How the games media got into a big crispy mess
Who knew that a picture of a man sat next to a bag of Doritos could snowball into anger, humiliation, and intrigue? The most startling thing about this industry is that the biggest of avalanches can erupt from the humblest of places, and so it is that an image of Geoff Keighley sparked a massive controversy.
After viewing the above image, which was earning many laughs as it spread across the usual social networking sites, British writer and comedian Robert Florence penned a piece for Eurogamer, using it as the launch pad for an earnest critique of the videogame press. He particularly assaulted the Game Media Awards, a PR-sponsored event that praised and rewarded the sponsor's favorite videogame "journalists."
In particular, he mentioned Lauren Wainwright, a writer for MCV and a Destructoid graduate.
From hashtags to harshtags
Florence's criticism of Wainwright stemmed from her defense of a suspicious contest being held at the GMAs, where media folks were encouraged to Tweet a marketing department's hashtag for a chance to win a PS3. Lauren's insistence that there was nothing wrong with such a practice rang alarm bells in Rab's ears.
"Now, a few tweets earlier, she also tweeted this: ‘Lara header, two TR pix in the gallery and a very subtle TR background. #obsessed @tombraider pic.twitter.com/VOWDSavZ'," he wrote. "And instantly I am suspicious. I am suspicious of this journalist’s apparent love for Tomb Raider. I am asking myself whether she’s in the pocket of the Tomb Raider PR team. I’m sure she isn’t, but the doubt is there. After all, she sees nothing wrong with journalists promoting a game to win a PS3, right?"
Wainwright took umbrage with Florence's words, and her response was to accuse him of libel. Her employer, MCV, backed her 100%, and after a day of back-and-forth between Rab's supporters and hers, Eurogamer eventually capitulated to the implied threat of legal action and amended the offending article. That is when everything went truly south.
The Internet will CUT you
Various communities, most notably NeoGAF, began talking in earnest about the situation, with many of them reposting and immortalizing Rab's redacted words. Rab, meanwhile, stepped down as a writer for Eurogamer, feeling his position was untenable at an outlet that would censor him (that said, he did not bear his former employers any ill will). In no time at all, Lauren was revealed to have listed Square Enix as an employer, at the same time as she was reviewing and covering Square Enix games. She claimed she had not reviewed any of the publisher's games while working for it as a consultant, but an image of her Deus Ex: Human Revolution review for The Sun was quickly shared online. Meanwhile, she locked her Twitter account to escape a torrent of abuse, and also set about deleting references to her Square Enix connections. This all added fuel to the fire, as a public found such behavior all the more suspect.
Lauren and MCV deny any sort of legal threats being made, but even that has been called into question, with Lauren having been found to have Tweeted that her media law qualifications were finally paying off. Eurogamer's Tom Bramwell said that Lauren had made it quite clear to them that lawyers would be involved if nothing was done. Such a threat cannot be taken lightly in the UK, where libel suits are costly, risky, and can prove destructive to the losing party.
Neither Lauren nor MCV have made further comment on the matter, and are more or less attempting business as usual.
The story gained traction at many outlets, with articles from Penny Arcade, Forbes, and myself via GameFront pouring in. At this time, the hardcore gamer community demanded other outlets cover the ongoing controversy, with some publications such as Kotaku brushing it off as not important. This was seen as a position of cowardice by the likes of GAF, who felt the story shone too bright a light on the dodgy dealings of the gaming press at large. Meanwhile, Stephen Totilo's argument that good games journalism was what mattered only seemed to amuse the accusatory GAF, who wasted no time in juxtaposing the statement against Kotaku's Halo 4 unboxing video.
It didn't end there. As the GAF thread goes on, everything is scrutinized from free review copies to press kits to writers and game marketers being far too friendly to provide a useful service to readers. All of it's worthy of scrutiny, all of it's worth thinking about. It is tempting to cover each subject individually, and that may indeed happen here if enough people would like a series on the subject.
Are there any writers who deserve to be called game journalists? Does calling yourself a blogger really give you the right to be lax on journalistic ethics? Should reviewers buy all their own review copies? The story throws up a plethora of questions, so many that no single article could cover them all. Most importantly, people have been asking, "Why is nobody covering this?"
In a few ways, Totilo isn't incorrect. Many gamers do just want to hear about the games, and they don't really care for journalism or controversy. Maybe a site that talks about Japanese food isn't the right environment in which to say it, but it's not untrue. Then again, the size of the GAF thread alone proves there's a huge audience for these kinds of stories, so there is definitely something to gain from writing about it.
As for having something to lose from doing so ... maybe. There's no doubt that this is an uncomfortable story, and I don't think there are many writers at all who could claim to not be on friendly terms with at least somebody on the other side of the fence. Trust between a writer and a reader is crucial, and perhaps it is true that this story makes every writer just that little bit less trustworthy. I will quite happily admit that I have repartee with several members of the industry-side of things, and it's up to the readers whether or not that makes me unworthy of trust. It's not for me to say. It's not for any games media to claim it's trustworthy. That's a decision for the readers.
The ongoing discussion
Many writers have decided to shrug this whole thing off as nothing but, a week later, it's still being talked about and, as Ben Kuchera says, it doesn't look like it's going away. Everybody covering games professionally is currently being viewed under a microscope, but not by publishers looking to see who they should favor -- it's by the people who ultimately matter. The readers are the ones taking a long and dirty look.
That's a good thing. Ultimately, it's the readers we are meant to serve. It's not our job to look after a developer's Metacritic bonus, or ensure that Ubisoft is happy with the way we phrase a particular thing. As a guy who got himself blacklisted at Konami in the name of entertaining and informing gamers, and who writes for a site that gained its popularity back when no publisher gave a damn about us, I can confidently say that it all begins and ends with the audience. We can live without the blessing of a game manufacturer, but we're dead without you. I'm glad the audience is judging our worth to them and I'm glad we're all getting a chance to reflect on what's going on.
I invite you to look at what Destructoid does. Read our reviews, check out the pictures of plastic tat that publishers send us, and by all means examine the games that our mascot, Mr. Destructoid, has appeared in. Take a good, long look at every site you enjoy. I can only speak for myself, but I welcome the scrutiny, and your decision as to whether or not we're worthy of your readership. If you decide we're too friendly with the games industry to do you a service, then it's a consequence I embrace. If you decide we are capable of giving you honest analysis of the game industry, then I can only be grateful for you allowing us to do that. In any case, it's given me and others a lot to think about, and those of us who did not simply close ranks on this issue will likely continue to think about what we've done and how we can improve. Maybe Destructoid is doing something wrong. Maybe I'm failing you as reviews editor somewhere. I like to think about this, because I believe we can always get better.
And if you don't care about any of this stuff, and just want to talk about videogames? That's fine too. Unless you're a professional writer, doing this for a living. I don't think we get to not care. None of us have earned that kind of privilege.