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Potlaching Your Way to Riches

by Jessica Mulligan

Biting the hand is a continueing series of articles by Jessica Mulligan hosted at Skotos, they are reprinted here with kind permission.

This whole column is a carp-fest about one of my pet peeves. You have been warned.

To put it bluntly: As much or more than any other "consumer press/consumer product relationship" I can think of off the top of my head, game publishers and game magazines have a close, financially-symbiotic relationship. Most game magazines (and some Web sites) literally depend on the publisher marketing dollars for survival. In a sense, you could say that they are in bed together and that the one with the pocketbook is on top. Because of that, I believe a conflict of interest exists, and it isn’t working in the favor of the person who buys games.
A nice Irish Lamb Stew

A potluck dinner.

What brought this to the forefront of my thoughts was the annual Electronic Entertainment Exposition, which recently concluded in Los Angeles. If you were wondering what the difference is between the Game Developer’s Conference and E3: GDC is the conference where working developers go out to titty bars and have fun, whereas E3 is the conference where company executives go out to titty bars and conduct business, the poor sods. Heavy is the mantle of power, etc., etc..

E3 is also the computer/videogame industry’s answer to the question, "How can we throw millions of dollars down a rat hole trying to impress each other and obligate the press to tell everyone how cool our products are?" It is the 21st Century equivalent of the potlatch.

For those of you too lazy to hit the hyperlink, a potlatch is a ceremony of giving invented by Native American tribes of the Pacific Northwest. The object was for the ‘giver’ to create status for himself by really giving; the more goods you gave away, the higher your status. Skins, smoked salmon, slaves… just pile it on and keep doing it until the recipient screams in pain. If you were invited to a potlatch and showed up for the festivities, you were not only under an obligation to accept the gifts, you were also required to reciprocate later on. In this manner, even a poor Native American could spend all year creating wealth, then potlatch it to the right people and climb the social ladder.

The unspoken rule, however, which is not found in the dry academic text of the linked article but well-known to any kid who grew up in the Pacific Northwest before political correctness took over our textbooks, was that a recipient had to one-up his benefactor or face a loss of status. This could lead to an upward-spiraling race to see who would go bankrupt first, you or the other guy. At its best, a local potlatch would create peaceful, friendly obligations between nearby individuals and tribes to share in times of need. At its worst, a major potlatch for the elite of the region would feature great heaps of possessions and food not given away, but set afire, creating huge status for the organizer ("Wow! If he can afford to waste all that, he must be very successful!") One also assumes it created a huge mess for those of lesser status to clean up, but when have the elite every worried about the messes they make?

E3 is much like that, including the mess. The game press loves E3, because companies give away lots of cheesy gifts to visiting reporters. They also try to outdo each other by throwing massive parties with lots of free food, drink, events, games, ‘name’ entertainers and more cheesy gifts, such as the obligatory T-shirts, joysticks, the occasional computer or game console, you name it. The press spends a lot of time wrangling invitations to the big parties, under the theory that if they can get into the Sony or Microsoft bash, they have status themselves. Note that for all the money spent on E3 booths and parties, most of the gifts are not very valuable or expensive; there’s just a lot of them. If the game press were thinking clearly, they’d make the obvious connection.

As with the old-style Native American event, there is an unwritten quid pro quo for every publisher potlatch. If you’re a publisher and you’re going to spend a lot of money on ostentatious waste, you naturally expect the objects of this waste to fulfill their part of the bargain. As always, the computer gaming press came through with flying colors with their "Best of E3" lists and, as always, they all pretty much picked the same games for the same awards, i.e. those with the best marketing machines, parties and gifts (to be fair, some of those games were worthy of an award; some publishers do have money to hire good talent). Just as ‘honest’ politicians are those who stay bought, so do members of the game press tend be ‘honest’ journalists.

If you work in the industry, this isn’t really news. If you don’t know by now that publishers spend money on E3, all-expenses-paid press junkets and purchasing ads in editions that they know will feature cover stories of their products, all to buy favorable editorial in game magazines, you haven’t been paying attention for the last twenty years. Whether you call it merely influencing the press and creating good will with gifts and perks or outright buying favorable reviews, this is the way it works. It works that way for some other magazine fields, too, especially small trade magazines, just not so blatantly.

If you think I’m just being cruel or exaggerating for effect, I’m not. After all, most game magazines (read: "Damn near all") couldn’t survive for two months without ad dollars from the publishers, as well as internal access to a company for ‘previews’ and exclusive articles. This gives the publishers, especially the ones that spend many dead presidents on advertising, quite a bit of power. If one of them doesn’t like how its products are being reviewed, all it has to do is refuse to grant access and pull advertising for a month or two and, voila! Unfavorable reviews have a tendency to mysteriously disappear. Or are rewritten by editors to be less harsh. Or two reviews of the product appear, one unfavorable and one with an "alternative view." Or critical reviewers no longer get assigned to review that company’s products. Or the cover of a magazine gets bought for a product review. I’ve seen all of that happen in the last ten years, and heard anecdotal stories about many more.

