A Short History Of Players Versus Gaming Journalists

Gaming culture is undergoing a schism. It isn’t pretty.

It also isn’t new. It’s the latest battle in an ongoing war of which there will most likely be no winners, only victims. A line can be drawn from this particular Eron Gjoni / Zoe Quinn harassment campaign, through the ongoing Fake Gamer Girl bomb-throwing, the Rab Florence / Lauren Wainwright fallout of a few years ago, Gamespot’s Jeff Gerstmann being fired for a review not liked by a major advertiser and many other data points all the way back into the printed-and-platform-specific titles of the 1990s (frames appear to break this link; I’m referring to things like Amiga Action getting caught “reviewing incomplete and PC versions of many games“) and 1980s.

I’m going to leave the discussion of GamerGate’s harassment of women and feminists to others who will do a better job than I in that area. Instead, I’m going to briefly focus on the antagonistic relationship between gamer and games journalist.

Putting the Fun in Dysfunctional

Let’s be blunt: gamers have never quite trusted games journalists. For whatever reason – and it feels unique in gaming culture compared to movie or music culture – the people who play games generally don’t get on with the people who get paid to write about them. There have always been accusations of bias, of review scores being wrong, of sexism (or imagined sexism depending on your personal beliefs) or game journalists being influenced by publishers and development studios.

An ad for Psycho Pigs UXB which has the game held up over a women's breat. Two teenage boys are looking at the game.

In 1988 a number of readers complained to Zzap!64 about this particular ad appearing in an edition due to the implied nudity in the background. The actual game, Psycho Pigs UXB, contained no women at all. (Image sourced from: zzap64.co.uk)

The claims that games journalists being influenced by the groups they are covering has some pretty solid backing. In 2002 the LA Times looked at gaming journalists going on publisher-funded junkets, claiming that the process started in the 1990s with Sega. The Washington Post looked at the issue again in 2007 and it appeared nothing had changed. Gaming journalists claim that being flown to a hotel, given a lot of gifts and some great experiences has no impact on their ability to keep an unbiased view of a title, which raises the issue about why those publishers / developers would waste such large amounts of money on something that doesn’t work.

It should be recognised that journalism overall ranks among the least trusted professions, so it’s not just gamers that are the exception. However gaming is different in way gamers treat their journalistic representatives. Perhaps it is because gaming sites have worked to build online communities, perhaps it is because games are interactive, and so have greater emotional resonance or perhaps gamers are just hyper-sensitive to criticism of their hobby due to years of sometimes hyperbolic evaluation. In any case, it’s easier for gamers to go straight at game journalists for any flaw, real or perceived.

And they do. Communication platforms such as the comment section under each review or sent directly to the games journalist via Twitter means that a gamer is never too far from a way of telling the world how wrong the journalist is.

It’s not exactly an uncommon criticism that a games journalist isn’t doing their job correctly, especially if they deliver a game review that’s thought to be incorrect. Gamers have always claimed to want a higher standard of games journalist, but the reality is that significant numbers visit ‘tabloid’ gaming sites who quickly turn official PR statements into bite-size news or are filled with cosplay and / or implied female nudity galleries. Such contradictions haven’t gone unnoticed; as noted by VentureBeat:

“Gamers are always talking about how dissatisfied they are with the lack of maturity in video game journalism. Yet, it seems that whenever a publication or website comes along that purports to offer something more erudite and sophisticated, something more substantial than racy screenshots of the Dead or Alive girls, that publication flies around like a duck with a broken wing for a few painful months before finally dying.”

Waiter, There’s An Art In My Game

What’s changed this time is that video games can no longer be considered a niche interest. Even if you don’t believe that games are Art (and I’m being deliberate about the capital-A) they are a culturally and economically significant entertainment industry. More people than ever have bought into the concept that video games might be Art and have started to examine games through traditional art criticism approaches.

Unfortunately these critics are running into a generation of gamers who have a knee-jerk reaction towards any cultural criticism of their preferred hobby. After years of enduring “video games are bad” arguments, this group is ill-equipped to adjust their reactionary rhetoric to even basic gender studies analysis of their favourite titles.

