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Coverage for Sale! Placements for Sale!

Wagner James Au wrote a fascinating article for Kotaku's Preview Ho blog column about websites that sell placements. This is when a web site, like GameSpot or IGN/GameSpy, sells a prominent link to a story. So you go to GameSpot.com and IGN and see a list of featured reviews or featured previews and it turns out that the games listed there weren't selected because they are better, but rather they were selected because a media buyer bought that placement.

From the article:
This source sent me some invoices for a game studio client. (For good measure, I faxed copies to my Gawker editors.) Several were from Gamespot, and while most of the items referred to legitimate ads, a couple mentioned something called "Front Door rotation"-- or what Gamespot staffers refer to as a "gumball". Gumballs are those thumbnail screenshots you see on the front page of Gamespot, when you visit the site-- clicking on these takes you to an article about the game.

In the Gamespot invoice I looked at, a gumball for two weeks cost the media buyer's client over $7000.

"You can purchase messaging plus units that increase the likelihood of an article about your game showing up on their front page," the source said. In other words, if you want your game to get more editorial prominence, you pay extra.

Then the source showed me an invoice for the same game, this one from
IGN/Gamespy. What Gamespot calls a gumball, Gamespy calls, less charmingly, a "Gamespy Spotlight". But the content and the principle is basically the same: the Spotlights are those thumbnail screenshot links that you see on the site's front page. "What you're looking at on the front page is not what the editors decided is the best game," the media buyer informed me.

Of course, when contacted directly, both sites saw nothing wrong with what they had done.

Have they done anything wrong? In my mind they have. Every publication talks the talk that they have a separation between ad sales and the editorial process, that the editorial process exists in a vacuum and is totally impartial. But how can that be? If a game publisher can buy coverage or placement, then can we really believe that the coverage is impartial? Could that be why every single game that these sites review gets a high rating? How many times have you seen this, "blah-blah game is so boring that I couldn't play it long enough to review it, but it has it's merits. I give it an 8.5 out of 10"? Could it be that the entire industry is formulated around the very premise of "you give me good placement and tell people to buy my game and I'll buy some ads from you"? Unfortunately, I think the answer is yes.

I spent 5 years as senior management (Technical Director of PC Magazine Labs) at PC Magazine, the flagship publication of Ziff Davis Media. Compared to other technology magazines we had a very high standard of ethics. We weren't allowed to accept gifts valued at over $50 because it might look like we were influenced by the company we were covering. We weren't allowed to own any tech stocks because that might influence coverage. Yet, the Editor-in-Chief met with the Publisher on almost a daily basis. For those of you who don't know, the Publisher is basically the head sales guy. Our editorial calendar had to be approved by the Publisher; we could only write stories that the Publisher felt he could sell ads against. In fact, when I was laid off in 2004, I was told that "ad sales is having difficulty selling enough ads about your stories to justify having you work on those stories." The separation between ad sales and editorial coverage certainly looked a little blurry to me as I packed my boxes.

So now we have a whole industry that swears that editorial coverage isn't affected by ad sales. I know that we, as readers, would like to believe that as much as the magazines and websites would like to convince us of it. After all, who wants to think that the review they're reading is tainted by the prospect of selling an ad? But it's deeper than that. Even if the reviews are unbiased, the choice of which product to review is not. Kotaku pretty much proves that with their investigative reporting and I'm telling you that my experience is that it is true.

Do we, the gaming public, want the stories that we read spoon fed to us based on ad sales? Do we even want favored placement of a link based on ad sales? I think not. We gamers are a special breed. We want to know that the news, reviews, previews, editorials, etc that we read are honest through and through. Personally, I'm sick of watching sites plug bad games for weeks as if they were gifts from God. There's a grassroots revolution across the web to get rid of that crap. Game On!, like many other blogs, is dedicated to providing honest and accurate stories. That's what this blog is about and why our tagline is "from one gamer to another."

What can we gamers do to combat the game publisher-media complex? We can turn to the independents for their unbiased opinions. It's reached the point where I can't trust anything that the big sites have to say because I know how this business works. I rely on the little guy to tell me the truth. The guy who writes a blog to satisfy his own curiosity, the guy who writes a blog because he wants to share his love for games, that;s the guy's whose opinions matter. The web is supposed to be a level playing field, and a level playing field is one in which the honest little guy deserves as much, if not more, attention than the multi-million dollar media buy influenced sites. It is up to us as gamers to keep it that way.

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