This week, it came to light that game publishers are refusing to give press access or prerelease review copies to prominent gaming news sites. Kotaku’s Editor-in-Chief Stephen Totilo writes in an editorial that his site is blacklisted and ostracized by Bethesda and Ubisoft for reporting leaks and other unauthorized stories about their games. He claims that his site’s media requests have been ignored by both companies’ representatives ever since their December 2013 report of the then-secret Fallout 4, and Kotaku’s December 2014 report of the then-unannounced Assassin’s Creed Victory, which we now know as Syndicate.
It's not fair and they may get criticized for it, but Bethesda and Ubisoft can blacklist whomever they choose. As game companies, it is their right to withhold information from whomever they like. After all, this action won’t affect their bottom dollar.
It is no secret that video game news sites feed off of press releases by game makers. These press releases are carefully crafted messages by public relations and marketing professionals, and driven by planned marketing schedules and strategies. In turn, staffers from sites like Destructoid, Polygon, and Kotaku use press releases daily as direct sources on frontpage articles. There’s a mutual benefit to this process, and entertainment journalism thrives on it.
However, you could argue that a working relationship between gaming journalists and publishers’ marketing representatives should not be symbiotic...and respectfully so. Biases and conflicts of interest will arise when reporters become too friendly with their sources. In Patrick Klepek’s own words, “journalism and marketing are not supposed to ‘work together.’” Herein lies the problem: there are too many examples where the two serve each other’s interests.
Take for instance, Bethesda’s E3 2015 booth, in which a prop Mister Handy robot mocks Internet criticism of Fallout 4:
This was an obvious jab by Bethesda towards critics (Totilo tweeted a link to it to add context to his editorial) that Bethesda pays attention to the coverage it receives even if it is negative. Still, this video may be a counter argument to Totilo’s own thesis. Bethesda’s promotional robot was installed at E3, well known as an industry showcase funded by game developers and publishers. It’s important to point out that the video was posted to Kotaku’s official YouTube channel, with more than 25,000 views at the time of this writing. At what point can we say that Kotaku’s video was presenting newsworthy material without commentary, and not regurgitating a marketing stunt instead? It's hard to draw the line between free advertising and factual, unbiased reporting. This is a tremendous grey area that deserves more discussion.
Kotaku is a gaming blog owned by its parent company Gawker Media. Kotaku doesn’t employ traditional journalists; it employs bloggers. The site is not a proven independent news outlet that holds the same prestige or legitimacy as, say The New York Times. In fact, as Totilo points out in his piece, it was a Times’ contributor who reviewed Assassin’s Creed and Fallout for Kotaku as a freelancer. What makes a Times’ contributor a deserving recipient of a review copy of a game over Kotaku’s Editor-in-Chief? Simply, a blog does not have the same reputation as the 164-year-old institution of the Times. There’s also a strong chance that both Bethesda and Ubisoft were hoping for mainstream coverage in the Times over Kotaku, but ultimately, their games are reported on in the gaming press extensively anyway.
I won't argue that we're a more legitimate source for news than Kotaku: we're on the outside looking in on this issue. We are not in direct contact with publishers. This meta-commentary on Totilo's commentary may not have any effect on this issue, but it is fair to say that Kotaku does not always follow guidelines for good journalism (and no, we are not pro-GamerGate; GamerGate misunderstands and misappropriates ethics to hurt people). A well-known book on the topic, the Elements of Journalism, outlines key elements that many academics believe are common ethics in journalism and explains the idea that journalists must maintain an independence from those they cover to establish reliability. On one hand, this means not becoming seduced by sources, intimidated by power, or compromised by self-interest. On the other hand, Totilo's argument establishes that Kotaku strives to be independent, while at the same time demands that credible sources stop isolating them with these blacklists. You can't always have it both ways in this industry.
Even then, sites like Kotaku may be struggling for relevance. According to an ESA report, product reviews in magazines or video game websites account for only 3% of all factors that influence purchasing video games.
Totilo argues that both Bethesda's and Ubisoft’s actions “hamper independent reporting in pursuit of a status quo in which video game journalists are little more than malleable, servile arms of a corporate sales apparatus.” You could argue that most people who call themselves games journalists or critics were or are still fans of playing video games; it is difficult to maintain neutrality when separating your role as a reporter from the role of a fan. This is why news outlets like ESPN get accused of bias all the time; its reporters are sports fans who must cover the teams and sports they are interested in.
Fans of anything follow journalistic shortcuts. On the Internet, a fan will discover some information, decide whether it's believable or not, consider its value to others, then settles what to ignore and what to share. In a nutshell, this process is blogging and social media commentary. For journalists to stay relevant, they must must do more than that. Their job should be to verify information fans already have or likely to find on their own, then help them make sense of that that information means and how they might use it.
So, if Kotaku's policy is to reject rumors, propoganda, unconfirmed leaks, and gossip about game makers, then we can call its staffers true journalists. However, their mission statement and practice doesn't reflect that. Instead, the site's About Us page reads like an infotainment ad:
In a crowded market where video game coverage is available any time everywhere on the Internet, blacklisting Kotaku does not seem like it will affect either publishers’ sales. In fact, publishers like Nintendo realize that it may not need the gaming press to reach its core audience. In 2012, Nintendo started producing Nintendo Directs, which include new game announcements, videos, and other multimedia marketing tools. It is obvious corporate cheerleading, but seems to be working; through the first 6 months of 2015, Nintendo has an operating profit of $73 million, up from an operating loss of $1.75 million through the first 6 months of 2014.
With all that said, I won’t argue that brown-nosing publishers, underreporting leaks, or schewing game reviews for fear of being blacklisted is the ultimate answer. Let’s just not pretend that sites like Kotaku are presenting serious news, analysis, and investigative journalism only. Kotaku is one of many influential gaming blogs that is profit-driven and on a quest for high site traffic, but is not necessarily one with an audience receptive to their critiques. Don’t blame Bethesda and Ubisoft when they’re on a similar quest.