Games Journalism Needs Better Audience

Blair Hanley Frank

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A few weeks ago, a good chunk of the game journalism world was fooled into believing a fake rumor about the future of the Xbox.

An anonymous source, claiming to have inside information, sent an email out to a bunch of gaming news outlets about the X-Surface, which the source claimed was the name for the upcoming iteration on Microsoft’s popular gaming console.

The X-Surface hoax was perfectly set up: The claims weren’t outlandish enough to arouse suspicion, with the hoaxer even confirming information from other rumor posts in order to continue to create a sense of legitimacy. The name X-Surface is just similar enough to existing Microsoft products to seem realistic, while still seeming new.

The hoax spread like wildfire, with dozens of blogs repackaging the concocted news in their own posts. When the hoax’s progenitor finally pulled back the curtain on the X-Surface sham, the Internet reacted with frustration. The overall response is probably best summarized by a Reddit commenter who said: “It truly is horrendous how the so-called gaming press gobbles up any nonsense thrown at them from any source whatsoever.”

Given that the first story was posted by a site that didn’t have any confirmation of the rumor’s accuracy, that indictment seems to be fair.

However, I find it overly simplistic to only lay the blame at the feet of the reporters who fell for the hoax. It’s true, they didn’t exercise due diligence in trying to corroborate the rumor they were fed, but at the same time, a number of somewhat perverse incentives in modern gaming media created an atmosphere that made publishing a fake rumor without any real attribution seem like a good idea.

Online journalism is largely paid for by serving ads to readers. The more eyeballs you bring to your site, the more ads they see (and potentially click on) and the more money you get paid. In order to bring people to your site, you need content that they want to read. Often, breaking news is a key part of drawing readers.

Unfortunately, when it comes to news like the X-Surface, readers don’t necessarily need to visit multiple sites to get a feel for what’s going on, because what’s really interesting about news stories is the news content itself. So, in order to keep a reader’s attention, most sites lift stories from other peer publications to stay up on the latest developments.

Speed is the name of the game in these re-blog wars. If you’re hours behind your competitors in posting the latest tidbit, odds are, any readers who would show up to view that content have already found it elsewhere, whether through social media or from another blog that they read. Those lost page views are money that your publication didn’t make.

The saga of the X-Surface shows just how easy it is to game that system with the right amount of finesse. But the reason why these rumors even went to press in the first place is that the consumers of gaming journalism can’t seem to get enough of the constant churning of the rumor mill.

Was bad reporting at fault in this case? Absolutely. But to only fault the poor judgment of the blogosphere avoids tackling the incentives that put the X-Surface to press in the first place. Want a better gaming media? Then consume better gaming media.

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