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Borderlands 3 Microtransactions Drama: Why Semantics Reporting Matters

Hoo boy, here we go.

As you may be aware by now, while all the hype for Borderlands 3 is in full gear due to some press hands on as well as a public-facing reveal event, we couldn’t get through the day without a little drama. Chandler covers what happened and why in his Daily Reaction column, but I wanted to get into the issue a bit from the journalistic perspective. As an official journalism degree-holder, it’s important for me to use it sometimes use my appreciation of certain concepts to defend the profession when the opportunity arises. In this case, we’re talking about semantics, specifically why Game Informer needed to cover the matter in the first place. Pitchford’s understandable frustration over his word choice versus what he actually meant is unfortunate, but not Game Informer’s problem.

This situation in particular is a little weird, and does show some issues with how information is spread from media outlets to readers. Pitchford’s issue isn’t actually with Game Informer’s article on its own. The piece, written by associate editor Elise Favis, is about as straightforward as it gets. The headline is “Borderlands 3 Won’t Have Loot Boxes,” the story starts with Pitchford’s “microtransactions” quote and goes on to clarify what is actually happening with Borderlands 3.

What Pitchford is actually upset about is Game Informer’s tweet on the article, which reads, “Despite Gearbox CEO Randy Pitchford’s comment about ‘no microtransactions’ in Borderlands 3 during today’s livestream, we’ve been told cosmetic items are still purchasable.” To Randy, the use of “despite” frames the story as if he deliberately misled his audience. This led to everything else, including Pitchford’s murky attempts to justify his use of “no microtransactions,” several tweets tagging Game Informer’s editor in chief, and of course everyone on Twitter weighing in with their two cents.

Doing a Journalism

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In a very textbook sense, journalism revolves around the concept of “maximally relevant truth.” What that means can be up to interpretation, and a lot of the study of journalism is about navigating ethical questions that don’t have concrete answers. Also, knowing how to protect yourself from being sued as much as possible. What “maximally relevant” has generally come to mean is information in service to readers. A story becomes worth reporting on if it serves people who aren’t powerful enough to have access to information. Politicians and corporations often spin the truth, and journalists strive to be a check for that. This tweet puts it best:

In the world of video games, that duty to look out the window is super important. Video game development is one of the most closed-off industries in entertainment, with access to information beyond what comes in PR-approved or written press releases a rare thing. It’s why you often see stories of things like poor working conditions at places like NetherRealm and Rockstar only come from veteran reporters like Jason Schreier, because developers will not speak to journalists unless years of trust are established. Information that comes from releases, statements from executives, generally any information that is prepared ahead of time needs to be looked at under a microscope, because you can’t rely on it to be 100 percent truthful. That isn’t to say company representatives are liars, but often there are carefully-worded sentences that find ways to spin or obfuscate situations that could be a problem from the perspective of consumers or non-industry people. Outside of the Borderlands 3 snafu, we can look at some other recent messaging for an example.

As part of Epic Games’ continued efforts to disrupt the industry with large piles of money, the company purchased Psyonix, developer of Rocket League. A natural question to follow that news is what happens to Rocket League on Steam, where a significant portion of the userbase exists. As Variety’s Brian Crecente points out in the following tweet thread, the given press release on the acquisition manages to dance around what exactly is going to happen.

The Semantics of a Semantics Argument

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Now, back to the Game Informer’s Borderlands 3 tweet. The tweet necessarily calls attention to Pitchford’s “no microtransactions” statement, because it’s an important part of the story. Regardless of the greater context of what Randy was saying, “no microtransactions” is a loaded pair of words that can mean a lot to a lot of people, therefore is a required piece of the clarification. The key here is how to frame that statement, because as is the issue here, it’s totally possible to suggest malicious intent which obviously isn’t the case. “Despite Gearbox CEO Randy Pitchford’s comment” is about as objective as it gets. The subject made a comment, there is evidence of purchasable content that contradicts that comment, click the link for context. “Despite” is not a word that has inherently negative connotations in its modern usage; it is merely a tool to connect the contradiction to the full story.

Pitchford’s problem here is his interpretation of the tweet, which he believes will lead readers to believe he told a deliberate lie. Frankly, there is no way for the situation to be worded that won’t lead to that takeaway, because (and Randy is aware of this, hence his upset) feelings about microtransactions in games continue to boil over as each new AAA release comes out. Pitchford is also aware of his reputation, which he acknowledges to some extent in one of his many tweets on the matter. We don’t need to get into that here, but it does inform his sensitivity. His concern over his reputation is clear as day if you take a look at the following tweet:

Here, Pitchford offers a suggestion for an alternate tweet, which ironically is much more “clickbait” than the original. The key is that it completely removes himself from the headline. What he is trying to do here is absolve himself entirely of the confusion caused by his own words, which is an attempt on that spin I’ve referenced earlier in this piece. By framing the headline as Game Informer answering a question, the context is completely removed. Why would anyone be confused about the microtransactions in Borderlands 3? It’s because of Pitchford’s choice of words, but the reader would have no idea based on that suggested tweet. In reality, the statement is a key component of the story, therefore calling attention to it is justified. Not calling it a lie is also important, and Game Informer’s use of “despite” serves that purpose as adequately as any other synonym would.

The purpose of this piece isn’t to dogpile onto Randy Pitchford, or defend Borderlands 3, or jump onto a bandwagon for easy clicks. We live in a moment of journalism being at its most vulnerable it has been in a long time. We see attacks on “fake news” on a daily basis, and even in the world of something as harmless as video games, writers constantly have to defend themselves over review scores, attempts to hold executives accountable, and even their own opinions on whether or not a game is fun. So when I see a totally uncontroversial sentence from a respectable outlet come under fire from the subject of a report, I make a point to go over the details. In this case, while Pitchford’s upset over the situation is understandable – he was ultimately trying to draw attention to a positive aspect of Borderlands 3 – going after a journalist for a misunderstanding caused by his own words is disappointing to say the least. Especially in today’s social environment.