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Why Do We Call It “Games Journalism”, Anyway?

July 22, 2012

I’ve been writing for this blog for a few months, now. It’s been a good outlet for me. I can talk about games I like, features I find neat, or stories that I find interesting. I’m not an expert, by any stretch of the imagination, but I’ve enjoyed digging out news about games and adding my own twist on things. I like having a voice, and I like being able to enunciate it in clear terms. The article that I am most proud of to date, however, is the pieces I wrote about Big Huge Games, the #38jobs response and Epic Games’ announcement. The nature of the story was a shining example of how journalism benefits the gaming industry. Not only was it a solid example of the gaming industry showing a refreshingly human element to business, it was a change from the run-of-the-mill reviews of a blockbuster title, or a features on the next blockbuster title.

A lot of what passes as “games journalism” seems to focus on this. It tends to glaze over the heavier aspects of the gaming industry (some of which are conveniently found in the video above), in some rare cases perverting the concept of journalism outright for the sake of under-the-table deals.

For instance, Jessica Chobot of IGN fame also happens to be a voice actor for Mass Effect 3. That’s like giving a film critic a role in the next big movie (for the sake of argument, let’s say that it’s the newest Batman film), and then expecting said critic to be free of any vested interests. Perhaps it was a genuine gesture of goodwill by one or both parties to integrate the community into the gaming world a little, but it is asinine to think that IGN would remain impartial in this instance, and it does not help IGN’s already-faltering reputation as a publication.

I’ve always found games journalism to be a paradox where advertising, review copies of games and gifts are concerned. Where do we draw the line between a fair critic with access to resources, and a bought-0ut schmuck with clear conflicts of interest? Should we be trusting the word of a website’s review when half of the page is draped in the logo of the game’s developing team?

A score below 7/10? Not likely

Obviously these things aren’t widespread, but the story of Jeff Gerstmann and his termination from GameSpot rings in the ears of many people who have come across this issue before. A note for any high-profile players reading this post: receiving money from a company, for whatever reason, with an expectation of a high score in return does not make you a games journalist. It makes you their bitch.

The large majority of game journalists are simply constrained by time. Let’s not assume there’s a vast conspiracy going on behind the curtain of 9/10 scores. After all, these people are under pressure to complete these games, and may miss out on nuances that hardened veterans of particular games may well notice.

Nevertheless, the importance of knowing why a reviewer says what he says can never be downplayed enough.

Aside from this, there’s also the cases of consumer backlash. Just in case you’re a bit behind, I’ve plucked three of the juiciest stories from the Tree of Rage for you:

In Mass Effect 3‘s case, it was because of the crucial ending to the series. For Diablo 3 and Starcraft 2, it was because of the lack of an offline mode. I won’t get into the specifics of each argument here, because there are plenty of other posts available at your local Google bar (or right here on Huttstuff, as far as Diablo 3 and Mass Effect 3 are concerned).

Mass Effect 3 is polarizing, to say the least

These issues are all unified by the fact that fans got very angry about a particular feature or shortcoming of a game, thought it to be a deliberate shortcoming on the part of the developer, and downvoted on Metacritic and raged on various forums as a result. Some people called this a legitimate avenue of protest and criticism. Other people – curiously, many critics – labelled these examples textbook cases of fan entitlement, believing the consumers to be greedy and incapable of being fully sated.

One particular post caught my eye, where the author – Patrick Garratt –  details five things to do instead of playing Diablo 3. Taking the stance that everyone angry about not being able to play their £45+ non-refundable purchase is a no-life geek that hates his family and suffers from carpal tunnel syndrome, he lists five other things to do. An extract:

Shut up. Seriously, stop whining. Making this stuff work for a rush of millions is verging on rocket science. It happens for pretty much every major online game – including Battlefield 3 and Modern Warfare 3 – and you should be used to it by now. Just be patient and let Blizzard fix it. Save your bile for something that actually matters, like the fact you have little chance of achieving your life goals because you can’t stop playing computer games.

Wow, what a fucking moron.

Notwithstanding the fact that the whole furore around Diablo 3 was because of its lack of offline capability, instead of players not being considerate of the reality of server crashes, he then boldly goes on to assume that if you’re unhappy, then you’re a lazy bastard, destined to achieve nothing. If anyone spent their money on a product that does not work because of some thinly-veiled excuse at enforcing DRM, you can be certain that they will shout their arses off. They’re entitled to, after all.

