On the relationship between journalists, devs, and the folks in the middle

This week, a select group of gamers are rallying to make their voices heard. They’re complaining about what is perceived to be an overly comfortable relationship between the games media, and those who battle for its column inches: developers, PRs and advertising people, all with an agenda to fulfil.

As you may have heard, this whole thing was triggered by some particularly unpleasant private-life nonsense spilled by a former partner of an indie developer. Horrible, spite-filled stuff, which should never have appeared on the public domain, fuelled by speculation and imbued with a heavy undercurrent of misogyny. I won’t waste any more words of this blog post by talking about that, and instead focus on that frosty issue that comes up from time to time: how does the relationship between the games industry and the games media actually work? Isn’t it supposed to be corrupt? What shady deals go on, and how can good old honest gamers ensure they’re not duped?

At the risk of sounding like I’m introducing a BBC documentary about cartels in Colombia or something: My name’s Lewis Denby, and I spent several years working as a freelance video games journalist, and also as the editor of a gaming website. I’ve also developed and launched two indie games, and now work in video games PR. So you might say I’m in a reasonably good position to look across the board and talk about my experiences. Do bear in mind that I’m one person, and cannot purport to speak for anyone else either inside or outside of the games industry, but here are some of my thoughts and experiences on the topic, based on the time I’ve spent working in these fields.

1) Journalists will be friends with PRs will be friends with developers

If you think this is at the heart of the games media’s problems, then here’s some bad news to start with. Developers are friends with journalists. Journalists are friends with PRs. You’re gonna have to get used to it, I’m afraid.

The simple fact is that all these people work together, consistently, on a daily basis. It is literally a PR person’s job to be on good terms with journalists. Similarly, any journalist with a story to pitch to their editor is going to have to build bridges with PRs. And if you’re a developer who doesn’t use a PR agency, your game is basically doomed to failure if you don’t spend a good portion of your working life getting to know the people who own that page space. Recently we ran a big survey of journalists here at BeefJack Promote. Only 5% of journalists said that the name in the ‘From’ column of an email was of no importance whatsoever to them when deciding what to cover. 26% admitted that a known name in their inbox was ‘very’ or ‘extremely’ important.

Journalists, developers and marketing people will interact as part of their jobs. Sometimes their jobs will involve phoning each other, but sometimes it might involve going to industry events such as awards ceremonies or game launches or even parties. The first step to understanding the situation is accepting, without judgement, that this is a fact that’s unlikely to change any time soon.

2) The idea that money changes hands for coverage is true, but not in the way you might expect

As an agency we’ve never paid for editorial coverage. It’s ethically questionable, for one, and it also just creates awkward professional relationships between people who’d rather not have those sorts of obligations on their shoulders. But it does happen, and it doesn’t necessarily happen in the publications you might expect.

Here’s the funny thing, though: it doesn’t happen for previews or reviews. I suspect it doesn’t happen because this would be too transparent: people can sniff a dodgy opinion a mile off. Gamers are sharp. It isn’t worth the risk.

Where you tend to see it more is in deals orchestrated as ad packages, and it tends to be agreed in terms of quantity, rather than quality. And it certainly happens far away from the issues that seem to have sparked this current iteration of the debate. Part of the ad deal for a major AAA release, for example, might be that at least four items of content are posted about the game in the month leading up to launch. In a trade mag, there might be a ‘profiles’ section where companies can pay a fixed fee to have their content published, leading to increased visibility. It happens, pretty much only in AAA and in the mobile space. Most people agree it shouldn’t, and it isn’t by any means the majority, but it’s there, and it wouldn’t be fair to ignore it.

3) All the journalists and editors I’ve met are honest, upstanding people

I’ve seen journalists, and their editors, seethe at the fact that the above happens. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever met a journalist or editor who doesn’t seethe about the fact that the above happens. Most journalists don’t come out and publicly condemn the practise, because most journalists probably don’t want to be sacked by their boss.

This is equally true of PR and marketing executives, developers, and anyone else operating either in the world of small / independent businesses or up to a certain level at major companies. It’s the corporates people should be angry with, not the developers, journalists or PRs.

The interesting thing about the last couple of weeks’ shenanigans is that most of the journalists on people’s ‘hit lists’ are people who have rallied strongly against corruption in the media, and who, to my knowledge, have always done their very best to avoid it. Those who are up to no good tend not to make a big fuss about it, and therefore trot along unnoticed.

4) Games is really not that bad a media space for this sort of thing

Whether it’s cash changing hands, personal favours, or whatever else it is that people feel is the big problem with games journalism, here’s an angle I haven’t seen considered much: how does games shape up against other media sectors for this kind of nonsense?

