The majority of criticism directed toward gaming journalism focuses more on the symptoms rather than the disease. Yes, the gaming press relies too heavily on previews of coming attractions and mechanical reviews of blockbuster titles. It traffics in rumor portrayed as fact, speculation masked as analysis. But the type of writing many observers want requires the media to change its orientation; to change its focus; to change its tense.
Games journalists live in the future. There are institutional and cultural pressures that force the gaming media to emphasize what is yet to come, rather than what came before. This leads to “future bias,” the tendency to only look forward, despite what could be learned by looking back. Game journalism becomes, in effect, a promotional arm of the industry at large, geared to publicize the next big thing.
To be fair, the gaming media is taking its cues from the entertainment media at large. In a world of teaser trailers, PR representatives and Entertainment Tonight, most film and TV reporters spend their time promoting or publicizing unreleased products. The entertainment press is irretrievably connected to that industry’s publishing and PR machines; after all, Harrison Ford doesn’t just stop by the Tonight Show to chat.
The gaming press’ future bias is uniquely influential, however, because the enthusiast press has a near monopoly on sustained coverage of the industry. Where newspapers and general interest magazines produce wide-ranging commentary on movies and music on a daily basis, they have mostly ignored gaming. Unless the story deals with the exceptional or the sensational, most gaming coverage gets relegated to thumbnail reviews or the business page, which means the specialist, niche press has more authority than usual. Where moviegoers can rely on The New York Times to help them think about film, gamers are resigned to using websites awash in preview coverage and speculation.
But the emphasis on the future has its most contaminating effects in its most pedestrian forms. When given the opportunity to interview game designers or developers, reporters’ questions almost exclusively focus on whatever the developer is currently working on. The important thing is the product on the way, after all. Writers and reporters often pass on the opportunity to question intelligent people about game design in general, the evolution of their careers or what lessons they might have learned from previous games in their portfolios. This, of course, reinforces many gamers’ impression that the gaming press is merely an arm of the industry’s marketing divisions, and, more dangerously, portrays developers as isolated from their own history, rather than part of a community.
When a long-awaited game is finally released, it enjoys little time in the limelight. The pressure to keep the news and previews coming means very few games outside of the persistent MMOG genre receive any sustained coverage or discussion, once the review hits print. Even good games become ephemeral; this week’s big game is already yesterday’s news. Even if a subsequent patch makes dramatic changes to game balance or a mod community grows around a title, it’s unlikely the game will get a second look from most pressmen. For example, The Sims continues to dominate sales charts – people are still buying the core game – but there is a remarkable lack of analysis of the persistence of this franchise. You can argue that The Sims was only a story when the original game came out, but in an industry so proud of its economic footprint, it’s still a story. But novelty is gone, even as EA recognizes the series is big enough to be its own corporate division.
From a development perspective, if you make a good game that doesn’t immediately attract a following, the rush to the future hurts you even more. Passing quickly from the public eye, it’s hard to build up any word of mouth, especially if you were just a temporary blip on the radar to most readers. A lucky few may find an audience with the inevitable price drop, but it’s more likely gamers will forget about you altogether, as the press buzzes around the new game their readers are supposed to care about.
The larger cost of the entire approach is significant. Both journalists and developers like to portray games as items of cultural importance, but, so long as the subjects of game journalism are treated as little more than items for sale, it becomes difficult to make that case. “What are you playing now?” and “What are you looking forward to?” become the only questions anyone is interested in, robbing readers of the opportunity to make connections between the games they play, the people who make them and the lives they lead.
Adjusting from the future-leaning promotion machine to a more insightful and analytic critical press won’t be easy. The Web 2.0 movement, with its user-generated content, forces writers to rely on sensationalist antics to get people talking about the stories they write, and gamers were early adopters of the Digg mentality. As a business, the game press needs to serve its consumers, but sometimes serving them means giving them the medicine they need to grow beyond the game-writing equivalent of the chicken pox.
Troy S. Goodfellow is a freelance writer based in Maryland. He reviews strategy and wargames for a number of outlets and maintains a blog at www.flashofsteel.com.