Receiving coverage from game outlets is often the difference between success and obscurity, especially for indie developers.
The endorsement of many journalists, though, seems to be based not on merit, but on connections. Starting in August 2014, numerous conflicts of interest were progressively uncovered, with the same names constantly popping out and giving the strong appearance of a systematic web of cronyism and corruption, where privileged access to the gaming industry is given to those in the right journalists’ clique.
Conflicts of interest here — by revision
8 Dec 2014
5 May 2015
7 Aug 2015
Friends at Kotaku
Controversial Kotaku writer Patricia Hernandez has lived together with her close friend Anna Anthropy, and has given her positive coverage in six articles. Four of the articles were published after Hernandez had lived with Anthropy, and none of them initially contained any form of disclosure.
In addition, Hernandez dated visual novel developer Christine Love, and wrote about her game Hate Plus twice. Both articles have a disproportionate number of links encouraging the purchase of Love’s work and, once more, no disclosure.
Hernandez has also promoted two Kickstarters by GaymerX while being on friendly terms with the organization's president Toni Rocca and some of the other GaymerX staff. She has also given positive press, without disclosure, to her friends David Gallant and Zoe Quinn.
Kotaku’s more famous conflict of interest with its guest writer Zoe Quinn, however, involves Nathan Grayson. Grayson and Quinn have been long time friends, with Grayson also having financial ties with her, being a playtester for her game Depression Quest and being mentioned in its credits—while giving her positive press without disclosure both on Kotaku and at his previous outlet, Rock, Paper, Shotgun. In August 2014, this conflict of interest came to public attention when it was made public that Quinn had an affair with Grayson behind her boyfriend’s back, with the subsequent censorship and aggressive response to this scandal widely considered to be the cause of a still-ongoing consumer revolt against the gaming press.
While this is the most famous case of cronyism involving Grayson, it’s not the only one—he also wrote without disclosure about former colleagues like Robert Young and Porpentine, as well as friends such as mini-game developer Nina Freeman, developer Deirdra Kiai and the staff of mobile game company White Whale games, among others. Grayson also covered GaymerX without disclosing his friendship with Toni Rocca — another conflict of interest he shares with Hernandez.
Perhaps, though, Grayson’s most blantant impropriety is the overwhelming coverage given to his friend, sound designer Robin Arnott. Author of Oculus Rift game Soundself, Arnott received an abnormal amount of coverage from Grayson. Grayson plugged him six times in three months, with the bulk of the coverage for Soundself coming from Kotaku.
Arnott also ties back to Quinn — with whom he had an affair with at roughly the same time as Grayson had his. He was the chair of the “Night Games” branch of independent games festival Indiecade where Quinn’s Depression Quest was featured.
Favoured by multiple journalists
Kotaku editor-in-chief Stephen Totilo has talked about some of the cases exposed here.
He first addressed the Grayson-Quinn conflict of interest, and stated it was not a breach of ethics, since it was not a review and, according to Grayson, their affair happened a few days after it. He handwaved the fact that Grayson and Quinn are proven to be acquainted since long before this article, including a trip to Las Vegas together.
When more conflicts of interest surfaced and GamerGate protests escalated, Totilo came back on the subject, claiming that the very large volume of coverage Hernandez gave to Love and Anthropy was justified, and Grayson’s mentions of Arnott were coincidental. He stood his ground on Grayson's relationship with Quinn not being a conflict of interest, but he did concede that the lack of disclosure on the Hernandez articles was a “screw up” caused by inexperience and a lack of communication. Hernandez’s articles, including those which had not been criticized as conflicts of interest yet, have been updated with at least a partial disclosure—except the GaymerX articles, which added disclosure only after the conflict of interest was discovered.
Totilo stated that asking for an apology would be excessive—just an act to shame the writer. He has not come back on the other cronyism issues listed here, which had not yet been discovered at the time of his responses.
I have no pretense of being unbiased[…] I'm absolutely proud of advancing amazing creators and conversations that I think matter to games — yeah, I have an agenda, sorry.
My ethics policy is this: get money, fight bullshit, and make sure that those i love stand the longest. That's it.
Kotaku is hardly the only outlet facing suspicions of cronyism. Much like Grayson, press heroine Zoe Quinn was also involved in many conflicts of interest aside from her most publicized one.
One among them is Jenn Frank, who wrote an article defending Quinn as a victim right after the scandal, without disclosing she was financially supporting both Quinn and her agent Maya Kramer on Patreon. Following the ensuing backlash she stated she, like Quinn, was under attack, and that her financial support consisted of just fifteen dollars — conveniently forgetting she had also paid Quinn's hotel at the GDC festival, to the tune of about 1000 dollars.
