The Soapbox: Advertising, blacklisting, and critique – The broken incentives of gaming media

This guest Soapbox was commissioned through Massively Overpowered’s Kickstarter campaign and is authored by D. Emery Bunn. The opinions here represent the views of our guest author and not necessarily Massively OP itself. Enjoy!

Gaming media is broken. “Honest reviews” can come off like a sarcastic jab, especially with massive site-spanning advertisements mere pixels from the reviews themselves. Add in the lure of exclusives, and “fair and unbiased” sounds like a joke to many.

But gaming media and the industry it covers aren’t broken from some form of malevolent hatred and a greedy desire to part gamers from their money. Regrettably, three things combine to create an environment where criticism can destroy a media outlet entirely, even when criticism is a vital part of journalism itself.

Overt advertising

Take a look at your average gaming website these days without AdBlock on, and it’s clear that displaying advertisements is what’s paying a good portion of the bills. Some sites even ask you to turn AdBlock off. Small, wonder, with marketing budgets covering everything from banner ads to TV ads to publicity stunts.

And that’s not a problem, really. Ads are a business reality, and they do help pay the bills. Plastering banner ads of the latest blockbuster to ship is par for the course.
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Covert advertising

The best place to put game ads is on game websites: the very same place those games are reviewed. From a publisher perspective, having spent a bunch of money advertising a game only to have the review be anything less than glowing feels like a bad return on investment.

Many gamers know this, and it can be easy to assume that reviews are carefully veiled advertorial pieces themselves. Ads have to be bought, so angering the buyers by panning their games is a bad idea. Gaming websites have to toe a line between being honest and proper journalists and not alienating their chief revenue source.

Blacklisting the ‘bad apples’

Gaming websites are also, unsurprisingly, the best place for exclusive content related to upcoming games. Previews, interviews, early review copies for day-one reviews — the list goes on. Gamers go to gaming websites to find out the latest, hype themselves up on their favorites, and potentially read reviews to decide what they’ll buy. Publishers know this; marketers know this.

But all these things are given because the publisher chose to give them. Chaining back to that return on investment perspective, if gaming websites don’t use all of these exclusives “properly,” marketing departments can decide to pull the plug. Or to be more direct, blacklist.

This happened to Kotaku recently. Though the precise causes are unknown, two publishers decided to blacklist the site (in fact, reading that story is what got me to thinking in depth about this topic). Kotaku didn’t “properly” toe the line and was punished by being denied the same sorts of exclusives that other, competing sites got.

Breaking the backbone

Journalism, and the media it creates, is all about producing something that people haven’t seen before. While this can mean unique opinions or deep-digging analysis, far more often it’s “the exclusive,” or “the latest.”

This is definitely true in gaming media, where new games, and the resulting reviews, happen all the time. A media outlet without a day-one review is behind everyone else, especially if the game is a blockbuster millions are looking forward to. Why go to a site that is five days behind the curve when you want to know now, on release day, whether it’s worth getting?

Without the allure of the latest news, a site has to have other draws to have people show up, view the ads, and pay the bills. For massive, well-known sites this can work, but for smaller outlets the inability to be on top of the news curve is a death sentence.

Crowding-out dissent

Gaming media know this. If you’re a small outlet, or even a big one in tight competition with others, losing exclusives is a really bad idea. It’s better to nitpick some parts of a blockbuster game and rate it high than to bomb it for not being as good as others of its genre.

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Metacritic is littered with extremely high critic review scores for nearly all of the “must buy” games this year. While some have truly been very good, it beggars the imagination that all but a few are near-perfect.

Criticism, of which reviews are a part, is difficult to do when it’s the equivalent of shooting yourself in the foot. Disagreeing with game industry practices, or denouncing extremely bad games, gets pushed off of the biggest outlets, and onto places where keeping the lights on via game ad revenue isn’t a concern, if at all.

Critique and the common man

Avoiding the blacklist creates soft opinions and unmentionable topics. Criticism, a vital function of journalism, can’t flourish in the face of the current environment. The economic incentive isn’t there. You can’t fault gaming media for wanting to stay in business.

