Like rape, only with game news reporting

Man, I really don’t want this blog to turn into “Dan complains about the state of game coverage” but while most people were (rightfully) keeping up with GDC events, something horrifying finally happened. I have always feared a day when someone’s unsubstantiated lie would be taken as truth, then broadcast to everyone as fact. That day came this week, so I kind of feel obligated to discuss it.

GameWorld Network, a site that’s part of the UGO network, posted a news story about GamePro Australia’s surprisingly low score of the highly anticipated PC RTS Supreme Commander, suggesting that GamePro gave it a 2.5 out of 5 because they were bribed by Command & Conquer 3 publisher Electronic Arts. The story went on to say that aggregrate sites GameRankings and MetaCritic had removed the review from their listings and that GamePro Australia was reportedly in the process of being shut down over the scandal. The story, only part of which was labeled as rumor, got over 300 Diggs (user endorsements that the story was newsworthy). Here is a Google cache of the original review. (I am guessing that it was cached before the Diggs were awarded.)

A few hours later, GWN’s story was revised to say, oh, sorry, it was just some guy talking in the Gamespot forums. That forum post was taken down, as were all the others that referred to it. GamePro isn’t guilty of that rumored bribery after all. At the time of this blog posting, the revised article earned 8 Diggs.

You can see where I’m going with this, right?

An angry gamer spouts off and tells the pros that they’re wrong. That’s nothing new. The fact that someone picked it up as news — and once again did not do any further research to investigate the validity of the claims — gives the story validity. I can’t help but think of Craig Charles, star of Red Dwarf, who was accused of rape and thrown in jail a few years back, only to have the accuser (whose identity was kept secret) later retract the allegation. It feels like a particularly apt analogy here. It doesn’t matter that the charges were trumped up; it only matters that the charges were levied and, in being reported, given credence.

Actually, there’s more potential damage here than it might seem, but if you want to stop reading now, I’ll understand. I’ve made my point briefly, but now I’m gonna dive in with way too much detail.

1) Anybody can say anything on the internet — and they do. But that doesn’t make it true. Gamers are a notoriously opinionated bunch, but this is the first time I’ve seen a news outlet take the random, unsubstantiated bitching of gamers and post it as if it were an actual news story. GWN writer Matt Gallo did not cite the source of the rumor until after the story was found to be false — and when he did, it was a laughable source. You can read Matt’s bio and qualifications as an online reporter on this page. (I should note that GWN did, however, link to its own review of the game at the end of the “news story” discrediting its competition, in both revs of the article. Hmm. Perhaps it’s standard policy to link back to the site’s own content on a topic, which would make editorial sense. But it strikes me as overtly opportunist in this context.)

2) The “source” for GWN’s news story — the Gamespot forum post itself — was missing when I went looking, but Google cached it as well. Click here to see it as a screen capture. The poster of the rumor is someone with the handle BeyondItAll. And BeyondItAll has posted his or her own review of Supreme Commander at Gamespot, too. Wanna guess the score? Yep — a 10. Scroll down a bit and you’ll see that other user reviews are kind of all over the place on this game; some gamers scored it even lower than GamePro Australia. So, if you’ll allow me some conjecture, it certainly looks like we’ve got a highly opinionated gamer who was in extreme disagreement with a professional outlet, so they decided to discredit that outlet. (And they cite their source as someone at Gas Powered Games, developer of Supreme Commander, who goes by the name “SonofShagrat.” You can see that person’s posts on the GPG message boards, but there’s no mention of the GamePro Australia review there. If GWN is to be believed, the post was also deleted at GPG (and Google does not seem to have cached that, so I can’t tell one way or the other).

3) Several of the other posters in the original Gamespot thread don’t question the source when it’s stated to be someone at Gas Powered Games. Some of them don’t even seem to discern the difference between GamePro US and GamePro Australia (there are GamePro publications in Germany, China, Greece, and Spain as well; The Netherlands edition’s website seems to be down). Certainly, GWN’s headline doesn’t make the distinction between the two GamePros. So all of a sudden, whatever GamePro you know is assumed to be guilty. The audience is ready to condemn the media, if if they cannot tell the difference between the media. And in this case, the media is ready to condemn the media!

4) Obviously, we can take everything “BeyondItAll” has said with a grain of salt, but for what it’s worth, one part of his post was correct: The review in question is not factored into the averages on GameRankings or MetaCritic. Maybe they have not gotten around to adding it yet, or maybe both sites (both under the CNet umbrella) did remove it. I doubt it; I cannot find GamePro Australia as an outlet included in those sites’ summaries of huge games like Halo 2 or GTA San Andreas. My bet is that they were never there to begin with, but again, I’m doing all this with Google searches; I’m not contacting anyone officially via email or phone or what have you. I’m not using actual reporting skills, but I’m finding out a lot of info nonetheless.

The bigger question: if both sites exist to provide data and averages of scores across all outlets, without editorializing on them, why would they screen it this time? These sites are not dedicated to just averaging the good scores. Why wouldn’t that sound suspicious to the reporter at GWN? Why would they even report it? Don’t tell me; I think I know the answer. Sensationalism breeds hits. Got a better explanation for an unsubstantiated, unsourced story with the headline of “GamePro Review Score Bribery Scandal”?

At the time of this writing, GWN is reporting that the reviews were removed from MetaCritic and GameRankings as a factual editorial statement.

5) Here’s the one that’s going to blow some people’s minds. If GamePro Australia doesn’t like Supreme Commander and wants to give it a bad score…they are allowed to do that. They can be way off the average. They can be “wrong” — it’s their opinion, and hopefully that opinion is informed, even if it’s unpopular. But no matter how upset you are that your favorite game got a bad review, your disagreement does not give you the moral right to discredit the free press. Some sort of actual evidence would give you that right. But if you don’t trust the review, don’t let it sway your opinion. More and more, we have a community of gamers who feel that if the independent media does not agree with their personal tastes (sometimes formed incredibly early and without any relevant experience with the subject matter, like actually playing the game), then the media is biased and corrupt. It’s the most infantile, selfish response I can imagine. At the Academy Awards, I didn’t see disappointed Babel fans accuse Martin Scorsese of cheating to get Best Director. (Even Eddie Murphy’s fans were surprised and disappointed, but not conspiratorial.)

I’m somwhat sorry I linked to GWN in this story; I wanted to show all the info, but I do not wish to increase their traffic any further through their yellow journalism. But if you have clicked there in the course of this rant and you do feel that their reporting tactics were unprofessional, you can tell the editorial staff whatever’s on your mind. I did; I sent them this post.

In my eyes, a serious line has been crossed here, one that blurs the difference between “the legitimate news media that is responsible if admittedly flawed” and “the self-appointed media who don’t respect or understand what reporting really is and winds up discrediting everybody else when they do it wrong.” As I come to the end of this tirade, I’m asking myself to distinguish the credibility difference between the words typed by BeyondItAll and the words typed by Matt Gallo. I don’t have an answer yet.

Frankly, I’m tired of having to defend the “real” media. But clearly not tired enough to stop.

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