There’s a lot of shady dealings in video games media today, and the primary issue is that the internet killed the system established by gaming magazines, and caused readers to expect content for free. That’s fine if you’re expecting to read exclusively from hobbyists, but professionals generally seek money for their work. Money that’s no longer coming from subscription fees and lucrative, straightforward advertisement pages.
This isn’t to say gaming magazines were all on the up and up, because they weren’t. However, there was a lot more red tape, it was harder for just anyone to start writing, and the problems weren’t as far reaching or as easily spread.
When the internet killed the magazine, it brought with it banner ads. For a time these ads were simple and made a lot more money than they do now. Unfortunately, banner ads grew ever more invasive and annoying in their attempts to get clicks, so resourceful people came up with workarounds like adblock. Convenience extensions are now murdering traditional online ads, like the internet killed the magazine.
Consumers and advertisers are in an arms race. Advertisers want as many people to see their products as possible, and consumers just want them to fuck right off. Until relatively recently, consumers had been winning this race.
Then advertisers discovered The Bomb: Native advertising.
Advertisers have now disguised ads as content. News articles, features, editorials, and videos that talk about those great new games or apps sometimes have “Sponsored,” “Featured,” or “Advertisement” placed somewhere on the page. Some will openly announce when content is sponsored, others will bury it in the tags, and others still will completely “forget” to mention they received some form of payment. Journalism and advertising are becoming one and the same, because that’s how you get paid.
This is happening in all industries, but the game industry is particularly susceptible because the general public doesn’t give a damn about serious gaming, Why should they care that Pocket Gamer and other sites are telling small developers to pay them ridiculous amounts of money if they want news coverage? Or that large publishers like Ubisoft will wine and dine smaller sites and personalities to secure a little enthusiastic coverage? It’s just video games.
As long as the majority of mainstream game journalism is paid for by subversive advertising, gamers will have to choose between enduring tinged or outright unethical journalism from notable outlets, limiting their media consumption to features from small hobbyists that aren’t full of shit, or paying for premium content from independents. In the end, money’s the only viable way to truly fix this problem.
There are crowdfunding platforms like Patreon, which allows journalists and other content creators to break free of the need to advertise or to work for companies that will sell Platinum Partnerships, but they aren’t perfect. There are a lot of people that want to try and make game journalism into more than a hobby, myself included, but there’s not enough open wallets to cover all the good writers that just want to write about games.
Do you want to pay a few bucks a month to just read about games? Most likely not. While crowdfunding offers an escape to some, it’s got a long way o go until it buoys a significant portion of the games media we consume. It’s hard to make a very successful platform when you’re relatively unknown. People would rather donate to a celebrity name like Jim Sterling, than say a James Wynne (Me). Those that don’t score big on crowdfunding are left to participate in a broken system run by advertising, or just give up on games journalism as a job.
Advertising doesn’t have to be a universal evil. It isn’t bad when it’s clearly separated from journalistic content. This was easier done in magazines because advertisers had a guaranteed, clearly indicated place to focus their efforts on a pitch to the audience. When that system died with the physical media of magazines, the integrity of paid game journalism took a mortal blow with it.