Why Game Journalism Retains Immaturity

I’m conflicted.

In the mess that was the Mass Effect 3 ending saga, Forbes went to war with gaming journalists. They saw, quite honestly, what I did. Many were quick to judge the audience and support the developers, going against a portion of their own readership in the process. It’s fine to be on the other side of a debate, but it’s another to turn snide against the audience and enter the ranks that pitch the word “entitled” at every turn.

That led to thoughts that maybe, just maybe, the major gaming sites are too close to the developers and publishers. Some of the Forbes pieces called out high review scores as proof, but it seems faint at best. In a lot of ways, I’ve seen gaming journalism grow. Reading back issues of GamePro makes me cringe outside of nostalgia. It appealed to a distinct, child-like mindset. The reviews were filled with corny puns and generic wordage. Thankfully, we’re far beyond that, and coming close to having distinctive, across-the-board criticism (not reviews). Criticism makes the industry better, despite the continued focus on scores.

So yes, in a way, there are improvements. We’re better now then we ever were before. On the other hand, I still cringe far too often. Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t think a screen shot is “news.” It’s not worth posting. I don’t care what the game is, but as a journalist, posting PR material shouldn’t be part of what I’m supposed to do. Leave that fluff for the official sites. I don’t want to preview an unfinished game, even more so if I’m to review it. Suddenly, as a critic, I have something to compare it to mentally. My readership does not. Bias becomes inherent in a situation like that.

Gaming journalism may have improved in terms of words, but it’s still stuck in its baby form. Read an early GamePro and read major gaming sites today. Generally speaking, the ideas haven’t progressed, nor has the structure. It’s still focused on hyping upcoming software and a couple of reviews, maybe with an interview shoved in somewhere (which, generally, is more hype). The structure and foundation remain the same. When something happens to turn that cycle upside down, it’s joked about in comics. Someone found their testicles according to Penny Arcade, that post a grueling interview by Dan Hsu with Peter Moore.

Know what we need? Critics, and no, there are none working in the game industry. Film critics, in a professional sense, review films. They commentate. They interview while expressing concerns. They don’t post fan-like blabber about a trailer. They sure as hell don’t post screen shots released by the studio. The publication they write for might, but never themselves.

Game reviewers, a term I’ve come to despise, have to be multifaceted. I’ve applied for countless jobs identified as “reviewer wanted,” only to realize that’s not actually what they wanted at all. They needed someone to post news, deal with PR people (who are wonderful mind you; nothing against them), and yes, post screen shots. After that, maybe there was a review or two.

I am lucky to have a paid freelance gig where yes, all I do is critique. It’s wonderful. I don’t have anything against news per se. It has a purpose, but I hate the idea of going into a game with a preconceived notion of what it will be based on what I had to write prior. I don’t mind the idea of blogs either. That’s perfect for the screen shot posters of the world. But, if you’re going to professionally deliver reviews, you should have no central connection to the material at hand.

For the record, because I’m steadfast about this, I typically don’t get review material either. Games are either rentals or purchased on my own. It keeps the consumer perspective valid as I dive int0 new software. To be clear, I have no issue with receiving free games, mostly because this industry pays a pittance generally. I only have a problem with it because there’s a process associated with said review material that includes posting news bites, screen shots, etc. There’s a give/receive relationship at work, and it’s a cycle that needs broken.

There will always be bias. It’s unavoidable. Maybe I’m soft on a franchise I love, or some other form of media has already introduced me to the game’s universe. It happens, and can happen in any media. Still, that doesn’t change that going into a new entry of a series fresh is the best way to handle it. The surprise is alive when you can avoid the mountain of material already out there, no spoilers.

What I post here on MPG is material that interests me personally. I’m against many industry practices for example, things like the online pass system. I like to think that even if I write about this medium, it doesn’t change that I’m still a dedicated consumer of it as well (to be clear, full time gaming journalists are too, but I would argue how much so). I like retro games, I like sim sport and action games, but I’m still not posting a screen shot and calling it news, at least when I can avoid it. Sometimes, necessity breeds desperation. I’m not clean here by any stretch (and have to earn a paycheck somehow), although I’m not addicted to the idea that it has to be done. In fact, I fully expect someone, somewhere, to dig into my writing vault and post 200 links to junky, probably typo-riddled articles to discredit this. I don’t blame them.

I also don’t want to knock the work people do writing up 3,000 word previews. That’s damned hard work, and so is uploading 20 screens for a game you’ve never heard of. Probably need to make that clear before I lose every job opportunity from here on out, if I haven’t already.

I like to sit back in my own little corner as a critic though, imagining what could happen if we had a few more who truly appreciated the criticism instead of the excitement of an image. And yes, maybe a few more could find their testicles too.