On Friday morning, the video game Internet community was, unsurprisingly, angry. Angry over the recent “censorship” of Nintendo’s Xenoblade Chronicles X, the removal of a boob size adjuster for a 13 year old girl protagonist. Angry at Electronic Art’s Star Wars Battlefront’s shallow amount of on-disc content, even after a 6 month PR campaign and public beta highlighted what players could expect. And yes, angry at the corrupt games media for once again attempting to forcibly pull the wool over their eyes. What dastardly deed had these so called “journalists” committed this time? Kotaku, a popular video game and culture news site, admitted to being blacklisted from two of the industry’s leading publishers for leaking details on their upcoming titles.
Yes, video game culture has slowly evolved from exclaiming hyperbolic statements of unabridged optimism to a stoic defense patrol of unchecked skepticism. While conflicts have always existed in the fandom, mostly revolving around preferred hardware and consoles, the past decade has seen an alarmingly shift towards omni-directional disgust, starting with media. Though this is far from a phenomenon, trust in the mainstream media recently hit an all time low in the United States, game websites such as IGN, GameSpot, Polygon, and Kotaku are often accused of elaborate fraternal conspiracies to deliberately mislead their audiences. In other words, not only are video game sites and their employees untrustworthy, they’re colluding.
But it wasn't always this way. In the fall of 2007, GameSpot’s longtime Editorial Director Jeff Gerstmann was controversially fired shortly after his lukewarm review of Ubisoft’s Kane & Lynch: Dead Men, a title that had been heavily advertised on GameSpot. Later that week, Gerstmann's accompanying video review was removed from the site, adding to the already heated public response. Rumors of Ubisoft’s involvement of in his departure quickly spread, resulting in many of GameSpot’s readers expressing their disgust towards Ubisoft and GameSpot through emails, comments, and blogs. The Internet was in solidarity with a critic, standing firmly against the tyranny of a game publisher.
Except, that’s not really what happened. Though Gerstmann was indeed fired for his own reviews and those he approved, the decision was exclusively made by GameSpot’s management. Publishers have regularly express their dissatisfaction over review scores directly to the management of video game sites for decades. This can often result in the loss of exclusive coverage and sponsorships. Unfortunately for Gerstmann, his relatively green bosses were completely unaware of this practice and viewed these complaints as an aberration that required immediate action. Gerstmann himself explained the details of his termination during an interview with GameSpot in 2012, coinciding with his website, Giant Bomb, being acquired by GameSpot’s parent company CBS Interactive.
Unfortunately, the narrative had already been set thanks to the poor decision making of one company’s oblivious upper management. Mainstream game news outlets were corrupt.
6 years later, the Internet would once again be set ablaze with controversy. Though this time it would stem from a single photograph.
Geoff Keighley, or the Dorito-Pope as he was later to be called, was always fascinated by video games. From a young age Keighley wrote strategy guides and reviews for adventure games on BBS forums on the yet to be popularized Internet. Transitioning his writing to television on Victor Lucas’ Electric Playground and G4TV (Not to mention a role in a TBS game awards show in 1994), he saw the potential of broadening the appeal of video game coverage. Transitioning his role from journalist to presenter, he attempted to document the development a cultural significance of games rather than criticize. Taking his idea to SpikeTV, Keighley launched GameTrailers TV, a weekly video game that ran sporadically over the course of 8 years as well as producing a number of SpikeTV’s Video Game Awards shows. While his work has been criticized as marketing tools, the amount of mainstream attention and production values are still a rarity in the industry.
