Watching the Watchmen: Why Gaming Journalism Still Isn't Journalism

Gaming journalism is finally starting to hit its stride, if you believe the gaming journalists themselves. The current preferred terminology is new games journalism, which to me implies that our current gaming journalism (with its awards and trade groups and mainstream media recognition) is of an order of magnitude better than old games journalism, whatever that is. Here's the ugly open secret: gaming journalism isn't journalism. I doubt it ever will be.

There is one fundamental characteristic that defines gaming journalism: it's a niche. Just like Cat Fancy and The Journal of the American Massage Therapy Association, the vast majority of the population does not give one red cent about the topics you're covering. In mainstream entertainment, there exist seperate apparatus to promote and review new releases. Ebert and Roeper do not hype upcoming films, nor does the New York Times Book Review provide a list of "The Hottest Upcoming Books!".

Gaming journalism has utterly failed at maintaining that necessary barrier; every major video game publication, be it a magazine or website or even television show of late, devotes as much time to previews of upcoming games as it does to finished product. This is not unique to games; look at Ain't It Cool News and CHUD, websites that could ostensibly be called the pioneers of "new movies journalism." AICN and CHUD devote the majority of their space to rumors and news about upcoming films and even have their reporters invited for on-set visits, much like a gaming website can get a "hands-on" preview of an upcoming title. Even with this closeness to its subject, movies sites maintain at least some objectivity in their previews. Gaming journalism cannot do this.

Consider IGN's recent review of Mobile Suit Gundam: Gundam vs. Zeta Gundam, the umpteenth video game iteration of the anime series of the same name. The review is a ruthless dismemberment of the game. The entire introduction is just biting sarcasm, and the review goes on to say things like, "Wash, rinse, and repeat until the simplemindedness of the game bores its way into your brain and the drool spills onto your shirt. Forget about thinking too hard, you're not going to need it." In the end, the reviewer awards the game 3.4 points out of 10.

Most gamers are heartened when they see bad reviews. It reinforces a certain measure of trust in gaming journalists; it's reassuring to know that she or he will tell you if the game stinks, and that gaming magazines and websites aren't just tools of the gaming industry. (Even I'm especially glad to see IGN give a game a bad review. It reminds me that I need to check my smoke alarm battery and have my tires rotated.) The problem of the niche interest group that promotes and reviews new titles with the same apparatus becomes clear when you look at IGN's preview of the same game, filed during E3 just 5 weeks prior to the review. Given the brief time interval, the preview must have been almost the exact same code played for the review. The preview bubbles over with excitement about Gundam vs. Zeta Gundam, producing absurd equations like "Robots with guns = good" (defend that one mathematically, I dare you) and making several statements that are roundly contradicted by the review just weeks later. What the preview calls a control scheme that "gives you a good sense that you're actually at the helm of a gigantic robot", the review calls "thoroughly crippled."

Clearly, pressure is exerted upon gaming news outlets by publishers to play ball and make laudatory previews. I simply cannot recall the last time I read a less-than-stellar preview, and unless gaming journalism moves as a whole towards honest previews, it won't happen. Individual game magazines and websites that take a hermeneutic approach to previews will get cut off from the feedline by publishers and won't stand a chance in hell of getting a preview build of Hello Kitty Roller Rescue before their competitors. New games journalism needs to move as a whole for anything meaningful to occur, or separate organs need to be created to handle previews and reviews independently of one another. I have my doubts that this is ever going to happen.

So keep on handing out awards, you self-referential post-modern gaming journalists. But wake me up when someone writes an honest preview.

Comments

Not that traditional journalism is particularly journalistic these days, but you're absolutely right. There is no such thing as gaming journalism as far as I can tell, and I'm adding myself and GWJ right there smack in the middle of it. We are certainly entertainment mediums, and occasionally informative or insightful, but only rarely approaching anything like journalistic. Honestly, though, I find little use in the nomenclature of what we do. It doesn't matter to me if we're called journalists, editorialists, or rodeo clowns, and I don't much trust the outlets that get so caught up in what they feel they should be called.

But wake me up when someone writes an honest preview.

You know, I know you're talking about the big sites, and I'm not trying to change the focus, but I've always been pretty proud of our previews. We've taken some heat on it here and there *cough*Age Of Empires 3 - E3 coverage*cough*, but we always call 'em like we see 'em. In particular I recall not being particularly impressed by our preview copy of Dungeon Siege II. I guess, the point being we're certainly not journalists, but I feel like that's irrelevant. We provide something not a lot of other places seem to.

