When is a Gaming Journalist Bought Out or Influenced? Are Ethics a Factor?


This is an editorial piece. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of, and should not be attributed to, Niche Gamer as an organization.

So I had a fan of ours point towards a curious Ebay listing for a full-sized replica of Bayonetta’s Scarborough Fair, one of her sets of guns in the game. Only fifteen of these guns were ever made, and Sega only gave them out to specific gaming media outlets, 1UP being one of them.

The listing had the former games journalist’s name removed, but I later found out it was David Ellis, formerly of 1UP.com in San Francisco.

Here’s the description for the very rare piece of promotional swag:

“Replica from Platinum Games Bayonetta. This promo item was produced in extremely low quantities by Sega and given out to select gaming media outlets. I received this Scarborough Fair when I worked at 1UP.com in San Francisco, CA.

This item has been in my position (sic) since it was created. It is included with the display case where the Bayonetta replica is set on a pillow under a glass cover. There is an included numbered plaque listing this replica as 9 of 15 produced by Sega.

In case you’re wondering, this prop is NOT a functioning weapon. But it looks cool and is extremely rare.”

bayonetta 11-08-14-1

I don’t know the situation behind this; I know that David was the one to end up with this promotional item, although I can’t verify if he was the person to review the game or not—most of the Bayonetta links on 1UP are broken and the Wayback Machine is failing me.

I’ll give him the benefit of doubt—the website got the promo item from Sega in the middle of their week-long, exclusive coverage for the game, and he was probably the person in the office who got the gun raffled off at a holiday party or something. There’s also the fact that 1UP gave the shoddy PlayStation 3 port of the game a rather high score, a 91/100 compared to their perfect score for the (superior) Xbox 360 version.

Again, I can’t accurately link to the reviews here, but the bottom line of this entire thing is that promotional gifts like this should not be accepted by games media websites. If a publisher sends it to your office, tell your fans and raffle it off to them. Doing this would probably make these publishers and PR firms stop engaging in this shady tactic in the first place. Instead, we get journalists quietly accepting them and selling them later.

bayonetta 11-08-14-2

The publishers and advertising companies should be giving them to fans in the first place, as it would give them guilt-free promotion, and it would avoid the negative associations that come with just schlepping it off to a website that is going to review your game. Better yet, why not just package them into limited or collector’s edition bundles and charge exorbitant prices? That’s a win/win.

David is now working at Microsoft’s 343 Industries game development studio, a transition that many games journalists dream about. In fact, most of the PR folks that you meet that work internally at various game companies are former games journalists.

This isn’t the problem, the problem is that A) Sega and/or Platinum Games gave 1UP this very rare promo item, a sign of trying to influence the outlet, and B) 1UP received the item and probably didn’t disclose this to their readers. If they did publicly disclose the fact that Sega and/or Platinum Games sent this promo item to them, great, but it doesn’t change my stance.

bayonetta 11-08-14-3

Since such promotional items, which are given to games media outlets in an attempt to influence coverage, are rarely disclosed, how can we not suspect that rare Castlevania whip produced by Konami wasn’t given to 1UP as well? Sure, it was sold on their website in extremely limited quantities, but David made sure to point out in the Ebay listing he made that it was sent to the gaming press, and that “very few” were sold on the Konami website.

David is not in the wrong for selling these trinkets on Ebay. They became his possession through 1UP or other means. The problem is that publishers and PR firms do this in the first place, and that gaming websites, journalists, and so on accept them. I have been offered gifts from certain publishers and PR firms before, and I have refused them. (You can read our public ethics policy, in which we make it clear we don’t accept gifts from the person(s), companies, or developers we’re covering. Ever.)

Getting gifts, especially rare/expensive ones, is flattering, and refusing said gift makes you the better person. It keeps you from creating a bias, and that’s why it makes me sad to see a large number of people over on NeoGAF saying that it’s not a big deal. The few that enter the thread to say that the entire concept of getting gifts from the industry you’re reporting on creates a bias are quickly shut down and told they should be okay with it.

John “TotalBiscuit” Bain recently admitted on the David Pakman show (video featured above) that he was offered a $2000 Alienware laptop by the PR company behind City Interactive Games, on which to preview their game, Alien Rage. Now put that into perspective. How can you accept a gift of that magnitude and then cover the game of the persons giving you that gift, without having some sort of bias? Bain refused the laptop.

John Bain is an independent reviewer, so he represents himself and his own integrity —1UP, Kotaku, Polygon, etc. are companies and media outlets that are composed of a multitude of people. If they accept promotional gifts, not only are they collectively establishing a bias for their website, they’re effectively getting bought out by said publisher/PR firm.

The entire thing is very disheartening and it should be placed under heavy scrutiny, for the very same reason that so many careless trolls on NeoGAF and other internet realms mention —this has been going on for a long time. It’s a sad game of cat and mouse in which games journalists have little time and little money and get sweet trinkets foisted on them by publishers or PR firms, thus making them pay more attention to the game … at the very least. The bias might go further.

How do you guys feel about this? Is this unacceptable? Should we just stop caring about journalistic ethics in games journalism?

[Editor’s note: the article incorrectly claimed that City Interactive offered John Bain a laptop. The offer was actually made by a PR company City Interactive had hired. The article has been amended appropriately.]

, , ,


Owner and Publisher at Niche Gamer and Nicchiban. Outlaw fighting for a better game industry.

Where'd our comments go? Subscribe to become a member to get commenting access and true free speech!