Sometimes entertainment companies are like something out of Scooby-Doo. “And I would have gotten away with it, too, if it weren’t for you meddling kids” is the famous tagline after a stoner’s dog and his friends stop the villain’s plans. Of course, if the villain’s plans were so bad that a bunch of kids and dog managed to stop them, it says more about the villain than the heroes. Scooby-Doo and friends are not exactly the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The bad guy was doomed from the start, by nothing other than his own incompetence.
The resistance to critical self-examination and the desire to dodge the blame are funny when they happen on a cartoon show. It’s less funny when done by games companies and other parts of the entertainment industry. This is especially true when they start using threats of copyright strikes, blacklists, and other petty tactics with critics that call them out on their failures.
On June 31, The Daily Beast published an article with the headline: “Hollywood Blames Critics for Its Movies Being Unimaginative Pieces of Sh*t.” It seems that Hollywood execs don’t like the critics for panning both “Baywatch” and “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales.” They’re even more upset at Rotten Tomatoes for aggregating all these reviews down to a single number. They feel people shouldn’t be allowed to know what others think of a movie before they buy tickets. The trailer says it all. The Rock takes off his pants! Johnny Depp says “savvy” a bunch and does weird pirate-y things! What more could audiences want?
A story would be nice. Maybe cinematography that is of high quality (looking at you, the last few “Underworld: Kate Beckinsale’s Back in Latex” installments). Really, any one of a dozen things that make a movie good would also be appreciated.
However, I envy those that write about movies. Hollywood and the movie industry is so mature that the institutions that make movies and the ones that cover them are staples of American culture. The New York Times writes about movies. No Hollywood studio has Public Relations (hereafter PR) employees going out and hitting the press with copyright strikes or flat out telling magazines they are blacklisted. No one is that dumb.
For those of us in the gaming press, though, things are a little different. The computer games industry is twice the size of the movie industry. According to a 2016 report by statista.com, the global box office for movies was 38.3 billion USD; venturebeat.com reports the games industry did 91 billion USD. And yet, those who bring gaming news to the public have had to endure unprofessional behavior from the PR departments of various companies. And the problem isn’t just coming from the smaller, independent studios.
Bethesda, Ubisoft, and Kotaku
Bethesda blacklisted Kotaku. Kotaku broke the news of Fallout 4 before Bethesda was ready to announce it. This apparently upset the studio as they had an elaborate announcement event where they would control what information was released and when in a grand media event. However, someone at the company leaked the information, and Kotaku, like any decent journalism outlet reported the news. That is Kotaku’s job. Any other outlet that had that information would also have published it, or they would not be worth anything. But in petty spite, Bethesda blamed Kotaku.
Ubisoft also blacklisted Kotaku when Kotaku did its job and reported details on Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate. It’s understandable that companies do not like information on their games being leaked out, but games journalists are not servants of the games industry. Games journalists are not advertising companies by another name, even if many games companies might want them to be. Journalists report things. Sometimes they comment on things. Newspapers have had opinion pages since forever. When a journalist reports on a game, or criticizes the game, they are doing their job.
Jim Sterling was blacklisted by Konami for negative reporting on some of their games and the company in general. Even in situations where he wanted to give good press, because he liked a game and wanted to talk to some of the developers, he couldn’t get anything out of Konami’s PR department. Jim had to go through back-channels and cutouts to get interviews off the record.
SirFoch is the latest victim of the games industry’s incompetence in the PR department. I covered Fochgate in a previous article. (Side note, can we please stop adding the suffix -gate to everything?) What was surprising about the SirFoch incident wasn’t that it happened, but that a large company like Wargaming managed to screw up by the numbers so publicly. While they managed to finally come to the right answer—’We at Wargaming aren’t going to try and use copyright to censor our critics!’—the whole incident left a bad taste in the mouth of some of their greatest supporters who were not even involved.
It Doesn’t Work
Being blacklisted by Konami hasn’t stopped Jim Sterling from talking about their company. He still has contacts that report things to him and has a regular segment called #FucKonami on his Jimquisition YouTube series. Being blacklisted by Bethesda hasn’t stopped Kotaku from reporting on their games, either. Blacklisting doesn’t work. Censorship doesn’t work. Those of us in games journalism are not on any cocktail circuit. There isn’t a Games Journalist Correspondents Dinner for us not to get invited to. We’re still going to keep writing about games because we want to.
