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Gamer Culture and "Journalism"

Posted on September 21, 2011 at 2:10 AM





Forward: Gamer Culture and "Journalism"


Before I begin this rather lengthy dissertation, let me first direct you to a video put up by Adam Sessler as it pretty much is the inducement and motivation of my article here, though it all is certainly material I wanted to write about for some time.


Sessler's Soapbox: Videogame Jobs


That's for context as I take a look into the history, the problems and why gaming "journalism" can never be taken seriously. I suppose I should also answer the question "who is this guy and why should I care what he has to say?" The answer is that is simple: I'm not really anybody. I studied journalism in college, majored in broadcasting with lofty notions I would be in some CNN newsroom one day, but instead just wrote for a paper, took a lot of radio gigs, directed a few television things and now work in Hollywood at a modest production and management company. 


Oh, and writing this blog. This blog is my outlet seeing as how getting a job in journalism is pretty difficult to begin with. So I've moved on and now look to just write what I love: movies, books, music, games. It's an exercise, not a progression, for me. Casual and in bad need of a copy editor.


So that love of entertainment culture has blended with my lingering knowledge of journalism itself. All of those forms have quality writing out there when it comes to discussion of them....all except one that I've noticed over the years.


One thing that hasn't changes is my love of videogames. True, I may not play them as much as I once did, but that doesn't mean I don't want to play them nor does it mean I don't still have an affection towards them. Much like my love of videogames remaining unchanged, though, so has how videogames are covered and treated over the past 30 plus years.



Part I

"What is this new stuff and how do we write about it?"


Videogames are young. In fact, they're the youngest form of multi-billion dollar entertainment the world has to offer. Like any "new" form that rises inexplicably to the top, the early years of its existence came with uncertainty: beginning with a boom, then a major bust in the mid 1980s, then a resurgence after that and new enthusiasm along with it. With that enthusiasm came fans and people wanting to talk about this new, wonderful form of entertainment with magazines popping up all over the place. It was fine for that era and certainly reflective of a time when the videogame industry was uncertain. Nobody could have predicted it would explode into what it is now. Unfortunately, the approach to how videogames are written about and discussed has changed very little.


That fandom carries to today with the internet now the universal replacement for the printed page. You don't need to actually study the process of reporting or know the correct usage of "reporting words" that my professor taught me. Nor do you even need to know the inner workings of actual newsrooms and "seek out" stories and work out interviewing techniques. Now, you just write and somehow get hired by a website. Fine, sure, but with it comes the lowering of standards and, eventually, the destruction of any notion of journalism and videogames being taken seriously as a whole.




Nobody in the early days really knew how to approach writing about videogames or hunks of plastic like this, only to talk about how fun and "cool" it is. That approach is why most looked at videogames as "kid stuff" and a fad in the late 80s and because the approach to writing about them hasn't changed all that much today, it's why many "non-gamers" look at them as the same still - the fact the average gamer is 35 years old the medium has surpassed film in money-making doesn't even register to them.



In the video I posted above, I was most intrigued by Sessler’s final couple of minutes in it, notably that he isn’t entirely keen on “game journalism” in the first place. That "journalism" had a rocky start of approaching their product (videogames and computers) as technology, rather than a cultural influence or, certainly, an artistic process. In the late 1950s into the 1960s, film criticism had to undergo a complete change of approach as well and, here, Sessler notes games, gamers and those that write about games need to do the same. They're already pretty unprofessional and documented as rather unethical, far below the standards that actual journalists adhere to. However...it's not entirely their fault.


The problem also resides in a gaming culture that has become so internet-based that trying to re-invent how people approach it is damn near impossible. You may not know this about me, but I have quite the disdain for game “journalism,” or at least people labeling it as such. It goes back to my college years in journalism courses, then seeing how bad websites and magazines were approaching videogames themselves and the complete immaturity of it all.  I would point all this out to others on various videogame forums back then - things like the attitude towards readers, the self-serving "look what I got" or "I know something you don't know" attitudes, or even noting simple grammar mistakes and so forth. Those mistakes and lack of aptitude are fine if it's some blog (like this one or even something like /slashflim) but inexcusable for a site that labels itself as a news-based, legitimate source of information. Labeling gaming "journalism," as such is a misnomer in the first place.




It's like going to Mexico and seeing a "Zebra." Don't say you're one thing when you aren't.



There are exceptions, as there always are found in feature articles and so forth, but the day-to-day is pretty much a reflection of gamer culture itself, and if the gamer culture is infested with rumor-mongering, lack of facts, egos and attention deficit disorder, how can you expect to alter how the game “journalists” (and yes those are in quotation marks for a reason, I'm so witty) approach the entire product itself?


