No, Game Journalists Are Not Paid by Publishers for Review Scores
“The industry is absolutely littered with journalists willing to sell themselves and their true beliefs out for a modest price. And this is no different from any other form of journalism, so what you’re trying to make us believe is that somehow games journalism is different.
“Integrity in journalism is the real myth, sadly. It’s nice that you still believe in it, but it doesn’t align with the facts.”
–Game Front commenter Les Hurst
That comment from a recent Game Front article on sales of The Last of Us is not unusual, although perhaps it is more articulate than the average accusation of corruption leveled at those of use who work as members of the media that covers the games industry.
We are, certainly, a media subculture with some very real ethical issues. For example, some major publishers will pay to fly and board reporters when hosting large press events, and taking them up on such an offer can be the only option for many publications if they want to get that coverage. And it’s not unusual for such events to have open bars and free food (almost always sliders) for the attendees.
Nobody is signing contracts saying that accepting flights and hotel rooms from a publisher or drinking their booze requires that we not say anything negative about the games at said events, but there is a perception issue there. That’s why many publications have strict policies against accepting travel and put dollar limits on swag their staffers can accept; we know it looks bad. Things like that may not ethically compromise the journalists involved, but it could damage their credibility to rely so heavily on the goodwill of a publisher.
But perhaps folks are worried about even smaller scale pandering. In speaking about this issue, one of my college buddies pointed out that some folks take issue with the fact that “the enthusiast press relies on the industry for all art, review copies, etc. They control access if you want timeliness.”
But, to get to the heart of this: Do game companies actually give games journalists cash or gifts explicitly intended to be exchanged for kind words about their products or a specific review score?
Can I provide physical evidence of that? Well, I could show you my bank and Paypal statements, but I’m not sure that would convince anybody of much — one LA rental company didn’t think several bank statements were enough proof that I make enough money for a studio in Westlake, after all. So what we’re going to do is look at this logically from several perspectives, giving this issue some real thought. We’ll start with me.
As a freelance journalist, I am usually entirely responsible for making sure I have things to write about. As a result, I am dependent on publishers to provide me with games in order to be effective at my job. It’s true that I need the people in charge of access to games to not hate me so much they refuse to talk to me. But at no point in any of these interactions has anyone representing a game company suggested that my access to these copies was contingent on positive coverage.