Questionable Tweets. Claims of legal threats. Edited resumes. An article that named names one day and didn't the next.
Mock reviews. Free drinks. Extravagant swag. Elaborate junkets.
These are the ingredients that are helping bring to a boil familiar suspicions about the gaming press, the work they—we—do, and whose side they're really on.
Welcome to the world of games journalism, where, at any moment, someone is certain that you suck at your job. It's not the only job of this type, but it's the one we've got here. It's the one under a more intense microscope than ever these past couple of weeks.
Let's zoom out for a moment and see where we're at.
There is a grand games journalism scandal going on
It's called Dorito-gate by some, which I think makes it games journalism's second "-gate" scandal, following 2007's Gerstmann-gate. Both are different from Watergate in a couple of very important ways.
- The gaming "-gates" don't involve the journalism-justifying exposure of the President of the United States as a lying criminal.
- The gaming "-gates" do involve problems with the press being too cozy with the powerful companies they cover—which is, embarrassingly, the reverse of Watergate. There's no justifying of the valuable role of the press here but, rather, some ammo for the argument that the gaming press is so co-opted by the establishment that it is not needed. (Of course I don't feel that way, but I'll get to that.)
Dorito-gate is complicated
Gerstmann-gate was as cut-and-dry a fiasco as it gets: beloved GameSpot critic Jeff Gerstmann pans a game, advertiser of said game is pissed, Gerstmann is fired. GameSpot's integrity, at the time, was in tatters.
Dorito-gate is, in comparison, a multi-part mess. It involves 1) criticism of GTTV host Geoff Keighley doing interviews while seated between bags of Doritos and bottles of Mountain Dew that were wrapped with ads for Halo 4, 2) a Eurogamer column by Robert "Rab" Florence about that, the occurrence of British games journalists at an awards show making promotional Tweets for a game in hopes of winning a free PlayStation 3, 3) an apparent legal threat by journalist Lauren Wainwright and/or her editors that compelled Eurogamer to remove a reference to her in the piece that quoted a Tweet in which she seemed to deem the contest as not that big a deal, 4) the removal of which quote from the article compelled Florence to quit, 5) the listing, since deleted, on Wainwright's resume, of having done work for Square Enix, a publisher whose games she's covered, and 6) from there, an avalanche of complaints and suspicion about the coziness of the gaming press with the public relations wing of the companies whose games they cover.
(Note: Before you go further, you probably should read Florence's column as it was originally published. The bolded parts were later removed by Eurogamer.)
Much of Dorito-gate was dug up by gamers on message boards, following the lead of Florence, a part-time games columnist and, more importantly, not, by trade, a games journalist.
The scandal(s) boiled down to matters of coziness, matters of the gaming press being next to those whom they would cover rather than across some line from them.
As Eurogamer's Tom Bramwell would later tell me over e-mail regarding Florence's column: "It wasn't an exposé about corruption; it was a suggestion that we should all be a bit more vigilant about the things in our professional lives that could have a malign influence on us, however subtle or seemingly innocuous. The examples Florence used included a Twitter competition for journalists that would involve promoting a game if they used a certain hashtag, and the fact most journalists are on friendly terms with the PRs and developers they see frequently. The stuff that then happened with Lauren and so forth was a sideshow, and I hope people can return to the original point now and dwell on that instead."
The charge that game journalists are too cozy with the games industry is an old one.
A games reporter who hasn't at some point in their career reported about some sort of games journalism fiasco—some moment of suspect behavior by their peers—is like a reporter in Anchorage who hasn't found an opportunity yet to mention the snow.
A games reporter who doesn't have a story to tell about the guy who showed up at the press junket wearing a swag t-shirt for the game he's covering—or who doesn't have an anecdote about some dumb trinket that a game publisher sent in the mail—just might be that guy in the shirt or might be currently too busy opening their mail.
Games reporting and games criticism (aka reviewing) has long operated at what appears to outsiders as the brink of bribery insofar as bribery equals the giving of stuff by a company to a reporter or critic in the hopes of currying favor. The gentler term for this might be "swag." It's been so common for so long that even when the game company has nothing good to send, they'll send something (how else to explain Nintendo once sending me screws and bolts to hype… was it… Custom Robo?). Somewhere beneath my desk is the mini surround sound system Capcom sent with my review copy of Resident Evil 6, the better I could hear the game, I guess. (I will never unbox it and it will be given away quietly, rest assured.) Did I really need to be sent a crazy clock to cover Dishonored? Disney wants to know if I'd like to go to Disneyland to review Epic Mickey 2. EA wanted to know if I'd like to go to Germany to play Need for Speed and, oh yeah, learn to drive a Porsche. Last spring, Ubisoft sent me and other reporters a now-notorious modified American flag to "thank" me for my efforts building awareness of the game. This stuff is perpetual and, for Kotaku is best perpetually turned down, given away, etc.