It’s that chicken/egg scenario: gamers want this, so “journalists” have to give it to them and can’t change the path they’re on. As a result, many game “journalists” are about as credible, well-written and intellectual as the fourteen year old spouting racial slurs in Call of Duty. In other words, they're reflective of the the maturity level of their readers, not necessarily their age. There's no journalistic integrity in videogame journalism because those that began to write about videogames weren't journalists in the first place.



Journalism as a whole is on a downward slide, but videogame journalism never even climbed the steps to slide down in the first place.



Yet, as I said, there are exceptions and I'll get more into that in a bit. Sessler is one of them, but I feel he and others like him need to do more than just point it out. Pro-activism is what caused people to re-think film in the 50s and 60s with the likes of Cashiers du Cinema, but there's no grand movement in gaming because the internet is built in a way that makes it increasingly difficult. A lot's been pointed out about the lax in journalistic integrity in the videogame world, from the conflicts of interests and compromises made to the supposed "buy offs" of reviewers for a good review or just flat-out bad writing quality entirely, by a lot of writers and people in the business and legitimate journalists looking in. But, again, nobody has really done anything, or at least enough to make any sort of impression and those that have done something are apparently ignored by the vast majority of the audience they desperately wish to reach.


I’ve always felt that videogames need a “torchbearer” to be a liaison between the gamer world and the rest of society. To bring forth notions of artistic merit and cultural impact and to try and change how gamers are perceived by the rest of the world. It’s why some still look at videogames as merely a toy, hell even a fad waiting to run its course that no adult would dare play and no politician/person that matters understand, and still forget its a multi-billion dollar industry that has had as much an impact on culture as film and music.


While those two arts are taken seriously and discussed seriously, because their audience has a good foundation of artists and intellectuals discussing in the realms of education and thought while the audience can enjoy at their pleasure, videogames are still in their infancy and therefore writing about videogames along with it. However, it doesn't seem to be progressing. Videogame "journalism" is regressing backwards to a point where you can't even write about it anymore. You have to do a video and have clips to even keep attention.


For change to happen, someone has to take a pretty firm stand. Get off the NeoGaf forums and geek message boards, away from the hype machines and marketing ploys, ignore the constant need of “here and now” and sense of urgency, as that narrow-view by both the writers and the audience is what's killing it in the first place, and bring out a website that is solely for the discussion of videogames on an artistic and cultural level. Easier said than done considering it’s so web-based and the internet is the purest definition of “instant information.”



"GIVE ME EVERYTHING I WANT NOW! I DON'T CARE ABOUT QUALITY" - Your typical gamer



It’s a philosophical approach more than a practical one, I suppose, because you also have to get rid of any notion of business, which is like planting flowers in dead soil. Gather like-minded and influential writers (there area ton of unemployed ones, I assure you, as many magazines and websites have been letting writers go consistently for the past three or four years) and videogame designers and, dare I say, not be video-based and create a site solely created for the artistic and cultural merits of games in a written form. Videos make people lazy and writing is something that, I feel, needs to be sorely regained in the videogame world.


You can have videos, sure, but putting thought in a written article, structurally competent and engrossing for a reader is already going to be looked at on a higher level than Joe Schome yelling into his camera about how much something "sucks." I recently read a fantastic article in a magazine, I think it was Game Edge or something of that nature (and if I had my copy from E3 I could say this with much more assuredly), about game and level design and the psychological manipulation designers put a gamer through. It was incredibly fascinating, and when I was done I wondered “why aren’t there more things written like this about games?”


But let’s go to the next level: the videogame companies themselves. Talk about hype machines, they feed the gamer audience like a mother vomiting into her young. It’s to the point where they put out announcements that they’re going to give an announcement about something and the internet world blows up only to find themselves disappointed by the end of the week.  That something is probably a good year away at that. I guess you need to start that hype machine at some point and companies know they have to start early, keep it in the minds of gamers for months and months because if they don’t the attention of their consumers will go elsewhere.


Hmmmm...perhaps videogames are less comparable to film and its industry of cultural impact and more in line with advertisements on television.



Writing about film : Periodicals :: Writing about videogames : 30 second ads and hope you don't change the channel to a different 30 second ad after ten seconds of boredom.



Until someone actually takes a stance and does something, it won’t change and the intelligence of gamers and game “journalists” along with them will deteriorate until, eventually, there’s no difference between the two. There won’t be anyone to lead because there’s no leaders and everyone will have a blog and an opinion and not realize that they pretty much killed any notion of videogames being taken seriously and intellectually approached themselves.



