‘Deus Ex 3 is PC exclusive’, say Bit-tech. ‘Oh no it’s not’, say Eidos. ‘Let us never speak of this again’, say Bit-tech, who duly remove all reference to the story, as though it never happened. The internet catches on fire regardless. This post isn’t about any particular post that resulted from that, just a general sadness about the spread of misinformation in such instances.
There’s a real problem behind this. Games journalism, more than any other form of journalism outside of celebrity gossip, absolutely thrives on scandal. There’s a hunger for scurrilous headlines, because they bring in huge armies of traffic - the lifeblood of any games site. Discontent and rage are evergreen providers of this, and any semblance of format favouritism on a game’s part tends to create that with alarming speed and intensity. It means games journalism is losing sight of how to get a story - instead, an offhand comment, an out of context claim or a Chinese whisper is a story in itself - either by the originator of the post, or by some other site picking up on it and sticking an Ohmigod hat on it. Sometimes there are attempts at corroboration with an official source, sometimes there aren’t. Usually when there are, the official source doesn’t respond in time or provides an empty marketing line.
Sometimes, they may actively lie, or at least appear to. The worst journalism mistake I’ve made of late is when a trusted source gave me a recording of a presentation in which the Force Unleashed was apparently confirmed as happening on PC. A barrage of panicked official emails swiftly (far more swiftly than the response I’d got if I’d asked for comment before publishing) informed me it was definitely not happening on PC, so I had to edit the story. I was annoyed, but not ashamed. Clarification and updating is a far more gentlemanly course of action than pulling an erroneous report; it’s also a sensible one. Removing words from the internet doesn’t mean people forget - instead, it makes you look less trustworthy, in the eyes of both readers and peers. A few months later, guess bloody what: the Force Unleashed is announced for PC. There’s every chance it wasn’t a lie, that the decision to port came later, but nonetheless it does carry the appearance of a lie. It’s difficult to establish who benefited from it, or why.
So, to publish or not to publish? If you delay and wait for a proper response, someone else might get there first, and you won’t get that precious traffic. If you get a no comment or a “not happening at this time” reply, do you take it as read and neuter your report? It’s uncomfortably no-win situation, worsened by the tendency for web journalists to take shortcuts for expediency’s sake and by the paranoid, absolute control of information by games publishers, fearful that the right piece of information at the wrong time will disastrously upset their carefully plotted marketing schedule.
It’s getting worse on both sides. I’ve met journalists from other sites recently whose sole interest on a press briefing for a game is to get whichever developer present to say something contentious, something that can make an out-of-context headline to bring in the hits. “It’s about survival,” they say, as though it really is their duty to create scandal. It’s disgusting behaviour, and it has very little to do with providing people with information about and opinion upon videogames.
But such attitudes, parasitical as they may be, are at least fighting against nonsense like the Force Unleashed situation, or more recently Infinity Ward/Activision refusing to drop Modern Warfare 2 review embargoes, even though most shops had cheated and started selling the game by that point. Everyone’s behaving terribly. The only way to be a proper big-boy journalist amidst this sandwich of truth-twisting is to already have firm, trusted contacts/moles deep within developers or publishers. There are few chances to break through the impervious crust otherwise, which is why there’s such a tremendous rise in journalists creating news by cherry-picking quotes and implications.
But we need to hold fast against this growing rot, a sad by-product of the recent rapid growth in gaming’s popularity and the need for the web to provide beyond-rapid response. We need to at least try to double-check a surprising or scandalous fact; just because so often it’s shot down or no-commented doesn’t mean that’s the case every time. Once a while, it can save face, or lead to a better story. And when we do get it wrong, there’s nothing wrong with saying so. An updated-as-it-happens story is a better story, a clearer picture. Mistakes happen. Pretending we’re faultless is the greatest mistake of all. It’s that sort of self-interest-above-all-else thinking that’s led to all this unhelpful scandal chasing and gate-locking in the first place.