Payola: I Sleep Beneath the Golden Hill

Let’s talk, for a minute, about journalistic ethics. They’ve been invoked a lot this week, mostly in order to justify a lot of bloviating, misogynistic nonsense. But I’d like to seriously talk about ethics for a minute, how they’re being used and what they can mean for both games reporting and criticism. I want to talk about Kotaku’s latest policy.

In response to the onslaught of gamer rage after the broadcasting of private information by a jilted ex-lover against a prominent woman game developer, a crusade was founded which, really, was established to hound and terrorize the developer, her friends, and the sympathetic press. But the excuse that was given for this overreaction can be summed up as a shrieking refrain about “conflicts of interest” and “corruption.” (I think it’s actually really rich how a group bemoaning a lack of editorial integrity would launch a harassment campaign based on mostly hearsay, but I digress.)

In response to all this, few major publications stood firm. From most, there was radio silence. From Games On Net, a heartfelt condemnation of the attacks and a firm establishment of a no-tolerance policy on comment trolls. On the other hand, some publications decided to internally weigh the challenges to their integrity. Polygon publicized a mostly unobjectionable policy requiring the disclosure of potentially conflictual relationships between writer and subject in the case of Patreon support of one party for another. Kotaku, on the other hand, decided to outright prohibit writers from becoming patrons to developers at all.The post clarifying the policy states,

“We’ve also agreed that funding any developers through services such as Patreon introduce needless potential conflicts of interest and are therefore nixing any such contributions by our writers. Some may disagree that Patreons are a conflict. That’s a debate for journalism critics.“

Okay, let’s have that debate, and let the chips fall.

I’m clearly angry but, to be completely fair, I think the editorial staff at Kotaku and Polygon are also angry and frustrated at being held up like this, and these policies may in some ways be reflecting that. This is, as I see it, damage control to stave off the barbarians at the gate. How can anyone argue with an outright ban, especially when the public perception of Patreon support is one of a more personal relationship between patron and creator? This is Kotaku knowing its reputation is being held hostage, and reacting totally out of self-preservation and self-interest. I really do understand how scared editors are of a particularly violent and reactionary demographic. I get why there is a tendency to rely on safe bets for hires across the industry (especially when you take into account the kind of abuse “unsafe” hires tend to receive) to control and consolidate a corner of an unstable market, and to preserve one’s reader base at any cost.

But this is a decision that serves and maintains the lowest common denominator, deepening the divide between creative and management classes, and between staff writers and freelancers and independents. In an effort to pacify the reactionary nerd contingent, Kotaku has actually given them what they want, which is to divide and conquer. The terrorism of this campaign has actually accomplished its goal: to make us suspect our neighbours; to make simple associations possible conflicts, particularly among the least protected and thus most politically threatening group of people. In forbidding writers from being able to support developers via Patreon, this ban makes the assumption that financial support is an absolute and necessary sign of personal bias, rather than a transaction of capital which is in effect no different from buying or preordering a game, or networking to get a copy of a game for free. leighquote

As Leigh Alexander notes, we’re ready to accept the status quo that allows corporations to keep a tight hold on both facts and purse strings, and that this acceptance already implies the possibility of fiduciary misconduct. I don’t mean to argue that there’s some vast videogame conspiracy with publishers and editors twirling their moustaches while counting their stacks of money, but that we’ve already allowed a structure to manifest in which corporate hierarchy is the norm, and where commercial relationships are plainly taken as impersonal, and therefore a guarantor of ethical distance. In a system like this, payola-like transactions can actually flourish fairly easily, while any surface claims of corruption can be easily sacrificed to distract from that fundamental structure.

The term “payola” is a music industry term referring to clandestine payments or other gifts by record companies to radio stations for preferential broadcasting of a song. In other words, a record company with sufficient influence and wealth may bypass a radio manager’s music curation process by just buying a spot for their song with undisclosed funds. Usually this is done through a middleman to create distance between the record company and the station, and has effectively ensured the oligarchy of very large multinational corporations in the music industry at the expense of small labels or independent artists in mainstream music broadcasting. Payola has been illegal since the 1960s, but is still a tacitly accepted constant in the music industry, which has scrambled to consolidate its own power in the age of the internet. Mike Masnick at TechDirt explains,

“[…] This is not a sustainable system. Because if radio keeps playing crappy songs based on bribes rather than quality, in an age where there are greater and greater alternatives, the system won’t hold. More and more people will go elsewhere, where there’s more choice and fewer guys with briefcases full of cash making the decisions.