Part II

Enthusiasts Versus Journalists


Most sites you are familiar with are not journalism sites. Well, I suppose that's the first issue at hand so let's make that clear first. The thing is, those places hide behind the misnomer of their sites being journalism based, which is wrong. The term that is used more often, now, is "Enthusiasts." This way, they don't need to worry about acting like journalists. But the thing is, you probably aren't aware just how much power they actually have. While Journalists go out to write an editorial piece, perhaps, analyzing the psychological use of color in a videogame level that involves murder and hunt down the developer to discuss it with them, an Enthusiast schedules a time for an interview through public relations at a company to discuss the big game about to be released.


Enthusiasts are glorified marketing tools, journalists are actual writers.


Have you ever seen a video or read an interview or article and feel things are just "plugged in?" You know, as though it's all pre-recorded drivel kind of like how a coach of a football team says "it's a team effort, we all won today?" Sounds a bit fake, doesn't it? That's because they are. The Enthusiast Press, which probably makes up 80% of most gaming press if not more, and that number is one I completely pulled out of my ass because I can find no record otherwise, is only one gear: to give you info and do it constantly. "Quality and depth be damned, we need to report on this PR release now!" A PR release can be found anywhere, including a typical company websites, yet many videogame sites will take that, reword it, and ship it out there and label it as "journalism." They'll follow that up with some pictures or video only to generate hits before the next guy.


The same is said for how the people at a vast majority of gaming sites conduct their interviews. When an Enthusiast interviews someone involved with a game, it's not because they're looking for insight, they're just looking for content to exploit and garner exclusives and promote their own causes, which is to get more hits, which leads to money (ideally, but popularity is just as golden in the digital age). The people the Enthusiast Press are interviewing have all the info lined up and dish it out to them which is why it often sounds so disingenuous. There's no deeper questioning or a thought in the interviewer's head other than "consume information...put information out for others to consume."


Johnny 5 needs Input! INNNPUUT!


The same can be said for reviews. Copies of games sent to those big sites and advertisement of those games placed on those very sites that are meant to be objective. But they aren't are they? They're a money machine and just another marketing tool for a publisher, no different than a billboard bought, a poster displayed or a flash ad in your browser window.


This came most to light a few years back when certain sites came under fire from publishers to give their games good reviews. Afterall, those publishers are providing them with free games and probably buying ads on their very website. It's questionable ethics at its finest and both IGN and Gamespot pretty much swept it all under the rug as though it was just a one-time thing. But where there's smoke, there's fire and if one little slip is made public, it brings into question the accuracy and legitimacy of the sites as a whole.


The problem is, though, is that the audience doesn't care. They're in that "consume information" mode just like the Enthusiast writers (again showing the lack of differentiation) and don't think twice, they just want to know how pretty something is going to look, what the review score will be and just read how good something is going to be months before it's going to be released. You know, kind of like how a movie studio promotes their big summer blockbusters throughout a city and online. Buzz can do wonders, and a wise man once said "there is no bad publicity."


It's information over insight: beginning in the early infancy of videogame periodicals, compounded by the constant "need to know now" age of the internet and wrought by the complete lack of maturity of its audience to understand or even care.


Whether or not it's because that's pretty much how writing about videogames started and that's all there is now and all people are used to, or if it's entirely the result of the ADD-stricken internet sphere, is unclear. That is merely my assessment and I'm far from an expert in the matter, only an observer and long-removed journalism major with a blog. However, considering the average age of gamers, I would like to think that most can at least tell the difference, it's just that they don't want to either because, again, that's all we know or maybe it's just that videogames aren't meant to be taken as seriously in the first place. 


If that's the case, then why are there petitions and people becoming irate when videogames are looked down on, not considered art or legitimate forms of entertainment? Why find the voice to complain and whine but not the pro-active guile to actually do something about it. The gaming audience is a fickle and vocal bunch, spending more energy screaming "they don't get it" or "they don't take videogames seriously." Well, to receive respect, you have to show it and relate it to yourself. Respect starts with the audience itself, folks. With you. Want to be taken seriously? Then act serious for once.


That's why you cant' look to just one place for information, you need variety with sites and publications that understand you can't write some blog or do everything some publisher tells you to be taken seriously.  You need to balance the information-machine of those larger sites with the insight of some place smaller.- a place not entirely driven by "make goods" to get exclusives and ad revenue. You need actual journalism for once, not just shallow enthusiasm. You need guys like Dan Hsu to put it all into perspective.




