On games journalism and the art of taking liberties

Matt pours a Forty of bile onto the kerb for his comrade Truth, currently critically ill in hospital after being attacked by freeloading game journos.

Since I started this site back in February of glorious space year 2012 I’ve tried to write about games as honestly and intelligently as I can and with as much passion as I can muster. I love games, I’ve been playing games since the ZX Spectrum and I’m not about to stop any time soon. Games excite me as a medium, particularly now as they transition from awkward adolescence to genuine maturity. Whenever I write about games I strive to do so with that passion burning away in my heart like a miniature sun. On some days that sun is balmy and pleasant, while on others it’s the churning nuclear tri-lobed eye of Azathoth laying waste to all it perceives. Whatever it is at whatever given time, I like to believe it’s honest.

Apparently I’ve been doing it all wrong. What I’m meant to do is brag on twitter about getting hot new games before everyone else and posting pictures of them taken with an iPhone 5. I’m supposed to do consultancy work for publishers whose products I then go on to review for national tabloid newspapers. I’m meant to attend games media back-slapping festivals funded by PR firms where I might win a cute plastic trophy if I’ve done enough to please these same PR firms during the year. While at such events I’m also encouraged to pimp out my twitter account like a drugged-up child prostitute to anyone with a game to sell. All I’d have to do is retweet a hashtag about it – this game I’ve never seen or even played – and I could win a free PS3.

Does that seem right to you? I don’t think so.

Nor did Scottish comedian Robert “Rab” Florence, best known to older UK gamers like myself for the pre-YouTube internet gaming series Consolevania and BBC Scotland’s Videogaiden. Recently he’s been writing a great regular column for Eurogamer called “Lost Humanity”, scrutinising various aspects of gaming culture and the industry and always featuring at least one Dark Souls screenshot. In Rab’s most recent column he criticised journalists attending last week’s Games Media Awards who tweeted the hashtag “GMADefiance” for a chance to win a PS3. Defiance is an MMO from Trion based on the SyFy TV series of the same name that goes live in April 2013. Trion also sponsored the pre-drinks party at this year’s Games Media Awards.

Amongst the journos who tweeted that hashtag and rewarded with a PS3 for their compliance were Dave Cook of VG247.com, Mark Beckford of Sticktwiddlers.com and Neon Kelly of VideoGamer.com. I have not just pulled these names out of my arse. They were all publicly outed as winners by Mark Brown of Pocket Gamer (@britishgaming on twitter) and the relevant hashtag can be found on all these people’s twitter feeds as a matter of public record. You can click the linked names above to see for yourself, although I provide visual evidence below in case their twitter feeds mysteriously become private. I assembled it from data gathered by AndyBeta on Storify.com, who compiled all the #GMADefiance tweets so I didn’t have to.

Dave Cook has since pledged his PS3 to a children’s hospital through the Sick Kids Save Point charity.

This is not endorsement! Honest!

Few of the journalists whoring out their twitters that night saw any problem with what they’d done. Many even had the audacity to defend it. As far as they were concerned they were taking part in a raffle for a chance to win a prize. It was only a harmless hashtag after all. Why are people getting so outraged? It’s not as if anyone following them on twitter might trust what they write about videogames and view that hashtag as an endorsement. It’s not like these people’s jobs are to report on the same industry that’s buying them drinks and plying them with the opportunity to win free consoles or anything. An opportunity, need I remind you, these people eagerly fell upon like jackals on a dying fat man.

If the prize had been a teddy bear and the cost of entry was £1 for a raffle ticket I wouldn’t have had any problem whatsoever with it. This was not some fucking village fete however. This was a media awards ceremony sponsored by the games industry for the people whose job it is to report on that industry. People trusted to deliver that information as accurately and honestly as they can by readers intelligent enough to spot a blatant conflict of interest a mile off, no matter how many limp justifications you try to camouflage it with.

A writer is nothing without their readers. When a writer writes something and a reader reads it they enter into an unwritten contract with each other founded on trust, the key to which is honesty. Honesty is not the same as fact: fiction writers clearly make things up, and even the sincerest conspiracy theories about chasms in the Earth’s poles leading to a underground realm of Nazi supermen are clearly absurd. Honesty in this case refers to how and why you write: your intentions and motivations. You can write vague previews based entirely on a smoke and mirror show, news posts that are little more than regurgitated press releases, or incoherent weekly diatribes against your own audience, and still be honest.