"As for swag and travel, it all sucks," Jeff Gerstmann (he of Gerstmann-gate (!) and now of Giant Bomb) told me in an e-mail. "Great, yeah, send me another T-shirt for me to toss out or leave sitting on a desk for three months, like I don't have enough crap sitting around everywhere as it is. If anyone seriously thinks that sending out, like, some pathetic, usually broken statue for an upcoming game sways an editor, they need to get their head examined."
I've gotten those broken statues too. And lots of other stuff our readers have never known about, because being sent them is a bit of a trap. Post about them, even to show how ridiculous it is that they're sending you an ostentatious clock, and you're giving the publisher a free ad. Don't post them and, well, that's better. But then what do you do with all this stuff? Give it away on your site or in your magazine? Then you've got the free ad problem again. Tell the publisher you just don't want this stuff? Sure, that's better, but stuff will show up anyway and wind up 1) piling under one's desk, 2) given away, 3) polluting our nation's landfills or, 4) occasionally—because mistakes happen—going home with one of us.
Gerstmann has a garage full of games, and he knows this is the byproduct of writing about this stuff for so long. "Most of the things I have in my garage are games, because I don't sell stuff that I received for review," he said to me over e-mail. "That would be shitty. Oh, well, I guess there's the plush Bubsy doll that I got at CES back in the early 90s and the coffee mug with a Game Informer logo on it? Please subscribe to Game Informer today, now available in digital form! Also please sign my ‘Bring Bubsy Back' petition.
Gerstmann: "If anyone seriously thinks that sending out, like, some pathetic, usually broken statue for an upcoming game sways an editor, they need to get their head examined."
"I suspect that, one day, I will snap and donate some chunk of that crap to a video game museum. Well, except for the Game Informer cup. That's staying with me. But seriously, I hang onto that stuff because I find a lot of it pretty interesting. It's one of those accidental collections that comes from never throwing anything away. If you ever want press releases from E3 2001, I'm pretty sure I have a box full of them around here... somewhere. Weird mementos from a lifetime spent with video games. Sure, there's some sentimental value there, but most of this stuff is worthless crap to anyone else."
No one has to take an oath to be a reporter or a critic. Ethics standards can vary. You can set up your own rules, as we do at Kotaku, where we turn down paid travel, default to shoving the swag under our desks, and make sure we're not wearing game company shirts during interviews. Good ethics are, of course, not a perfect predictor of good journalism and therefore even the most righteous of games press might find themselves running what our publisher calls "fake news."
And if the games press relies too much on access from public relations people? If they depend on access to game previews and get carried away going to cocktail parties and rolling around in all their swag?
"Too many games sites present this weird view of gaming from an ‘access all areas' perspective that is alien to most of the gamers out there," Robert Florence said in an e-mail to me, as he outlined just how warped he believes games reporting currently is. Sure, talk to PR, he says. Ask EA PR about bugs in FIFA 13, he said, by way of example. Don't be afraid to offend. "[You should] report everything. That's the key thing. Report everything. They send you a giant decorative flag or a letter thanking you for encouraging sales? Report it. Stand alongside the readers. Sure, your PR access will dry up, but your readers will know why."
His implication is that the press operates in fear of losing access to publishers. That may be true for some. It's not true here, but it doesn't make the issue irrelevant. It's the smaller sites that can get pushed around, a former gaming PR rep told me. Of course, history shows that the giant GameSpot got a nudge, too.
Disdain for the gaming press isn't hard to find
I asked Florence: "What do you think went awry with games journalism to make so many people skeptical or even disdainful of it?"
Florence: "I think we're in a horrible position right now, where most games coverage is almost indistinguishable from PR."
