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The Florence Effect: Fanning the Flames of Change in Games Journalism

2 Nov 2012  by   Peter Parrish
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If you care, or have ever cared, about the quality of games writing you read, the events of last week are essential to study and understand.

They begin with Robert Florence doing his job. On 24 October, Eurogamer publishes his regular “Lost Humanity” column, entitled “A Table of Doritos”. It’s a devastating piece, inviting games writers to take a hard look at how some of their actions are perceived by a wider audience and calling for a bit of self-reflection in the system. Threats of legal action from Lauren Wainwright, a writer named and quoted by the piece, result in the article’s amendment, Florence’s resignation, and ignite the flame of a debate that’s still smouldering away today.

That’s the summary. But such a short paragraph can’t adequately address the fallout from this chain of events. Here at IncGamers, we covered it as best we could with a special podcast. For a comprehensive breakdown of 24-26 October, I’d recommend this timeline put together by Stuart Campbell.

A great deal of the immediate aftermath to Florence’s article being published made me ashamed to be a games writer. The legal response disgusted me, and the unnamed individuals who criticised Rock, Paper, Shotgun’s John Walker (for suggesting that tweeting a corporate hashtag at a publisher-sponsored awards event may just be a slight breach of ethics), Florence himself (“I’m a “piece of shit”, an “arrogant troll” and will have to be wary of “enemies” if I attend any games PR events. A disappointing 24 hours”) and Eurogamer editor Tom Bramwell (“it is no exaggeration to say that in the last few days people from outside Eurogamer have screamed at me about publishing Rab’s column”) sickened me even further.

To any writers or editors who participated in attacks on the people striving to inject a small amount of dignity back into games writing: get out of this profession. Slither on over to that PR job you so obviously crave, where you can compose influential press releases about new media transgressive game-u-tainment, fast-food promotional tie-ins, and “viscerally epic products” with impunity. Your contributions will not be missed.

Anybody in the business of games writing who had a problem with “A Table of Doritos” had a perfect tool with which to take issue with it. It’s a tool called writing. Not legal threats. Not cowardly tweets and emails to those who had written about it. Certainly not a culture of silence that keeps this vital discussion about transparency out of the public eye.

I’ve yet to see any gaming sites publish a piece refuting what Robert Florence had to say. Those who’ve taken issue with it in private (or in the insular warrens of twitter) know precisely how well that stance would go down with the general public. Mounting a defense for copious freebies, PR-managed events and blatant product placement would serve only to make the writer look like a blatant shill, unwilling to depart the digital gravy train.

For a while though, a lot of sites didn’t appear to have much to say at all. There were early, splendid pieces written by John Walker for his personal blog and Erik Kane at Forbes, but others appeared slow to react.

Kotaku editor Stephen Totilo’s initial response was to write “I just don’t care enough about the latest supposed media scandal”. His attitude was not uncommon, and a lot of writers took refuge in the arrogant position that, poor lambs, they were all a bit tired of this.

The intent here is not to pile on a lone editorial quote, but instead to highlight Totilo’s encouraging change of heart (aided, it’s fair to note, by some gentle pressure). Totilo retracted his comments, addressed the situation in an initial article (promising more when Kotaku’s servers recover from Hurricane Sandy’s attentions) and is acting admirably over the issue of publisher swag. Writers rely on the support of editors to maintain integrity (and can often find themselves forced into compromising on ethics by those in management positions), so these moves were encouraging.

VG 24/7, whose writer David Cook was caught in the early scandal-blast, have drawn up a new code of ethics which aims to create a barrier between publisher/PR influence and keep matters transparent.

US site Polygon already had a laudable set of ethics in place before this debate re-opened, but writing something and sticking to it have proved to be two different things. In the last few days, the site’s resolve was tested when it came under pressure from its readership over a ‘news’ article regarding pizza promotions and Halo 4. Polygon’s first move was to censor all negative comments. When this drew more criticism, they begrudgingly relented, re-instated existing comments on the pseudo-news piece and moved it off the front page (stopping short, sadly, of removing it from the site). This was an inglorious moment for Polygon, but it does show the important part readers can play in keeping sites to their word.

Many more publications than I can sensibly mention have written about, or reacted to the events proceeding publication of Robert Florence’s article. Here’s an evolving list, compiled by members of NeoGaf. These articles and others like them are heavy steps down a long road to systemic change. Some, like the news that Robert Florence is considering doing a new, online videogames show, are just exciting bonuses.

Here’s the deal. Games writers should always, always be outsiders looking in. The minute a writer considers him or herself to part of ‘the industry’, whether through friendship, employment or aspiration, they are compromised. They can claim to be above it all, to be somehow ‘immune’ to press kits and PR influence, but they are compromised. The job of a games writer is not to support or lend hype to the industry establishment, but to keep them under a critical eye.

