Kotaku managed to hit peak absurdity last week when their editor-in-chief, Stephen Totilo, came out with a long piece about the unfairness of his publication being blacklisted by Bethesda and Ubisoft.
Framing what happened as examples of big business trying to squash the little guy, it was a typically revisionist approach to history from Kotaku that seemed to absolve them of any wrongdoing. It was a deeply flawed argument that naturally caused a lot of backlash, a lot of it from people who are on standby for the latest Kotaku screw-up, but some of it from people who had only been vaguely critical of them in the past.
The cause of the blacklisting, according to Totilo at least, was Kotaku leaking information about upcoming games from these two developers. Critical of what he called an “irrational expectation of secrecy,” it seemed to gloss over a lot of the reporting that Kotaku had undertaken in the past. One can only now wonder, given Totilo’s claims that the blacklists have been running for over a year, two in the case of Bethesda, how much a sense of spite informed the reporting.
On the matter of secrecy I’ve seen some commentators on the issue, even some journalists, adopt the stance that unless a “leak” is whisteblowing or providing information that exposes corruption, then it has no place in being published. Frankly, this is nonsense and seems to be something people are saying for the sake of taking the moral high ground against a near-universally despised publication.
While leaking details about a game ahead of schedule may contain none of the urgency of some of the examples these posers have given, it can’t be successfully argued that it isn’t in that famous “public interest” journalists talk about, when that partially pertains to the relevance of a story to the readership. I hate to break it to the people trying to condemn Kotaku for publishing details about games before the press release does the rounds, but it’s a fictitious standard that is being peddled by people who are desperate to pile-on.
Which isn’t to defend Kotaku, of course, nor their embarrassingly wretched, self-pitying screed. Frankly the idea they published those leaks for anything other than traffic and to be able to proudly boast about the scoop would be a rotten lie. Totilo seems to have had a shame bypass if he honestly thinks trying to frame that type of journalism is in any way an altruistic gesture to their readership. It’s about being first and reaping the rewards for doing so; if that’s your business model, there’s nothing wrong with that.
However, if you think there are only rewards to be reaped for this type of work, then you are not living in the real world. What do you think will happen if you routinely take people’s secrets that so much effort goes into concealing them and put them into the public domain? You don’t necessarily absolve yourself of responsibility for these actions by paraphrasing Omar Little from The Wire and saying, “All in the game, yo.”
I say this having undertaken works of both types discussed in this debate. I’ve exposed match-fixing rings, e-sports organisation that have threatened to take the house of a player’s mother over a contract dispute, and big companies who are complicit in this type of behaviour while publicly condemning it. I’d agree these are important stories and publishing them give you those rare moments when you can believe you actually made some sort of positive difference, that you used your position as a journalist for something genuinely good and not just a paycheque.
Equally, I’ve published roster moves with frequency, announcing player signings in advance of an organisations official statements. Just a few days ago I announced MLG would be getting the CS:GO major tournament twenty-four hours before they confirmed it. If the question is should we publishing those kinds of stories, my answer will always be a resounding, “Hell yes.”
To summarise, I’d rather have the story than this fabled commodity of access, if that does indeed have to be the trade-off. Because of this attitude I myself have been blacklisted several times, sometimes for reasons so unbelievably petty it makes the Kotaku thing look like it was handled by adults. One example was when Evil Geniuses, the then-largest North American e-sports organisation, had entered into a partnership with Papa Johns pizza, for a terribly handled and cynical marketing campaign called pizza.gg, I wrote an opinion piece asking if we really should be supporting companies like that coming into e-sports at all.
This despicable meditation on being mindful about the money we take was enough to have me blacklisted. Each time I requested interviews at events, the blacklist was reiterated as being in place. It didn’t stop me writing about Evil Geniuses, of course, because why would it? And yes, I publicly told people about it and made jokes about it, but at no point did I try and shame them into agreeing to do work with me. It’s their choice and one that I can work around, because I’m an adult and a journalist. There’ll always be things to write about.
Blacklists can be petty by definition, and I’ve said as much multiple times. I never like to see them, but you have to expect them. For all Kotaku talks about serving their readers, they overlook a key point; namely, that if you’re reliant on games developers to serve you up advance copies and to give exclusive content, then you’re not serving your readers at all. Your output will always be compromised on this basis, a part of you always beholden to them.
Any editorial decisions would have to factor in this “working relationship” and how it might be damaged by approving a story you would ordinarily publish without a second thought. Or maybe you deem the content so important it’s worth eating a slice of humble pie for. This kind of sounds like the mechanics of how games journalism got so fucked up in the first place. Why would anyone want to propagate it further?
