Games Writers Wear Brown Coats

I know that the Will Smith sci-fi vehicle Independence Day is the preferred cultural touchstone today. “Welcome to Earth” jokes, and all that. Somehow Hollywood schlock and Brent Spiner’s worst acting role doesn’t bring to mind independence for me, instead leaving me searching for something more substantial in popular media. Instead I’m reminded of a struggle for independence where the underdogs didn’t win, where they were put down and held with a boot to their throat. I’m referring to the struggle of the Browncoats. The war between the Sino-American Alliance and the border planets was nothing but a backdrop for the sci-fi masterpiece Firefly, but in some ways the messages of that conflict ring true today for game writers.

Those of us writing about games professionally have an unwinnable war on our hands. We're struggling for our independence from the developers and publishers that make games, trying as best we can to investigate and explore rather than just regurgitate and repeat. Despite every games writer being a true gamer in their own right, we also seek to separate ourselves from the consumer perspective to best serve them. The result is a group of journalists who are universally disliked. Hated by publishers for not toeing the line, hated by readers for "obviously" being on the take ... games writing can seem like a no-win situation.

I don't care. I'm still free, and they can't take the sky from me.

My reflection on this topic is very personal today. I make no claims at journalism, myself - I'm a blogger, through and through. Just the same I make every effort to put as much polish and fairness into every post I write. If I like something about a game, I say so. If I see a problem, I call the developer out. Last week this viewpoint did not serve me well.

Last week was the fifth anniversary of Star Wars Galaxies, a game with a long and sordid history. It's an interesting history just the same, and one I felt qualified to catalog. Last Thursday and Friday saw me posting two articles entitled "A Star Wars Galaxies history lesson", with one taking us from launch to the NGE and the other going from the NGE to the present.

I don't mince words. I lay it out: the game was flawed but promising at launch, with some serious bugs and server issues. The New Game Enhancement (a complete revamp of the game's design) was universally reviled, and players left in droves. It was a bad call, and one they've since publicly apologized for. But the game didn't stop after the NGE dropped. Since that point the developers in the SOE-Austin studios have made huge strides in moving the game forward. New content has been added, new systems, many bugs fixed. They have high hopes for upcoming content, yay the future. The End.

In my view it's a piece that offers both ends of the spectrum. It looks at history with a fairly unblinking eye, recognizing the problems and possibilities alike. The result was calls for my head, threats, profane emails, and lots of angry comments.

Stepping back, it's the perfect example of a games writer serving two masters. On the one hand, I yet again harshly invoked the public relations nightmare that is the NGE. On the other, I wasn't harsh enough for the deeply bitter ex-Galaxies players. This basic struggle for the games writer to find his independent voice - to throw on his browncoat - is at the core of every game journalism dilemma you can name.

The Gerstmann affair is a vivid and archetypal example of this, but it happens every day on a far more subtle scale. Gerstmann-gate at least left us with the fantastic Giant Bomb site. Most games journalism ethics dilemmas are far less sexy but equally important. At what point do you consider a reporter's view on a game 'compromised'? Buffet of snacks? Dinner? Rental car? Airfare? Hotel? Full-week-all-expenses-paid 'demo' of a game in Hawaii? All-expenses-paid trip to Europe for a launch party complete with rock band, 'slave girls', and a Norse fortress?

Game publishers are desperate for reviewers to give their titles a good score, and as a result there's almost no comp too big. Even folks who aren't flown around the world tend to get some crazy stuff in the mail if they're a games writer. Full-sized swords, rice makers, cans of fake snake meat, model sailing ships, and many, many, many free games all make their way to the games writer's doorstep. Is there a point between the playing of the game, the futzing with the toy ship, and the writing of the article that the writer becomes co-opted?

I've never personally taken anyone up on a long-distance flight to slave girls or Hawaiian 'demos' (both real examples), but I have taken proffered publisher travel arrangements in the past. In both cases I was writing as an independent for my personal blog, and the arrangements offered were the only way I was going to get to cover the events. I stated up-front in my coverage that my way had been paid, and I still think I delivered relatively unbiased discussion of the material I saw in the field.