And he said: "I think we're in a horrible position right now, where most games coverage is almost indistinguishable from PR. The whole Pre-Order/Day One/Midnight Launch circus has turned many games writers into cheerleaders for product. Here's the thing—games PR people are doing an amazing job. The circus they've created serves the games sites well too—the exclusive previews and reviews drive traffic through the sites, and the press drives hype, and we have this whole strange symbiotic relationship that PR is in total control of. I've seen many games writers over the past week saying that they've never been influenced by PR, but PR is a subtle thing. We are all influenced by it. What we lack is an alternative games media. We need a subversive, alternative games media that completely rejects the PR relationships that we've been instructed to believe is essential to games coverage."
That first part is most damning.
To repeat, he said, "I think we're in a horrible position right now, where most games coverage is almost indistinguishable from PR."
I read that line and was ready to dump a whole pile of links from my team at Kotaku and from the writers and reporters at Polygon, Penny Arcade Report, Eurogamer, Gamasutra, Rock Paper Shotgun and more to suggest that there's plenty of what Florence is looking for.
But if he has to have it pointed out more, well, ascribe the blame where you think it fits. Some people just aren't reading it; some people aren't publishing enough of it.
Criticism of the gaming press is so common it can become white noise. A good reporter is perpetually trying to improve anyway, but outside complaints about this story or that can be a helpful alarm if they can transcend the din. You don't just "risk" a deluge of unwanted swag while working the gaming beat; you also encounter, daily, people who say you are terrible at your job. Some of these people dedicate entire blogs to the alleged incompetence of the entire field and helpfully note that, should a particular games writer "fall down the stairs breaking his arms and legs in the process I'd have a tough time feeling sorry for him." And on the other end of the spectrum we have a fine reporter whose website's mission statement begins with "'Games Journalism' is broken." The valid complaints mix with a sea of misreadings. The shrill lies are mixed with uncomfortable truths. The most patient person can sift them apart.
Walker: "Where once [expertise] was desired, it's now considered arrogant oppression. So when a review disagrees with a reader's strong opinion, it's much more satisfying to conclude the discrepancy is the result of corruption."
I plead guilty, however, to lurching the other way and usually skipping writing criticism about games journalism. Ever sit in a room with a bunch of games reporters? Guess what they inevitably start talking about? If you guessed "games reporting," you just won a free PlayStation.
The criticism of a lot of games reporting is nevertheless valid. There are too many rewritten press releases masquerading as news, too many developer diaries pushing some better story off the page. There are never enough great, deeply-reported stories, though that's true in any form of journalism, since those take the most time and are, therefore, the ones that by definition, there will be the fewest of. But hard questions do get asked. Corporate wrongdoing comes to light. Intolerance is exposed. Crime is covered. And often enough a critic gives a bad game a bad score.
And yet, still, a lot of people bash the games press and games critics.
"I think the desire to see conspiracies and corruption in all of the gaming press is largely based on a far wider malaise in the world, of people wishing to demolish notions of expertise or more respected opinions," John Walker of Rock Paper Shotgun said to me over e-mail. "Where once [expertise] was desired, it's now considered arrogant oppression. So when a review disagrees with a reader's strong opinion, it's much more satisfying to conclude the discrepancy is the result of corruption. This desire to bring down all who put themselves in this now-arrogant place is a strong motivating factor to find them deeply at fault. So when stories emerge that suggest an individual has acted inappropriately, this is then generalised across the entire industry to satisfy that belief."
Walker explains the disdain people might have for game critics, but it doesn't explain the dissatisfaction with games reporting expressed by the types of people who, say, see the picture of Geoff Keighley between the bags of Doritos and the bottles of soda and writes: "The picture sums up game journalism in one nice picture. They are tools to sell us things."
The best stories on Kotaku, I'd say, should pass the test of "Would you tell your significant other about them when they asked what you did today-without putting them to sleep?"
Tom Bramwell, at Eurogamer—they of everything from a marvelous look into gaming-related deaths to their own coverage of the Dishonored clock—sees the games journalism cup half-full: "Kieron Gillen, who used to do freelance stuff for Eurogamer and writes (excellent) comics nowadays, wrote this a few weeks ago: ‘Writing on games in 2012 is better now than any time in history. The range of approaches being fruitfully explored now would have stunned my early-00s self.' I completely agree with that, and I think the people doing that work are almost universally honest, hard-working and well-meaning in what they do. I see that every day, both at Eurogamer and in other publications. I'm sure you feel the same way about a lot of your colleagues in the US and beyond."
Gerstmann: "I've since decided to stop living my life by trying to appease those unappeasable people."
