“Game journalism” has been a murky term ever since it became a buzzword a couple years ago. While some critics debate whether or not the people who report on games are journalists at all, a number of individuals have been working to improve the space in which they work. I had the pleasure of speaking to 10 such people, to ask them what they felt about issues ranging from the definition of game journalism to the dense corruption that permeates the videogame industry.
The Escapist: Briefly, what do you think it means to be a game journalist?
Chris Kohler: It means you somehow managed to scam one of the best jobs ever.
Frank Cifaldi: I think the more important question here is what it means to be a journalist; the “game” part is secondary, it’s merely a specialized form. Ideally, a journalist is someone who is able to acquire facts, compile them and then present them to the reader in a clear, definitive, objective way. The role of a journalist is to relay information; the role of a good journalist is to make this information interesting without showing personal bias (or, in many cases, hiding it really damned well).
David Thomas: I used to care a lot about that question. But I realize, now that you’re asking it, it’s sort of an easy one. … Journalism, in general, has turned into this fresh-faced hucksterism where “journalists” pretend to be interested in getting the story when they really care more about winning some prize or looking good on their interview on Nightline. The whole planet has gone mad when we think of people like Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter as journalists. Even Thomas Friedman, as smart as he is, is just a wag. … The trouble with game journalism is that most often we are neither comforters nor afflicters. We just create a marketing echo chamber that amplifies whatever the industry happens to want us to say.
TE: Many game journalists believe there are substantial problems with the way game news is reported. What’s the biggest problem in game journalism today?
Simon Carless: I’m tremendously fed up with ‘game journalism’ being in some way tarred with a brush that implies it’s sick, unwell, or in some way broken. Lots of people write about games – in the same way that lots of people write about music, or film, or other creative endeavors. And if you look at the game media compared to much of the extremely popular celebrity press right now (US Weekly, Star?), it’s a model of fairness and restraint. Sure, there are issues. But it’s the excessive and twisted introspection that is doing us harm. Let’s just write good copy, instead of picking at why we aren’t.
Luke Smith: The biggest problem isn’t necessarily the way information is reported, per se. Oftentimes “reports” are simply regurgitations of information that we’re sent, instead of information we pursued. The problem, as I see it, is often how “news” editors are treated by PR – more often than not it seems like we’re looked at as just another part of a PR plan – i.e., they send us information and we post it. It can be a very one-sided relationship. Even worse, gamers get used to that as the “norm,” so “game journalism” is reduced to the aforementioned regurgitation. I think that’s why we’ve seen the rise of blogs like Kotaku and Joystiq who report on the reports and infuse personality into their reports – I think, in some cases, gamers want that, and it can sort of alleviate some of the problems of PR-regurgitation.
Brian Crecente: I think there needs to be refocused attention placed on having a journalism background. That doesn’t mean that the writers need to be trained journalists, but someone involved in the process of writing, editing and printing a particular story should be.
Brandon Sheffield: I think the fact that we’re not teaching the skeptical audience about our industry is the biggest failing. My mother recently said to me, “You don’t associate with those games about raping people, do you?” I remarked that there were no such games for general consumption, and she said, “You know, the one where the object is to rape a Native American?” Turns out, some news source told my mother about the existence of Custer’s Revenge, which was released for the Atari 2600 in extremely limited quantities, before quality controls even existed. My mother doesn’t know what an Atari 2600 is, but she’s heard of the “Indian raping game.” That tells me we’re letting the pundits do the reporting for us.
TE: Many journalists, regardless of their field, feel the pressure of conflicts of interest. How hard do you work to avoid developer/publisher/PR interests from conflicting with those of your news organ?
Brandon Sheffield: Pretty hard. In the interest of maintaining that, I won’t go into details, but we do our best to make sure that nothing we get from developers is overly filtered. One example I can give is that when doing interviews with Japanese speakers, I’ll go back after the fact and retranslate a close approximation of the speaker’s own words. PR or translators can often cut out choice bits of information in the interest of shifting a discussion in a certain direction.
