The Death of Games Journalism Part 1: Journalism 101

Scrumpmonkey details the downfall of Games Journalism in his first of a series of articles

Header DoGJ

Part One of A multi-part se­ries, vis­it the parts index

Games Journalism is dead. Or at least games jour­nal­ism in its cur­rent form is dead. From my per­spec­tive, there is no growth left in the “tra­di­tion­al” mod­el of games writ­ing. But the ques­tion is “Who killed Games Journalism?” And the an­swer is sim­ple: Games Journalists, or at least the peo­ple trad­ing on un­earned jour­nal­is­tic cre­den­tials.  I’m go­ing to quote my­self from my in­tro­duc­to­ry piece for this site be­cause I feel it’s im­por­tant to know where I am com­ing from:

I am not a jour­nal­ist. I hold no jour­nal­ism de­gree or cre­den­tials. I would feel in­ept break­ing a large sto­ry of real con­se­quence be­cause of this fact. But I be­lieve that as ‘just a blog­ger’ you have to have a set of stan­dards and let an au­di­ence know where you are com­ing from.

For in­stance I would nev­er ex­ag­ger­ate or know­ing­ly put false or mis­lead­ing in­for­ma­tion into any of my writ­ing, even to ‘make a point’. I want peo­ple to un­der­stand my point and per­suade them to share my be­liefs, but not at the cost of those beliefs.”

side1The Blogger/Journalist dilem­ma is one that has plagued re­cent con­tro­ver­sies in games me­dia and is at the heart of the iden­ti­ty cri­sis of the medi­um. It’s be­come al­most a joke, with peo­ple adopt­ing what­ev­er ti­tle suites them best at any giv­en mo­ment. You see writ­ers for Kotuku and Polygon say­ing “We don’t strive for ob­jec­tiv­i­ty” or “We are bias.” You see Leigh Alexander say, “I have an agen­da” and rev­el in the fact that all of her writ­ing stems from that. After enough ex­am­ples of this you be­gin to see the de­gen­er­a­tion of the medi­um. You can’t dis­avow in­tegri­ty, stan­dards, ob­jec­tiv­i­ty of method and ethics and still ex­pect to be con­sid­ered a jour­nal­ist. If you say “Fuck you! I’m just go­ing to talk about my ide­ol­o­gy and my per­son­al gripes” then well done: you just talked your­self out of be­ing a jour­nal­ist. You can blog about what­ev­er you feel like, go nuts, no one is try­ing to si­lence you. But the word “jour­nal­ist” comes with expectations.

I’ll say it once again: I am not a jour­nal­ist. I have not earned that. I would nev­er ex­pect the lev­el of ac­cess a jour­nal­ist gets.

It all comes down to one thing: ac­cess. When you say “I work for a ma­jor gam­ing news and re­view out­let,” that gives you cer­tain perks. Perks that come in ex­change for be­ing a jour­nal­ist. GDC, PAX, TGS and es­pe­cial­ly E3 all have heavy ad­van­tages for peo­ple who are jour­nal­ists. If a pub­lish­er con­sid­ers you to have jour­nal­is­tic cre­den­tials then you have ear­li­er pre­views, ear­li­er re­views, de­vel­op­er ac­cess, in­ter­view ac­cess, con­ven­tion pass­es, swag upon sway, and re­view copies. The list goes on. But it is a give and take. If you talk down your jour­nal­is­tic in­tegri­ty then don’t be sur­prised when the pub­lish­ers take your toys away from you. When E3 rolls around, these peo­ple play se­ri­ous jour­nal­ist, but when they get caught cov­er­ing their friends sud­den­ly it’s just a blog.

Patreon is not a pub­li­ca­tion. If you write about games and you don’t hold your­self to a set of jour­nal­is­tic stan­dards, or are not even at­tached to a pub­li­ca­tion then a pub­lish­er or de­vel­op­er will have to eval­u­ate you on au­di­ence. And there is a big que of peo­ple be­fore you in terms of raw num­bers. It’s an open se­cret (and an is­sue I am go­ing to close out this se­ries with) that the tra­di­tion­al games me­dia gets ab­solute­ly curb-stomped by even mid-sized gam­ing stream­ers and Youtubers. If we are just in a war for clicks then you as an in­di­vid­ual jour­nal­ist are at a mas­sive disadvantage.

