On March 11, 2006, Kotaku published an article by Wagner James Au called “Blogging Down the House.” In it, he claimed that the gaming press is the primary reason we’re forced to wade hip deep through a pool of overhyped games with quotations like “This game might be the answer to your prayers!” scrawled under their titles, just to find something we like. Au says people buy bad games because previews don’t actually tell us whether or not a game is worth playing.
The cure for this cancer, argues Au, is the humble blog. It’s something that’s transformed the media, politics and movie making, so why not use it to change the videogame media? Surely, if the everyman on the internet makes his displeasure about the state of game journalism known, professionals throughout the industry will wake up and realize they’re failing their readers by not looking at games through a more critical lens. Right?
Wrong. Fast forward to October 2006: Kotaku‘s own initiative to lead the rebellion, “Preview Ho,” is dead in the water. Ludicrous micropayment schemes have made the leap to mainstream titles. You can see an ad for Huggies in your favorite first-person shooter. Videogame blogs, both professional and amateur, are on fire about such issues, yet the print media makes almost no mention of such things, least of all in a negative light.
Blog culture, particularly in relation to videogames, is special in that it crystallizes the internet in an ideal form: Millions of people are able to communicate with one another, more or less free of regulation or cost. Developing an intricate network, blogs almost endlessly rely on each other for content. You could own the least-visited site ever, only to see your bandwidth explode when someone links to someone who links to you and, say, Joystiq sees it. A simple innocuous message can be seized upon and delivered to tens of thousands of readers in a single day.
Example: Electronic Arts released Battlefield 2142, but didn’t think it’d be a good idea to publicly mention the “tracking software” included in the software. Instead, they slipped a short note into the box explaining that when you play BF 2142, software within the game will scan your computer for your internet browsing habits in order to provide you with better-targeted in-game ads. A few years ago, players concerned by such a tactic wouldn’t have had an outlet to alert the world en masse. But nowadays, sites like Digg and Shacknews mean the message can reach a massive audience within minutes of you getting home and being horrified. With photographic proof.
If anything, blogs already exert more influence over the buying habits of gamers than the printed press, particularly the professional ones such as Joystiq, Demonoid et al. In the U.K., Official PlayStation 2 sells around 100,000 copies per month, and GamesMaster sells around 50,000. Kotaku records around 85,000 visits per day, has a constant online archive of its content being picked up by search engines and has the ability to revise its position on anything at a moment’s notice.
Given enough time, it’s entirely possible for me to build a connection with any author. I can compare his opinions with mine, hear his views on issues I care about and discover if we have the same favorite games. With blogs, this intangible rapport can be built in weeks, or even days. With printed media, it takes months for this to happen, if it happens at all. Add in the fact that readers’ comments appear alongside official views, and it’s clear that the printed press simply cannot compete.
The lack of “commercially aware” control mechanisms, a pure focus on gamer culture and an acute awareness of what matters now mean these unique voices among the media can instantly spread whatever word they want. It’s enough to make you wonder if we even need print magazines to change. Maybe blogs are the future of all media.
They keep us abreast of upcoming games and the teams that are developing them, the latest industry rumors, conversations with Important People, rediscoveries from the past, web-based memes, and the general reaction to the latest releases; all on a minute-to-minute bases. With such unique abilities, should the focus really be on destroying the corrupt power of another institution? Why not learn from the old medium to refine the new?
Print media has done a few things right, especially when it comes to exposure. By their very nature, blogs appeal to the non-casual, “hardcore” gamer. A close friend of mine became hopelessly addicted to both World of Warcraft and Planetside, achieving high levels of success in both. He also buys every soccer management game available. He even bought an HDTV just to play his Xbox 360 on it. But just last week, I mentioned 1UP to him, specifically talking about the numerous blogs on the site. He’d never heard of it, nor had he heard of Kotaku, Joystiq or any of the other publications I’ve discussed here.
Put simply, ranting on a videogame blog is like standing up in a church service and telling people how great God is and what a tricky fellow Lucifer can be. You’re preaching to the converted, the faithful few. Your real effort needs to be spent on drawing new listeners to your sermons, which means your message needs to be refined and easy to follow. This is already beginning to happen, but not because the blogs are trying. Instead, it comes from a general fascination with all things “web.”
All facets of the entertainment industry are completely turned on to the internet, the powerful word of mouth it generates and its potential to influence a product’s success. That is, all facets except the videogame industry, it seems. Online rants that cross forums, websites, blogs and even consumer action groups are typically ignored by publishers and their marketing departments.
This should tell blog operators something. Whatever they’re doing, they ain’t doing it right. Going back to Au’s comments, attacking what you perceive to be a problem is easy. What’s hard is building something so good that everyone else has to follow your example simply to stay in the game. Blogs have that potential, but they’re not there yet. Traditional printed press outlets have started blogging to make sure they’re there when that potential is realized.
As game blogs have become more popular, they’ve fallen back into the old habits of journalism. What was once a medium that subverted pandering to the industry, large blogs have begun reporting press releases, interviewing developers and relaxing their critical eye, all in an effort to be the first to publish news. This came to a head when Joystiq and Kotaku blogged about an upcoming blog post, which was supposed to contain big news about Nintendo’s Wii. Teasers like that are the business of second-rate local news broadcasts: “What does Nintendo have in store for he Wii? Find out … at 11:00!” And usually, whatever gets reported is less interesting than the actual teaser.
In the case of Joystiq and Kotaku‘s self-promotion, it was no different. The “big news” was that IBM shipped some CPUs. This was a prime example of two leading blogs fighting for readership to satisfy advertisers. In order to “win,” they reverted to the old sensationalism of journalists before them. However, publicly visible comments from their readers caused both Joystiq and Kotaku to acknowledge their mistake quickly.
Amateur blogs tend to avoid this specific pitfall, as they have fewer worries about advertisers and funding. They’re about fun, about telling you about cool things you perhaps weren’t aware of, about exploring the things we’re all interested in as gamers.
Videogame blogs have the power to become the defining voice of a generation. They can communicate the gamers’ passions, likes and dislikes to publishers and developers like never before. But in order to keep the industry’s ear, blogs will have to exhibit all the good habits of traditional journalism while shedding the bad. Blogs may someday become the new standard of responsible, candid reporting, as long as they use their power for good, not evil.
Hitchhiker is a freelance videogames journalist who spends too much time playing multiplayer games all alone. It does give him a sense of belonging, though, so that’s ok. He hangs out at www.alwaysblack.com.