Good food-for-thought article.

Nice article, Goes Missing for Days (that's your new Sioux name).

I agree with you that, in essence, gaming journalism sucks and I think you've hit the nail on the head as to why. There's only so much that one can write about a video game. Either it's being developed (preview), it's been released (review) or there's something interesting about the people who make it or the people who buy it (fluff piece).

True journalism unearths places and things that were previously unknown, or hidden. True journalism shakes the pillars, stirs momentum and brings about change. The sad fact is that regardless of how exciting, interesting and/or revolutionary a video game may be to video gamers, it will still call for the player to sit nearly motionless for hours doing absolutely nothing. Not very pillar-shaking, and not very inspiring for journalists.

I think if previews we're removed entirely from these publications it would be better. Make it so you only review completed material. Anything else leave in a rumors section.

Ironically, I think the problem with this whole situation is that, after being ridiculed and laughed at by the mass media for the past 30 years, the video game industry is now blooming. Ever since video games came out they have been a 'niche' genre of entertainment. People were (mostly...or at least moreso) honest in their previews back then, simply because they felt a sort of camraderie with the people that would be reading and basing their purchases off of these articles. These 'journalists' were Game Lovers first, writers second.

However, now the video game industry seems to feel invincible. Consoles and PC sales are astronomically high as compared to even 10 years ago. Gaming has turned into a mainstream form of entertainment. I know this because I have seen Chingy playing his PS2 on MTV and I can think of nothing more mainstream than that. It seems like nothing can go wrong with gaming now (save the whole violence debacle) and this has instilled a sense of optimism in game journalists. "Hey, the game looks great visually and this 10-second in-game video clip looks pretty good, seems like a (insert applicable catch-phrase (Halo-Killer, Killer App, etc..) here) to me." What does it matter to the journalists if their wishful thinking turns out to be a letdown? They no longer feel the same sense of responsibility to the average gamer; due to the fact that there simply is no 'average gamer' anymore. Gaming is no longer just a hobby. It is a multi-billion dollar business. And you have to expect this kind of behavior when that much money is involved.

I'm not letting these people off the hook, mind you, I can just see where they are coming from.

Just thank God that OUR media doesn't spend 3 weeks covering every facet of the Jacko trial.

I've stopped reading almost all previews in the print magazines I get and instead read only reviews in them. I have to say it's cut more than half of the content from them, but I don't miss it. I will occasionally glean numbers from the major previews, e.g. 32 players online planned for SOCOM 3 for example, but will avoid the text going into detail about what they want to do before they're done making the game.

As for online, I'll read interviews with developers but avoid previews. I will read hands-on info for a game if they're talking about the gold master version of the game, but before that it's not really worth reading about.

I've stopped reading print magazines full stop. The final straw was a nasty viral infection which I eventually traced to a demo disc.

One good thing about the publishing lag between America and Europe is that I usually have enough time to get a good general impression on a new title from online communities such as your esteemed selves.

Maybe this is why more and more (it seems) Gamespot does interview previews - where they let the developer/producer/whatever tell their own lies/hype. I'm also fairly certain I've seen gamespot do a lot of a paraphrasing form of hype:

"According to Howard [the executive producer], the combat system is intended to be fast-paced and kinetic" - from the Elder Scrolls IV E3 Preview. (ok borderline hype but I don't want to search for a better example)

Lately I would't fault gamespot for journalistic integrity with their previews. Often they do a decent job of conveying some doubt about an aspect of a game they found problematic and/or conveying a sense of excitement about a game they thought rocked. By the end of an article I usually get a sense of whether or not the author was excited about the game or not - but that perhaps is a lot of reading between the lines.

Here is what could have been bs-hype about a game:

"We lost count of the many incredible, split-second moments that we encountered in the game. .... Overall, though, there is an incredible feeling of gritty verisimilitude..." - BF'2 Updated Hands-On Preview

But I think it is safe to say - for most, BF'2 lived up to that statement.

This seems like a balanced statement from the preview: "EA and DICE had promised to improve the challenge in bot matches, and they seem to have largely succeeded in this goal" - BF'2 Updated Hands-On Preview

I read: its better, but not earthshakingly better.

I don't read the other gaming sites unless someone reccomends a particular review or preview so I may lack some perspective on the matter - but I guess all I'm saying is I don't feel that in general Gamespot's previews are that misleading. On occasion they are - maybe when some guy/gal gets assigned to preview a game they couldn't care less about.

