Gamers' Perks, or 'Playola'?

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Tom Ham has strapped himself into the back seat of a barrel-rolling fighter jet. He has duked it out in a Las Vegas boxing ring. He has tumbled thousands of feet in free fall from a plane. He has spent the night in a creepy medieval castle in England. And he has attended the premiere of "Ocean's 11" with its stars Julia Roberts and Brad Pitt.

Ham lives a life any 10-year-old boy would love. When he's not flying first class, riding around in limos or attending the Super Bowl, the 34-year-old spends eight hours a day--five days a week--playing video games sent free to his Reston, Va., home.

As one of several dozen opinion makers in the $20-billion global games industry, Ham is showered with gifts and travel by publishers and developers eager for him to bless their latest shooter, racer or dungeon crawler.

"There are times when I'd be on a trip Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday. Then I'd go home on Friday in time to drop off and pick up my cleaning and be off again," said Ham, who's racked up more than 100,000 miles each of the last three years in frequent flier miles on video game junkets. Called "playola" by some in the industry, the exotic trips and over-the-top outings are used by video game companies to drum up buzz for their titles. Once relegated to obscure fan magazines, the reach and influence of game reviewers have spread to mainstream magazines and newspapers as revenues from the video game industry eclipse movie box office receipts.

So it's little surprise that video game junkets now rival the lavish, flashy soirees sponsored by the movie and music industries.

Although there's no evidence that the junkets generate more positive reviews, they do produce more publicity for some middle-of-the-road games that might otherwise draw little attention.

"It's the nature of marketing," said Glenn Rubenstein, a longtime game journalist from Petaluma, Calif. "It creates vast awareness and sometimes gives some games a false sense of priority."

Games differ from other entertainment media in that they are interactive. Players control the action, and they are demanding ever-higher levels of realism. Since few have ever raced a stock car or piloted a jet or called plays for the NFL, sponsored adventures give reviewers such as Ham unique firsthand experience. A reviewer can better appreciate the physics of, say, an aerial combat game if he loses his lunch in an F-14--or so goes the rationale.

For some game journalists, the trips are mainly a means of getting a job done. They're often the only ways to grab interviews and get their hands on games still in development. But critics call them a blatant attempt to buy favorable coverage.

"These are young journalists writing for young readers," said Keith Woods, who teaches journalism ethics at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla. "The question is whether there's a way for them to get the information they need without having to jump out of airplanes or spend the night in a castle."

The vast majority of game reviewers are men in their 20s and 30s. Many started writing when they were teenagers drawn to the business as star-struck fans. Although most eventually learn to shrug off the special treatment, some can't handle the responsibility.

"You see young guys coming in, getting sucked into the parties," Rubenstein said. "There's an addictive quality to these things. They begin to think, 'Hey, I can do this all the time!' And they forget to cover the games.

"I've seen lots of people burn out. I remember being this 17-year-old kid, being flown around and taken to fancy dinners, hanging out with older kids. Imagine doing that and having to go home so you can study for a test at school the next day. It was nuts."

Hollywood has celebrities to draw journalists and technology companies have expensive gadgets, but game companies often rely on extracurricular activities to lure writers. And over the years, the events have become increasingly elaborate. But they didn't start that way.

The video game junket arguably dates back more than 10 years, when fan magazine writers had little access to information on upcoming titles. Sega Corp. decided to change that. It held a daylong conference in San Francisco to inundate journalists with details on the company's upcoming titles. The access gave Sega a lot of ink.

"Until then, Japanese game companies had a reputation for being horrible with the press," said Rubenstein, who attended the Sega event as a 14-year-old freelancer and is now 26. "Sega struck the first blow. There was no polish. They just got everyone into a hotel conference room for eight hours while product managers showed us games. It was like an insurance seminar."

But it worked. Reviewers returned from the meeting and wrote up every game they saw.

In the ensuing years, Sega flew the press to Disney World, hosted hundreds of journalists in Alcatraz and footed the bill for rides on an F-14 combat jet.

Other companies followed the lead.

Last year, Codemasters, a British game developer, took journalists to a gym in Las Vegas to tout its "Mike Tyson Boxing" game. The company paid a professional boxing trainer to give them a few lessons, and then let them box while two bikini-clad "ring girls" looked on. One writer got a bloody nose and another a dislocated shoulder.

