In 2007, the perennial question of, “Can video game consumers truly trust video game journalists?” finally seemed to come to a head. Rumor and speculation ran rampant as Jeff Gerstmann was sacked at GameSpot, seemingly for giving a bad review score to a game that had contributed advertising to the site. Since the original kerfuffle, post non-disclosure-agreement interviews have proven the initial suspicions to be true. In this instance, conspiracy theory was fact and the credibility of an entire form of media was taken into question.
To be fair, a great deal of good came from “Gerstmanngate”. Several journalists aligned themselves publicly with Gerstmann, which boostered consumer trust, including the several that quit GameSpot in protest and helped Jeff start the powerhouse site Giant Bomb. It’s hard to imagine our current gaming landscape without that site, and Splitkick just might not exist without it.
Now though, six years later, the gaming community finds itself on yet another precipice from this issue. With the recent “Microsoft and Machinima” fiasco, where YouTube creators were paid advertising dollars to talk positively about the Xbox One but failed to disclose that information to their viewers, those companies are risking not only consumer credibility but possible legal trouble with the Federal Trade Commission as well. Like the Gerstman case, it’s captured the zeitgeist. It’s what you’ll hear discussed last week by just about every gaming pundit on just about every gaming podcast.
But the average gaming consumer doesn’t listen to gaming podcasts, know who Jeff Gerstmann is, or understand how to pronounce “Machinima”. We know this. So does all this really amount to any substance beyond weekly podcast fodder? Is this simply something we, those who write and read about games as much if not more than we actually play them, only find interesting but in the end won’t affect “Joe consumer” at all?
In short: no. This adds to a staggeringly bad streak for Xbox One public relations. Even though the fault seems squarely on Machinima’s shoulders, all the public will hear is, “Microsoft payed to have people say nice things about the Xbox One.” With the PR history that Microsoft and its console launch has had, will anyone doubt that over-simplified story for a second?
The reason distrust of video game journalists and pundits is such a pervasive concern is pretty simple: this situation creates a pretty obvious conflict of interest. Even I, a pretty lowly Z-level internet gaming celebrity, have received some of the games I’ve reviewed for free. To a consumer that has to pay full price for games, it can be hard to think that the guy who plays it for free is truly on your side.
Stories like this call my integrity in question, when my integrity was sort of already in question. That isn’t good for consumers, that isn’t good for journalists, and that isn’t good for video games. Hopefully, like the Gerstmann thing, we’ll all look back at this six years from now and count all the good that has come from it. Right now, however, I’m not optimistic.