I actually have more issue with their reviews a lot of the time. For example, a 9.x game from spring is really an < 8.5 game in the fall for example. Other times the game will get a 9.x review but the text just goes on to list numerous ways the game was flawed or could have been better.

Good article, Sanjuro. That's one of the great things about staying a half-year behind the new game curve. Whenever it's time to buy a new game, enough reviews are out (mainly at Metacritic and GWJ) so I know if the "killer game" that was hyped so rabidly a few months ago is actually worth my not-very-hard-earned money. I don't know how many times I've walked into a game store and the guy behind the counter pestered me to reserve a copy of a "killer game" that was supposed to be the second coming of Halo when it turned out to be absolute trash (but that's a discussion for Elysium's Retail Game thread).

Having written previews for a big site I can tell you that previews are always going to have a postive tone to them because the game can always be corrected in time for the release.

Ulairi wrote:

Having written previews for a big site I can tell you that previews are always going to have a postive tone to them because the game can always be corrected in time for the release.

While that's certainly true, Ulairi, it's not as if previews currently go out of their way to point out deficiencies or missteps in the game design. Good features can be excised as easily as bad bits can be corrected, and previews by and large only talk about the good stuff in effusive, uncritical tones.

Having written previews for a big site I can tell you that previews are always going to have a postive tone to them because the game can always be corrected in time for the release.

Problem is, then all a previewer is doing is providing marketing material for the game. It's not journalism, not productive, not informative, and most of all not particularly honest. It's self-serving for the outlet that is simply trying to protect their opportunity to receive future preview material, helpful for the company that wants to drum up enthusiasm for a game that is often quite different in quality than was suggested in the preview, and absolutely useless to the reader. Why not just write ads instead?

Again, that's fine if we're just going to call it all fluff entertainment, but these guys have no room to pretend they are providing an informative service. It's just Entertainment Tonight for gamers.

Even I'm especially glad to see IGN give a game a bad review. It reminds me that I need to check my smoke alarm battery and have my tires rotated.

This had me laughing out loud

Previews will always be positive. Because it's a win-win situation for both developers and game journalists: more exposure for the first, and a buzz around a game which generates more attention to later information about that game for the latter. I just take previews with a grain of salt (is that correct english?), as long as the reviews are objective.

And in many printed magazines they are. At least as objective as movie reviews, which are in 90% of mainstream media cases VERY marketed and subjective. At least as objective as book reviews, mostly written by frustrated writers who can't get their own rubbish published (ok I'm going cliché here, granted - but still). Mostly you get what you pay for: free websites get carried away by hypes very easily idd.

What disturbs me most about game journalism is the lack of background information about games. Even the more serious magazines seem to be occupied by graphics alone. And gameplay is by far the most important aspect of a game - it has to play nice, right - but a game is more than (I don't know how to put this in another way) discours alone, it often has deeper meanings in it - cross-referential and intertekstual not only to movies and literature but more and more often to other games too. If games are to be taken seriously that should be adressed too I believe.

I agree with dejanzie about the smoke-alarm-and-tires quip. Friggin' hilarious!

I also agree with Elysium that there's basically no such thing as true gaming journalism. The closest thing I've found are Geoff Keighley's pieces for GameSpot. I'm not sure why it is that people who write about games have been inclined to call their writing "journalism." Do people who write about automobiles or guns for a living behave similarly? Unless we take as our criterion for journalism "anything published in a print or online periodical," there's little reason they should do so.

Just as a note: the new games journalism, as it has been self-titled, is a movement to instill some pulse and vigor in games-related writing by emphasizing the way the game feels, as opposed to how it is structured or what its features may be. The movement no more qualifies as journalism than anything IGN could muster, but it has produced some pretty compelling and fresh writing, which is good.

Nice writing yourself, Sanjuro.

Somebody change Elysium's tag to Rodeo Clown.

Nothing wrong with informative entertainment but I think previewers should add the caveat that every thing might change but then proceeded to call out the problem they see. Way to often they gloss over the issues that then ship with the game and are very real and painfully. If as a customer I new going in I could make a more informed decisions about my potential risk as the buyer. Given the lack of ability to return things these days this becomes pretty important. Sad that risk management is becoming a big factor in game purchasing but high prices and dodgy quality is making it so. Reviews that routinely agree not to say anything about bugs or problems with previews do the audience a disservice and take much needed heat off the publishers. If nobody agrees to shady NDS or to restrictions on what they can print, then publishers will stop asking for that type of treatment or at least stop expecting to get it, because at the end of the day they rather have some publicity then none.