Take Two Interactive hosted an event in the Arizona desert to promote its new combat driving games. Writers, dressed in camouflage, practiced drive-by shootings with 9-millimeter Glock handguns while driving Jeeps at high speeds.

For "Syphon Filter 2," published by 989 Studios, the writers were given SWAT team training in Tucson and supplied with facemasks, goggles, paint guns and maps. After the training, they played out a mock rescue operation that left some bruised and bloodied.

A game set in a dungeon was previewed to the press in a 12th-century English castle complete with jousting knights and bows and arrows as parting gifts. A jet skiing game was promoted at a Dana Point resort, where writers spent the day getting massages and soaking up the sun on actual jet skis. A horror action game was unveiled at a haunted house in the Santa Cruz mountains, where the evening's entertainment was a Blair Witch-style treasure hunt.

When such trips are strung together back-to-back, life on the junket circuit can be grueling.

"I was home for all of four days in July and August last year," said Todd Mowatt, a veteran freelance game reviewer from Toronto. "It was nuts."

But swanky accommodations and other perks can ease the pain.

Junket writers have stayed at the Mondrian Hotel, the Standard and the St. Regis in Los Angeles, the Hudson Hotel in New York, W Hotel in San Francisco, the Four Seasons in Tokyo. Limousines courier them from place to place.

"I had a personal butler once come press my clothes and shine my shoes," Ham said.

For the companies, it's worth the expense--anywhere from $20,000 to $100,000. They compare the tab with the often higher cost of advertising in magazines or on television. The events also bring dozens of writers to one place, obviating the need for companies to go on long road shows to promote their games or fly journalists to development studios that may be scattered throughout the world.

"It gives us valuable one-on-one time with the media," said Marci Ditter, director of public relations and promotions for Midway, a game publisher based in Chicago. In July, Midway brought 25 journalists--paying the way for most of them--to Amberley Castle in West Sussex, England, to promote "Legion: The Legend of Excalibur," a game set for release this fall.

Midway and other companies insist they don't expect quid pro quo in terms of coverage. Most say they simply hope to establish good relations with the game journalists while giving them relevant information.

"Journalists aren't obligated to cover the games at all," Ditter said. "We see this as building brand awareness."

Ethicists disagree.

"It's clear that the idea behind any junket is to curry favor with the reviewer," said Woods of the Poynter Institute. "The more substantial the entertainment, the clearer the intent of the host."

Because of the potential conflict of interest, most game publications, including Computer Gaming World, PC Gamer and Official PlayStation Magazine and some online sites such as GameSpot and GameSpy have policies against taking free trips and accepting gifts worth more than $25 to $100. "We have to pick up the tab pretty much everywhere we go," said Amer Ajami, senior editor at GameSpot, a San Francisco-based online game news site owned by CNet Networks.

The policies, however, are unevenly enforced, according to several junket organizers. Often, the rules don't apply to freelancers, who work independently and sell their articles to a variety of publications.

But freelancer or not, no writer will admit to being swayed by the extravaganzas.

"You can wine and dine me all you want, but if your game [stinks], I have no qualms saying the game is awful," said Ham, who freelances for publications including the Washington Post, USA Today and GameSpy. In his review of "Time Crisis II," Ham wrote that the game's story line was "a bit thin." That was after he was brought to a Las Vegas target range for practice with an Uzi submachine gun.

Ham's editor at the Post, Rob Pegoraro, said the paper cannot dictate how its freelancers spend their time. But it does have a policy against free trips for both staff writers and freelancers working on behalf of the newspaper. Pegoraro said he was not aware of some of the junkets Ham attended and would have advised against them had he known.

"Tom's reviews can stand on their own," Pegoraro said. "On the other hand, he--like every writer, freelance or staff--needs to think about how his actions might look to his readers."

The Los Angeles Times, Newsweek, USA Today and Gannett News Service also have printed the work of freelancers who have accepted junkets. These publications, too, have policies that forbid all writers from accepting free trips and accommodations. When staff writers do attend, their employers pay the tab.

That still leaves a raft of writers from "fanzines" who may work without limits. And impressing them gets harder all the time.

"Game journalists are so jaded," said George Ngo, a former game writer who is now a public relations manager for Tecmo Ltd., a Japanese game publisher. "You really have to pull something out of a hat to make it memorable. So each year, it gets bigger, brighter, glitzier and louder."

alex.pham@latimes.com

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