Shortly after the e-mail leaks from the Game Journo Pros secret Google group took place back in September of 2014, the group was shutdown. Some of the discussions that took place within the group that were exposed to the public led many people to believe that gaming journalism needed reformation. Gamers felt that transparency and discussion needed to take place between readers and journalists; unfortunately, throughout #GamerGate that hasn’t been happening.
What’s interesting is that some of the discussions of ethics, disclosure and conflicts of interest that have come to the forefront of #GamerGate were actually discussions boiling within the digital pot of the Game Journo Pros. One such discussion took place back on January 18th, 2014 during the infamous XB1M13 scandal involving Microsoft, Polaris, Ronku and Electronic Arts. It started off in reference to an article on Pocket Gamer from back in 2013 for a review of Rhythm Thief, where someone in the comment section of the article stated…
“Once again, I call the integrity of the reviewer in question. PG needs to do an audit and background check of reviewers bank accounts each time they review a game to be safe.”
This comment came on the heels of another scandal that broke shortly before that time, where it turned out that some reviewers were extorting developers for “expedited” game reviews.
Ars Technica senior games editor and creator of the Game Journo Pros, Kyle Orland, posted the comment in the group, which led to a discussion about payola and bribery in the gaming industry.
Ironically enough, it was proven that Kotaku editor Nathan Grayson was involved in a sexual relationship with a developer while providing said developer with positive game coverage. Tyler Wilde, an executive editor at PC Gamer, was also engaged in “romantic” activity with a Ubisoft PR manager while providing the company with positive coverage. Prurient connections between PR and former journalist and IGF chairman Brandon Boyer also managed to get exposed in the Indie-Fensible expose. Additionally, it was also stated on record that Holly Green, while working as an editor at Destructoid, was engaged in recreational paraphernalia usage while hanging out with press in a hotel room.
Sex and drugs, Mr. Fudge… sex and drugs.
Nevertheless, the discussion veered back toward paid review scores, where the ethics of bribery became front and center, along with the topic of disclosure.
I reached out to Michael Futter to offer him an opportunity to provide further context to his comments and what was mentioned in the GJP, but he no longer had access to the e-mails and linked to his article on Game Informer from January 21st, 2014. He also mentioned that…
“the YouTube community needs to come to its own best practices from within and not from outside”
It was about the XB1M13 scandal where YouTubers were taking payola without disclosure to promote Xbox products. Electronic Arts also had a similar program running. Things quickly mellowed out when the FTC got involved.
Kyle Orland responded to Futter’s statements, writing…
“I don’t know how useful it is to somehow set some new ethical standard for people on YouTube because they don’t call themselves ‘journalists.’ To avoid a semantic debate on what that means (a debate I am incredibly tired of), I’ll make my position as plain as possible: If you are making money by sharing your opinions about a product, I think you need to adhere to some ethical standards about how you interact with the companies that make those products, especially when it comes to gifts and payments.
“As a practical matter, I don’t think most or even many YouTubers *will* adhere to any ethical standard of this kind. But should they? Absolutely.”
Funnily enough, YouTubers like Angry Joe and TotalBiscuit weren’t shy about adhering to disclosure policies when the topics came up. Other professional content creators on YouTube like Inside Sim Racing have also adhered to the FTC regulations regarding disclosure. According to ISR’s Darin Gangi…
“I was asked to include […] sponsors in all the iRace4Life videos as part of our agreement and to have the videos available on our channel.
“iRacing for a period of time was a sponsor of the show but no longer is and hasn’t been since the end of 2014. We have never been asked to compromise our views or opinions by any sponsors and are free to discuss their products, services, software, etc as we see fit.
“We don’t have any “written disclosure policies” with any of our sponsors. We don’t hide the fact that any of those companies are sponsors and as a matter of fact have banner ads for all of our sponsors at our website. Some do promotional plugs and have product placement in our videos as well.”
The question is: will smaller YouTubers adhere to disclosures if they aren’t prodded to by their audience?
Orland’s full comments in response to Futter’s comments are below…
“Legally, no, [YouTubers] aren’t obligated to refuse money from Microsoft offered in exchange for specific content requirements. But then again, neither are we. We don’t take direct payoffs for changing our writings because of a sense of professional ethics and the desire to retain the respect of our audience.
“As I said in my last email, I don’t see why these YouTubers shouldn’t be held to a similar standard. They also get paid through explicit advertising for distributing information and opinions about games. How exactly should their ethical code be different from ours?
“As I also said before, I’m under no illusions that these YouTubers are going to suddenly adopt these kinds of ethical standards..”
This past June the FTC updated their information FAQ to help consumers identify and enforce guidelines laid down by the Federal Trade Commission not only regarding Let’s Play videos from YouTubers but general reviews, paid endorsements and affiliate links by traditional print and digital media outlets. The FTC also recently started cracking down on fraudulent Kickstarters.
One big question out of all of this is: why such a massive push back by journalists if all gamers had been asking for since August of 2014 is disclosure?
Of course, as mentioned above in this article some journalists have been involved in some unethical behavior, so giving leeway to people wanting more disclosure would mean letting some skeletons out of the closet.
Nevertheless, the massive cover-up and narrative spin over a minor scandal involving a conflict of interest that took place last year leading to the blow-up that is #GamerGate, created more distrust and paranoia in the gaming community than ever before.
