A kefuffle has erupted in the gaming media as gaming site takes on gaming site and games commentator takes on game “journalist” in a no-holds barred contest of “No, I Am Riding the Higher Horse!”. The media finds stories about the media endlessly fascinating (plus it lets them air the dirty laundry usually only talked about round the water cooler aka pub) and something as inbred as the gaming press is going to find it extra fun to publicly throw things at each other.
Plus outrage equals eyeballs, so a bit of controversy is good business.
Things got started with Rob “Piracy is Just a Word, like Ethics” Florence writing an article on Eurogamer about how the relationship between the gaming press and gaming promotion is much, much too close. However, Florence managed to completely obscure that message by naming some names, which immediately made them the focus of the story.
Florence made the comment that “I have a mental list of games journos who are the very worst of the bunch[;] The ones who are at every PR launch event, the ones who tweet about all the freebies they get” but that “I won’t name them here, because it’s a horrible thing to do.” He didn’t feel it horrible enough to not call out two people specifically though – Dave Cook of VG24/7 for accepting a PS3 won in a Twitter hashtag competition, and MCV staff writer Lauren Wainwright for not seeing a problem with this arrangement.
Florence calls out Wainwright for looking too close to the new Tomb Raider game, which made him “suspicious” that she could be in the pocket of the Tomb Raider PR team, since she clearly doesn’t understand ethics as well as Florence does. He doesn’t want to SAY she’s being paid off, but the “doubt is there”.
Someone complained to Eurogamer about this particular line – Eurogamer names Wainwright as the source of the complaint and then apologises for it, but it also looks like Intent Media (owner of MCV) possibly said something too.
It doesn’t appear that legal action was explicitly threatened, despite a lot of reports to the contrary and it appears to be what Florence was told.
UPDATE 20 November 2012: Wainwright indicates that she didn’t talk to any lawyers before having a “short communication” with Eurogamer, but suggested that the comments could be considered libellous. Her view is that Eurogamer then spoke to their legal representatives who suggested they remove names from the article – both hers and Cook’s. Wainwright says she regrets her actions – they happened because she started to get abuse once the article had gone up and wanted it to stop.
In response, Eurogamer edited the article to remove reference to both Wainwright and Cook (although only cites Wainwright in their note about the update). As a result of this edit, Florence decided to stop writing his column for Eurogamer although clearly blames others for the decision to do so.
You can read the full original article text here,
Here’s the Problem: Florence Was Wrong To Mention Wainwright As He Did
In the rush to blame Wainwright for destroying game “journalism” forever, there seems to be a large issue overlooked: Florence could have written the entire article and not ever mention Wainwright. Or if he mentioned her, he could have said, “And here’s the kind of gaming press attitude I’m talking about, the one that can’t even see the problem”. He didn’t need to mention his suspicions and doubts based purely on a single other tweet.
Intentional or not, that was mudslinging.
A lot of places are rushing to scream “FREEDOM OF SPEECH! FREEDOM OF SPEECH!” (which gets US gamers all outraged and thus pushes the story along further) and blame UK libel laws for what happened, but it was the way that Florence wrote his statement that caused the issue. It doesn’t follow that because someone can’t see an issue with a gaming reviewer entering a contest to win a PS3 that they in turn are “in the pocket” of a publisher’s PR team.
That’s a pretty serious statement. I’m sure whoever at Eurogamer okayed the original version of the Florence column will be having a serious think about how they let that one slip through. A little bit of tweaking and there would have been no problem. The point that it looks bad for someone writing about a title to be too close to it is one thing, but naming someone as being possibly bought is another.
It is a serious issue that many in the enthusiast gaming press let their love of games cloud their role of information distributor to the public. There is also the very serious issues of games PR / marketing having a lot of power over which people / sites in the gaming press get access to the previews / free copies / free loot / exclusives, and thus increased eyeballs and revenue. And then there’s the issue of people moving on from the gaming press to the game development side, or perhaps to the gaming PR side. There are conflicts of interest all over the place.
Please Ignore The Sound of Breaking Glass
John Walker of Rock Paper Shotgun has been very vocal in his defence of RPS stable mate Florence and how Eurogamer has behaved here. He takes the moral high ground, saying, “[Wainwright] vociferously defended a journalist’s right to promote a game for personal gain – in supporting the PS3 competition – on that Twitter page, and yes, if you were the sort of person who wanted to get threatened, you might mistakenly conflate the two”. He also goes after Wainwright for having a Twitter page (now locked to the public, which unfortunately makes it hard to see how ‘vociferously’ Wainwright did anything) covered in Tomb Raider pictures and for having listed Square Enix as someone she’s worked for as clear conflicts of interest.
My problem with all of that is that Walker is near equally as compromised when it comes to the Broken Sword games. Yes, Walker declares his conflict – he worked on the Director’s Cut of Broken Sword and apparently doesn’t review Revolution Software (who are behind Broken Sword) titles.
