What’s A Games Journalism, Precious?

Instead of Sunday Soundtracks, today I’m going to do some personal writing about the concept of games journalism. I’ve been in two minds about publishing it since to comment on this particular argument is to become part of it, and I’m not sure that’s where I really want to be when it’s so needlessly navel-gazing. Still, I have certain Views about games writing in general and this is as good an opportunity as ever to air them.

So unless you’re literally the ambulatory mummified remains of the dead Egyptian priest Imhotep you’ll probably have noticed the minor kerfuffle over a certain article on Eurogamer. This article was penned by one Rab Florence, a well-known games writer responsible for the Consolevania series of review shows, and in it he did what somebody in the games journalism industry does from time to time: he pointed out the gross level of dependence the business has on friendly relationships with PR reps/companies, and asked whether perhaps this overly reliant relationship might compromise the integrity of journalists who take part in it. The results were predictable.

First, the games journalism community at large did what any insular community does when it perceives itself as being under attack: it closed ranks and rounded on Florence for having the temerity to question this natural order of things where it is seen as perfectly normal and above board to accept gifts/hospitality from the people whose products you are supposed to be giving an impartial opinion of. Then the counterculture element of games journalism waded in to his defence, and UK games journalists spent a large part of Thursday tearing bloody chunks out of each other as a result. And then one of the journalists named in Florence’s article complained/made threats of legal action (depending on who you believe) and Eurogamer amended the piece to remove the offending passages, apparently without Florence’s consent. Florence quit his Eurogamer writing gig in protest and the piece was widely circulated around the internet as a result in a classic manifestation of the Streisand effect.

I don’t really want to talk about the integrity of gaming journalism. I have no real interest in games “journalism”, and haven’t since State died a death back in 2004.  The one comment I would make is that if your industry as a whole cannot react to criticism from a perceived outsider except by imploding as spectacularly as this one has done, then it’s entirely possible that you don’t really deserve to be calling yourselves professionals. Professionals would be professional; they wouldn’t resort to slinging abuse at each other via the Twittersphere. Largely this is a result of the bar for entry being set so low it’s not even immediately apparent that one exists; when any bedroom blogger can bang out 2,000 words on whatever they happen to have played that week and call themselves games journalists 1 it’s not surprising that the industry doesn’t really have any professional standards whatsoever.  Added to this is the fact that there’s a revolving door that leads from games journalism into the PR business; unless you are very very lucky being a games journalist is not a job with any long-term career prospects, and so your best bet for the future is to build up a web of contacts and experience with the industry and then make the jump to the other side of this non-existent fence. A discussion of integrity is pointless when the whole thing is irreversibly compromised from top to bottom and has been for decades.

That there is an article published in the immortal Amiga Power way back in 1993. It rails against exactly the sort of vested interests and low level corruption that are so pervasive in the industry today, so it’s not like this suddenly became a problem when the internet became a thing and the floodgates opened. It has ever been thus, and it will probably still be thus twenty years from now. As far as integrity is concerned games journalism in general is a lost cause.

However, I’d like to make the argument that, on the whole, this largely doesn’t matter. Not because journalists accepting material rewards in exchange for promoting a game isn’t a bad thing, because it is, but because the people who read their output are going to be separated into two distinct camps. On the one hand you have the people who read Nintendo Power, a magazine that until 2007 was wholly owned and published by Nintendo of America. Nintendo Power was admirably upfront about the primary reason for its existence being to sell more Nintendo products to the point where they stated as much on the cover 2 . People still read it, and they did so without twigging that maybe, just maybe, the writers behind the magazine might have reasons for scoring a game highly that went beyond its quality. Or perhaps they did and they just didn’t care, I don’t know; the whole reason console fanboyism exists is because people like having their prior purchasing decisions validated in some way, and so there’s going to be a significant subset of Nintendo owners that bought it because they wanted to hear how the Nintendo system de jour was so awesome and had all these awesome games and weren’t they awesome for owning one. It’s undeniable that a substantial part of games journalism these days – hell, a substantial part of any journalism – is playing to your audience’s preconceptions and telling them what they want to hear. If the writers said something that went against that paradigm they’d be shredded by their audience3; and by the same token if that audience wanted to make the mental leap of effort involved in identifying possible sources of author bias they probably could, but they don’t, so they don’t. The audience exists. That section of the gaming media caters to it. And that’s okay.