Destructoid's Jonathan Holmes did not have financial but rather a personal relationship with Quinn while he covered her in three occasions. However, following the Kickstarter campaign for his webseries Sup, Holmes?, he did give positive coverage on Destructoid to six subjects that had backed him — backing he stated he was not aware of, although he had publicly interacted with his backers about the rewards before his coverage — in one occasion, just two weeks before the article.
Polygon’s Ben Kuchera also gave Quinn positive press following previous claims of harassment she made, while supporting her financially. Soon after this was brought to light, Polygon updated its ethics policy and disclosure was added to the article — although Kuchera never added disclosure to his article about Sportfriends, which he also supported financially.
Sportfriends was created by Die Gute Fabrik, which was also a subject of a conflict of interest with journalist and Indie Game Festival director Brandon Boyer. Following an accusation of conflict of interest made towards Boyer in an interview with blacklisted journalist Alistair Pinsof, a group of anonymous diggers checked a top 20 list by Boyer and discovered five more conflicts of interest just from that article — among those Die Gute Fabrik's Douglas Wilson, shared with Kuchera, and also Nina Freeman, shared with Grayson. Grayson also gave coverage to an event organized by Boyer himself without disclosing their financial ties.
Everywhere Leigh Alexander
No game journalist embodies cronyism like the controversial former editor-at-large of Gamasutra Leigh Alexander, who shares several conflicts of interest with her friend Hernandez and other journalists, including Love, Anthropy, Arnott, Naomi Clark (on possibly friendly terms with Kotaku's Evan Narcisse) and, a fifth time, Quinn.
Extremely critical of her audience — once declaring her readership, commenters and followers to be “largely a pack of fucking idiots” (with "rare exceptions") — Alexander is famous for spearheading the notorious “Gamers are dead” articles of August 2014 with an often-quoted inflammatory piece calling gamers “obtuse shitslingers”, “wailing hyper-consumers”, “childish internet-arguers”, accusing them of not knowing “how to dress or to behave” and encouraging the industry to shun them as customers.
Agency for Games
After leaving Gamasutra, Alexander moved to her own blog Offworld, part of the Boing Boing network, and eventually at Vice, but she also continued to work at her consulting firm “Agency for Games” — meaning she was in the employment of game companies while covering games herself.
Although Alexander promotes Agency’s customers through social media and her personal website, she has not so far been found to be covering them in her articles — but several journalists who have ties with her did just that. For example, the game Sunset, made by Agency customer Tale of Tales, directly mentions Alexander in its credits and was positively covered two times by — again — Alexander's friend Patricia Hernandez, as well as by Simon Parkin, a contributor to Eurogamer and the Guardian and a very good friend of both Alexander and Agency co-owner Ste Currant. Covering Sunset favorably we also find Javy Gwaltney, who was being supported on Patreon by Alexander.
Rock, Paper, Shotgun’s Philippa Warr, who wrote three articles about Sunset without disclosing her friendship with Alexander, has also written three disclosure-less articles about her friend, indie developer Terry Cavanagh — the same Cavanagh that also received coverage from Jenn Frank, who didn't disclose she provided the game's voice acting.
Despite Alexander's involvement and a warm critical reception, Sunset was a massive commercial failure, moving barely 4000 copies and prompting Tale of Tales to close shop, stating the PR company they hired cost a lot of money but didn't help sales one bit.
Story-centric first person adventure Gone Home spurred many debates when it came out in 2013, and its average scores show a huge gap between the very positive coverage received from journalists and much harsher criticism from players.
First to review the game was Polygon’s Danielle Riendeau, who, like Grayson and Hernandez, has given positive coverage to Gaymer X while being on friendly terms with their staff. Her lavish 10/10 evaluation of Gone Home contained no mention of its most often noted flaws — such as the short length and lack of interactivity — and especially no disclosure of her belonging to the Idle Thumbs podcast team, together with two of the game’s small team of developers, one of whom she admitted to being a long-time “good friend” of when she participated in the podcast one week before the review. This “good friend”, game composer Chris Remo, is the only one who commented on these suspicions, confirming his friendship with Riendeau but doubting that it had influenced her score. Riendeau also produced extremely positive video coverage of Sunset, without mentioning a relationship with Alexander that deserved disclosure two times when discussing Alexander directly.
Gone Home had received significant backlash for an overly positive press reception under suspicions of bias. Several journalists praising the game, beside Riendeau, were confirmed to do so while in a conflict of interest—such as Kotaku's Kirk Hamilton, on friendly terms with the game’s voice actress; Leigh Alexander, on friendly terms with most of the development team; and freelancer Cara Ellison.
Slow-selling Facebook-in-space simulator Redshirt received fairly polarized reviews, averaging at 62 on Metacritic despite some very positive coverage on certain websites.