Of course, you’ll find some people that just take the piss and won’t be pleased by anything, but throwing the baby out with the bathwater is hardly the answer. The fanbase are the people that companies have to win over, not to treat like doormats. It’s hardly games journalism when you’re openly ripping into gamers. The people who play the games. That’s called idiocy.

Oh, and he compares the fiasco with Modern Warfare 3 and Battlefield 3’s launch troubles.

Both of which can be played offline.

William Usher from CinemaBlend responds in favour of the fans:

As usual, the major gaming websites and industry-reliant video game journalists are tooting their own horns, telling their readers to “shut up” and wait or do something else instead of being frustrated that the $60 product they just bought doesn’t work.

Simply put, I’m embarrassed to be associated with an industry of people who call themselves journalists and don’t seem to understand what it means to gather the facts. It’s further showing that the video game media industry is hanging off the balls of publishers. If you’re a consumer, you should be disgusted. If you call yourself a journalist with this kind of mentality, you should feel ashamed.

[. . .]

If the journalists aren’t doing their jobs then what alternative is there for angry consumers other than review-bombing consumer and aggregate review sites with poor scores?

I agree with this. Critics telling their audience to bend over and take a deep breath shouldn’t feel surprised when their readership causes havoc elsewhere. If the publications don’t speak for the consumer, then who will? As unjust as a 0/10 score is for Mass Effect 3, Metacritic will.

I mentioned my favourite contribution on this website to date being the Big Huge Games development. It defined how journalism can – and does – work for the good of the industry: news breaks of this mass layoff, which leads to the gaming industry rallying to take on these unfortunate employees who are owed paychecks. A hashtag on Twitter is created, which spawns more journalism interest. The next thing we know, Epic Games have created a new studio for a large portion of the former employees. This is the type of journalism we should be fostering, instead of this dismissive ‘ignore the proles’ rhetoric. It creates nothing but division.

Games journalists have a duty to let consumers know what you may get for your money, based on their professional opinion, and the word professional is important. Critics who look down on the playerbase with some assumed air of regal superiority seem to forget that the only reason consumers spend time reading their thoughts  is because they assume they’re getting an informed opinion from their staff. What is the point of critics lining up to say “Okay, give Mass Effect 3 a 6 or 7 out of 10 on Metacritic, because the rest of the game is good!”, when they should have done that themselves?

In the worst-case scenarios, reviews have been churned out that act as little more than glorified billboards for new game releases. Considering that the concept of a game review is to help inform the consumer, not advertise at them, this is a grave and fundamental flaw in games journalism. The only difference between these people and PR people is that the former have a press pass.

In the same vein, people lambasting angry consumers should look past the vitriol and consider why these fans are angry in the first place. A lot of the reviews on Metacritic credit games with positive points. As William Usher says:

The reality is that the rage has nothing to do with the overall quality of Diablo III. The low scores that we reported on earlier is a means of consumer protest. Any idiot worth his salt as a journalist should know this and those who don’t prove the point that video game journalism is a farce and a joke.

And you know what? This kind of protest works. It frightens games developers, it moves administrators to action, and it gets issues noticed that certain game websites choose to neglect.

Original Sources: Huttstuff: Kingdoms of Amalur Creators Shut Down, Employees In Limbo, 38 Studios Update: #38jobs Offers Help, Epic Games And Big Huge Studios: The Impossible Studio, My Thoughts On Diablo 3, Space Magic; Wikipedia: Jeff Gerstmann; Facebook: Retake Mass Effect 3; No Starcraft 2 LAN? Shame On You, Blizzard; Kotaku: Disconnect at the Global Starcraft League Finals Has Fans Shouting “We Want LAN!”; GameSpot: Blizzard Apologises For Diablo III Errors, Delays Launch Of Real-Money Auction House, Diablo III Game-Breaking Bug Found; Diablo 3: You Can’t Log-In And You Shouldn’t Care; Diablo 3’s Launch Fiasco Proves Video Games Journalism Fails

Image Links: Gamespot, Metacritic: Mass Effect 3 (PC)


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