Other veterans are at the throwing-their-hands-up stage. "Some people have thought that this line of work is inherently corrupt for years," Gerstmann told me, "and whenever they see anything that even smells like impropriety, they pounce and won't let go. Those people's minds are already made up. We spent a lot of years at GameSpot trying to lay out policies and make sure we were on the up and up, totally buttoned up across the board. But that didn't change anything. Those people were still there, lashing out every single day with cries of bias and how everyone was on the take. Of course, that chapter ended with the world's greatest ironic twist, didn't it? The sad thing is that with a snap of their fingers those guys at the top [at GameSpot] blew up a level of credibility that took us over a decade to build and GameSpot's staff, whether they were there in 2007 or not, still suffers as a result. I've never been directly offered money or anything else by a publisher under the guise of ensuring a proper score. Considering how long I've been doing this, if that was a common practice, don't you think someone would have at least asked me by now?
"I've since decided to stop living my life by trying to appease those unappeasable people, and instead worry about finding the best ways to get the best content together for the people that enjoy our site. Holding ourselves accountable and maintaining an appropriate level of transparency is a big part of that, but it's not the only part."
It keeps coming back to the role of PR
Reporters and critics will say they're not swayed by freebies and the charms of public relations people. The cynic will say they're confused, naïve or actually corrupt. The optimist will say they've thickened their skin not just from insults but from the massage of open bars at gaming preview events and of free press copies of games that ensure they can get a review posted in time for a game's release (can't get that without dealing with PR unless you pirate the game).
Interactions with gaming publicists—with people whose agenda it is to paint their products in the best possible light—are therefore an inevitability of many of the preview and review-oriented stories and pieces of criticism that fill the gaming media.
In a monster NeoGAF thread about Dorito-gate and its various controversies, former games journalist and current EA/PopCap social media coordinator Jeff Green remarked that:
It's all about access. The magazines and sites want to cover the big games, the hyped games, because that's what brings in the readers/subscribers/viewers/hits/etc. The same goes for any part of the entertainment business, really. In order to GET this access, the press has to "play ball." Most game companies explicitly tell all their employees not to talk to the press under any circumstances. In many (most) cases, it's a fireable offense if they do. It's considered breaking an NDA, or violating confidentiality.
(His full comment is worth reading.)
Green is right that a games reporter will have trouble interviewing a corporate game developer who is working on a game prior to release without some dealing with public relations people. He's also right that access might dry up for some outlets that piss off publishers. But not for us, not across the board. Kotaku's continued ability to get access to Activision, Ubisoft, Sony, Microsoft and other company's games prior to release is at least proof that an outlet can happily break news, upend marketing plans, out secrets, infuriate those and other rich companies and live to report another day.
We're not the only ones who enjoy independence. But we'd just be wrong not to heed the wisdom of Shawn Elliott, Green's former journalism colleague who is now making BioShock Infinite at Irrational Games and who in that same NeoGAF thread, wrote:
Pharmaceutical company companies extensively research physicians' hobbies and personal interests, send attractive spokespeople to "inform" said physicians about their products over three-star michelin meals and golf games. Without exception, these physicians insist that they are immune to unethical influence.
Corporations like Coca Cola spend $10 billion a year or more on advertising campaigns with messages that college undergrads — here I'm speaking from experience as a former instructor — unfailingly insist they're uniquely insusceptible to.
Either these corporations are somehow recklessly burning revenue by the billions and somehow raking in unprecedented profit despite the sheer stupidity of their business practices or people are prone to maintain flattering though entirely unrealistic images of themselves. Unfortunately for us, replicated psychology experiments point to pervasive self-deception. Fortunately for us, while it's practically impossible for us to accurately monitor our own self-interest, we're marvelous at pointing it out in others. And this is the why the appearance of impropriety matters so much.
So let's ask some PR people, past and present, for their take.
Here's a person who has done PR for various top publishers for nearly a decade but who can't be named because he's not authorized to be talking about this kind of stuff: "Our job is to drive consumer awareness of a particular product, via various forms of media (print, online, broadcast, etc)," he said to me over e-mail. "In my opinion, a good PR person is one that knows our primary audience (e.g. media), recognizes the content that will (or will not) be compelling from a coverage perspective, has enough knowledge about a product to at least be conversant and is healthily self-aware. We are not always representing THE BEST PRODUCT EVER, though we are still required to find interesting angles for media to cover and consumers to become aware. A bad PR person confuses themselves for the story (and not the product), attempts to bully media, lacks that aforementioned self-awareness (I have seen far too much Kool-Aid consumption in this industry) and fails to see the larger context in which we all work."