If you’re wondering exactly why the labels have been trying to shut down popular hip hop blogs recently, look no further than this story. Such blogs have really become “the new radio” for creating hits for the younger generation. But, unlike the old radio, the major labels don’t “control” these blogs in the way they control radio. While some of it may just be the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing, there are at least some who see this as an opportunity to ‘regain control.’ Forcing blogs offline and/or trying to significantly limit them is a pure power play by the labels against hip hop blogs. It’s got nothing to do with copyright or being worried about someone’s songs leaking. It’s why the RIAA is out there sending takedowns on music that a Universal Music employee purposely put online for free.”

It’s hard not to look at this dynamic, where record studios and global mass media corporations in general seek constantly to expand the scope of IP and piracy laws, and not see obvious connections to the games industry. There are plenty of examples of large companies muscling small, individual or independent entities over the use of copyrighted material. A micro example of this might be King’s well-publicized shenanigans over the copyrighting of certains nouns in order to bully other developers with cease-and-desist orders. But when it comes to the videogame industry’s relationship to the press, it’s arguable that a system of collusion has been in place for years and that a ban on something like Patreon constitutes a convenient scapegoat that externalizes the ethical burden onto a small class of individuals while the larger mechanisms of corruption and collusion get even more obfuscated. As Stephen Beirne writes,

“While Kotaku is quiet as to whether its writers may pledge to the Patreons of other writers, by disallowing pledges to devs, it threatens to nip this community in the bud. Now, if a freelance writer with a Patreon wants to have their work published for Kotaku, they must distance themselves from the support they give to other creators and presumably discontinue the pledges they receive from their peers.

As well as driving a wedge into the community of marginalized creators, this could also be a tactical move on Kotaku’s part. By monopolizing the sources of revenue of its writers, Kotaku is guarding a treasured resource—its pool of freelance writers—by restricting them from turning to Patreon as a viable alternative to mainstream publications. In doing so they simultaneously drain away Patreon’s clientele, thinning the damage it could do to the gaming press status quo. As many outlets seek to court marginalized voices and tap into their previously dormant audience, by making its writers financially dependent on the outlet Kotaku is acting to control and exploit the workforce.”

Understand, the incestuous relationship between game publishers and game publications is one that’s sort of tacitly taken for granted throughout the industry. That refers to the aggressive marketing of particular brands in association with certain games or gaming events, the menacing and/or inducements by publishers made toward editors, reporters and critics (a carrot-and-stick of threats and/or elaborate trips, swag, dinners, parties) and even the advertorial nature of most gaming news briefs themselves.

I personally wrote those kinds of briefs for about two months for a gaming news site and I can tell you that most of those pieces are just re-written press releases. Why did I do this? Same reason as anyone else: I was a broke and struggling writer and I needed income, not fully realizing just how devalued those pieces were. Because the pieces themselves are worth peanuts, I was expected to produce like 10 of them a day. That may not sound like a lot, but believe me, you start to feel like you’re on an assembly line they way these articles are cobbled together. And because your labour is valued based on what you’re producing and not what it takes to produce it, you quickly start to feel overworked and brutally underpaid (I was making about $200/mo). On the other hand, the system is kind of set up to seduce writers shouldering for visibility into jobs like this, producing an enthusiast press that is willing to work more or less for exposure. As a writer working in this system, you’re basically a low-level functionary with no leverage to seek information beyond what a publisher wants on record. Being able to gain access to these companies is fundamental for games press to exist, so editorial isn’t really in a position to demand very much most of the time. As such, you end up with a press that mostly operates like cheap PR.

Now, this system isn’t definitive proof of payola, but you can see how that kind of monetary influence can come into the picture. At every level, from the control over information, to the exigencies made on favorable reporting, to very concrete money and gifts proffered to editorial staff, the temptations are everywhere. On the other side of the coin, in a world where editors are often not much richer than their paid staff, the tacit consequences of not toeing the line are everywhere too.

Picking on Patreon not only works to deflect questions of ethics and equitability away from established institutions of the games press—questions that freelancers and staff writers alike have been aware of and have been asking for years—but it also sets a dangerous precedent. I say this as someone who both writes about and makes games: the ban intensifies a stigma around Patreon support that not only alienates small indies while ignoring the stakes of huge multinationals, it also pushes unprotected, “second-class” freelance workers into an awkward corner. As a game-maker, I am alienated from very helpful support from any staff writer working at a publication with an imposed ban, thus my integrity is automatically suspicious. As an independent writer using Patreon, if I support anyone via Patreon then I’m made to feel even more unwelcome in the hallowed halls of high-traffic games press, since my integrity is automatically suspicious. So, I can forego this means of income for myself and others and put myself at risk to be accepted into the fold of editorial staff, or I can keep doing what I’m doing but be dogged by a lack of credibility.


