Over at Next Generation there's an article discussing the possible conflict of interest that is generated when game publishers and developers shower game journalists with free games, free trips, free parties, and free promotional items. There's concern that reviews are being tainted by these freebies and that reviewers are more apt to look favorably on a game if the company behind it throws in a free HDTV along with the review copy.
As a professional game reviewer I'm sent some neat goodies from time to time. Mario Superstar Baseball came with a beach ball with the game logo on it. Mario Party 6 was packed in with a nifty little clock. Donkey Konga 2 included a small pouch of chocolate coins. They're nice little diversions, but they don't influence the scores I award to games. I loved Baseball, but what am I going to do with a beach ball? Donkey Konga 2 wasn't so great, and I can't eat chocolate without becoming terribly ill. However, the chocolate gift didn't persuade me to give the game a poor review. The Mario Party 6 clock is still sitting on my shelf near my computer, and I absolutely hated the game. In fact, I'd be more inclined to give the clock a higher score than the game it came with. Toys are nice, but they don't impact my feelings towards a game.
Then there's the issue of all of the free swag handed out at E3. I brought home a sack of freebies just like everyone else, but I can't say any of the items I picked up sway me in one direction or the other in regards to the games these items represent. The Zelda: Twilight Princess trailer on a DS game card is probably my favorite piece of E3 swag, and unlike everyone else I know at AMN I didn't sell mine on eBay. I'm keeping it. I collect rare game-related objects just like it. Does the fact that I have it make Twilight Princess a better game in my eyes? Certainly not. I am predisposed to liking Zelda games because I have such a history with them, but possessing a trailer for the game in an unusual format doesn't press any of my buttons. If the game should turn out to be terrible, why would I want to rewatch the trailer? Likewise, if the game is great why would I want to rewatch the trailer when I could play the game?
The only piece of E3 swag that I use on a regular basis, in fact, is the Mario Kart stylus that Nintendo handed out to everyone who took Mario Kart DS and Animal Crossing: Wild World for a test drive. This stylus is much larger than the little plastic ones that come with the Nintendo DS. It's the size and thickness of a decent pen. It makes playing touchscreen games so much easier. However, not everyone has one of these styluses, so when I review DS games I put it away and use the regular standard issue stylus. The gray one, not the pink one that Nintendo is giving away to anyone who registers Kirby Canvas Curse.
Other E3 handouts are of limited use. I can't wear a t-shirt that's two sizes too small, so possessing a Conker: Live and Reloaded t-shirt doesn't convince me to like or dislike the Microsoft Xbox game. I received a little Mario Kart remote control racer when I won a Mario Kart DS tournament at E3, but after racing it around my home for a few minutes, I packed it back into the box and haven't taken it out since. Demo discs for consoles that I don't own are worthless to me. Printed material is neat to read through once or twice, but that's about it. I do not see how a promotional handout could hope to sway my opinions regarding video games. Then again, nobody has ever offered me something of actual value, such as a free HDTV. I like to think I'd take the high road if I were ever offered one, but unless it came with unreasonable strings attached, I'd probably take it. I'm only human, after all. A bad game is still a bad game though, so I also like to think I wouldn't be blinded by high definition and would score the associated game fairly. That is one of those ethical quandaries I will cross when and if I come to it.
Then there are review copies of games. At AMN the review department is allowed to keep review copies as payment. Every game that I've reviewed for AMN I still have in my game library. Sometimes I return to them during some downtime, sometimes not. Knowing that I get to keep the game is a perk; I've saved so much money on my gaming budget since I became a game reviewer. I can't say that influences my review process, however. If a game turns out to be terrible, I'm stuck with it. If a game is great, that's one less game I need to purchase on my own. I want to keep the great games because they are great, not because they are free.
When it comes to receiving free consoles at the launch of a new product, you wouldn't believe how many people apply to join AMN and ask right away "So I get a free PSP, right?" No, you don't. Free consoles and accessories have to be earned, and even then they're not guaranteed. At AMN we're on our own for accessories. When I reviewed Donkey Konga 2 I had to buy my own bongos. Did I look down on the game because I had to spend my own money in order to review it? No, because it's all part of the occasional cost of doing business. Mario Party 6 came with a microphone, on the other hand. I didn't boost the game's score because it came with a free accessory. The microphone added little to the game and I haven't used it since I put Mario Party 6 back on the shelf.
Freebies are just a part of the game journalism business. It's important to look beyond the feeling of "hey, it's free!" and remember why game reviewers are in the business in the first place: to tell the people which games are worth their time and money and which are not. If a reviewer's ethics appear to be compromised, then that person's reviews no longer carry persuasive weight with readers. I do my best to remain unbiased in my reviews no matter what the freebie that comes with the game or my past association with a character franchise. While free games and toys are fun, I take the work itself quite seriously. After all, somebody has to warn the world about such atrocities and cash-grabs as Mario Party 6 and Donkey Konga 2.