I love reviewing games, I really do. Back when I first started doing it I was constantly struggling with writer’s block as I felt I had already covered all the semi-interesting topics already and was simply cranking out post after post which I didn’t feel particularly proud of. Game reviews then were a writing safe haven, a place where I could write almost endlessly on how that game made me feel and the nuances of the game play and graphics. They were among the most time consuming posts to write but they were also the most fulfilling and, several reviews later, I had left behind the creative block that had plagued me for months before and I’ve never looked back since.
That love of game reviews hasn’t gone unnoticed by publishers, PR reps and developers. I’ve felt incredibly lucky to be invited not once, but twice to play the Call of Duty titles before they were released (I couldn’t go this year, unfortunately). I was also lucky enough to have my review of Resonance noticed by the PR department of Wadjet Eye Games and was invited to play their upcoming title, Primordia, before it was released to the public. Sure I’m not exactly overwhelmed with requests from PR reps and publishers to get coverage of their games but I’ve at least had a taste of how the game review world operates and like many of my fellow brethren I’ve always been left craving more.
Reviews live and die by their timing, especially for larger sites. I knew from the start that I would never get a review out before any of the big sites would simply because I’d never get access to the titles at the same time they did. I’m ok with this as whilst I might not be first to market on these things I still manage to do alright, even if the amount of traffic I get would be a rounding error on the analytics dashboard of any proper gaming site. The opportunity to do reviews alongside the big time players then is a huge advantage to people like me as it gives us a chance at grabbing a slice of that juicy review traffic, even if most people will simply wait for their review site of choice to publish it.
Then DoritoGate happened.
I’ve never had someone call me out for being on the take for my reviews and that’s because (I hope) that I’m pretty upfront when I’m dealing with PR people or an event that was designed to generate blog coverage. Whilst my review scores tend towards the upper end of the spectrum, with a few people pointing out that I’m operating on a 7 to 10 scale and not a 0 to 10 one, that’s essentially a form of survivor bias that came about due to the way I review games. I did joke about giving a better review score to Modern Warfare 3 or Battlefield 3 depending on who schmoozed me better but I never consciously did that because realistically there was nothing else for me to gain from it.
When you’re like me and these kinds of things don’t happen to you very often it’s hard to not accept it the lavishes of the PR agencies, especially when they’re helping you further your cause. I don’t have an ethics policy tying me down or a boss to report to so the only people I have to appease is you, my dear reader. As far as I can tell everyone is comfortable with reviewers like me receiving review copies of games and even attending events where we’re given previews of said games (them paying for your travel still seems to be a grey area) but the furore that has erupted from a man sitting beside a table of Doritos and Mountain Dew has made me question what’s appropriate and what I’m comfortable with personally.
Now I’ve got something of a position of power here since I don’t advertise on this blog nor have I ever worked with publishers and PR people to do things like mock reviews. However when I first started getting offers of review products I took a long time before I accepted something mostly because I didn’t know what taking it meant for my blog. Intrinsically the gift of a product is given on the expectation of a review so there’s an obligation there, even if there isn’t any formal contract to speak of. My journalist friends said that disclosure is the key here, which is something I’ve stuck to religiously, but after seeing how the wider gaming community has reacted has me wondering if there’s things I should say no to in the future. All in the name of some form of journalistic integrity.
Realistically I don’t believe I have as many conflicts or issues as some of the people involved in DoritoGate did but it’s issues like these that play constantly in the back of my head when I’m writing, or even thinking about writing, a game review. I’ll stick to my principles of being honest and transparent when it comes to benefits I receive as part of the review process but I don’t have any hard and fast rules that I feel I could apply to other games reviewer’s yet. I think that’s what’s bothering me the most and I’m not entirely sure when I’ll have a solution for it.