Opinion – The Kotaku Story Isn’t What It Seems

Assassin’s Snub

About a week and a half ago, Kotaku published an article revealing that publishers Ubisoft and Bethesda Softworks blacklisted Kotaku from information and content shared with other websites.  You can find the article here.  In it, Kotaku notes that it believes that the blacklisting is retribution for potentially embarrassing reporting done by the website.  The publishers’ revenge is part of a deliberate attempt to penalize Kotaku for their reporting.  Kotaku claims it has been wronged.  The (silent) publishers presumably believe they’re the wronged party.  What’s going on?

Let’s start by looking at this from the Kotaku perspective.  Kotaku is a website that prides itself on its independence and its unwillingness to walk the careful line between reporting what it knows and staying in publishers’ good graces.  When it gets a scoop, it runs the story.  Seen from Kotaku’s desire to “print the truth”, the decision by Ubisoft and Bethesda to blacklist the website is a power play designed to control an uncooperative media outlet.  Kotaku casts itself in the role of the noble rebel titling their article “The Price of Games Journalism” and claiming “We serve our readers, not game companies, and will always do so to the best of our ability, no matter who in the gaming world is or isn’t angry with us at the moment.”  This is a David v. Goliath story where games journalists are fighting back against the evil corporations.  Of course, it doesn’t hurt that stories like these help Kotaku’s bottom line.  In telling the world that they’re blacklisted, Kotaku is also bolstering its reputation as an independent outlet beholden to no one.  The website built a business on printing scandals and writing independent reviews so publically burning a bridge, particularly since the bridge is ashes in private, is a net boon.  The fact that Kotaku presents itself as a champion of the customer is a nice little bonus.

In some ways, Kotaku is on the side of the customer.  People go to Kotaku and games websites to learn more about games.  Scoops and inside information are things that the audience wants to know.  As such, it’s generally in the customer’s favor to pry information from companies in order to be better informed.  In grabbing the popular standard, Kotaku is undoubtedly right that it’s acting on reader interest.

Let’s not forget that corporate interest is a thing too.  Ubisoft and Bethesda are not just purveyors of the wonderful games we all love; they’re also businesses.  They make games because they want money.  When Kotaku publishes an embarrassing article, it inevitably loses the publishers some of the money they’re hoping to make or makes an internal problem even worse.  In blacklisting the website, the publishers are trying to discourage articles that cost them.  In a publisher’s ideal world, all websites would report nothing but favorable things about their games.  Sounds evil, doesn’t it?

So Kotaku’s right, right?

Nope, they’re wrong.

…and right.  It’s complicated.

Kotaku’s claim that they’re standing up against the evil corporations has no merit.  The example articles they cite in “The Price of Games Journalism” aren’t life changing issues that the people need to know, they’re reports of trouble in a game studio or confirmation of development of a new game.  With the exception of something like the EA spouses story (look it up), Kotaku is just reporting stuff people want to know, not need to know.  There is no overriding public interest and the publishers don’t owe Kotaku or gamers any of the information they have.  Furthermore, the claim of bullying doesn’t really work in this context.  Yes, companies are trying to control the media, but they lack the means to do so.  Kotaku will still see early versions of the games at trade shows and will be able to write reviews when the games drop.  Publisher capacity to control the media is limited by the fact that they have a public product.  Kotaku’s independence is not threatened.

This is a situation where Kotaku, the publishers, and gamers are all pursuing their self-interest.  Kotaku wants access to information or, barring that, to establish itself as an independent outlet.  The publishers want to discourage negative reporting of their games in order to bolster their bottom line (and not make internal problems even worse with public exposure).  Gamers just want to know.  Nobody has a strong moral claim.  No party can really say it’s more deserving of its position than any other.  Everybody is doing what is best for them.



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