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Internet Drama And The Conceit Of Journalistic Integrity

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I would assume that anyone reading this article has heard, at least in passing, of what will quite possibly be later known by some variation of The Eidos/Gamespot Infamy, or perhaps more correctly, The Great Gerstmann Incident. Needless to say, while the actual reasons for Mr. Gerstmann’s dismissal will forever remain behind the closed doors of executive offices, widespread calumny directed towards both the corporate entities involved is both entirely predictable and, if even some degree of the speculation is true, rather deserved.

What the reader will not be aware of, until my flapping mouth (or fingers?) makes it semi-public, is that there is also a debate – perhaps this is too polite a term – ongoing between our own site’s EIC and our most colorful former editor. The particulars of the argument are unimportant. What is cogent to this discussion is that the issue of journalistic integrity is on the table there as well.

I typically try to avoid alliterative repetition of complex terms in the writing of an article, for given values of “repetition” and “complex.” In this case I’m going to use those two words several times, because they’re important. The question of journalistic integrity is an extremely serious one, perhaps moreso when the words of the journalist may be at least a contributing factor to someone’s decision to purchase a product that is neither inexpensive nor, typically, easily returnable. The aforementioned debacle (the big one, not the barroom brawl) obviously casts harsh criticism on at least two parties, given the quid pro quo relationship it implies between advertiser and media outlet. I think that in the eyes of many gaming pundits, it’s easy to expand the scope of that judgment to any and all large gaming magazines and sites. There is no denying that a symbiotic relationship exists between any gaming-focused site – no matter how small – and the publishers and developers of those games. Yet, for simple reason of the antiestablishmentarianism that pervades most cultural subgroups, the tendency is to praise the smaller institution as somehow inherently more honest, less influenced than the larger. Is this postulate true? I wish I knew. This is my first gaming gig. I don’t have enough data to give an informed answer. However, evidence offers that some sites, most notably Kotaku and Penny Arcade recently, can indeed stand up to the Man and get away with it. It is interesting to note that both these sites, one way or another, exist for a specific purpose other than the arbitrary analysis and critique of the gaming industry, though in Kotaku’s case the defining line is perhaps a little slim.

Our site… readers? Readers. I do say, for a moment there I thought you weren’t paying attention. Goodness, am I getting pedantic again? Sorry. I think it’s a side effect of age.

It would do us rather too much credit to compare our humble site to Kotaku, though we are more similar to them than to Penny Arcade. However, if you want a “small, simple” source of information and opinion, you certainly aren’t going to find many more fitting candidates for those definitions. Integrity is a criticism we’ve had leveled at us from several fronts, most notably for the commonality of Microsoft-related content on the site. With as little intent as possible to be excusatory, let me try and clarify that. When our EIC began making contact with people in the industry to get us PR information and review software, Microsoft got on board. Immediately. Whether that means they were desperate for more exposure or they simply have a larger PR budget than their competition, I’ll leave you to guess (I certainly don’t know). As other developers, publishers, and media clearing houses add us to their distribution lists, you’ll see more content on other products and platforms (in fact, that’s already beginning). I can only speak for myself, but I can tell you that my writing reviews exclusively (so far) on Microsoft products hasn’t the damndest thing to do with bias or prejudice. I had no other hard product to write material on. Does that make me a sycophantic lickspittle? I’ll let you judge. Side note: due to felicitous and thoroughly serendipitous circumstances, I am very shortly to be the extremely happy owner of a 40GB PS3. We do have several PS3 owners on staff, so I shall be but one of many blogging on this platform and its output. Bear in mind that Sony has only recently added us to their distribution schedule, a concession for which we were and remain in rapturous gratitude. In short: the content on other platforms is coming. We have to get it to write it. As I happened to mention in another recent article, due to our modest size and exposure profile, we don’t get things first – or second. We probably get them about last. I personally am not upset about that – I’m too happy to be getting the review software at all. But there – ah, there, dear reader, is the rub.

It took me long enough, but we are in perilously close proximity to The Point. Rather, we’re back to it. The symbiosis of publisher and auditor is, in gaming at least, present and impossible to completely ignore. The mere fact that you, as a review writer, are receiving what amounts to free shit is inescapably going to engender some feeling of indebtedness towards your benefactor. Does that at least potentially promote bias?