Doing consultancy work for a publisher and then reviewing their output looks atrocious, no matter how much the person involved may genuinely claim to love the games. Removing all trace of the prior consultancy work when someone calls you out on it looks even worse. Likewise, remaining silent on the events of the past week is damaging, and lowers the perception of games writers even further in the eyes of an already (rightfully) jaded public.

It’s tremendous to see many sites addressing these issues head-on, and my great hope is that the editorial momentum will be maintained. Incidents like these have happened many, many times in the past, with little systemic change. This time, it feels ever so slightly different. Games writing isn’t going to clean its laundry overnight, but at least it’s starting to ponder which detergent to use.

So please, please let’s keep on talking and writing about this. Let’s keep this story alive. Keep the issue of transparency and public perception at the forefront of games coverage. Stop yucking it up with nervous PR buddies on twitter, stop childishly dismissing this very real problem as GRAND CONSPIRACY, stop ignoring the elephant in the room while blogging about pizza promotions; because if we don’t, if we don’t stop that, if we acquiesce to a culture of silence, then when our readership has deserted contemporary games sites for YouTube personalities and word-of-mouth forum reviews, don’t be surprised if silence is all we have left to offer.

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  1. retternal

    and this is coming from a site that has been running ‘exclusive’ content for Path of Exile all week..? what did you get to make that happen? surely it’s in your interest (and path of exile devs interest) to write nice things about the game otherwise you wouldn’t have got exclusive content…

    November 3, 2012 at 2:30 am

    1. psyounger

      We got absolutely nothing.

      November 3, 2012 at 3:59 am

      1. retternal

        getting exclusivity is getting something. why would a publisher/developer bother with exclusivity? it’s always been one of the most suspicious parts of a publication.

        November 3, 2012 at 10:11 am

        1. psyounger

          Yes, you’ve answered your own question. That’s exactly what we got the exclusive content for our readers.

          November 3, 2012 at 2:32 pm

          1. retternal

            How does exclusive content benefit the reader? Surely the reader benefits by all publications printing articles on a game and putting their own thoughts about it down in writing. Then readers can get various perspectives on the same content. A dev/publisher would surely (I imagine) only give exclusives if they were sure positive articles were going to be written.

            Your gift from them is that you’re the only one printing articles and getting the readers interested in it visiting it. Leading (maybe) to more advertising revenue in future.

            I don’t see how that’s different from getting a physical gift from a publisher or PR person.

            The truth of it is that no publication with a revenue stream that comes from the advertising of the products being written about can be truly impartial.

            November 3, 2012 at 6:58 pm

          2. Peter Parrish

            Fair questions.

            Our advertising is handled by a third-party, external to the writing staff. An IncGamers writer will never know what ads will be shown alongside a review/preview/interview/etc, so there will never be any ‘tailoring’ of material to current ad campaigns. I’d agree that doesn’t eliminate all problems relating to revenue from advertising, but unfortunately pretty much every media outlet (not just games) has this issue. It’s not ideal, but it’s (ironically) the ‘price’ of publishing material for free or (in the case of newspapers/magazines) at a relatively low cover charge.

            I didn’t write any of the PoE stuff, and I haven’t played the game, but I’ll try to address that too. IncGamers has a sizeable readership interested in aRPGs (thanks in no small part to the Diablo community here) – I’d imagine the PoE devs felt that the specialised audience would appreciate pieces like the Brother Laz interview, where he goes into detail about item creation. That kind of interview is pretty niche, and I’m confident that our readers would let us know if they felt we were ‘softballing’ the questions (I hope so anyway!)

            Part of this PoE week involved giving out beta keys, so a few readers could quite literally play the game (in its current state) themselves. If they think it’s rubbish, no amount of developer interviews on our site will be likely to change that point of view.

            I appreciate that you’re against ‘exclusive’ content as a whole (and I’m with you in the cases where publications get ‘exclusive’ embargo-busting reviews on the understanding that the game gets a high score), so these answers may not have changed your mind. That’s fine. The current games writing debate is about transparency, so I hope that we’ve at least demonstrated that we’re prepared to address queries in comments and explain our decisions.

            November 3, 2012 at 8:38 pm

          3. psyounger

            Just to reiterate what Peter said GGGs chose incgamers because we have a core RPG audience that hits their demographic. The gift was ours to them. The questions sent in our interviews were untouched after the interviews were returned (standard policy).

            Their answers were not impartial because they are talking about their game so naturally they are going to talking positively about their own game.

            November 3, 2012 at 10:00 pm

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