Why Video Game Press Events Sometimes Go Horribly Wrong

Why Video Game Press Events Sometimes Go Horribly Wrong
Photo: Kotaku

With the recent apology from CI Games, the studio creating Sniper Ghost Warrior: Contracts 2 who organised a particularly offensive press event, it’s cast my mind back a couple of decades, to the era when I would often go on such trips. It got me thinking about how easily games journalists can get caught up, and how hard it can be to say anything in the moment. In particular, one astonishingly inappropriate trip to Poland that featured Nazis, World War 2 jeeps, and Hitler’s bunker.

It was 2005, and I was 27 years old, working as a freelance games journalist for the UK’s print edition of PC Gamer. As a freelancer, it was perfectly normal for me to receive a call from my editor on a Monday, asking if I was able to fly to the States on Thursday.

Inevitably such trips would involve flying the 12 hours to CA, sleeping, getting up and visiting the developer’s studio for the day, sleeping, then flying the 11 hours home. (I always assumed it’s downhill on the way back.) No frills beyond a hotel room, maybe a nice meal in the evening, and an awful lot of jetlag through which to write up the article. It was cool, certainly, but it was pretty gruelling. This time, however, I was asked to head to Poland, a preview trip for Call Of Duty 2.

Over the years I went all over, from Sweden to Montreal to Hungary to North Carolina. Invariably you went where the developers were, whether that was swanky highrise offices, or what genuinely looked like a location from Half-Life 2 (hello Illusion Softworks). So when it was Poland, I figured a Polish developer was contributing to COD2. When we arrived to stay not in a hotel, but in an annex to what we were then told to be Eva Braun’s house, things started to feel a little weird.

Photo: Kotaku Photo: Kotaku

This isn’t a tale of my integrity — it’s the tale of a guy in his 20s, thrown into a very, very strange situation, who just went along with it because it was happening around him. I should also, before I get into just how awful this whole thing becomes, explain my ignorance too.

I am embarrassed to say that in my 20s I knew excruciatingly little about World War 2. Blame my education, blame my determination not to care about “history” because my dad loved it so much, blame me for being a dick, but I barely knew who Eva Braun was, and I certainly hadn’t heard of Wolf’s Lair. Which, it would turn out, was just down the road.

We slept the night in this building, and then in the morning after breakfast were told we were going on a journey. What pulled up outside was a convoy of 1940s US army jeeps. I have no idea how Activision got vintage US army jeeps to Poland, but there they were, open-topped with retro-fitted roll bars for us to cling on to. We piled into them, and then started hurtling down a dirt track through the woods, driven by men wearing authentic WW2 US army uniforms.

I will not lie. It was really cool. It felt quite astonishingly dangerous (I’ve long since forgotten how much I found out Activision had had to pay in insurance per person, but it was in five figures), as we bounced and rattled along the rough path. Right up until we all screeched to a halt, jeep behind jeep behind jeep, because of a large branch fallen across the track. Two of the “soldiers” jumped out to move it, at which point Nazis ran out of the woods from all around us, shot our drivers, and then harangued us into a group while shoving rifle butts in our backs.

Screenshot: Kotaku Screenshot: Kotaku

As I write this out, now in my 40s, a far less stupid person, I cannot believe it’s true. It should be a fever dream that I never shook. But it really happened. As we were barked at in German, pushed and shuffled along, we arrived at the entrance to Wolf’s Lair, to Hitler’s bunkers, the site of the failed 1944 assassination attempt. About which I knew nothing at the time

At that point the fourth wall was broken, and we were given a calm, informed tour of the site, and were told about the 20 July Plot to kill Adolf Hitler. In that moment, as we walked (with extraordinary freedom) about the site, climbing up 70-year-old ladders, clambering across the moss-and-bracken-strewn remains, I remember feeling a sense of horror and awe to be standing in places one of Earth’s most terrible humans had stood. The feeling was dramatically shattered by our being ushered into Hitler’s own bunker to… to watch a presentation of Call Of Duty 2 on some large flatscreen televisions that had been set up inside.

The incongruity of this technology — snakes of black wires running from coils across the stone floor, giant speakers stood either side of flat-panel screens, fucking Xbox 360s just sat there — made little coherent sense. It was bewildering. I sat there, watched a ridiculously bombastic trailer, and felt really damned weird.

