Sometimes it starts innocently enough. Maybe much of the game’s code is still under construction or it was written under great duress, so while you can freeze the game, you can’t yet capture some aspect of it, like the particle effects. The public relations people need ten new, never before-seen screenshots by tomorrow, because that’s the deal they put together with the magazine (exclusive content for them, many dedicated pages for the game), and the issue has a print deadline. Giving them screenshots of your title without a single explosion or muzzle flash or magic spell effect is unthinkable, so with the minutes ticking away, the solution is obvious: take the graphics the game itself uses to generate these elements and composite them over the source image. It’s not really dishonest, since you will just be doing by hand what the game does in real-time— or will do, when it all eventually works.
But then you’re there in Photoshop, staring at this screenshot for a good ten or twenty minutes. You notice there’s one character in particular, meant to be a menacing solider, caught mid-frame in an animation that unfortunately happens to make him look like he’s performing a comical dance. Of course it wouldn’t be too much extra work to swap him out for a different pose lifted from another screenshot you took but weren’t going to use. That’s not exactly disingenuous either, since when the guy is actually in motion in front of players, nobody will pick out that one frame of his animation where he looks like he badly has to pee. You’ve invested a chunk of your life on this game, working long hours at the expense of your social life and physical body, and the last thing you want is someone dismissing your effort or laughing at it on the basis of one single unlucky frame. Out he goes.
So at what point does a screenshot become a lie? Is there something distasteful about the way developers will gather everyone into a local multiplayer game and purposely choreograph the action? What about a completely accurate still of the game but captured at a resolution the software could not actually handle at thirty frames per second? Or an obviously fake image treated and distributed exactly like a screenshot, but cagily referred to as a “game image” by the publisher? For most, screenshots are a form of marketing, pure and simple, and so they fall prey to the same powerful influences that drive an entire industry in the world of commercial photography— where everything from retouching to complete fabrication is so routine and commonplace it hardly seems worth mentioning, let alone criticizing.
But: if what you are trying to do is real journalism, occasionally complaining about “bullshots” while reflexively running them most of the time anyway without any explanation is not exactly the way to do it. If you’re trying to take yourself seriously and position yourself as a writer of integrity, you should recognize this: if the only images you print in your publication are those that were explicitly designed to disguise artifice and gloss over flaws, then no matter how honest and penetrating your stories are, the visual elements that accompany them will still serve as the advertisements they were always meant to be. Doing things the right way isn’t overly complicated; simply attributing images would be a great start. But if you don’t care to take this extra step, or don’t understand why it might be important, then stop complaining about the screenshots you get from the marketing department— and stop calling yourself a serious journalist.