Curmudgeon Gamer
Curmudgeoning all games equally.
04 February 2006
Videogame blogger ethics panel convenes
Over at VGMWatch, Kyle Orland is taking some serious fire on credibility, and I thought I'd toss on a log or two myself. The context you need, covered in this post and subsequent comments, is in these two claims:
  • Kyle has not worked for years inside the industry, so his criticisms lack necessary perspective.
  • Kyle has written as a freelancer in the videogame media industry (and continues to do so) and therefore lacks (some, all) credibility to criticize that industry.
I don't put much stock in the former, and I do think the latter bears watching, but I want to raise two different issues with VGMWatch that isn't either of these points.

In the links on the VGMWatch sidebar Kyle discloses the publications (online and pulp) for which he's worked. (Side note: I think it needs updating. Kotaku isn't flagged, but Kyle did write this editorial for them.) And before I go throwing rocks in this glass house, I want to tell you more about how I know Kyle.
  • I consider Kyle a friend.
  • Kyle has written for Curmudgeon Gamer.
  • I estimate that he and I chat via AOL Instant Messenger about once a week, minimum.
  • I've talked to him about the concerns raised by others and the two I'll highlight below.
Furthermore, I have written a paid freelance article for Next Generation, one of the same sites for which Kyle has written. I also link to them in some of my posts here, because they make posts in the morning (before most other sites) and because I believe they report straight news and then provide the proper context.

Now I've had to tell you all that about myself before I could get to my first real opinion. Still willing to trust me?

Since VGMWatch portrays itself as a media watchdog, I'd like to highlight two problems I've seen with how it conducts itself.
  1. The advertisements on the VGMWatch sidebar are not for videogames but rather for videogame magazines. Why is a media watchdog saying this?
    Help Support Videogame Media Watch. Get a year of PC Gamer for just $17.95
    No conflict of interest there?

  2. Recently Kyle made this post asking for the views of journalists and PR persons to use in a for-pay article. He starts with:
    What good is having a loyal readership full of video game journalism and marketing professionals if you can't pump them for information every once in a while?
    What good indeed? The piece seems like just the kind of investigative reporting that a site called VGMWatch should be doing, but instead it'll be in some other publication.
Those two examples strike me as troublesome.

In an perfect world there would be a site like VGMWatch that could be entirely independent of the videogame media. Something like Consumer Reports, but for the videogame media. Some independently funded sites exist in other areas, like Media Matters for America, but don't miss the catch: MMFA has a liberal political slant and it's funded by left-wing money. That is, it's far from perfect.

The key flaw in the videogame media machine is that it's based on access journalism: you have to have insider status or you can't get the big stories. Publishers and developers are the gatekeepers of the information, and if you don't play ball, they have the power to deny you entry. Whether this power differential is ever explicitly mentioned, I don't know, but it's there nonetheless.

A journalist must diminish this power imbalance to do the job right. That may mean cutting off some or all good relations with those publishers and developers about whom stories are written. It will most certainly mean considering reporting techniques that no one else is currently using in the videogame media.

Journalists working for the local paper, as an example, could track down public paperwork, hire a private investigator, rummage through the trash, or even try to get an informant on the inside of a story. If GameSpot decided to tackle the latest happenings at Electronic Arts by cultivating an informant on the inside, we might get more honest stories, but it could pretty quickly destroy any hope of the two parties being cordial again.

And perhaps the press has more power than it realizes: couldn't it be that EA cutting itself off from GameSpot might actually damage both companies?

The difference between GameSpot and VGMWatch is that Kyle doesn't have to be friendly with the subjects he studies, the journalists. The gadfly role doesn't need insider status to write stories. Kyle can take his good idea, do the independent research, let the involved parties know, give them a chance to respond, and then write up the results. Do this often enough, catch a few people with their hands in the cookie jar, and we can hope for a Mike Wallace effect: people see you coming and the results can be terribly interesting.

An example: When I had issues with Champions of Norrath locking up on me, and I saw that others had had similar problems, I did my own investigating. I checked mainstream reviews, noted the lack of information on lock-ups, and contacted the reviewers. They were forthright, admitting they'd seen similar bugs, and how they ended up leaving them out of the final reviews. The evidence was right there, and the people involved were willing to answer questions, on the record, even though I am a total outsider.

Kyle appears to have picked up some freelance work, in part on his reputation as a part-time watchdog. That's good for Kyle. For our sake, I'd rather he used that reputation to become an even better watchdog, one who could hold our videogame media to account.
--Matt Matthews at 00:43
Comment [ 1 ]

Comments on this post:

Around ten years ago, there were stories about how Entertainment Tonight got all its "exclusive first looks" at movies. If they wanted an exclusive and weren't given one, then ET would boycott the movie. The movie would not be mentioned on ET again (until presumably after release.)

Studios realized that the threat was real (as ET had acted on it before,) and since ET was *the* big TV outlet for movie information, they often capitulated.

By Anonymous Baines, at 04 February, 2006 14:26  

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