Most of the attention in gamergate has gone towards the antics of Zoe Quinn, Feminist Frequency, and other social justice warrior-types. The collusion between the gaming media and a small clique of extremists has attracted a lot of attention, but as gamergate moves towards a broader stance of “Ethics in Journalism”, some gamers are drawing renewed attention to something that’s been an open secret for years: the entire media is rife with corruption from top to bottom.
The big problem? Major companies like Ubisoft and Activision have immense amounts of money riding on their games. The days when development companies consisted of two guys working in the back of a garage are long gone, and now making a game can cost many millions of dollars. More than advertising, reviews can make or break a game, and companies will do whatever it takes to get a high score from a reviewer. And if that means free trips, free goodies, or just plain handing them money, video game companies won’t bat an eye. Here are some of the ways they bribe reviewers into giving them positive press.
1. They’re Given Free Vacations
If you’re a gamer, you’ve heard of Activision’s Call of Duty. Like it or not, it’s one of the industry’s biggest franchises, and its yearly releases are a huge event. And if you’re a games reviewer, it’s a ticket to a great time.
Tae Kim, a reviewer for the now-defunct site GamePro talked about his experience at a “review event” for the 2010 game Call of Duty: Black Ops. Companies like Activision don’t send out pre-release copies of their games for reviewers to play, they make the reviewers come to them so that they can control the whole experience. And they put a lot of money and effort into making sure that this experience is very nice indeed.
Tae describes being given a personalized flight helmet and being flown by helicopter to three days at a “posh suite” at the Ojai Valley Inn & Spa (Minimum cost 369$ a night). He was also given a high-end MadCatz microphone headset to use when reviewing the multiplayer portion of the game. Activision paid for his travel, his food and all his accommodations, and he was allowed to keep the headset and flight helmet.
How impressed was he by all this? Tae did everything except publicly fellate a copy of the game. Where other reviewers marked it down for poor AI, linear gameplay, and uneven pacing, he praised it as the “ultimate refinement of the franchise formula” and “the best Call of Duty ever.”
And this isn’t something only Activision does. These press junkets happen all the time and it seems like every major release has one and every major company is involved. We’re just never told about them, because game reviewers don’t want us to know they’re going on. The Los Angeles Times reported on how reviewers have been given rides in fighter jets, stays in medieval castles, and pro-boxing lessons in a Las Vegas boxing ring while bikini-clad ring girls look on. They’ve had juggling lessons from pro circus performers, and trips into Chernobyl. Companies that make FPS games will take reviewers to fire sniper rifles and automatic weapons.
One journalist defended these expensive treats by saying “”You can wine and dine me all you want, but if your game [stinks], I have no qualms saying the game is awful.” Another claimed they won’t affect his judgement, because he needs to stay honest or he’ll lose his readership. Still, he says, “I love the junket,” he says. “I love seeing the herd of nerds, I love seeing the power of geek.”
2. They’re Given Free Stuff
Remember Watch_Dogs, that open-world shooter from Ubisoft? It puts you in the shoes of Adrian Pierce, a renegade “white-hat” hacker fighting an evil corporation in a near-future Chicago. The game featured a fully realized city that rivaled the Grand Theft Auto games in scope, and it was a huge investment for Ubisoft: Wikipedia lists it as the 18th most expensive game of all time, with a budget of 68 million dollars even before an incredibly pricey six month delay.
The game’s final budget, including marketing, may well have topped over a hundred million dollars, which would put it on par with a Hollywood movie. Making Watch_Dogs took five years of work from studios located all around the world, and it was the combined effort of hundreds and hundreds of people.
But after all that effort was it any good? Well, a lot of users don’t think so. The user score on Metacritic is a 4.6, which puts it squarely in “bargain bin” territory. The gaming media, however, absolutely loved it. They gave it a score of 78: a firm recommendation that you should buy it.
So why did reviewers like it so much better? It’s hard to say exactly, but here’s one possible reason: Ubisoft gave them a $200 tablet computer.
Just before Watch_Dogs came out, game reviewers in Europe were invited to an “exclusive launch event” in Paris. Ubisoft’s public relations people gave anybody who came to the event a Nexus 7 tablet “filled with Watch_Dogs videos and screenshots”, ostensibly to help them write their reviews. The technical word for this “help” is a bribe, and it’s not a cheap bribe at that: a Nexus 7 runs between $180 and $240 dollars, depending on the model.
To their credit, some reviewers gave the tablets back, or donated them to charity. But how many of them kept them? And how many of them let this bribe influence their reviews? We have no way of knowing. Ubisoft certainly isn’t going to tell anybody, and it’s obvious that the journalists who attended the event aren’t going to raise their hands and let us know.
Just like the junkets, this isn’t an isolated event by any means. Kotaku writer Stephen Totilo writes about how his review copy of mid-list title Resident Evil 6 came with a mini-surround system, “the better I could hear the game, I guess.” (To his credit, he says he left it in the box.) He describes getting all kinds of free gifts, from statues to mugs to memorabilia. He calls them “dumb trinkets”, but even if a reviewer isn’t into figurines, an eBay account makes it easy to convert them into ready cash.
And sometimes it’s not even the nudge-nudge wink-wink of sending somebody an unsolicited toy, or loading promotional materials onto a brand-new Nexus. Sometimes it’s a straight quid-pro-quo: positive press for free goodies.
