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.