Chris Morris: Personally, I work pretty hard at it. (And I have CNN’s Standards and Practices team backstopping me and I certainly don’t want to incur their wrath.) I don’t let any gaming outlet (developer, publisher, trade organization, etc.) pay for my travel or room. When my company declines to pay the way – and I feel it’s important – I pay out of pocket. I don’t accept fees for speaking at industry events. It’s pretty basic stuff.
Simon Carless: As I was discussing on GameSetWatch recently, we do, on occasion, accept the odd cupcake and can of Red Bull from people like Sony when attending its Gamer’s Day, but I’m confident that we are adult enough to present a fair depiction of the PlayStation 3, despite the caffeine boost.
David Thomas: I try so hard on this subject that I can measure my success each year by the number of PR people who wont return my calls. … We are all tainted. We have all sold out. We all will (or did) write about the PS3 launch as if it were news. … It seems to me that conflict of interest is built into the job. And as long as we have to play nice to get review hardware or games, we’ll be as big a sellout as those movie reviewers who always seem to have thumbs-up quotes on the ads for movies we would not [pay] money to go see. A snarky blog post here or there isn’t enough to balance out all the free s—. We can pretend that we are not in the pocket of the big companies. But we cover an industry rather than an art form.
TE: Blogs are increasingly becoming the news outlet of choice for hardcore gamers. How do you think this shift is affecting more traditional online news outlets and print magazines?
Brian Crecente: In general, I think blogging scares print publications. But I do think that the gaming press is more able to quickly respond to that threat by changing their writing and reporting style, something I believe we’ve already started to see.
Chris Grant: I think there are two sides to this relationship. First, I think it’s undeniable that the growth of blogs has come at the expense of some of the larger portal sites and magazines. Readers have become dissatisfied with their content and presentation and find blogs a more palatable, savvy and syndicated alternative. Of course, this isn’t relegated to the gaming industry; it’s a phenomenon happening all over the web. On the other hand, there’s a symbiotic nature. Often, we’ll rely on the larger sites and magazines to score their exclusives or use their considerable clout to get responses from major players, which we’ll link and add to the growing conversation in the blog space. Similarly, we find they read our site daily, and the stories we turn up often reappear as features on the portal sites or the magazines weeks, if not months, later.
David Thomas: Shift? Hey, the war’s over. Like those crazy Japanese soldiers they found on isolated Pacific Islands years after WWII, just waiting, still defending their position, print hangs in there as if there was still a victory on the horizon. Bulls—. I’m more or less a print guy, but I can smell death all around me. And as far as game journalism goes, the only reason I still have a job is that most people don’t read the game sites.
Greg Kasavin: I think blogs have emerged as a threat to the online status quo, and I like them if only for that reason. This year, GameSpot started live-blogging from key events, like the E3 press conferences, and we surely wouldn’t have done this were it not for competitive forces that inspired us to come up with a way to report faster when time was of the essence. In turn, these forces allowed us to create something better for our audience. As for the print media, I think this makes it all the more necessary for print to focus on what it can offer that online can’t. Online, I can get news the instant that it happens and I can get video of the games I care about. As a result, I rarely read gaming publications anymore, and when I do I’m more interested in the nicely presented, well-researched, well-written, in-depth feature articles than in old news or short, premature reviews.
TE: Robert Summa’s dismissal from Joystiq resulted from him hyping an upcoming update that turned out to be a banal press release. Did the punishment fit the crime? What is your take on hype and sensationalism as tools for game journalism?
Chris Kohler: I’ll answer this tomorrow, when I reveal some exclusive news you won’t believe about the Wii.
Greg Kasavin: I think as audiences grow older and in some cases more mature, they begin to see hype more transparently for what it is. And in many cases, they still might be OK with it, like someone who enjoys reading tabloids for what they are. Games are an entertainment business, and people like getting excited and worked up about games they care about. In turn, I think the gaming media can and should express natural excitement when it arises. And I also think bait-and-switch, “boy who cried wolf”-style tactics of hyping stuff followed by it under-delivering on the promises results in natural consequences. I think people interested in games will always prefer a trustworthy, dependable source of information to one that builds a track record of letting them down.
