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

Hmm. Name's too long now. And I'm getting a lot of ... spam ... maybe this wasn't such a good idea after all.

giantvibratingdildoemulations.org wrote:

Hmm. Name's too long now. And I'm getting a lot of ... spam ... maybe this wasn't such a good idea after all.

Serves you right Fletch. You only brought it upon yourself

DrunkenSleipnir wrote:
giantvibratingdildoemulations.org wrote:

Hmm. Name's too long now. And I'm getting a lot of ... spam ... maybe this wasn't such a good idea after all.

Serves you right Fletch. You only brought it upon yourself :)

That's what the doctor said.

Alright, so in lieu of validating this shenanigan by spending the afternoon making the site and business plan for www.giantvibratingdildoemulations.org (this is my only day off for the next two weeks, after all), I'm gonna be a wuss and just drink beer and play Psychonauts.

Weep, for your lost chuckles. Weep, I say! Maybe next week I'll get around to it. But not today. Besides, Certis kind of sucked the fun out of the whole joke by being a "account name size" nazi. Damn him and his tendencies towards "fairness" and "order." Meh.

So anyways, we now return you to your regular thread about ... whatever. Sorry for the interruption.

BTW: I'm looking for someone with flash skills and/or vibration motor engineering experience. Inquire by sending a PM.

Fletcher1138 wrote:
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.

You laughing at the obliteration bit, or at the good journalism? If the latter, places like NYTimes are still heavenly compared to your run of the mill game rag.

doihaveto wrote:
Fletcher1138 wrote:
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. (etc.)

You laughing at the obliteration bit, or at the good journalism? If the latter, places like NYTimes are still heavenly compared to your run of the mill game rag.

The good journalism bit.

With game journalism, we're essentially talking about reviews and folks who review things are called "reviewers" or perhaps "critics." Critics are not good journalists. Which is, I think, another reason why we're all so unsatisfied with the state of game journalism today. We're expecting some kind of objective, world-wise prose from these people, who are, on the best of days, just critics. That is, people who observe and then comment. Their perception of the thing is necessarily colored by their own personality, which is, I dare say, similar to ours. Therefore, we are expecting something from them which they are incapable of providing.

If you think that that the critics under the employ of the major news outlets are any more objective in their reviews, then you are mistaken. They are more seasoned perhaps, and a few of them may be better writers, but they are just as prone to mistaking their "opinion" for objective reporting.

hermeneutic: triple word score!

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.

Word. I remember, before the Internet and especially before GWJ I used to run the newstand to look at the game mags for upcoming titles and liken to weather forcasting, that is, they seldom got it right. Now, I figure any mag or corporate gaming site has hidden agendas. I just take it a given.

I thank god for GWJ and its community to give me a good idea about what games to look forward to and realistic reviews.

Fletcher1138 wrote:

If you think that that the critics under the employ of the major news outlets are any more objective in their reviews, then you are mistaken. They are more seasoned perhaps, and a few of them may be better writers, but they are just as prone to mistaking their "opinion" for objective reporting.

review = subjective

There is no such thing as an "objective" review (no, wait... yeah, it's called a 'press release'), as the entire nature of criticism is to give your subjective opinion based on your own background, tastes, and theories about what makes a "good" game/book/movie. Your job as a reader is to find a critic whose subjective tastes match your own.

The only time a reviewer fails is when he/she gives an opinion but does not back it up with any reasoned explanations... this is one of the reasons why I feel XPLAY is so weak these last few months. They're more interested in jokes and good one-liners than giving actual in depth reviews.

Fletcher1138 wrote:

Critics are not good journalists. Which is, I think, another reason why we're all so unsatisfied with the state of game journalism today. We're expecting some kind of objective, world-wise prose from these people, who are, on the best of days, just critics.

Very true - they're not journalists. But what gets me is that game critics aren't even good critics, either.

I'm just thinking of the better of the mainstream book reviews - like in the NYTimes, or especially in the New Republic, back when I used to read it. I loved TNR for their magnificent, multi-page essays about books, bringing into play not only the piece itself, but the author, their history, their ouvre - not just what they wrote, but why they wrote and how they wrote it. The analysis of the work itself can't escape the particular biases of the reviewer, but at least the extensive history and contextualization lets the reader understand the work better, and evaluate why the reviewers say what they say.

And in games, reviews attempt none of that. There's no historicity, no context, no attempt to understand the design goals and the way they manifested themselves in the final artifact. Instead, we get banter, opinion, and meaningless summaries: "the game features last-generation graphics" or "9/10 for sound and 5/10 for gameplay." Ugh.

doihaveto wrote:

I'm just thinking of the better of the mainstream book reviews ...

I hear and understand. The difference, I believe, is that people who read and review books have a deeper well from which to draw.

While I honestly have nothing against the man, I canot fathom reading yet another banausic A.O. Scott review, but this one about Duke Nukem.

Banausic? Hold on a sec.

*flips through OED*

banausic, adjective, derogatory. Mid 19th century. [Greek banausikos, of or for artisans; see -IC.] Suitable for artisans; uncultivated; materialistic.

"Stand down, men! It's okay, he checks out."

I know my big words, thank you. I just prefer to rest my fingers by typing "OMGtehpr0nI'dHiTiT" every now and then.

Banausic ... AWESOME!