Let's talk about Ethics in Games Journalism

This is one of those weeks where I am quite content not to be reject the label of  “games journalist” in favor of “academic-trained games critic”. This is due to the insane ethics tsunami that has hit the gaming community following accusations that an indie-game developer slept with a games journalist in order to receive positive reviews of her work. While this myth was busted by Stephen Totillo, the Editor-in-Chief of Kotaku, the focus on accusing games journalists of breached ethics continued, leading to a reddit thread calling out two prominent journalists.

The thread details instances in which Patricia Hernandez of Kotaku and Ben Kuchera of Polygon have published articles in which they had a conflict of interest. In the previously mentioned piece by Totillo, he affirmed Kotaku’s dedication to a standard of ethics, claiming that,

My standard has long been this: reporters who are in any way close to people they might report on should recuse themselves

Grabbing that single line of the article, reddit user F1renze accused Patricia Hernandez of publishing articles featuring her friend’s games.

Ben Kuchera’s fault, according to the same reddit user, is that he published an article on Zoe Quinn without acknowledging that he support her Patreon campaign, giving her money to develop games on a monthly basis. F1renze suggested that this was in direct opposition to the Polygon Code of Ethics which says:

Unless specifically on a writer’s profile page, Polygon staffers do not cover companies (1) in which they have a financial investment, (2) that have employed them previously or (3) employ the writer’s spouse, partner or someone else with whom the writer has a close relationship.

Both accusations have resulted in the target publications making statements. However, before we delve into the “is it ethical or not” question, let’s take a moment to look at the point of video game publications, basic journalism ethics, and the outcome these decisions might have within the gaming community.

Why Do We Have Video Games Journalists?

Have you walked into a GameStop recently? You pick up your game, go to the counter to pay for it, and at some point in this moment the cashier will probably ask you if you’re a GameStop Rewards member. If you’re not, they’ll attempt to sell you you on the membership, telling you how much money you’ll save and how you’ll also receive a 12 month subscription to Game Informer in the process.

GameInformer2013The fact that GameStop is tries to sell all it’s customers a membership with a subscription to a game magazine illustrates the original purpose of games journalism: pushing product. How will you know which games to purchase if games journos don’t review games and tell you about upcoming fun stuff? How would you know about “exciting developments” of an up and coming game that might make you want to buy it if not for games journos?

To be fair, it’s not all about pushing products these days. It’s also about covering important news, commenting on the state of the industry, and sharing nifty things with fan communities (and click-bait articles, lists of top 10 whatever’s, and lots of fan art from Tumblr and deviantArt). Yet the fact remains that initially, a large part of games journalism was to make players aware of product, and inform them which products they might want to buy.

Application to Ethical Concerns

Since a large function of games journalism is still to aid a discerning public in games purchase, it makes sense that gamers are concerned with the ethics of games journalism. As a public we would prefer our journalists to be as non-biased as possible when advising us on the myriad of ways to spend our money.

The Society of Professional Journalism has a code of ethics which has a few things to say about acting independently:

  • Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived.
  • Refuse gifts, favors, fees, free travel and special treatment, and shun secondary employment, political involvement, public office and service in community organizations if they compromise journalistic integrity.
  • Disclose unavoidable conflicts.

The problem here is that as members of the gaming community, which is a close-knit little subculture, all games journalists face conflicts of interests. Being a member of the gaming community can be seen as a conflict of interest. Journalists in the gaming world frequently receive review copies, get to attend elaborate parties at gaming conventions, and make friends and contacts within the community itself that color all of their opinions.

Many games publications handle these problem differently, but the prevailing way to be an ethical games journalist seems to center on disclosure. Going back to the fact that gaming publications first began to sell products, this makes sense. I would often rather read a review of someone who bought and paid for a game themselves than a review from a journalist who was given a complimentary review copy.

Realistically though, most games journalists don’t make enough money to do that on a regular basis, so it helps the reader make an informed opinion when the journalist discloses information about their relationship to the product they are reviewing. For instance, whenever I review comics I typically point out that I have a huge lady-boner for the art of Phil Noto and Ross Campbell, which colors my objectivity about reviewing products they are associated with.

In this regard, I can support the argument that Patricia Hernandez should have mentioned that she was friends with Anna Anthropy when reviewing any of Anthropy’s games. If you’re reviewing a product that a friend has published, it’s wise to mention that conncetion. Since the initial reddit thread, many of Hernandez’s articles have been updated to include an update disclosing Hernandez’s relationship with Anthropy.

But Crowdfunding!

This discussion becomes more complicated when throwing things like Patreon and Kickstarter into the mix. Patreon is a crowd funding website that allows consumers to support artists, YouTube personalities, writers etc. directly, often paying a monthly subscription or a certain amount per object produced. Similarly, Kickstarter allows users to back a project, often receiving exclusive perks as someone who helped bring the project to fruition.When I backed the ridiculously over funded Veronica Mars movie project, I backed at a level that also netted me a hard copy of the movie, a t-shirt, and a poster. NO REGRETS!

