#GamerGate: An Honest Discussion About Games Journalism Ethics – Part 1

Doritogate

One of the people I interviewed during the coverage of Allistair Pinsof’s case involving his firing from Destructoid and the involvement of the Game Journo Pros, was someone who worked closely with Pinsof when he was employed at the site. The fellow’s name is Geoff Henao and he was the former reviews editor at one of Modern Method’s subsidiaries known as Flixist. For those who don’t know, Modern Method is Destructoid’s parent company.

Henao has moved on and is now the editor-in-chief at Ruby Hornet. Speaking on his own accord and with his own opinions, Geoff and I began discussing some of the issues involving today’s video game journalism scene, after we finished with all the obligatory questions about Destructoid’s corruption case.

Funnily enough, I found myself being asked quite a few questions by Henao in our two-hour long talk. He’s more of a neutral (closer leaning to the anti-side) on the #GamerGate spectrum, so it goes without saying that we didn’t always see eye-to-eye on every topic.

Just so the rest of the interview didn’t go to waste – and with Henao’s permission to share the info so long as it was transcribed and not posted on Soundcloud – I’ll be posting up parts of the discussion so people have an idea of what moderate, neutral or the anti-#GamerGate side thinks about certain topics relating to games journalism and the debate about ethics.

Geoff Henao: Do you think there’s a difference between journalism and online blogging?

Billy: Haha, in today’s environment I don’t even call myself a journalist, not because of the fact – I’m a gamer, I love gaming – I was supposed to be a game designer, but I ended up writing about games. As a gamer, as a consumer, I started seeing a lot of bad practices happening within the industry. I started – in a way – blogging about consumer advocacy. […] I never really considered it journalism.

Geoff Henao: Okay.

Billy: But when these ill practices started coming out, I started noticing that some of the other sites didn’t really seem intent on covering the corruption in the industry, or being pro-consumer to make people aware about some of this stuff. I kind of had a divide about that; I thought that if these people are professionals – and I never considered myself as a professional like them – I always thought that if they considered themselves as professionals they should behave like it, in terms of what they cover and how they cover it.

They have a lot of power – the media has a lot of power over how people are informed and the information they get out of this. And I was asking someone at IGN ‘Why don’t you guys cover pro-consumer stuff when these things happen? The consumers aren’t made aware of this and they go in there and they get screwed over. How does that help them?’ One of IGN’s editors response to me was ‘That’s not our job. That’s on the [publisher]. They do that.’

Geoff Henao: Right.

Billy: It’s turned into this huge mess now because a lot of people are saying ‘What defines a blogger from a journalist?’ Other than the namesake itself. Because they’re not really acting like journalists – they’re not asking questions.

This whole thing really spiraled out of control when – there’s just no facts, and these are mainstream media sites – they’re not even reporting on the facts. There’s literally just one side of the story [regarding #GamerGate] and it’s the only side of the story. Nothing else.

Geoff Henao: Do you think that if a site considers its writers as bloggers and not as journalists that they should be held to the same journalistic bylaws, so to speak? Should they be held to the same journalistic code if they themselves don’t consider themselves journalists?

Billy: No. [But] only if they adhere to that. Like, some of the people made comments saying ‘If you don’t consider yourselves as journalists, then you shouldn’t get press badges.’ I do kind of agree with that.

Geoff Henao: Okay.

Billy: I never went out and got a press badge because I never considered myself a journalist.

Geoff Henao: Have you ever applied to attend a press event?

Billy: No.

Geoff Henao: I’ll say this, I’ve been writing about film for four years and I’ve gone to countless film festivals, comic book conventions and stuff like that. They actually do have a distinction for writers or bloggers. It’s never held down as ‘journalist’.

One thing I don’t think a lot of communities who don’t work for sites like Destructoid or IGN, is that there are like – at least in terms of strict wording – it’s never applied as journalist. It’s as a writer, or blogger or content producer.

Billy: I see.

Geoff Henao: There are writers who try to kind of raise the bar, in terms of journalism and good quality, long-form writing, like Allistair [Pinsof] or Sam Prowl. And when they tried to do so in the past, they’ll get lambasted for it.

Billy: Yeah.

Geoff Henao: It sucks. And then a year or two later #GamerGate is happening where everyone is like ‘Where’s the ethics? Where’s the journalism’ when it’s those same people from a couple of years ago that was tripping balls when these writers were trying to implement games journalism into their writing. Man… it’s just so contradictory, dude.