Even I'm especially glad to see IGN give a game a bad review. It reminds me that I need to check my smoke alarm battery and have my tires rotated.

Comedy gold!

I've been approached a couple of times to head up things at gaming magazines...and where we always bog down in negotiations is when I tell them that editorial has to be completely separate from the advertising. I won't put my name on a book where the advertisers are driving the content, unless it's clearly stated that the "editorial" is in fact, an advertorial.

(Don't get me wrong, I've been writing advertorials for publishers like Wall Street Computer Review for more than a decade...but my name doesn't go on them, and they have "advertorial" across the top.) I'm not above getting paid to write marketing copy...but I'm not going to push it off like it's *my* opinion/research/whatever.

The fact is that most of the print game magazines exist as purely a method by which to shove a ton of 4 color ads in front of the primary demographic...12-18 year old males. The producers, advertisers and salespeople don't give a rat's ass about what the content people want to do. It's the reason that the turn over is so high with good writers and editors. It's just too frustrating to always be hamstrung.

I believe the closest thing to games journalism was the now defunct Next-Generation magazine - which, over time, slipped more and more away from a focus on industry trends and emerging gameplay styles and headed to the strategy guide/hype machines of it's competitors.

I truly mourn the loss of my PCGamer subscription. I held on to it for as long as possible, until eventually I just wasnt happy with anything in it. I held on to it well after I was able to find more relevant and recent info online, but there remains one major advantage of literature in print....its just not safe for your boys to take a laptop into the can.

-pol

I have a counter right next to the can so i'm covered. Or uncovered.

I have a laptop and a bathroom counter, but something inside has resisted the urge. What is it ... oh yes ... it's my dignity. Damn dignity. Always getting in the way of my Dork Side.

Mainstream previews are at best nice little snapshots of developer pipe dreams. Game Informer has a preview of the upcoming Gun, for example, which is basically just a lengthy regurgitation of the developers' lofty ideals, which were obviously spoon-fed to the magazine. It's terrific advertising for the title, the hype pushes issue sales, and the reader feels like they've got a sneak peek at the next big thing. For the time being, everyone's happy. Nowhere within the preview is there any discussion about the inherent challenges in making such a game or the obstacles that must be overcome.

There are perhaps a handful of exceptions to the "previews suck" rule- I'd note that Edge is one magazine that does a decent job with their previews. They're not above getting excited about a conceptually interesting or graphically impressive title, but they typically take pains to point out potential problems. In a recent Stubbs the Zombie preview, for example, they quickly dismissed the developer's sound bite description, described what they'd seen of the game, and finally concluded:

This is a game which faces huge challenges - the humor of the setup could jar as often as it pleases, the remote hand puzzles could become tediously reliant on air vents and switches, Stubbs' simple combat could become wearing - but there's no questioning the appeal of the premise or the solidity of the preparation.

As to the issue of whether or not there is such a thing as relevant, high-quality games journalism, it's out there - but no one wants to read, publish, or buy it. As Lobo mentioned, Geoff Keighley's work is probably the most visible example - and it's practically invisible. We're seeing more games-related articles from the mainstream non-gaming press, and though they're occasionally well-written and carefully researched, they're often completely out of touch with what's really going on inside the medium from a design or artistic standpoint.

I'd like to think that both gamers and the medium will continue to mature and we'll see more outlets for bonafide journalism. As for IGN and EGM and GamePro and the like, I'm not holding my breath - I don't expect them to change.

Gaming journalism is finally starting to hit its stride, if you believe the gaming journalists themselves. The current preferred terminology is new games journalism, which to me implies that our current gaming journalism (with its awards and trade groups and mainstream media recognition) is of an order of magnitude better than old games journalism, whatever that is.

It's not supposed to, y'know. It's really Games' New Journalism. Only that wasn't punchy and attention grabbing enough so...actually, never mind. It is supposed to make you think that at first glance. it's not true, however.

Sanjuro wrote:

Individual game magazines and websites that take a hermeneutic approach to previews will get cut off from the feedline by publishers and won't stand a chance in hell of getting a preview build of Hello Kitty Roller Rescue before their competitors. New games journalism needs to move as a whole for anything meaningful to occur, or separate organs need to be created to handle previews and reviews independently of one another. I have my doubts that this is ever going to happen.