Even with that disclaimer in place, I felt guilty doing it. I feel guilty just playing games for free, a perk that mutes the 'real experience' that gamers go through when they play a game. If a game has an effective value of zero for me, how can I be expected to accurately assess its worth to a player? And what of all the games writers that don't make it clear they've had their way paid to see and play the game? What of the games writers who do take the invitation to the Hawaiian trip or the sweet alternate-reality-style event at Richard Garriott's house?

Independence is a goal that games writers should be striving for. It's not just about getting out from under the thumb of the Alliance, about taking jobs as they come and wearing your duster with pride. It's about self-respect as a community of professionals. It's about realizing that what you do is of value, and not just as a consumer reports service. It's about recognizing that sometimes people will hate you for telling the truth.

I'm no Jeff Gerstmann. Guys like Brandon Sheffield, John Davison, and Jeremy Parish are real game journalists, not blogger-dudes like me. What I'd love to see are folks like these stepping up to talk more about the pressures they face so that writers with less experience and access can know what's kosher and what's not. What does Davison do when he has to go see a game across the country and the company's offering to pay his way? What does Parish do when that once-in-a-lifetime Hawaii trip falls in his lap?

The Browncoats had their leaders. Despite being a force composed of strange loners, single-minded coots with nothing more than a common goal in mind, they still made a difference. Just as the Browncoats held the line during the Battle for Serenity Valley, so too do journalists in their efforts to serve two very different purposes.

The trick, of course, is to figure out how to succeed where the Browncoats failed. Just gotta keep flying, I guess.


Nice, thought provoking article. Makes me wonder, though, if "gaming" press will ever be free. Could it be free? After all, New York Times reports about many different sources, and their revenue comes from yet again many different sources that it would be difficult to tie one into the other. They would also not suffer greately if one of their revenue sources got miffed at them. Gaming press, on ther other hand, has no such luxury. Gaming is their only source of revenue, and gaming is the only thing they report about.

Didn't quite get the brown coats allusion. Perhaps you could cut that out and go on a bit more about the slave girls? That part sounded good.

I see the problem, what I dont see is a solution, as in all the enthusiastic press, if you plan on living with your journalist skills, your sponsors, in your site, are going to be game related, so if you are a small independent guy you can say no when you want, if you have to pay the mortage at the end of the month and someone "suggest" you that one particular game needs to have a good score.. well..

The result is a group of journalists who are universally disliked. Hated by publishers for not toeing the line, hated by readers for "obviously" being on the take ... games writing can seem like a no-win situation.

I'm probably not like the majority of readers, but I dislike it when game journalists do poor quality work. Some do a good job, some don't. I like the ones who do good work.

Take Retronauts (1up) vs Player One Podcast (hobbyists)

I respect Player One because they do a good job. They do research, they are respectful, they put effort into making a good radio show.

I don't respect Retronauts because they do a bad job. They often confess that they have never played the games they are talking about. They don't do research, they talk off the top of their heads. They simply do a bad job holding a discussion because everyone is always cutting in on each other.

Maybe that's a bad example, because the Retronauts guys' main job isn't podcasting. But it looks bad when they are paid to cover games and they make a poor quality podcast.

I might be wrong, but I think if games writers put in more effort, and were more respectful, they would get more respect.

Well said!

This is a struggle that is repeated countless times through journalism -- just look at how AICN's head-cheese can get carted around new movie sets. So while I don't think we'll ever really be free of the call of buffets, gala events, and such, I'd gladly be free of the idea that a reviewer can't adequately trash-talk a bad game for fear that the big bad production studio will blacklist them.

On the flip side, one of the 1up Yours guys got a chance to play MGS4 in Japan, with Kojima around, and talked about the event and the experience a bit. I'd love to read a writeup of the Garriott ARG. These incidentals can make for some fantastic tales, provided the reviewer is honest about the flourish and whatnot.

Spaz wrote:

This is a struggle that is repeated countless times through journalism -- just look at how AICN's head-cheese can get carted around new movie sets. So while I don't think we'll ever really be free of the call of buffets, gala events, and such, I'd gladly be free of the idea that a reviewer can't adequately trash-talk a bad game for fear that the big bad production studio will blacklist them.

