The Death of Games Journalism — Part 4: The Mobile Menace

Scrumpmonkey is here with Part Four of his Death of Games Journalism Series. This time detailing the Mobile Menace.

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Part Four of a multi-part se­ries. Start from the be­gin­ning of the se­ries, vis­it the Parts Index or read Part 3 – Woman Problems 

Games me­dia at large has a prob­lem with re­lat­ing to mo­bile games. Their prob­lem is they see them­selves as forward-facing into the in­clu­sive fu­ture of videogames, when it fact, they fo­cus on a nar­row seg­ment in their com­fort zone. Tech me­dia seems more at ease with the con­cept, but of­fers lit­tle depth past “holy shit these guys are mak­ing a lot of mon­ey, this must be the fu­ture!” with­out re­al­ly delv­ing into why mo­bile gam­ing is such a jug­ger­naut.  At the same time, the Gaming Press at­tempt­ed to shift their au­di­ence, us­ing sta­tis­tics made up of large­ly mo­bile gamers as the sup­posed ba­sis for their decision.

side mobile 1Back when the first social/mobile bub­ble was still be­ing blown, there was a great push on the part of gam­ing sites to make their ide­al gamer “less ex­clu­sion­ary”. The misog­y­ny nar­ra­tive hadn’t quite formed yet, but the finger-waving about be­ing ‘ex­clu­sion­ary’ was al­ready there in spades. They told us that the mo­bile and es­pe­cial­ly so­cial gam­ing mar­ket was the fu­ture and we were go­ing to have to stop “cling­ing to our toys” and deal with gam­ing be­com­ing this new thing. Perpetual point-misser and be­wil­dered old man Bob Chipman made a cring­ing­ly bad video in 2011 about how tablet gam­ing would kill en­thu­si­ast PC gam­ing stone dead… just be­fore the mar­ket start­ed grow­ing again. This was be­fore he con­vert­ed to the church of McIntosh, but you can see the seeds of the rhetoric there al­ready. He wasn’t alone; self-appointed an­a­lysts, the peo­ple who slaugh­ter goats to read the en­trails in an at­tempt to di­vine all what will be prof­itable, said that the tra­di­tion­al gamer’s days were num­bered, and tra­di­tion­al mod­els of game de­sign that were not ‘so­cial games’ would be­gin to die out.

Fast for­ward to 2015 and we see a much dif­fer­ent pic­ture. The press has put down the so­cial gam­ing stick and picked up the so­cial jus­tice stick to beat their au­di­ence with. There is a pal­pa­ble dis­dain for the ‘art­less’ mo­bile mar­ket with Forbes Writer Paul Tassi and oth­ers hav­ing to con­fess they had to re­search some of the games fea­tured in su­per­bowl half­time ads. What hap­pened to this “em­brac­ing of a new au­di­ence? Well, it seems they still do it when it is con­ve­nient. The worst cas­es of mis­used sta­tis­tics I’ve seen are two stud­ies that were spun and cherry-picked to say that the ma­jor­i­ty of gamers are now old­er women. Once again, the idea of a ho­mo­ge­neous kind of per­son who plays games be­ing uni­ver­sal­ly ap­plied is in action.

side mobile 5This is be­ing used as a jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for all kinds of moves away from the “tra­di­tion­al” gamer, even though there is no real data to show that the de­mo­graph­ic that ac­tu­al­ly reads tra­di­tion­al games jour­nal­ism is shift­ing. We al­ready have a ded­i­cat­ed mo­bile gam­ing press; if sites like Gamasutra, Polygon, and Kotaku want­ed to shift to be more ‘ac­ces­si­ble’ to this new gamer, they would have done it al­ready. Sites like TouchArcade and Pocket Gamer al­ready ex­ist, and even then, its doubt­ful play­ers on mo­bile look past the top of the var­i­ous store columns and the Android/iOS store rating.

The mo­bile space has been the big growth area, but not at the ex­pense of oth­er ar­eas like the hope­less­ly in­ept seemed to think; as I said in Part 2 of this se­ries, Business 101, gam­ing is a mas­sive in­dus­try that can and should cater to a se­ries of nich­es. Top-end PC gam­ing does not shrink or grow at the ex­pense of ca­su­al Android gam­ing, and vice-versa. I’ve al­ready cov­ered that ground a lit­tle, but I once again want to delve into the world of demographics.

