Chapter 7: Blame, blame, blame
By Leigh Alexander
I wonder if other fields labor under the same constant self-reflexive laments as do video games press. It’s always seemed a little absurd to me, sometimes feeling as if there were more people willing to question my fitness and that of my colleagues to do our work – again, we write about video games — than would apply that scrutiny to their local government representatives or their physicians.
Conversations on the supposed poor quality of game journalism persist for a few reasons: Games are complex, part subjective experience and part technical product in need of qualitative analysis. And it’s a rapidly evolving media – no sooner do we settle on how we want to look at or talk about them than the landscape changes again, the audience widens. Writers seem to be made by how many people read them, and we haven’t decided what other traits would qualify someone to be an authority on games and for whom. Moreover, the media environment has changed, and the idea of “authority” at all is rapidly ebbing, becoming malleable. People declare they want an equal-opportunity content democracy in the same breath they bemoan the lack of standards or professionalism in the things they read.
Ironically, articles about The Problem With Game journalism are generally written by the least experienced writers as a rite of passage. Everyone seems to indulge that conversation at some point; you’d think games writers were almost as interested in talking about themselves and one another as they are in talking about games.
To an extent, it’s all a bit overblown: The audience for video games writing is only now becoming something you could consider mass-market. For most of our professional lives our work has targeted a traditional core audience, a young-skewed demographic with the enormous sense of entitlement that comes from feeling discounted or like a cultural minority.
Even when games writing was more widely-read, it’s been this vocal minority, this reactionary core, the most intense readership, that spoke back about its favorite subject: How it wasn’t getting what it wanted and deserved from the games space, and that includes its journalists. For some readers it will always be this way, and games writing will never be good enough for eyes scanning for reasons to complain.
That’s certainly not to say that game journalism is beyond reproach. The last generation of writers, some of whom still work today, were little better than slavish fanboys who would write for cheap, and it was they who laid the foundation of the horrible publisher-press relationship that exists today wherein writers face a steep uphill battle against an ingrained system if they ever want to do any kind of work that isn’t just more complicity in the AAA sales machine. Big companies carefully spool out their product reveal during the development cycle on a timeline and according to a message that works for them, and when they say “jump,” most writers do little more than say “how high.”
Game writers mostly know nothing about the industry or about design, although all of them think they do. They have no problem receiving a game demo from someone who is a marketing spokesperson rather than a designer who actually worked on the product, because the only questions they think are relevant are “how many guns will it have” and “how many maps will there be.” They like to talk about “the engine” because being able to recognize that a studio doesn’t build all of its tech from scratch for each new game makes them feel a little smarter than their readers when they are delivering the facts that they were essentially told by the developer to deliver.
However, that isn’t actually that bad. It is not “unethical;” it’s just how it goes. And readers like facts from preview events as told to them by people who know how to talk about what they saw; fine. So while more knowledgeable writers could result in better conversations between the press and the industry and more creative angles on the things that happen in it, and while a willingness to constructively push back (in unison) against the marketing machine could improve the quality of the information readers get, the fact that writers are often uninformed and can’t decide what qualifies authority is only one problem with game writing.
Making lateral comparisons to other media when talking about games is usually loathesome, but please permit it here: I have never heard anyone complain about “The Problem With Movie Journalism.” There are many different ways to write a film review, and yet I have never seen a comment on a single one that says something to the effect of “this isn’t a review, it’s criticism.” The commenters there may be as vitriolic as ours, but I’ve never seen anyone wail that the film reviewer has reneged on some ethical obligation (although I do see snafus crop up about film reviewers writing about movies they didn’t finish watching).
When there is a photo on the cover of a Hollywood gossip magazine of a movie star in a bikini snapped casually strolling on the beach, no one complains that the photographer was merely picking up a photo op she hoped he would; when the headline says something misleading about the star’s marriage, people might avoid buying the gossip rag, but they don’t blame Roger Ebert or the reporters in Variety for the trashiness. When there’s a spot about a funny incident on a movie set no one gets mad because it’s “not news.” When there’s an article about Miramax finances no one whines that they are bored.
People say “there’s no real journalism going on in games” when what they mean is there’s no investigative reporting (untrue; there is little, though). Getting the idea? The thing game writing needs most is a much clearer definition of roles and audiences besides the broad division of “industry” and “consumer.” Game media outlets are broad catch-alls that struggle to blanket the topic, except for social and casual games, since most sites are staffed by people who find those boring.
Despite all the talk we do about wider audiences, most consumer game writers still don’t know who theirs is, and trying to do everything for everyone is the surest way to make sure it all gets done poorly. A teenage core fan will want to know different things about L.A. Noire than an adult casual gamer who enjoys mystery books, yet all reviews about the game are expected to form the same consensus? If people fear losing their access to publisher materials if they do investigative reporting, maybe sites that aim to do industry digging shouldn’t also try to run consumer previews. We accept that film has its OK!, its Variety, its Inside The Actor’s Studio as well as its shallow weekend round-ups, so why won’t people accept that about game writing?
Tasking ourselves with serving our own more nuanced individual roles in the media landscape rather than competing for the same nebulous audiences: “gamers” versus “non-gamers” or “business stuff” versus “gamer stuff” will keep us from having the same stupid arguments about what a review is supposed to look like, or why the audience isn’t getting what it needs from what it’s reading.
And most importantly, the games press would benefit from refusing to feel like second-class citizens, blanched into intimidated silence by shiny access promises while banging on about what it owes readers, and what it plans to “fix” like some cheating spouse who is Really Trying To Earn Your Trust Back. The past is in the past; we must do good work with confidence, remembering that the most passionate fans with the most to say about video games will probably never be happy anyway. And they actually don’t need us, because they have one another.
Leigh Alexander doesn’t really need you, either.