In the story of the week last week, the biggest story is that the story became its own story. Confusing? Possibly, but this is exactly why it serves as an awesome way to describe gaming culture in a nutshell: nerds debating tiny, insignificant details that make no sense whatsoever to people from the outside looking in and then succeeding in blowing the debate up so thoroughly that real people were definitely injured in making of this video… or news story… or opinion column, whatever.
In case you are wondering what I am on about – it is somewhat telling that the biggest gaming scandal of the last week went largely unnoticed by most American gaming media. And I don’t just mean large corporate websites. One would think that bloggers would be quick to grab the winning headline and run with it (the headline could be something like: British gaming journalists turn out to be humongous pussies!11!11) but in reality it seems that everyone was just happy to leave the Brits to wallow in their own filth and sort it out in the traditional way: icepicks at dawn! But there is a deeper meaning to all the turdslinging that took place on the island last week and a lesson to be learned for all of us. Being neither American nor British I still believe the Florencegate scandal teaches us something very important about gaming culture.
Namely that we do not value or even understand integrity.
Sure, being hardcore nerds, we will intuitively argue the opposite. That we worship people sticking to the original vision – do we not start online petitions and throw hissy fits when a sequel to a popular game changes the protagonist’s hair colour and reveals that the screen refresh rate might be half of the original one (something that needs to be explained in layman terms to a non-gaming person)? That we value personal, honest opinions of people critiquing games – do we not, after all, pollute the comment sections of gaming websites with fiery accusations and bitter vows of boycott, claiming that we know they are on the take, corrupt, barely fit to live and certainly unfit to reproduce?
On the surface it would seem that we, the hardcore do what the hardcore does: recognise integrity and reward it with loyalty despite the often illogical economic outcomes of such a decision.
However if you needed a case study to demonstrate that exactly the opposite is true, now you have it.
Right, so let’s get you up to speed. What happened last week is fairly minor in real world terms and yet… Eurogamer, the largest European gaming website commissioned a series of opinion pieces from Robert (aka Rab) Florence, rather famous Scottish gaming writer and once television author, responsible among other things for probably the best videogame video review ever created. Called “Lost Humanity”, Florence’s series of weekly column writings has been personal, idiosyncratic, often funny, sometimes preachy but always engaging. Last week, in what turned out to be the last Lost Humanity column he will do, Florence discussed the integrity of game journalists/ game reviewers, meditating on their often close ties to game publishers’ PR departments and frequent blurring of lines between being an enthusiast who gushes about anticipated games in social media and being a professional who is paid to provide presumably unbiased opinions on the same games.
Florence’s article named some names, citing particular people and showing how their twitter behaviour might have an outside viewer think that some of their innocent comments are actually paid for by game publishers. An interesting topic to say the least and Florence certainly made no accusations, merely indicating that there is room for doubt and healthy debate.
But you know, in this bizarro world we inhabit, healthy debate dies once the formal place for this debate is invoked. Namely the court of law. Which is, according to unproven allegations exactly what happened when one of the names mentioned in the article asked for her name to be removed, feeling that it is unjust and cruel to be singled out like that. The details are sketchy, there are claims that litigation was never explicitly mentioned but on the other hand, Florence insists it was heavily implied. Be as it may, Eurogamer responded by removing parts of the article mentioning names and their specific twitter behaviour. Florence responded by announcing he no longer writes for Eurogamer but also making sure to emphasise that Eurogamer are the innocent party here, merely responding in mild panic to an emergency that British libel legislation creates in situations like this. Detailed overview, with links and all necessary references can be found here.
A storm in a teacup if there ever was one, right? I mean, there is this bloke who accused this lass of being on the take, she contested the insinuations, asking for them to be removed or proven in the court of law and his employer decided to take the less painful and expensive route. Nobody’s knickers need to get in a twist over this, right?
Well, of course there was a minor meltdown on the Internet in the following 48 or so hours. NeoGaf was a pit of boiling lava and, sure a twitter carpet bombing took place right on cue, forcing the female journalist in question to protect her profile. People started republishing the integral article and digging for proof that the journalist lied about not having professional relationship with a publisher whose games she reviewed, her current employer being asked repeatedly about threatening legal action… John Walker of Rock, Paper, Shotgun posted a very emotional article on his personal website, calling the situation an utter disgrace and all in all the question seemed to be this: how much of a dick a journalist has to be to threaten litigation when a colleague mentions her in vaguely negative light in the scope of a discussion of a broader issue? Also why a respected publication has to lose a respected opinion writer over a frivolous (if only implied) legal threat from a corporate shill in a game journalist guise?