Part III

The Goods and the Bads: The Sites to Click On


As for those that I think do it right: Sessler is one, but as an individual, not necessarily G4. Both is podcasts promotes discussion and his soapbox series points out the larger issues at hand about aspects of gaming. I've been a longtime fan of Dan Hsu, going way back into the early days of Electronic Gaming Monthly. His controversial writeup a few years back on gaming journalism made me admire the man even more.


Hsu pointed out how websites and magazines are driven by what a publisher and developer allows them to have. The nicer you are to them (reviews/favorable articles) the more information they'll give you and supply you with "exclusives" (the bread and butter of videogame journalism...from a capitalistic perspective, of course). His website, bitmob.com, is a good example of the steps I was talking about to actually make change and do something different, but it is just one step and I hope the site becomes more successful over time.



This is Dan. Dan is a pretty damn good writer in the world of Videogame Journalists (or, as has been recently dubbed "Professional Enthusiasts") and has taken a stance on reviewers, feature writers and other editors to have accountability in their profession and bring integrity to the table to separate their job and positions from Joe-Schmoe-Blogger-Douchebag (like me).



I believe Hsu is mostly freelance now, along with Geoff Knightly another solid journalist that has done some fantastic, in-depth work that probably got lost over at Gamespot at some point. His stuff can be found all over these days, though, and at a number of sites that could use a good dose of quality content once in a while. I tried to find his articles about Half Life, Half Life 2 and, I believe, Metal Gear Solid 2 where he followed the development team in their approaching deadline to create those games.


Gary Whitta, Jeff Gertzman and anyone involved with Giant Bomb. The Giant Bomb site has grown nicely over the past few years and is certainly on the right track. The editors are experienced, smart and intelligent and offer up some good podcasts as well.  It's "outside the box" in its model, putting a strong focus on community and getting people involved in the site, not dissimilar to a similarly-solid website, The Escapist. My only complaints about Giant Bomb is it's a little too heavy focus in reviewing with not enough "meaty" content and The Escapist is is dire need of of better editors and less focus on goofy videos as it seems to slowly be going down that route. While neither is a "great" site in terms of writing quality or professionalism,


their outside-the-box mentality, open discussion and accessibility makes for something completely different: a community that's heavily-moderated to generate videogame discussion and content. By doing that, you're rooting out all the kids from the likes of GameTrailers, Destuctoid, Screwattack or the Gamespot forums right off the bat.




Journalism is bad across the board, from writing quality to story purpose to simply following the rules of reporting and understanding integrity. It's why Fox News is so popular. However, game journalism needs an overhaul, which is why there's been a "new journalism" movement the past few years. It's struggling, against large sites it's difficult, but it's at least there.



Gamasutra is a site more geared towards the business side of videogames, not just reviews and video previews, and probably has the best articles in the business - and is the only website I can think of that does so. It's not flashy, it's just good damn writing and reporting with insight. Gamasutra is a site that doesn't feel desperate. As gaming sites are based on whatever publishers and developers give them, rather than investigative work, most take that opportunity and just put something out there to get hits. With Gamasutra, there's a bit more meat on the bone with quality articles and writers giving far more in-depth coverage than most other sites could dream of.


It also has a solid news feed as well, though very dry (some compare it to NPR, which is pretty accurate as a comparison, but it has a damn good feature section to balance it).  It and Gamesindustry.biz are only sites that I know that takes that kind of approach. Consider them the Variety to the rest of the internets' People or Us magazines. Eurogamer/Digital Foundry is another site that has always interested me, even though I don't really read it as much as I should. They're independent and, knowing the issues most gaming journalism has, sets out to rectify that in their very own mission statement where "editorial and commercial interests are kept separate." Most sites, like IGN, don't even have a mission statement...which is why IGN is one of the biggest culprits when it comes to sub-par writing and questionable ethics.


Speaking of Europe, Edge Magazine is another quality publication I've found. In particular, their feature articles, not on games themselves, but on how games are made and their cultural impact...hmmm...sounds familiar. A few years back they did a fantastic look at "the art of videogames" and they seem to understand and appreciate the history of gaming and pop culture and how they have been reshaped and reborn over the years.


Colin Campbell of EDGE/Next-Gen and recently joined IGN (a very smart move by them to bring in some desperately-needed credibility) and Clive Thompson of Wired are quality writers. Campbell has a long history of professionalism in my mind and Thompson has written some of the best articles about gaming and technology I've read, including this cultural-analytical one of Twitter as a "new sense" for society.


