The Death of Games Journalism — Part 6: The Degeneration of Games Writing
For games criticism to be useful, it must serve and inform the consumer about the products they are critiquing. Games writing is about advising the consumer. That is a central theme of this series and what I try to keep in mind when I make any kind of gaming content. Gamers want a certain level of analysis from games writing. Analysis should give insight into the game making process that many gamers find fascinating, give them the perspective of developers and insight into the world of game design so they can be better informed. Your opinion is only useful when it helps frame this, and to a lesser extent when readers simply find the writing itself engaging or entertaining. In recent years, some writers have attempted to cross over into being a “personality,” but if people find that persona obnoxious then you’re going to run out of readers and viewers extremely fast.
As a gaming site that offers previews, reviews or impressions, you are first and foremost set up to protect the consumer from bad purchases, predatory practices and help shape their understanding of the gaming landscape so they can find games they will enjoy. Games journalism is closely tied to consumer information and advocacy, probably even more so than forms of entertainment coverage. In a lesser sense they are about giving the ordinary gamer a window into the world of game development and furthering their understanding of what makes games tick and the people behind them. That is the crux of what most gamers use gaming websites for: the more casual reader is looking for “is this game any good” and the in-depth reader is hoping to absorb as much information about their favourite games and developers as possible. That’s why I found Gamasutra stating that it is an “industry site” when challenged about their sustained attacks on “gamers” so baffling. Sites like Kotaku, Polygon, RPS, etc. claim to want to engage us on a deeper level with games, but most gamers were already deeply immersed in the gaming landscape to an extent I don’t think most games journalists gave them credit for. I remember, in October 2014, Ars Technica Technology editor Peter Bright telling me “Gamers are not Gamasutra’s audience” and thinking “are you f’in kidding?” The gaming audience is more hungry for complex information and details about game design than ever. This statement also glosses over the fact that game developers are also gamers.
Games criticism can be anything, but not everything has an audience. So far, the worst excesses and indulgences of ego-stroking or navel-gazing have been propped up by ready-made platforms that inflate the sense of popularity that a subset of opinion has. They wouldn’t gain public attention without the support of sites that already pull a lot of traffic. Platforms like Polygon and Kotaku were built upon other kinds of coverage that was seen as useful or entertaining to readers. You can write all the speculative fiction you want on your own personal blog, but big advertisers aren’t going to shell out a single penny for you to spout your agenda if it does not hold the interest of the game-buying public. Being a magnet through sheer personal draw is possible but rare; most game writers are not a “name” and of those that are, some have found themselves infamous for the wrong reasons.
The job of the press, when covering games and developers, should be to connect the reader with great games with as little bullshit in the way as possible. When a studio or publisher is acting against the consumer, it is our job to try and warn that consumer. That’s when we should criticizing most and should be really taking the gloves off. It’s not the job of the gaming press to actively guide what content does and does not get made, especially when politics and agendas are involved. We cross the line from adviser to censor in those cases where we would attempt to impose our will on gamers or developers. Some outlets began to act like a petty child trying to take away toys you don’t like from the other, happier children when they were called out on this.
One shouldn’t see games journalism as a ticket into the “cool kids club” of development and PR. If you are just writing about games because you are a failed developer or you’re looking for any opportunity to suck up to industry people, then you are in the wrong job for the wrong reasons. You shouldn’t feel the need to constantly impress game developers and PR people, you shouldn’t try and exchange coverage for a foothold in that world. If you see games journalism as simply a stepping-stone to something else then you need to exit the marketplace so people with real passion can be given the chance to write. If you see no need for a degree of critical distance from your subjects then you need to think long and hard about how compromised you may be and how useful you still are to your readers.
