I saw a link come across my Twitter feed on Sunday (thanks, Ian!) that led me to a thread on popular gaming forum NeoGAF that contained complaints from users who had some bone or another to pick with what they deemed “gaming journalism.”
I won’t detail all of their complaints, as they’re pretty thoroughly explained by the many intelligent posters who commented on the thread. In fact, I’ll wait here while you go ahead and check out the thread to get a little background.
Alright so, like I was saying, I’m not going to recap all of their issues. Mostly, I agree with them that there are certain aspects of the gaming press that are simply broken. The more interesting questions to me are “who’s responsible?” and “what can we do about it?”
There are three groups that bear the burden when it comes to the problems facing the gaming press. First are the sites and corporations that run them. The model for advertising for gaming sites is bizarre. Often, the coverage of a game and the advertising of it coalesce in such a way as to appear collusive to readers. Intrusive, splashy ads for the next big game fade away to reveal a site’s exclusive first review of that big game, usually with a high score attached to it. It looks bad. The sites also need to look inward when it comes to the content they produce. Comparisons and lists feel like bait for hits, and fact-checking and asking the tough questions has been pushed aside in favor of sensationalism and shock that seems to exist only for its own sake. The gaming press needs to make a decision as to what it wants to be. Do we want to be actual journalists, or do we want to copy and paste PR statements without critical thinking? Do we want to use preview coverage to sell the image of a game the company wants to give, or do we want to give gamers a good idea of which games to look out for or ignore well before release?
The second group that contributes to the problems in the gaming press is the development community. Publishers and developers operate in secret, acting often as if they are guarding state secrets as opposed to access to entertainment media. Designers are left trapped in lofty towers, unable to see the outside world and talk about their games freely and erring on the side of secrecy on the rare occasion that they are allowed to talk to the press. Interviews such as the one that Dan Hsu had with Peter Moore are few and far between, and it feels like designers are discouraged from talking about how their teams decide to make the games they make the way they make them. PR companies have literally threatened to remove access to larger titles from outlets that don’t give them positive press (although those PR people or companies are typically fired if these threats surface), and there is generally an air of antagonism between publishers, the press, and the public. I understand that the gaming industry is a multi-billion dollar industry, but other forms of media don’t engage in the same level of hyperbole as the gaming industry. Every game that comes out is supposed to be the best game in its selected genre and offer some experience that gamers aren’t supposed to be able to get anywhere else. Gaming PR has made it so that there is no middle ground in game marketing, no sense of “we know this game isn’t great, but it will attract a certain group of fans and that’s okay” ala films like The Expendables or Fast and the Furious.
The final group that bears responsibility for the problems in the gaming press is you, the audience. I say this not to antagonize you, but gaming news outlets, developers, and PR do what they do for one sole purpose: your eyes and your dollars. We do the things that get your attention and don’t do the things that you do not respond to. Those articles that seem like click bait? They are, and readers are attracted to them like a moth to a flame. The exclusive agreement for coverage that results in a high score? It’s because people will read those articles in droves. Do you feel like scores are too high across the industry? It’s because readers react negatively to scores for their favorite game that aren’t in the 9s and can’t handle criticism of whatever their pet title is for that week, month, or year. The most vocal of readers (read: the ones we typically interact with) typically live in this crazy world of pure black or pure white where a game either is the best game ever or the worst, and people are forced to choose. Console wars are ridiculous, but they are mostly driven by the people who read outlets. The term “Xbot” was not coined by a member of the press, it was birthed by an audience that assumes bias, that can’t handle dissenting opinions.
In short, we the press do what we do because your actions tell us that it’s what you want. One of the major complaints that was levied in that thread was that there aren’t enough articles exploring the design or mechanics of games. I can tell you why this is from first hand experience. Earlier this year I wrote a column about what I referred to as “repressed nerd rage,” and it was one of the most highly trafficked non-news posts we’ve had all year. A few weeks later I wrote about the proliferation of “hard games” and the mechanics of them, and it was largely ignored. If we can apply the basic tenets of evolution to the gaming press, the articles you see are the ones that survive.
The change starts with you. If you want to “fix” the games press, demand more. Promote the articles, people, and sites you like, and work hard to engage members of the press in a way that is constructive and rewarding for both parties. If you disagree with a review score, say why in a mature way. The process of reviewing a game doesn’t end when the review comes out and there is an opportunity for all of us to learn from each other. Don’t engage in “all-or-nothing” or “us versus them” arguments, and don’t give your time to articles that pander to you in an obvious attempt to get your eyes on them. If the audience moves, the incentive will, too. So, the next time you see a link to an article that lists why Battlefield is better than Call of Duty, roll your eyes and move on.
The gaming press is here to serve you, the audience, and help you decide which products are worth your time and money, as well as to discuss issues that are important to you. Trust me, we want to grow and change.
Give us a reason to.