The Ethics of Journalism in Games

It’s with a interesting mix of pleasure and disgust that I contemplate the fate of poor Jeff Gerstmann. Pleasure, because online game magazines are notoriously dependent on developer advertising for revenue, and maybe some of them will begin think a little harder about ethics. Disgust, because the story seems to confirm many of my opinions about game reviews.

The background, for those of you who don’t follow this sort of thing (and good for you!). Dramatis personae:

Gamespot.com is an online magazine of sorts. It features reviews, previews, interviews, and various other sorts of views about all kinds of things related to video gaming. Like many of its counterparts, the writing there is a little too gushing and breathless for my taste. To be fair to them, they do have a reputation of being ever so slightly harder on the games they review than the other big rags. It’s owned by C|NET, so that should give it a little cred, at least as far as technology-related journalism goes.

Jeff Gerstmann wrote a lot of stuff for Gamespot until very recently. He was an editor for 10 years, and seems to have been one of their best. Favorite quote from a review: “Hour of Victory is broken in several spectacular ways; and no one, under any circumstances, should play this game.” Recently, Jeff wrote a review for a new (awful looking) game called Kane and Lynch. And Jeff’s GameSpot review panned it. Hard.

Eidos Interactive is the video game company that produced Kane and Lynch. At the time Jeff’s review came out, they had teamed up with Gamespot on a giant advertising campaign to push the new game. Users could “skin” the entire Gamespot website with a Kane and Lynch theme (why?), and there was some kinda flash video editor that let you make your own Totally Rad(tm) Kane and Lynch trailer. Presumably this kind of marketing is targeted squarely at the same kind of people who watch compilations of TV advertisements for amusement.

So, the interesting thing is this: Soon after posting his ill-famed review, Jeff was fired! Fired!

Soon after that, Eidos threw a shit-fit and withdrew their advertising from Gamespot. The rumur mill began grinding. The blogs began buzzing. Rumor has it that Gamespot lost hundred of thousands of dollars of future advertising revenue over that one bad review. Rumor has it that Jeff was sacrificed to the almighty dollar. Nobody knows how much of it is true, but the whole thing even made the front page of Slashdot. That’s about as big as a limited interest story like this gets.

Now, to be fair, nobody knows for sure that Jeff was fired for his review. I mean, it could be a coincidence that a respected, high profile, long-tenured writer was put out to pasture immediately after writing a bad review of a game that was responsible for tons of advertising revenue for his website. Maybe they were planning on firing him all along and were just victims of almost impossibly bad timing.

But, regardless of who is really right, all games have winners and losers. So let’s divvy ’em up.

Gamespot: Lost one of their best writers. Lost tons of credibility with their readership. Is going to have to figure out how to convince us that they aren’t in the business of selling positive reviews. Score: -2.

Eidos: Looks like the big cry corporate crybaby that couldn’t take a bad review. Still stuck having to sell what by many accounts is a fairly mediocre game. Score: -2.

Jeff: Instant celebrity, official status as the “straight-shooting journalist who can’t be bought and sold.” Practically guaranteed another high-profile writing job, perhaps for an organization that understands that reviews are only as good as the perceived integrity of the reviewer. Score: Who cares? Jeff is clearly the winner of this round.

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5 Responses to “The Ethics of Journalism in Games”

  1. You should invite him to write for the MCP. That’d really show those corporate fatcats!

  2. I’ve been following this with great interest. Complete douchebag move by Gamespot – not one person would think it’s credible that they fired him for any reason except the bottom line.

  3. Here’s a troubling blog post I found, claiming some anonymous insider information on Gamespot:

    http://valleywag.com/tech/jeff-gerstmann/gamespot-editor–on-fired-reviewer-328775.php

    The most damning part to me is the reference to posting reviews with high scores early but holding lower scores until after a game launches, so as not to piss off advertisers. It’s not as reprehensible as firing Gerstmann, but it’s extremely insidious. If I weren’t so damn lazy, I’d go back through their reviews for major companies (EA, Eidos, MS, etc.) and compare the dates they came out to the games’ release dates. (How about it, mcp? Wanna be a reporter?)

  4. jimpanzee: if Jeff will work for free donuts and coffee, he’s in.

    dale: he was totally fired for the review. there’s not really any other reasonable way of looking at it. and if that anonymous insider is right… well golly, it’s hard to imagine why anybody would take anything Gamespot publishes seriously.

    I have faith in the marketplace in this situation. People who follow games to the point of buying a magazine or subscribing to a website are interested in reading substantive reviews. Gamespot used to fill that niche, and that they are going to find their readership suffering if they get a reputation for inflated reviews.

    Even ignoring the particulars of this debacle… reviews aren’t meant to sell games. They’re meant to help me decide how to spend my cash. If I get burned for 60 bucks on the basis of a glowing review, I’m going to remember it.

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