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.