Yesterday, Chris Buffa of GameDaily sounded off in an editorial titled "Why Videogame Journalism Sucks." I can't help but agree with the sentiment, but Buffa, despite a thousand words of evangelizing, doesn't quite get it.
Buffa contends that game journalism suffers from amateurish writing; a lack of testicular fortitude in all but the staunchest of journalists; writers with a lack of talented, identifiable voices; and an over-reliance on PR representatives to provide material worth reporting. All true. Take a snapshot of the industry, and you'll see people all over forgetting to put the punctuation inside the quotation marks, cuddling up to their favorite developers and taking press releases as Gospel. You don't need a journalism degree (something Buffa repeatedly harps on) to understand these problems; you just need eyes.
The thing is, while Buffa's right on all counts, his substantiation is terribly flawed. He's still overcome by the old way of thinking. He's taking a conservative viewpoint when trying to address a progressive problem.
He goes on to quote an IGN review of Katamari Damacy written by an Ivan Sulic, focusing rather intently on the first two paragraphs:
Creativity. Everyone talks about it. But how can you define it? Easy, say Katamari Damacy. That's it. You're done. Katamari is all you need. No verbose explanation, no descriptive imagery, no pronunciation guide, no synonym list, and no sentences using it in practical conversation. Just rip the dictionary in half, whip out the fattest Sharpie you can find, clutch the closest person to you by the collar and scream Katamari Damacy at the top of your lungs while etching its happy name into the poor soul's forehead. It's creativity in two words and happens to be some of the most fun the universe can offer for just $20.
Instead of sitting where you are staring through the saturating glow of your monitor to reach this text with your mind, imagine yourself uncomfortably perched at the head of an oblong conference table King Arthur would be proud of. The room was born from mahogany and stuffiness. Around you sit twelve executive level clones, neatly kempt and grim, expressionless suits carved from years of dedicated earnings watching and revenue tallying and franchise bolstering and credibility saving. Bam! Some dude falls through the ceiling, looks around blearily, shakes the dust off his knees, and says, "Hey chumps. I got this idea, see."
Buffa then says, "Please excuse the language, but WTF is that? Not only do these two paragraphs fail to inform the reader what the game's about, but the higher ups at this website actually thought that it was a good idea to publish them." Sulic's introduction isn't something I'd run in The Escapist, either, but it wouldn't take long to carve it into something readers could appreciate. Sulic has a voice. It's a bit untrained and rough, but it's a voice; something Buffa wants writers to have, but apparently doesn't think those voices should be original or experimental.
You don't want to see some of the stuff that makes it on my desk, but then again, you have. Part of the creative process is getting what you write into other people's hands so they can rescue you from your own mind. We've turned good ideas plagued by bad writing into some of our most popular articles, just by helping our writers along the way. I'd like to think we helped them become better writers in the process.
Which is why attacking a guy for his writing style is just fluff. While Buffa is correct when he says a lot of game journalists are bad writers, that's going to happen in a niche field where the pay's already bad and a lot of people write for free. But good, quality writing always floats to the top, even on the internet. That's why you read The Escapist and PC Gamer UK and Penny Arcade.
And while Buffa still doesn't quite illustrate the problem, he's shooting in the right direction when he points his critiquing gun at the next issue he takes up: PR and marketing agents dictating news. He claims the problem is gaming payola, people shoveling PR for bad games in hopes that the next time a review copy makes it into their hands, it's a game they want. Again, Buffa speaks truth. The more games you review and talk about, the more marketers will want to speak about their game with you. But some guy on a website reviewing the ER game so someone sends him Doom 4 is a minor problem when you consider the fact that most of the "news" you see is derived from press releases blasted out to editors on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays.
Think about it: There's more news to be read in the middle of the week. But why? Let's say you're a PR agent for Super Happy Fun Ball. (Special note: Do not taunt Super Happy Fun Ball.) You've just crafted an incredibly well-written press release announcing Warren Spector, Steve Jobs and Greg Costikyan are going to working on the SHFB project. This is huge; this is news. You just have to write a press release to send to gaming news editors across the globe. They'll be grateful for the update - it's not like many of them are going to be on the horn, working their contacts to find out what's going on in the industry; they're too busy playing games! So, you, PR agent, have the advantage of deciding when this bomb drops.
Obviously, there's no sense in letting the world know on Monday; Monday sucks. Weekends are out because people spend less time reading about videogames when they're not at work. Friday is pretty much the weekend, anyway. That leaves your friends in the middle: Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. The days God forgot. This is when people are most likely to be both attentive and alert enough to really process what you have to say, and most editors will dutifully reword what you say into breaking news; some will just copy and paste the press release.
And PR has reached the point where they come to expect that editors and journalists will toe the corporate line. Take a recent Joystiq story where they spoke with Sony's Phil Harrison. Joystiq asked Harrison questions beyond "So, when's the PS3 coming out and how awesome will it be when it does?" and after shuffling through some answers, he remarked, "Well, those were positive questions," in a sarcastic tone.
But really, this particular issue is crippling not only game journalism, but journalism period. Stephen Colbert's infamous speech at the White House Press Correspondents dinner, while noted for poking fun at the Bush administration, actually rips into mainstream journalism with more ferocity. He's most poignant when he accuses reporters with direct access to the President and his top aides of doing little more than transcribing official copy coming from mouthpieces at the top. It's good that Buffa identifies this problem (at least partially), but who do aspiring game journalists, even if they read The Washington Post and The New York Times, have to look up to? Until the guys in the Majors shape up, everyone else in the game is going to have more trouble improving.
Finally, Buffa leaves an open-ended statement pondering what's next for game journalism, with a promise that he'll come up with a few solutions for the problems he enumerated. The solutions are easy; they're just difficult to bring about. We need a dose of professionalism from both sides of the industry. Journalists need to expand their horizons beyond their inboxes when looking for exclusive content. PR workers have to understand that there will be occasions when people with tough questions are going to look for answers. If game journalism can grow up, so can every other type of journalism. And that's why it's so damn important that it does.