A number of prominent videogame media outlets — specifically GamePro, G4TV and VGChartz — have gotten themselves in hot water after they were caught “gaming” Reddit with puppet accounts and the hired hands of power users. An Internet sleuth exposed the shenanigans yesterday, forcing those outlets in question to come clean and admit their fault. Apologies have been issued, though the sincerity may be dubious and the gesture has not been enough to stem the tide of outrage and abuse that often follows charges of “NEFARIOUS CORRUPTION” in our videogame “JOURNALISM.”
As is often the case with controversial chicanery, a few people asked me my thoughts, and I spent a little time looking into the situation. Having carefully considered the “crimes”, the “victims”, and the fallout of the exposure, all I can ask is … what, exactly, is the big problem here? A few publications “gamed” a website that, at the time of writing, has a thumbnail of a thing that looks like a vagina on the front page with the headline, “I’m just posting this for the thumbnail.” Another hot bit of main page news consists of a chat log that starts with the hard-hitting question, “How many fingers can you fit in your pussy?”
Something tells me that an unshakable bastion of online integrity has not been rocked to its very core by this issue.
GamePro, G4TV and VGChartz have been attacked pretty vehemently by Reddit users and the usual cavalcade of “Rawr Videogame Journalists” pundits, yet I cannot see what they did that was so wrong. As much as people may like to dream otherwise, the likes of Reddit, N4G and Digg are little more than marketing tools in the eyes of many people. Despite what you may say of the community (usually made up of people fighting with other all day), the very way these websites work create an entity begging to be gamed. G4TV admitted it had employed a “Power User” to promote content on news aggregates and gain significant traction, and while it looks sleazy, the very fact that power users even exist is evidence that these sites are not a level playing field where everything has an equal chance and the cream can rise to the top. I don’t fault people using tricks and scams to get ahead in a system that welcomes and rewards the use of tricks and scams.
It’d be great is news aggregates were a simple case of “Link is posted, if enough people like it, it becomes successful,” but the system of metrics in place do not allow for that. In the end, sites like Reddit and Digg are just glorified Internet popularity contests, and you’ll have to forgive me for being unable to muster enough outrage over somebody cheating at an Internet popularity contest.
Now, I’m not saying that what these sites did was right, exactly. Content-spamming Reddit with twenty user accounts is most certainly naughty behavior. It might not be right, but it’s not exactly wrong, either. No great moral trespass was committed. A broken system was used to the advantage of a number of sites. Big deal. It doesn’t affect my view of the outlets’ content, or the moral fiber of the writers who work for these sites (in the interests of disclosure, I’ve freelanced for GamePro, and I also happen to think the people who work there are stand-up guys).
On the subject of GamePro, I wholeheartedly back the tongue-in-cheek nature of the magazine’s apology:
It’s definitely true that we’ve had some power users recently spamming content on our behalf. We have already stepped in and asked those people not to do this in future.
The reality of the situation is pretty straightforward – Reddit can be gamed, it was gamed by people on our behalf, and those people got busted. We take full responsibility for engaging those people. And yes, we’re apologizing because we got busted. Damn you. We’d have gotten away with it if it weren’t for you meddling kids. So give us the kicking we deserve, and we’ll look forward to seeing what the conspiracy theorists will come up with.
We’re hoping that the more reasonable of you will respect our honesty regarding our deferred dishonesty, but we’re sure some people will run riot with it, which is to be expected – and in some places celebrated – on the Internet. Ultimately, we respect Reddit and its community, at least the ones who don’t live under a bridge and forget to take their meds. We also believe in our content, but in future we want you, not spammers, to be the judge of it.
GamePro was particularly singled-out for the insincerity of its apology, though the other sites were also given a tongue-lashing. One Reddit user said that GamePro’s statement on the matter was “bullshit,” but on the contrary, I think it was refreshingly honest. The publication admitted it apologized only because it got caught, and it treated the issue with the severity and gravity that it deserved — very little. I’d rather a publication have fun with a “bullshit” apology than pretend it is deeply sorry and grovel for forgiveness over an issue it doesn’t take seriously. I know some people were disappointed — after all, we always get off on exerting moral power over somebody who’s just made a bowing, scraping apology — but nothing was damaged, nobody was hurt. These sites were caught being cheeky, little more. In the grand scheme of corruption, even just within the videogame industry, this is low, low, looooow on the list.
Gamers seem obsessed with finding controversy and corruption within the gaming press, but if low-hanging fruit like this qualifies, then I’d suggest gamers maybe raise their expectations a little. After all, Reddit’s deluding itself if it believes these three sites are the only ones bending the rules — or even the worst examples.
In short, I think there’s only one thing these guys did wrong — they didn’t write an editorial disagreeing with the Reddit collective. That usually gets you right on the frontpage, and you don’t even have to make a single account.
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