Monday, July 13, 2009

charge shot!!! and ethics

soapbox Last week, something exciting happened. Charge Shot!!! was sent its first ever review copy of a game, Telltale’s Tales of Monkey Island. We were thrilled – it was another first for us, and another baby step in the direction of success! I was going to do a write-up of the game for today, pre-empting Demo Monday, but Saturday when I was checking up on Marginalia I saw something that gave me pause – our topmost ad banner proudly displayed a giant advertisement for Tales of Monkey Island itself.

One of game journalism’s most troubling realities is the innate conflict of interest caused when major game review sites accept advertising money from the very people whose games they are reviewing. Charge Shot!!! has never been big enough to worry about this – studios are hardly lining up to advertise on our 100-hits-a-day blog, or to give us swag. But as we stumble toward legitimacy, I think it’d be good to air our opinions on the subject.

First, why does this conflict exist? Part of the problem is simply that game sites have precious few avenues to profitability – most money on the Web is made through merchandising or advertising, and game review sites don’t lend themselves to in-joke T-shirts as do webcomics.

Traditional papers, back when they used to make money, actually had a physical product to sell and made much of their cash through subscriptions. Not so game journalism - it may have had its humble beginnings in the pages of EGM and Nintendo Power, but it came (is coming?) of age in the everything-for-free Internet era. The very notion of paying for an IGN Insider subscription, for example, seems ludicrous to me, since I can go to just about every other game site on Earth and find similar content for zero dollars and zero cents.

And thus, a conflict is born. Since most game sites tend to cover games and game-related news, they’re naturally going to attract advertisers with games and game-related products to sell. An ad for the latest Mario game is going to give you more bang for the buck on 1up’s homepage than it would if published in a magazine called Boats Quarterly, a fictional magazine for Boating Enthusiasts. While game studios are eager to push their products via game sites, advertisers in other industries seem almost wary of the space. Yes, you’ll sometimes see an ad for an iPod or some Energizer batteries, but the ratio of  ads for games to ads for anything else is so lopsided that these sites couldn’t possibly stay afloat if they cut the game studios off.

The casualty of this conflict is objectivity. While I genuinely believe that most writers in this field are trying their best to give their honest opinion, there are definite downsides to biting the hand that feeds you. Some publishers are more egregious than others – Tomb Raider publisher Eidos has put an embargo on bad reviews of its games recently and not so recently. Of particular note is the Gamespot/Kane and Lynch controversy, which is best summed up here. Basically, the rumor mill had it that Jeff Gerstmann, a Gamespot reviewer with a ten-year history at the site, was let go after giving Eidos’ game Kane and Lynch a negative review at the same time as Eidos was paying for full-page ads for the same game on the site. The particulars of Gerstmann’s firing never came to light, but given that several other Gamespot writers quit just afterward citing editorial censorship seems to suggest that the rumors are true.

In short, no matter how objective many of the larger game review sites would like to be, their situation demands that they sometimes kowtow to publishers to keep their livelihoods.

What’s the solution to this problem? I don’t know. While I’m heartened by Charge Shot!!!’s small successes, I’m also glad that we’re not nearly big enough to need to worry about such things. This gig doesn’t put food on any of our tables, so I’m hardly qualified to recommend an alternative to the current system. It’s no skin off of our noses if Publisher X decides to cut us off because Publisher X isn’t the one who signs our respective paychecks. As long as we don’t want any money from this enterprise, we can be as brutally honest as we want.

I realize this is not an equitable solution for everybody.

I can’t honestly say whether Charge Shot!!! is more or less objective than any other game site on the block – we’re sometimes just as gushy and fanboy-ish as anyone on an Internet message board. Regardless, I think it’s important for writers such as ourselves to be honest about this problem, to discuss its merits and flaws, where it works and where it doesn’t. Some will always be content to ignore it, but the surest way for game journalism to earn respect in the eyes of its critics is to talk about its problems, address them and move past them.

My pure, unfiltered opinions on the first chapter of Tales of Monkey Island will go up this Thursday, regardless of the ad banners to their left.