Which of course obscures the real issue here: that Eurogamer handled the issue with all the grace of a kangaroo dropping a ball, where the ball is actually a hand grenade and the kangaroo suffers from Playstation 3-induced epilepsy.
What this incident should teach us is that gamers simply love to fight for causes, especially if fighting includes calling strangers on the Internet dumb bitches and pointing to their professional records as proof that they deserve neither due process nor empathy. And seriously, let us just take a deep breath and look at this issue with calm minds so we can reach the inevitable conclusion: all blame here, if it needs to be attributed, lies with Eurogamer.
Yes, Eurogamer. Not the author of the disputed opinion article, not the would-be plaintiff, but with Eurogamer, the biggest European gaming news website.
Now, just to make it clear: I like Eurogamer, read it every day, consider its tendency to use tabloid tactics in its news stories small price to pay for providing us with usually brilliant writing on games in their reviews, retrospectives, opinion pieces and even some investigative journalism write ups. Also they are often funny.
And they seem to value their integrity: there was a recent Florence’s column criticising his own employer for allowing booth babes at the Eurogamer Expo and the response from Eurogamer was measured and disarmingly frank. Also, the said Expo hosted a rather open discussion on the process of reviewing games and explaining what is the relationship between advertising and critique. Eurogamer, it seemed, valued its own integrity and its readers valued them for it.
Until last week’s events showed us that when faced with the challenge to their integrity, Eurogamer simply and efficiently used the least popular tool at their disposal: censorship.
So, why lay all the blame on them? Here’s the logic:
I have been writing for printed and electronic media for the odd twenty years now and while most of the media in my country wouldn’t have enough integrity to fill a shot glass, it is, at least in theory clear how this stuff should work. The editor commissions a piece and when the author delivers it, the editor goes through it and says stuff like “Hmmm, OK, this is kosher and this needs to be investigated better and cite a reference, this can not be published, too dangerous and this, WHOA, do we even have a stock photo of an alligator getting colonoscopy? Do alligators even have colons?” The stuff that seems too offensive, or cannot be proven with overwhelming evidence or that simply harms the interests of powers that have some sort of power over the said media does not make it into the final edit of the piece. And this is not censorship: this is editorial work. An editor is there to ensure the final, published text is reasonably comprehensive, reasonably true and that it doesn’t expose his employer to risks that might endanger its functioning.
This is exactly what Eurogamer’s editor has not done: Florence confirmed that much in his own article on Walker’s website saying Eurogamer had never changed a word in any of his columns.
Which is awesome, three cheers for the free press, but then, when the shit hits the fan, you need to stand your ground otherwise the press stops being free. And this is where Eurogamer stopped pretending to be free. An editor who greenlights an opinion piece for publishing also takes the responsibility for it. An editor is paid by their publisher to make decisions that will maximise the reader response while simultaneously shielding the publisher from potential risks. This is an editor’s job. The author is paid to write and once he sells his writing to the publisher, the publisher takes the full legal responsibility for it. In the ideal world at least. In that world, Eurogamer’s editor would respond to the request to change the article by saying “We sympathise with the hurt feelings and want to avoid litigation, but we stand by the words we published and will not change them under any conditions”. This is what integrity would mean.
Now, sure, some blame needs to be distributed: Rab Florence could have made his points without naming names and causing people to feel being unjustly singled out. The journalist who asked for her name to be removed could have fought in some classier ways – by writing a response and asking Eurogamer to publish it (actually the other journalist named in the article simply engaged the allegations in the comment section at Eurogamer’s website and on twitter). But essentially, both, Robert and the insulted journalist just did what is reasonably their job: Rab provided an opinion and she invited an independent authority to judge whether this opinion is fair and balanced or libel that could hurt her personally and professionally. It is Eurogamer who acted unprofessionally and turned what could have been a case of game journalists sticking to principles and fighting for free thought into a self-fulfilling prophecy of censorship and valuing integrity but only when there is no risk involved.
