On games journalism and ethics

Lewis Denby October 25, 2012 - 12:26 pm

Blog: Another games journalism controversy rears its head after this year’s Games Media Awards. Here, BeefJack editor Lewis Denby explains where he thinks the root of the problem lies.

Games journalism isn’t broken.

Let’s be clear on that. Games journalism is better than ever. There are more phenomenal writers producing content about videogames than ever before, and there’s a more diverse range of publications in our field than at any other point in the medium’s history. People like to shout a lot about how broken modern games journalism is, but the truth is that those quirks have always existed, and it’s only in maturity that we start to spot them.

What’s undeniable, however, is that games journalism is changing. We live in an age of constant connectivity, of social media, of Reddit AMAs and N4G controversies. We live in a world where posting on your personal Twitter feed is being a journalist. Where speaking to someone in a pub might constitute giving your professional opinion.

Most significantly of all, anyone can be a games journalist. No qualifications. No training. No need to work your way up the employment ladder in a major publishing company. Perhaps the sheer wealth of budding writers has something to do with it, driving salaries down, clogging up positions, and making a self-employed career seem more appealing. Perhaps it’s something different. But anyone can grab a WordPress license and some web hosting these days, and if you’re good enough, people will probably pay attention.

In a way, that’s what happened with BeefJack. We’re a self-funded start-up. We take what we do extremely seriously, but we’re still learning how this all works.

Anyway. Recently there was an awards ceremony for games journalists. The Games Media Awards (GMAs for short) is a games publisher-funded event designed to highlight excellence within games journalism, and it’s essentially a big party where folks from all around the games industry get together and drink lots of booze. Last year’s awards sparked astonishment when the headline sponsors inexplicably turned up with a barrel of condoms and an entourage of dwarfs. And then, during this year’s awards, a couple of publishers took the opportunity to launch competitions, in which journalists could participate by tweeting certain hashtags or images, to be in with the chance of winning prizes like PlayStation 3 consoles.

If you’re interested in the field of games journalism and you’ve been on the internet in the last few days, you’re probably aware of the controversy and the issues surrounding it. The tweets weren’t overtly framed as competition entries. They could, quite feasibly, have been considered genuine endorsements of products or brands, coming from the mouths of authority figures. That’s a problem, a huge problem, and the PRs responsible for the competitions know exactly what they were doing. Get a bunch of authority figures in a room. Get them drunk. Ask them to tweet an ad in exchange for possible material gain. Job done.

In the aftermath, many have accepted that drunken mistakes happen. Others have claimed they saw nothing wrong with posting these Twitter messages, and have stood by those claims. Which has sparked the response: how could it possibly be the case that professional games journalists do not understand the ethical issues surrounding the GMA incident? How can they be so stupid as to not see it as a problem?

Which, to me, can be answered thus: because no one’s told them.

Games journalism has changed. There’s a reason a lot of people steer clear of the word ‘journalism’ these days. To be a games journalist, you don’t need a journalism degree. You don’t need formal qualifications. You don’t need these things, because the publishing houses don’t want to hire people with these things, because it costs more money. And you don’t need these things because the resources are available to jump ahead of that step, set up a website, and just get on with it.

Newspapers have policies. They subscribe to industry-wide standards related to ethics and morality. I’m sure some games publications do, too, but I know for a fact that others don’t. That others don’t provide ethics training to their staff, either because they’re unaware of the issues themselves (smaller, enthusiast-run websites, for example), or because they don’t see it as an immediately pressing problem (everyone else).

As part of my role at BeefJack, I’ve been responsible for developing training profiles for the editorial team I look after. Training profiles are a way of stacking up all the required and desired skills for a particular job, and stacking up all the staff working in that job, then seeing which skills everyone has and doesn’t have. I’m looking at BeefJack’s editorial training profile now, and I can see that not a single member of our writing team has any formal ethics training. We’ve done little bits here and there, reiterated the importance of behaving ethically, but we haven’t sent anyone on any courses, or even had a day where we all sit down and work out exactly what that means.

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About Author

Avatar of Lewis Denby
Lewis Denby

Lewis is BeefJack's executive producer. He manages projects, oversees new initiatives and looks after budgets. Back in the day, he used to write about games; if he's good, we still let him sometimes. View all posts by Lewis Denby →

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Comments (4)

  1. Avatar of crimsoneer

    Great article. You don’t become a games journalist by learning a skillset, you become one by being passionate and surviving the attrition that’s inherent to writing about games. Nobody gets taught anything, and people get paid peanuts. The concept of ethics is pretty much non-existent.

  2. Avatar of Wade D. Hinkle

    I think it is sad how these companies took advantage of drunken “colleagues”. Yet you can not use the alcohol as an excuse, these people should have known better. This article is definitely food for thought.

  3. Avatar of Sean Cargle

    Very nice article Lewis, but as one of your writers who did post something on Twitter about this (I agreed with the original Eurogamer article and its goal), I find myself conflicted. You make a great point that it isn’t so much the journalists fault as it is the owner of the publication, or those who lead, but at the same time are not the journalists accountable for their actions? In the case of receiving a PS3 for advertising something on Twitter it seems pretty clear how wrong that is.

  4. Avatar of tiqangel

    On the one hand, I completely agree that this article presents a lot of food for thought.

    On the other hand, I’ve seen people directly involved in all of this, that I personally considered to be friends worthy of respect all laughing and joking about the whole shameful event, or looking desperately for someone to attack, instead of sitting down and realizing that they’re all partly responsible for this by being complacant and accepting free gifts instead of retaining even a small slither of journalistic integrity.

    The relationship between games journalists and PR has been shown off for exactly what it has been for quite some time… symbiotic. This should never have been the case and there are far too many people who could have done something about this, who are now spending far more energy defending themselves than they ever did attempting to improve the industry they claim to love.

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