It’s un­com­fort­able for some to ad­mit, but over a macro scale, fac­tors like age, gen­der, lo­ca­tion, etc. DO bear out cer­tain trends. They are not the be-all and end-all of someone’s pref­er­ence, but they do cre­ate sit­u­a­tions that, on the sur­face, may look like a mar­ket­place is “ex­clu­sion­ary”. Yes, mo­bile games are very pop­u­lar, and the hand­ful of jug­ger­nauts that dom­i­nate the mar­ket­place have a high num­ber of users… be­cause they ad­ver­tise them­selves as free. I shouldn’t have to ex­plain that the per­son play­ing Candy Crush on the train be­cause they have a smart­phone isn’t the same per­son who is go­ing to read your 12-page es­say gush­ing about your friend’s 2D pix­el art existential-crisis sim­u­la­tor. This also bleeds into the whole “women in gam­ing” prob­lem of broad-brushing; be­cause some­thing was cre­at­ed by a woman does not mean it will have mass mar­ket fe­male ap­peal. Games like Candy Crush fall neat­ly into the same cat­e­go­ry as Sudoku or cross­words, as they are used as sim­ple time-passers on a de­vice. And that’s okay. Using it to say that games writ­ing needs to re­ject this imag­ined idea of the “boy’s club male gamer” isn’t. There a will­ful ig­no­rance in their read­ing of sta­tis­tics with these stud­ies. There are al­ways go­ing to be games that will ap­peal to men more than women, and vice-versa. The gam­ing press seems ob­sessed with the idea that every­thing should cater to every­one equal­ly all the time and try to re­cruit play­er sta­tis­tics for the en­tire mar­ket, in­clud­ing fun­da­men­tal­ly dif­fer­ent plat­forms, to sup­port this fallacy.

side mobile 2I don’t know how many times I have to state this: the per­son play­ing puz­zle games isn’t the same per­son play­ing FPS games, just like the per­son play­ing bul­let hell games isn’t the same per­son play­ing MMOs. The com­plaint that a game isn’t “ac­ces­si­ble” enough to this imag­i­nary au­di­ence made up of Candy Crush play­ers fails to take into ac­count ba­sic facts about dif­fer­ent de­mo­graph­ics. What you are deal­ing with is a ca­su­al au­di­ence. The word “ca­su­al” has be­come mocked by many as a pe­jo­ra­tive, but I still find it a use­ful, if some­what fuzzy, dis­tinc­tion. This is­sue goes right to the heart of what a “gamer” is, and the con­cept of a “gam­ing en­thu­si­ast” is the best we have come up with for a use­ful de­f­i­n­i­tion. The dis­tinc­tion be­tween surface-level en­gage­ment and a deep­er love is one made in every sec­tor. The peo­ple most like­ly to seek out in-depth write-ups about games are those most en­gaged with gam­ing. Like I’ve said, we al­ready have a mo­bile gam­ing press do­ing their own thing, pret­ty far re­moved from the hand-wringing and audience-insulting of sec­tions of the gam­ing press.

What it comes down to is that gam­ing web­sites sim­ply don’t know who their au­di­ence is, and there­fore come into con­flict. They have mis­in­ter­pret­ed what the shift to­wards mo­bile has meant, and mis­in­ter­pret­ed the “frac­tur­ing” of the me­dia that was de­scribed by Escapist co-founder Alexander Macris in our in­ter­view. They are still ob­sessed with the idea of “the av­er­age per­son who plays games”, when in fact, the game mar­ket and games me­dia has grown so big that it can sup­port mul­ti­ple styles tar­get­ed at mul­ti­ple de­mo­graph­ics with­out re­al­ly com­ing into conflict.

What does it mean for AAA games that mo­bile games make so much mon­ey? What does it mean for more passion-focused in­de­pen­dent games? Well, ac­cord­ing to this year’s GDC, very lit­tle: ac­cord­ing to their sta­tis­tics, the over­whelm­ing ma­jor­i­ty of ‘in­die’ rev­enue comes from Steam by a wide mar­gin, with the smart­phone plat­forms lag­ging be­hind. Mobile may have head-spinning num­bers, but it is still a very mono­lith­ic, and in many ways un­healthy, ecosys­tem.  For most mid- to low-level games, the mo­bile plat­form can be just a grave­yard. So for a games press hell-bent on cov­er­ing in­die games, it seems coun­ter­pro­duc­tive to try and use the mo­bile mar­ket to sim­ply try and ham­mer a point home about diversity.

