If you have even a passing familiarity with video games, you’ve no doubt run across the internet’s newest mix-and-match hate machine, which in this iteration takes hating women and hooks it up with “ethics in gaming journalism.” There’s only one problem: there is no such thing as video game journalism (the hating women part seems to be quite real).
Imagine a world where there are film fans who only watch Michael Bay movies. These same fans only get the latest movie news from shows like Extra, Entertainment Tonight, Access Hollywood, and E! News Daily. They only read magazines like People and Us Weekly. For years, they’ve harbored the suspicion that perhaps things might not be on the up-and-up. These news and information sources might just be…PR outlets for movie studios and publicists!
Shocking, right? Yet, this is the situation in the video gaming world, except a significant number of gamers don’t realize that their primary news and information outlets are mostly free marketing for video game companies and their constituent development studios. They genuinely believe that what they’re reading is “journalism,” with all of the expectations and standards that come with the label. Most video game news outfits contort themselves to meet these expectations, but are ultimately unsuccessful because their purpose and process are the exact opposite of genuine journalism.
30 years ago, before most everyone had heard of the internet, magazines ruled the world. If you had a hobby, no matter how obscure, chances are there was a magazine catering to it. For most people, a magazine was the only means of sharing their passion for the hobby and getting the latest news and inside information about it. The magazines were written and edited by enthusiasts who could write clearly and competently about the hobby, as well as express their appreciation of it. These weren’t nascent Woodwards and Bernsteins engaged in the dogged pursuit of the truth, they were people who wanted to celebrate what they loved and share it with like-minded folks.
If a hobby was built around the consumption of a product, like model railroading or computer games, the companies who produced and sold these items would be more than happy to showcase upcoming products to drum-up interest and increase sales. The writers, who were hobbyists themselves, were more than happy to receive free “review copies” of products or travel to the corporate headquarters for a carefully controlled tour and a cursory interview with a key figure or two. The readers were more than happy to buy the magazine and read these reviews and interviews, because it met their insatiable appetite to consume as much information about their hobby as possible.
Video game writing was (and still is) an enthusiast press; a hobbyist press. Though magazines have been supplanted by the internet, the core purpose hasn’t changed. Writers and publishers still trade access to people and product for copy. And like another notable enthusiast press, the Washington Press Corps, much of what they produce is journalistically worthless, but it’s widely read and appreciated by fans.
If video game news sites were to abruptly change their process and purpose to pursue actual journalism, their output would be markedly different than what exists today. First off, game previews would disappear, since these are free marketing tools used by publishers to increase interest in upcoming titles. Flattering profiles of key developers and personalities would cease to exist. Reviews would ideally be informed by an academic understanding of the form (with the accompanying expectations), allowing for something a bit more edifying than the current “I liked/didn’t like it” type of review that’s been the standard thus far.
Journalism has a different purpose than mere reportage. It seeks the truth in things, especially from those who benefit from obfuscating it. The process it uses to achieve this end is altogether alien to that used by an enthusiast press, whose main aim is to pass around information that fellow hobbyists might be interested in.
The most recent event highlighting the difference between a journalistic enterprise and enthusiast reporting was the Guardian’s recent exposé that Whisper isn’t quite the anonymous tool that it makes itself out to be. The Guardian sent its reporters to Whisper’s offices to evaluate the app’s suitability for use as an anonymous reporting tool, but quickly discovered that the company’s claims of anonymity were a deliberate sham. Whisper responded to the Guardian’s well-researched and sourced claims with shock and dismay, along with a heaping dollop of bullshit.
It was almost as if Whisper felt it had been betrayed. The Guardian reporters should’ve been gobsmacked by all of the innovating and disrupting going on all around them. Surely, the end product of their visit would be a fawning portrait of the company’s CEO, whose uncommonly roguish attitude and penchant for bucking the established order had propelled him to such lofty heights of success. I mean, just look at the latest round of VC funding! This guy is Special.
Instead, people whose profession is looking for things that don’t seem right and asking questions — real, probing questions — noticed several inconsistencies between the marketing and reality. Intrigued, as journalists are wont to be when presented with factual discrepancies, they investigated and reported on what the Whisper app does and how it does it, exposing Whisper’s claims for what they were: pure marketing tripe. Whisper didn’t know what hit it.
If there existed actual gaming journalism, such stories as the Guardian’s would be commonplace. On the practical side, investigations into workplace practices, ethics violations, collusion, corruption, and ill deeds committed by the personalities within the industry would punctuate everyday reporting bent on working past the press release to reveal the whole story, warts and all. Words and phrases crafted in the bowels of corporate legal and PR departments, like “IP” and “AAA” would not be found in a true journalist’s copy, since these terms (and others like them) are used to implicitly convey a biased, corporate viewpoint. The gamers’ adoption and popularization of these terms demonstrates how deeply compromised the hobby is and highlights the herculean challenge of drawing genuine journalists from their ranks to provide the actual journalism that these same gamers say they want.
On the artistic side, there would be dozens of critiques representing widely varied areas of thought, instead of just one singularly-focused critique of particular tropes. The vast majority of criticism and surrounding discussion would come from within and without, with the goal of making games better and progressing the form, just as cinephiles from Orson Welles to Quentin Tarantino did in film and Pauline Kael and Roger Ebert did with criticism.
There’s no reason why the current enthusiast press couldn’t continue alongside actual journalism. After all, Access Hollywood and People magazine still exist, as do industry rags like Variety and the Hollywood Reporter. The problem with games is that they don’t have the intellectual counterweight to the fluff. Unlike film buffs, gamers don’t seem to want serious criticisms of gaming beyond technical areas like graphical quality or hardware specs, nor do they appear to welcome new viewpoints that can propel the medium forward into novel and interesting directions.
A common lament among gamers is how everything today seems to be the same. Much like the movie industry, consolidation and an intense focus on the bottom line have led to cookie-cutter games and numerous sequels based on established formulas. There is an active indie scene, but these independent developers — usually one or two people — face intense scrutiny and abuse by the very people they’re developing these games for. And god forbid you’re a woman or someone who doesn’t follow the established norms of the community. Can you imagine going to Sundance and listening to the audience hurl a constant stream of invective at directors, along with slinging every slur in the book at someone who may not look like the average representative of the larger community? How about criticizing a director and telling them they should kill themselves because they can’t release a film on time? That’s what gaming is right now and it makes absolutely no sense, especially if the members of the community want the medium to be better than what it is.
If gamers really want journalism, then they have to accept everything else that comes with it. They have to accept a radical transformation of their hobby and their relationship to the product they consume. They have to accept women, weirdos, oddballs, the avant garde, and all the other interesting people who will push the form into new and undreamt-of avenues. At some point, what is now a monolithic community will explode in dozens of directions, its pieces clashing and merging with each other as they produce art that will be considered far superior to the rudimentary thing that we call “gaming” today. It should be viewed with excitement and anticipation, rather than fear and dread that something old is passing.
It may seem pedantic to say there’s no such thing as gaming journalism, but by this point it should be recognized that there’s a difference between the goals and processes of journalism and those of the gaming press. It is not just a difference of degree, but one of kind, and gamers demanding ethics from their press is naive, if not a bit disingenuous, since they themselves are so compromised that the press that emerges from their community is merely a reflection of it.
The best that can probably be hoped for is a maturation of the press into something akin to a Rolling Stone or Pitchfork — a fandom press, but at least a quality one, informed by some sort of high culture rather than base consumerism. However, even this can’t be achieved unless new voices with fresh perspectives arrive to transform and grow the community into something that demands quality, rather than a stagnant, insular clique that just wants the same thing it’s always had, but with better graphics.