On the flip side, one of the 1up Yours guys got a chance to play MGS4 in Japan, with Kojima around, and talked about the event and the experience a bit. I'd love to read a writeup of the Garriott ARG. These incidentals can make for some fantastic tales, provided the reviewer is honest about the flourish and whatnot.

These are really good points. It's scandalous when Ubisoft or Sony Sports bans 1UP. At the same time, hearing about the Kojima Productions wackiness really adds a dimension to playing a game that is so meta.

In the first case, those companies are in the wrong. In the second, companies like Konami, and figures like Garriot, are making the games industry more interesting.

The only point I'd like to add is, I think professionalism is more than just avoiding free trips. It's also a matter of high standards and respect. 1Up does a great job avoiding conflicts of interest, but they sometimes fall down on the latter part.

I wish that all games writers were upfront about what they got and also about how they reviewed the product. There are very good games writers that don't think they need to play the whole game (I can tell after a few hours, they argue), which is ok, but who also don't think they need to disclose that fact (which I don't think is ok.) Same thing with what free loot or event accompanied their access to the product. Even this site posted a review several months ago for an expansion where the author revealed in the comments thread that he hadn't played the expansion - instead he'd played the demo of the expansion. I personally don't think that was ok.

I appreciate the honest reviewers that are out there, but there are too many who appear to think they have valid reasons for taking the free stuff or not fully playing the game they are writing about, and who justify it fully to themselves, and then also justify the need to not reveal any of those details. Those are the writers that give the profession a bad name.

I have really mixed feelings about this.

I know first hand how nearly impossible it is to write a good review, or even worse, a preview. But I also know that I am not a good consumer of either - I'm likely to skip through a lot of them, even when they are written by writers I know and respect, and admitting that I'm probably in the minute handful of folks who even know the names of these guys (and far too occasionally, gals.) Writing reviews is the WORST part of this business. (Writing features and doing interviews, if you're keeping score, is the best).

Unfortunately, I think games journalism suffers from the flight school problem. There are SO many people who want to be pilots that being a flight instructor pays minimum wage. Being a games journalist - especially when you're young and not on staff at a full fledged, health insurance-paying company - is a crappy, horribly paying job. So I can imagine that a trip to "X" to go see "Y" and meet "Z" is the highlight of the gig. And if that's the very best part of your job, how can you possibly be less than enthusiastic about it?

The good thing about our little corner of the world, I think, is that it's still at the music-criticism-in-1960 phase. So while there are plenty of A&R reps offering up the free stuff and the butt-pats, there are also a decent sized group of folks out there just writing it as they see it. Sometimes that's crazy awesome, sometimes it's just reportage. What I try to do is judge each individual piece of writing on its own merit. Just as there is, somewhere out there, the worst brain surgeon in the world, so too there is the worst piece from the best writer, and the best piece from the worst writer. I know personally I have written things I am still extraordinarily proud of, but also things that I look back at and cringe, wishing I had the ability to burn every printed copy of.

But let's not glamorize it. It's a tough and crappy gig. Those of us who have the luxury of picking the stories we choose to do can focus on features, interviews, and do the things that just might interest us - we're in the minority. Most journalists who ply their trade in games simply have to review the games that come across their desk, go to the places they need to go, and write the previews they are told to write by their editors.

So read every single story is if you have no idea who wrote it. I don't care whether that's something Michael Zenke (who is far from some random blogger-dude, I consider him one of the best writers in the space), or myself or Jeff Gerstmann, or N'gai Croal or freaking Tom Wolfe. Ultimately knowing who authored piece is only useful for understanding context, not for evaluating the piece itself.

Splitting hairs? Possibly. But this isn't Watergate. I take what I do very seriously. But ultimately this is entertainment journalism. As a freelancer, what I do is deliver milk. I get paid to deliver the best god damned milk I know how to make.On time. On word count. On budget. I'm very proud of my milk and my milk delivery business. But I am not writing the great American novel. I am not being paid to cure cancer, engender world peace, or negotiate trade agreements. Is integrity important? Absolutely. Should journalists -- no matter what they report -- be held to certain standards of accountability and disclosure? Of course.

