Advertising. An important source of cash and revenue for those who need it, and yet a cruel and twisted double-edged sword. As the last few days has seen, it can be hard to be seen as impartial as well. But as advertising infiltrates everything, perhaps now is a good time to look at it and examine it closely…
I would have left it go.
It wasn’t important – it was a horrid state of affairs, but the real crux of the issue was not that it happened, but rather that people wanted to make it look as though it hadn’t. The Streisand Effect. We couldn’t help but notice and get more and more wound up as the hours went on and the silence was dished out, whilst those who had reportedly sinned worked feverishly to cover up any inclination that they might have been doing inappropriate things that would damage their credibility if exposed fully. That is a bad thing, but it’s a common PR mistake in the modern world and one these very journalists are more than happy to pounce on when it’s a big company doing it, when it suits their interests to show the world they are independent and removed from it. However, when the shoe is on the other foot, they too commit the same atrocities; going to extraordinary lengths to cover up any hint of wrongdoing, when a simple explanation would do. Like Wile E. Coyote and Roadrunner, Wile E. could simply have used a gun, or a car to run it over. But he hatched devious but overly-engineered plots to nab his prize. The comparison is valid – they make it look so complicated. It doesn’t need to be.
But when it comes to advertising, it can be complicated. For you see, advertising revenue and money from the industry itself pays for a lot nowadays; sponsorship and generally getting stuck into the media that you require to push your product has become an unavoidable conflict of interest for so many people. Sometimes it’s obvious – a blasted great big trailer or advertisement in front of a video someone wants to watch on a site such as Eurogamer or The Escapist. They need this money, of course they do. To pretend they don’t is somewhat naive, as unless we as users are willing to pay for premium access as IGN offers they have few other means of revenue available to them. But equally, this revenue puts so many websites in an ethical pickle – how can you be impartial, or give a good review score to a game you think deserves it when it is that very game or studio or publisher who currently has all the advertising space on your website?
It’s a challenge that most media outlets face at some stage of their existence, as they juggle the need to remain independent from the industry they report on whilst at the same time knowing that many companies have been vocal in their attitudes to those who would dare criticise them – it was not long ago, after all, that Blizzard were caught out. The attitude came across very clearly from their PR team that anyone who would dare criticise their product was no longer going to be welcome or privy to new information, as well as very clearly hinting that such things could also face legal action. In such a situation, all we can see as the end-user is a company using their power and money to suppress dissenting voices, and a gaming media stuck in the unenviable position of juggling that information whilst at the same time trying to maintain standards of impartiality and integrity. Similarly, it can be more subtle; as Activision, Blizzard’s supposedly evil brother in arms, demonstrated when it started to send out gift-packs to those who said good things and gave good scores to Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3. They can class it as a gift, something that means nothing, but the thing is – it doesn’t look that way, and feels just as much an issue as demanding nice things said about you under pain of being taken behind the shed and shot.It’s a challenge that every so often continues to rear it’s ugly head; Eurogamer may not thank me for reminding them of their initial Nintendo Wii stance; remember when they unveiled it at E3 officially? I do. I was commenting on Eurogamer at the time and the headline they used was “NINTENDO CONCEDES DEFEAT!”.
Now, Nintendo are not always the most welcome at any given party, moreso in the European media for reasons I wrote about some time ago, but it was clearly a misleading headline that led to accusations of bias. A moment of stupidity, and then they tried to bury it and I wasn’t welcome at EG for a rather long time after that. I was appalled. But eventually, as the Wii became the success it did and sold in volumes and made the kind of money that would make most companies wake up in the middle of the night at half-mast, Nintendo proved it wrong. It hadn’t conceded the generation – it had annihilated it. And whilst people still don’t like to admit it, a billion dollars of pure profit from one machine is an incredible achievement that hadn’t been done before. It thrust Nintendo back into the limelight, it dominated everything for a fair few years – the good and the bad. But it had happened. And why? It’s unclear but we do have one thing. Preponderance of probability. Or in laymans terms; What are the chances? It’s not above reasonable doubt but you can see it from here. (This line blatantly and shamelessly ripped from Law and Order UK!) Eurogamer is not alone – Kotaku stated this whole debacle wasn’t important, whilst at the same time unboxing a $100 Halo 4 set gifted to them (revealed by a sharp-eyed Twitter user!). Again, not above reasonable doubt but what are the chances? It isn’t like we’re not putting two and two together, is it? Oh wait, sorry, we are! And of course, there was that old Gamespot debacle where a reviewer lost his job scoring a game low, when the game was being heavily advertised on the site at the time. Hear hooves think horses not zebras – but sometimes it is zebras.