If anything, it engenders bitterness. There was someone at Kotaku that was enthusiastic about Fallout before Bethesda treated them ill. SirFoch, who had a huge run in with Wargaming.net, likely has lost some of his passion for World of Tanks.
The ‘internet’—however that group of people is defined—has a pretty good idea that censorship is bad. When Scientology tried to get some videos taken off the internet, there was backlash. However, it’s not entirely clear how much those that simply play videogames are aware of the censorship attempts that occur at a disturbingly high rate within the games industry and games journalist. With the SirFoch incident’s high visibility, hopefully some of them will take notice and realize that this is not healthy for either industry.
One of the odd claims that Wargaming made was that they didn’t object to SirFoch’s criticism, but the way he said it—a short video filled with profanity and “fuck Wargaming” said many times over. While this was said in an obvious attempt to try and quell the uproar from their players on the forums and to justify their actions in a way they hoped would be accepted, the idea of censoring a way someone speaks is possibly even worse than censoring their message.
All of us that write or create videos do so in our own voice. It’s what makes us unique. SirFoch is known for being ‘salty,’ which is apparently affectionate shorthand for ‘cusses a freaking lot.’ It’s a necessary side effect of the entertainment business, which SirFoch is in. There are thousands of people that want to make a living off YouTube ad revenue by making World of Tanks videos on YouTube, and everyone is trying to find their own schtick. Those that don’t stand out are forgotten.
This was something I realized writing this. My first draft of this article was dry and boring, despite being impeccably written with the finest grammar and attention to detail. The article covered all the salient points of the issue and would have been a wonderful college essay. I thought that the topic of censorship deserved a seriousness to my tone and wrote it that way, however I wasn’t happy with the way it read.
I have my own quirks. I am flippant, sarcastic, and verbose, elaborating on topics and things that might not really need to, but I am committed to ensuring that I completely cover a topic. So, I use as many words as I need. I’m also the one here at INN that is obsessed with a dead fictional empress. This obsession is so bad that I had to promise my editor that this wouldn’t be about her, but see, I still still found a way to work it in!
SirFoch’s persona is salty. He cusses a lot and is direct and to the point. This wasn’t a surprise to Wargaming when they made SirFoch a member of their Community Contributor’s program. However, when SirFoch made a video with an opinion they didn’t like, suddenly they were not objecting to his message, but they way he said it. It was disingenuous and transparent.
SirFoch could have reviewed the Chrysler K in a tone like he just came off the BBC newshour, describing it as deficient in weak points, and possessing a substandard gun. His video could have been the epitome of proper and refined, but that is not who he is. That is not what people expect when they turn into watch him. SirFoch’s viewer would have probably been concerned that something was wrong.
Censoring the way a message is delivered is worse than censoring the message itself. Censoring a message is only one thing someone says, but trying to censor they way they say it is censoring a part of the person’s individually. It’s a few steps from there to reviews saying that Wargaming’s newest tank is doubleplusungood.
The Streisand Effect is named after an incident where Barbra Streisand filed a lawsuit against a photographer to take down from his website pictures of her mansion in California. Before the lawsuit was filed, the picture had six downloads. After it was filed, that number jumped to over 420 thousand. Every time an attempt at hiding or censoring something is made, it inevitably increases interest in whatever was censored or hidden. As long as the internet is around, the Streisand Effect will be.
In the case of SirFoch, Wargaming’s threat of a copyright strike worked; he took down the video. It was removed from YouTube so no one could watch it anymore. However, as soon as Ph3lan told SirFoch to take down the video or Wargaming would file a DMCA claim, Ph3lan ensured that the video would be seen by many more than would have seen it originally. Others started to reupload it, on YouTube and other places that are not as easily policed for copyrighted content. Jim Sterling went out to make a video about it, and he has 500 thousand subscribers. SirFoch only has 62 thousand subscribers. Wargaming learned the lesson of the Streisand effect the hard way.
Even when governments try censorship it doesn’t work. One would hope that Wargaming, a Russian company, would know this better than most! If censorship worked, Pravda would still be the official newspaper of the Soviet Union, comrade. If lèse-majesté laws worked, then no king, ever in history, would have been deposed and executed. There is no way to stop the flow of information, this goes double in the internet age.