And a lot of people – like, again, what happened with Allistair, he tried to do [journalism] right and there was fallout from the community and his employer.

Billy: Right

Geoff Henao: We got #GamerGate, and I don’t know where you stand on it, but we got people who are asking for real ethics in games journalism… where were they a couple of years ago when writers were actively trying to do that and people were calling shit on them for it? Where were they a couple of years ago?

Billy: I think a lot of people – in relation to that point – do you remember what happened with Rob Florence? The Doritogate thing?

Geoff Henao: Ah, no. I only know that there was like a Dorito-sponsorship – it was like an Xbox thing right?

Billy: Ha, no that was another one.

Geoff Henao: [laughs] Okay.

Billy: The XB1M13 [laughs]. There’s been a couple of incidents – #GamerGate isn’t just this thing that popped up. It started with Gerstmann-Gate.

Geoff: I’m sorry?

Billy: Gerstmann-Gate… it started back in 2007. Back in 2007 Jeff Gerstmann was fired because he gave a low score in a review to a game. And the advertisers weren’t happy with that. It started, kind of, then.

Geoff: Okay.

Billy: People were like, ‘Something’s wrong here’. It kind of got squashed. Everybody squashed it.

Geoff: Okay.
Billy: It came up again with Mass Effect 3. Did you hear about that?

Geoff: No, not specifically.

Billy: It was the ending –

Geoff: Oh, and then they added like that third ending?

Billy: A lot of people were unhappy with [the situation] because the journalists called consumers whiny and entitled, and then squashed it. And did you hear about the Diablo III DRM situation?

Geoff: Yeah, um – it’s basically with any DRM. You have to be online.

Billy: Yeah, there was a pretty big thing about that but not really in the media. It was mostly contained within the community. And the community was basically saying, ‘Why aren’t we hearing more about this?’ Then it happened again with Doritogate; Rob Florence was talking about ethics in journalism and it kind of circled around other journalists. He ended up [stepping away from Eurogamer], and two other journalists tried writing about it but the articles were pulled, presumably by lawyers from others involved. And they squashed the situation.

Geoff: Okay.

Billy: Doritogate was one of the things that really got people angry because a lot of people were thinking, ‘How is this right?’ People asked how someone could write about corruption in games journalism and then not have a job over it. And that situation spilled into the Xbox One DRM thing, where a lot of people got angry that some journalists were but weren’t trying to dig into if Microsoft [knew about the DRM rumors] and why were they promoting this thing in the way that they did?

It all spiraled back around – oh, I forgot about the Aliens: Colonial Marines thing. I don’t know if you heard about that?

Geoff: Yeah, with the Borderlands people?

Billy: Some people were saying it was embezzlement – it’s in court now.

Geoff: With the 2K Games and Sega?

Billy: Sega and Gearbox, actually.

Geoff: Ah, thank you.

Billy: People were saying Gearbox took the money to [finish] Borderlands 2 and they skimped on Aliens: Colonial Marines. But the journalists, again, were angry at consumers because they were saying ‘You guys shouldn’t have bought this game on day-one! You should have waited for the reviews!’ The reviews, however, were embargoed to the release day of the game. So most people who bought it [day-one] had already pre-ordered the game because they thought ‘It must be a good game’. I don’t know if you heard about it or not, but the journalists were actually playing the game two months before the game beforehand and gave hands-on previews impressions, yet none of them mentioned that the game was broke and bad.

Geoff: Okay.

Billy: And then on the day of release, everybody released these reviews with really low scores, saying the game was broke and that it was bad. People were saying ‘If you got to play it two months beforehand, why didn’t you warn us about it?

There was one person who came out and said that one of the reviewers was going to give the game a high-score no matter what because he gets free stuff and he didn’t care.

Geoff: That’s pretty fucked up.

Billy: Exactly.

Geoff: In regards to that, I don’t do games journalism but I’m assuming if you’re playing a preview build, and you’re running across bugs, you’re going to assume that those bugs are going to be squashed by the time the retail version comes out. Like, how can they speak on bugs when it’s a couple of months ahead before it even goes gold? How can the community blame them for that?

Billy: Well, it was also – the graphics weren’t what they had shown before. For the preview builds, they were using the E3 footage – which actually came from a PC build, and that version of the game didn’t actually exist, it was specifically made for E3 – and in the previews that were on the game sites, they were using the [E3] footage to represent the game; footage of a build that didn’t actually exist [1].

Geoff: Right. That is pretty misleading.

