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I’m officially ‘media’ now. I went to E3 and have a badge (actually a few) to prove it. It had my real name on it and everything. In a way that is frightening, my real identity and my online identity are closing the gap between each other. I now sign a significant number of emails using both identities. Soon I think I’ll have my pseudonym on TMC changed to my real name. I have met and chatted with major developers, cult gaming heroes, and Editors in Chief of other gaming sites. There is a light at the end of the tunnel that I can dimly make out, it’s source being the shining hope of a real job in games journalism.
In a way, though, I’ve already arrived. I have press access to a half dozen games now, a number which is growing every week. I don’t play most. My last review of a game was for The Last of Us, a game that I rolled out to a Gamestop to purchase myself. That review, and the small tote bag full of swag from E3, got me thinking about the nature of games journalism. It’s not an uncommon topic – to attempt to analyze the relationship between PR and media. Some say it’s a case of ‘six of one, half dozen of the other’. Others insist that the good journalists will remain unswayed by swag and free games. As I ‘grow up’ in this industry, I’m beginning to realize that both sides are right.
Media coverage of a game, particularly when it has just launched (zero day reviews) or hasn’t even yet (previews), is PR. Don’t let anyone tell you differently. Unfortunately, it is PR that we, the common gamers of the world, clamor for. We want all the latest information on XYZ game because XYZ is going to be a life changing experience; you’re going to dedicate hundreds of hours to XYZ and everyone else should too, by God! Gaming media outlets recognize this frightful hunger and aim to please, collecting nice checks from sponsors and ad companies as a result. Whether we can blame these news outlets for doing such a thing is a tricky question. I’m inclined to say yes, but I also recognize that if places like Kotaku, IGN and Polygon did not play the McDonald’s (over 80 billion served!) to the gaming community’s burger chewing consumer, they wouldn’t have the money to pay staff to do real journalism at all.
Not that they get paid much to begin with. In my day job I work as, essentially, “Help Desk Plus”. I help users fix their font size in Outlook on one call, and repair/deploy/manage datastores for virtualized servers on the next. For this I am paid about 70k a year in US Monopoly Money. In Southern California this isn’t that much, but it’s more than a journalist makes. To make a roughly equivalent amount of money, I a) couldn’t live in San Diego and b) would have to be a very well experienced Managing Editor at a major site. The ceiling for my current career field (assuming I can segue more solidly into security, which is my specialization) is pretty high up there. Whereas in games journalism, I’d top out around 100k as an Editor in Chief for a major site (maybe a little more if I’m Stephen Totilo). The point I’m making with this is not ‘look at how much money I make’, because it’s not a lot. The point is that to be in games journalism, you have to do it because you can’t imagine doing anything else. You’ll get paid crap, work long hours, put up with the Internet in all of its terrifying infamy, and all you get is some swag and maybe a paid trip to a convention a few times a year.
This is where we get to the other argument in the PR-Media Relationship Debate. “A good journalist won’t be swayed by swag,” argue many good journalists. I’m sure its true. At the end of the day, the Witcher 3 jigsaw puzzle I got at E3, the Titanfall T Shirt – it doesn’t change the fact that your game is good or bad. When I write words for public viewing, I’m committing myself to that opinion in a major way – now more than ever, what with the commingling of identities going on. To be completely honest, the only thing I got from E3 that I didn’t give away was that jigsaw puzzle. That has stayed in its original wrapping and has been set up on my bookcase, next to the Tempest model I won on Twitter a couple years ago, to collect dust. All the shirts, the knick knacks and baubles – all of it has been given away to friends and family. This, I am told, is the way of the good games journalist.
But that’s not really the end of the story when it comes to ‘considerations’, is it? There are ad deals, there are interviews, there are VIP access badges to presentations at E3 and at parties afterwards. When you are the media at an event like E3, you are treated more or less like royalty, and this surely has to have some kind of impact on your coverage of games. Hell, even the free game thing has me rethinking my own coverage.
Right now, I have a press account to Darkfall, a fantasy MMO that is a lot like EVE Online. I was offered this free access to a subscription based, 60 dollar up-front MMO by the publisher after contacting them for media assets and to enroll in their PR distribution list. I have played Darkfall a bit using this free access, and if I’m entirely honest, I don’t really like the game. It’s a solid offering, but just as EVE is pretty boring when you first start, so is Darkfall. If I want a sandbox experience, I’ll play EVE (where I am relatively well established in the game) rather than climbing out of the muck and the mire of a new game. However, I have found myself framing my upcoming analysis of Darkfall in positive terminology, based on the fact that it was free for me to play.
However, it isn’t a free game. I have to keep reminding myself. And when I do, there is absolutely no way in hell I would play Darkfall if I had to pay for it. This is the kind of unconscious mental tug of war that I imagine many budding games journalists have to deal with. It isn’t easy.
In contrast, I feel truly satisfied about my Last of Us review. A game that I purchased, made by a company that TMC has literally no relationship with, that I genuinely enjoyed every minute of. This enthusiasm is unfettered by the constraints of ‘considerations’ from publishers, and a very large part of me is convinced that this is the way it should always be. Make the masses wait a day or two. Buy the games you review, say no to press review copies, and make honest judgments free from even the hint of corruption. Those who care about a person’s opinion on a particular game will be pleased, and those who don’t (the burger chewing consumer in this little story) will buy the game anyways based on hype from the PR agencies employed by the publishers, so who cares?
These considerations, though, are part of the compensation package. You may not make six figures, but you get free games and access to conventions – which for a hardcore gamer is a bit like saying manna and virgins. Nobody in the industry should attempt to make the claim otherwise. Sure, reviewing games before their release can be a grueling exercise, particularly if its a game you don’t like – but at the end of the day you get your name in print, you get status, and you get considerations that regular gamers don’t. This is the fundamental issue with games journalism today – and it has no easy fix. Turn down pre release information or copies of games, and you won’t get scoops. No scoops, no traffic. No traffic, no ad deals. No ad deals, no money. No money, no staff. No staff, no website. It’s a very simple train of logic to follow, one that has led us to the place where those who are charged with covering the games industry aren’t doing so from a position as observers – they are doing so from a position as insiders.
At the end of the day, I’m not sure what the future holds for me in terms of being ‘gaming media’. However, I know that as I progress, I’m going to do my utmost to retain my integrity – even if that means shelling out cash for games as opposed to getting them comped through publishers. While changing the nature of the game is a big task – a far bigger task than can be completed by any one person – we can each do our own small part. For me, this is the first step. Hopefully I won’t pay too heavy a price.