There is only so long you can publish very niche and extreme opinions on large, mainstream platforms before it begins to shrink the audience down to reflect actual interest in those topics. Saying “the gaming public not liking my work is sexist” is just a cop-out to an economic reality: a Patreon circle-jerk of friends paying one another cannot make gamers like their anti-gamer rhetoric. We saw this with the recent “break” Ben Kuchera took from games writing — totally voluntary I’m sure. Whether he was pushed or he jumped out of the pool himself is irrelevant to the core underlying reason. Extreme dislike and even loud disdain from his supposed audience. Some speculate his bullying tactics towards a more senior EA employee may also have had an effect, but the fact remains, you can’t be odious and flagrantly anti-consumer and expect to find work writing about games. This is compounded by the fact that these outbursts are meant to dissuade people from pointing out improper relationships when you look at past experiences.
You can’t support a site on games journalists reading each other’s work alone. The editorials attacking the gamer and the gaming community have been about impressing a small group of people and stroking each other’s ego, it is becoming almost masturbatory. For some reason I’m always reminded of the disastrous 2008 Sarah Palin vice presidential run; people like Leigh Alexander and Jason Schrier are “energizing the base” when they play to the press crowd, while sneering at and mocking large sections of the community that don’t see eye to eye with them. It’s having the same disastrous results too: it’s turning mainstream gamers away from these sites and their work whilst their editors double-down hoping that their steadfast adherence to an ideology and narrative will save them. This self-destructive and elitist attitude leads to a situation like modern art criticism, naval-gazing with a disinterested and unengaged public, a small echo chamber telling itself how great it is. The yearning for gaming to “grow up” comes from a place of insecurity about the value of games as a medium. Gaming has always been “grown up” in my eyes and does not need a veneer of self-imposed seriousness to gain respect.
Games journalists and critics ironically don’t take criticism very well, they never seem to learn and grow from it. For a group of people bent on defending the right to criticize, they seem very upset when that critical lens is turned on them. Games journalists and editorial staff are insulating themselves in an environment of yes men and group-think, as seen in GameJournoPros and on social media. If you turn off comments, ignore all feedback, lock-down social media and only talk to a group of like-minded industry insiders then one ends up with a false sense of not only their own self-importance but the reception their work gets. I think in some ways, they know their work cannot stand up to critique or their egos are too fragile to take it. Whereas quiet embarrassment and sweeping under the rug was the norm in the past, the crossover into outright antagonism in the face of ethical and professionalism questions has caused the gaming audience to sit up and take notice of the mountains of bullshit piled around games journalism now.
This partly is how the controversy that coalesced into GamerGate happened. The analogy I like to use is: the situation is it’s like a pressure vessel; the longer you let the anger build up and the harder you try and crush it back down, the more violently it will eventually explode. Have you ever seen a large pressure vessel fail? Everything looks normal and calm until suddenly and without any warning… BOOM! It looks like a sudden, violent and random act but the pressure and anger had built up over time. The years of gamers feeling unnoticed and outright disrespected by the press that was meant to serve them lit a fire under this container of anger. If they’d just let people vent in the comment sections and forums of sites then it would have released some tension. But they closed the comments sections down and banned them from the forums and this extended to outside platforms like Reddit and 4chan. Complaints and issues needs a healthy place to be aired and resolved. The gaming press actively worked against that; once again their egos too fragile and their worldview too narrow to give regard to the gripes of the plebeian gamer.
“Serious” games journalists are getting more and more out of touch with what the public wants to play, and further up their own arses. Even what is being advertised as a “game” is being stretched and warped by this drive towards the conceptual. It’s only a matter of time before some intolerable hipster with pink hair declares themselves “a videogame” and is promptly given Game of the Year for their “brilliant conceptual statement.” 10/10, thunderous applause, indie awards all round, “stop being exclusionary shitlord, you can’t tell me what is and isn’t a game!” But by this point no one will care anymore, no one will be listening. Think about the engagement the public has with conceptual art, it’s almost nil. If we continue the erosion of the meaning of a word like “game” to the point it is as fuzzy and ill-defined as “art” then the medium becomes meaningless and indistinct. If we continue to let written games coverage be overpowered by pretentiousness no one cares about (and no one will pay money for) then it will become culturally and commercially irrelevant.