Billy: The journalists were playing the real version of the game, which did not look like the [E3 build] but no one ever said ‘Hey, the game we played isn’t what you saw and isn’t what we’re seeing.’ In some of the previews they were still using some of the E3 footage. Literally misleading.

It got under a lot of people’s skin because the reviewers said ‘You guys should have waited, you guys shouldn’t have pre-ordered the game.’ But, you know, [the journalists] spent a year pimping the game on their websites: ‘Pre-order this’, ‘pre-order DLC that’ and when the review time comes, it’s ‘Oh, this game is terrible, you guys shouldn’t have bought it. It’s your fault’

Billy: So for the community – this whole thing has really been building and finally exploded into this thing.

You don’t see it in the media because they’re not going to report on it, but the community is really batting for Allistair to pull through this thing. There are a couple of other journalists who also came out, who have sort of been outed from the industry, because they didn’t lock-step-and-synch with the clique. So the community is trying to make sure that the industry is inclusive to anyone who wants to come in, and not just the people who adhere to the ‘clique nature’. This also involves the people involved with the Game Journo Pros list… and certain other practices.

Geoff: I have a few questions. I’m assuming you’re like a very avid gamer, right?

Billy: Yeah.

Geoff: What would you do if you didn’t read previews? Would you still be pre-ordering games? Are you letting previewers and websites determine whether or not you pick up a game? Or are you picking up a game just because it sounds good?

Billy: Actually, I do read previews or watch previews, and if [the game] looks good – I think I pre-ordered… I did, I pre-ordered Mortal Kombat: Armageddon way back in the day.

Geoff: [laughs]

Billy: Because I read some previews about it – I pre-ordered that once I found out about it – I read some previews about it from, I think EGM… when they used to exist.

Geoff: Yeah.

Billy: I read some previews. I watched some videos. I said ‘I have to have this game.’ I pre-ordered quite a few games, back in the day, based on the information I received from game magazines and websites. I think some people will just [pre-order] on impulse, they see a game and go ‘Oh, this looks cool’ and they pre-order it. I’m the kind where I go to websites, I read the magazines. I ask ‘Is this something I want?’ If it is, then I’m going to pre-order it.

Basically, my pro-consumer advocacy comes from me being a consumer, saying ‘I’m going to be affected by this, too.’

Geoff: Right. I’m just trying to understand the level of influence previews have on you, and if you or anyone else didn’t read gaming sites or Game Informer or whatever, for like six months, if the amount of games they purchase or are interested in would be higher or lower, based on the lack of previews or the lack of coverage.

I’m just wondering because – I’m trying to determine if as a consumer and as part of the video game community, are like my opinions really that dependent on like gaming sites’ previews? Or should I be led to buy those games because of them? Or should I be interested in [the game] in spite or despite them?

Like, how much influence – like how you were saying earlier about games journalism or games journalists or whatever – is it really their right to let you know that ‘Oh man, this game isn’t that good right now?’ [Even] when it’s not a complete game? It’s a line drawn.

Embargos are put in place because things are still being fixed. And obviously they can’t speak on it, they can’t break embargo. There are people who have spoken out against embargo, at game or launch parties or whatever. Like Jim Sterling, while he was still with Destructoid. He was very vocal and against all that and that entire nature. He himself got blacklisted by major developers and publishers.

Billy: Yeah.

Geoff: Like, what has he said in regards to this aspect of #GamerGate, in regards to the ethics and whatnot?

Billy: He actually hasn’t talked about the ethics. He kind of pulled away from that. But a lot of people – he gained a lot of support from being honest about these kind of things. That’s basically where he got his crowd from. A lot of people are kind of disappointed that he didn’t really want to address #GamerGate [in] regards to the ethics. He’s kind of siding with the other people who feel it’s more-so just a harassment campaign.

Total Biscuit, on the other hand, does feel like there’s a call for better ethics. I don’t know if you heard about it, but he recently outed the company called Plaid Social Labs, who sent out brand contracts for YouTubers. For reviews they had to sign a contract that said they would help enforce viewers to purchase the game, they had to talk about certain things; they couldn’t bring up bugs or glitches – and this is in the review itself. [Total Biscuit] outed the contract and told people about that kind of thing.

People respect that kind of thing and that’s basically what they’re asking for. They just want to know about these kind of things.

Geoff: Mhmm.

Billy: Now you bring up a really good point about bugs and glitches and stuff, like one of the things I always thought was acceptable is if they passed over it in mentioning ‘This game has bugs, but it might get fixed. I spotted this bug here but it’s not a big deal.’ Just informing people about what can be fixed and what can be altered before it goes gold. I think a lot of people just want to know, honestly, what [the game] is like.