Chris Morris: Hype and sensationalism are regrettable, but they’ve been a part of media for longer than gaming has been around. They’ll continue to be a part of any media for a long, long time. Certainly some organizations go to the extreme in an attempt to win eyeballs – and it hurts us all. But let’s be honest, every media outlet has been guilty of some type of sensationalism before.
Luke Smith: How many times have you gone to a major game site because they’ve told you to check back at such-and-such-a-time for “something awesome”? If you’ve gone more than once, that’s too much. Hype gets so out of control, gamers are living in the age of the megaton and whatever desperate hope they have that Final Fantasy XIII is coming to Xbox 360 is only fueled when websites pull shenanigans like that – it’s almost never as big of a deal as people want it to be. We have to be responsible for our actions and held accountable when we manipulate the expectations of gamers.
TE: Many gamers seem increasingly jaded toward previews. Some have leveled charges that preview writers for many sites and magazines tend to hold back their true impressions of a game. Should preview writers hold back, or expose readers to every harsh opinion a preview build elicits?
Greg Kasavin: I think preview writers should be responsible about giving works-in-progress the benefit of the doubt. Any game that isn’t finished has the opportunity to get better. This doesn’t mean a previewer shouldn’t cite perceived issues in a preview build, but he or she probably shouldn’t pass final judgment on that preview build, either. I think transparency and context is key to a good preview. If I was really excited by something I saw or played at E3, I’d be more than happy to express that as best I can, but I’d also remember to qualify the remarks by saying that all I saw was, say, a 15-minute non-playable demo and who-only-knows when the final game will come out. If there’s jadedness toward preview stories, I think it’s more due to the limited amount of access previewers get when creating those previews, or due to there being one too many previews of a given product from a single outlet.
Frank Cifaldi: This is actually a major annoyance for me and always has been. Back in the Dark Ages when I actually had to preview games, a certain unnamed magazine encouraged me to up my would-be preview score by at least 15 percent, because it was their policy and always had been.
Chris Grant: The real ill is when publishers gain permission from outlets to use rose-colored quotes to promote their products to retailers, earning them proportional shelf space before the title is even released. There is no meritocracy in gaming, and one need only look at the relative failures of games like Psychonauts versus junk like Splinter Cell Essentials.
TE: Overall, do you think game journalists are doing a good job?
Chris Grant: Like anything, I think some are and some aren’t. Speaking broadly though, overall, I’d say there is a great deal we could improve, including engaging non-gamers outside of the enthusiast press.
David Thomas: No. No I do not. I think we are doing an OK job. I think we are doing a remarkably better job than we were doing even five years ago. But now that we are off the short bus, that does not mean we’re heading for graduate school. We have a lot of work ahead of us
Chris Morris: I’d say it’s a mixed bag. Truth be told, there isn’t a good definition of who is and who isn’t a game journalist at this point. I mean, do you include people who simply regurgitate press releases and link to (or worse, rewrite) other people’s stories? I wouldn’t. Do you include fansites? Do you include bloggers who don’t verify information? … Until we know who qualifies as a game journalist and who qualifies as an enthusiast with a reader base, it’s pretty hard to say if those people are doing a good job or not.
Simon Carless: Absolutely.
Greg Kasavin: I can say with confidence that I don’t know. I know there are many game journalists who work very hard. The tireless work ethic is something I’ve always admired about the game industry in general, especially since the reality of it is so different than the lazy slacker stereotype that’s still associated with game players. I suppose our collective audience can be seen as our stock value. If our audiences keep growing, we’re doing all right. And if our audiences keep growing faster than the industry is growing overall, then we’re doing better than all right.
Many thanks to the respondents for their time.
Michael “Zonk” Zenke is Editor of Slashdot Games, a subsite of the technology community Slashdot.org. He comments regularly on massive games at the sites MMOG Nation and GameSetWatch. He lives in Madison, WI (the best city in the world) with his wife Katharine. Michael is not a game journalist.