However, the number of times a games studio has used a DMCA claim to try and silence a critic on YouTube is staggeringly high, especially since it’s never really worked. Dentola Studios filed a DMCA claim against SidAlpha; it backfired. Digital Homicide filed a DMCA claim and a federal lawsuit against Jim Sterling; neither worked. Wild Games Studio filed a DMCA claim against TotalBiscuit; his video about the copyright abuse incident is his most viewed one ever. Wargaming’s attempt to censor SirFoch is just one more failed attempt in a line of failed attempts.
Yet, as sure as the sun rises, they will not be the last ones to try this.
Copyright and Fair Use
The word fan comes from fanatic, which is someone with more enthusiasm than sense. No doubt some fanboys of World of Tanks think that SirFoch should have had a copyright strike; one of them wrote a letter to Jim Sterling begging him not to make a video about it. Any game has their fans, their cheerleaders. It’s not a bad thing! If a company can make a game that can elicit that much passion, they should be commended. However, consumers should always remember to keep things into perspective. It is possible to love a company and the game they make and recognize the company can make mistakes.
Fair use is a pretty simple concept. The courts have long recognized that criticism, both positive and negative, is important to a free and democratic society. To that end, those criticizing something have leeway to use something that is copyrighted as part of that criticism. If a critic had to obtain the rights to use a copyrighted work, the copyright holder would naturally never approve negative commentary. SirFoch clearly used Wargaming’s copyrighted materials, and he clearly used it for criticism. So, did SirFoch’s fall under the doctrine of fair use?
Leonard French thinks so; he is a copyright attorney that makes YouTube videos on copyright issues. His opinion is that Wargaming was in the wrong, overstating its copyrights, “which is why they backed off so quickly.”
Democratization of the Games Industry and Games Journalism
Back in the olden days of the 1990s, both the games industry and games journalism were in a very different place; the power was more clustered. To sell a game meant getting it on store shelves in disks, either floppy disks, or compact disks, not the cheapest thing to do. So publishers were a thing. This is not to say that independent games (indie games) were not produced, but it wasn’t the wild, wild west that Steam greenlight has become today.
By the same token, games reviews were published in magazines. PC Gamer had staff, editors, access, and actual influence. There weren’t a lot of gaming magazines and the ones that existed generally did their job well. They had a well-defined relationship with the games industry.
However, this changed with the widespread use of the internet. Not only did games companies start to realize they could release broken crappy games and patch it later, it also opened the floodgates to the multitudes to both make and review games. Any idiot with a computer and a keyboard could make a game, and did. Any idiot with a computer and a keyboard could write about games, and did.
Now, there are countless indie games companies making games of various quality. Some indie games are really good. Some indie games are really bad. By the same token, there are countless blogs, YouTube channels and other sites that review games of various quality. Everyone of them is competing in a crowded market.
The two groups are very different, though. It’s seldom that someone gets into games journalism at the outset looking to make a living; it’s not possible. No one starting out is going to be able to afford rent only based off games journalism. (Exceptions exist, just like lottery winners.) They get into it as a hobby, and don’t really have too much of a stake in their hobby.
On the other side, game developers want to get paid. Some might start out making games as a hobby, but the vast majority of them approach it as a job, wanting to make a game, ship it, and make money, or get picked up by a publisher. Some of them make a bunch of shovelware and hope to make money selling enough junk. One way or another, though, they all want to make that dollar.
This leads to a lot of amateurs in the industry. Unlike Hollywood, the games industry is still very young. Some of the larger studios and publishers have been around for long enough to mature to the point where they are a functioning corporation, not a cargo cult imitating one. Publishers like EA and Activision are large enough and flush with enough cash they can actually get skilled and trained professionals in their PR departments. However, many of the indie studios and startups do not have that ability.
In many cases the PR department is staffed with people that have no prior experience or training other than what they got at that job. This doesn’t only apply for the junior levels, but at all rungs of the ladder. In some indie studios, the PR head will be a coder that didn’t scamper out of the way fast enough. In some cases it will be a highly visible member of the player community that gets hired to manage the community. I’ve talked to a fair number of these people. They start out posting on the forums, then get some sort of volunteer moderator ability, and finally get hired on as a community manager without any real idea of what PR is about. This amateurism leads to a lot of meltdowns.
I had one community manager ask me in all seriousness what right anyone had to criticize their game. This attitude is not rare.
It was this amateurism that lead to the SirFoch incident. Wargaming is a major company, but they are still a young one. They didn’t have the time to build the institutional knowledge and professionalism that would keep them from making this mistake. The good news for Wargaming’s customers and executives, is that they now have that institutional knowledge. Some players have called for Ph3lan’s head, but there is no way he is going to make this mistake again. It also means that Wargaming is going to take a serious look at their PR department and how to improve it.
