These findings illustrate the common misconceptions that small gifts are less influential than larger gifts and that unrestricted gifts are less influential than restricted gifts. However, research in human behavior has shown that even small gifts and ones without restrictions can influence actions without being tied to explicit demands. The belief that the benefits of unrestricted and/or small gifts tend to outweigh the detriments may unintentionally make medical school leaders less vigilant about ensuring independent unbiased curricula and research. For instance, one of the most frequent forms of IAIRs [Institutional academic-industry relationships] involved clinical departments receiving discretionary funds to purchase food and beverages. Increasingly, medical educators have recognized that even these small gifts come at the expense of real or perceived independence from industry influence. The finding that more than half of department chairs with relationships between their department as an administrative entity and industry felt that these relationships had no effect on their departmental finances, their ability to recruit or retain faculty, or to secure resources from their institution is puzzling. If the majority of IAIRs have no effect on these important functions of departments, then why do they exist? It is possible that these IAIRs have effects that we did not measure or that chairs may be unwilling to admit that industry funding exerts any effect that could be construed as influence.Again, let me stress: I know it's not a perfect analogy. Still, given what this says I think that the relationships that game companies develop with the videogame media should be examined and viewed with a skeptical eye.
Certainly journalists receive small gifts, and also larger gifts like the boxes of Halo 3 materials shown in recent videos. Are journalists somehow free of influence? How does that work?
In the Media Coverage column, Kyle says (again, my emphasis):
There's no hard and fast rule for the incidental freebies that get given out at trade shows and packaged along with review copies, but a $10 to $20 value limit is probably a good rule of thumb. So the Fallout bobble head is OK but the HDTV is not. The Assassin's Creed letter opener is OK but the World Series tickets probably are not.
Maybe time to reconsider?
Let us even set aside gifts what sort of influence is caused merely by friendships, relationships, and adulation of people in the game industry by the people reporting on the industry. What sort of game medium do we have when journalist go out to special visits to developers. Imagine going to Bungie and not being slightly influenced by an office full of games, full of rare game trinkets, and full of people who earn 3 to 30x the income of a journalist. At some level a gift can take many forms and for many journalists the gift of “access” is likely very potent.
I think it depends on the gift. I got Brooktown High for free for reviewing it, but it was such a bad game that I (nicely) trashed it in my review. If a company sent me Halo stuff, it would have no affect on me, since I have absolutely no interest in the game whatsoever.
I think no matter how you slice it when someone gives a media journalist something (unless they do it in a totally slimy way) they will appreciate the effort on some level. I think that is what we are talking about: Very slight changes in attitude, often imperceptible to the gift receiver, when a gift in involved. And that why I think it is an interesting issue. If it were clear cut influence peddling across the whole industry it would be easy to see and stop, but when it is this subtle creeping influence it is much harder to get rid of or stop.
It is very interesting also how some magazines or online media outlets defend some of the actions they take. I was just listening to a podcast this morning where an editor was talking about being given the chance to have an exclusive if the game were assured of getting a good rating. They said they would tell the company their “feeling on what a score might be” and in some cases say they wouldn’t qualify for getting the exclusive. But I say, why agree to such a system? Why even allow such a dirty system to be used at all. Even if they said, “Oh, sorry we can’t give this a good review so we can’t take the exclusive" they still “enabling” a rotten system where less scrupulous media outlets can grab exclusives in exchange for good ratings. Accepting the terms of receiving no exclusives if you can’t rate a game well is simply a rotten system even if you’re honest.
I think all the big media outlets should have a zero tolerance policy. No gifts, no meals, no flights, no swag that even the public can get. The exchange is you work for a well known media outlet and if you want swag or gift go work for yourself on a blog. And the same should go for content. There should be strictures on ratings or content of reviews or previews for exclusives. Moreover, companies should just refuse to comply with that system they should say they refused and exclusive because string were attached. The games media needs to shame the publishers into dropping such requirements and then make it impossible to such a system to survive or re-occur ever again.
There's a reason companies give employees swag and trivial Christmas bonuses.
QueenOfTypos brings up what I think is a fair real-world exception, the "gift" of the game being reviewed, and monkeyKing the counter-point. There's a pretty good thread about this in the movie reviewing community -- if you're not handing out quotes for the adverts, you often find yourself locked out of showings before the movie's released to the general public. What to do? The gift of access is probably the thorniest subject here, and the only real gray area. Luckily, imo, generally only the gaming company/movie label can fault on the side of evil here.