It’s already happening in indie awards shows. These are quickly becoming “awards for my friends” or “awards for myself.” The types of games that are getting coverage and buzz due to cronyism and personal friendships have little to no level of community support, no groundswell and look patently ridiculous to the game buying public. Most of all, this is a betrayal of the idea that if you work hard enough on a game and make something wonderful then you will be rewarded with success. Wining an indie award nets you a huge amount of coverage which has a significant impact in your game reaching critical mass if you are a small studio with little to no marketing budget. The game is rigged for many indie devs by this method of games coverage and it is yet another way the games press shrink and stifle the market in lew of their own clique. If you only talk to people who agree with you, who are your peers in the industry, everything in your world view can get warped and synchronized and mutual bad behavior can be explained away, ingrained in patterns and excused by the group. That’s why a group like GameJounroPros was such a bad idea; instead of thinking “what will our audience think?” the first and often only port of call is “what will our peers think?” And whilst that opinion is useful, it can lead subtle and not so subtle instances of group-think. Ryan Smith, writer for Onion A.V. Club and Chicago Tribune, voiced how he felt about the improper closeness and misuse of journalistic privilege within the group:
“-it’s a small, insular group that bears a certain amount of power because they’re the ones who get exclusive access or are allowed to nibble information fed to them carefully by PR. A photo-op here, a manicured press conference there. The big game developer/publishers industry walls off new information and restricts the messaging and who you get to talk to in an official capacity in the same way that high-ranking government officials do.
– there’s a lot of nepotism and groupthink amongst the games press because friends greatly influence each other in ways they aren’t even always conscious of.”
Games Journalism didn’t just wake up one day and decide it would be corrupt and shit. As I’ve covered, this is a continuous thread stretching back decades, but there was never such naked aggression against accountability or such snarling hatred to defend an industry that had become so incestuous. The word “terrorism” has been used to describe these efforts to point out impropriety, but is pointing out the issues stemming from DoritosGate and Capcom Captivate also “terrorism?” These are the same issues we see causing the degeneration in games writing that caught fire as soon as publications turned their ire onto their readers. This is a story of unaccounted power and petty fiefdoms. Endlessly lecturing to themselves about how doing the easy thing is really doing the right thing. It takes effort not to forge close relationships with PR people and developers who actively benefit from that. You have two choices: distance yourself from those relationships or recuse yourself from writing. Disclosure is important, but it is an imperfect solution when you are talking about a close friend, family member, or someone you have a financial relationship with. The insanity and the anti-gamer rhetoric we’ve seen in the press is a doubling down on defending the status-quo where games journalists can be as pompous, arrogant and unethical as they please and never suffer consequences or face their readers criticisms. All of the bluster about “white male anger” and a “culture war” are really just a desperate attempt to shift the microscope from their own misdeeds, which are well documented and numerous.
People are engaged now. You can’t put the genie back in the bottle. Going back through the history of sites like Destructiod and Kotaku to research these pieces has been an exercise in watching them slowly get more and more anti-consumer and more and more in love with the sound of their own voices (so to speak). There has been a noticeable degeneration from as recently as 2011, when the games media, industry and gamers celebrated the resounding victory in the Brown Vs. EMA supreme court case. It seems incredible that a developer like Running With Scissors, creators of the Postal series, would now find themselves at odds with the very press that was defending them in the Supreme Court a handful of years ago. The fear-mongering and baseless sensationalism of the mainstream media has become the bread and butter of the games journalist.
But all of this is window dressing really. Games criticism is moving in a different direction, away from traditional written media and toward community generated and video based content. The future isn’t in a mass market of games writing, all though writing will always have a place in the market.
All of the failings I have just described only compound a situation that had been happening. The best way to describe it is to use the past example of print media shifting to websites; the same content was produced, just in a different format. So we went from buying a magazine like PC Zone to reading a website with the same information plus a whole host of other multimedia content and more quickly produced gaming news.
In the next and final part of this series I will explore that the shift away from “games journalism” as we think of it has already happened.
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