Scottish writer Robert Florence sparked a series of events that brought "games journalism" to its knees last week. Patrick Garratt says the time has come for an indelible line to be drawn between the industry and the media.
I'm glad Doritosgate happened, even though many people in the UK games journalism trade have had a terrible week. It's been a long time coming, but we now have to openly accept that cosying-up to the people selling the products on which we're reporting is blatantly unethical.
Towards the end of last year, I became so uncomfortable with VG247's general relationship to the games trade that we had serious discussions internally about dropping all contact with the PR process treadmill. We are not "corrupt," but our audience - over 1.3 million unique users in October, more than 3.5 million YouTube views per month - has grown to the point that we are now on almost every list for every publisher event. I had just been abroad with a large publisher, and the level of hospitality was cringeworthy. We got some great content as a result, but a large amount of money had been spent on the trip and there was open pressure from PR and marketing surrounding some of the output. We could hardly complain: we'd taken the shilling simply by being there.
Some weeks later I was having dinner with another journalist on another press trip. I raised my concerns, and this person dismissed them, saying that I was "intelligent," and therefore wasn't likely to be swayed by publisher PR spend. That we shouldn't be so lavished upon by the companies selling the games we're writing about was scoffed at. This person produced no content from that trip, then went on what I can only describe as a holiday with another publisher a few weeks after.
I didn't reach a definite conclusion on any changes in the way VG247 was to operate in 2012, but I took the decision that I wouldn't accept any more flights and hotels from publishers for press trips. I thought we could "play it by ear". We'd sent a US freelancer to Valve's studio in Seattle to create Portal 2 launch coverage last year and paid for the flight and hotel, and it didn't work out too expensively. I wanted to create more distance between us and PR. As VG247 got larger, so did my sense of unease.
The resolve didn't last long, unfortunately, and I'll explain why. Firstly, I tried to sort out my own arrangements for a press trip to Rome, and just didn't. It was expensive, it was to see a single game, and when your own money's on the line you think far more carefully about getting on the plane. As a result, though, we missed out on some crucial coverage. This irked me, and I immediately questioned whether or not going on all-expenses-paid trips like this really did matter. Everyone else was doing it, and we'd done it for years. Maybe I was just being silly. I spoke to a few PR people about it, and, again, was laughed at. If you're swayed by someone buying you a flight, it was said, then maybe you're in the wrong game. If you've been watching the violent debates surrounding games journalism over the past week, you may well have seen similar lines trotted out by others.
Secondly, I was invited to the Microsoft Spring Showcase in San Francisco in February. California is a long way away from Europe. The costs really were high, and I wanted to go. There are some trips, I told myself, that it's important to attend in order to foster a decent relationship with UK PR. Conveniently, it fell just before GDC; Microsoft was flexible about the flight, so I was able to travel from Paris then stay on for the show. Microsoft paid for the premium economy ticket and several nights in the Mark Hopkins hotel. We spent the days at the event working, and the evenings at mass dinners, which were always paid for by Microsoft.
We got a lot out of it. I worked hard. We had content live for the Halo 4 reveal, and we got the first look at Forza Horizon. Given what VG247 is, we should absolutely have been there. Whether or not I should have been there personally is a different matter. And if I should have been there, then I should have just flown myself there and paid for a hotel. It would have cost thousands, but this is my business. This is how we make money. I was ignoring the fact that I could have sent Steph, our US editor, instead. This is what I should have done. And we should have paid for it ourselves.
I made the wrong decision. The truth is that if one performs as part of sponsored trips, one cannot, no matter what anyone says on the matter, remain completely objective. No matter how well intentioned, you are not independent if you operate this way. If you're not independent, then it seems logical that the content you create under these circumstances can't be absolutely trusted.
I want VG247 to be trusted. We are not "bent," and never have been. I do not want anyone to think we are.
The Great Crisp Disaster
I'm not going to go into the details of what happened last week. If you're not au fait with Eurogamer's editing of Robert Florence's article on grey areas between the games press, marketing and PR, and what ultimately proved to be a Sandy-style aftermath, you can get everything that's been said about it from this post on NeoGAF.
