In observing the GameSpot/Jeff Gerstmann affair, one thing comes to mind. “Videogame journalism.” Someone once told me that it was an oxymoron. I’m beginning to believe he’s on the money.
The entire Jeff Gerstmann fiasco is a shining example of how infantile and unprofessional the industry really is, and why video games will be considered infantile, despite out-grossing the Hollywood movie industry these days. You don’t get respect if you behave like infants.
I come from a computer game background. I started on the Atari 2600, to be sure, and owned a Nintendo Enterainment System, but soon after, I “graduated” to the Commodore 64, and from there, I owned an Amiga then finally a PC in 1992 when the Amiga faded away as a viable platform. In 1998, I started writing articles and reviews for Computer Games Strategy Plus (aka Computer Games Magazine), and have remained a journalist in one form or another since.
I also studied journalism, in Bronx High School of Science then college, though not as a major. However, I absorbed enough knowledge to understand the concept of “journalistic integrity”. While I have slipped on a rare occasion from time to time in that regard, I at least understood instantly if I made a slip, and those slips were never integrity-compromising.
Which is why, in this day and age, I sometimes pull my hair out from what I perceive as major journalistic violations, which are either de rigueur and not viewed as such, or done knowingly without moral or intellectual care or obligation.
Magazines that cater to traditional video game consoles are among the worst, such as Electronic Gaming Monthly, which regularly performs acts that would have resulted in firings at “serious” news journalism, such as the Dennis Dyack affair, in which they received flack for “reviewing” preview builds at E3, including Too Human. (They refused to acknowledge they were reviewing those builds, despite using grades that dominated each preview article, and stating explicitly that the game was good or bad. Any disclaimers that the games were not actual builds were more or less hidden and de-emphasized.) The editors and writers themselves have little to no actual business education, frequently commenting on complex industry news as if they’ve received business MBAs at Harvard or had interned at The Wall Street Journal. Various writers, such as Shane Bettenhausen, have clear agendas which are referred to as “fanboyism”, a fanatical pseudo-religious bias of one console system or series over others. It would be amusing to observe such mindless devotion to corporate entities if it weren’t in adults in a position of power at a major periodical. Listening to podcasts of many of these sites at best are good-natured bantering with some insight, and at worst are sexist, racist and/or homophobic, especially when Sean Reiley (aka Sean Baby) is included. It is interesting to note that these magazines often are entirely young white males. It is interesting to note that computer game magazines tend to be far more mild and reasoned, perhaps due to the older demographic of the more expensive machines, and the single, dominant platform. (After all, who doesn’t own a computer or at the very least play casual games?)
There is also the issue of the internet. The problems of internet journalism have been widely examined, dissected, and criticized. From the race to post news first – often bypassing such important journalistic procedure such as verifying your sources or doing background research – to the massive competition from not only major sites to minor sites (such as GameStooge) to personal blogs to the anonymity of the internet. So desperate are news sites for information and one-upmanship, an anonymous forum poster calling him/herself “gamespot” is treated as a legitimate insider. Do any of these people understand the difference between first-hand, second-hand and complete and utter twaddle? Anonymous sources are never truly anonymous – the reporter knows who the source is. Deep Throat had credibility because Woodward and Bernstein knew who Deep Throat was (Mark Felt, Sr.), even if no one save them knew his identity ‘til Felt’s death. Felt had a high-placed job in the FBI – do the reporters parroting “gamespot’s” forum post know who he is? Can they?
The other problem is that writers are reporting rumors as fact, and visibly biased. It is “clear” that Gerstmann was fired due to a low review score given to a game with major advertising on the site. Why? According to most of these websites, correlation is causality. No other facts are needed, such as the fact that Gerstmann was fired two weeks later when the last of the major game releases had been released and reviewed – an obvious time to release an editor. The reason for Gerstmann’s firing has not been disclosed, with Gerstmann claiming he is legally unable to reveal why, and CNet only stating that it was not due to the review. This doesn’t stop a major site like GameSpot being harmed by the reputation, and worse, the backlash suffered by Eidos and the Kane & Lynch developers, who are perceived as complicitous, as well as backlash to the game itself, which suddenly receives additional, undeserved negative feedback. (It must be noted that the Metacritic score of the game is 69, and while considered a “low-to-average” score, is higher than Gerstmann’s 6.0 score.)
The fallout is somewhat disturbing. Gerstmann’s friends and colleagues have taken this opportunity to drive a mob-like lynching of GameSpot, convincing many gamers to cancel subscriptions to the site, claiming it is a corporate shill; this despite the fact that nothing is known about the firing save Gerstmann and CNet. Ironically, GameSpot’s reviews have had the reputation of being the stingiest in the industry, and gamers could very well be sinking a serious gaming site for no reason save moral, righteous – and as-of-yet-unfounded – indignation. It does not help that, judging by postings and written reactions, that most of the gamers are immature, either in age or in personality, which is, of course, emblematic of the entire industry. This reporter has no idea about the true nature of the firing. I don’t profess to know anything about it, simply because I don’t take anonymous sources seriously, nor do I give weight to associates of Gerstmann, who have probably personal or professional interests in him. I don’t find CNet’s simple “It wasn’t the review” response as informative, and Gerstmann’s silence seems to be more intent on holding GameSpot hostage rather than legality. Additionally, if his silence is legally enforced, then it must be something more serious than a reaction to a review, especially since it wasn’t the first time a writer on GameSpot wrote a negative review about a game that was advertised on the site – and a 6.0 review isn’t a 2.0 review. People interested in the plot and concept of Kane & Lynch would still be intrigued enough to purchase it – or were until this “scandal”. (I’m hesitant to use the word “scandal” because that implies something of a serious nature, and I’m yet to be convinced that the firing itself is serious, though the backlash around it is becoming so.)
The brouhaha surrounding this affair is emblematic of the video game journalism industry at its very worst. There are various things I would say, but I’m forced to remind my fellow writers that good news, good journalism, and good integrity is not being the first to report. Everyone wants to break a huge story – it’s a feather in their cap. It’s more valuable, in my eyes, to take the time to examine the story, let it play out, get personal input, and make an informed article. Know the difference between editorializing and reporting – and the tone of an article alone can indicate whether it’s objective or not. A bit of a disclaimer here: I’ve written items in a snarky tone on articles that I felt were amusing, but that’s my style on a game blog, and I’ve remained objective when dealing with serious news – and this GameSpot/Gerstmann situation is serious news. Most of all, don’t assume. The most important words, as I stated earlier, in journalism is simple: correlation is not causality. A good reporter always finds the story inside the story. It could be that Gerstmann was fired for the low review – but Occam’s Razor would state that in order for Gerstmann to be fired, he’d have to have done a lot more than that. Getting paid too much is a big reason – perhaps GameSpot felt they could replace him with a less expensive, newer editor. Maybe Gerstmann violated company rules, or something darker.
This is not to say review integrity is not an important issue – book reviews, in particular, have become ravaged by corporate pressure. When was the last time you read a negative book review – or any independent book review at all? The sole major independent book reviewer is The New York Times in the Sunday supplement – otherwise, “reviews” are done by booksellers themselves, such as Amazon.com. Positive reviews sell more product, and booksellers have gotten so powerful that it’s very rare to read a review panning a big release.
We may never know what actually happened until much later – but one thing is for sure: it serves no one to harm GameSpot, much less the developers of Kane & Lynch. Be careful of whom you attack at whom’s behest – these lynchings usually end up being self-mutilation.