Ethics & Laws Issue Paper: Breaking Embargos

 Recently, I wrote a paper for my Ethics and Laws in Journalism class about Polygon.com breaking embargo on a review for The Last of Us: Left Behind DLC. The task was to find an article that “presents a First Amendment (legal) and an ethical issue” and describe why and how it presents an issue. I choose this Polygon issue to write about because I thought the action went unpunished and has been on my mind for over a month now. I thought it would be a fine idea to share it on this site with you, my faithful readers and hopefully get some new opinions or information out of you. If you’re unfamiliar with this Polygon/Last of Us issue, don’t worry, I describe the issue to the best of my ability in my article. Enjoy. 

Video game reporting website Polygon.com, broke embargo by publishing a review for the game “The Last of Us: Left Behind,” a day before the release date. Now, in the video gaming industry, several reviewers are granted access to a video game in advance, in order to review the game. However, this privilege comes with a few regulations. The person reviewing the game can write the review, but can’t publish the work until the publisher of the video game allows them to. The reviewer also can’t talk about the game with anyone, unless the information has already been given out to the public by the publisher of the game. These embargoes are backed by contracts that are signed by the journalist reviewing the game before they receive a review copy of the respective game that they plan to review. The developers and publishers have the right to control the marketing campaign for their game as they see fit. If a review comes out before they have a chance to do so, it may affect the image and might hurt the sales of that game. The embargoes are determined by the developers and publishers of their game. There is no set in stone timeframe for all games for when an embargo can be lifted. The Last of Us: Left Behind was developed by the studio “Naughty Dog,” a developer under the wing of Playstation and Sony itself, who publishes all of Naughty Dog’s games. The embargo for this particular game was set by Sony and Naughty Dog to be lifted on the release of the game, February 14, 2014. In this instance, Polygon published their review February 13, 2014, a day before the release of the game.

The Polygon Article in question: http://www.polygon.com/2014/2/13/5406740/the-last-of-us-left-behind-review-friends-til-the-end

Polygon’s review didn’t ruin any key points to the story of the game and reviewed the game in its favor. The reviewer, Philip Kollar gave The Last of Us: Left Behind an eight out of ten. Once embargo was lifted on the release day of the game, other reviews came out with similar ratings. The game received several perfect scores, and the lowest critic rating was a seven out of ten. Regardless, this isn’t a story about the score; that doesn’t matter. What matters is that Polygon broke embargo by publishing their review early. Whether this was a technical error, a way to generate views for their website or to make a statement of some sort is unknown.

The main writer and director of The Last of Us, Neil Druckmann, chimed in on twitter on the subject. “I give Polygon’s handling of embargoes a 7.5.” This clever and humorous statement by Druckmann seemed to be the only public punishment given to Polygon. Kollar still has his job and Polygon benefited from this situation by getting immense boost of publicity. Embargoes are usually solidified by a legal contract signing of a non-disclosure agreement contract, confidential agreement contract or a secrecy agreement that can lead to lawsuits or some sort of penalty. Polygon broke that contract, so why did they get a free pass? Is it because they took the review down shortly after, apologized, and then re-released it on Valentine’s Day? The information was released and the public still had access to the review before they were supposed to. Maybe if the review was less favorable to Naughty Dog and Sony, they would have taken legal action against Polygon. But in my opinion, it still isn’t right for Polygon to walk away unscathed from this story. It was unethical and unlawful; but yet, they got rewarded.

A publisher never has the right to tell a write HOW to review a game, only when they can publish it. It is a basic rule that must be followed as a video game journalist. Video game reviews are susceptible to opinions. One writer might not like a game at all, but another one might have a more positive outlook on it. It allows for criticism of video games as a form of media, but not until after the game is ready to be shown off by those who created it. Strict embargos are usually placed on games that the developers know won’t be received so well or popular titles that have an image that should be protected. By releasing a review early, you can potentially slander the name of the video game franchise without it even having a fair chance to defend itself. The review itself isn’t unethical, but the breaking of that sacred agreement between publisher and writer was unjust and unethical.

Let us assume that the review being released a day beforehand was no accident. Polygon and Kollar broke a pretty basic ethical rule in video game journalism. It wasn’t fair to the developers and publishers of The Last of Us, and it also wasn’t fair to the other video game journalist outlets that abided by the rules and waited to publish their review. They had a duty to uphold; hold back on the review until release day.

If you told me that a writer signed an agreement not to publicly talk about something and did the exact opposite, I would have assumed he was fired or that the company he worked for was going to be greatly chastised. This is what baffles me; the fact that everyone decided to treat this as if it was nothing. Sure, Sony might have sent Polygon a private message demanding an apology, but that’s not enough. For them to just have received a slap on the wrist gives other reporters the idea of publishing reviews ahead of embargos. “Hey, if Polygon got away with it, so can I.” This mentality will only hurt the integrity of the journalistic business and the video gaming industry. Publishers would no longer allow writers early access to their games, so reviewing video games would be harder to do. The trust between publisher and journalist needs to exist to create a cohesive environment.

Polygon.com has been criticized in the past of being biased and vastly opinionated. As a fairly big video gaming news site, it walked away from this snafu without a scratch. The integrity of the site has fallen to an all-time low, but they continue to get early access to games to review them, access to exclusive events to report them and a viewership to read their articles. Had they been a smaller company or website, I believe they would have been crushed under the weight of a big budget lawsuit.

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