Redshirt was praised on both PC Gamer and Rock, Paper, Shotgun by Cara Ellison, who was both on friendly terms and receiving money on Patreon from Redshirt’s author Mitu Khandaker-Kokoris, as well as on Kotaku by Kokoris’s friend Kirk Hamilton.
Also giving positive coverage to Kokoris was Rock, Paper, Shotgun's Alec Meer, who wrote about the game "Redshirt" without disclosing that they were on friendly enough terms with Kokoris to have hanged out together multiple times — including going to a concert together and Kokoris being invited to a barbecue organized by Meer.
Riendeau and Hernandez also praised the game, although no solid connection has yet been discovered. There is a strong connection, though, with another endorser of the game, Kokoris’s friend since 2009 — Leigh Alexander.
Ellison has never replied about this, as well as her other conflicts of interest, such as the ones with Anna Anthropy, Christine Love (like Hernandez), Nina Freeman (like Grayson) and text-adventure writer Porpentine (again, like Grayson). Kokoris, though, did reply to these allegations, although she only commented on the connection with Ellison, who she claims only received small amounts of money for access to Patreon backers content—while neglecting to mention the personal ties, as well as the links to Hamilton, Meer and Kris Ligman, who covered her positively, after she started receiving money from Kokoris on Patreon four days before the article was published, and was also a judge at the Indiecade awards when Redshirt was a finalist. This is hardly the only financial conflict of interest taking place at Ligman's outlet Critical Distance.
Steve Gaynor (Gone Home)
Makes the world go ‘round
Crowdfounding website Patreon, created in 2013, allows users to donate fixed amounts to content creators — on a monthly or by-creation basis. Primarily used by Youtubers and artists, several game developers and journalists also receive founding using the platform, leading very frequently to reporters swapping money with subjects of coverage.
Managed by Senior Curator Kris Ligman, Critical Distance deals in news aggregating, rounding up selected articles or videos from the web in digest articles that get also published in other outlets, most notably Gamasutra. Currently ad-less and financed solely through Patreon, Critical Distance states patronage doesn't entitle the people donating to preferential treatment, yet very frequently links to articles covering subjects that support them.
One example is Christine Love (again), at least four times, without disclosing their personal relationship, as well their financial ties — including Love's 100 $ donation to Ligman's GDC GoFundMe and her Patreon Support of Critical Distance. We also find Dutch game developer Vlambeer, covered four times while their Patreon was covering Critical Distance, and has also featured several times on outlet Kill Screen, that organized a party which Vlambeer's co-owner Rami Ismail helped fund.
Vlambeer also backs Indie games coverage pioneer Tim Wee, who helps run weblog Indie Games, where two articles about Vlambeer appeared during this patronage. While these two articles were republished material from sister site Gamasutra, so it's up to debate if Wee has been involved, Indie Games' coverage of Darkest Dungeons, co-created by his backer Tyler Sigman, is under his own name, as is that of his other backer Alexander Bruce, whose most famous work Antichamber featured sound by Robin Arnott (again).
Wee works at Indie Games with Konstantinos Dimopoulos, who also was caught writing about a subject that was supporting him once, and at The Warp Door with Chris Priestman, who has been caught three times — beside Only Slightly, among the patrons he wrote about Terry Cavanagh makes another appearance, as does Agustin Cordes, a conflict of interest Priestman shares with Richard Cobbett, whose coverage of adventure games company Wadjet Eye is also done while under suspicion of conflicts of interest.
Lack of Critical Distance
Even more intertwined than the financial conflicts of interests with developers are the conflicts between journalists themselves — with Kris Ligman's Critical Distance, which specifically focuses on highlighting journalism it deems interesting and is only supported via Patreon, being the most evident hub. So far, Critical Distance has been found plugging writers that were backing them on Patreon with extreme frequency, in addition to their conflicts of interest concerning developers. Notable names include, once more, Jenn Frank (covered also by Critical Distance contributor Lana Polansky while supporting her), and also Dan Golding, with Leigh Alexander the co-instigator of the "Gamers are dead" media blitz that Ligman is also considered a participant in, as well as Brendan Keogh.
Keogh also gave a plug to Critical Distance in return, and to several other journalists he was in a personal or financial relationship with, including, again, several names already mentioned in this article, such as his colleagues at Press Select Dan Golding and Jenn Frank, as well as Cara Ellison, on the receiving end of positive coverage also from her Patreon backers Chris Sullentrop, Tyler Colp, Kotaku's Patrick Klepek (possibly) and foreign correspondent for Critical Distance Joe Köller.
Köller also shares two conflicts of interest with Keogh — one being the controversial Mattie Brice, on friendly terms with Keogh and whom both were donating to, and the other being Critical Distance contributor Cameron Kunzelman, Köller only donated to and Keogh was also receiving money from. Kunzelman himself, instead, has been found covering subjects while being on the receiving end of financial ties, including again a familiar name — Javy Gwaltney.