The famous "This is not a pipe" image, which is really just an image of a pipe so it isn't a pipe. Got it?

Does an artistic work hold greater significance outside of its original creation and intended design? (SPOILER: Yes, yes it does.) (Image sourced from: Flickr)

There is also an apparent subset of gamers who don’t want Art (or Politics, which often seems used as a substitute) in their video games. For years, “It’s just a game” was used to deflect any criticism, painting video games as unimportant and lacking in enough cultural significance to worry about. The group that would use this argument was (and is currently) reacting poorly to the concept that games might say something about the people / society that creates them.

That this most recent schism is an inside job, supported by games journalists and gaming sites, has only stirred up greater anger. GamerGate is receiving its current level of attention precisely because video gamers can now be found everywhere. There’s some very black irony in gaming struggling for years to obtain mainstream cultural legitimacy, only for these gamers to be angered about it actually arriving.

Game journalists and gaming sites have received attacks from GamerGaters because they are seen to be traitorous. After years of fighting ‘outsider’ threats like Jack Thompson together, certain sites are perceived to have abandoned the ‘allied’ gamers. Instead, it appeared these sites started becoming more socially aware and creating more pro-feminist articles – women in gaming being a old sore point in gaming culture, especially in terms of the Fake Girl Gamer / Geek Girl narrative.

This isn’t a conflict that will be ended soon. GamerGate may simmer down, but the underlying attitudes will remain, at least in dark pockets of gaming culture. The fall out won’t be fully known for a long time to come. Game journalists will remain on the front line, but GamerGate has scared a significant number of them, which is why they often have declined to comment on this topic. It has been a significant escalation of hostilities against their profession and the damage done has seen several leave the industry while others question their future commitment.

This Is What You Want / This Is What You Get

There’s a perception that games journalists should be practising ‘hard journalism‘ – lots of fact-based reporting, lots of research, very little personal opinion. Although it would be nice for every games journalist to be Edward R. Murrow, but that’s not realistic in today’s online news world. It’s also an expectation that ignores the system that gives hard journalism the room it needs to work.

It’s no secret that gaming news sites (and online news sites in general) have to pump out a lot of material daily to keep readers’ attention and generate advertising-linked revenue. This has led to a lot of clickbait articles, mainly because they work in attracting eyeballs. The speed required to generate clickbait articles means that there’s no time for research or objective-format writing; the more casual form of opinion- or subjective-format writing is easier to produce under these conditions.

The New York Times newsroom, 1942

Let’s face it – even experienced news organisations are finding it hard to justify spending money on hard journalism these days. (Image sourced from: Wikipedia)

Hard journalism has historically worked where the journalists have the resources to fully develop their story. In short, this means time (which is hard when writers have to put out new material every hour) and money. Newspapers were previously able to rely on not only advertising revenue to support their operations, but also classified ad revenue, the lifeblood of the American newspaper industry. Where an advertiser might threaten to pull funding due to a certain story, classified ad revenue was more consistent and less editorially influenced – if you were trying to sell your sofa via a classified ad, you only cared about the circulation of the newspaper, not necessarily what it had on its front page.

Gaming sites have never had classified ad revenue to fall back on, so are entirely reliant on advertiser-generated revenue. This has made them vulnerable to influence from game publishers and limits their ability to work on hard journalism material. A number of gaming sites have started to attract advertising from outside of the gaming industry – one of the benefits of games going mainstream – which opens up the potential for more independent journalism from games writers. As more money comes in that isn’t tied to releasing high review scores, games writers have more scope to work with.

However, GamerGate took direct target on this, managing to drive several non-gaming sponsors away from particular sites through an email barrage campaign. This is the first time I can see that gamers took direct aim at a site’s source of income beyond simply boycotting the site. But again this situation sets up the blackest of ironies – by driving off non-gaming sponsors, it allows game publishers (the group with the actual history of trying to manipulate gaming sites) greater influence over site content.