I don’t blame the publishers at all for this activity; they are in the business to sell games. If the game press is going to enslave themselves to publisher dollars, that’s hardly the fault of the publishers. What bothers me is the notion that there is someone out there, someone who buys computer or video games regularly, doesn’t understand the process and how the process affects the veracity of the information they receive about games they may be tempted to buy.

What spurred me to wax sonorous about this (or somnolent, if I’ve bored you to tears) was the latest in the seemingly never-ending series of ‘awards’ that spout annually from the E3 cornucopia, and the people making those award decisions. The Game Critics Awards are the same-old, same-old; they pick pretty much the same games everyone else picked. No, what caught my eye was the list of ‘judges.’

All of the judges on that list write about games at least part-time for various publications and Web sites. And most of them proudly list the magazines they write for and their personal accomplishments, which include such obviously relevant criteria as (and I’m not making this up): getting hypothermia, producing off-off-Broadway theater, being a corporate lawyer, having a Masters degree in public policy from the University of Texas and being a token Jew (although this last was obviously meant as a joke).

Yes, the judges for the Game Critics awards have done many things. What the overwhelming majority of them apparently haven’t done is, well, you know, actually make a game. As I perused the list, that one fact stood out glaringly. Out of the forty-one judges listed, I could find only three that noted any experience at all on a game development team. A whole bunch noted they’ve been playing games just forever, dahlink.

To be fair, for all I know the judges are incisive and cogent writers with a keen eye for what works in a computer or video game. I wouldn’t know, since I only recognized about five names from the list. However, just as I’ve always felt it is a conflict of interest for the game mags to rely on advertising dollars from the very companies whose products they review, I’ve always felt that those who write authoritatively about games should have helped make at least one of the darn things.

Maybe I’m just being naïve; reviewers generally make a lot less money than notoriously under-paid game developers, so why should developers be attracted to the field? Maybe we’re stuck with having our games reviewed by people who haven’t made a game and aren’t likely to do so any time soon. And it isn’t like writing talent is falling off nearby trees, either. Some writers and Web sites are willing to be critical or tackle sensitive subjects when it is called for; Bruce Rolston and the Adrenaline Vault come to mind.

Unfortunately, those kind of game press people are relatively rare. If you’re making poor money, having publishers throw perks and paid-for junkets at you can make the whole thing worthwhile, even if it does present one with a conflict of interest. And conflict of interest is what it is all about, right? While I doubt any reviewer or editor is going to admit that they intentionally softball reviews of poor products from big advertisers, one has to suspect they do, at least occasionally. And what about unintentional softballing, which I define as being kind in reviews for products from a publisher that has in the past offered the writer cool perks… well, one suspects that happens a lot.

How much? Who knows? I do know this; every year I’ve been in the industry, I’ve seen publishers use the power of their money to influence future reviews and previews at least once. This generally takes the form of threatening to pull ad dollars because some current review(s) are "unfair" or "misleading." And it generally works, too; there is some kind of modification in the behavior of the magazine involved, be it somewhat softer reviews or what have you. With the recent and general pull-back in advertising spending in all industries, including the game industry, the competition for those ad dollars is getting mighty fierce. And remember, a recipient of a potlatch is expected to return the largesse at some point. Hmmm…

Which makes the following little note, found at the end of the Game Critics Awards Nomination pages, takes on a whole, interesting meaning:

Note to nominated developers and publishers: If you are interested in contacting the judges before final votes are cast, please contact the committee chairmen.

If you accept the notion that there is a built-in conflict of interest between publishers and the game press, how are we to read that? I’m sure that the Game Critics heads will say it is just to put judges in contact with publishers for information exchange, so they can make better judgments. I’m sure that must be it. I hope like hell that is it.

I like to offer solutions to my carps, but I’m rather stuck on this one. It would be nice if game magazines didn’t have to depend on publisher money, but how realistic is that today? The only real solution seems to be full disclosure, in bold, easily-seen text, on the front page of every game magazine and Web site that goes after publisher marketing dollars. Somehow, I don’t see that happening; who wants to admit in print that they may or do have a conflict of interest?

Maybe the solution is a tried and true one: The buying public isn’t as stupid as they are sometimes portrayed. They probably understand, at least at an instinctive level, that there is a problem here. Maybe we just inform the public of what we know, then urge them to take it all with a grain of salt.

I’m open to other ideas, too. If you have one, drop me a line at and let me hear it.