And I'm not going to name names. I've read some insane, shuddersome drivel over the past few days which misses the point of both Robert's article and quite why we should be closely examining games journalism. Some names have probably been named enough. One of them is that of VG247's Dave Cook - I'm only including him here because unless I do there'll be some genius in the comments screaming about me wanting to cover up his part in events - and I sincerely hope it's the last time he sees mention of himself in relation to "Doritosgate". Dave is, without question, one of the most diligent, dedicated games journalists I've ever worked with. Seeing him involved last week over what was essentially a momentary error of judgement was unpleasant. The point lost to many in the hysteria that followed the editing of Florence's article was that this isn't about individuals: it's about an entire industry, about the video games press and the closeness of its relationship to marketeers, about how the line between "enthusiasm" and "advert" has become blurred in some cases to a dangerous degree.
I believe Robert's piece, and the circumstances around its publication, should be all the impetus we need to make changes now.
I'm glad Doritosgate happened, even though many people in the UK games journalism trade have had a terrible week. It's been a long time coming, but we now have to openly accept that cosying-up to the people selling the products on which we're reporting is blatantly unethical. It's common sense. While I have total faith in both myself and my team, in our passion for the subject and our ability to be professional, I think that, honestly, we have all been professional in an unprofessional situation for far, far too long. While we certainly are independent in mind, we must, at this point, become independent in action. "You have to trust us," after Doritosgate, is no longer enough.
As a result, I've decided to put the following rules in place for our staff, effective immediately. I'm ashamed I didn't do this last year. I would encourage other websites to follow suit. Several of the US games publications adhere to similar guidelines, but VG247 will be, as far as I'm aware, the first UK games site to adopt anything like this.
- We'll declare everything. Any travel, accommodation or hospitality accepted by VG247 staff in the course of work will be fully declared in any resultant editorial.
- No engagement in publisher-held competitions. VG247 staff will never again enter a competition hosted by a publisher or platform-holder.
- Writers will never report on companies or products in which they have financial interest, or on companies which employ family members or close friends. Most games journalists have friendly relationships with some publisher PR. As of now, those friendships will prevent staff members from writing about any related company's products. Similarly, our staff will now not write about products and companies in which they have a vested interest: this includes any crowd-sourced projects they may have backed.
- We will always protect the identity of our sources. VG247's sources will never be disclosed it they speak to us under condition of anonymity. It's normal that VG247 journalists' sources aren't even divulged internally.
- A note on advertising. VG247 is always likely to be primarily funded by video games advertising, for reasons I hope are blatantly obvious. We will never carry advertorial. Our ads our sold by Eurogamer Network's sales team, which is based in Brighton, UK, and is independent to VG247's editorial staff.
In reality, these (obvious) rules won't greatly affect the way we work at all. We don't take bungs for scores or sell top-slot stories for coke and hookers. Our journalists have integrity, no matter what may have happened in the last week. We try to be good. VG247 is a quality, popular site, and I'm proud of both the publication and its team. What these regulations will do, in theory, is shade any grey areas in our operation either black or white. Our staff will now know what they can and can't do, and you, as a reader, can feel completely comfortable in reading both our news and opinions and knowing you're seeing independent editorial.
Like, that's what you were seeing anyway. Hopefully now there'll be no question to the contrary.
Note: This article has been edited. The following sections of our original guidelines have been changed or removed:
- No flights or hotels. We'll no longer accept flights and payment for hotels from third-parties.
- No hospitality. No more free bars. I mean, I'm sure there'll be free bars. But our employees won't be drinking at them. This rule also includes food. As of now, VG247 staff will buy their own vittles when they're "in the field" wherever possible. If, for whatever reason, a VG247 staffer eats or drinks at the expense of a publisher, it'll be disclosed.
- Any gift over £50 disclosed. We regularly get sent promotional materials by games publishers. From now on, all "swag" will be either given away on the site or through social media, or donated to charity. This doesn't include games, or at least it doesn't include all of them. We need to play games a lot, and the only way we can keep up is through promos.
- Any coverage resulting from press trips to be disclosed. Self-explanatory. If we do decide that we're going to pay our own way to attend a publisher promo event, we'll clearly say so in any resulting copy.