During a 2012 promotional event for Halo 4, Keighley answered interview questions from incoming callers while sitting between a neatly stacked table of Doritos and Mountain Dew as well as a large Halo cardboard poster. The fallout was almost immediate with many declaring Keighley as a undercover spokesman for Microsoft pretending to be a journalist, even though he had left games journalism years prior. Keighley attempted to explain his involvement was similar to that of Tonight Show Host Jimmy Fallon appearing in CitiBank commercials, but his arguments we overtaken by unflattering photoshop images and memes. Even during the promotional interviews, Keighley defended Pepsi’s involvement in Halo 4’s marketing:
“For a long time movies have always had all these promotional partners, and I think games haven’t. And you know, one of the things I’ve always believe in is that games need to be become more mainstream. I mean, guys like you and I play them but still, you know, the mass acceptance of how big gaming is [isn’t] fully appreciated. And one way, one conduit to serve, to reach that level of [that] sort of attention is by brand partnerships.”
But the narrative had already been set. Big money corporations and large publishers had corrupted video game journalism.
And now we come to the strange history of Kotaku, the controversial video game blog from the notorious Gawker Media network. Orginal started in 2004, Kotaku differed itself from it’s contemporaries with a selection of think pieces and aggressive scrutiny of the games industry. The site quickly gained notoriety when in 2007 it questioning the relationship between Japanese Publication Famitsu’s numerous appearances in Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker and the magazine’s four perfect 10 reviews. This resulted in Konami removing Kotaku’s invitation from the game’s launch party and helping Kotaku gain a reputation.
Over the years, Kotaku has received its fair share of criticism from fellow journalists and fans alike. The blog began publishing culture pieces about non-game related events such as anime, food, and Japanese culture. But the real controversy started in 2014, when the site was accused of bias reporting of the independent game Depression Quest. This resulted in the creation of GamerGate, a subject so large that attempted to summarizing it in even a few paragraphs would be impossible or so undetailed it would serve no one. Moving on.
Last Thursday, Kotaku’s Editor in Chief Stephen Totilo published a blog titled “A Price of Games Journalism” In it, he detailed the site’s blacklisting from publishers Bethesda and Ubisoft. No interviews, comments, or review copies have been sent from those publishers to Kotaku for over a year. So exactly happened? In a word, journalism. Kotaku published two stories, one in December in 2013 and the other in December 2014, with leaked details and images of the yet to be announced Fallout 4 and Assassin's Creed Syndicate. With the publishers and their marketing teams understandably upset, each ceased communication with Kotaku.
And yet the Internet once again responded negatively, but not towards the publishers but Kotaku. Many opinion pieces have been published over the weekend accusing the website of whining about their diminished status and being forced to pay for games like everyone else. While some larger publications have come to the defense of Kotaku, the blog has been skewered by comments sections and response videos alike decrying this announcement as publicity stunt.
But many of these pieces lack the context of the article itself, mainly that Kotaku has been blacklisted for nearly two years and only revealed this information in the past week. As Stephen Totilo points out, many of the blog’s readers questioned why reviews of the above named titles were delayed, the main reason why the article was published. More importantly, Kotaku still covered Fallout 4 and Assassin’s Creed Syndicate as fully as any other major upcoming game release. Not to appease or apologize in effort to win back these publishers but because it’s what interested their readers. And even after Bethesda’s choose to blacklist them for leaking an unannounced game, Kotaku made the exact same choice one year later and published their piece on Assassin’s Creed.
Were Bethesda and Ubisoft right in blacklisting Kotaku? Maybe. They have their own interests to protect and discouraging any future leaks makes business sense. But Kotaku isn’t wrong. While games journalism might not carry the same significance as other forms, it’s main goal should always be public interest and verified sources. Though it is far simpler for a game news outlet to regurgitate the exact language and emotion desired by a publisher at the time of their choosing, that’s not real journalism. That’s not to say other websites with exclusive reveals and interviews don’t function as news outlets, but in those particular cases they are serving as presenters.
And that’s really where the disconnect in the Internet’s narrative begins, roles. Should a television producer and presenter such as Geoff Keighley be held to the same critical standards as Jeff Gerstmann? Should Ubisoft’s market team match the journalistic integrity as Kotaku’s editorial staff? The answer is obviously no, but for many a youtube and blog commenter, involvement in video games requires a strict code of ever changing and never quite defined ethics. As such, these parties are trapped inside a narrative that belittles and denounces everyone but the audience itself.