Giving away video game systems...it's part and parcel of the games industry. Companies dispatch review units perennially and often expect them to remain where sent. But giving them away as "gifts" to thousands of people during a live round-the-world broadcast, including the ginormous iconic screens in Times Square? I'd call that pretty much unprecedented.
That's just what Microsoft did Monday afternoon at its E3 press show, as the clock ticked toward noon and we waited for the final shoe to drop, elbow-to-elbow in rows of armless seats.
Not only was Microsoft's new slimline Xbox 360 with integrated WiFi and a 250GB hard drive shipping to stores immediately--in a flash, it was also shipping to each and every one of us. A "gift." Or, as others have suggested, perhaps a bribe.
Well, not a Bribe, capital 'B'. More like an inducement, lower-case 'i'. A way of very subtly suggesting something like: "When you're thinking about who you love, just remember--we're the guys that give you stuff."
Before I look said gift-behemoth in the mouth, let's imagine: US$300. Three-hundred dollars per system. Add shipping, let's say 15 pounds in weight, additional accessories to packing materials to boxing. Who knows what that totals, but it's not nothing, and you can multiply it (plus $300) times however many thousand of us were huddled in the Wiltern Theater at that moment, Monday afternoon.
What's that come to? Roughly half a million dollars? Did Microsoft really drop half a million bucks on the video games press? Does that sound insane to anyone else?
"It's not really a bribe," said a friend. "Think about it. They'd send you a review unit anyway."
True. And they would. But we're talking a lot of redundancy in that system. A lot of people getting Xbox 360s that already have Xbox 360s. A lot of folks who don't even review game consoles because that's not their gaming stock in trade.
Would it have been nobler if Microsoft promised to donate these newfangled Xbox 360s to a charity organization like Child's Play instead? Say one for every body in the audience? One for every 10 people?
It just seemed so very strange, watching everyone clapping, cheering, leaping out of their seats, as if we were all on Oprah, and she'd just announced that everyone in the viewing audience was getting a brand new car. Except this wasn't Oprah, and we weren't the "viewing audience." We were there to absorb and critique Microsoft's announcements and claims.
Is this where we're headed? Game shows with prize giveaways? Expensive "gifts" en masse for the games press?
"[Journalism's] practitioners must maintain an independence from those they cover."
What counts as "independence from Microsoft"? Refusal of the gift? Acceptance with conditions? Acceptance with none?
I'm not asking the games press, I'm asking readers. Because they're the ones relying on us to offer unvarnished opinions about the companies and products they might spend hundreds, and eventually thousands of dollars on.
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