But this problem is far more complicated than taking a free trip. We've had Jeff Green on the podcast talking explicitly about this -- how they will rely on a freelancer to take a trip to Russia, for instance, to cover an event where Ziff Davis might not have been able to pay the freight themselves. While I head of (so far) not a failed myself of any freelancer loopholes, I understand the logic, and the necessity of perhaps doing so.

So, to make a long post as short as possible, I think the issue here is one of talent as much as it is context and integrity. I hope that I will be judged mostly by what I do, not by where I come from or how I got there. In my case I simply try to ignore everything from the outside -- but then again I've made a conscious effort not to get into the business of doing reviews and previews as much as possible.

That's a luxury not everyone has.

"How is person X reading my article?"

When I read something, where there's a comment box at the bottom, I'm kind of reading so that I can make a comment. I'm addicted. Forums are kind of jekyl and hyde situation for me.

That's the great thing about magazines, newspapers and podcasts: you get to sit with what you're taking in for a while. I can just imagine the kind of mistreatment guys doing online like slashdot and here have to put up with from fools like me.

rabbit wrote:

I have really mixed feelings about this.

Oh but you would, wouldn't you.

In all seriousness, it says a lot that Rabbit was a little bashful about having accepted the Sac.

Fascinating, wonderfully written article, Michael. However I can't say that "I play and write games for a living, and distributors keep trying to give me stuff and send me on jollies. Please pity my struggle for integrity" engenders much sympathy from me, metaphor with my beloved Firefly or no. I wish my job was even half as interesting as yours (though I'm aware it's not the most capaciously paid profession).

The middle is the hardest thing to achieve.

It's amazing how much more objective you can be if you're upfront about any favors. Transparency is a good thing. I am willing to lend a lot more credibility if I find out that someone was flown to a game studio to see a game first-hand then finding out about it later after they've already written a review for the same game.

Honestly, what was described is no different in any industry when you've got the power to make decisions. I've received lunches and special treatment by vendors and recruiters. That puts me in a tough spot sometimes. I won't hire someone who is a bad fit for the team and I wouldn't select a product that wouldn't be an advantage to the company, but that doesn't mean there isn't an advantage to the other party. I constantly have to question my own motives and it's naive or just flat out denial to think that there is no influence being asserted just because I'm aware its happening.

I wonder what that's like for less introspective individuals. Most people do not want to take a good hard look at themselves and admit hard unpleasant truths. Most people want to say "This won't affect *me*. I'm not like the other people who might accept favors." The real trick is not trying to convince yourself how you are different, but how you are in fact the same as everyone else. Everyone worries about "the other guy", but in truth you are "the other guy". Everyone likes to think they are the exception, but if everyone were the exception would decision makers get all this special treatment?

I think the only way to truly keep your integrity is to be completely independent. That means not accepting any trips, girls, or drugs. I know of sites and podcasts that have been given many perks, and it caused me to severely question their integrity.

Of course, when you're independent and you get some success and all the sudden companies are coming to you with gifts and trips, I'm sure it's hard to resist.

This is one reason I don't write for any sites. I do my blog where I can say whatever the hell I want. I answer to me and that's it.

I think what most journalists, independent or otherwise, are afraid to cross the gaming companies because then they will lose that contact and therefore content. I say screw it. The journalists shouldn't be afraid of that being held over their head. Do what you want, say what you want.

Michael Zenke wrote:

I don't care. I'm still free, and they can't take this guy from me.


Something that I forgot to mention:

The good reviewers tend to recuse themselves from reviewing games they've had the pleasure of demo-ing before they're gold. Just one more reason why being upfront about getting a super duper special-wescial trial of Game X can affect your audience.

I think the best reviews are written on boards like this one. The articles in magazines that are published nationally, although slightly more lucrative for a writer, are still edited to be bent towards being favorable to their chief advertisers that fuel the economy of the entire gaming world. So if you're gonna write for em then play the game to get that paycheck and free pre-release copies of everything the nail-biting fans are waiting for.

It takes a lot of moxie to break protocol in a national publication and to ask the questions most of us GWJ-ganstas' have already spent weeks discussing. A writer with a great honest take on the video game industry might be edited into the ground or cut completely from the ranks unless it seems to have served a purpose for selling more units.

