Game Journalism: not really that important

There were a few events this week that got everyone pontificating about game journalism and bias. I’m not going to get into the specifics of the events because they involve harassment and violation of privacy*, but at issue is potential collusion between game journalists and developers because of personal relationships.

I mentioned on Twitter that I don’t care about relationships between journalists and developers and someone replied that if video games are ever to be taken seriously, we need to “hold journalists to the highest ethical standards”. And after much thought I decided that.. yep, still don’t really care.

I mean, yes, if you’re being paid to write a glowing review of a game I would in theory like to know that it is a paid opinion piece. But honestly what are game reviews if not a series of biases and opinions? X is too hard, Y is boring, Z is a shooter and man I do not like shooters. I may have enjoyed A in a vacuum, but I played B last year and it was a way better example of the genre.

I don’t agree with every movie critic — I either read multiple critics and see what the general consensus is, or I read enough of a critic to know how their tastes align with my own. While technically completely objective game reviews exist (note: satire!) they’re also boring as hell.

Also consider that 95% of “game journalism” is not actually journalism, which I don’t mean as an insult but just a fact. What we call journalism is often actually criticism (in the literary sense), or blogging, or reviews, or in the case of YouTubers “playing a game while screaming at a camera”.

So while I appreciate that there should be a line of distinction between article and advertisement, I also appreciate that it just doesn’t matter enough to be all hardline about biases.

A bunch of folks were worked into a real lather yesterday about protecting the sanctity of game journalism but .. it’s just a game. Does the sports Twitter community get all worked up about impropriety in sports journalism? Do movie buffs rage when they see a movie critic hobnobbing with Hollywood execs at an Oscar party? (They might, I honestly don’t know, but it seems unlikely and kind of silly.)

It’s not reporting on a war, or covering world politics, or doing a crime expose. If a game gets an extra dose of publicity because the dev has a personal relationship with a journo… so what?

Game nerds can get hung up on a pursuit of ultimate objectivity, as though without those nasty opinions and feelings we can finally all agree that our favorite game is the Best Game Ever. But it’s an impossible goal and it wouldn’t be very interesting even if it did happen.

There are roughly 18 billion professional and amateur people writing or making videos about games every day, myself included. Don’t sweat the small stuff.

* Readers, not that I think you would do such a thing, but just to be clear I am so very not interested in having a third party discussion about a young woman’s sex life.

Author: Jessica Cook

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9 Comments

  1. Since it was my tweet that seems to have inspired this post in part a defense of why we need journalistic ethics in video games.

    The simple reason games journalism (I’m going to lump both criticism and journalism under one term because they are blurring in a lot of areas) matters is for the same reason representation in video games matter. As the fine folks as Extra Credits say, games matter.

    To be clear I’m not asking for the mythical objective review but I don’t think that is an excuse for leaving potentially relevant information out of a review. Good reviews acknowledge potential sources of bias, if a review says “I don’t generally like RPGs” then I know that this person might not be a good person to listen to on RPGs. Beyond that writers have reputations, I know Yahtzee isn’t a fan of RPGs, especially not JRPGs and Alec Meer at RPS tends to be unwilling to overlook weak gameplay for story and aesthetic reasons.

    The same way a player’s impression of the game is filtered through their own biases we filter articles through our own biases about the writer. This allows us to place the article in the broader context of articles. If there is information that could color an article that readers don’t know about we can’t properly contextualize the article.

    I’m also not saying that we should seal journalists in a plexiglass container away from any interaction that could color their perception. Instead we ask for disclosure, if one of the developers is an old friend or if I played the game in a swanky club rented out by the publishers it should be disclosed. It may not matter, since these folks are professionals it probably doesn’t matter but its important to help us better understand what may have influenced the article.

    With all that hopefully clarified time to go back to the bigger point, games matter. You say its not politics and therefore its less important when I’d argue the opposite is true. Games aren’t politics, they are something much more important, mass media. Politics, especially in the American system is slow and inherently conservative by design. Even small changes go through endless deliberation unless there is a groundswell of public opinion or truly immense political power (think FDR).

    The power of mass media is that it can shift popular opinion, pick a major shift in American society and you’ll find mass media behind it, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Jungle, Silent Spring, The Feminine Mystique, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Its probably too early to say but I wouldn’t be surprised if shows like Modern Family normalized homosexual relationships and were a huge part of the meteoric turnaround we’ve seen in public opinion on marriage equality.

    Obviously there were no games listed above but that’s because gaming is new and we still don’t have a good sense of how to use gaming to say things. Games as an interactive medium have the potential to be even better vehicles to move public opinion than the mediums above. Games matter and so game journalism matters, to dismiss by saying “eh, its not politics” does disservice to the development and maturation of the medium.