For you see, the thing gaming journalists either don’t understand or choose not to make known is that they aren’t that dissimilar from us, the commentators. The users who post on their websites. They may have some media training, but arguably they regurgitate the press releases and sometimes get paid to have an opinion on something, or do a little research; something many of us do for nothing more than the fun and jollity of it all. The difference is that they are being paid to do this by the advertising revenue generated by their users; which leads to an interesting conflict of interest at times as they attempt to square their scores and comments against the round of the coinage trickling into their coffers by those who they are reporting on. It is important that when you are a journalist, a commentator or just a schmuck in the ether doing it for the shits and giggles, you are seen as impartial. We can love things, and love them deeply – my adulation for Dark Souls very noticeable in my last argument. But that doesn’t mean I can afford to be blinded by its flaws. It is important when you are writing or commenting on anything that you are aware that there are two sides to every story; and that also means accepting somewhat that those in the employ of the games media are also in an incredibly difficult position at the best of times – worse so, because they are being looked up to by some of us, some of us who aspire to be them or try to follow their shining examples. They don’t ask for that, of course not, but it is still their responsibility to ensure that they temper themselves somewhat against the pressures the industry places upon them. When you get to that sad, sad image of Geoff Keighley, sat betwixt a poster of Halo 4 and a table laden with Doritos and Mountain Dew with an almost despondently blank ‘Advertising Space For Sale’ look upon his face, you realise that the human cost of some of this is terrible and tragic. A man who had standards, trapped between his love of games and the need for advertising. Literally stuck in the middle of it. There was no escape. Just sadness, remorse and regret.
When money isn’t an issue – or rather, when money isn’t being fed to you – impartiality is still very hard. But at least I don’t have to worry too much about being exposed as both a blogger and in the employ of the very industry I blog about, as a certain MVC Journalist was found to be. It’s again not above reasonable doubt but preponderance of probability; what are the chances? By fleeing from the scene, we followed the trail right back and dug up more than we bargained for. That persons impartiality is now forever shot; their credibility broken and any trust that users may have had in their efforts long gone. Trying to be both can sometimes mean you only end up being forced to choose one; or worse, find yourself unceremoniously ejected or forced out of one. This is the person who issued the legal threats hence the careful wording of this paragraph, but it is still important to point out that they must now see that you can’t play both sides in this struggle. Eventually you will be caught out as a double agent, and then what? Is it worth the harm you cause for that extra money?
We all have opinions and those opinions can sometimes matter and sometimes not matter. But you can’t just ignore that there is a serious conflict of interest in a media that is trying its hardest to be unbiased and impartial for our benefit and yet is also being funded, bribed and gifted items by the very industry it is supposed to be commenting on itself. Advertising is really important and I suppose sometimes a drug dealer should be made to pay for an addicts rehab; but it makes it no less complicated to look at, and still raises questions by those suspicious of the motivations. The games industry wants to control its media and the media in various ways; it’s a fact of Capitalism that this is inevitable at some stage. But equally, those caught with their snouts in the trough are still going to be vilified. They should know better. They should have their own standards, higher standards and being suckered into the corporate machine can only spit you back out a broken wreck, mangled and twisted. This isn’t a secret. This isn’t a new thing. And yet for all the protestations that it doesn’t happen, we have so many occasions when they are caught doing exactly that! Denying it can’t work when the evidence is there to support the accusations. Trying to bury it makes you look even more evil, even more corrupt and part of the corporate machine. Your ethics and standards compromised by the lure of money, blinding you to the realities of the situation. There is no escape. ‘Be sure your sins will find you out’, my school tutor used to tell me. Your time will come. The piper needs to be paid at some stage.
Advertising and gifts from the industry shouldn’t affect the gaming media. And they don’t always do it. Whilst we find these examples from time to time, it’s stupid to suggest that everything is bad and corrupt and needs to be razed to the ground and that we should start again. There are good men and women out there fighting the good fight on our behalf, straddling the line and doing their best to ensure that we are brought information that is clean, unfiltered and untouched by bias and corporate greed. But even those people must also accept that we can’t keep ignoring these occasions where some ARE caught out. And enough are being caught out these days to suggest and imply the industry is rife with this issue. People are being convinced by mediums like Twitter, personal blogs and Facebook amongst others that there is a conspiracy. And if you aren’t accepting there’s a problem, then they will naturally assume you are part of the problem.
There is no shame in admitting it happens. In a media that relies heavily on human resources, we must also accept that it will from time to time be faced with human failings. That’s just how it is. But we need to confront it, and expose it, and rid it from the media. Games companies need to sometimes be reminded they can’t control everything, the media needs to realise they can’t play both fields at the same time and we must also remember that these are still people at the end of the day. They may make mistakes, grave ones, but the consequences of their actions should be that they are shunned from the media that they are a part of. We cannot as the users be judge, jury and executioner. That way madness and anarchy lies, turning the worlds gaming media into a glorified 4chan (I can’t believe I just mentioned them but ugh, okay, it’s done. Breathe deeply… in… out. Okay, calm. I won’t do it again. Honest!).
It’s all a complicated balancing act. The two can’t naturally co-exist. But they must learn to, or be forced into an embarrassing public spectacle that can only hurt them. The days of “No publicity is bad publicity” are long gone. This is the Internet Age. Your bad publicity is preserved, like a mosquito in amber, for years and years and years. Always there. Always lurking. Always ready to pounce. Again, it simply requires honesty and the willingness to accept it happens, and that they will do their very best to avoid it in the future.
It can’t be easy trapped between us. However, that is the job they chose. And they are naive if they think that we won’t judge them in their very public positions of trust.We will. So tread carefully… it’s a dangerous dance, and everyone with a monitor is a potential Craig Revel Horwood. We’ll praise you when you get it right.
And savage you when you get it wrong. Don’t expect much middle ground. We’re not being paid for that…