Gaming journalism has had what can only be described as a difficult year. The undercurrent of unhappiness that has simmered for years in the gaming community about the way that news stories in gaming are covered and the way that gaming publications operate regarding potential conflicts of interest boiled over and spilled into public consciousness in the scandal known as #Gamergate. Whether you support the Gamergate hashtag or not it cannot be denied that it has raised several questions about the way that video game journalists conduct themselves and whether video game publications have a responsibility to enforce a high ethical standard in the behaviour of their employees.
A recent development in this saga has been the involvement of Michael Koretzky of the Society of Professional Journalists, an organisation representing journalists across the USA that promotes and encourages high journalism standards while supporting freedom of speech and freedom of the press. The SPJ has a Code Of Ethics that it believes journalists should endeavor to abide by. This code thoroughly details what the SPJ considers to be the basic principles and responsibilities that journalists should consider in order to report the truth with maximum integrity and minimal harm. In essence to ensure that all those who find themselves under the scrutiny of the press are treated fairly. At this time Koretzky is attempting to explore the Gamergate debate by recruiting various people on all sides of the argument to take part in a discussion panel, called Airplay, to analyse the current state of gaming journalism.
I believe that video game journalism as a medium has always seemed somewhat confused about what it wanted to be, an enthusiast press, an investigative press or a marketing press. Gaming news media is still relatively young and it’s reaction to those that have questioned it’s ethical conduct has been just that, young and immature. The gaming press seems to have had little to no idea how to address the concerns of it’s readers, veering wildly between denying that a problem even exists and throwing blame and accusations at ‘entitled’ gamers.
Gaming journalism has reacted to the discussion of journalism ethics like a stroppy teenager.
To understand what I mean by this let’s look at a little of the history of video game journalism. What started out in the 70s and 80s as magazines that were part enthusiast writing and part game company public relations has grown into a multi-million dollar industry, now situated more online than in print (in part because the game market crash of 1983 put many video game magazines out of business) In the early days game developers had little choice but to deal directly with journalists, since few game companies could afford a PR department. At this point game journalists were coming into the medium through traditional journalism means, studying journalism at college/university.
Through the late 80s and early 90s video game PR increasingly became the domain of publishing companies and magazines began to re-emerge. The 90s saw the introduction of the internet and game publications tentatively began launching online, with no clue how big the internet would become. A consequence of this was that writers had to work faster to keep the site updated with new content, rather than having stories and articles collated in a monthly publication. Unfortunately this meant that stories were often rushed and sometimes contained mistakes. Around the same time the paradigm of where game writers emerged from shifted. Game journalists, while enthusiastic about the medium, lacked the gaming knowledge that the readers expected and so publications began to expand to include hiring writers that, while being avid gamers, lacked formal journalism qualifications. It was the 90s that first saw questions about the ethical conduct of game journalists emerge. By this point video game publishers had begun to promote video games with larger and larger PR events, enticing journalists with free promotional swag. By the years of the new millennium video game publications had begun to crackdown on this behaviour, establishing rules about what journalists could and could not accept. Online publishing of video game writing continued to grow more popular, rapidly establishing itself as the norm for gaming journalism.
So having very briefly chronicled origins and formative development we now begin to look at where we are now, in what is essentially the adolescent years of gaming journalism. In order to examine this I think it might be helpful to understand how people become video game journalists using this FAQ from a video game journalism job site.
So from this we can see that very little has changed in terms of gaming publications not expecting potential writers to have any academic qualification in journalism. Realistically there’s nothing wrong with that provided candidates have an understanding of what journalism is, including the ethical responsibilities. The FAQ right away refers to video game journalism as not being journalism “in the traditional sense” and in a way it is correct, for example traditionally journalists don’t usually write product reviews. However where news articles are concerned there’s an expectation that stories are covered without conjecture or personal opinion unless it is clearly defined as such. As the SPJ code of ethics puts it “Label advocacy and commentary” Gaming journalism has become rife with personal opinion and ideological influence. It seems almost impossible for game journalists to write a story without injecting their own personal biases, all under the umbrella of of being ‘progressive’ In this open letter to Gamergate by Polygon from October 2014 Polygon uses the SPJ Ethics Code to justify it’s ethical behaviour and attacks supporters of Gamergate for wanting to remove politics from video game news coverage.
If, as a news outlet, you want to write opinion pieces about any type of political or social ideology in the context of video games then that’s fine, go right ahead. Gaming publications have been known to give the opinion that they think video games and video game audiences should ‘grow up’ and that’s fine too. However when news stories, which exist to inform the public of events and should contain a minimal amount of bias, are tainted with personal politics? Even affecting decisions of which stories are covered and which ones are not? That is a problem. Inability to report news objectively because of some misguided attempt to affect change in video games based on personal prejudice? That is a problem. Gaming Journalism is not only a teenager, it is a teenager attempting to look grown up while entering it’s post adolescent idealistic phase.