And here's Marcus Beer, who used to do PR for Ubisoft, Vivendi, Novalogic and other gaming companies but now covers games for NBC in Los Angeles and on various podcasts at GameTrailers, most notably the Annoyed Gamer: "For me it was always about the pre-release hype. Getting the awareness of a title high enough to secure good pre-order numbers with the retailers. (this was before pre-order bonuses were rampant and before Amazon took a chunk out of everything.) The higher the pre-order numbers, the larger the order from retailers. It was also key to understand what systems the retailers used to track games and keep my titles high on those systems. GameRankings happened to be the system of choice at the time, so that was the target du jour.
"A good PR person in my opinion creates interest in the title in unique ways, builds the buzz to just before launch and maintains it through the launch window then steps back and lets the game stand on its own legs for review. "
Anonymous gaming PR person: "I've seen one recent launch event where media didn't actually discuss the game at all on Twitter—it became a mini-tirade about what free drinks were (or were not) available.It's certainly a beast of our own making."
Our anonymous PR person told me that he's "never seen anyone explicitly swayed by swag/free drinks/etc" and he says that the purpose of swag is "in some small way, [to] keep the game/brand top of mind with media." That doesn't mean he hasn't noticed a sense of entitlement among some in the games press. "I've seen one recent launch event where media didn't actually discuss the game at all on Twitter—it became a mini-tirade about what free drinks were (or were not) available. It's certainly a beast of our own making, but it's an interesting consideration."
Beer thought that smaller outlets might be compelled to be more favorable to a publisher thanks to a free drink or swag gift. "Some freelancers or bloggers from smaller sites who are not used to getting attention from publishers may be swayed however." But from the bigger outlets? "I have to say that everyone I worked with from the major outlets always always acted beyond reproach. I think it helps that these outlets mostly have an internal code of conduct/editorial policy that was crystal clear when it came to what could and could not be done. None of the media I worked with ever intimated to me that they needed 'incentives' for positive coverage. Mind you, I like to think that I was pretty straightforward about the games I repped. If I saw that a game was not going to be good, I would front load the coverage with previews, then when it came to review time I would only send the game to those who asked for it. I would never ask for a score to be bumped, just that they be honest."
He added: "The smart members of the media can always smell PR bullshit a mile away."
It's a comforting narrative for someone like me to think that only the smaller, less established games reporters and critics might be susceptible to the conscious and subconscious. It can certainly happen to the big people, too, though logic implies that experience with this kind of thing can just as likely build an awareness of it as it can encourage an acquiescence to it.
At one interesting node in all this stands Casey Lynch, former PR guy and now head of editorial at IGN, one of the biggest games media outlets around. He told me he's worried that an over-reliance on PR will simply breed uninteresting coverage of games. "Having done both PR and edit, things can go wrong when either side becomes too reliant on the other. Meaning, if edit teams stop asking for individual and unique access and simply create content around what a PR team dictates, it leads to homogenized carbon copy coverage across every site and magazine. Similarly, if PR teams only rely on fixed PR-driven initiatives and don't work with editorial teams to empower the creation of original, unique content, they do the products they represent a disservice. We're here to report and tell stories, in this case, about games. Readers win when outlets like IGN or Kotaku are given the ability to tell those stories in our own way, with our own observations, and using our own presentation styles and means."
Beer: "The smart members of the media can always smell PR bullshit a mile away."
John Walker at Rock Paper Shotgun, who has never done PR but has written some content for a game, pushes back at this reliance on PR, too. And he rejects the divvying of info by PR to promote a game. "I would like to see the role becoming more about attempting to disseminate information as far and wide as possible, surely in the interests of the games, rather than attempting to restrict and control who gets what and when. I would also very much like to see the press not playing along with the PR game."
And what exactly is that "PR game?"
"I mean fighting for exclusives, arrangements for coverage, etc. It's in the publishers' interest to have their games discussed on sites, and in the sites' interest to have info about games, so I think it's in everyone's best interest to have free and open access to a whatever developers want to show."
There Are Just So Many Issues…
Some games reporters do consulting on the side. That's one of the things that got Wainwright more in trouble-the sign that she'd done some and then struck it from an online resume when people started looking into it.
