During the Steam Summer Sale, I finally gave in to peer pressure and bought Telltale’s The Walking Dead. After playing through the first two episodes, I was hooked. I had a feeling it would be a GOTY contender, but nobody on staff had any extra money; we needed every dollar for the upcoming holiday season. So I shot Telltale an email, asking for a few Steam review codes to spread across podcast and editorial teams so we could be more informed come GOTY time. It’s common practice over here; sometimes our limited budget leads to games falling through the cracks. Hell, we just sent out an email to 2K asking for some XCOM: Enemy Unknown copies. Giving us codes doesn’t lead to a guaranteed positive review or end-year award.
That’s as transparent as I can get regarding our review/end-year process. I think it’s necessary to make sure your readers know exactly what’s going on behind the scenes when legally possible. Every so often, you’re going to screw up a little and some kind of business transaction is going to make you look suspicious. When that happens, you should either point to previous examples of transparency, or quell those nasty rumors by laying everything out on the table. That way, your readers can judge your honesty and know all the facts. If you adhere to this process, they’ll usually rule in your favor.
But sometimes that doesn’t happen, and there are people in the games press who are dedicated to calling out unethical business practices, regardless of how open the transgressors are. One such person is Rab Florence, formerly of Eurogamer. Yesterday, Florence posted an article discussing the exact thing I was talking about just a few sentences earlier: transparency in game journalism. Personally, I loved it. I recommend you all take your time and read it before you continue with my article.
Okay? Everybody good? Now I’m going to post the missing part of the article, where Florence criticizes writer Lauren Wainwright.
“One games journalist, Lauren Wainwright, tweeted: ‘Urm… Trion were giving away PS3s to journalists at the GMAs. Not sure why that’s a bad thing?’
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’
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?
Another journalist, one of the winners of the PS3 competition, tweeted this at disgusted RPS writer John Walker: ‘It was a hashtag, not an advert. Get off the pedestal.’ Now, this was Dave Cook, a guy I’ve met before. A good guy, as far as I could tell. But I don’t believe for one second that Dave doesn’t understand that in this time of social media madness a hashtag is just as powerful as an advert. Either he’s on the defensive or he doesn’t get what being a journalist is actually about.”
It fits with the unedited text, doesn’t it? So why is it missing from the final article? Well, that’s a bit more complicated.
According to Florence, there was some legal action involved. Shortly after the edit was made, he made a few posts on Twitter clarifying the whole situation. “The threat of legal action brings unbelievable pressure. I am clear on who the bad guys are in this.” But his version of the story isn’t the only one. According to Ben Parfitt, editor for MCV UK, Intent Media (one of Wainwright’s many employers) “at no stage threatened legal action”
I’m inclined to believe Florence. Eurogamer commented on the situation, stating:
“Following receipt of a complaint from Lauren Wainwright, Eurogamer has removed part of this article (but without admission of any liability). Eurogamer apologises for any distress caused to Ms. Wainwright by the references to her. The article otherwise remains as originally published.”
The part about not admitting liability feels like an attempt to protect oneself from lawsuits; which might be a result of litigious threats. We’ll probably never know the exact details of why the edit was made. But either way, Eurogamer agreed to change the article. As a result, Florence resigned.
Is this any way to handle suspicion-based criticism? I don’t think so. The reason I opened this piece with a look at what goes on behind the scenes is because that’s the way you should respond. If somebody looked at the Walking Dead Podcast after hearing me talk about our review codes and came to the conclusion that we had been accepting money from Telltale, that’s a fair assumption to come to. I might think something along those lines if I was an outsider.
And if you want to mention me in a column about how you see game journalism, that’s equally fair. We as a group need to call this kind of thing out, even if we don’t call it out in the nicest ways. Falling prey to the hype machine isn’t exclusive to gaming journalism, but that doesn’t mean it should be swept under the rug. Keep things out in the open, because then we can have conversations about the relationship between game journos and PR: conversations which are necessary for this industry’s well being.
But until these conversations start happening, we’re all in trouble.