‘Games journalists are not journalists. There, I said it.’

Originally published 12/3/07 on GGL Wire.

I didn’t plan to write anything about the Jeff Gerstmann imbroglio. Games journalists writing about games journalists seems incestuous to me. But there is an important issue here — can games journalists be trusted to give information and opinions that gamers can trust?

Here is a timeline of the Reviewgate scandal:

November 13: Gamespot Editorial Director Jeff Gerstmann publishes a negative review of Kane & Lynch: Dead Men, giving the game 6 out of 10. An accompanying video review is also posted.

November 29: Gerstmann is fired. According to a rumor repeated on a number of gaming sites, Gerstmann is let go because Eidos is unhappy about his negative review of Kane & Lynch (the company paid a great deal of money to advertise the game on Gamespot). The text of the review is edited, although the 6/10 rating stands. The video is taken down.

November 30: A Penny Arcade comic (which was actually drawn before the firing) ignites the controversy. In an editorial, Jerry Holkins quotes Gamespot as saying there had been problems with Gerstmann’s “tone” for a long time. Gamespot owner CNET responds to the rumors: “For over a decade, Gamespot and the many members of its editorial team have produced thousands of unbiased reviews that have been a valuable resource for the gaming community. At CNET Networks, we stand behind the editorial content that our teams produce on a daily basis.” CNET’s Sarah Cain: “We do not terminate employees based on external pressure from advertisers.”

December 1: 1Up and Ziff-Davis staffers march on the Gamespot offices to protest Gerstmann’s firing. No, really. In addition, the fora on Gamespot and the Eidos web pages are slammed with thousands of complaints.

December 3: Gerstmann speaks to Joystiq, defending his original review. “I stand behind my work, regardless of where I do it. If there was content that I felt I couldn’t support, it wouldn’t see the light of day.”

The truth is, we don’t know why Gerstmann was fired, or if the Kane & Lynch review was the reason, or one of the reasons. Gamespot won’t tell us what happened; and according to rumor, Gerstmann signed an NDA to get his severance pay, and can’t tell us.

Why is this minor firing causing so much consternation in the gaming community? It’s complicated, but it has to do with gaming journalism’s precarious place in the videogaming moiety.

One the one hand, there are the developers and publishers. These people are “The Industry,” and it’s a cliquish world with intentionally high barriers to entry. Like their counterparts in the Film Industry, game developers are very protective of their little world and paranoid about keeping their careers. On the other hand sit the gamers; also very cliquish, and often hostile to outsiders. Mostly young, mostly male, gamers treat their favorite videogames like fetish objects, and demand greatness from the high Brahmins in the Industry. If the Industry fails, say by producing a poor sequel to a beloved game, the gamers can turn ugly.

Each group requires the other to exist — that’s why I describe them as moieties. But they are also at odds with each other. To say they hate each other would be greatly overstating the case. Let’s just say it’s a complicated relationship. The Industry sees the gamers as the unwashed masses, fanboys whose loyalties (and dollars) are often taken for granted. The gamers see the Industry as a golden castle on a far hill, where everyone has a dream job, and drinks sparkling champagne out of cups shaped like Master Chief’s helmet. When the Industry disappoints, the gamers feel personally betrayed.

This relationship would be combative enough, if there weren’t a third faction. Although we’re gamers, we aren’t considered part of the gaming community. And we certainly aren’t loved by the Industry (try spending five years of your life developing a game, only to have it trashed in the reviews). The problem with being a games journalist is, you don’t have anywhere to fit in.

Games journalists are not journalists. There, I said it. Let’s look at what a journalist is supposed to be. (Most of America’s so-called journalists have sold out to corporations, and are no better than a games journalist. But the rest of the English-speaking world seems to still have some real journalism.) A journalist knows he can never be truly impartial, but can give a hearing to both sides. A journalist keeps opinion separate from factual reporting. A journalist questions his or her own sources, and depends on alternate sources to determine the truth. A journalist never accepts bribes, and avoids even the appearance of impropriety. A journalist wears a felt hat with a press card stuck in the band and drinks bourbon straight from the bottle.

Real reporters cover important issues like politics, crime, social issues and science. They report what the public needs to know to be effective members of a democratic society. They should never be “stenographers to power.” They’re the Fourth frickin’ Estate, and should act like it.

This is not what a games journalist does. Don’t worry, I’m not singling out my own kind; this also applies to tech journalists, business journalists, sports journalists, boating journalists, real estate journalists, knitting journalists and the writing staff at Cat Fancy. We’re all writing about a specific industry, just for fans of that industry.

In a sense, gaming journalists are like freelance public relations staffers for the videogaming Industry. It’s our job to be stenographers to power — or at least to Blizzard. But there’s one difference between us and the actual PR guys. A PR person’s loyalty is to the company. A games journalist’s loyalty should be to the gamers. Not to the Industry, nor even to his or her own employer — but to the readers.

Gamers count on us to sift through the gaming Industry bullshit and present the nuggets of truth we find there. They rely on us to use our greater resources, our contacts within the Industry, our ability to attend all the conventions and gaming events, to give them information about their beloved hobby that they couldn’t and wouldn’t get without us. They trust us to provide, if not the truth, then at least our honest opinion.

Unfortunately, when we give that honest opinion, it often harms our relationships with the people in the Industry — relationships we need to cultivate, if we’re going to tell the gamers what they want to know. Film reviewers run into this problem all the time. If they give negative reviews to films, they lose their invitations to junkets and press screenings. But they write their opinions anyway, and I can’t think of a case where a film reviewer got canned for pissing off an advertiser.

Game reviewers run into the exact problem in the Gerstmann case — there must be a firewall between advertising and editorial. Honestly, the bad behavior here is not on the journalist who writes negative things. The journalist’s employer is ethically required to shield their reporter. And the advertiser should not think buying ad space on a web site or in a magazine makes them immune to editorial opinion. Do the people at Eidos really want to live in a world where product reviewers have their opinions dictated by advertisers?

Games journalists are not journalists, because we must break the rules of journalism to do our jobs. We must have friends in the Industry, people we like and don’t want to piss off. We don’t write about important issues — we write about trivia, even if it’s fascinating trivia that is important to people in a particular sub-culture. We don’t write unbiased pieces — why would we? We write what we think. We repeat rumors. We speculate wildly on the psychological diagnosis of a certain Florida lawyer.

Just as the Industry doesn’t like us because we snoop out their secrets and trash their games, the gamers don’t trust us. They know we’re in bed with the Industry, to a certain extent. They know we work for media conglomerates. They’re jealous that we have such cool jobs. And the minute they get a hint that we might be liars, such as in this case, they go ballistic.

I can say with absolute confidence that no game review at GGL, GGL Wire, or Epileptic Gaming has ever been altered in any way for the benefit of anyone. But we’re still a small site, owned by a small company. We won’t always be small, and we’re already growing. What will happen here at GGL when the ad guys strike a major multi-million dollar deal with some game publisher, and the game sucks? Will someone tell us what to write? Knowing our CEO, Ted Owen, I don’t think so. I can’t imagine him going for that — he believes in the editorial/advertising firewall, because you can’t build a community if people can’t trust you.

But what will happen when that day comes? Will we show the integrity of the Penny Arcade guys, or the (alleged) spinelessness of Gamestop?

I hope GGL will do what Gamestop and their CNET masters should have done. Because standing up for your reporter means you’re also standing up for the gamers.