Do you think IGN would get as many clicks if it didn’t have “ex­clu­sive pre­views” of games? The thing that sets most gam­ing pub­li­ca­tions apart from their com­peti­tors is get­ting news first. It’s all about be­ing first to the sto­ry and that can be a detri­ment. The race to be first is old news, the race to make peo­ple an­gry seems to be the new trend. What is re­al­ly rot­ting away games writ­ing is click­bait. Not just “Top 10 Ways to Insert your Controller in Yourself” fluff bull­shit, I’m tak­ing about man­u­fac­tured con­tro­ver­sy. Gawker me­dia is at the front of the charge in this. I’ve tak­en to call­ing parts of the gaming/tech/nerd press “The Gawkerazzi” be­cause of their sim­i­lar MO. Clickbait is short-sighted and it does not breed loy­al­ty. This has some over­lap with what I will say in the next piece about the busi­ness side of games writ­ing, but you don’t fos­ter a hard­core fan base with click­bait. It sim­ply lures pass­ing ca­su­al browsers.

What this re­al­ly comes down to is hard re­al­i­ty. Here are two things that should make any­one who has said “Objectivity isn’t some­thing to strive for” evap­o­rate in shame: The Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics and the Greg Lisby in­ter­view.  This re­al­ly is Journalism 101: a jour­nal­is­tic ethics pro­fes­sor and as close as we have to a uni­ver­sal code of ethics.

Seek Truth and Report It: Ethical jour­nal­ism should be ac­cu­rate and fair. Journalists should be hon­est and coura­geous in gath­er­ing, re­port­ing and in­ter­pret­ing in­for­ma­tion.” –SPJ code of ethics.

This isn’t an ex­clu­sive­ly GamerGate piece, the is­sues here are big­ger than GamerGate. Some of the most bla­tant ex­am­ples of these rules be­ing ig­nored has been the cov­er­age of is­sues re­lat­ed to gam­ing and sex­ism. In my piece for Word of the Nerd Online I out­line not only how in­ept this cov­er­age has been, but how it’s some­times full of fla­grant lies that can be dis­proven with the slight­est ef­fort. Even the main­stream cov­er­age has latched onto and am­pli­fied these lies. When you stop up­hold­ing and seek­ing the truth you stop be­ing a jour­nal­ist. This is why I feel I can say Games Journalism is dead: be­cause al­most no main­stream pub­li­ca­tion seems in­ter­est­ed in the truth. Moreover they seem to want to bury it for their own gain.

side2Fairness is an area that seems to have no thought or ef­fort put into it. “Bias is good” is not some­thing a jour­nal­ist should ever say, even when talk­ing about an opin­ion piece. What they mean is “Subjectivity.” Here is the dic­tio­nary de­f­i­n­i­tion of bias:

Bias: Inclination or prej­u­dice for or against one per­son or group, es­pe­cial­ly in a way con­sid­ered to be unfair”

For Contrast here is the dic­tio­nary de­f­i­n­i­tion of Subjectivity:

Subjectivity refers to how someone’s judg­ment is shaped by per­son­al opin­ions and feel­ings in­stead of out­side in­flu­ences. Subjectivity is par­tial­ly re­spon­si­ble for why one per­son loves an ab­stract paint­ing while an­oth­er per­son hates it.”

