Ars Technia posted an insightful article this week (Call of Duty: Black Ops review event, press gifts detailed) about the lobbying efforts video-game publisher Activision deployed for reviewers of their latest Call of Duty title. It's safe to say that reviewers were treated very well, with Activision footing the bill for helicopter rides, gifts, and splendid accommodations in which to test out the new game. It's troubling, but unsurprising, that a publisher as large as Activision, with a title as well-known and profitable as the Call of Duty franchise, would essentially lobby video game journalists in order to ensure reviews for a sure-fire moneymaker. It would also be unsurprising that such attentions and affectations levied upon such reviewers would go unrewarded and unmentioned in their published reviews. Kudos, then, have to be given to GamePro for maintaining high ethical standards in fully disclosing the circumstances under which the game was reviewed.
"The Ojai Valley Inn and Spa," writes GamePro reviewer Tae Kim, "sits in the tiny town of Ojai about two hours north of downtown Los Angeles. Built in 1923, it features a full 18-hole golf course, a luxury spa, and 308 deluxe suites situated on a 200 acre plot with picaresque views of the surrounding forest and mountains. It’s hard to top in terms of amenities and creature comforts, and it seemingly offers everything you could ever want in a vacation spot. ... the lavish surroundings were no doubt meant to lend a measure of sex appeal and ‘wow factor’ to the proceedings...."
He also openly discusses the gifts and amenities he was given by Activision as part of the review junket. Kim is very upfront in illustrating that the game was played "under ideal circumstances," which is certainly a policy more reviewers should adopt in order to avoid any appearances of impropriety. If it looks like reviews are being bought by game publishers, and the argument could certainly be made this Activision is attempting to here, there can be no basis for trust between the reviewer and his audience.
Video games take time to build, usually requiring the input, dedication, and work of several hundred people; it's a large, laborious effort. If a game is good, it doesn't need to be reviewed in a luxury suite in order to determine that. Likewise for a bad game. Yet if a bad title receives high marks and becomes decried by the community, one has to wonder how such glowing reviews were received in the first place, and under what circumstances the reviewer was placed under to create such a positive assessment. If perfect scores are for sale, with reviewers willing to sell them to game publishers eager to buy them, there's a very large systemic flaw that undermines not only the trust between reviewers and their readership, but between game players and game publishers. The final product should stand on its own merit, good or bad, not the bought-and-paid-for luxuries that surround it.