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How Possibly To Do Good Games Journalism, Maybe: The Open Questionnaires – Part 1

The tentative guy-who-doesn’t-know-what-he’s-talking-about-trying-to-tackle-big-questions series ‘How Possibly To Do Good Games Journalism, Maybe‘ is back! And in a somewhat different form.

Over on the GamesPress forums (which, as you may have guessed, is a community linked to the GamesPress portal that is inhabited by games journalists), I’ve been trying to prize some information out of people about games journalism practices. I’m hoping to run a few of these “open questionnaires” over there, which I’m then going to post some of the results of, with names removed, over here. I don’t want to incriminate anyone, y’know? Privacy first, and all that.

The first topic was this: Review scores, and the popular assumption among our readership that there are dodgy dealings going on in order for publishers to secure them.

I approach this as someone who’s only been working properly as a games journalist for a little over a year, and even then only ever part-time. Not once have I been offered any sort of bribe or score pursuasion. The closest I’ve ever felt to this was when a PR rep asked if they could have text approval. I said no. That was the end of the matter.

Anyway. Specific questions were:

  • Have you ever been offered money for, or in some other way stood to benefit from (eg. being allowed to publish a review before general embargo, exclusively or otherwise), a high review score?
  • If yes, what course of action did you take?
  • What do you think perpetuates this idea among our readership? Does it happen? Is it all conspiracist nonsense? Any other thoughts on the matter?

And here’s what was discovered.

Generally, those working for smaller publications had never experienced anything of the sort. Those at larger publications had. Everyone categorically denied having ever accepted any form of “compensation” for a high review score.

One journalist at a large publication discussed two cases. In one, they had been offered an embargo-break in exchange for a certain review score – “if you are just as enthusiastic about the game as we are, the embargo is discussable,” the writer quoted from the PR rep. On another occasion, the writer said, several publications (including theirs) were given an ultimatum: a hefty sum of money for the site that provided the most coverage for a certain game over a given time period.  On both these occasions, the publciation refused to comply.

This latter example was the worst detailed, and the only flat-out bribe anyone involved had been offered. Another writer noted that, during their time working at various magazines, he had never been conclusively aware of this happening: “I’ve heard numerous stories about what other people have been given in exchange for bumping up a point or increasing the page count, but […] they are just stories.”

But the embargo-break deal cropped up more than once. On each of the occasions it did, the editor in question claims to have ignored the email, not told the reviewer about the deal, and published with general embargo anyway.

And what about agreed scores for exclusives? “Commonplace,” said one writer. “It’s all part of the continuous editor/PR struggle for numbers.”

Some people, though, thought these publisher benefits were largely a myth. One editor said: “I think readers get this impression because sites/mags run an exclusive review for a hyped game and give it a high score [and] in the case of websites this sometimes is combined with a big advertising spread for the game. When the readers get the game, they may not think it matches up to the score it got and call shenanigans. I don’t think there ever are any though.”

“The Internet gives everyone a medium to voice their opinion,” said another writer. “Eventually, just like in high school, once something enters the group consciousness, it’s rough to stop the flow.”

While another suggested: “People like conspiracy theories, even in the face of much more acceptable truths. When events like Gerstmanngate occur, no matter how isolated the incident, that just further backs these theories.”

Gerstmann’s name cropped up a few times. One writer noted: “Whenever something like that happens, all publications immediately respond with ‘Well, we know it happens… but WE don’t do that!'”

Perhaps the most interesting thing to come out of the discussion was that one GamesPress member wrote his postgrad dissertation on exactly this topic. He was kind enough to send me it. Somewhat worryingly, the study – based on questionnaires sent to a number of leading publications (but flat-out refused to answer by some) – did detail a number of incidences on which suspicious circumstances had arisen. These anecdotes primarily arrived through writers, rather than editors, and included situations such as scores being inflated prior to publication, at the same time as the magazine was trying to secure a future exclusive with the company releasing those games.

It’s all very intriguing, and – to me, at least – somewhat surprising. But as I expected, there is very little hard evidence backing any of this up – and there’s always a likelihood that occasions like this will be picked up on, and far more common occasions on which no dodgy dealings happen at all will be ignored.  I remain absolutely convinced that these suspicious dealings are totally in the minority, and I know of various high-profile publications who have measures in place to ensure such problems don’t occur at all. In other words: I don’t think it’s worth worrying about too much. I certainly don’t want to perpetuate this idea any more.

Is there sometimes a way around these situations, though, which allows editors to maintain the publication’s integrity while still appeasing the PR firms and publishers they’re dealing with?  With embargo-break deals, one writer thinks so. “Not telling the reviewer is the best way to go. If the review is honest, and it works with the deal the publisher’s giving, then why not go for it? […] AS LONG as the reviewer has not been told before-hand and the review is sincere and honest and works with the publisher’s deal.”


One response »

  1. It is down to the Editor, basically. I know of occasions where scores were bumped up, but I also know where scores were marked down, and only rarely were either to do with exclusives – more often, especially on official console magazines near launch, scores are marked up as the writers have to be seen to be advocates for their platform.

    As OXM’s reviews editor, I myself regularly marked down games that other writers reviewed, only marking them up where I thought the text was overly enthusiastic (after consulting the writer, if there was time) or the consensus informed team opinion was that the game was better than that – for example, with Two Worlds or EDF 2097 where the games were rubbish but damn good fun.


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