Backing a Patreon or a Kickstarter isn’t exactly the same straightforward transaction of buying a game. It’s a weird mixture of purchase and support, that does muddy the water a bit when it comes to journalism ethics when it pertains to journalists writing reviews. Again, disclosure seems to be a key factor in dealing with these issues, yet it’s not the universal answer as Kotaku and Polygon’s responses to accusations demonstrate.

In a statement, yet again, from Kotaku’s Stephen Totillo he said,

We’ve also agreed that funding any developers through services such as Patreon introduce needless potential conflicts of interest and are therefore nixing any such contributions by our writers. Some may disagree that Patreons are a conflict. That’s a debate for journalism critics.

However, Polygon’s response does not include an ultimatum to its writers to cancel all their Patreon pledges. Responding for Polygon, Christopher Grant had this to say on the matter:

While I disagree that contributing to a game developer without holding an actual financial stake in their success is a violation of the spirit of that principle, I also think that disclosure is the best medicine in these circumstances. So starting immediately, I’ve asked everyone on staff to disclose on their staff pages any outstanding Patreon contributions and, additionally, to disclose the same on any coverage related to those contributions under that staff member’s byline.

So one publication forces writers to completely shut-down any and all pledges to current Patreon projects (for further discussion check out Kirk Hamilton’s thoughts and the responses to it on twitter) while the other publication clings to the disclosure model.

Problem Solved, Right?

Not exactly. While the conversation about ethics and gaming has actually been a productive (if frustrating one) leading publications to consider how to ethically handle platforms like Patreon and Kickstarter, the motivations for the discussion are more morally ambiguous.

As mentioned earlier, the general conversation regarding games journalism began with people harassing a lady game dev Zoe Quinn after her ex-boyfriend published an expose of their relationship. So it might behoove us to think, for a moment, if there is any particular reason that Patricia Hernandez and Ben Kuchera were the journalists targeted for beach of ethics when there are most likely others that could be singled out for similar “crimes”.

Patricia Hernandez is one of the few prominent women games journalists, and her articles are frequently targeted with malicious comments when she discusses issues like sexual consent, rape, or any article dealing with women whatsoever. Some people take it to the next step and post images like this about her:

Quote: "This is every Patricia Hernandez article in a nutshell"
Quote: “This is every Patricia Hernandez article in a nutshell”

If a certain group of people who wanted to keep up momentum for harassing and discrediting women in game, Hernandez makes an excellent target. For Kuchera, whom I’ve occasionally called a misogynist (see look, disclosure!), his support of Zoe Quinn’s Patreon and subsequent articles about Quinn is potentially what damned him.

If, and it is a big if, the motivation behind singling out Patricia Hernandez and Ben Kuchera was to further discredit women in the gaming community and their supporters, then ramifications of the policies enacted by Kotaku and Polygon should be examined through the lens of how they might affect women in the gaming industry.

Patreon and the Ladies

Polygon’s policy of forcing it’s writers to disclose the Patreon’s they support doesn’t have too many negative ramifications. In fact, by including support Patreon’s on writer’s bio pages, it might make many video games related Patreons more visible to the average gamer.

Kotaku’s response to ban the site’s writers from supporting Patreons is a different kettle of fish. Many female game developers and lady journos have turned to Patreon in recent years for primarily two reasons. The first is that in a predominantly male industry (in terms of journalists and game devs) Patreon offers women a way to seek funding outside a system that can be emotionally exhausting to deal with. Secondly, as the conversation around GiantBomb’s recent hire demonstrates, women have a difficult time getting jobs in the gaming industry – particularly in journalism – due to systemic barriers related to patriarchy.

Basically, if you want regular pay as a lady in gaming, Patreon might be your best option. 

Many women on Patreon barely make a liveable monthly wage – and that wage is subject to patron whimsy. For instance Lana Polansky makes $478 per article, and typically strives to write two articles per month giving her $956 a month before Patreon takes their cut. While that’s slightly better than minimum wage, it’s disconcerting to live month to month on the whims of people you might now know. As Maddy Meyers, assistant editor at Paste Games notes,

Since many Patreon professionals rely on their patrons for needed income and money is often exchanged from one writer to another, banning writers from pledging money to Paterons has the potential to take needed income away from women in gaming. If enough online publications follow suit, it could be enough to silence many diverse voices that are desperately needed in the industry.

Of course, that’s a worst-case scenario prefaced on the idea that targeting Patricia Hernandez and Ben Kuchera was a specific decision in an attempt to silence women-friendly voices in gaming. They could have been targeted for simply being big names in the industry, or just because they were the easiest targets. Still, in discussing hot issues like ethics in games journalism, it’s important to call into question who started the discussion, look for potential ulterior motives, and consider the far-reaching effects any publication decisions might further disenfranchise groups within the gaming community that are already struggling.

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