Performance vs Coverage
The differences in attitude between the amateurs and professionals is stark. I happened to have a chat with a former Public Affairs Officer (PAO) for the United States Army. As a large governmental organization, the Army, and the rest of the military, cannot really avoid the press. In order to train these officers not to make a fool out of themselves (and more importantly their bosses), the Army runs a Public Affairs school to train professional Army officers in Public Relations.
One of the topics taught at the school is the difference between coverage and performance. The example given was this:
In the mid 1980s, in a Return of Forces to Germany (REFORGER) Exercise, a tanker truck turned over and spilled its entire contents of diesel fuel into some poor German’s field. This was a huge mess and the US Army had to go clean it up, digging up the field and compensating the German that owned the field. This wasn’t totally uncommon for REFORGER Exercises; tanks and military vehicles damaged property quite often and compensation was always given. Needless to say, the German press got a wind of what happened and published many unflattering stories about the Army and the unit that spilled the fuel.
In response to the deluge of unflattering press, the brigade commander had the idea to blame the Public Affairs Officer for the media stories. Since the Public Affairs Officer handles the media, and the media is writing negative stories, it’s the Public Affairs Officer’s fault. Luckily for the hapless Public Affairs Officer in question, the brigade commander’s boss, the division commander, pointed out that this was not a coverage problem, this was a performance problem. The problem was someone screwed up and spilled several thousand gallons of fuel, not that the media was covering it.
Keeping Proper Perspective
The brigade commander had the Scooby-Doo villain attitude. The division commander had a more realistic look at the situation. Wargaming needs to ask themselves what kind of mistakes they made on the way to causing one of their fans to make a vitriolic rant about their game. Introspection is hard, but it is a must.
On the other side, journalists and critics sometimes make amateur mistakes. SidAlpha, of the Dentola Studios DMCA claim earlier, posted a video on May 12 speaking about Digital Homicide. Digital Homicide has endeared a lot of illwill. They not only filed a DMCA claim against Jim Sterling, they sued him in Federal Court. They also tried to sue over 100 Steam users for bad reviews on Steam. There are plenty of reasons not to like this company. However, when SidAlpha talked about the possibility of Digital Homicide coming back, he said, “as long as there are watchers at the gate, like . . . yes, even myself, you will be fought.”
Are journalist the watchers at the gate? Should journalist even be watchers at the gate? It’s one thing to report on something that happens. Obviously, when a games company acts egregiously, they should be called on it. However, journalists should not be gatekeepers. They should be observers, reporters, and hopefully somewhat objective. Games journalists do not help the industry, either industry, by attacking games companies without cause or reason, or taking an antagonistic attitude. Games journalist and games companies are in a symbiotic relationship. If games journalists are to expect, even to demand respect from the games industry, they cannot be seen to be trying to burn it down.
Some might call this a conflict of interest, but it’s much more honesty. If someone makes a mistake, testify to the mistake. However, if someone does well, they should be praised for what they have done.
Journalists Are Not Servants
There seems to be an attitude among the PR and media relations employees at games companies that the games journalism industry is a servant to their wills. I’ve had this stated to me, paraphrased as: since journalist do not produce anything original, they should defer to the companies that do. Games companies make games, so a journalist is some kind of leech in their eyes. Digital Homicide also said this to Jim Sterling.
It is true that the games journalism industry could not exist without games companies, and that the reverse is not true. However, to call a journalist a leech, or someone that has to defer to publishers is also wrong. There is clearly a public demand for journalism and not only in the games sector. Journalists inform and investigate. Their task is important. It is one that the consumer would do for himself, if he had time.
This is the way the economy works. Everyone picks their specialty and focus on it. This is why bakers make a bajillion loaves of bread as opposed to everyone making their own. A journalist isn’t special in any way, except that they are acting on behalf of the public, the customers. A company that treats journalists with contempt is treating their customers with contempt by extension.
Games companies seem to not understand that. They misunderstand that the duty of the press is not to them, but to the readers and the public. Some in Hollywood bemoans Rotten Tomatoes; some in the games industry look down on critics. However, in every case, it’s a contempt for the consumer and an exaggerated sense of self-entitlement that drives this. A journalist owes their customers the truth and respect, and so do the games companies. After all, it’s not us meddling kids that are the problem.