Games Writing Ethics: What’s the Code (of Conduct)?

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.

Al Pacino in "The Devil's Advocate"

Look, but don’t touch. Touch, but don’t taste. Taste, don’t swallow.

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.

What’s Available?

I went searching on seventeen different gaming sites to see what code of ethics they have published. The sites I looked at were:

  1. Eurogamer
  2. Polygon
  3. VG24/7
  4. Kotaku
  5. IGN
  6. Giant Bomb
  7. GameSpot
  8. Games Radar
  9. CVG
  10. GamesRanx
  11. Joystiq
  12. 1UP
  13. Game Front
  14. UGO (although I think this site is now abandoned)
  15. Destructoid
  16. The Escapist
  17. 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.

7 thoughts on “Games Writing Ethics: What’s the Code (of Conduct)?

  1. It should be noted that VG24/7 published its code of conduct in the wake of the Wainwright scandal, and that as far as I can tell, it’s only available as a news article, not a separate page that is easily accessible from the homepage. I actually had to do a Google search to find it.

    For the record, Eurogamer revised its standards of ethical conduct after the scandal too. I think Polygon’s ethics statement was in place before the scandal, but since it’s not dated, I can’t verify that. Eurogamer’s is accessible from the homepage with just a couple of clicks. Polygon’s is a little harder to access from the homepage, but that’s mainly because of its atrocious homepage layout; it’s easy to find from any other page on the site.

    It’s somewhat alarming that so few sites were thinking about this before Doritosgate, and it’s even more alarming that so few sites have responded by actually making their own code of ethics. But – and I know this an incredibly cynical viewpoint – it’s easier for gaming writers to criticize others for being “unethical” when they don’t themselves define what’s “ethical” to begin with.

    • Polygon’s ethics statement was published on day one. I remember them tweeting about it the minute their site went up. They ran into trouble almost immediately though, since Doritosgate occurred not long after and a few days after that scandal, they published a very Doritos-y article and deleted critical comments.

      I should damn well hope VG24/7 published a code of conduct after this debacle, considering one of their own writers was involved.

    • Good points. In my email to VG24/7 I’ve asked if there is a more permanent location that those standards are going to be listed on the site.

      I think it is a positive that a lot of sites may be revising their ethics guidelines, regardless of the path they’ve taken to get there.

    • I’m coming back to this issue – I was on holiday for a bit, then thought that December is generally a terrible time to ask sites questions. I’m thinking of sending out a fresh round of emails (and then tweets) in February.

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