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Blacklisting Kotaku: Also Not About Ethics in Gaming Journalism

Bethesda Game Studio

Stephen Totilo, the editor-in-chief of video-game blog Kotaku, just published a piece alleging that Kotaku has been ill-treated by two very large video-game studios:

For the past two years, Kotaku has been blacklisted by Bethesda, the publisher of the Fallout and Elder Scrolls series. For the past year, we have also been, to a lesser degree, ostracized by Ubisoft, publisher of Assassin’s Creed, Far Cry and more.

In those periods of time, the PR and marketing wings of those two gaming giants have chosen to act as if Kotaku doesn’t exist. They’ve cut off our access to their games and creators, omitted us from their widespread mailings of early review copies and, most galling, ignored all of our requests for comment on any news stories.

I used the word “alleging” not because I don’t believe that Kotaku has been stonewalled, but because I disagree that the companies are doing anything wrong. Yes, it would be annoying — even infuriating — to be cut off, and I support Kotaku’s right to publicize the issue. But I object to Totilo’s implicit attitude of entitlement. And I disagree with everyone who thinks that Bethesda and Ubisoft are behaving unethically. That position depends on the idea that journalists deserve access, that they have some inherent right to interviews, review copies, and answered emails. They don’t.

Glenn Fleishman taking a shot at GamerGate -- admittedly funny -- but also demonstrating the attitude I find totally wrongheaded.
Glenn Fleishman taking a shot at GamerGate, which is funny but also demonstrates the attitude that I find totally wrongheaded.

Totilo asserts:

Too many big game publishers cling to an irrational expectation of secrecy and are rankled when the press shows them how unrealistic they’re being. There will always be a clash between independent reporters and those seek to control information, but many of these companies appear to believe that it is actually possible in 2015 for hundreds of people to work dozens of months on a video game and for no information about the project to seep out. They appear to believe that the general public will not find out about these games until their marketing plans say it’s time. They operate with the assumption that the press will not upend these plans, and should the press defy their assumption, they bring down the hammer. […] Millions of people still read our stories about them. The companies just leave themselves a little more out of the equation.

True, it’s silly to expect to be able to keep information totally under wraps in the Internet Age. But with respect to Bethesda and Ubisoft “bring[ing] down the hammer” and absconding as much as possible — yes, that is their intent! They think it’s a wise business decision — whether that’s true is irrelevant to my point. The whole point of PR and marketing divisions is to propagate the perspective you want and quash the one you don’t. A method of quashing is limiting access. It would make no sense for Bethesda and Ubisoft to throw the doors open to Kotaku and welcome all scrutiny.

For the better part of two years, two of the biggest video game publishers in the world have done their damnedest to make it as difficult as possible for Kotaku to cover their games. They have done so in apparent retaliation for the fact that we did our jobs as reporters and as critics. We told the truth about their games, sometimes in ways that disrupted a marketing plan, other times in ways that shone an unflattering light on their products and company practices. Both publishers’ actions demonstrate contempt for us and, by extension, the whole of the gaming press. They would hamper independent reporting in pursuit of a status quo in which video game journalists are little more than malleable, servile arms of a corporate sales apparatus. It is a state of affairs that we reject.

Totilo and Kotaku’s staff are free to reject this “state of affairs”, but Bethesda and Ubisoft are also free to ignore them. Crucially, Bethesda and Ubisoft are not violating any obligation or doing anything wrong. They never made a promise to renege on. The companies are acting to further their own plans, which have nothing to do with disseminating information to an ad-viewing gamer public (which is Kotaku’s goal). Are they being immature? Maybe — that’s a different argument. Is the tactic counter-effective, as Totilo seems to think? Also a separate discussion — but it’s definitely not evil. It’s just corporate.

Note: I wrote this quickly so I’m probably going to fix typos and wording later.

Aggregating The Aggregation Aggravation

Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight dinged Vox for stealing content. Basically, the beef is that Vox reposts infographics from other websites, adding insult to injury by not linking back. Cue media kerfuffle on Twitter (my favorite regular internet occurrence). Ezra Klein, the ego behind Vox, responded with an imitation of an apology called “How Vox aggregates”. Twitchy rounded up some entertaining tweets, but didn’t include all of the best ones, possibly because they hadn’t been posted yet. Here are my favorites, starting with a pun from Jay Rosen:

Jay Rosen aggregation pun
Tweet by Jay Rosen.
Comment by Rusty Foster.
Tweet by Rusty Foster. Hat tip for the title of this post.
let he who is without aggregation throw the first monetized stone
Tweet by Joshua Benton.

Adam Schweigert chimed in, “If you aggregate by posting things without attribution, it’s not on the person you stole from to complain, it’s on you to not be an asshole.” True. Schweigert also accused Vox of aggregating by “taking screenshots and not giving credit.”

if a great deal of your publishing involves aggregating other work and you forget to link back, that's a failure in your editing process
Tweet by Dan Sinker.

In response to Sinker, Brian Boyer said, “Fuck links back. Let’s talk about copyright.” That whole thread is interesting in its discussion of intellectual property and fair use, concepts that the internet has shaken up considerably. But hey, let’s get back to the jokes!

i'm launching a new media company that only publishes apologies for fucking up. i'm gonna be RICH
Tweet by Jessica Roy.

Roy followed up with, “we also delete the apologies and then apologize for deleting them”. (This was a reference to the BuzzFeed nonsense: 1, 2, 3, 4.) Anil Dash claimed that his publication had already “disrupted” her proposed business with a list of ridiculous apologies, to which Roy responded, “my company will aggregate this apology”. Near the end Dash quipped, “We were hacked! And our intern did it. Our intern has been fired, and our next hacking is scheduled for Thursday.”

Explaining Journo Twitter in-jokes is difficult, and everything is less funny out of the stream. Hmm. ONWARD!

i want to just post that entire post copy pasted onto my blog
Tweet by Ed Zitron.

I was extremely tempted to go ahead and enact Zitron’s threat. But I settled for what I’m currently doing. [Update: I copy-pasted Klein’s post on Medium.]

Matt Boggie: “The strawmanning and equivocation in [Vox’s post] is astounding. Apologize, pledge to do better, and get on with it.”

Felix Salmon and others on the need to contribute something substantive.

Alan McLean: “It’s worth asking yourself why everyone else creating [graphics] thinks you’re stealing, but you don’t…”

Adam Steinbaugh, satirizing Vox: “An explainer on how those charts ended up on our website: it saves money.”

Derek Mead: “Pretty impressive when your defense of aggregation is ‘we totally like it when people share our videos!'”

That’s all the Twitter I combed through. Stay tuned for slightly longer #HotTakes.

UPDATE: Tom Gara being snarky:

Sure, Vox may have lifted a couple of 538 charts. But the good news is this means at least two and maybe even three people have read 538.
Tweet by Tom Gara.

And this comment on Politico that made me snort:

“Well, what do you expect from those who bring you the spectacular irony of a publication that is named with the Latin word for ‘voice,’ but doesn’t allow comments?”

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