But he’s not above publishing article on Rock Paper Shotgun telling people that the game he worked on is now available for purchase (in 2010) and then that there is a Kickstarter for Broken Sword 5 that perhaps the readers of Rock Paper Shotgun might like to support, plus a few interviews to help support the Kickstarter process (in 2012). I honestly can’t comprehend the hypocrisy that sees Walker call out Cook for a hashtag when he’s helping a former employer solicit crowd funds or even sell a title where he’s got a writing credit.
Is there no-one else at Rock Paper Shotgun who can take that particular title off Walker? Because if it is a conflict of interest for Wainwright who has worked in some capacity for Square Enix to write about Tomb Raider, it is definitely a conflict for Walker to present a title he’s had a direct relationship with to the public and help with their fund raising. Yes, Walker does disclose this conflict with Revolution Games in the post from 2010 and the Kickstarter one in 2012, but I don’t see it mentioned in the 2012 interviews (but will update this if I missed it). If Wainwright is a fan of Tomb Raider, then Walker is most certainly a fan of Broken Sword.
Walker’s own comment about this is, “I declared my interests in the posts – that’s a good thing to do in such circumstances. But such circumstances probably shouldn’t come about.” And yet they do. Repeatedly.
The Relationship Between Eurogamer and Rock Paper Shotgun
One thing that came out of this for me was the knowledge that Eurogamer and Rock Paper Shotgun share a relationship for ad sales and business development. Which isn’t something I see mentioned when Rock Paper Shotgun links several Eurogamer articles on a page (and in this case including one of Florence’s), potentially driving eyes that start on Rock Paper Shotgun to Eurogamer and thus boosting overall adviews for both sites.
There are lots of very good reasons for Rock Paper Shotgun to link to Eurogamer pages as Eurogamer has some great articles. But surely there is a potential conflict of interest in driving eyeballs towards the site that pays their ad revenue? Shouldn’t that conflict be stated at the very least on the Advertise With Us page, which doesn’t mention any commercial ad arrangement with Eurogamer at all?
Because if we are going to get serious about looking at potential conflict of interest and who’s-influencing-who, then it has to be looked at everywhere.
UPDATE 30 October 2012: Rock Paper Shotgun have made several recent statements about the nature of the commercial relationship they have with Eurogamer and how they keep editorial arms’ length away from the advertising.
People Stopped Reading 600 Words Ago
Shut up, I’m almost done.
Since the publication of the article and the targeting of Wainwright a lot of things have been written. Florence has been critical of Wainwright for complaining and asking for the article to be revised – for doing “one of the worst things one writer can do to another” – while also sympathising with what has happened since.
Lots of mention of the Streisand Effect and that Wainwright shouldn’t have asked for the retraction, but there was no way of knowing how things would blow up (and that she would become the focus of the story in large part thanks to Eurogamer naming her twice in the Editor’s Note). Would it have been better for the article to remain unchanged and that every time someone googled ‘Lauren Wainwright’ there appeared an article appearing that said she was in all likelihood open to bribes? Plus I’m not sure writing a response to the allegations – as suggested by a few commentators – would have had much effect, given that the “accusation” article usually gets a lot more coverage than any “response” article.
(Destructoid’s Jim Sterling’s view on this is that you should just let those negative articles stand because you get used to them after a few years.)
It also raises a nasty precedent for games writers to write what they want about people in the future, safe in the knowledge that if they get called on it, then they can rely on the Internet Outrage Machine (Pat. Pend.) to scream “CENSORSHIP!” and drown out any criticism in a wave of fury. And that wave of fury is driven by people with the time to dig through a lot of rock to find any dirt – real or imagined – that might be hiding there. Post-facto justification of an accusation is very ugly territory to enter into.
There is a very strong case that Wainwright should have made her working relationship with Square Enix much, much clearer in her work. If she’s going to list something publicly (such as on her Journalisted.com profile), then it would have been best to be open about that everywhere. (And she certainly shouldn’t have edited her profile there to remove Square Enix as a previous employer – too late, too late.) Exactly what she did for Square Enix remains a big, open question, but she should have mentioned that potential conflict of interest.
UPDATE 20 November 2012: Wainwright indicates that she wrote two mock reviews for Square Enix that weren’t covering either Tomb Raider or Hitman titles.
Unfortunately, ‘catching’ Wainwright has become a lot of the focus now. As a result of the removal of a few sentences – and arguably the least important sentences to the overall discussion on the relationship between the gaming press and games PR – the message has been lost in all the noise of a witch hunt.
And given that these gaming press and PR conflict of interest is everywhere, I can’t help but see a lot of the finger pointing as nothing more than the throwing of hard objects within a glass-encased enclosure.