Ethics in games journalism is clearly the hottest of all potatoes in the industry right now. Yeah, alright, we can all argue about the dubious origins of Gamergate, but regardless, it HAS turned into some sort of debate (albeit one seemingly unfocused by rage, indignity and misogyny) about ethics in games journalism.
I find it a bit weird, to be honest. Do music journalists suffer the same degree of scrutiny, when they give the new Katy Perry album 9/10? Or are music journos perceived as being that much more apart than the rest of us, existing as the handmaidens of a gilded, coked-up elite? Are they a more nebulous target?
Is part of the issue here the fact that any one of us could become a games journalist, and some of us are bitter that we're not? Relax, my Chans - that's not me having a go, or judging. Because, you see, we were just as bad.
Or just as human anyway.
COME, PARP OUR HORNS
Far be it for us to parp our horns too hard, but I’m pretty sure Digitiser were among the first people to raise questions about corruption in games journalism.
Bear in mind, Digi was born into a pre-internet age, and written by a team that – through a mixture of self-imposed social isolation, general grumpiness, and never really wanting to buy into some sort of boozy lad culture (though we had our moments) – never particularly felt like part of the games industry. Maybe people were talking down the pub about whether "Jaz" Rignall and Richard Leadbetter were taking backhanders, but I doubt it. It was a different age.
It’s similar to the way that the original Band Aid belonged to a less enlightened era. Now – 30 years on – people are that much more cynical when rich, privileged, pop stars try to save Africa from itself. Everything is questioned, debated, and then - all too often - attacked.
And that's kind of ok - if people are out of touch with themselves, or behaving in ways that appear to be inappropriate or nefarious or patronising, then they should absolutely be pulled up on it (providing it can be done with empathy and consideration, of course). Because, really, nobody wants to be coming across like a dick, and sometimes we don't even realise when we are.
Back in the Digi days, being apart always allowed us to look in on the industry with a degree of detachment, and what we saw was curious. We would hear tales of exclusives being negotiated over long, beery lunches. We got wind of high review scores being promised in return for early access to (sometimes unfinished) code. Certainly, some of the relationships between journos and the PR people, who just wanted decent coverage for their games, seemed uncomfortably and inappropriately close.
There were people in games PR who we respected and got on well with (usually the ones who were honest when their products were crap), and we admittedly had freebie trips to Germany, Norway and LA.
But, let's be honest, we'd all be up for a free holiday, and there were never as many we’d have liked. Certainly, we were never offered enough to get as jaded by them as some of the journos we met – who’d pout and sulk on trips, without a shred of awareness as to how bloody lucky they were.
But generally, it never really happened to us in any sort of overt way. Except once. Sort of. A PR guy, with a bit of a nudge and a wink, said - off the back of a positive review - that we should “talk about remuneration”.
We didn’t quite know what he meant, but it was a bit of an awkward moment, and certainly made us think that it was more widespread. If oddballs like us could be offered a backhander, who knows what was going on inside The Boys Club of the wider industry? That was likely the tipping point for us to start talking about it on Digi’s pages.
Of course, we had the benefit of not being beholden to advertisers, beyond iffy 0898 phone lines, offering you the chance to win a cow or chat late into the night with lonely stockbrokers. However, we were rarely deemed important enough for most PR people - too confused by what exactly we were - to really try to build a relationship with us.
On the one hand, it was a nice position to be in - we could take the moral high ground, and more or less do whatever we wanted. On the other hand, nobody really wants to be an outsider, and as we’d hear stories of our peers being flown around the world, it was impossible not to feel a pang of, well, jealousy. The more we felt snubbed, the more we revelled in our outsider status, and the more we harped on about how different and independent and uncorrupt we were.
That’s the reality – hand on heart, Digitiser was corruption-free. But as with anything in life, there but for the grace of God went we.
Would we really have been able to stay as independent, and would our review scores have remained as honest, if we'd really had mates in the industry, who we didn't want to upset? Specifically, big, powerful mates who could threaten to remove advertising on a whim, and put the magazine's very existence in jeopardy? Could we have remained as virtuous if we were fighting other mags for the big stories?
And was there part of us that went on about our independence and integrity simply because we had no choice but to be thus?
Well, y'know, yeah...
Putting aside the way this whole Gamergate/ethics debate originally blew up, it remains a difficult issue, one that - as with everything - is more complex than simply saying that corruption in games journalism exists, when it shouldn't.
Of course it shouldn't. And, actually, it's ok to flag it up when we see it. When it's probably not ok is when it comes from a place of bitterness and resentment because you perceive somebody like you is apparently living the life you think you'd like, or deserve. Is that any less corrupt or unethical as someone who's given a game a good write-up, because they were put in a difficult position?
For many, becoming a games journalist - despite how ill-paid it actually is - can be The Holy Grail. We all play games. So imagine getting to play them all day, and getting paid for it, and getting sent on glamorous trips around the globe! Who wouldn't want that, right? And who, let's be honest, could avoid feeling envious when we see people just like us getting to live that gilded life?
Attention should always be drawn to corruption, whether it exists in games media, politics, or tabloid journalism. But I wonder whether it even matters in games writing anymore? It feels as if, in this age of social media and YouTube videos of shrieking Swedes playing games, that actual reviews, by people who are paid to write those reviews, are becoming less and less relevant.
We're all reviewers now. We're all part of the industry. We've all, potentially, got jobs in games journalism. They just might not be jobs that pay any money, or get us flown around the world.
I feel your pain.