At the 2012 Games Media Awards, journalists were encouraged to tweet in support of a game in order to win a free Playstation 3 (Retail value $250.) One journalist, Lauren Wainwright, tweeted during the event that she was “obsessed” with Tomb Raider, a mid-list franchise that was heavily promoting an upcoming release. She later tweeted “Urm… Trion were giving away PS3s to journalists at the GMAs. Not sure why that’s a bad thing?” It’s possible, of course, that she’s just a huge Tomb Raider fan. But isn’t it more likely that she’s a fan of getting a free PS3?
3. They’re Just Straight-Up Given Cash
The marketing team for the 2010 Electronic Art’s game Dante’s Inferno had a problem. The problem was that their game was crap. A repetitive, graceless God of War clone with an insane difficulty curve, it holds the distinction of being one of very few major titles from its era to never get a sequel.
The marketing team pulled out all the stops to generate press for the game, hoping to get enough people to purchase it on day one before word of how bad it was got around. They hired fake Christians to stand outside a gaming convention and promise hellfire to anybody who purchased it. They included enemy babies in the game that could be killed by the player. They offered a $6.66 discount to people who pre-ordered it.
All of this is somewhat silly, but at worst, they’re guilty of poor taste. (Or possibly damned to an eternity in hell for blasphemy, depending on who you ask.) But one of their promotions went far beyond stupid tricks designed to attract media attention: they sent game reviewers an unsolicited, no-strings attached check for two hundred dollars. Not semi-deniable swag, or trips that can be written off as “review junkets”. Electronic Arts sent them a check ready to be cashed, with the reviewer’s name written on it.
The ostensible tie-in with the game was that cashing the check would represent the sin of “greed”. A note that came with the check said, “”by cashing this check you succumb to avarice by hoarding filthy lucre but by not cashing it, you waste it, and thereby surrender to [wastefulness].” The check came in a cutesy box and had a silly skeleton design, but the cash it offered was very real.
At least one reporter, Christopher Grant, cashed the check and donated the results to charity. A few others simply threw it away, not wanting to give EA any press. But how many others took the bribe? And how many of them let it influence their reviews? Game reviewing isn’t a lucrative profession; was anybody only able to make rent that month because of EA’s largess?
This Is Just The Tip Of The Iceberg
There are other, even nastier allegations out there. One game editor has written that PR people were offering sex for good scores. He quotes a woman as saying, “I will do ANYTHING if you can change the score. Just tell me what it will take.” Multiple others have written that companies tie their advertising purchases to good scores. In exchange for an expensive ad buy, a review site will be contractually obligated to give the game an 8 or higher. But nobody is ever willing to name names, either out of a sense of professional camaraderie or fear of upsetting their own gravy train. It’s always, “Oh, we don’t do this, but we know people who do…”
The level of corruption and ethical bankruptcy on display here is shocking, but the attitude of the gaming press has always been blase. When EA was handing out checks to game reviewers, not one gaming outfit wrote about what an incredible breach of ethics this is. When reviewers are asked about the expensive trips and gifts they’re given, the response has always been, “I’m too good a person to let it influence me,” or “Yeah, it’s a problem, but what can you do?”
And Miss Wainwright, the girl who developed a sudden love for Tomb Raider when she was promised a free console? When a journalist broke the story, she threatened him with libel and had him fired. No one except Forbes found this interesting enough to report on.
This closed and insular culture clearly has no ability to police itself, and sees nothing wrong with bad behavior by its members. What this means, of course, is that what you’ve seen here is the tip of the iceberg. Corruption is like cockroaches, for every sickening story you see there are a hundred that you don’t. If reviewers will take checks, gifts, or European vacations from the companies they’re supposed to be covering, is there anything they won’t do?
We know at least one reviewer, Jeff Gerstmann, was fired for giving a game a low score. But how many reviewers have been fired for doing the same thing without making the news? And for every reviewer that was fired, there must be dozens more who gave in to pressure and rewrote their reviews to please the game companies.
Gaming’s a big industry, and reviews for a game hold a lot of sway with readers. (That’s why companies are willing to pay for $370 a night hotel rooms for reviewers.) Over the past ten years, how many millions of consumer dollars has the gaming media directed to companies via corrupt reviews? And how much of this is legal? The 1st Amendment provides a wide variety of protection for speech, even commercial speech, but Europe may well be different. Is any of this bribe-taking criminal?
It Is About Ethics In Journalism
Gamergate shows that the gaming media has completely lost credibility with its readers. If they want it back, they need to do a thorough housecleaning. This means transparency. Not only should sites have a no-gifts policy, whenever a company sends them something, they should publicize what they got, who they got it from, and what they did with it.
As for junkets, if it’s truly necessary to go to a European castle or ride in a fighter jet to review a game, media companies need to make it clear what they did and who paid for it. In the same review where a site praises this year’s Call of Duty as “the best game ever”, they need to explain that the reviewer was played it at casino on the French Riviera, and that Activision paid for his lodging, food, and plane ticket.
Anything less, and they risk losing even more trust than they already have. As this corruption becomes more and more publicized, disillusioned readers are increasingly leaving them behind and turning to other sources for their needs. Without trust, a journalist is nothing. And the games media are showing they’re not worthy of their reader’s trust at all.
It’s worth nothing that a lot of this stuff has been known for a long time. Any active reader of games media has probably heard at least a few of these stories. Nonetheless, massive credit is due to the compilers of this Gamergate Press Kit, who spent untold hours bringing together all stories into one place to show how bad the corruption really is. If you’re interested in reading more about this subject, the press kit has any number of well-documented links and explanation. Many of the links in this document were either taken from there, or found by the writer based on the information within.
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