Remember kids in Dante's Divine Comedy there are three heads to the devil. One of them is your editor.

Actually, I would argue that in the new, lean, mean transmogrified Ziff Davis empire and Edge (the two I pay most attention to), you see a lot less toe-the-line review coverage than you might think. You see much more "edited into the ground" kind of suspect reviews in online publications.

So if you're gonna write for em then play the game to get that paycheck and free pre-release copies of everything the nail-biting fans are waiting for.

I can honestly say I think this is total horsesh*t, as far as the writers I know in the industry (a subset, to be sure). I've never once gotten pressure from editorial to do something I didn't want to do, or been edited into a box I didn't want to be in. Granted, I've only written for two (or four) print mags, depending on whether you consider EGM/GFW different, or CGM/MMOGames.

Now, that doesn't mean that if, as a writer, I had been all cowtow, I would have somehow set off the Bullsh*t detector and had THAT edited down. Perhaps I could be in someone's back pocket and push things through edit. But not the other way around.

FWIW, I get a lot of stonewalling and no-comment from game PR folks. They are, in general, good guys, but they don't get paid to put their clients in harms way. They get paid to make their clients look good. I can respect that. The relationship will necessarily be adversarial at times.

I've been expecting a piece like this from you for a while, Michael. Good to see it finally come out of you.

I wish I could say I had the answers you're looking for but I don't. One of the perks of working for a rag like The Escapist is that we're not first and foremost a product-oriented outlet, and are therefore not really on the radar of folks with plane tickets burning holes in their pockets. That's changing, but not rapidly enough to cause anyone to lose sleep over it.

I think, though, this issue is a non-issue in a lot of ways. Yes, you may be branded as an anarchist by the developers' PR flaks if you don't take their payola (or if you do then turn around and bad mouth the product), and as a communist by the rabid fanbase if you do, but ultimately I think the meaningful examples of either are so few and far between as to be considered an aberration at this point. As are examples of outright payola.

Thankfully, most PR companies treat the kind of swag and travel arrangement handouts you're talking about as necessary line item expenses, and don't sweat too much over the eventual result. They just want coverage, period, the tone of which is out of their hands.

If you're part of the non-professional enthusiast press, i.e. doing this as a hobby, then you can eat a nice egg McMorality muffin for breakfast each day and side with your audience, refusing to accept plane tickets, free drinks or exclusive invitations, and calling out all the "shills" who do so. But if this is your job, sometimes you have to do what you have to do to get the story. Game journalists aren't alone in this.

If that means occasionally accepting a plane ticket to see an exclusive preview, so be it. The decision to tread lightly on the subject thereafter (or not) is yours, and that's where the real meat of this issue lies.

I just ran across this link while I was thinking about all the crap I plopped down, worth every penny to see Rabbit squirm if you ask me. I'm an activist for the vicious tickling of bunnies.

ARS Technica article.

Edit: This article focuses more on the online reviewing of games and as you Rabbit pointed out print media is a slightly different ball game. At least I think that's what you said...I dunno...I skimmed it.

Nice essay, Michael.

It can get tricky; as big as the business is, it still has a small business feel so you keep running into the same people over and over again and you develop relationships with them. Then you have the even muddier problem of journalists going through the development door and working in the industry they used to cover. What do you do when a former editor or colleague becomes a community/public relations person or producer? (I think this is going to be the next big "ethical challenge" of game journalism.)

Transparency really is the key, here. Readers are much less likely to suspect you of bias if you are up front about everything that publishers have done for you. And, conversely, everything you have done for publishers. But the funny thing about independence is that people confuse independence with neutrality, as if it is impossible to be independently enthusiastic about something or independently hostile to a game. Since strong opinions inevitably serve or punish someone, that service or punishment is seen as the goal of the opinion, and not the consequence.

I've been out of town and, in an effort to get caught up on the site, had to skim this article and its comments. So, I'm not sure where we're at in this Firefly discussion, but I'm take a stab and throw out my opinion:

I prefer Inara.

McChuck wrote:

I prefer Inara. :twisted:


(There I go again.)