Good writers and good games journalists understand this bargain. Their readers might not necessarily like everything they write yet a hostile audience can still grudgingly respect something if it’s written sincerely. I don’t necessarily agree with everything Rab Florence writes yet I respect it because I believe he writes honestly. I also don’t agree with absolutely everything Jonathon Holmes, John Walker, Ben Kuchera, Leigh Alexander or Kieron Gillen write either but I still respect it for the same reason. These people do not patronise or insult their audience’s intelligence and their audience appreciates them for that by reading their stuff. As equations go it’s hardly rocket surgery or brain science.

When you willingly and eagerly endorse a game you’ve never seen or played in order to win a free PS3 for yourself you piss all over that unspoken covenant. Once you do that there’s no turning back and you become tainted in the eyes of your audience. To quote the great Bill Hicks, “everything you say is suspect and every word that comes out of your mouth is now like a turd falling into my drink.” Keep calling yourself a bona-fide games journalist all you like. Do it until you’re blue in the face and twitching on the floor in your own booze-soaked vomit. If you don’t respect your audience enough to write honestly for them then you’re no longer a journalist, you’re a fucking hack.

It’s not my intent here to tar the entire games journalism industry with the same brush. Contrary to what a lot of gamers might think the vast majority of games journalists, bloggers, sites and blogs do not accept bribes for better game reviews, or indulge in any of the other popular gaming urban legends ascribed to them (except for all the baby-eating they do at Rock Paper Shotgun, which is totally true*). If everyone actually did this the whole business would collapse overnight because there’d be no trust whatsoever, and I’ve already established that trust is vital between writers and their audience. For all the games journo tweeting #GMADefiance with greedy abandon there were some games journalists questioning it, highlighting it, challenging it and all the other things real journalists are supposed to do. They’re still questioning it.

In his Eurogamer column Rab quoted a public tweet from Lauren Wainwright, an MCV Staff Writer who has also written for VG247, The Sun newspaper, IGN, Gamespot and others. Her entry on Journalisted used to say she has also done consultancy work for Square Enix until all references to Square mysteriously vanished. Here’s a screengrab taken before the magical internet job history goblins stole her work for Square away. Despite her twitter comment being a matter of public record Lauren Wainwright has since made her twitter private under the impression that somehow magically un-says it. The exact tweet read as follows:

“Urm… Trion were giving away PS3s to journalists at the GMAs. Not sure why that’s a bad thing?”

I’m sure you can clearly see what’s wrong with that statement.

After a complaint from Lauren Wainwright and alleged threats of legal action from MVC’s owners, Intent Media, Rab’s column was  amended to remove all mention of Lauren Wainwright and the quoted tweet. Rab himself has also stepped down from writing for Eurogamer, presumably out of protest or sheer fucking despair at the state of games journalism. I sincerely urge you to read the original unedited version here, here or here because I believe the ability for media to self-criticise is one of the critical components of a free press. I also believe people should not be censored for quoting statements made in a public forum. I believe in standing by what you say, having the humility to apologise when necessary and other quaint notions like decency, ethics and integrity. I believe in having some basic fucking standards.

Today we have seen truth crushed to a bloody smear, like a dog under a tractor, by individuals and organisations within the gaming press who believe their right to free swag is more important than your right to question their behaviour. Who believe themselves immune to criticism like anointed God-Kings and Queens of yore. Who’ll tell you this outrage is just internet games drama you shouldn’t worry your pretty little head about, and you should instead kick back with a nice refreshing Mountain Dew and stuff your face with new Nacho Cheese Doritos. Don’t think about it. Don’t ask questions. Don’t rock the gravy train. Don’t believe you can change anything.

Does that seem fucking right to you? Does it?

My name is Matt. I am not a professional games journalist but I love playing videogames, writing about videogames, and the truth. I’ll let you decide what that makes me.

* To to the best of this writer’s knowledge the staff of Rock Paper Shotgun do not devour the live flesh of screaming newborns at a forsaken crossroads every Full Moon. Some rumours suggest it’s actually every NEW Moon. Despite the suggestive and somewhat heartbreaking image you see above, respected games journalist and Spike TV presenter Geoff Keighley is never personally involved in these cannibalistic rites. Any resemblance between Geoff Keighley and the towering wicker man employed by the writers at Rock Paper Shotgun at their profane ceremonies is purely coincidental.

Matt

About Matt

Matt is the irresponsible degenerate behind bitscreed.com and the sarcastic writer, editor, director, presenter and tea boy of Pixel Burn.