Then you have the second group, which is the group that actually does care about the PR shenanigans Florence was writing about; the group that has been posting and posting and posting about this debacle non-stop for the last 48 hours. And I think this would be perfectly justified, if any of these people were taking the output of the journalists in question seriously in the first place.

I hate to subject Lauren Wainwright to any more scrutiny at this point as she has rather unwittingly become the central figure in this little saga and I don’t think the opprobrium being directed her way is entirely justified. However, one of the links I absent-mindedly followed led to the writing she’s been doing for MCV. I read it. I strongly recommend you don’t, since reading it led me to put my head in my hands and begin weeping uncontrollably, but this is a typical sample. I’m having difficulty figuring out what sort of audience MCV serves by publishing this sort of churnalism – wikipedia says it is “a trade magazine which focuses on business aspects of the video game industry” – but whoever it is it certainly isn’t anyone who forks over their own money to buy games4.  Let’s be honest here: let’s say you read one of Wainwright’s pieces before this whole thing blew up into gaming journalism’s own Three Mile Island. Is there literally any way you could read that and think “Yes, this is an impartial and objective opinion of the game in question”? I suspect not. It’s not aimed at you. I don’t know who it is aimed at, but it’s not aimed at you. Or me. Or anyone possessing a functioning brain.

(Edit: I have since been informed that MCV is a magazine by games PR people for games PR people, so I pretty much stand by everything I wrote above.)

Anyway, enough about Wainwright. Legal threats (or lack of them) aside she’s not the enemy here; she’s just symptomatic of an industry that is a long, long way beyond help. If you’re anything like me you weren’t reading MCV in the first place. You weren’t reading IGN either. Or Gamespot. Or Kotaku5. The race for the bottom has rendered these websites largely useless as legitimate sources of information, and this should have been obvious from the moment they started trying to pass off press releases as news. I’d wager that if you’re a part of this second group, you’re getting your information from a mix of gaming forums and slightly better-than-average sites like RPS6. That’s the neat thing about living in the internet age: the existence of the large number of interconnected communities that are linked into the big information clearing houses like Reddit ensures that if there is a worthwhile piece of games writing out there, there’s a high chance it’ll float to the top and get noticed due to propagation by those communities. Thanks to the internet – and thanks to the vast majority of games journalism being free to read – it is no longer necessary to get your news and opinions from a single PR mouthpiece. Games journalism is a large enough entity that even though the vast majority of it is tainted and awful, it is still producing a sizeable amount of quality material, and that material can give you a decent aggregate opinion of what’s really going on. And all of this tends to happen without any intervention on the part of games PR bods whatsoever.

So Wainwright and David Cook and Geoff Keighley and many of the other people desperately scrabbling for an established position as a games writer may or may not be gulping down mouthful after mouthful from the corporate PR teat in their off-hours, but squabbling over who said what and who accepted what from which company honestly doesn’t matter to me when the content of their “journalism” is so obviously terrible that I wouldn’t have gone within a hundred miles of it if Florence hadn’t written his Eurogamer article. Moon landing conspiracy nuts have a couple of tiny problems with their hypothesis, not least that keeping that kind of secret in an organisation as diffuse as NASA and its various subcontractors would be next to impossible, and I apply the same reasoning to games journalism. If corruption and bias is so rampant within the industry it’ll show through sooner or later, and guess what? It kind of does. It’s useful that it does, because it lets me know who to read and who to avoid. Several writers I more-or-less respect have gotten oddly defensive in justifying the system, but this hurt their case more than anything else as their writing should have been able to speak for itself. And when pictures are worth a thousand words, the photograph of Geoff Keighley sitting next to a table piled high with Mountain Dew and Doritos says everything I need to know about the man and the kind of journalism he practices. Everything else is just semantics.