The implication, however is that neither the gaming media nor us, the consumers of games and gaming media hold integrity very high in our decisionmaking process when it comes to dealing with games. We will certainly keep buying game franchises that we have proclaimed creatively bankrupt on Internet forums, because all our friends are buying them and this is how we interact. We will continue reading and fiercely debating reviews on gaming websites even after we repeatedly get dickslapped in the face by obvious shills. This is because we are enthusiasts and because we accept that game journalists/ writers/ reviewers are just like us regardless of the fact that they get paid for their enthusiasm.
Yes, we are still not unlike children in many regards when it comes to games. Sure, we will occasionally stop to discus the social implications of the setting in a game like Dishonored but the way game media treats us and the way we treat it back is telling: we don’t trust them to be honest and they don’t trust us to be critical enough to keep them straight. It’s a symbiosis of sorts that I will not argue is unhealthy or only natural: it is there and it needs to be acknowledged. We barely have any game critique and the medium that is almost the quickest (second only to porn) to invent new ways to monetise parts of the experience at the expense of immersion that this experience should provide – is the medium in which critical discourse and unbiased thinking (and writing) will have a very hard time to thrive in the coming years of increasingly bloated game budgets and PR campaigns.
And just to make sure we are clear here: let us say that the Eurogamer’s editor decided to exercise some ground standing and had his company sued. They say that the UK libel legislation kills you even if you win in the end, so the functioning of the company could have been jeopardised, jobs might have been lost, not least the job of the editor in question. And I can fully sympathise with a person not wanting to lose such a job, not in this economy, not over some barely important references to one journalist who isn’t used to being a good sport.
But this, this is the editor’s job. Being paid to publish watertight articles that will get people in a heated debate but won’t get you sued into bankruptcy. And if you still get sued and lose then the editor failed at his job. Being the one of ensuring integrity of the publisher and, by extension demonstrating personal integrity even if it means that, yes, you have to step down due to making a bad call at one point.
Or, if it still is not clear enough, why not use an extreme example?
You all know The Pirate Bay, yes, if only indirectly, as being the biggest torrent site on the Internet, the one that made piracy an ideology, the one that is still out there after Demonoids and Btjunkies bit the dust, defiantly saying that people should be allowed to share whatever they enjoy, Hollywood be damned.
You also know that The Pirate Bay has only one policy when it comes to requests to remove torrents: they do not. Go to their legal threats page, scroll to the very bottom, see what is still says there: “we used to have a nice graph here, but it’s simpler to just say: 0 torrents has been removed, and 0 torrents will ever be removed.)”
You may know that they have been undergoing a very expensive and difficult trial, instigated by American copyright holders, a trial that saw TPB founders raided and harassed, convicted and sentenced to prison terms. Gottfrid Svartholm was arrested in Cambodia earlier this year and is serving a one year sentence in solitary confinement with his family allowed to visit him once per week.
Please, let that sink in for a minute: a man is held in a solitary cell, prohibited from even meeting other inmates, with one hour per day dedicated to exercise in the prison yard. Over copyright violation. Because he would not remove torrent files from his website when asked by Hollywood studios and gaming companies. This is a man that gamers – usually not even knowing his name – will mock on forums, saying he only got what he deserved and hoping he drops the soap in the least convenient situation. And, yet, this is a man that fully and completely understands the notion of integrity and holds it dear enough to go to prison for refusing to compromise it. Meanwhile we continue to hold pirates to higher standards than the free thinking gaming media.
The logic, sometimes, makes no sense at all, does it?
Ask Meho where he got that alligator colonoscopy visual in a friendly email.
fantastic. I have been feeling a little burned out by the video game community lately, perhaps due to my masochistic ventures into Destructoid comment streams, which have been propagated more and more the last year by the vitriolic gamers that were previously encamped in websites I have failed to discover up to this point (please let it by synchronicity!). This latest fracas with Eurogamer helped me to readily clarify the problems I have with discussions surrounding video games, which is heartbreaking because my entire musical career is becoming more readily dedicated to video game music and the joys inherent. Regardless, Tap has allayed my frustrations again, great writing Meho!