Yes, it does.

What is our challenge, then, as reviewers? Pardon. The term”challenge,” implying a single hurdle to be cleared, is specious. There are many challenges to writing game reviews. That earlier article references some of them. Another is the question of loyalties. Yes, I as a gamer am grateful to Sony, Sega, Microsoft, whoever for sending us free stuff. At the same time, if we as a reviewing site are to have a shred of credibility, we have to at least call a spade a shovel, or maybe an entrenching tool. (Sorry the pics are replaced with explanation lines in the review body – if you see a lonely line of nonsense, that’s why.) It’s my belief that such can be done in a way that is not inherently disrespectful or unprofessional towards the creators of the product in question, a belief I think the linked review, somewhat unfortunately, is forced to illustrate.

Here’s the meat of the matter: I’m a gamer. It’s not all I do, it’s not even remotely the biggest thing in my life, but I do love to play games. When writing a review I’m going to assume that the reader loves games too; thus, inherently, we’re going to at least try to see what positives are there to be seen. The negatives do have to be addressed, and sometimes they’re really heartbreaking (a great example is my current assignment, Mass Effect). The real question, if it comes to it, is: if you like games, are you going to be able to have fun with this one? I’ll tip a bit of my hand here: Mass Effect has flaws, and some of them are very hard to forgive – but the game is immensely, intensely fun for the most part. Can that be said in a way that addresses the issues as challenges for a next edition, and (in this particular case) precedents not to set? Personally, I think it can.

The fingers are already pointing. I’m not blaming the victim here. Assuming Eidos’ response and Gamespot’s resultant decision are indeed what they are assumed to be, both are unforgivable (though especially the latter IMO). Thanks to the hardworking punter who nabbed Gerstmann’s later-pulled video review, I’ve been able to see it like everyone else, and frankly – it’s not that bad. I felt that some of the game’s more positive points were described, and that the overall experience was bluntly, and it would seem justly, described as subpar. One of the reasons this review may have been so painfully hard for Eidos to swallow is that, quite simply, it’s a video. It’s one thing to read dry text, no matter the overtones and connotations. Quite another to see and hear someone criticize your product in stereo and living color, with snippets of gameplay in the background illustrating the negative points. If a picture is worth a thousand words, a video might be perceived as being worth a thousand sales – or lost sales.

At the end of the day, this is one of the reasons I really like the fact that TBB doesn’t issue numerical scores to reviewed games. For reasons I’ve already gone on too long to discuss in detail here, I think they’re a crock (the scores, not the games). Even though that lack of a hard number will forever keep this site from the hallowed URLs of Metacritic and the like, if you read one of our reviews, you’re reading something that someone crafted to give you a verbalized experience of the actual product – not an arbitrarily designated label that is in some inexplicable way designed to absolutely represent its summative value. And also, at the end of the day, you really do somewhat have to trust us. I think I can safely say we all really do like to play games, but that doesn’t mean we’re going to slap “YOU’RE WINNER!” on a pile of trash. What we will do is call the bad things bad and the good things good, and try to present our negatives in a way that invites the creator of the product to better their work next time out. And if you shouldn’t buy the game, we’re going to tell you that you shouldn’t buy the game.

Is that journalistic integrity? Probably not. I think the entire concept is illusory. It implies an objectivity that I don’t personally believe anyone can truly obtain. What it is, is the closest thing to honesty that we as human beings can manage (unfortunately, being human does immediately go rather far in the opposite direction – but that’s a problem for another day). Not to put words in the mouths of my colleagues, but I think I can safely say that we all give a crap about what we do. That’s not by any means a guarantee of perfection or ironclad impartiality. It’s an affirmation that if we wouldn’t want a game in our library, we’ll let you know you don’t want it in yours.

EDITED FOR THE CHEAP SEATS: From consultation with a couple of independent sources, apparently I missed my intended tone with this article. People, I am a didactic old fart, and I do like to talk; but in this case the embellishments were both an object lesson and a self-referential pun. Lesson: if one of us is going to do this much Thesaurus-diving just to write an article about writing reviews, how hard will we work to make the reviews worthwhile? Pun: well, it should be fairly obvious, but… yeah, this level of linguistic shenanigans did come shamefully easy for me.

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