Over the last couple of days, I exchanged a couple of e-mails with Jeff Gerstmann, former editorial director of GameSpot. His name has been big in the news ever since this last Thursday, November 29, when his dismissal from his decade-long tenure at site became public via Penny Arcade and Kotaku.
Gerstmann and I talked editorial standards and the extent to which he thinks gamers should expect advertising and editorial to be kept apart. And he indulged in my effort to do a little digging, urged on as I was by readers of this blog to find out if there has been a pattern of GameSpot reviews clashing -- or, potentially worse, not clashing -- with high-profile ad campaigns.
Here's an excerpt from the conversation I had with Gerstmann:
If you're running a publication and you're comfortable running infomercials and advertorials, they should be clearly marked as such. If you're covering a game that you have a vested interest in, that should be disclosed. And I think if you're striving to deliver unbiased, honest coverage of an industry, you should spell out the policies and processes that you use to meet that goal.
We were talking about these things, of course, because the rumored reason for his termination from the company is that his unflattering reviews of games such as "Kane & Lynch" got him in hot water with his bosses. About that, he told me what he told Joystiq, that he cannot comment on the reasons for his dismissal.
And for the record, the reasons for Gerstmann's dismissal are still just rumors. GameSpot parent CNET won't comment on their current or former employees. A CNET spokesperson addressed my question last week about advertising pressures playing a role in this situation by stating, in part, that "For over a decade, GameSpot and the many members of its editorial team have produced thousands of unbiased reviews that have been a valuable resource for the gaming community." My follow-up in which I re-asked whether "Kane & Lynch" publisher Eidos had any expectations for a favorable review has not been responded to, nor have repeated inquiries to Eidos. (I suggest checking out Kotaku's latest reporting on this, in which they have an insider weigh in on what may have really happened).
Read on for the rest of my conversation with Gerstmann.
Also, see that chart up there? That's the estimated traffic performance of GameSpot over the most recent seven-day stretch that the figures are available. Remember, this story broke on Nov 29. That's when people on the Internet started talking about blacking out the site.
Note the lack of a dip.
Over the weekend I had asked Gerstmann the following questions:
As a reviewer at a gaming outlet for more than a decade, what kind of pressures on you as a reviewer did there tend to be when it was time to review a high-profile game that was being advertised on the site? Did those pressures ever change? Were there really ever good old days and more innocent times?
What kind of response would there be to a review that was lower than a publisher might have expected? For instance, did Nintendo complain to you ever about the "Twilight Princess" score? [NOTE: He gave last year's Wii "Zelda" game an 8.8, one of the lowest scores of any outlet]
If you can't talk about the past, could you lay out what you think the standards need to be going forward in any gaming outlet, reflecting on your years in the business and acknowledging the real pressures that exist? In other words, do you think it's realistic for gamers to expect a church and state separation between the reviews and ads on gaming sites? Why or why not?
In response, Gerstmann wrote:
As for the future of game journalism, you asked if it's realistic for readers to expect a church and state separation between editorial and sales. Realistic or not, I think readers should demand that from a publication. Some people probably think that's a little old-fashioned or hopelessly idealistic, given the changing nature of advertising these days, but there you go.Honesty and transparency are also key. Let's use your blog as an example. You're part of the MTV family, so you're tied in with "Rock Band," "Pimp My Ride: The Game," and the upcoming VH1 "I Love The '80s" fighting game, where Michael Ian Black throws fireballs shaped like Alf at Rachael Harris.
Even if you have nothing to do with those products (and I'd guess that you don't), it doesn't take much for your audience to speculate that your takes on those fine products might be tainted. If you start there and work outwards, suddenly people realize that your take on the "Guitar Hero" series, which is in fairly direct competition with MTV's "Rock Band," may also be risky. At some point, someone remembers that MTV is part of Viacom and starts thinking about Viacom properties that have become games. Or how Spike occasionally airs specials on specific games, like "Need for Speed: ProStreet." Or that former Remote Control hostess Kari Wuhrer has appeared in EA's "Command & Conquer: Red Alert" series. OK, obviously, I'm just being ridiculous now. But we haven't even talked about advertiser relations.
Anyway, somewhere in that complex mess of relationships is the right amount of disclosure. Gaming publications should tell their readers what to expect. If you're running a publication and you're comfortable running infomercials and advertorials, they should be clearly marked as such. If you're covering a game that you have a vested interest in, that should be disclosed. And I think if you're striving to deliver unbiased, honest coverage of an industry, you should spell out the policies and processes that you use to meet that goal. In all cases, you need to figure out where the line is, tell your audience where the line is, and don't cross that line.
That's my opinion, anyway.
I had also asked him about reviews, asking him, off the record for any tips about past GameSpot reviews that I should look up that might have run afoul of advertisments on GameSpot or been compromised by them.
As I wrote him, "I've seen people (including some of my readers) calling for a re-examination of GameSpot's reviews from the past, comparing scores of games that were advertised on the site to those that were not. It's an ambitious request and one that I don't immediately know how to pursue, since I always took GameSpot's reviews as just about the most honest ones that appeared anywhere.
He replied, and then I went back him and asked if I could actually consider his reply on the record. He said ok. This is what he had said in response:
I don't think there are any reviews you need to look at. Given all the rumors that have been flying around, I understand why people would wonder. But that edit team is an honest one and I'm 100 percent proud to be able to say I worked with that group.
There you have it. Make of it what you will. For more coverage on this story, check out an analysis of the "contempt" game publishers may well have for the gaming press and for their own public relations people over at N'Gai Croal's Newsweek blog "Level Up." And take a look at Joystiq's analysis of edits that were applied to Gerstmann's "Kane & Lynch" review.
Oh, and keep looking at Alexa.com to track GameSpot's web traffic. See if you can spot a post-Gerstmann traffic dip.