Games Writers Wear Brown Coats
I know that the Will Smith sci-fi vehicle Independence Day is the preferred cultural touchstone today. “Welcome to Earth” jokes, and all that. Somehow Hollywood schlock and Brent Spiner’s worst acting role doesn’t bring to mind independence for me, instead leaving me searching for something more substantial in popular media. Instead I’m reminded of a struggle for independence where the underdogs didn’t win, where they were put down and held with a boot to their throat. I’m referring to the struggle of the Browncoats. The war between the Sino-American Alliance and the border planets was nothing but a backdrop for the sci-fi masterpiece Firefly, but in some ways the messages of that conflict ring true today for game writers.
Those of us writing about games professionally have an unwinnable war on our hands. We're struggling for our independence from the developers and publishers that make games, trying as best we can to investigate and explore rather than just regurgitate and repeat. Despite every games writer being a true gamer in their own right, we also seek to separate ourselves from the consumer perspective to best serve them. The result is a group of journalists who are universally disliked. Hated by publishers for not toeing the line, hated by readers for "obviously" being on the take ... games writing can seem like a no-win situation.
I don't care. I'm still free, and they can't take the sky from me.
My reflection on this topic is very personal today. I make no claims at journalism, myself - I'm a blogger, through and through. Just the same I make every effort to put as much polish and fairness into every post I write. If I like something about a game, I say so. If I see a problem, I call the developer out. Last week this viewpoint did not serve me well.
Last week was the fifth anniversary of Star Wars Galaxies, a game with a long and sordid history. It's an interesting history just the same, and one I felt qualified to catalog. Last Thursday and Friday saw me posting two articles entitled "A Star Wars Galaxies history lesson", with one taking us from launch to the NGE and the other going from the NGE to the present.
I don't mince words. I lay it out: the game was flawed but promising at launch, with some serious bugs and server issues. The New Game Enhancement (a complete revamp of the game's design) was universally reviled, and players left in droves. It was a bad call, and one they've since publicly apologized for. But the game didn't stop after the NGE dropped. Since that point the developers in the SOE-Austin studios have made huge strides in moving the game forward. New content has been added, new systems, many bugs fixed. They have high hopes for upcoming content, yay the future. The End.
In my view it's a piece that offers both ends of the spectrum. It looks at history with a fairly unblinking eye, recognizing the problems and possibilities alike. The result was calls for my head, threats, profane emails, and lots of angry comments.
Stepping back, it's the perfect example of a games writer serving two masters. On the one hand, I yet again harshly invoked the public relations nightmare that is the NGE. On the other, I wasn't harsh enough for the deeply bitter ex-Galaxies players. This basic struggle for the games writer to find his independent voice - to throw on his browncoat - is at the core of every game journalism dilemma you can name.
The Gerstmann affair is a vivid and archetypal example of this, but it happens every day on a far more subtle scale. Gerstmann-gate at least left us with the fantastic Giant Bomb site. Most games journalism ethics dilemmas are far less sexy but equally important. At what point do you consider a reporter's view on a game 'compromised'? Buffet of snacks? Dinner? Rental car? Airfare? Hotel? Full-week-all-expenses-paid 'demo' of a game in Hawaii? All-expenses-paid trip to Europe for a launch party complete with rock band, 'slave girls', and a Norse fortress?
Game publishers are desperate for reviewers to give their titles a good score, and as a result there's almost no comp too big. Even folks who aren't flown around the world tend to get some crazy stuff in the mail if they're a games writer. Full-sized swords, rice makers, cans of fake snake meat, model sailing ships, and many, many, many free games all make their way to the games writer's doorstep. Is there a point between the playing of the game, the futzing with the toy ship, and the writing of the article that the writer becomes co-opted?
I've never personally taken anyone up on a long-distance flight to slave girls or Hawaiian 'demos' (both real examples), but I have taken proffered publisher travel arrangements in the past. In both cases I was writing as an independent for my personal blog, and the arrangements offered were the only way I was going to get to cover the events. I stated up-front in my coverage that my way had been paid, and I still think I delivered relatively unbiased discussion of the material I saw in the field.
Even with that disclaimer in place, I felt guilty doing it. I feel guilty just playing games for free, a perk that mutes the 'real experience' that gamers go through when they play a game. If a game has an effective value of zero for me, how can I be expected to accurately assess its worth to a player? And what of all the games writers that don't make it clear they've had their way paid to see and play the game? What of the games writers who do take the invitation to the Hawaiian trip or the sweet alternate-reality-style event at Richard Garriott's house?
Independence is a goal that games writers should be striving for. It's not just about getting out from under the thumb of the Alliance, about taking jobs as they come and wearing your duster with pride. It's about self-respect as a community of professionals. It's about realizing that what you do is of value, and not just as a consumer reports service. It's about recognizing that sometimes people will hate you for telling the truth.
I'm no Jeff Gerstmann. Guys like Brandon Sheffield, John Davison, and Jeremy Parish are real game journalists, not blogger-dudes like me. What I'd love to see are folks like these stepping up to talk more about the pressures they face so that writers with less experience and access can know what's kosher and what's not. What does Davison do when he has to go see a game across the country and the company's offering to pay his way? What does Parish do when that once-in-a-lifetime Hawaii trip falls in his lap?
The Browncoats had their leaders. Despite being a force composed of strange loners, single-minded coots with nothing more than a common goal in mind, they still made a difference. Just as the Browncoats held the line during the Battle for Serenity Valley, so too do journalists in their efforts to serve two very different purposes.
The trick, of course, is to figure out how to succeed where the Browncoats failed. Just gotta keep flying, I guess.