Achievement Unlocked – Marketed a Video Game as a Journalist


by Jonathan Pilley (@omnicomic)

There’s long been a cozy relationship between video game journalists and video game PR groups. The journalists love getting the games for free for review and attending the events put on by the publishers. The PR groups love to get buddy-buddy with the journalists to ensure good reviews. Both sides scratch the backs of the other, leading to a ton of games which are scored too highly and some video game journalists with more schwag than they know what to do with.

Take Geoff Keighley for instance, seen above. The man has made a name for himself within the video game community as a writer, visionary and Executive Producer of the Spike TV Video Game Awards. Yet the image above portrays him nestled between a poster for Halo 4 and a pile of Doritos and Mountain Dew. You know, the breakfast of video game champions.

Is Keighley still a video game journalist? Or has he crossed over and is now a video game PR person?

There’s a firestorm brewing in the video gaming journalism community and it centers on the Games Media Awards, an annual show that highlights the “best” in video game journalism. On hand were a wide variety of journalists for recognizable gaming websites, as well as PR from the same games those websites cover. Apparently, there were quite a few journalists using a hashtag on Twitter (#GMAdefiance) in an effort to win a PS3.

Now, there’s certainly nothing wrong with entering a contest to win something from the industry you cover. It is a contest after all. Lauren Wainwright, one of the journalists who participated in the giveaway, didn’t see a problem with entering the contest. She’s also a big fan of Tomb Raider, tweeting her love for the upcoming game as an unabashed gamer. Of course, it seems she also does work for Square Enix. The same Square Enix who’s making the new Tomb Raider game that Wainwright is apparently in love with.

Robert Florence took issue with Wainwright’s contest entry and subsequently revealed ties to Square Enix at Eurogamer. Did she really love Tomb Raider? Or was she just doing more PR for it since she also has ties to Square Enix? He framed the original article around the image of Keighley and included Wainwright’s tweets, but it has been edited due to a complaint from Wainwright’s employer Intent Media. The unedited version is still available on sites such as Wings Over Sealand, highlighting the altered section. Needless to say, Florence was not exactly pleased with Eurogamer caving on journalistic integrity and has resigned. And that’s not cool.

Florence’s resignation highlights two major problems with video game journalism today. The first is that the line between PR for the video game and entities covering the game is often blurred. You see it all the time in cross-promotion. For instance, at NYCC 2012, the Frag Dolls were hosting the playthrough video for Assassin’s Creed III. Only, it wasn’t a live playthrough, but the same video that was shown at least as far back as June. Right down to Silas sipping his tea in the cold morning.

Why would Ubisoft and the Frag Dolls team up to “play” a game demo that’s really just a video?

Primarily, it lends credibility to both sides. Ubisoft gets to say that their game is so cool that they got the Frag Dolls to narrate and do a playthrough. The Frag Dolls get to say that their reputation is such that they’re given that opportunity to shepherd audiences through the demo at NYCC. In no way is this meant to cast aspersions on either Ubisoft or the Frag Dolls (nor was the demo presented as such), but that’s how it’s likely to be interpreted by those who knew the video wasn’t actually a live playthrough.

Because most video games require a small army to make, there’s a desire to get a very good return on investment. This isn’t a concept exclusive to video games, as it’s really one of the big tenets of making money. Ubisoft wants people to buy their games and will go to great lengths to make them as appealing to you as possible. If you know the Frag Dolls are playing, you might be more inclined to pick it up, going based on their “seal of approval.” And of course, the Frag Dolls will likely rave about the game to the press, because if they says its bad people will wonder why they’re demoing it in the first place.

The second problem is the concept of journalistic integrity. Covering video games is still a relatively new thing. Sure, you can go all the way back to Nintendo Power (which was really just one big running ad for Nintendo) or Electronic Gaming Monthly and see that there have been groups that cover video games. The problem is that the video games aren’t covered as other topics are, because journalists are so scared of losing access to that industry.

Over on Omnicomic, I wrote a review of the first episode of The Walking Dead from Telltale Games. My review didn’t laud the decision-making nearly as much as Telltale Games would have liked and I was emailed shortly after the review went live by the game’s PR about that point. I stood by my review and said that yes, there was decision-making involved, but it wasn’t nearly as open-ended as it was being pitched to be.

Notice any reviews for the subsequent episodes of The Walking Dead from Telltale Games on Omnicomic? You probably won’t because after my first review was less enthusiastic than some other reviews, I wasn’t sent any more review copies of the game. Essentially, I wrote a genuine opinion of the game without inflating its ego and was cut off from access to future episodes on Xbox 360. It’s true I could’ve bought them myself and reviewed them or that I was no longer sent codes was just coincidence, but if everything covered had to be purchased by journalists, there would be significantly less coverage. There’s just so much out there to cover.

The above story isn’t written to say that video game journalists (or journalists in general) should have the privilege of always receiving review copies. It’s written to show that sometimes being honest about a video game isn’t the best policy from the PR perspective, so they retaliate the only way they can: by cutting you off from their product. That’s what many video game journalists are so afraid of.

When a game comes out (say Call of Duty), Activision expects the name and history to carry so much weight that it will hide possible flaws in the game and get high scores. When it doesn’t—and the game is bad—many video game journalists won’t say so because they want to stay on Activision’s good side. It reflects a problem when the people you trust to write about the games you want to play won’t give you the truth because they want to play those games too.

Video games represent a major industry whose importance has skyrocketed in the past decade. It needs to be treated with the same focus and attention to detail as other mediums and that includes the journalists that cover it. The relationship between journalists and PR has gotten to be a little too close, making it hard to know when a game is really good or when a game is really bad. Video game journalists should be paid to play and not have to pay to play. They shouldn’t have to resign like Florence did because they report on the industry.

It’s time for the relationship to hit the reset button and start over. Call it a New Game+.

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