Destructoid owner and co-founder of Modern Method, Yanier “Niero” Gonzalez, offered his insight into the distrust that he believes will spread from online digital media outlets to YouTubers, stating…
“If what happened to us happened to magazines, I can probably forecast what’s next. Trace the steps: three years ago there was a big media blowup/distrust over Youtube networks. If you google “polaris machinima bad press” you can see how that brought widespread trust [to] the Youtube star. That bubble is about to pop. The internet’s public outcry [over] PewDiePie’s earnings is a good indicator that skeptics will now start to take stock in what is and isn’t a product placement. Youtubers at large seem to be notoriously bad at disclosing what is sponsored content. The video gaming star shakedown is coming if it’s not here already and it’s going to be ugly.”
One of the main things that had a lot of people angry over the digital media outlets was how they felt betrayed during #GamerGate – that even if there was corruption in the games media, it was completely pushed aside for the press to throw their audience to the mainstream wolves. This resulted in the now infamous Law & Order: SVU episode titled “Intimidation Game”, where the writer for the episode revealed that he sourced a lot of the material from the biased Wikipedia page on #GamerGate, which in turn was sourced from manufactured lies from mainstream media and games media surrounding the gaming industry.
When the leaks of the Game Journo Pros went live a lot of gamers felt as if their conspiracy theories about collusion happening in backroom deals was finally being acknowledged. However, this kind of stuff dated back as far as the Aliens: Colonial Marines fiasco, where someone from the Timegate forums known as Paladinrja posted the following comment on February 14th, 2013…
“What most people don’t know, is that there is a back channel that everyone from forum mods to dev teams share. Most of the time its full of superfluous crap and cryptic messages that no one gets unless they are involved with the subject, but the media also tune into this. Even IGN was fully aware of this during the reveal but said nothing (I thought Hatfield was a little stiff).”
At the time the game journalists joked on Twitter about the conspiracies…
— Talmadge Blevins (@talign) February 16, 2013
— Marcus Beer. (@AnnoyedGamer) February 16, 2013
But in September, 2014 Breitbart journalist Milo Yiannopolis exposed the Game Journo Pros due to an anonymous leaker stepping forward. Additionally, Reddit moderator Xavier Mendel also leaked Reddit mod chat logs that also revealed collusion with press to control the narrative surrounding #GamerGate and industry corruption. What’s more is that some gamers suspected that it wasn’t done and finished.
Well, evidence of a second Game Journo Pros — oftentimes referred to as Game Journo Pros 2.0 — never fully surfaced but some leaks did occur from private groups containing journalists and their hangouts on Facebook.
Just to be clear: It’s true that there are various industry groups shared by game journalists and industry professionals all across Facebook and LinkedIn, many of which are used for informational and contact purposes. In fact the Game Journo Pros was oftentimes used for job resources and sharing of employment opportunities.
However, many gamers worry about whether or not these groups foster the same kind of groupthink that was evident in the original Game Journo Pros and whether or not these groups could be used to shape another narrative that could damage the gaming industry like what happened when the #GamerGate scandal first kicked off.
With that said, one of those private, invite-only groups is called “Videogame Reviewers Match-Up 2.0”. As made evident in the e-mails below.
That’s Jason Wilson from GamesBeat and Danielle Riendeau, a senior reviewer at Polygon.
Wilson notes to Riendeau to ask “Arthur” to add her to the Facebook group. It hasn’t been determined yet if Wilson is referring to Arthur Gies, an editor from Polygon.
[Correction: It was brought to my attention that the images below came from Jim Sterling’s Facebook page and not a group]
Over on Jim Sterling Sterling’s Facebook page, those like Ian Miles Cheong, Leigh Alexander and former Joystiq managing editor Susan Arendt, partook in a conversation that took place last year leading up to Jim Sterling leaving The Escapist to start his own YouTube channel and Patreon account.
I had tried many times in the past to reach out to Jim Sterling, especially in regards to his involvement with the alleged blacklist of his former coworker, Allistair Pinsof, but Sterling opted not to respond.
According to John Galt, he reached out to Ian Miles Cheong about the group, to ask about the source of the information and to possibly elucidate more about the group. However, when I questioned Galt about the group he simply mentioned that Cheong told him…
“I wasn’t the source of those screenshots. I can’t imagine why someone would want to take screencaps of people’s private convos and leak them like that.”
These kind of groups oftentimes foster worries in the community that collusion and narrative shaping can happen behind the scenes when major media figures from competing outlets are so close to one another and yet so far away from communicating with their own audience.
Nevertheless, I was in contact with another journalist who was also informed about the Facebook group. The journalist was close to someone that was in one of the groups, and mentioned off the record about the contents of the group and the discussions that took place therein. According to the individual, the group was harmless. They also claimed that the members “were just talking about games” as well as some of the review codes they received for some titles. The journalist claimed they were given “viewing privileges” to the group and that they could “vouch for [the members’] honesty”, and it was just “reviewers talking about reviews”.
I was not shown the contents of the group, I was not given a list of the individuals in the group, nor was I given any access to the group.
For the most part, this past year has created nothing more than a wedge between old media, new media and gamers. Many gamers feel betrayed by the media for throwing them under the bus for the misdeeds of fringe trolls who give humanity a bad name. Others feel as if journalists should hold themselves to higher standards as opposed to attacking their own audience. A few more feel as if transparency and disclosure is an absolute must in order to build any sort of trust back between gamers and the gaming press. Many gamers just want the forceful ideological preaching to end so they can get back to gaming.
As “Niero” mentioned in his e-mail shared in the previous article…
“I’m not going to fight our new readers. They should be suspicious, why the hell not? We were. So I got with the times. I get the gamergate thing.”
[Disclosure: I was a former member of the Game Journo Pros]
(Main image courtesy of Catbib)