Very true. And I doubt it's going to happen by itself either, simply because of the way the gaming rags' business model is structured, with dependence on game industry advertising. They can't afford to bite the hand that feeds them.

But there's hope for change from the outside. General news sources are slowly starting to get into game reviews in addition to movies and books. Once national papers and news magazines get into the game, I think they'll easily obliterate game magazine reviews - they know good journalism, they've got critical experience in other areas, and they're not tied to the industry's advertising pipeline.

I'd like to believe it's only a matter of when, not if.

Nice piece. I've been an on-and-off subscriber/reader of CGW for over 12 years. I find myself without enthusiasm for it these days because its 75% previews. Back in the day, it was ALMOST entirely reviews. And for a long time I fired off letters to them about the trend of away from this. Then I realized how much of a losing battle it was.
The fact of the matter is, previews are what sell magazines/websites about gaming (and movies, for that matter). Its never going to change, because MOST people want to hear what's coming. You read a review only if you're interested in that game (just to generalize for a moment). I don't play strategy games, so I'm going to skip that review, unless it gets the minimum or maximum rating. But previews! Ah previews: all the potential, in fact THE FUTURE of gaming, right there in the article!!
I can't stand it. I have no interest in previews, but apparently, I'm in the minority. For this trend to have continued for 12 years makes me believe the economics of the industry's "journalism" make it unprofitable to review only. Previews profit "journalists", they profit game publishers, and readers incorrectly seem to think they profit themselves.
Sad, but not going to change.

griffon wrote:

Nothing wrong with informative entertainment but I think previewers should add the caveat that every thing might change but then proceeded to call out the problem they see. Way to often they gloss over the issues that then ship with the game and are very real and painfully...

Except when its an indie game or a game not affilated with a large studio or publisher of some kind. Usually in these reviews, EVERY LITTLE THING is put under a microscope and examined like a coroner examines a body.

It's so strange how much "professional game reviewers" opinions differ so much from most regular game players I encounter who have written me over the years, who i've never met and have no reason to lie to me really. With my game Coliseum, for instance, I had THOUSANDS of people, including several pro game designers and people who have played games for many years, write me with compliments, support and telling me how cool the game was. Yet most "professional game journalists" had nothing but burning, cutting, negative and downright nasty things to say about it.

So what does this lead me to believe? I'm not sure really, but it doesn't make a whole lot of sense to me. Rarely have critical opinions among "game journalists" jelled with the thousands of game players i've heard from (even the more critical ones who had some negative opinions of the games), and there's something out of balance with that, IMHO.

Sanjuro wrote:

Very true. And I doubt it's going to happen by itself either, simply because of the way the gaming rags' business model is structured, with dependence on game industry advertising. They can't afford to bite the hand that feeds them.

I've said this for years, and many reviewers bristle at any suggestion of this. I'll just say: they're in a fantasy world if someone in the editorial chain isn't influenced by EA spending $500,000 on ads for that issue, oir a powerful publisher possibly pulling "previews" of a popular product in response to a negative preview or review of their latest game, etc. Not gonna happen.

It's like a condiments review site, with big ads for Heinz and Best Foods on the top. Would they want to advertise with me if I said Heinz ketchup tasted like crap? Most likely not.

doihaveto wrote:

Once national papers and news magazines get into the game, I think they'll easily obliterate game magazine reviews - they know good journalism ...

Aha. Ahahahahahahaha. Aheehahee. Ahahahahahahahahahahaahahaha. AHAHAHAHAhahahahahaha. Ahuhuhu *cough* Oh my god. Stop it. Please, you're killing me. Whoo. That was good. Oh man. Oh. Oh man. Wow.

Hey, can I put my URL and my business name in my profile so that I can get free advertising every time I post, too, or is that just a n00b thing?

Hey, can I put my URL and my business name in my profile so that I can get free advertising every time I post, too, or is that just a n00b thing?

Go for it, no rule against it!

Certis wrote:
Hey, can I put my URL and my business name in my profile so that I can get free advertising every time I post, too, or is that just a n00b thing?

Go for it, no rule against it!

Cool.

Everybody, Fletcher1138 is soon to be no more. I'm re-registering as GiantVibratingDildoEmulations.edu.

Couldn't register as a .edu, damn it all to hell. Anyway. The website is coming. I hope you guys will help me get a handle on moving units. Hard projections require that I stimulate sales rapidly, but it could go back and forth until I get on top of the numbers.