So to see Kotaku have to resort to the favourite tactic of the left-leaning outlets, one dragged to new depths by their parent publication Gawker, namely that of attempted public shaming, is as pitiful as it is hilarious. This is especially true as it isn’t working or fooling anyone of note.
It seems Totilo would have been smarter to simply let those two battles go, especially since his insistence that his publication is somehow a victim has led to more developers and industry figures coming out and talking about why they have an issue with Kotaku. Unsurprisingly, it’s not all about leaking the odd secret.
Ubisoft, one of the companies outed by Kotaku, referred to their last interview with the publication, which was the type of agenda-driven drivel that Kotaku has become infamous for. Instead of writing about the game in a way that might benefit the readers that they profess to care so much about, Kotaku asked a question about the inclusion of women characters that seemed to catch the subjects off guard. Most likely too nervous to answer honestly for obvious reasons, the lack of an answer becomes subject to spin, the narrative being that Ubisoft might just be sexist for not having a pre-approved answer to an off kilter question.
Not content with that, they also tried to imply that the Ubisoft game Watch Dogs was an irresponsible conduit for allowing people to live out racist fantasies. Linking to a video showing a player shooting black people, Muslims, and even Scientologists, the article heavily implies that the game’s scriptwriter, Ethan James Petty, is somehow in agreement with this type of behaviour. The author even goes so far as claiming that this was exactly the type of behavior the developers hoped to see:
There’s no way Ubisoft couldn’t anticipate that players would go on rampages. This predilection for havoc makes it hard to give kudos to Ubisoft for including underrepresented characters. Sure, they’re included—but at best the most they can be is potential victims, not interesting or complex characters.
Despite quoting his Twitter, they didn’t reach out for any official comment from Petty. Well, that might clash with the narrative they were pushing.
It is most likely grotesque misrepresentations like this that have done damage to the relationship Totilo wants to foster, not leaking an early announcement for the latest Assassin’s Creed off the conveyer belt. To be brutally honest, even with my views about blacklists, I can’t blame Ubisoft on that basis.
In the current climate of near constant faux-outrage and politically correct hysteria, this type of mud sticks, and it does damage. Not to game sales, because the consumers have spoken and trust in games journalism is, rightly, at an all time low. No, it does damage to people’s reputations and by extension the lives of them and their loved ones. If your publication is going to do that, then it has to based on the truth, not some misguided desire to force your brand of politics down the throat of everyone in the games industry.
There are multiple journalistic transgressions like these, and I won’t bore you with details of further instances. Instead, let us dwell on the fact Kotaku have behaved like swaggering schoolyard bullies on multiple occasions themselves. Before it became apparent the GamerGate movement wasn’t going to be shamed into submission through a series of easily disprovable slurs, it was Kotaku staff that were trying to strong-arm anyone who aligned themselves with it.
That was certainly the case for Steven Williams, better known as Boogie2988 on Youtube. Kotaku’s news editor, Jason Schreier, made it clear that failure to condemn the movement, even if Williams used the hashtag, would put him on the wrong side of the website. We can see what that means from pieces like the one above. It is an abuse of status, which seems to be the exact same charge they are levelling at the publishers who are withholding review copies and contact.
Even at the same time as trying to elicit sympathy, they continue to behave in a manner that makes it almost impossible. Penny Arcade published a comic that was fairly critical of the stance that Kotaku was taking, and the editorial response was to remove their comic from the Kotaku Sunday Comic round-up. It was a glaring omission, given that Penny Arcade has always been featured. It’s not clear if this is a blacklisting that will be ongoing, but when readers asked about it, the site’s veteran writer Mike Fahey replied, “We aren’t ‘blacklisting’ anyone. If interesting Penny Arcade news comes up, we’ll report on it like anything else. I just don’t see the point in featuring a comic on our website from creators who actively despise it. It doesn’t make sense.”
It shows a glaring lack of self-awareness. This is doubtless a similar phrase uttered by the developers who are simply tired of Kotaku’s moralistic grandstanding in place of objective reporting. For a website that spends so much time sermonising about how we should all be better people to one another and how games can bring about that end, they seem to be incredibly lacking on empathy.
It’s not too late for Kotaku to fix their problems, but you have to sense from the arrogant defiance and eagerness to play the role of victim they won’t even be able to accept that the problem lies with them. How else can you explain the deluded standpoint of demanding the perks afforded to journalists with none of the accountability?
Follow Richard Lewis on Twitter @.