What I should have done, of course, is get up and leave. I should have said something as I left about how wildly inappropriate this was, how tasteless and shameful, and then quietly asked a PR to be returned to the airport. I did none of that. I sat there and took notes, for the article I knew I’d have to write in a couple of days.

This emotional milieu then became even more muddled as we were shown videos of WW2 veterans, interviewed by the COD2 team, in order that they could tell their stories in the game. Powerful, passionate recounting from elderly men who will now be long dead, sharing painful memories because they wanted them said before they died. And, to give those early Call Of Duty games their due, this was something they delivered on.

Photo: Kotaku Photo: Kotaku

The next day we went to visit a U-boat loch, and met up again with the guys who’d been dressed as soldiers on either side. It turned out they were a war reenactment group from Poland, and they’d brought with them artefacts that had belonged to their grandparents when they’d served in the war. I chatted with one incredibly nice guy, who I of course immediately asked how he felt able as a Polish man to dress up as a Nazi. He explained two things.

Firstly, how as a war reenactment society they had grown fed up with shooting at trees, and decided someone had to take their lumps and play the baddies. But then secondly, he told me about his grandfather, a boy raised in Nazi Germany, drafted to fight in a war he didn’t believe in, part of the push into Poland. Where, astoundingly bravely, he defected to the other side, and fought back against Hitler’s troops for the rest of the war. This man was rightly bursting with pride about his grandfather, and wore his former Nazi uniform with a reverence becoming of the act. Oh, and we also spent some time playing the game.

We got back home, I wrote up my early preview of the game from what we’d seen and played, and made no mention of the extraordinary events I’d been through. I talked about the newly-invented particle effects, that it would make use of the next big tech in PCs, multicore processors, and my delight at the improved AI. I correctly predicted it would live up to the first game, and that was it. Because the only moments that influenced what I wrote were those spent playing. The rest wasn’t relevant, so it didn’t factor in. I’m not claiming to be Captain Integrity here, but, “We had a fun ride in a car!” isn’t going to make it into my copy.

I’m assuming what Activision wanted was purple prose. “As I sat there, in the very spot Hitler survived the assassination attempt by Claus von Stauffenberg and the rest of Operation Valkyrie, the living history of Call Of Duty 2 sung around me…” If it wasn’t supposed to influence the press’s coverage, they wouldn’t do it in the first place. Since publishers have been pulling this shit since before my time, and continue today with YouTubers and influencers, it must at least be believed to work. At the very least, it only very rarely backfires, as has just happened with Sniper Ghost Warrior: Contracts 2.

It bothers me a great deal that it might work. While the vast majority of the press trips I’ve been on have been entirely focused on visiting a studio to play the game and interview developers, there have been others that have — only discovered on arrival — been ridiculous jollies. I recall an Auto Assault trip (poor Auto Assault) that turned out to involve riding on 4×4 bikes and hovercrafts, before we got anywhere near a copy of the woefully mediocre game. I wrote about a woefully mediocre game. If it influences anyone, then frankly they’re a terrible journalist.

Photo: Kotaku Photo: Kotaku

I’m pretty far outside of this stuff these days. Most “event” trips are now focused on the more notoriously impressionable YouTubers and Twitch streamers, and while I co-ran RPS for ten years we mostly said no to any event-based pressers — it’s been well over a decade since I attended anything like that. (It’s worth noting that Kotaku takes a far firmer stance, and only attends press trips if they pay their own way, and very rarely even then.) It’s galling to read that they still happen, that there are still disastrous foul-ups like Contracts 2 just saw.

I like to think that had I been at that event, and been asked to pretend to shoot at people dressed as Arabs while the organisers yelled about killing Muslims, I’d have made quite a lot of noise as I left. I know I would today, old and tired as I am. But I also know how easy it would be not to.

It’s so hard when you’re there. It’s even harder when you’re in your 20s, working a freelance gig to just about scrape your rent next month, and you just get caught up in the madness. I wish I’d done better. I wish I’d recognised my situation and walked out of it. But I didn’t, and I completely understand why others don’t too. So while I believe the individual critics have a responsibility, and of course the publishers do too, the buck really stops with the editor. Editors have to better check what these events are going to be about, and make smarter choices about who they send, if they send anyone at all. And after the fact, when something like a Polish Nazi attack or Arab-shooting jolly occurs, editors need to make the call whether to offer any coverage at all.

