My first teaching gig was in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. To supplement my meager income and keep up with my student loan payments, I occasionally took jobs shooting industrial films for a large local brewery. These in-house films typically promoted certain aspects of the company's operation for consumption by investors and shareholders. In other words, they were propaganda films with a specific self-promotional agenda. The company made them to project an image of itself in the best possible light.
On the day of my first shoot, I learned a revealing truth about how that business works. The producer who hired me insisted that the actors not wear any makeup. He also requested that I change my lighting setups to give everything a flatter, less "Hollywood" look. When I asked why, he replied that he didn't want the project to look slick or over-produced. "Where there's makeup, there's money," he told me, "and we don't want that. Make it look real." He wanted a professionally produced film that wouldn't invalidate itself by looking too professional.
I was reminded of this when I finally got around to taking a look at Sci vs. Fi: Mass Effect, available for download on Xbox Live and originally aired on the Sci Fi Channel. On the surface, this program appears to be a Sci Fi Channel production, full of expert commentary from a variety of game journalists and Bioware representatives. It didn't take long, however, for the words of my old brewery boss to begin ringing in my ear: where there's makeup, there's money.
Sci vs. Fi: Mass Effect is a 30-minute infomercial. Its purpose is to entice me to plunk down $60 and buy this game. With no labeling or other information to inform me that the program is purely promotional, the show purports to examine the game and its connections to the science fiction genre. Nowhere is it mentioned that Microsoft struck a deal with the Sci Fi Channel to promote Mass Effect in exchange for sponsoring free screenings of the Sci-Fi Channel's 2-hour movie Battlestar Galactica: Razor in movie theaters across the US.
30 minutes of televised hyperbole heaped upon Mass Effect may try my patience and strain my credulity, but it's probably not worth getting terribly worked about. We see this kind of programming on American television all the time, and I think (hope?) that we're all becoming more savvy about the real purpose of these kinds of shows. Television is about selling us stuff, and most of us get that. As a gamer, my real concern regarding the Mass Effect infomercial is with who's doing the selling.
Geoff Keighley (GameHead, Entertainment Weekly, others), Paul Semel (GamePro, GameSpy, EGM, others), Jessica Chobot (IGN), Joel Gourdin (X-Play), and Heather Campbell (Play Magazine) appear on the program with a comedian, an actor, a UFC light heavyweight champ, and various BioWare personnel - all singing in perfect harmony the praises of Mass Effect. Their comments are frequently underscored with scenes from the game intended to illustrate their points - with high key lighting, subtle camera tracking and underscored music adding a slick professional sheen to these "interviews."
The message delivered is unmistakable: Mass Effect is the greatest, most ambitious, most revolutionary must-buy game ever made.
Much has been written lately about the state of game journalism, or if such a thing even exists. I think it does, but like most apects of this medium, it's emerging, defining itself, and prone to growing pains. We ought to examine the impact of advertising and corporate pressures on the media outlets who claim to bring us objective reporting on games and the game industry. Unfortunately, this isn't always easy to do, as the Jeff Gerstmann case illustrates, when so much happens behind the scenes.
But the Sci vs. Fi: Mass Effect case is a no-brainer. Keighley, Semel, Chobot, Gourdin, and Campbell should have known better. If we are expected to trust in their integrity as journalists--and I have read and admired Keighley and Semel's work--they and their colleagues must reject these kinds of shill gigs. They're unprofessional and, frankly, embarrassing.
Word to the wise: where there's makeup, there's money. Walk away from it.