    This whole blowup also raises some interesting issues with how we think about power dynamics with respect to social media and the internet public square but this comment is already a mini blog post itself and that’s mostly off topic so I’ll stop there.
    Fierydemise´s last post: Fixing Subtlety AoE

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    • That was an excellent response, and thanks for posting it!

      I think we actually agree on your main point. Games can matter. (But they don’t matter as much as, for example, what’s going on in Ferguson right now.) Game journalism? Not so much, I think. If we want games to be taken more seriously as a medium, it’s in the hands of developers to create games that can be taken seriously.

      While I am absolutely not saying that you yourself think anything like this, in general it seems disingenuous for the issue of partiality in games media to suddenly be a hot issue, when the actual problem for many is that a woman is involved. My post is in this context, although admittedly I kept the context vague. Impartiality in game journalism is not important enough that I feel I need to know who someone may or may not be sleeping with. It’s none of my business, and I don’t care.

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  2. I want to escalate things further. I want to be informed of a reviewer’s life going into every review. I want to know their back story on games of that type, I want to know exactly how much time they put into it, and I want to know if they fucked/ate/enjoyed/or hated something enough that it affected their mood.

    If game critics are to be held up to the biggest magnifying glasses, then I need to make sure their opinion isn’t being altered by the context in which they are giving it any way.

    And no I am not being serious.
    Murf´s last post: 8bit Kitchen, “I Drank This: An Aloe Vera Drink with Mango!”

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  3. I think it’s ironic that the actual journalism in gaming occurs when talking about meta-issues (women in gaming, the working life of a developer, how games-as-business affects games-as-art, etc) rather than the games themselves.
    Dahakha´s last post: What I Played: Steam Challenge – Little Inferno

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  4. Hmm.. I think there is a huge difference between having a paid for review and one in which it’s just your bias. Impartiality is never going to happen, we are reviewing an experience and whether or not we enjoy it based on our likes and interests. Certain experiences will speak more to others as well. This is what kind of matters when picking a reviewer to listen to as you more look towards if their interest mirror your own

    A paid review though isn’t their experience, it’s not their opinion.. it’s often not even related to what they would have given the product otherwise. Technically it’s not even a review as the person isn’t reviewing the product, it’s more an advertisement. It’s quite unethical if you ask me although having a statement that it is paid I guess covers that but still…
    j3w3l´s last post: Progress Report: A Strategic Simpleton

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  5. Of course Gaming Journalism isn’t that important. It’s not more important than Car Journalism, or Sports Journalism, or Literature or Art or Movies.

    On the other hand it is not LESS important than that either.

    I don’t know how it works in America, but here in Sweden, if a book reviewer in a Newspaper has ANY kind of relationship beyond “visiting the same book convention as the author” they are usually not allowed to do a review by a book of that author. If it’s a smaller paper that only have one book revier, it is not even unheard of to “borrow” a reviewer from a competing paper to write a guest piece on the book, just to be sure they can’t be blamed for favoritism.

    Why is this so hard in this business? Back in the 80ies you could blame it on small circles, but not anymore.

    The Nerd Community, which most of these people claim to be part of, is weird. It is probably the place where most people rub elbows (compared to books, movies, food etc). In the group of professional cosplayers, voice actors, journalists, bloggers, Youtube champions, twitter celebrities, indie developers, public relations people from AAA houses, ascended fanboys (and girls obviously)… A Journalist might actually BE two or three of these things themselves.
    This is a business where a AAA developer hires a journalist / presenter from a huge review / news site as a voice actor while that person IS STILL HIRED AND DOES WORK THERE, without batting an eye. I am sure the developer in question wasn’t banking on mega-good reviews because of it, but it was still very VERY weird. And said site did fight to the death against the criticism against the game said developer published with said voice actor in it.

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    • I think any creative community with an “indie” scene has a lot of mingling between artists and media. Back when Harry Knowles from Ain’t It Cool News had a lot of sway, he was always getting early reviews of genre films and even small cameos in the movies themselves! Indie music has a ton of interaction between artists and small-time critics, and a big part of the indie music community is the idea that they’re all supporting each other.

      In theory I am all for making sure that companies cannot pay for reviews, but that is not what this current furore is about. A legitimate approach to media integrity would look at things like companies giving free gifts to journalists at conferences or whether the fact that most media websites make their money from advertisements by AAA game companies affects their coverage.

      Instead, we have Kotaku declaring that their writers cannot contribute to Patreon, in an editor’s letter surrounded by ads from EA. We have people on social media baying for a public accounting of the personal relationships of people who are being paid .03 per word.

      YouTubers have no ethical guidelines like official pro media, which is not to say that they don’t individually have them but there are no expectations of it, and as you say the big names also quite often do voice work for indies. And yet you and Jim Sterling interestingly enough are the only people I’ve seen mention it so far!