Let’s tell a story, potentially put ourselves in the shoes of a modern video game journalist, albeit it with a fair bit of generalisation. You love video games, you love them so much you regularly write a blog about them. You don’t have a journalism degree but you have some talent as a writer and over time have managed to build an audience, you decide to try and make a living out of it. You start out with freelance work, sending content pitch emails to video game publications and seeing if any of them are accepted, you also apply through any site that says it’s in need of writers. When pitches are accepted you sit in your home and write whatever assignment you have. As time passes you start getting work published, you keep on sending out applications and pitches and eventually you land a job at a video game publication. It doesn’t pay well but it’s what you love and you still write from home. Only now it’s more serious, the site constantly needs new content so you’re given assignments and have very little time to complete them. You may be asked to write news articles, stepping outside the comfort zone of the personal blogs and opinion pieces that form your current repertoire. The speed required may mean that you have to write items based on secondary sources. Instead of going directly to the source of a story you’re writing news articles sourced from other news articles. If you’re lucky and you live in a major city you may be called upon to cover a gaming event, maybe something big like E3. Suddenly you’re there with your press pass surrounded by game developers, potentially heroes of yours that created all your favourite video games. There’s PR people too and they talk to you, smile at you, maybe offer you free stuff. People want to talk to you and be your friend. You may suddenly feel like the coolest person in the world.
You may meet new people, including up and coming independent developers that you find things in common with. You may even share certain ideological stances with some of them, forming a circle of friendships and close knit relationships. Some of them may eventually put games out and you may write positively about them, a mention here or there, after all you want them to succeed and there’s no harm in helping out people you care about right? After all it’s only video games, it’s not like it means a great deal in the real world, you’re not harming anybody right?
The reason any kind of journalism exists is to serve the best interests of the public, this is true whether it be worldwide journalism that covers social or political issues or a niche journalism that covers a specific hobby or interest. What is harmed is the public trust that game publications are acting with the concerns of the consumer in mind. One of the most important responsibilities of any journalist is to keep themselves free of, or disclose, any potential conflicts of interest.
From the SPJ Code of Ethics
I don’t agree that it doesn’t matter because it’s only game journalism. This whole mess is symptomatic of a problem in internet news media as a whole. News sites, as businesses competing with each other to make money, believing that they must constantly update with new content has led to a severe decline in the quality of news articles. Journalism sites have become filled with poorly researched news items that lack any real depth or nuance and click-bait opinion pieces designed to feed the internet outrage machine.
As far as game journalism is concerned it remains to be seen as to whether the Airplay discussion will really achieve anything and there is a great deal of skepticism. After all, those that questioned the ethical conduct of gaming sites have for the most part got what what they asked for. Gaming publications have updated their ethics policies and are, appearing at least, to be disclosing more. At this point it seems more for vindication or posterity than anything else. However that increase in concern for ethics has come so begrudgingly and sitting down with gamers to discuss their concerns would mean having to admit there was a problem in the first place, something game journalists are still refusing to do.
So it comes to this, game journalism says that gaming needs to grow up, I say that it is game journalism that needs to grow up. The last nine months could have easily been avoided if gaming publications had been willing to accept that mistakes were made and that the game journalists writing for them need better training and guidance on how to cover news stories responsibly. That is the key word here, responsibility. Whether it likes it or not gaming journalism has a duty, not just to it’s readers but to those they would seek to scrutinise. The reason that ethics in any kind of journalism exist is to ensure that the great power of the press is wielded in a mature and rational way. It is not enough to have established rules of conduct for game journalists if those journalists do not fully understand the implications of those rules and why they are necessary. The press has the ability to be judge, jury and executioner in the court of public opinion. We’re talking the potential to make and ruin lives, make or break governments, exalt those they deem worthy to the greatest of heights and just as quickly bring them low. When questions are raised about the ethical behaviour of journalists the publications that they work for cannot afford to throw a tantrum. Refusing to admit accountability while screaming that it is gamers that are childish has failed to make any of this go away. The contempt for video games and gamers in the name of progressiveness has all the hallmarks of an immature teenager that wants to look grown up, afraid that the things they once loved will make them seem childish.
It is no longer enough to say that game journalism is not really journalism. Journalists of any kind HAVE to take what they do seriously and that means owning their mistakes and paying for them. When all is said and done that is what being a responsible journalist, and a responsible adult, really means.
Thanks For Reading
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