Ethics can be a tricky thing. Pretty much everyone has the aim of acting ethically, but how those ethics are defined can bend and shift depending on the situation an individual faces.
- Is it ethical to steal? No!
- Is it ethical to steal food if the alternative is to starve to death? Well, maybe…perhaps if you plan to pay them back later on…
- Is it ethical to steal a video game through downloading it illegally? Hey, that’s not stealing because the definition of stealing only refers to tangible goods and the IP owner isn’t disadvantaged and I wasn’t going to buy it anyway!
And so on.
Which is why Merve is correct – it’s unfair to assume that everyone sees ethics in the same way, especially when it comes to something as first world as video games writing. Although the core aspects of entertainment coverage probably won’t be argued – avoid conflicts of interest and, if unavoidable, then disclose those conflicts openly – the actual execution and day-to-day implementation of those ethics can vary wildly.
Just reading a number of sources over the past month or so, it can be hard to identify the point where a paid games writer crosses the line, particularly when they are within an industry that offers a lot of temptation. For instance, which of the following crosses the ethical line:
- Getting a game for free from a publisher for review purposes?
- Getting a console for free from a publisher so that you can play that game for review purposes?
- Going to a launch event with an open bar and free buffet?
- Going to an overseas launch event where a publisher covers your flight and accommodation costs, together with that open bar and buffet?
- Signing an NDA about a title that stops you from writing about a game beyond a certain point?
- Abiding by a publisher-set review embargo?
- Reviewing a game from a publisher or studio that you’ve previously worked for?
- Writing articles about a publisher or studio that you’ve previously worked for?
- Writing articles about a publisher or studio where your friend works?
- Going on a studio tour within your own country?
- Going on a studio tour that requires you to fly to another country, accommodation and flight costs covered by that studio?
I could go on, but my point is that what is an ethical violation to one person is fair play to another. Every one of those scenarios was mentioned by existing games writers as something they’ve faced and, in many cases, accepted.
(I’m using the term “games writer” over “games journalist” as I believe that the term journalist gives a largely undeserved legitimacy to a lot of people who get paid to mostly regurgitate PR releases and materials cribbed from other sites. There are very few true games journalists working today – those who take the time to investigate, analyse, interview and generally dig deeper into topics and can back up their articles with research rather than just opinion.)
I strongly feel that the ethics standards should be formalised – going with the “everyone knows what ethics is” ends up with everyone having a different idea what is ethical or not. To that end, it seems to be a reasonable starting point to evaluate each gaming site based on their own formal ethics guidelines or codes of conduct. I may not agree with particular ethical standard, but if a site sets that requirement to its writers, then my disagreement isn’t with the journalist but with the formal policies of the site.
I also feel that these standards should be publicly available. A secret code of ethics, hidden from public review and understanding, is a useless code of ethics.
I went searching on seventeen different gaming sites to see what code of ethics they have published. The sites I looked at were:
- Giant Bomb
- Games Radar
- Game Front
- UGO (although I think this site is now abandoned)
- The Escapist
- Rock Paper Shotgun
Of these seventeen sites, I could only find published ethics guidelines for three – Eurogamer, Polygon and VG24/7. (Kinda-sorta bonus points to Polygon who put that statement as part of their site footer so it is very easy to see.)
I’ve emailed the other sites to see if they’ll send me a copy of those ethical standards they expect their writers to abide by. If you’re aware of some published standards I’ve missed, please let me know. I’ll come back to this issue later, hopefully when I’ve got a few more sets of formal standards in hand to look at.