  1. I don’t.
  2. By which I don’t mean they outright said “You are paying to consume corporate PR,” but rather that they usually had several fairly conspicuous stamps saying “Nintendo of America” or “Nintendo Seal of Quality” lurking somewhere near the cover image that would have enabled anyone with half a brain to put two and two together.
  3. Witness the wailing in comment threads all over the internet when the latest AAA killer app is reviewed by a mainstream gaming publication and gets less than an 8. It doesn’t matter that time might eventually prove that score correct; in the short term you’re going to be kicking up a hell of a fuss by going against what popular opinion says the game should be like. And that opinion is – you guessed it – largely moulded by PR reps.
  4. I thought it might be for retailers and buyers who wanted to stock said retailers, but then I remembered that in an ideal world these people would be intelligent professionals with a detailed knowledge of their field – certainly detailed enough to spot a press release from the game publisher when they see one. Still, if MCV is genuinely a magazine aimed at and read by games retailers then it’s little wonder the physical side of the business is disappearing down the U-bend.
  5. Except on the once-in-a-blue-moon occasion when they actually produced something worth reading – it does happen – and were linked there from somewhere else as a one-off.
  6. And even here you were treating breathily enthusiastic previews of upcoming games based on privileged access with the contempt they deserve.

16 thoughts on “What’s A Games Journalism, Precious?

  1. Masked Dave says:

    Excellent article, exact sums up why I really think the whole thing is a load of noise about nothing.

  2. innokenti says:

    To be fair, I don’t think things are really as obvious to people. Unfortunately. I think there are plenty of people who do take things at a little more face value.

    As a society we do have our general bias examination and critical thinking skills at a seriously low levels.

    I mean, yeah, ultimately it doesn’t matter that much to me, so all this has provided is the excellent Geoff Keighley picture which is surely a triumph of statement. But I also know plenty of people who do take things at face value, and they do so, for example, with video games. It’s something that they care about deeply, and yet can be uncritical of, or not critical enough. But it’s not that important ultimately.

    But then what about something that is very important? And perhaps something that one doesn’t care about but should. Perhaps the critical training one can receive in a subject one cares about very very much is at least a little bit transferable to something that actually matters. I dunno.

    • Hentzau says:

      “But I also know plenty of people who do take things at face value, and they do so, for example, with video games. It’s something that they care about deeply, and yet can be uncritical of, or not critical enough. But it’s not that important ultimately.”

      Several people have pulled me up on this since I published the post. I just don’t see how you can care deeply about something and yet not do the sort of cursory background reading that would reveal the range the industry is capable of and the difference between good games criticism and mass-produced churnalism. I guess in a way it does depend on how intellectually curious you are about your hobby; nobody could say that the guys who go the midnight launch of the latest Call of Duty game aren’t dedicated, but I suspect they’d be the same kind of people who would go to see a Transformers movie on opening night. They might enjoy games, but if they’re not probing a little deeper into the medium they’re going to be doomed to do so at a rather superficial level.

      (I don’t want to sound pretentious or disparaging here, so I should probably make the point that I enjoy films in the same way that these people enjoy games. I’ve never really actively sought out film criticism in the way I do for games, and I’m content to enjoy them on that superficial level without really comprehending all the different elements that go into making a good film. However, film is a more mature medium with a developed critical field that keeps filmmakers on their toes whether I read it or not. Games, not so much.)

      • Josh says:

        I’m one of the people of whom you speak. I read Kotaku and can’t tell the difference between John Walker, and, um, anyone else.

        For me, games are a disposable medium. The games I buy are usually based on word of mouth; where I take reviews at all I do so sceptically because I’m not an idiot, but ultimately it’s definitely the case that I play games less than others, tend to enjoy them more as a result, and therefore give reviews less of my time. I have a lot of hobbies; books and politics matter more to me, and while so I can opine on writers in those fields games simply don’t matter enough to me to take any of my valuable reading time.

        • Hentzau says:

          Kotaku actually has a non-zero strike rate for decent sourced journalism (they were the ones who broke the Brad Wardell/Stardock employee lawsuit story) but they produce maybe three pieces like that per year. And word of mouth is a fantastic way to make games purchases if you’re patient and wait a little while for opinions to form. I’ve bought rather more new games this year (and suffered through some absolute stinkers as a result) than I really should have, but prior to that point it was mostly how I did it.

  3. Gap says:

    I think a big problem with journalism is that there is no money in it, and to make it as a journalist you have to work for free for a long time (which is illegal, but tell that to the newspapers), which is unsustainable unless you have rich parents. Like you say, there’s an idea that anyone who can vomit up a blog post is a writer, and there’s a glut of talent around at a time when revenue for publications is down.

