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Ethics in Game Journalism

It’s no secret that game journalists have always held a controversial place in the gaming community, from IGN’s famous “too much water” controversy to the colloquial dubbing of easy difficulty settings “game journalist difficulty.” Ethics in journalism at large is also a hotly contested issue, with neutrality clashing with morality more often than not when covering sensitive topics. IGN, one of the most famous and most controversial gaming news outlets, recently found themselves in hot water when one of their editors, Filip Miucin, was revealed to have plagiarized the YouTube Channel Boomstick Gaming’s review of Dead Cells, along with his reviews of many other titles. IGN, eager to defend their perceived sense of ethics in the eyes of the gaming community, were quick to disavow Miucin’s actions and terminate him.

However, IGN and many other news outlets have not been so expedient to disavow the actions of powerful game companies Blizzard and Ubisoft after numerous allegations of worker and sexual abuse at the studios. Of course, articles were published and scorn rightfully administered, but after the dust cleared, the outlets returned to business as usual. IGN’s reviews of Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed Valhalla (11/09/20)[1] and Rainbow Six Extraction (01/19/22)[2] do not contain any mention of the workplace mistreatment documented (revealed in June-July of 2020) to have occured at the company during the development of those titles.

This is far from the first example of this ambivalence in reviews. In 2019, CEO of game development house Gearbox Software, Randy Pitchford, was accused by former Gearbox vice president of licensing and business development David Eddings of assaulting Eddings in a hotel lobby in 2017. This allegation was later confirmed by Gearbox co-founder Landon Montgomery[3]. IGN’s review of the later-released Borderlands 3 (09/09/19)[4] does not mention this incident.

Switching to discussing a different outlet, the review of the same game by PC Gamer (09/09/19), the outlet behind the article I linked previously detailing these allegations, also has no mention of the incident[5]. Eurogamer’s review (09/19/19)[6] also doesn’t mention the alleged assault, nor does it mention the allegations of trespassing and harassment levied at the game’s publisher also covered by Eurogamer before the game’s release[7].

Red Dead Redemption 2 was mired in a similar controversy, with a slew of Rockstar Games employees sharing stories in 2018 of horrific crunch during the development of RDR2 as well as the studio’s earlier titles[8]. Unsurprisingly, this apparently does not merit a mention in PC Gamer’s review of the game (11/15/19). Only this time, the article goes out of the way to mention the “mind-boggling detail making up the massive world of RDR2” that “speaks to the creative force of a development team with an acute, obsessive dedication to realism (and all the money and time necessary to make it happen)."[9] This inclusion is telling, as this review was published a year after PC Gamer’s own coverage of the crunch allegations. It specifically praises the result of worker abuse, but doesn’t mention the human cost of realistically simulated horse genitals. But, in the next paragraph, the author goes on to say that they were “disappointed it debuted on PC in a somewhat busted state,” a far more pressing matter.

The only explanations for this bafflingly tone-deaf treatment is incompetence or irreverance. PC Gamer published their article about Rockstar worker mistreatment a year prior to their review of RDR2, so the journalist behind the review either knew about it and decided that the ends justified the means, or was ignorant of the imporant developments in their industry publicized by their own outlet.

So, why does this matter?

Shouldn’t reviews be objective? Isn’t that the point? Well, there are a few issues with that. Let’s start with the concept of objectivity at large.

Tacit Endorsement

It’s easier to discuss PC performance issues than it is to talk about worker mistreatment in a 2,300-word review of a video game. But not talking about it, and in fact covering the game at all acts as a tacit endorsement, or at least indifference, of the companies' behavior. Video game developers benefit massively from news coverage from outlets like IGN and PC Gamer, because it shines a spotlight on their games and helps them get noticed under the sea of other releases. This is why games have massive marketing budgets in the first place. Valve, Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo should also be placed in the same hot seat as video game journalists, as providing these companies with a platform on which to sell their games also directly supports them.

Who is the reviewer, anyway?

This is an important clarification that often goes overlooked when addressing game journalism outlets like IGN, and even news at large. IGN’s review of Assassin’s Creed Valhalla wasn’t written by the nebulous entity, it was written by Brandin Tyrrel. Sure, these outlets have editors and multiple staff members who may contribute opinions on the titles in question, but the career of serial plagiarist Filip Miucin shows that these systems are not perfect at removing all individual influence over the content. This difference is obvious when you look at the differences in review scores between outlets. IGN gave Borderlands 3 a 9 while PC Gamer gave it a 6.3 (when adjusted for equivalency). Beyond a numerical score, these reviews will obviously focus on different things, as they are written by different people.

Why do we even have reviews?

The purpose of a review is not for reviewers to make decisions for you, it’s for reviewers to provide information and opinions of which you must decide the relevancy. This is the reason people prefer independent reviewers to large networks like IGN and PC Gamer, independent reviewers provide a more personal outlook on their subjects and it’s easier to relate their opinions on games you haven’t played to their opinions on ones you have.

As such, “neutrality” in any coverage of art is a myth. Indeed, it is arguable that no news can truly be neutral. Additionally, the decision on what to cover can be just as influential as the coverage itself. By not discussing how workers are treated at the studios behind the games under review, reviewers are, by default, regarding that information as unimportant in the critical process and irrelevant to consumers of the content. As games are not produced in a vacuum, praising attention to detail, breadth of content, and rapid output of content in the review of a game is also implicitly condoning the periods of strenuous crunch to which developers are subjected to ensure those qualities.

This isn’t to say that purchasing these games or otherwise consuming the content is outright unethical. That’s an individual decision the consumer has to make, and they make it every day when participating in a capitalist society. Refusing to give money to Ubisoft on the grounds that they mistreat their workers, but still purchasing Nestle products despite their exploitation of indiginous people or eating at a Chick-fil-A despite their corporate-funded persecution of LGBT people reveals the importance each of these issues hold to the individual in question. “There is no ethical consumption under capitalism” extends to the game industry in the same way it does to everything else.

So, instead of asking if reviews should be neutral, instead ask if it is ethical for reviewers to choose to withhold this information from their audiences to subject to their own judgement. If it is fair to discuss performance and bugs to an audience that might choose to disregard that information, how is it ethical to then withhold the abusive behavior of the studio behind the product for an audience that might care?

  1. https://www.ign.com/articles/assassins-creed-valhalla-review
  2. https://www.ign.com/articles/rainbow-six-extraction-review
  3. https://www.pcgamer.com/former-claptrap-voice-actor-details-randy-pitchford-assault-allegations/
  4. https://www.ign.com/articles/2019/09/09/borderlands-3-review
  5. https://www.pcgamer.com/borderlands-3-review/
  6. https://www.eurogamer.net/borderlands-3-review-bigger-better-and-even-more-polarising-than-ever-before
  7. https://www.eurogamer.net/fans-campaign-for-borderlands-3-boycott-after-youtuber-says-take-two-sent-investigators-to-his-door
  8. https://www.pcgamer.com/rockstar-developers-speak-out-on-death-march-crunch/
  9. https://www.pcgamer.com/red-dead-redemption-2-review/