultimately, we need to recognize that what has fostered this situation is the consumerism of the internet and expecting to read everything for free. As much as we want to hold ethics in games journalism to a higher standard, we are also not willing to fund it. That isn’t to say that no efforts are being made toward promoting quality reporting in games journalism. But it is to say that games journalism itself is not a sustainable outlet without any form of independent revenue. This is why a lot of games reviewers have turned to video. It’s a more sustainable outlet where you can use another site’s audience (mainly YouTube) to help traffic views in and gain ad revenue.
But having helped run an independent site for some time that in its peak got close to 60,000-80,000 views a month, I can say with certainty that audience is not what pays the bills. It’s access. It’s impossible to grow a publication without access to the companies that you are covering, regardless of what size game publication you run. This actually extends to all forms of product journalism, and even lifestyle journalism. But as long as we the mainstream is ok with lazy ethics in games journalism, it’s what we will continue to get.