Some games reporters do mock reviews, taking a paycheck from a publisher to review their game. Gerstmann told me that he never "completed" one, but he almost did one, back after GameSpot let him go. His story: "I've always found the mock review process to be fascinating, and when I found myself out of work for a bit back in 2007, a publisher approached me about doing one. I agreed—more because I was interested in seeing this weird process from the inside than anything else—and got a contract to sign. But then ended up getting employed when we were starting Giant Bomb up. I offered to hold up my end of the bargain and complete the task, but told the publisher that I wouldn't be able to accept any money for the job. We talked back and forth about how their legal team didn't like that and joked about making it a contract for $1 (and I thought the idea of having a $1 check from a game publisher that I'd never cash was at least a little funny), but the game ended up being horribly broken and the whole thing fell apart before it ever got started. Ultimately, that's probably for the best."
Gerstmann: "If someone has to do work for both publishers and publications in order to feed their family, that's fine. I just wouldn't let them do any of that work for me or my site."
Then there's the advertising, which was part of the original Gerstmann-GameSpot flap and still can put outlets in a bind if they're worried that pissing off Game Publisher X with a negative review might cost them advertising from Game Publisher X. Our anonymous PR person scoffed at some of the new ethics codes he saw popping up at some outlets in recent weeks. "They're cracking down on the ‘evil influence of PR,' and yet still accepting ad money from publishers? Laughable, at best." Well, maybe laughable. If an outlet divides editorial and advertising and wants to set up strict standards for the editorial side, more power to them, I say. I work for an outlet that just had State Farm insurance sponsor our emergency Tumblr, so our situation here is a bit different.
A lot of this comes down to economics. A lot of this is tied to the decisions some reporters or outlets make when facing a limited budget and seeing opportunity in working for or with a publisher. "I used to be really high and mighty about a lot of this stuff, but as I grew older and became, like, a proper adult I came down off my high horse," Gerstmann said. "I don't know what lives some of these people are leading. I don't know about their financial situations, and if someone has to do work for both publishers and publications in order to feed their family, that's fine. I just wouldn't let them do any of that work for me or my site."
Which Gets Us Back to the Doritos...
Robert Florence always wanted people to be talking about more than Lauren Wainwright or Dave Cook, the other games journalist whose name he named (and who later apologized for freaking out about it). He wanted people talking about what, in the words of one NeoGAF user, is/was a "a culture of too-close interaction between PR and journalists."
This story and all of this controversy was never, however, going to ever drift entirely from its flashpoint. There were some troubling issues there about one reporter or her media outlet threatening another and that latter outlet capitulating and changing their story. There were questions of Wainwright's prior work and what to make of a writer whose Twitter page was adorned in art for Square Enix's Tomb Raider, her resume listing Square Enix as a prior employer and her byline on articles for the British trade publication MCV sometimes about Square Enix games. MCV, which is part of the Intent Media group, even published a piece by Wainwright about the new Square Enix-published Hitman game after this whole thing flared up. It bore no disclosure of the ongoing drama.
There was also that image of Geoff Keighley that inspired Florence's article. Let's take that first. Keighley, who I consider a friend, isn't talking. He's declined my requests for comment on this since the whole thing started and so the best insights we can get of how he feels about sitting between the Doritos and the Mountain Dew have to be gleaned from the source material.
That still of him comes from this video or others like it. He'd done a series of these interviews that day. In the video he's talking about a Mountain Dew and Doritos-branded Halo
spin-off game boosted-XP promotion. "When brands partner with gaming, it's great," he says before being asked by a reporter whether, if stranded on an island he'd prefer to have the soda or the chips.
Regarding Eurogamer's editing of Robert Florence's story, Eurogamer chief Tom Bramwell posted a note to his readers, which included this explanation of why he altered Florence's piece:
The first is that a lot of people want to know more about why I made the changes and issued an apology. The answer is that Lauren Wainwright threatened us with legal action and made it clear she would not back down, at which point we took legal advice and ultimately made the decision to remove the paragraphs. It was not a decision that I took lightly. One objection to this action that I've read online is that there was no libel. All I can really say is that the advice we received meant that removing the offending text and apologising to Lauren was the right course of action to take. We also considered the fact that the article wasn't really about her but about all of us, and I felt that the edited version did not change Rab's meaning.