Oh, and remind me to tell you the story about the time I was in Paris for Call Of Duty 3, and the police got called because of the Nazi flags hanging visible from the street.

Comments

  • So, what was the part that went horribly wrong? There were people pretending to be Nazi’s for a video game Press Event?

    I’m a bit confused about this part too…

    ‘I like to think that had I been at that event, and been asked to pretend to shoot at people dressed as Arabs while the organisers yelled about killing Muslims, I’d have made quite a lot of noise as I left. ‘

    Is that comparable to what he experienced? I don’t get it.

    • This.
      Literally what is wrong with this?
      Does it sound like it glorified nazis? Not at all.
      It sounds like it was showing how far the team went to get an accurate depiction of events from many angles and groups that had knowledge and hardware from the time.

      • I can understand if that was the initial intent but between the roleplay capture and running consoles through Hitler’s bunker like the world’s worst LAN party the end result was less than appropriate.

    • It’s about the author’s experience with the press event itself. They warped some terrible stuff from a region’s darkest period that they have nothing to do with personally into a fun little themepark tour to promote a video game. It’s not the same as the racism in the other story but it is another example of a completely tone deaf high budget press event that leaves you wishing you walked away at the first sign of trouble.

      • The region’s darkest period which also provides the context for countless movies, tv shows, books and video games such as the one this event was promoting. All those involved in working at the event were fine with it, even the author was fine with it at the time. Nothing racist, or even controversial about what occurred, I.e. some light role play and war stories followed by a gameplay demo.
        But now all of a sudden, in light of a completely unrelated incident the author tries to retroactively shoehorn his experience into a racist context.
        The event sounds completely tone appropriate given the source material to be honest.
        He says it’s not a ‘tale of his integrity’, but it really does come off that way.

        • I think you’re mistaking the fact the event he’s relating it to being overtly racist for him trying to claim this was racist. He’s claiming that like that event this one was in bad taste and made him uncomfortable, then providing his thoughts on the matter.

          In theory I agree that providing context for something set there is a good move but it’s pretty clear that if that was ever the intent they’d clearly moved beyond it and were simply using history as a prop to shill their game. Here’s where Hitler worked and died while leading one of the worst conflicts in modern history, and we’re extending the breakfast menu to all day, I’m Lovin’ It™!

          And just for the record I don’t think this article is particularly well written. You’re absolutely right to think he’s claiming it was racist because it’s a weird little recap that ends with him saying something that sounds like a direct comparison to the other event. He’s doesn’t establish his point well at the start and so when he talks about the Nazi uniforms it makes it seem like ‘oh, he finally seems to be trying to make a point’.
          Personally I think the better story here that he seems to want to go into is how this influences the influencers. This stuffs effectiveness was extremely questionable back in the day with actual journalists but with influencers it seems to work really well. The mixture of wowing them with VIP status and giving them content appears to win them over pretty easily.

          • I think that’s the issue. The article is so incoherent, it’s difficult to get what his point is.

          • The author sounds like he’s conflicted by the fact that they’re using places marred by horrific events and monetising them in a fun event to launch a game. I can’t remember if the games themselves ever tried to raise awareness about the IRL events (I’m not much of a COD fan), but clearly the war reenactment society involved in the event wanted to keep the memories of what happened alive for a variety of reasons and agreed for this specific purpose. The local conservation groups would’ve also agreed to let them into the sites. Reading this article, I myself am not too sure what to make of it, because it does feel in poor taste, but at the same time if they did this same event for a bunch of primary or high school kids I doubt they’d forget any of the historical details from the tour anytime soon (nor did John).

            I can only hope that Activision made a very large charitable donation to all of the conservation groups involved in maintaining the historical locations. Clearly John was put off enough by it not to attend anymore of these style events (and the Paris incident) and is likely the better for it since he’s reviewing the game and not the PR tour for the game. If Activision etc. wants to put these events on, they’d be better off sponsoring historical events for students it’d likely be better, because at least with a professional type tour or presentation they’d be getting something educational out of it instead of just books and documentaries.

    • The author is ashamed they weren’t woke enough to storm out in a huff.
      Now they’re attempting to get their side of the story out before twitter cancels them.

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