But critique improves games. Even the most wildly inaccurate criticism can reveal the perception of a particular gamer and illuminate ways to address that perception in the future. It isn’t easy to hear, especially with how much time and energy is spent on a game by developers, but the alternative of no criticism doesn’t make good future games. An industry without criticism is one that stagnates and eventually collapses.

Gaming media should be the best place to field critique. Thousands of people go to these sites on a daily basis, creating a fertile area for discussion and ultimately better critique for developers to use. But with the current state of affairs, gaming media isn’t in a position to do that. Exceptions exist, but those prove the rule.

Critique needs a place to live, unaffected by what publishers do. Right now, that’s in isolated, easily-forgotten places like social media and blogs. I believe we can do better. Here’s some possible solutions for each part of the game industry:

  • Publishers: Reviews should not be seen by publishers as a more detailed advertisement for the game. Every game has flaws, and acting as if they’re unimportant does nobody any favors.
  • Gaming media: Be journalists. If a publisher blacklists because of editorial honesty, or “improper” actions, say so. Gamers are ultimately more satisfied by honesty than by a whitewashed view of the industry.
  • Players: Critique and discuss in any place you can find. While gaming media might be the obvious choice, it’s not there at present. Seek out outlets that do let you have a voice and hopefully themselves insist on better than the status quo. Over time, we can change the perception of criticism being bad.

What do you think? Is there another way out of this mess?

Author D. Emery Bunn is the proprietor of new gaming website Tough Love Critic. We’d like to thank him for supporting Massively Overpowered!
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59 Comments on "The Soapbox: Advertising, blacklisting, and critique – The broken incentives of gaming media"

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Alphasevx
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Alphasevx

Gaming journalism has really changed over the years.  So has all journalism to be honest.  What I think writers at sites like Kotaku and Polygon don’t realize is that they are not respected, at least not anymore.  They are diminishing every year – dying a long and ugly self-inflicted death as they sink further into clickbait, deceptive advertising, cronyism, and identity politics.  

Kotaku thinks its some kind of important site full of real journalists.  They’re not – they’re the National Enquirer.  They are paparazzi, and devs and publishers don’t want to pose for them anymore.  It just shows how delusional Stephen Totilo is that he thought he had a serious point about  “blacklisting”.  No, you work for Gawker, and no one owes you exclusive information.

Appreciate how Massively and now MassivelyOP has stayed (mostly) out of the outside drama and focused on the games.

Dope_Danny
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Dope_Danny

Honestly i have not trusted mainstream gaming sites for a very long time. I mean shit when the whole Gamegate situation began last year my initial response was “and did people not notice this when Jeff Gerstman was fired for giving a middle of the road review to a game currently paying for gamespot banner ad space like 7 years ago?”

Setting aside that can of worms about all those “what do we signal boost this week?” mailling list cabals from the “gamers are dead… wait our numbers are down, our person of the year is the gamer and we are your trusted ally! pls come back!” crowd like gawker media who are objective scumbags for A: seeing the reader as idiots they can easily manipulate and B: not really giving a shit about a games as anything but a subversive vector for their own political agenda pushing which is greasy at beast it all comes down to one thing –

They are the industries bitch.

They want their review out early so people come to their site and generate ad revenue? then they must stay on the companies good side. Its why you get completely untrustworthy sites like IGN going “MASS EFFECT 3 10/10 – THIS IS THE GAME CHANGER” and not 30 days later after its come out and everybody bought it is going “uhhh, what is this poorly written, heavily bug ridden, page 1 of google image search asset laden garbage?” they release a “MASS EFFECT 3: WHAT WENT WRONG” article.

They are crooked. They are liars, they are shills, they are not trust worthy and simply put are not worth your time because you are not getting anything but a lengthy advertisement from them and thats not a review exists to do. Therefore their own lust for revenue has created a prison of their own design that renders their own product redundant to us.

