Tobold's Blog
Friday, August 29, 2014
Ethical game journalism requires the journalist not to play games

I tend to see the world not in black & white, but in scales of grey. So I can't give you a clear yes or no answer on the question whether I consider myself as a game journalist. Obviously my activity, writing opinions about games on my blog, resembles game journalism. I once ran around a Blizzard convention with a press pass around my neck. On the other hand that is not my job, but just a hobby. So it is somewhere in a grey area where I am in part a game journalist, and in part I am not. So the part of me that is somewhat a game journalist is interested in the issues of game journalism, and the ethics thereof. For example I do have a strict disclosure policy, where I disclose if the product I am reviewing was a free review copy.

Lately the ethical questions about game journalism got somewhat reversed: Before the question was usually whether a game company gave money or things of value to a game journalist. Today the question is in the other direction: Does the game journalist give money to the game designer? Because if he does, he could be said to have a special interest in the success of that game designer, and thus not be objective. This sort of consideration caused Kotaku to post a new policy prohibiting their game journalists from supporting game designers on Patreon.

Now people point out that Patreon is just a single platform on which a game journalist could financially support a game designer. What about other platforms, like Kickstarter, or Steam Early Access? And ultimately, what about a game journalist buying a game, in which case part of his money also goes to the game designer?

So if you are a game journalist and you get a game for free, you can't be objective. And if you buy the game, you can't be objective either. I assume stealing the game isn't part of an ethics policy either. Which means that an ethical game journalist cannot play the game he is reviewing. He has to rely on YouTube or Twitch to see other people play it (now that explains the recent interest if internet giants in Twitch). I must say that there are game journalists around that are apparently far more ethically advanced than I am. I've read a lot of game reviews that made it quite plausible that the author writing the review never played the game in question.

I'm afraid that my blog has an unethical policy: While I do sometimes comment on games that I haven't played (for example because they don't exist yet), I don't put the word "review" on a post unless I have played the game. And in the large majority of cases that means that I have bought the game in one form or another. I do accept donations from readers to finance buying those games. I wonder when that will be considered unethical.

Getting a review copy for free may make it more difficult to assess the value of a product, paying for a copy may make you overly focused on its value.

But that is worlds apart from the ethical issues of kick starting a game or funding a developer which in turn gives you an incentive to publicise the title or encourage others to become backers.

Even then it isn't such a problem if we have that very important D word - DISCLOSURE.

Tell readers if you got a free review copy. Tell readers if you have a financial investment.
Tell readers if you slept with the developer.

Disclosure allows readers to weigh up your opinion. It also leads to trust when it comes to those products where you have nothing to disclose.

You disclose already and as a result I trust your opinion over that of a journalist.
You're a "pundit" not a journalist. :)
You mis-spelled "panda". ;)
Watching a youtube/Twitch video of gameplay offers the same pitfalls as buying or not buying the game and playing it: either you see the video for free, or you pay, and either way you've become tainted. The only real way to objectively review a game these days is to adopt a Descartean methodology; start with "cogito ergo sum", and then, without recourse to any sensory data, derive eternal truths about the game in question.
As the wise old man once said, the truth will set you free.

There is no real boundary of where to start and where to stop with the disclosure. That said, more is far better than less. If you disclose more than you need, all you will ever be accused of is oversharing. If you do not disclose enough, you will be accused of all other stronger things, like bias, nepotism, or clientelism. It might seem to be hard to draw the line, but in general it is pretty easy, at least for anyone of decent moral outlook.

If you share a bed with someone whose game you are reviewing, and you don't feel any qualms about being honest with your readership about it, than we have a problem as that leads to moral degradation. It is not that the readers are genuinely interested with whom you share your bed. But they will be interested in knowing what could influence you impression of the game. If you supported that game on kickstarter, or patreon, than this needs to be stated upfront. If you are friends with the developer, than needs to be stated. If you happen to share the same apartment, that needs to be stated. If you went for a beer on some convention and never heard of him/her again, it is better to be stated, than not.

Disclosure is to be used, better often than not.

"As the wise old man once said, the truth will set you free"

Sounds good to me. The problem is that your moral judgments aren't 'true' or 'false', so you have failed to follow your own advice.
I still don't know why ethical considerations are a concern beyond full disclosure.

Especially considering the move to the F2P revenue model, where cost disclosure should not even be a concern. If we're talking about retail units where there is an upfront cost, then the review pundits(either bloggers or bona-fide journalists) could demand that developers provide a free "demo" copy that is available to everyone, where everyone could compare notes together. Either that, or make review copies demo-mode only, and have them "timeout" after a certain period of time to where no financial gain can be implied.
I'm in the full disclosure camp. I don't care if someone is sponsored as hell so long as I know and can judge the prejudices for myself.
Sadly that already puts you one step beyond most of the effort made by a large number of gaming "journalists"
Whoops. Forgot to copy in the @Tobold says "I don't put the word "review" on a post unless I have played the game."
Anyway, unless Mrs. Tobold posts a lurid account of Tobold's sexual shenanigans on the web (something like that was what initially kicked off the turmoil at Kotaku and elsewhere) I think an explosion is unlikely!
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