This is why when Stephen Totilo or Jason Schreier or Kirk Hamilton argues that a “personal” subscription to a struggling developer by a writer is a necessary conflict of interest, I have to roll my eyes and laugh, and cry. Is it any more of a conflict than receiving a free review copy, or more, from a publisher? Any more than the terms of engagement, both subtle and overt, that are already well-established in this industry?

This is why a ban on Patreon funding isn’t only hypocritical, and unethical, it also doesn’t make any damn sense. Of course it’s disingenuous to argue that a review copy or a preorder are somehow less tempting just because they’re less personal—or that supporting a person’s work generally implies more bias than receiving side compensation for individual projects. But what’s really pernicious about this is that, while a ban like this does absolute sweet fuck-all to address the wider systemic issues of collusion and corruption and corporate influence at play in games press, it also deflects all of the burden onto the associations of individual actors and away from an inherently unjust and opaque structure. It promotes alienation and infighting while the standards set by corporations are left sacrosanct. It indirectly deigns to capitalistic, competitive expectations, willfully ignoring the blurring of roles that often qualifies the creative class (l write about and make games and I make granola, so what the fuck am I?). It also willfully ignores the necessary support network that the creative class has formed in response to this unstable and uncaring machinery, sometimes in monetary terms through something like Patreon, which a ban can only further discredit and delegitimize.

A ban like this reaffirms the sanctity of corporate control and influence, as vulnerable individuals are thrown under the bus in the name of integrity. More than that, a ban like this is only meeting the demands of a violent hate group, letting them hold the reins on a paradigm which they are so keen on preserving by denying it exists. Mark my words, this might look like damage control now, but it won’t protect anyone from the next drummed-up scandal the next time this hate group has something or someone to scapegoat in the hamstrung name of “ethics.”

I mentioned before that Polygon’s policy is mostly unobjectionable. It is, in that it only really says that Patreon donations by writers which may constitute a conflict of interest should be disclosed. Honestly, that’s fine. I’m all for transparency. But let’s look at the first two official FCC “payola rules” on what disclosure really means:

“When a broadcast licensee has received or been promised payment for the airing of program material, then, at the time of the airing, the station must disclose that fact and identify who paid for or promised to pay for the material. All sponsored material must be explicitly identified at the time of broadcast as paid for and by whom, except when it is clear that the mention of a product or service constitutes sponsorship identification;

Any broadcast station employee who has accepted or agreed to accept payment for the airing of program material, and the person making or promising to make the payment, must disclose this information to the station prior to the airing of the program;”

Now, this assumes that the payment constitutes commercial airing of “program material.” But apply it to games journalism, and suddenly the disclosure of out-of-pocket payments of individual writers to creators—what Naomi Clarke wryly terms “reverse payola”— doesn’t really seem adequate. This is especially damning when games press is generally weak to conflicts of interest, and has ensured an oligarchy comprised of some very large corporations in the videogame world. This is not a thing that can be easily pinned on individual writers. In fact I don’t think most reviewers or journalists are raking in kickbacks,(although considering how shitty the pay is, it’s certainly tempting). But the culture of games journalism is slanted in the direction of corporate pandering, and to suggest that no such collusion or even bribery takes place would be naive. It’s arguable that a writer supporting a subject may, at some point become influenced by that relationship, potentially. It’s doubtless that payment or gifts offered by one party to another for the purposes of inducing favorable reporting—possibly at an executive or editorial level—is conflictual, even if the recipient claims that there was no such enticement.

Therefore, if disclosure is in order, publications ought to disclose it all. Got a game for free? Disclose it. Got a game with swag? Disclose it. Offered money, or have an ongoing advertorial or otherwise commercial relationship with a company? Disclose it. Offered a gift bribe, including access to venues, dinners and parties? Disclose it. Just don’t die on the sword that alternatives forced into existence by the system you’re complicit in are inherently less trustworthy than that system. Don’t set that double-standard.

If you find you can’t disclose something for legal or safety reasons, then put your money where your mouth is. Don’t just ban individual Patreon funding, openly fight to root out all possible forms of collusion or corruption or conflicts of interest at a structural level. Do it vigorously, honestly and thoroughly, or don’t do it at all.

You know, since we’re talking about ethics.