The Real Issue With Gaming Journalism

Leaks; blacklisting; it’s all the same shit.

Gaming Twitter went aflutter yesterday thanks to an intriguing piece from Stephen Totilo at Kotaku. Kotaku, Totilo writes, has been blacklisted by both Bethesda and Ubisoft thanks to their much-publicised early leaks of scripts and images from Fallout 4 and Assassin’s Creed: Unity. He goes on to imply that makes Kotaku a better class of outlet and those publishers an insult to gaming journalism. Cue the Twitter storm.

It’s easy to get polarised on this little fiasco. GamerGate, predictably, took up arms against its much-hated SJW enemy Kotaku; many others sided against the journalist-crushing corporations. Personally, I’m in two minds about it. It’s a complicated situation. But more importantly, both the leaks and the blacklistings are symptomatic of an unhealthy cycle that’s been created in accidental tandem by video game publishers, websites, and players alike.

On one hand, the Kotaku blacklisting seems like a petty reaction to journalists posting valid scoops. Journalists should be able to report the news that comes their way, and seek out the news that doesn’t, without kowtowing to publishers at every turn. Readers want to know what games are in production, so they can plan their lives accordingly. For the publishers, even, cutting off Kotaku’s access reduces the amount of publicity they could receive. 

On the other hand, I can’t help but see it from the publishers’ point of view as well. If I was shut out by publishers for posting their secrets, I’d understand. Kotaku wasn’t blacklisted for posting negative editorial content. They were blacklisted for posting confidential information. Anyone who has created something can imagine the frustrated anger studios feel at projects being leaked before they’re ready. Leaks of in-development material sometimes get treated (by readers, at least) as though they’re final material, which can have disastrous effects. I know if anyone saw the assembly cut of Ghost Shark 2: Urban Jaws, I’d have been mortified.

Then on the other other hand, it’s easy to look at both parties and sigh. Gaming journalists aren’t changing the world, and neither are game developers (for the most part). We cover entertainment, and an industry that produces that entertainment. Just like journalists who cover film, music, cellphones or tractors, there’s an expectation that people on both sides engage in good faith. Good journalism often pisses people off, but people getting pissed off doesn’t automatically mean you’re doing good journalism.

Now, Kotaku does a lot of quality reporting above and beyond the standard game-site shit, like their stories on Batman: Arkham Knight’s disastrous PC release, Destiny’s fractured narrative, or the various canned incarnations of the new Doom. But Totilo’s piece reads as if leaking the existence of Fallout 4 and Assassin’s Creed: Unity was a triumph of investigative journalism akin to uncovering the Watergate scandal. Aside from the occasional industry, creative, or political revelation, all these leaks do is start the product hype train rolling earlier - the same hype train Kotaku says they’re divorced from, and one they themselves have helped to build.

There’s no public need to know about what games are in the early stages of development, but there is a public desire to know. It’s the hunger that drives expensive E3 circuses, “confirmed” memes, and clicks - delicious, lucrative clicks. There’s a feedback cycle between PR reps, writers, and readers that has resulted in sites scrambling for more and more information to breathlessly report on. I’ve been part of it! It’s how you stay competitive.

Who created that feedback loop? We all did. Studio PR reps dripfeed information to constantly stay in the news cycle. Readers gobble up every little tidbit they can. That creates an arms race amongst press outlets as to who can get the most access - who can scoop the most information first. And the logical conclusion is that some major outlet posts an early leak, and they get their access cut off by a studio furious about a situation they helped to create. Those leaks create expectations amongst readers of more information earlier, and the cycle begins again.

This has all built up over the few decades the gaming industry - still a very young industry - has been around. Journos are now often treated as extensions of publicity schemes, and take everything they can get from them because it gets eyeballs on the internet. I’d say that editorialising is the only thing keeping games journalism from becoming a press release syndication service, but it turns out a lot of gamers hate that, too. Recently, the rise of “influencers,” led primarily by a vanguard of YouTubers who aren’t bound by editorial oversight and answer only to themselves, has made gaming PR reps even cockier. PR staff aren’t bad people, they’re just doing a job - a job made easier by a press and public eager to service them.

While I hate to be the guy who says “they’re both to blame!”, it really is that kind of situation. Journalists shouldn’t be in bed with their subjects, but they shouldn’t be in a perpetual state of war with them, either - especially when the weapons wielded are as pathetic as pre-alpha screenshots and blacklisting. It’s definitely important to call the industry out on its bullshit, but to look at development secrecy and see a conspiracy to hide information from the public is kind of a bad-faith approach. 

GamerGate was onto something when they made up their “ethics in gaming journalism” smokescreen; they just didn’t understand what it was. The problem in gaming journalism isn’t journos being friends with indies, stating opinions in reviews, talking about politics in games, or (for fuck’s sake) criticising gaming culture. It’s a culture that’s built up around reporting on gaming as products rather than art. The focus is always on what's new and hot, which leads to a scramble for information, and a power imbalance favouring major publishers.

Kotaku journalists aren’t heroes for "standing up" to AAA studios, nor are they villains for posting secret information. Their actions are merely symptoms of a sickness that permeates the industry. Yes, the power balance is in AAA studios’ favour, but journalists and players helped create this situation too. We’re in a mess of our own making. Maybe it’s time we just all started respecting each others’ goddamn jobs.