But did Wainwright really sue? Or send lawyers after Eurogamer? Florence declined to get specific. "UK libel law is a frightening thing," he told me, "and it makes every word you utter feel like a risk. I would love for Lauren to speak about it, because I feel that she is taking most of the heat herself and find it impossible to imagine that she was not supported in her actions by any other party. I don't believe for one second that Eurogamer backed down to Lauren alone." He also noted that he considers Bramwell "guilt-free in all of this. I know he fought my corner as hard as he possibly could. I am heartbroken, in truth, that our working relationship is over. I loved writing those columns, and Tom's support was a big part of the experience. He's a great guy, and I hope we work together again in the future."
Wainwright's editor at MCV, Michael French, has been on-record, on Twitter, saying that "There was no legal action taken from Intent. We asked Eurogamer to remove cruel content about a staff member. They obliged." The "we" in that Tweet suggests that it wasn't just Wainwright who asked for some sort of change, but French isn't talking. There's no sign that anyone other than Wainwright even brought it up as a legal matter, and there's certainly a difference between a legal threat and asking for a change. It seems more likely that the latter was the case here."
Which gets us to Lauren Wainwright…
"I've done two mock reviews for Square-Enix," she told me in an e-mail this morning, "One [was] in late 2011 and [one in] early '12. Neither were for Tomb Raider or Hitman products." She said this seemed common. [UPDATE: I meant to also note that she has written about other Square Enix games that she didn't do mock reviews of.] "Plenty of journalists do mock reviews and they are literally reviews that are used internally. They help publishers estimate how the game will review upon release. I've never gone on to review any products I've consulted on. As this is a normal practice among journalists far more experienced than I, I've never seen it as a conflict of interest. Myself, and many others, are currently questioning this practice."
She has regrets about how things went down. "I regret deleting Square off of my journalistsed profile. This was done in panic and I regret it." She realizes now that all that Tomb Raider stuff on her Twitter page was problematic. "I'm not paid off to say nice things about Square's products. I am a fan of Tomb Raider and many of my followers are. I'm an excited and passionate gamer but I will reflect on how I post about Tomb Raider and other games publicly from now on." She shut down many of her social media accounts because her phone number and address were on them. She says she received "abuse that spiralled out of control."
Wainwright: "I suggested it was libel and that I'd seek advice and Eurogamer spoke to their lawyers who suggested they take it down. This was again a mistake on my behalf and I'm deeply sorry."
Wainwright wants to clarify some things. She said she "never entered the competition to win a PS3, which some outlets are suggesting. I already have one which I bought myself." And she's not on the take. "I must reiterate that I've never been paid off to write any positive content for anyone. I wouldn't be in this business if this was a normal practice."
But yes, she said, she did contact Eurogamer. She did complain, though she also regrets how far that went. "I've not spoken to any lawyers. Nor have I sought any legal advice during my short communication with Eurogamer. I suggested it was libel and that I'd seek advice and Eurogamer spoke to their lawyers who suggested they take it down. This was again a mistake on my behalf and I'm deeply sorry. The abuse started as soon as that article went up and you do and say stupid things when the Internet attacks you. I regret it. I really do."
Wainwright told me she'll keep her accounts locked down for a bit longer because she assumes her statements here will "incite more anger." She'd surely like to be done with that.
"Though it's been a messy time for all," she said, "[something] positive has come from this whole situation with many outlets looking into their ethics practises. I hope this makes us all a better press for the readers."
There is a lot of talk of ethics standards these days, of reporters and critics making vows to do such and such a thing or to not do such and such a thing. In my reporting of this controversy and in thinking about what we do here, I found myself drawn to many different points of view. Among the most compelling takes on ethics was Gerstmann's. "Publications need to constantly revisit their policies to make sure they make sense and help provide what's best for our readers," he told me before explaining what guides his current outlet, Giant Bomb. "My whole desire is to put enough of ourselves out there that it'd be plainly obvious if we had been corrupted, because we'd suddenly start saying things that don't fit our profile."
That seems like as good a standard as any. That's certainly a rule of thumb around here, and if we fail at it, we'll 'fess up to it, bear that unpleasantness and move on. Be transparent in one's reporting, in one's reviewing, in one's doing one's job. Do the things you'd be happy for your readers to know you were doing. Don't do the things you'd be embarrassed about.
And do good reporting. Because there's never enough of that.