It was a new front in the series of battles that have existed between games journalist and gamer. Given such actions resulted in (temporary in some cases) success, there is no doubt it will be repeated in future.

Player versus journalist combat is going to continue. It will never be resolved, but hopefully it will become less personal and more civil in the future.

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3 thoughts on “A Short History Of Players Versus Gaming Journalists

  1. Gamergate has poisoned the well for legitimate criticism of gaming journalism for years to come through offensively sexist and often criminal conduct. That aside, I don’t agree that the structural flaws in gaming journalism are driven by complicated social issues. Rather, gaming journalists are unusually dependent on their relationship with the subject of their coverage for the ability to do their job.

    Traditional Newspapers:
    – Generally charge a subscription fee, and therefore have a direct stake in readers liking what they are reading (also an indirect stake through their circulation numbers).
    – Are generally reporting on matters of public interest where there is newsworthy information to be reported in campaign finance documents, public records, and yes physically talking to people.
    – Generally focus on reporting events that have already occurred (albeit recently), which means that the information is publicly available.

    Gaming Journalists:
    – By and large have not attempted/succeeded to generate revenue directly from the consumers of their product.
    – Seek to report on confidential proprietary information held by multi-million dollar game studios.
    – Focus on reporting events, such as future game releases, that aren’t yet known in the public domain

    Take, for example, Ubisoft’s decision to embargo reviews of AC:Unity until after release day due to significant issues with the product. Play along and you’re dependent on your good relationship with the studio to write that article that’s going to get those clicks. Don’t play along and you still won’t be able to deliver your review to readers in a timely fashion for making their launch day purchasing decisions, because it will take more than a day for your reviewer to play through the title.

    This is a challenge that other entertainment media don’t have. If you can’t get a pre-release screening of a film or review copy of a CD, you can go out and buy one on the open market, finish it in two hours, and have your review posted before close of business on release day. Meanwhile, legions of bloggers and FAQ writers produce volumes and volumes of free coverage of opinion and factual information about released titles. The only unique thing the professional gaming journalist has is the ability to resell their access to the studios by posting information that other sites don’t have yet. There’s no way for that not to devolve into a hopeless conflict of interest.

    My grievance with gaming journalists is that I’m depending on them to provide objective information that I can use to make purchasing decisions. When we get to a state where it’s normal for all reviews to come in at a 8-9 out of 10 because to rate it otherwise would damage the metascore, the entire product is no longer useful to me.

    • That’s a fair set of grievences.

      Video games are much harder to review than other entertainment media due to their length. Although I did see a number of comments that people are willing to wait for professional review sites to complete their work (which is important, given the analysis I did previously that showed how Day 1 reviews are positively skewed), it’s not entirely true. A Let’s Play YouTuber / Twitcher can start broadcasting their play experience the second they start playing the game and this undermines the need for that fuller, more refined review (especially among the Day 1 / Week 1 game purchase market).

      It’s certainly a unique set of challenges video game journalists face and unfortunately I don’t think there are any easy answers.

  2. I wanted to make a little note here, as someone who frequents what could probably be called a hotbed of GG activity (although I don’t support it myself). I remember, before any mention of this sprung up, people ragging on many of the sites that they would later come to boycott. For all the rhetoric, I find it hard to believe that many people actively involved in the movement seriously read these sites. I know I wouldn’t have been caught dead on most of them for ages, if not for the “journalism,” then for the blatant clickbait. I think the point about art criticism, Jack Thompson and so on is spot on, and consider it to be one of the primary factors in the continued existence of the movement.

    I find the whole thing kind of funny. While I don’t follow the whole arty story, it doesn’t really bug me. Never had that much of a problem with Thompson either. Some people wanted games to go mainstream, and they got that. It’s perfectly cool to be a nerd now. I could get into that more, but all I really wanted to do was stroke my ego a bit by proclaiming how I can just let all the bullshit about games journalism slip right by because, whoop-de-fucking-doo, I realize that the games I like aren’t just going to be erased from existence because games other people like are made. Also cause I haven’t paid attention to games journalism since I was a child.

    Anyway, sorry for that. You write some good stuff.

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