So what they are say­ing is that they ex­pect work to show clear and un­fair prej­u­dice against an idea or per­son. Subjectivity, a well backed up dif­fer­ent view­point is fine, that is an opin­ion based on your own per­son­al feel­ings, you can’t mit­i­gate all of your per­son­al fac­tors but you can at least try not to skew your work. A Bias opin­ion is still some­thing that should not be tol­er­at­ed, be­cause by de­f­i­n­i­tion bias is “Unfair.” So when a jour­nal­ist starts wax­ing lyri­cal about how bias is not a bad thing, maybe they should look up the mean­ing of the word first. This piece is sub­jec­tive, it is an ed­i­to­r­i­al, but I don’t have any fi­nan­cial or per­son­al rea­son to be writ­ing this. I don’t get paid, I do it for free. This is my opin­ion, but I don’t feel I have any fac­tors un­fair­ly skew­ing that opinion.

Act Independently: The high­est and pri­ma­ry oblig­a­tion of eth­i­cal jour­nal­ism is to serve the pub­lic.”   –SPJ code of ethics.

This is prob­a­bly go­ing to come up as a trope in this se­ries. Games Journalism is about serv­ing peo­ple in­ter­est­ed in videogames. It sounds so sim­ple, but at­ti­tudes have drift­ed away from this goal. Consumer ad­vice. Furthering un­der­stand­ing.  This is the main aim of games jour­nal­ism. If you are not of­fer­ing good con­sumer ad­vice or in­ter­est­ing analy­sis then what are you do­ing writ­ing about videogames? What are you do­ing call­ing your­self a journalist?

DoGJ side 3“Be Accountable and Transparent: Ethical jour­nal­ism means tak­ing re­spon­si­bil­i­ty for one’s work and ex­plain­ing one’s de­ci­sions to the pub­lic. Journalists should Avoid con­flicts of in­ter­est, real or per­ceived. Disclose un­avoid­able con­flicts.”
–SPJ code of ethics.

You serve your read­ers, you are ac­count­able to them. If you don’t act with­out bias or are work­ing on be­half on an in­ter­est, be that po­lit­i­cal or fi­nan­cial, you act against your read­ers. Doubling down and in­sult­ing those who try and hold you to ac­count is dou­bling down on vi­o­lat­ing your jour­nal­is­tic ethics and in­tegri­ty.  You stop be­ing a jour­nal­ist when this line is crossed.

The Greg Lisby in­ter­view just helps to un­der­line this; here we have the is­sues laid out clear as day by a pro­fes­sor of jour­nal­is­tic ethics no less. You can’t be a jour­nal­ist and ex­pect to get away with vi­o­lat­ing ba­sic jour­nal­is­tic prac­tices. I know I keep re­peat­ing my­self on this point but this is the real crux of the is­sue.  I could site ex­am­ples all day, and I will cer­tain­ly re­fer back to the SPJ code in the parts to come, but I think for the mo­ment this un­der­lines how they fail to live up to their title.

You want a sub­jec­tive, even dare I say bias, opin­ion? Here’s one: I wouldn’t wipe my arse with the cur­rent crop of videogame jour­nal­ists. They are in­ept, pet­ty, ide­o­log­i­cal­ly blink­ered and be­yond cor­rupt. They are less than use­less. If you can’t up­hold the ba­sic pro­fes­sion­al re­quire­ments of be­ing a jour­nal­ist then you sim­ply aren’t one. Stuffing feath­ers up your butt does not make you a chick­en. Just writ­ing re­gur­gi­tat­ed news and bias ed­i­to­ri­als does not make you a jour­nal­ist. You have to earn it.  You could prob­a­bly train a smart sheep­dog to write up the se­ries of PR re­leas­es that is mod­ern gam­ing news. What el­e­vates you is what you do when the time comes to step up to the plate; to break a sto­ry or not with­er in the face of a con­tro­ver­sial is­sue. As the rest of this se­ries will show, this is a task the vast ma­jor­i­ty of the press have failed in al­most every case.