Amazingly, this is the first I’ve read about all this. So thanks to tap-repeatedly for giving me some interesting reading material this weekend. 🙂
An excellent read, as it provides a new perspective on something that has been talked about a lot already. It is indeed strange that EuroGamer should give someone full creative freedom, but refuse to stand by it when things may take a turn for the worse. It must be noted, though, that libel laws in the UK are rather strange and can, as said in this article, hurt you if even if you did nothing wrong. So I understand Eurogamer’s decision to cave in, even if this means they made a mistake initially by publishing Florence’s article without changing anything. Given their knee-jerk reaction, I get the impression that they may not even have considered the possibility of a legal backlash. And, to be honest, having read the uncensored version of this article, I fail to see the harm in Florence’s statements about the journalist. He is not even implying wrongdoing on her behalf as much as he is voicing a general concern over the current state of video game journalism. And, if anything, the journalist’s overheated reaction may have caused her much more harm than that article ever could have done on its own. Because of the scandal, I now know her name, and I’d be lying if I said I respect her behaviour in this situation, while for all know, she might be a fantastic journalist. All in all, I think it’s safe to say that this situation has not produced any victors.
I participate in a discussion group with other industry professionals on the journalism side, and as you can imagine, this situation has been the subject of many posts.
In my experience, the vast majority of professional games industry journalists take their jobs seriously and would be offended by claims that PR can unduly influence them. Whether or not PR actually CAN unduly influence them is another matter.
Publishers throw unbelievably lavish press junkets – week-long getaways in tropical locales, exclusive tours of or visits to amazingly cool places, monster parties with celebrity entertainment. Gifts and swag flow freely at these events. And Publishers are not stupid, either; most PR reps are attractive, young, and female, because most games journalists are men. I’ve even seen guidelines – on both the publisher side and the media side – regarding appropriate levels of sexual contact with PR reps.
So there’s an enormous effort to influence journalists. Some make a point to turn down those big invitations, or to donate the opulent gifts they often receive at them. Others do not and insist that these things don’t influence them, which may well be true.
Moreover, since publishers advertise on the very sites and in the very magazines for which the journalists write, there’s the extra pressure of losing ad revenue for publishing a negative piece. It can put journalistic integrity in jeopardy, since this is one of the only entertainment media almost entirely ad-supported by the medium it covers.
The journalists I know, all of them, work hard to maintain an ethical boundary. They also work hard to build trust with their consumers, and consumers who trust certain journalists tend to allow them some leeway based on that trust. Jim Rossignol of Rock, Paper, Shotgun is trusted, for example; as such most people don’t mind that RPS often covers the developments of his own studio. He’s clear about disclosures and he has earned a store of goodwill.
Technically speaking Tap-Repeatedly is not a professional site; we maintain journalistic integrity here because it means something to us. In my case, I maintain it also because I work elsewhere in the industry and integrity is important professionally.
In most instances, though, our writers don’t need to get a piece approved before it runs, so it’s certainly possible that we could one day publish something that I’d ordinarily have edited or questioned. If that were to happen, I wouldn’t feel too bad about editing or removing the piece after the fact, particularly if someone called foul on a claim made in it.
In the case of Eurogamer, the editorial structure probably flagged Rab’s remarks in advance, but likely didn’t think there’d be a threat of legal action. Given what I understand of UK libel laws, their move in the wake of that threat seems… prudent.
Back when this site was Four Fat Chicks we got threatened with action because of a negative review that I’d written. Of course, the publisher couldn’t accuse us of libel; he just didn’t like the review. So he accused me of pirating the game (I had not). He thought we were a little fan site, easily intimidated. Imagine his surprise when Jen told him she’d be happy to get her lawyers in touch. We never heard from him again.
Ultimately the responsibility falls on journalists to be ethical, editors to be vigilant, and gamers to study the media and identify who they trust. When it comes to a war between two journalists, that’s a weirder situation, and in this case one that probably should have been handled without the threats.
Thoughtful article. Brings back memories of Jeff Gerstmann’s sudden departure as editor over at Gamespot (in 2007) due to his unfavourable review of Kane & Lynch, where Eidos threatened to pull their advertising for the game on Gamespot, and the management caved and fired Gerstmann.
I was unaware of further developments on this until I went trawling through a bunch of articles to refresh my memory of the incident. Now I see things have come full circle, with Gerstmann’s Giant Bomb company being taken over by Gamespot’s parent company:
Small world of computer journalism creates delicious irony 🙂