And honestly? I’d wager that one of the big reasons so many journalists, PRs and developers are so angry about the situation right now is that, comparatively speaking, games is clean as a whistle.

I worked in the music media, and in music publicity and events, for a little while when I was at uni. The things I saw in that short time don’t even compare. There’s no need to go into detail, but let’s say around 5% of the accusations levelled at the gaming world are actually true as far as I can see, compared to more like 50% of the same accusations if you were to level them at music. So there’s that, first of all.

And then there’s this idea that the games media should learn from the mainstream press, which is an argument I simply don’t know what to do with. Has everyone forgotten Leveson already? It’s been barely a year since we all found out, very publicly, just how unrelentingly insidious the relationships between journalists, editors, publicists, public figures and even politicians can be – and not just in the tabloids. We live in an age where not only do journalists hack phones, but their editors, and their editors’ bosses, and all the high-up friends of the editors and their bosses, take great pains to cover it up and so maintain the corruption of the institution to mutual gain.

None of this, of course, it to say people shouldn’t call out more minor incidents in a particularly niche section of the media. But this is why many working within the industry find it so frustrating. To think that whether or not a small-time game developer once had sex with a games journalist is worth getting your feathers all ruffled over, when you look at what’s happening elsewhere in the media. Y’know?

5) The current paradigm isn’t ideal, but it actually serves the games audience rather well

No, seriously, it does.

If you work anywhere in games, you can be damn sure you’re passionate about them. That’s because games is one of the most fiercely competitive fields in the world right now. Whether you want to be a developer, a PR, a journalist or something else entirely, the competition for places is unfathomable, and passion and commitment generally gets you further than a good degree or a fancy résumé.

What we essentially have is a bunch of people who are super-passionate about what they do, and who want to change things for the better. It’s a load of creatives who love technology and interactivity, and it’s generally filled with people who want to change things. Change can be scary, but the fact is that it’s the status quo, not the drive for change, that we should be afraid of.

It’s the status quo that lets journalists get away with hacking people’s phones. It’s the status quo that lets prime ministers text emoticons to editors. It’s the status quo that keeps out the investigative reporting, and lets the richest CEOs continue to become richer by dominating page space and cutting shady deals on the down-low.

So when people start rallying against the relationship between indie developers, games journalists and the marketing folks in the middle, it’s frustrating. It’s frustrating because, collectively, these people are trying to band together to make the games media a better, more interesting and more inclusive space for gamers to enjoy. They’re trying to spread the word about more games, about more interesting games, and to draw people’s attention to the topics that exist within the industry and its surrounding culture.

Yes, some crap stuff goes on. But more often than not, when I go for a drink with a journalist, do you know what we talk about?

It’s not how much money they’ll charge for an unmarked advertorial.

It’s not how many features I demand they write about some indie game. It’s definitely not who needs to sleep with whom in order to buy some positive coverage.

Here’s the big, dirty secret: when PRs (or developers) and journalists talk about coverage plans, they generally start with the readers’ best interests.

It’s: “What can you show me that our readership will really engage with? Do you have any games on your roster that will really resonate with our demographic? At the moment we find our readers really like x – do you think there’s any way the developers might be up for talking about that?”

Or it’s: “We’re making/publicising this game right now, which I think will be perfect for you guys. I saw that the comments thread on your article about Super Indie Game IV were really delighted by that cool new feature it had. Well, this game has something similar, except it’s framed in a way that reminded me of that other article that resonated really well with your readership. They seem like a really smart, switched-on bunch who are really keen to see that topic explored more in games. Do you think you’d be interested in previewing this?”

Or, often, it’s simply: “Did you play that awesome, innovative game that just came out? Yeah, I know it’s not right for your readership. Or for our clients. But I wonder if there’s a way we could hatch something about that, because wouldn’t it be cool if something so awesome did shift magazines…?”

Maybe it’s that last one that people take issue with. It’s no secret that an amount of the anger, of the recent uproar, has been with the odd pejorative “social justice warriors,” and the idea that the games industry and associated media are trying to push a liberal agenda on their readership. If you think games should be for straight white males, and that progressive popular culture doesn’t have the power to change the world for the better, then I guess you might well be angry with that.

But it’s not like Gears of War fails to get column inches. In the world of online media, there’s no such thing. Depression Quest getting covered on Kotaku isn’t going to stop them from talking about Destiny, so it feels to me like something of a moot point.

The point here, though, is this: when we games industry types work together to produce and deliver content for gamers, it’s so unbelievably rare for anything sinister to be going on. Far rarer than other areas of the media I’ve seen. More often than not, it’s people who really care about what they do, trying to figure out the best way to serve their audience, to make people happy, and to keep people engaged. I promise you, if you’re up for a fight, there are far bigger battles to turn your attention to.