When deciding what movies to go see or what albums to buy, most people turn to reviews and ratings. Video games are no different. It’s arguably more important for the average gamer to have a reliable way to determine the quality of a product – after all, buying video games can be an expensive hobby. The average price of a new console is usually around 300 dollars and the average price of a game is generally 50 to 60 dollars, three times the cost of a movie ticket or album. With more and more emphasis being placed on these review scores, review aggregator Metacritic specifically, it seems that more publishers are willing to resort to less-than-honest tactics to secure a high rating. Where radio stations used to get paid off for playing a song on-air, game journalists are now experiencing a new kind of payola – one that manifests itself in advertising pressure, job perks and swag.
This payola, whether effective or not, has had serious effects on the credibility of some media publications. In 2007, editorial director of GameSpot Jeff Gerstmann was dismissed from his position. Shortly after he was terminated, rumors began to surface that his termination was the result of a negative review he had given to Kane & Lynch, an action game by publisher Eidos Interactive, who at the time was paying GameSpot to advertise the game heavily on the site. Although the official reason for why Gerstmann was terminated has never been disclosed, the loss of credibility from the site presumably caving to advertiser pressure led to many other editors leaving the publication.
Advertising pressure isn’t the only hazard to the public perception of game journalism. At E3 2010, an industry trade show usually used for new game announcements, Microsoft gave away their newest version of the Xbox 360 for free to all the press members in the audience. Rather than maintaining their composure as journalists, many members of the press cheered loudly and celebrated their free swag on Twitter. At the same show, Microsoft cast the press in the role of actors in a Cirque Du Soleil performance, shattering the separation between journalist and advertisement. Although no one can say for sure whether or not the free console swayed press favor to reporting Microsoft’s conference in a more positive light, the way many members of the press embraced the blatant public relations move certainly cast doubt on their own credibility.
As the arbitrary Metacritic score becomes more and more important to the industry, determining the fate of jobs and entire development studios, publishers have definitely found ways to secure higher review scores. Only offering advance copies of a game to certain publications, perceived pressure through advertising and throwing special events for press to attend are only a few ways that publishers may feel they can secure these higher ratings. It is up to game journalists to maintain a professional distance from publishers as to not let these things affect their coverage. Much like how the FCC requires radio stations to specify when a song is being played as part of “sponsored air time” as per the result of the payola scandals of the 1950s, games press should consider documenting the events, advanced copies and other things they may receive from publishers to maintain their credibility in the eyes of consumers.
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