The Death of Games Journalism — Part 4: The Mobile Menace
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.
Back 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.
This 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.
I 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.
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.
As 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
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