To Swag or not to Swag: That is the question

July 20, 2007

To Swag or not
to Swag: That is the question
By Michael

Wanted –
journalists who want to write about the industry, not just those interested in
seeing how much free stuff they can get

In the
video-game industry, free stuff is known as swag. Some people live to get free
stuff from game publishers; some get it but it’s no big deal whether they get it
or not. And then there are the rare few that decline any of it.

What is swag?
Well, it can range from electronics to hardware, to software to clothing
articles like hats and t-shirts to other things like toys, pens and so on.

Recently, a
writer for an online publication attended E3 and returned, eventually posting
his adventures in Santa Monica. It did not take very long into his article for
him to talk about the loot he snagged at the show. Some of it was what one would
expect (like t-shirts), some of it was not related to gaming at all, but still
he felt a need to detail his collection for the reading public.

Sorry, but that
was just plain wrong.

The local
newspaper recently ran a story in the sport section about a Japanese reporter
who asked for, and received, an autograph from Roger Clemens. As a result, his
membership in the Baseball Writers’ Association of America was revoked. It seems
unlikely that all baseball writers are free of memorabilia of one sort or
another. In all likelihood, the biggest sin the reporter here committed was
talking or bragging about it.

In the
video-game industry, reporters receive stuff all the time. Deliveries are often
made to my house, new releases from publishers. At last estimate, there were
about 1,500 games in my house, stemming back to the Win98 days and PSOne era.
Why? Because you never know when a new release may just be an expansion and if
you don’t have the original, then you are incapable of doing the job for which
you are paid. And there is, somewhere, wrapped in plastic, an old PC with Win98
as the OS, capable of playing those great old games – like the original Thief,
or a Tomb Raider (like the fourth in the franchise, The Last Revelation,
published back in 1999), or Final Fantasy VII. When it comes to games, I’m a
pack rat.

But, honestly,
that’s not all. Publishers will send along review peripherals, promotions, or
the like. But that’s not the point, really; the point is that when you start
playing the game for the toys you get, you may draw in the wrong element to the
business. In order to keep this business viable, what is needed are those who
are wanting to write about games, not just get into the business to see how much
stuff they can get.

The business of
game journalism is a fairly biased one. Most of what is written, in the form of
previews and reviews and even interviews, is subjective. It is opinion and
therefore there are no singular previews or reviews that more viable than
another. An opinion is an opinion. Having been in the news side of journalism,
much of what was witnessed through a 20-year career led to the conclusion that
there is really no such thing as impartial journalism. Television news has an
agenda, determined by their corporate boards, that they wish to push. The same
holds true with newspapers. If a person has the writing skills, and wishes to
use that ability as a profession, then finding the right branch of journalism
would be vital.

The common
reaction, when asked and I tell people what I do for a living, is their jaw
drops open. Guys get a faraway look in their eyes and proclaim it to be the
dream job. Some women, not realizing how big the industry is, didn’t know a
person could do that for a living. When you start detailing the stuff you get
for free (and not all of it is a gem, some of it is just plain silly, even
though the intent of fun is there), you start to brighten the stars that are in
the eyes of those who view it not as a professional journalistic career, but as
a way to get ‘cool’ stuff. The result could well be unskilled people trying to
flood into the already crowded space, standing there with their hands out asking
for stuff, and casting a pall on the industry as a whole. We are able to do what
we do because of working relationships with publishers. In many ways, we provide
them with free publicity for their games. But some journalists can sour the mix,
and that will ripple through the industry. Some developers and publishers are a
little gun-shy of media now.

And, of course,
it is a two-edged sword. Some publishers and developers think that they have to
give away stuff in order to garner attention. Maybe, with some publications,
they do. But they should be wary of those people and publications that are
swayed to report simply because they received swag.

I would be
lying if I tried to say that I never accept swag, or that I don’t like it. I
have it, and I enjoy receiving it. But the story always comes first, and is not
swayed by sending a t-shirt to me, or whatever else. And if Joe Schmoe at
Publication X gets a toy, tells the world about it, and I don’t, well I don’t
care. Video-game journalism is about the writing; it is about the craft of
putting words on paper or cyber paper, or whatever you want to call it, in a
compelling manner that communicates ideas.

I hope that I
have the sense to have left the business long before the day comes when getting
free stuff means more than doing the job I’m paid to do.