The Death of Games Journalism — Part 6: The Degeneration of Games Writing

Scrumpmonkey brings part six of his multi-part series on The Death of Games Journalism. Today he goes into the degeneration of games writing.

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Part Six of a multi-part se­ries. Start from the be­gin­ning of the se­ries , read Part 5 – A History of Corruption or vis­it the parts index

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.

side 1 part 6The 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.

side-DEAD-part-6You 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.

side 3 part 6Serious” 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.”

side 4 part 6Games 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.

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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.

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

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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