Words Matter

*unrelated photograph of Gearbox Software’s CEO, proven liar and alleged pedophile Randy Pitchford

 

The gaming media has a credibility problem called game developers

There hasn’t been a week since the launch of Fallout 76 in which Bethesda didn’t somehow manage to humiliate itself. Time after time the developer\publisher was found to be either; lying to customers, overreacting and hurting loyal fans, allowing others to swindle said fans with terrible products or just being overly incompetent to a farcical degree. It has gotten so bad that I hardly want to click on any news story or video with the word Bethesda in its title.

Yet, as the slew of bad news and burnt bridges continues to spew from Bethesda’s headquarters, one word has been repeatedly used to describe this ongoing trainwreck: misled. I see it pop up again and again to describe the debacles surrounding Fallout 76. From the limited game editions canvas bags, the actual game features to other marketing ploys such as the Nuka Cola rum bottles that turned out to be just cheap plastic casings for an industrial waste cleansing solution, or so I’ve been told they taste like. The word doesn’t seem able to leave headlines and video titles even though I think it is high time it should be replaced by a different word: lie.

Because this is what Bethesda ultimately did. It lied to consumers. It lied to its fans. Its representatives such as Todd “It just works” Howard stood in front of crowds and simply lied to the faces of gamers worldwide. They lied and lied and lied again and all the gaming media had to offer in return is to label it all as “misleading”. Now, words have meaning. Misled is a very soft word in comparison to lied. It gives a wiggle room in terms of intent. It gives the impression that it was erroneous rather than nefarious. In a way it exonerates the accused of malicious intent. And it is absolutely used erroneously by reporters and writers in relation to the whole situation.

After all, Bethesda had been caught lying not once or twice, but pretty much on a weekly basis since the launch of Fallout 76. Not calling it lies at this point looks like dereliction of duty from the gaming media. That said, I can understand why the gaming media is afraid to bust out the “lie” word. First and foremost, it opens them to libel lawsuits. Though at this point the only court Bethesda could win a libel lawsuit in would be in opposite land, the fact remains that lawyering up is expensive not to mention intimidating. No one wants to get sued, not least gaming sites and YouTube content creators who don’t generate the amount of cash needed to keep a fancy lawyer on retainer.

However, there is also another reason why these people are reluctant to name the problem child and it is the fact the entire gaming industry is built on lies. Jim Sterling made a good video highlighting this, calling it the business of lies, and he is not wrong. In his 20 minute video, Jim Sterling was able to highlight just a few examples from a few years prior to the video’s release, and since then more have been shamelessly uttered by executives and game directors. Lie after lie, all provable, all documented, all ignored or given different labels so as not to offend the people in the industry.

I can understand why, after all, the people lying are the people signing on access to exclusives, press passes and review copies. If these people are made to feel uncomfortable or get called out for their lies, of course the ones feeling the repercussions would be the reporters, not the game developers and suits in management. In the vicious and savage place that is the internet, a loss of access can cost a media outlet its advantage. Many consumers want launch day reviews and recommendations. Sites blacklisted will not be able to supply those reviews and subsequently lose readers, which in turn means a loss of revenue. A site may survive one or two blacklists, but when most of the major publishers decide not to work with a site, that can spell its doom.

Thus the media sites publish the lies and give their enthusiastic impressions to all the fancy trailers and pretty but vacuous cinematics. They’ll disregard years and years of lying, act all surprised when a publisher messes up a launch and publish the corporate response which could be literally copy and pasted from all the previous incidents. Even when they would rebuke these people, they’ll soften the blow using comfy words like “mislead” rather the obvious “lie” even though they have proof. It’s predictable as it is maddening to see.

Of course, there is another reason for the shoddy journalism on display. Like myself, most people writing in the gaming space are not professionals. They are enthusiasts who got into gaming media following their passion. As Jim Sterling himself pointed out, there are very few real journalists in the field of gaming media and it sure as hell shows. Thus it is not hard to see how many writers get bedazzled by the treatment, the access to the people that pretty much made the games they grew up on. Without the proper training or background, these writers simply succumb to the charm and the VIP treatment.

There is also another side to it. People in the game media often work with developers and public relations personal. These are the people they are in constant contact with. Whether it is for interviews, game conventions or events, the two sides often interact with each other. Thus it is no surprise that developers and media people develop friendships and relationships. It is after all, human nature. While it is always nice to see people get along, the downside of such connections is reporters are less willing to challenge or pressure their friends. Too many times reporters would softball questions, be unwilling to challenge developers or just won’t call out blatant lies and bad behavior.

If the above makes you think that perhaps this is why the gaming media often takes the side of publishers and developers, its because it does. I still remember when Geoff Keighley disrespected Angry Joe in the 2010 Spike Video Game Awards, a show that basically functions as one huge commercial. Now, Angry Joe was a young upper comer, still wet behind his ears. However the way Geoff pretty much humiliated him spoke volumes. The fact that Geoff is also a friend of Hideo Kojima and often helped him in his stupid pranks only further sheds a light on how many of the so-called “professionals” in the field view themselves: on the side of the developers. After all, these are the people they often work with, depend on, and develop friendships with.

This was on full display when Jason Schreier, a somewhat respectable game journalist, pretty much went to war with YouTube to justify microtransactions in AAA games. Even though microtransactions and loot boxes are exploitative, have been proven to be so and have poisoned much of the mainstream gaming landscape. To attempt and justify such a measure, after it was proven time and again to be harmful to consumers, exploitative of children and hurtful to the quality of the games themselves (see Middle Earth: Shadow of War) shows exactly who Jason Schreier stands with, and it is not his readership.

Last, but not least, there is also fear. The fear that clouds the gaming media is not just the fear of publisher retaliation which I already covered, but something much more stupid and horrible – the fans. Every time the gaming media actually tried to act more aggressive towards bad actors, the fanboys reared their ugly heads and attacked the reporters. To fanboys, their lives are intricately connected to the products they consume. They will defend these products, and those who produce\manage it, to the death because their entire worth as human beings rides on the perception of the product. It would be sad if they weren’t such a toxic, frothing mad population that sends death and rape threats against reporters who dare state the truth. I wouldn’t want to find myself in their crosshairs, a target for constant, unhinged harassment. Why would any sane reporter would either?

All of this contributes to the erosion of trust. It fuels reader backlash and further poisons the well. After all, what gamers need, what consumers should have is strong advocacy. That is the role of the media – to inform them and amplify their voice. It means researching, it means questioning every corporate message and public relations statement. It also means to frame things correctly. If unable to use the word “lie” outright, then at least remind the readers of the long string of disasters a company such as Bethesda had (my, Bethesda really can’t catch a break these days). George Lakoff put it best when he created the concept of the “truth sandwich”. If media must repeat a lie, it should do so by starting and ending with the truth to nullify the impact of said lie.

Gaming media needs to have a reckoning with itself. For a brief moment, I thought that was what GamerGate would force. Sadly I was mistaken as the conversation was hijacked by political agendas. Yet in its heart, the argument about ethics and disclosure remained. If the gaming media could remember that it serves gamers, not companies, and start acting accordingly we’d all gain for it. That is because there is a little secret that publishers and developers don’t want the media to know: they need the media. Without gaming sites and reviewers, there won’t be hype. Without gaming media to print the lies, no one will buy them. If gaming media stops reporting on a company, that company will die.

For once, game journalists and writers, game sites and YouTubers should look into their mirrors. They should meet the gaze of their reflections, look deep into them and decide who exactly do they serve: game companies, or gamers?

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