    While people say that sure, games are just games, and if the worst thing that happens is that people buy a bad game then eh, for news I’d argue it’s a much bigger problem, and for an industry on its knees financially, the corruptability of news media is a problem. I think that journalism will survive and is surviving, but the expensive and challenging role of impartial analysis and detailed reporting will shift to other sources that people are willing to give money to. News will become ever freer, but as ever, if you want something actually good you’ll still have to pay for it. Meanwhile, press releases retyped by literally enslaved journalism graduates will be freely available everywhere.

    • Hentzau says:

      Incidentally if you’re reading this post/comment thread you should go out and buy Flat Earth News and read it.

      Yeah, it’s a problem endemic to all journalism that the increasing corporate nature of media and the emphasis over quantity of output over quality of output makes it ever more susceptible to PR. I’m fairly sure that nobody has died as a result of gaming journalism’s overreliance on gaming PR. The same cannot be said of national newspapers.

      (The money thing is a big issue. Professional Angry Internet Man Stuart Campbell made this point somewhere on his blog — that Amiga Power, at its peak, was bringing in something like 4-5 times as much money from the people who bought it as it was advertising. Today those numbers are more than likely reversed. And if someone did start a pay-for journalism site, would anyone actually pay for it? Everything else being free online does rather hurt the perception of gaming journalism’s value, unfortunately.)

      • Gap says:

        I guess it’s not quite as bad as Italy, where a corrupt paedophile can stay out of prison and maintain a political presence even if Merkel ousted him from his position as PM because he owns the media.

        The thing about pay-for journalism is more relevant in news, where certain professionals and businesses rely on accurate information, and as such are willing to pay for good analysis and careful reporting. But sure, games journalism has always had this problem to some extent, and will continue to have this problem. Like you say, no-one is going to pay for quality games journalism in the same way as news journalism, but then as long as you know of a reliable source or have friends who play games too to get advice from, the effect is mitigated somewhat.

      • innokenti says:

        I think pay-for-journalism can easily occur, but you need to hook people in with content and you need continued movement towards the more friendly paying culture.

        I am happy to pay for a subscription to, say, Ars Technica, because the content is always good, and the subscription brings me some convenient functionality. I do so because I’d like to support them. But I still get the same content as someone not paying a subscription. It clearly works for Ars Technica, but it can only really work for the pinnacle. Or if you’re really good at leveraging it.

        You can’t just put up a pay-wall though. You can’t make the evidence that requires someone to believe in the quality of your publications hard to get at. That makes the whole situation very difficult, but I think increasingly we are able to instil a sense of “If you like it, and you can afford it, contribute”. The more scaleable something like that is, the better, and I reckon it will become more and more the norm.

        • Gap says:

          Right, putting the genie of the internet back in the box is neither possible nor desirable. It’ll work itself out, but it will have a long-term effect on how writing and journalism works. It’s an extension of what happened with the printing press, and will happen with future technologies, no doubt.

          But nonetheless, the balance of power in society is fascinating, and the dominance by corporate power is by no means a sure thing.

  4. Michael Cook says:

    I think you need to be mindful of the wider ecosystem here as well though. A huge number of non-gamers purchase games every year, particularly around Christmas. The mobile market is constantly attracting people who have never read games journalism in their life but are, for the first time, finding themselves interested in buying games.

    There are lots of new groups who are easily targeted and manipulated (and the kind of stuff being talked about in this furore is hilarious when you consider many magazines are openly asking for money to review mobile games, because there are so many to review, and reviewing is so crucial to exposure, that they know developers will pay). I think it’s important to consider beyond the hardcore – who almost certainly act as you describe when reading journalism – and consider people who are more casually dipping into, or returning to, games.

    • Hentzau says:

      Do those people really read gaming journalism, though? Or did they do what I did when I first got a smartphone and look through the highest ranked games on the Android store? If you’re a casual buyer then I think actual games writing is going to be a minor influence in your decision to buy or not compared to advertising or word of mouth.

    • Gap says:

      Actually, that’s a point. How do I find good Android games? Because most of the ones I’ve found have been diverting at best, and awful F2P nonsense at worst.

      • innokenti says:

        Unfortunately the answer is you don’t. Well, actually by word-of-mouth/word-of-internet. Non-media recommendations basically have an enormous effect on mobile games.

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