Every time I sit down to write about this I try to be cold and an­a­lyt­i­cal but as you look at the facts you can’t help but think; “Holy Christ, these are the peo­ple who have been en­trust­ed to cov­er a grow­ing multi-billion dol­lar in­dus­try?!” When you have for­mer Neo-Nazi, dis­graced for­mer Reddit mod­er­a­tor and Gameranx own­er Ian Miles Cheong say­ing things like: “Ethics in Game Journalism? It’s fuck­ing Game Journalism. Who gives a fly­ing fuck? Holy Shit” and the rest of the games media/industry does not back away from him at the speed of sound then we have a mas­sive prob­lem. (Author’s note 27/04/2016: Ian Miles Cheong has since changed his stance on these is­sues and even gave an apol­o­gy for some of his for­mer state­ments in an in­ter­view with SuperNerdLand)

DoGJ insert 1

It’s ba­sic. It’s so ba­sic that the things they get wrong don’t even re­quire deep analy­sis at times. Professionalism on so­cial me­dia is lack­ing, there is so much con­fu­sion about how and when you should re­cuse your­self from a sto­ry, there is seem­ing­ly com­plete con­tempt about the prac­tice of lim­it­ing bias. This stems from the afore­men­tioned lack of train­ing and I think an un­earned sense of ar­ro­gance and entitlement.

side4Here’s a de­press­ing ex­er­cise for you: name ten peo­ple work­ing in videogame jour­nal­ism to­day that both have a jour­nal­is­tic de­gree (or rel­e­vant equiv­a­lent) and could be said to up­hold the SJP code of ethics. Steven Totillo, EiC of Kotaku, has a Masters in Journalism but he seems to have no prob­lem print­ing un­ver­i­fied, fake, even li­belous con­tent and has ex­pressed com­plete con­tempt for the idea of try­ing to re­ject bias and clear up per­son­al con­flicts of in­ter­est. Erik Cain is a man who I think up­holds the eth­i­cal side of jour­nal­ism very well, but he has no for­mal jour­nal­ism train­ing. The only per­son who I could say with some cer­tain­ty has up­held both would be Alistair Pinsof. He pret­ty much got run out of town by his fel­low jour­nal­ists and is now even more of a pari­ah for re­peat­ed­ly blow­ing the whis­tle on in­stances of al­leged im­pro­pri­ety. He is no longer a game jour­nal­ist and as one of the few to come into the field from out­side with a real de­gree, that’s sad­den­ing. The en­vi­ron­ment seems ac­tive­ly hos­tile to jour­nal­ists and ac­tu­al jour­nal­is­tic work. For the record I think Pinsof did the right thing in the Chloe Segal case; out­ing her trans sta­tus was an in­te­gral part of ex­pos­ing her fraud. It’s a sad in­dict­ment of Destructoid they put sen­si­tiv­i­ty be­fore ex­pos­ing a bla­tant case of mis­ap­pro­pri­at­ing funds. But hey, as the own­er of Destructoid said “Nowhere On My Site Does It Say We Are Journalists.” I sup­pose all those press pass­es were hand­ed out in er­ror then?

So we find our­selves in a po­si­tion where most of those who cov­er games could not be de­scribed as “jour­nal­ists” with a straight face. Maybe the prob­lem was that Game Journalism nev­er re­al­ly ex­ist­ed in the first place. But then why did peo­ple self-label as jour­nal­ists? Well apart from work­ing to seem more qual­i­fied and im­por­tant than they are. How can we have a gam­ing press with­out qual­i­fied and pro­fes­sion­al jour­nal­ists? I think the an­swer is we can’t and we don’t.

I may not be a game journalist.

But nei­ther are they.

Continued in Part 2: Business 101

Visit the the Parts Index


The fol­low­ing two tabs change con­tent below.
John Sweeney is a ter­ri­bly British man with a back­ground in en­gi­neer­ing. He writes long-form ed­i­to­r­i­al con­tent with analy­sis of gam­ing, games me­dia and in­ter­net cul­ture. He also does the oc­ca­sion­al video game ret­ro­spec­tive with a week­ly col­umn about Magic the Gathering thrown in for good mea­sure. He also does most of our in­ter­views for some rea­son, we have no idea why. A staunch sup­port­er of free speech and con­sumer rights; skep­ti­cal of agen­da dri­ven me­dia and sus­pi­cious of un­ac­cou­table au­thor­i­ty but al­ways hope­ful for change.
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