There was a market survey [2] where only a third of American hardcore gamers actually visit gaming websites. Half of the people who purchase video games actually get most of their information from friends, because they say they trust them, which is kind of telling about the state of the market.

Geoff: Right.

Billy: So a third of the people trust review sites – I’m sure that [figure] is going to alter with the growing new wave media market of YouTube and whatnot – but a third of these people who get their information from these websites, bring it to their friends and then their friends are the ones who make the purchasing decisions based on these other people who visit these sites.

So it’s kind of a tickle-down effect: what the media puts out, how they put it out can really affect the sales of certain games and the perception of certain games. So I can understand where people want transparency. Like one of the things I’m working on – one of the people mentioned that certain websites who are [redacted] by [redacted] give out certain kinds of [coverage]. […]

The main thing that they were saying is [redacted] influence is [redacted]. And that’s really a disservice to the consumer because they don’t know that. How can you make an informed decision on something when websites are basically being [redacted] to say a specific thing about the game? Usually a good thing about the game. I do think people have legitimate concerns, in that regards.

Geoff: But why not just go out and rent the game if you’re not too sure about it at first? Instead of relying on other people, though. Just playing devil’s advocate.

Billy: [laughs]

Geoff: Just because I will read IGN or Destructoid to inform my purchases.

Billy: Yeah.

Geoff: But if I’m really interested in a game I’m gonna get it, regardless of what whatever score it’s [received]. Like, Destiny for example, I was really excited about it. I still play that a few hours every day, regardless of the scores. It’s just like, once those bad reviews came out, it’s like ‘Oh, whoa, I kind of know what to expect.’ And I’m still having fun with it… you know?

Billy: Yeah.

[Continue to Part 2]

(Main image courtesy of mWeb.co.za)

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Billy has been rustling Jimmies for years. The GJP cried and their tears became his milkshake. Contact.

  • Erthwjim

    Just another note for an incident that was problematic, the SimCity one with it’s DRM.

    Also, I can say why I go to review sites, because I do tend to be one of those gamers that informs other gamers what I think might be interesting. I don’t know if they listen to me, but it’s the same type of thing I do with technology, people sometimes turn to me to ask about recent technology and what I recommend (Laptop Brands, computer brands, etc). Because I’m one of these people, there’s not a lot of other people I look to when I want to buy a game, unless it’s a game that has been out for awhile.

    I think another group that might look to review sites are the early adopters. They want to be the first person in their group of friends to buy a game, and the hope is that the reviewers will be reliable.

    One other thing, Indie Games. Although they don’t cost as much as AAA games generally, when a person invests in a AAA Game it’s based on the game company that makes it, whether it’s a sequel, and few other things I can’t think of right now, but people can usually make a decision on buying a game without having to review it, just because of the history of the title or company, or at least that’s how I sometimes do it. With indie games, companies might be relatively new, idea might be new, etc it’s a different approach to buying them. Sure the risk might not always be as high since you might be paying 20 bucks instead of 50 bucks, but I feel there’s more to choose from now, so this is where the games media actually becomes more important, this is where reviews matter to me more. Say I have 50 bucks, I can buy one AAA game or a few indie games, and when the gaming media doesn’t review the games properly, giving preferential coverage, or possibly no coverage at all, I either end up with a game or games that are a lot shittier than their review indicated, or I miss out on a game completely because that studio didn’t have the right connections to the gaming media (which frankly I don’t know what I’ve potentially missed on, because it may have never been covered, and then indie company goes bankrupt for lack of coverage.

  • God ov Hover Hand

    Fantastic summary of the events leading up to GamerGate and great insight into all the events that have happened. Keep it up, House of Usher. You are a bombass consumer advocate.

  • David Gray

    I think it is most telling that the ONLY response that can make is “misogyny”
    It’s literally the only crutch that stands against gamergate and I do not know how anyone in good conscience can accept it.
    it’s like refusing to support civil rights because the black panthers are scary.
    I do think it is that precise level of bigotry in play too, and I know exactly how serious that talk is.
    Equality is a worthy goal and one I support tooth and nail.#AntiGG makes a mockery of diversity, inclusivity and social justice. (especially how they KEEP coming out in support of bullying and harassment of people that don’t agree with them: the VERY definition of bigotry)

  • RoboticSpaceShark

    Great conversation. You guys really sorted out the root of the anger here.

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