Shilling for the entertainment industry

One thing that’s important to keep in mind in the discussion about video game journalism is that game magazines and websites are no different from movie or music mags when it comes to puffy previews and otherwise channeling PR. It’s annoying, but most of these publications are arms of the same entertainment conglomerates that are selling the movies/music/stars in the first place — so what can you expect?

Edward Jay Epstein’s excellent The Big Picture: The New Logic of Money and Power in Hollywood has a great section about how this game works for movies. Given Hollywood’s heft and reach, it makes you feel a lot more queasy about reading Entertainment Weekly than Electronic Gaming Monthly. I’m going to reproduce a lengthy bit of the section here, but it’s worth reading through:

“Many magazines also need photographs of stars for their covers. The studios generally allocate photo opportunities with them to magazines that agree to conform to their conditions about the timing and content of the stories that accompany them. Not uncommonly, publicity staffs vet the resulting stories. … In accepting these conditions, these publications are regarded by the studios as ‘complicitous partners,’ as one studio executive described them. …”The stars effectively allow the studios to use their reputations to publicize their films. To this end, the studios script ‘back stories’ that merge the stars’ activities, real or invented, with those of the characters they play in the films. … The publicity back stories, meanwhile, are systematically planted in fan magazines, wire services, syndicated gossip columns, and other selected media. If successful, these items accumulate in the media’s collective memory … and can be reinforced in interviews, during which the stars themselves refer to them.

“Consider Mission: Impossible II, for example, which was distributed by Paramount. … A back story was then scripted in which [Tom] Cruise was seen to be indistinguishable from Ethan Hunt, the acrobatic hero he played, via the claim that he, and not a stunt double, had done the free falls, fire walks, motorcycle leaps, and other perilous stunts that Hunt did in the movie.

“This back story was keynoted in a publicity short, Mission Incredible, shown on MTV and other cable channels owned by Paramount’s corporate parent. Made in the style of a documentary in which the crew and cast of Mission Impossible are interviewed, it has the director, John Woo, expressing great fear that Tom Cruise would plunge to his death in leaps across mountaintops or be incinerated in fire scenes. … In another publicity short, Woo says, ‘Tom Cruise does most of his own stunts, so we did not need a stunt double.’

“In the actual production, there were at least six stunt doubles for Tom Cruise’s part. Even if Cruise had possessed the skills and training to do the stunts himself, and even if the studio was not to object to the delays in shooting this conceit might cause, the insurance ecompany … would not have allowed him to risk so much as an ankle sprain, much less his life.”

Dan Hsu can talk about integrity all he wants, but the timing and play of video game stories — including in EGM — seems suspiciously similar to the movie industry. But that’s how the game is played. Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair are the same way, not to mention fashion and gossip magazines.

The creepier and more subtle form of PR influence is the part about back stories planted in the media. And the game industry does the same thing. I found it curious, for example, that every single preview and review I read about the King Kong game mentioned how the game discarded the heads-up display — the map, ammo count, health bar, and other information usually shown on screen — to make a more immersive experience. Never mind that the game was one tired gaming cliche and repetitive monster after another, which hardly makes for an immersive experience. Even if getting rid of the HUD were truly a big deal, it’s odd that every single writer would focus so much on that.

So the bigger issue isn’t pay for play (or less overt quid-pro-quo deals); that’s how covers work, and there’s no sense trying to fight it. I’d love for Hsu to explain how and why EGM picks its covers and convince us that it has nothing to do with EA’s release schedule or PR strategy. The real problem is a more basic one: arts writers need to work harder on ignoring the chatter and PR reps and press releases and everything else and just focus on the work.

Sounds simple, but ever wonder why Avril Lavigne and Christina Aguilera convinced the world they were “real artists” who “wrote their own songs”? It was the back story, and countless profiles and reviews fell for it. Games are no different. The companies want to create awareness for their products, and the best way to do that is create a story that sticks in people’s minds. The role of the press should be to smile politely, thank them for the review copies or preview time, and start thinking about the story that needs to be told, rather than the one the company crafted in advance.

— March 21, 2006

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