      So yeah, I agree that there is kind of a weird intimacy in the Game Nerd Community, as you put it, but I also think that the current witchhunt is looking at the wrong thing because it doesn’t actually care about fairness in game journalism. If we really care about that, let’s look at EA and Ubisoft and Gawker Media and the companies that actually have the money and the power to influence things, not freelance writers and devs who make labours of love.

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      • The Patreon thing is the thing I have the hardest time understanding, because it seems so crystal clear for everyone BUT people in the business, who seems to feel that it is fully normal to say review a game that you yourself gave $500 to help develop, or to write an article about a game from small developer you personally have given money too, and comparing it to buying a review copy.

        “Everyone” is also up in arms over Kotaku’s policy change, yet Joystiq goes out in public and says “Um guys, we have NEVER allowed this” and it is not even mentioned.

        The thing is that there is a line, and it is up to the Editor in Charge to keep that line. ALL magazines have ads. EA could hypothetically say “We will increase our advertising on your site if you give us good reviews” or more likely “We will pull advertising if you don’t do what we say” but these things tend to come out, and cause a stink that will hurt the company more than the site.
        The big difference is when you get involved on a personal level. When you as a person gets personally involved with something. If you go and buy a review copy, you are one of (hopefully) millions of people doing the same. You are an ant. But if you go to a crowdfunder and say “I will give this person / persons my PERSONAL money, because I LIKE what they are doing, then you get invested personally. You have not only an economical, but EMOTIONAL investment in wanting the product to sell well. It is basically an express way to the other thing we talked about above, friendship across borders.

        Of course, most of this could have been avoided with full disclosure. But now the wasp nest that is the internet has been kicked, and has been kicked too many times in too short period of time.
        But again, full disclosure would have been great. This is the other way other publications than game sites / magazines tend to do things:
        Either start your piece with saying “I am a close friend of XX…” or, which is more comon, a footnote from the editor at the bottom / side of the main text detailing the relationship: “Editors Note: Writer of this article has competed together with the developer of this game in the ComiCon cosplay competition for the last 4 years”. Or something like that.
        Then people know this up front, nobody gets a feeling anyone is trying to hide anything from them and only a very small minority would bite on things like this.

        As for reviews… The magical objective review is an oxymoron, and cannot exist. Because a review is a personal opinion. It is the DEFINITION of a review. That some people expect reviews to be objective only tells me schools are not doing their jobs.
        The point is that this opinion should be formed by playing the game, not that the reviewer should try to become a Vulcan and only do it logically.

        That said it doesn’t help matters that review are becoming less and less what people are trusting because they have options now. For me, who has been playing games since the Commodore VIC 20 (that was a while ago…) reviews used to be the ONLY way to know if a game was worth getting. You had one, or maybe two gaming magazines, period, and you trusted those reviews as if it was God himself telling you these things.
        Now? For me there is almost only two ways it plays out: I have either pre-ordered the game and not waiting for reviews at all, or I am not buying it until I get to see a Let’s Play or two and CONSUMER revies (not professional reviews). The reason for this is the number of very high-scoring games that then have turned out to be hated by the public or at least major disappointments, like Dragon Age 2 and vanilla Diablo III (before Loot 2.0) which both got 9 or 10 out of 10 on most sites and whose meta score for consumer reviews are MUCH lower.

        Anyway, where I am going with this is that we, most of us, don’t expect THAT much from gaming journalists, but PLEASE at least try to avoid the OBVIOUS things:

        Don’t crowdfund a game and then review it. Bow out, give it to your collegue.

        Don’t take the job as a voice actor in a game your work collegue will review. It is flattering, but just say no, especially if you actually still work at the company doing the reviewing and this is just a side gig, because the SUSPICION will be there, and it is enough.

        Don’t write two-page stories blaming a group of people for something horrible without fact-checking first. Because if it turns out to be false, nobody will come out pretty from it.

        In short, when the readers feel that TMZ have far bigger journalistic integrity than your publication… somebody, somewhere is doing SOMETHING wrong.

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      • Sorry, I couldn’t figure out if I could edit my other post…
        Big business can be a problem, as you say above. I do remember a story where one of our biggest newspapers reviewed a PS3 game, and Sony called the reviewer and asked why the score was so low.
        The point is that this paper actually uses the full scale. So if a bad game deserves a 3 out of 10, it gets a 3 out of 10, not a 6.5. He actually had to explain this to Sony, basically saying “The reason your game got a 6, is because it is above average, actually. Average on a 10 scale should be 5, and we will actually do it like that”.

        Not sure what came out of it, but the paper still reviews Sony games (of course Sony can’t stop them buying their own review copies).

        Anyway, this is why I really like, and trust the Swedish edition of PC Gamer, because they have a die hard policy of NEVER reviewing anyting that can be suspected of being a demo, or a special “review copy”. Many many times this means they will have to go out, after launch day, and buy the game themselves, and their review can be up to almost a month late. But on the other hand they have this quality stamp, which they are very careful to not damage, and the readers trust.

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