Ethics in Games Journalism: Sunless Sea and The Employment of Games Journalists

Just to build on an earlier post about how it isn’t a good look to have games developed by games journalists appear on the game sites they have relationships with, Eurogamer’s Sunless Sea article came with a disclaimer:

A disclaimer statement that says: Disclaimer: Richard Cobbett, a contributor and friend of Eurogamer, is one of the writing team on Sunless Sea. We chose a reviewer who doesn't know Richard personally.

Arguably it should be at the top of the article than off to the side, but at least it’s there. (Image sourced from: Eurogamer)

In some ways, such open disclosure is good to see. Cobbett‘s contribution to Sunless Sea appears limited to  a few storylines, so he isn’t an apparent major beneficiary from any success the game may have.

How Close Is Arm’s Length?

But we’re actually wandering into ethically dangerous territory. Should game sites review (or even feature) any game that their contributors have been involved in? Eurogamer gave Sunless Sea a perfect score and was the first major site to get its review of this game up. As an indie title, Sunless Sea wants as much promotion as it can get. Did adding a games journalist to their writing team for a small part of the game help them achieve that extra push on to Eurogamer?

This is the problem with perceived conflicts of interest – a lot can be spun from very little, but it doesn’t mean it lacks substance. And let’s be clear on that – there’s no strong evidence of any wrongdoing here, just the question of how conflicts of interest are being handled.

For instance, Cobbett dropped a Sunless Sea reference into one of his PCGamer articles recently. He disclosed the link, but including it in the article at all helps promote the game he wrote for. PCGamer hasn’t yet released a review of Sunless Sea yet, and I hope it doesn’t write one at all, given Cobbett’s long-term relationship to the site.

And On To the Hypothetical…

A screenshot of Richard Cobbett's blog titled: Sunless Sea and Me - An Empire of Hands

And all this is before we look at the issue of games journalist promoting the games they are working on using their blog / social media channels. Which seems reasonable, except they can be talking up the game to their other game journalist friends. Ethics: no fun at parties. (Image sourced from: RichardCobbett.com)

At a time when it seems like video game sites are falling like dominoes, game journalists are looking for every freelance opportunity they can find. Swamped by competitions, indie game studios scramble for every new paying customer. There is  immense opportunity for indie studios and game journalists in these situations to leverage each other for mutual benefit – game journalists get paid and / or get a games writing credit for the résumé, the indie game studio sees new gamers interested in their game.

It only requires some gently bent rules, a few justifications to be made, and suddenly it is standard practise for games sites to promote and review games that engaged games journalists employed by those same sites. Finding an ‘independent’ games journalist to review the game (as Eurogamer did with Sunless Sea) might seem like an option, except for all the things that can go on behind the scenes. Game journalists might get yelled at by publishers or game studios for negative reviews, but it’s a lot more awkward writing a negative review that criticises the good friend of the editor who decides if you work or not.

As I’ve said before, the standard should strict: if the potential for perceived conflict of interest exists for a gaming site between their active gaming journalists and a game, don’t feature the game at all. Simple disclosure is not enough.

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