Recently, I wrote on joystickdivision.com about a link between one of gaming's biggest PR companies, TriplePoint PR, and a small gaming news and review site founded by TriplePoint's general manager and founder, Richard Kain. Though the site — GameCyte.com — was set up via a domain privacy service and none of the companies disclosed the apparent conflict of interest, I was able to determine not only Kain's connection to the two companies but also the fact that GameCyte was staffed by current and former employees of TriplePoint, and that its most highly recommended games — by Kain's own admission — were made by a company he's invested in. Within a day of the story running, every site related to Kain had its "About" page updated to disclose this information to its readers.
That's good. It's also not enough. Laying a conflict of interest bare doesn't dig the mines out of your field, it merely plants flags on them. TriplePoint and GameCyte's relationship is ill-conceived, at best, and built to fail, at worst. But sometimes, all we can really hope for is more information, so we can make better judgments.
Such are the dismally meager expectations we have these days. If it were revealed that Roger Ebert worked for Paramount, it would be a scandal; if it were revealed that Game Informer held a monthly eBay auction during which game publishers bid on the cover story, gamers would log a jaded "harrumph" on the Net, sigh, and go back to asking the clerk at Game Stop for game recommendations. Jeff Gerstmann's firing, Sony's deceitful "all I want for Christmas is a PSP" campaign, Ubisoft's embargos on less-than-glowing reviews, $800 sacks o' swag awarded to Halo 3 reviewers and a dozen other examples have soured many gamers to the point that they're skeptical of anything found on screen or page — even other gamers. Case in point: The poster who brought up the TriplePoint/GameCyte story at a popular gaming discussion board was quickly accused of being either me or one of TriplePoint's rivals.
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How do we fix this? Here are two places to start. Address them, and almost everything else will fall into place:
Transparency across the board. Transparency is the smallest — yet most vital — gesture any gaming news source can offer its readers. Whether it's describing how you get the games you review, listing the publisher-hosted parties you attended at E3 or simply explaining who's in charge, it's always better to err on the side of disclosure — and think of what you do on a daily basis as a conversation you'll eventually have with your readers. The oft-repeated rule of thumb at my previous employer was: "Don't say, do, or write anything you wouldn't want to hear read back to you in court." Not a bad place to start.
No more publisher money. This needs to become gaming's equivalent of the anti-lobbyist movement or getting away from foreign oil: no more ad dollars from game publishers — period, end of discussion. You don't need them. Gamers aren't little lambs locked in boxes who buy only games. They are consumers who buy things like deodorant, cars, clothes, sunglasses, over-the-counter painkillers, condoms, and tooth whiteners, like anyone else. In scraping together the money that keeps the lights on, there are alternatives to accepting it from people who create the games you're supposed to be objectively evaluating.
At some point, principle must come before commerce. Some will dismiss that notion as naive, saying "Silly boy, games journalism is a business." To which I'd reply: That will make a great first line on your "About" page.