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The slow­ness to re­act, and the fum­bled re­spons­es to a grow­ing but dif­fer­ent mar­ket­place, have prob­a­bly cost gam­ing web­sites huge chunks of rev­enue. Add to that the dis­avow­ing of their core read­er­ship, seem­ing­ly out of spite, and you end up with a gam­ing press that is will­ful­ly has­ten­ing its own demise. If you want to cov­er mo­bile games, then by all means do; I would love to have a place to trust that fil­ters out the many lay­ers of con­fus­ing junk in the Android store, it would prob­a­bly cause me to try and buy more games. Instead, we have this strange re­la­tion­ship of con­ve­nience, where per­son­al­i­ties like Jim Sterling only cov­er mo­bile games to hate-fuck them and in­sult their cre­ators. I agree with most of the crit­i­cisms of Dungeon Keeper Mobile, but you also have to un­der­stand it wasn’t made for “gamers”. The very peo­ple try­ing to shut out the ex­is­tence of a core en­thu­si­ast au­di­ence are the same peo­ple who re­act bad­ly when games fail to tai­lor to that ex­pec­ta­tion. If Dungeon Keeper mo­bile had gone by a dif­fer­ent name, no one would have no­ticed it, but it came as a shock to the sys­tem to some games jour­nal­ists, be­cause they had tak­en their eye off the mobile-gaming ball. Sometimes when cov­er­ing prod­ucts, you are go­ing to have to come to terms with the fact that some­thing wasn’t made for you. As a pro­fes­sion­al jour­nal­ist, you might also have to cov­er and re­search top­ics that don’t in­ter­est you.

side mobile 4As I men­tioned, I found it odd a sup­posed game jour­nal­ist had to look up a game that was ad­ver­tised at the super-bowl. Even if a game doesn’t in­ter­est you, isn’t it your job to stay at least aware of games that are suc­cess­ful and that a lot of oth­er peo­ple are play­ing, if you aim to cater to this wide new au­di­ence, as you claim? Isn’t it a bit rich to call the “white male dude­bro” gamer a rel­ic of the past, when you can’t even keep up with what is and isn’t suc­cess­ful? This is the weird du­al­i­ty the mo­bile mar­ket ex­ists with­in for many pub­li­ca­tions I have read, this kind of half-coverage of some­thing out­side of their wheel­house, that only comes into sharp re­lief when their own bi­as­es or agen­da can be pro­ject­ed onto it. You would have thought some­one who cov­ers games for a liv­ing would have ei­ther re­al­ized that the mo­bile mar­ket was some­thing sep­a­rate that had less­er bear­ing on un­re­lat­ed sec­tors of gam­ing, or tak­en the time to ful­ly un­der­stand that mar­ket so they could cov­er it effectively.

As some­one who in­ter­acts reg­u­lar­ly with a lot of peo­ple who would not con­sid­er them­selves “gamers” but who do play mo­bile games, the fact that it is a dis­tinct mar­ket seems in­tu­itive. Once again, I think that this is an in­di­ca­tion of the bub­ble that many peo­ple writ­ing about games ex­ist in, and how lim­it­ed their cir­cle of friends and col­leagues is. I can’t fath­om why a bunch of peo­ple play­ing mo­bile games would, in their mind, sig­nal this great “in­die gam­ing rev­o­lu­tion”, when the raw data shows that mo­bile is a pos­i­tive grave­yard for most of these games.  My only con­clu­sion can be that these peo­ple sim­ply don’t know what they are talk­ing about on a ba­sic lev­el, and want to shut out all voic­es that want to give them an an­swer they don’t want to hear.

I’ve been hear­ing about how the mo­bile gamer and the now-fast-waning so­cial gamers were go­ing to re­place me for years. The rhetoric used is con­tra­dic­to­ry. Yes, old­er women play­ing mo­bile games is a good thing, but those peo­ple are not go­ing to sud­den­ly rush out and buy Gone Home. They are dif­fer­ent au­di­ences. Those mis­in­ter­pret­ing trends and sta­tis­tics and sta­pling that onto a pre­ex­ist­ing ide­ol­o­gy fail to rec­og­nize the eco­nom­ic re­al­i­ties of mak­ing games and writ­ing about games, and in so do­ing ren­der much of what they write, and the con­clu­sions they come up with, useless.

Continued in Part 5: A History of Corruption

Visit the the Parts Index

Scrumpmonkey can also be found on YouTube, on Twitter and on Medium. You can also read more about him in his writer in­tro­duc­tion for SuperNerdLand

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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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