Do Video Game Studios Buy Good Reviews?

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In August 2014 the disgruntled ex-boyfriend of video game developer Zoe Quinn accused her of sleeping with Nathan Grayson, a videogames journalist for review site Kotaku Within days the “Gamergate” controversy was born

Gamers said that Quinn’s relationship was another example of game creators paying off games journalists in return for good press On the other hand, critics argued that the movement was merely a mask of legitimacy for a campaign of misogynistic harassment that has persisted for decades However, the question remains Do games studios pay for good reviews? Arguments about proper journalistic conduct have been around for as long as the profession has existed, with companies constantly employing new methods to get their message across One such method is the review event, where publishers invite critics on a trip to review a game The twist is that the event is monitored constantly by publishing PR men, and the trip itself is designed to create a fun environment for the reviewers This forms an associative bias; a predisposition to give a positive review, based on a positive experience rather than solely on the quality of a game According to videogames critic and commentator Jim Stirling, the practice of review events and giving away free promotional material is widespread in the industry


Stirling states that for the review event of Call of Duty: Black Ops, the publishers treated the reviewers to a helicopter ride and an engraved flight helmet This has led to widespread accusations of bias in gaming journalism, regardless of whether the reviewer has been bought Influencing positive reviews is one thing, but there is evidence to suggest companies have bought guaranteed positive reviews before In 2007 Jeff Gerstmann, editorial director of popular gaming website Gamespot, was fired under suspicious circumstances and subjected to a non-disclosure agreement that limited his discussion of the subject Immediately commentators speculated that a game studio had influenced the decision

They suggested that publisher Eidos Interactive had an agreement with Gamespot to feature adverts for their upcoming release Kane and Lynch: Dead Men But in his review of the game, Gerstmann gave it a less than glowing review In 2012, when the non-disclosure agreement was terminated, Gerstmann said that after the review he was “called into a room” and terminated because he “couldn’t be trusted” Gerstmann implied that this was because Eidos threatened to withdraw the lucrative advertising deal unless heads rolled Eidos appear to have expected excellent reviews from Gamespot in return for their advertising investment

This also coincided with the rise in popularity of Youtube as a platform for smaller, independent reviewers As certain critics like Total Biscuit or Jim Stirling rose in popularity, so did trust in their output and the potential for studios to influence reviews A study conducted in 2014 by Mike Rose for the website Gamasutra indicated that upwards of 25% of Youtubers with more than five thousand subscribers would accept money from a studio for coverage of their game One anonymous Youtuber who took part in the study stated that “If a Youtuber asks for money for delivering great content, it's not wrong – it's compensation” The implication is that due to a combination of fear of having their content taken down under the Digitial Millenium Copyright Act, fear of losing access to their sources within games production and the presence of apps like Adblocker, it is no longer possible for online reviewers to spend time making quality content for free

In 2014 Warner Bros released the game Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor to wide acclaim In the run up to the game’s release, Youtube marketing was put under the direction of Plaid Social The media agency issued preview copies of the game to several prominent Youtubers but with a lengthy list of caveats For example, any bugs or game-breaking glitches could not be mentioned at all, and all videos had to be submitted for approval by the company 48 hours before release

This effectively traded access to preview copies of games, and therefore increased channel traffic and earnings for a Youtuber, for positive reviews The videogames industry has enjoyed a meteoric rise in status and success over the past two decades In 2014 alone the worldwide games market was estimated to have made 836 billion dollars; more than double the global film industry With such a lucrative industry, studios and the corporations that run them stand to win or lose a lot based on reviews

It is perhaps no surprise, then, that reviewers have been approached with tempting offers in an effort to secure favorable coverage However as with all journalism, reporters can form personal relationships with members of the profession they are covering, since they spend so much time together Closeness does not necessarily indicate secret back room deals As Jeff Gerstmann himself said, “If anyone seriously thinks that sending out some pathetic, usually broken statue for an upcoming game sways an editor, they need to get their head examined

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