Monday, April 16, 2012

Video Game Journalism: Is It Corrupt?

After analyzing over ten different reports on the video game journalism industry, I can confidently state that this industry is partially corrupt. Video game journalism is a relatively new field, and closely tied to the rapidly growing video game industry.

Here are some interesting facts: A rating of 89% versus 90% in a video game review creates a difference of several thousand game sales. This means that a rating difference of one percent can cost a company around $200,000. Now imagine the difference between a review of 60 and 85. Video game journalists acknowledge that PR companies regularly try to bribe them, sometimes successfully. They also state that PR and video game companies can manipulate journalists. These companies can hold a moratorium on video game reviews until the product is released, unless the game gets a review of over 80%. This allows video game companies to cherry pick favorable reviews in advance of a game’s release. As with every other type of online journalism, having an exclusive is crucially important.

Intriguingly, a recent news article regarding video game journalism corruption was released by Metacritic. Metacritic is a website that acquires every single review of a given game, and then provides an average rating from all those sources. The administrators of Metacritic said they were removing several websites from their rating system for “corrupt practices”. They also said certain reviewers “Can absolutely be bought.” Metacritic would not name the particular sites they were removing.

Are these attempts at bribery something that is rare, that only unscrupulous companies do? No. In a recent press conference with a crowd consisting primarily of video game journalists, Microsoft promised everyone attending that they would get an Xbox 360 Elite for free. This item is valued at roughly $600. The story was reported by one journalist who said he was returning it, and felt that this type of bribery occurred far too frequently.

On average, freelance video game journalists make $26,000 a year. Not exactly a huge amount of money. PR companies acknowledge they use a “carrot and stick” strategy with video game journalists. They offer them monetary incentives of some kind for favorable reviews, and deny access if the reviewer gives a game a poor review. These incentives also include incredible vacation opportunities which the journalist could never afford on his or her own. Understandably, these incentives can be extremely difficult to resist.

Here are a few tantalizing examples of “incentives” offered to video game journalists by PR firms and video game companies: An all-expenses paid vacation to a tropical island, where they would live in a mansion for a few weeks while writing their review. For the game Grand Theft Auto 4, journalists were given the opportunity to fly to a professional driving course and race in expensive cars. The explanation by the PR company involved was that “this would allow them to feel like the main character in Grand Theft Auto 4.”

Of course, video game journalists try to defend themselves against these charges. Especially journalists from large magazines or websites like Game Informer or Kotaku. In a 100 page report I read in which several journalists with over ten years’ experience in the field were anonymously interviewed, some interesting points were acknowledged. These journalists said that while they felt “they weren’t biased,” they are beholden to PR companies and video game companies regarding what questions they can ask in interviews. If they mention “unacceptable topics” PR companies nix in advance, they lose access to that company for interviews in the future. This allows these companies to dictate what information video game interviews and initial impressions contain. That is why pretty much every preview you ever read about video games will say “it’s the next big thing” and that it “will be amazing”.

The simple fact is that video game companies control access to their products. They can use advance review opportunities to help journalism companies flourish, or never speak to them again if they write unfavorably about a product. They can offer underpaid journalists vacation opportunities they could never afford otherwise. There are even cases of direct cash in hand bribes given to journalists. Don’t worry though, because most video game journalists will tell you they’re unbiased and that the industry is fair. In my experience and through the research I’ve studied, this is a blatant falsehood.

Video game journalism corruption is a prevalent issue in the industry at this time. Hopefully in the future more thorough watchdog websites and news services will call out journalists who accept “carrots” from PR companies. Perhaps in the future as video game journalism becomes more mainstream and established the corruption issue can be resolved.

As it stands, you should look at most video game reviews with skepticism.

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