Individuals like these aren't the problem, its the people they employ (not all, but a lot), the business-model first/quality writing second and the gradual move by the reading (now viewing) audience who care less about integrity and more about constant information, scores, rumors and griping. It's why unprofessional blogs, such as Kotaku, are just as popular as "legitimate" sources and professional writing. The audience can't tell the difference.



More game-centric blogs like Game Theory, a smarter and more refined look at the videogame world, would help balance out the other sites of IGN or Gamespot, who give more attention to timliness and info-bombardment than quality writing. Those sites have a place too, they're full of content, but the quality needs to be upped a notch and places like Game Theory are the kind of the sites to do it. As for sites like Kotaku or Destructoid, they need to be killed with fire, but the popularity of that site is reflective of the fact that the audience can't tell good writing from bad writing.

 


Stepping outside the realm of actual journalism, I've become quite the big of of Game Theory over the past few months as well. Its editorial pieces about gaming is done from a far smarter and insightful viewpoint than most other blogs and most other "actual" websites. Where as some places are enthusiasts hiding behind being labeled journalists, places like Game Theory are more journalists than enthusiasts themselves. It's consistently shown a stance of maturity and, simply, being grown-up about the industry that's still looked at as a toy for teenagers. Considering the average age of a game-player is well into their early 30s (34, last I checked) then a site like this taking a hard line against that is a great thing indeed.


Also notice their videos and the subjects. Nothing funny but actual topics looked at from an adult perspective.  It's not there to entertain, it's there to enlighten and that's the way a blog site of that nature should be. More importantly is the site taps directly into that "cultural" aspect that Sessler brings up: there's discussion of diversity in games and characters, stereotypes and business models of publishers and developers. There's even a nice little jab at the so-called journalists that I'm criticizing here. A few blogs take that approach and are developing a (slow) following that won't overcome the big-boys, but will at least offer options for those that seek it out. (though the jury is still out for me on some sites).


I'm sure there are others, and I'm sure I've forgotten a few (anyone remember GIA?....or am I dating myself)  but the fact is the number is small when compared to larger, money driven and corporate-owned sites. If you have some favorites yourself, please post them.




Part IV

Epilogue


The problem with Game Journalism is that it never had a chance to actually be "journalism." In its infancy, the early editors of gaming magazines couldn't have predicted it, and by the time it came to realize it the internet took over, made it hand-in-hand, and the since it's been a struggle to step back, take a breath, and re-evaluate how it's all handled. I've seen the phrase "Professional Enthusiasts" around and that's probably more accurate than not. They aren't journalists, they're fans...but that's why nobody takes it seriously. That's why you have a majority of people not realizing how much business is in the industry, much less artistry.


When everyone, even the so-called "journalists," act and sound like that fourteen-year-old screaming over Xbox live, stringing together nonsensical rants of nerdery and casting any notion of integrity aside, it's no wonder that videogames will probably never be taken seriously. It's far too cynical, snarky, ego-maniacal and stuck in the the unprofessional roots of the internet for an audience that couldn't care less for that to ever happen now.



Or I could just be making everything up.



In other words, for an industry that has grown by leaps and bounds the past ten or fifteen years, and gamers continuing to age over that period. the demeanor and approach to it all has not. It's all still being discussed and acted upon like kids on a playground at recess arguing over which system has the coolest graphics and writing the quality of which you'll find in customer reviews at Amazon.com.


My love of games hasn't changed. I've already stated that. Nor has how games are treated by the masses on both sides of the fence. A majority, at least. I've stated that as well. What I haven't stated is one thing that has changed: my view towards gamers and game culture. My fondness for it is entirely in a retrospective sense. I can discuss things from the 1980s into the mid 90s with ease and kindness, but as videogames have become more and more popular, the gaming community has become less and less appealing. Perhaps that's why I don't play videogames as much as I once did and that yearning I still have isn't so much to play games today, but to be a part of a time when I didn't have to worry about things being taken so seriously in the first place.


But I've grown up. I've seen that change and the popularity rise and my view changed along with it. Now it is a time to be a little more serious about it. Why not? So should you. As I said, that's where it starts. I've given links to a lot of websites to explore and be a part of, many offering open communities. I've pointed out things to watch out for and be aware of, and certain people to pay attention to as those are going to be our fountainheads when it's all said and done. Take action, change it up. Send me links and suggestions to amazing gaming sites as well, or list people you think are doing a great job and share it with others. Change isn't going to come from one source, but from many. Together.

 


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