Demos or maybe a lets play/stream of a game is the best way to know if it suits your unique tastes. Any videogame critic calling themselves a games journalist at this point on a site like IGN, Kotaku, Polygon and so on is at best going to be some “BLANK studies” college drop out millenial using it as some way to be a sponsored marketing vector because being another “8/10 my paycheck came through” company parrot is the best thing they can do without actually trying. Thats modern mainstream videogames journalism.

So i dont visit those sites.

and more to the point wonder whys its taken so goddamn long for most people to begin to notice its been like this way for over a decade now.

SallyBowls1
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SallyBowls1

I  agree with a lot of the sentiment. 

OTOH, I find a lot of the ideas unrealistically naive. I think I could make the same criticisms about cars or tech.  Does anyone think Samsung/Apple sites are unbiased arbiters of the products or don’t have these forces pushing them? People are very reticent to pay upfront for games any more and newspapers and magazine are in steep decline.  IMO, it strikes me as unrealistic to expect 1950s New York Times level of reporting and advertising/reporting separation in general and especially in gaming where it is mostly “free” to play.

Cleveisback
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Cleveisback

Reading this post made me sign up to comment!  Agree with everything mentioned and really must commend D. Emery Bunn for such an insightful and informative piece.

Godson691
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Godson691

I agree with almost everything that is said in this article, but it forgets one important feature that a good site will have and that is a comment section. 
I feel that a “well moderated” comment section can balance against favoritism in a game article or gaming site.  It’s the comments of multiple readers that gives me a more balanced perception on what the article discusses.  Also over time you learn to trust various authors and commenters, by comparing their experiences with your own.
“well moderated” means not blocking people’s opinions but cutting out the trash that has nothing to do with the topic or meant to derail the topic.

Ripsnorta
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Ripsnorta

Peregrine_Falcon If all Gamergate was about was the link between advertising and gaming sites causing biases, it wouldn’t have been a problem. It was the attacks on female developers and commentators (and those who stood up for them) by doxing and death and rape threats that brought Gamergaters into disrepute.

Gamergate might have started about honest reviews, but it quickly became an excuse for the disgruntled to attack people they didn’t like.

carson63000
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carson63000

Peregrine_Falcon Even if you leave the misogynists, racists and homophobes out of Gamergate, 90% of what’s left was “they gave a good review to a game I don’t like, MUST BE CORRUPTION!”

Cambruin
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Cambruin

Serrenity Gamers… mature… same sentence? Isn’t the lack of maturity that which defines us as gamers? Had I been mature, would I not be mowing the lawn instead? Would I not be running of to the florist to score +rep with the wife? Would I not empty the dishwasher instead? Would I not sit next to my daughter as she comes home from school to ask her about her day?

Immature is what we are and that’s ok. It’s that which binds us, which connects us to one another. Where else could you find a 14year old leading a group of others, some of them into their 30s and up? We all just have to learn to be responsible and we’re failing pretty bad at it. You, me, all of us. Look at the temper tantrums we throw. Look at the example we’re setting.

The industry simply picks up on it.

I’m not sure why I’m saying this as I too have no idea how to reverse it. I’m not even sure who’s to blame. Me? You? The parents? The industry? I have 2 beautiful children and honest to God, I hope I do a better job than my parents and yet I so often on the way to work think “shit, I could have handled that differently”. Ugh, lost my train of thought. Oh well. best log in to LotRO no?

Bereman99
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Bereman99

Samizdat Bereman99 Yes, they are free to do that.
That’s my point and my issue – the current status quo is one where the game companies feel like they have the right/privilege of using journalism about the industry as an advertising platform and punish those who don’t go along with that…
Someone within their own company leaks some major and likely negative information to the press. Who should be punished? The person who did the leaking. Who gets punished? The press. It’s an attempt to silence bad press in the same way some game companies have abused the DMCA of YouTube to bring down videos that talk poorly about their game. It’s simply not pro-consumer behavior.

And then they get applauded for doing that just because it was against a site people tend not to like.
I guarantee the comments would be one of outrage aimed at the game company if the blacklisted website was this one.

Ernost
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Ernost