Let me start by saying (as I often have) that there really isn’t much ‘games journalism’ that goes on in the world. The vast, vast bulk of what is considered games journalism is really enthusiast media. Previews of upcoming games are just rephrased press releases whose length and lavish praise varies only by how exclusive the access to the game is. And it’s pretty well established that reviews are bought and paid for well before the game is played, if the game is played at all.
And that stuff is corrupt. It’s wrong. It’s downright shameful. It’s behavior that shows a disregard not just for editorial standards and quality content, but also contempt for their audience.
It’s also not really what I want to talk about (although it helps frame a much grander picture of incompetence and indifference that plagues these publications). I want to talk about the very little writing on games that is – or at the very least, should be – journalism proper.
You see, despite the billions of dollars the gaming industry rakes in every year (the ESA cites NPD figures at around $25 billion globally) games are still an emerging medium. They don’t get major play time in existing media, and certainly little coverage in mainstream journalism circles. Which, given the size of our audience and our ongoing struggle to achieve cultural relevance, is completely understandable. But it does mean that the real journalists won’t cover games. They might pop in at E3 or GDC or mention the next time a craze like the Wii takes off, but largely they have bigger leads to follow than the latest videogame drama. The Calvary isn’t coming, folks. If someone is going to do games journalism justice it’s going to be PC Gamer or Kotaku, not 60 Minutes.
Which is terrifying because sometimes there are controversies worthy of actual investigation and discourse. Games are an entertainment medium, sure, but they’re also profoundly influential to the way we socialize, budget our money, spend our time, and engage with the culture at large. Just as the world of sports has the Michael Vick dog fighting fiasco or the recent NCAA Football pay-to-play scandals, and just like TV has writer’s strikes and late night show drama, the games industry as an entity has issues that need to be covered. Issues that call for real, honest journalism that researches a topic in order to inform and educate its audience. This is the role that games journalism can and should fill.
The most recent example – the one that inspired me to write this little speil – happened earlier this morning when TorrentFreak posted an article describing how the Pirate Party was banned from Gamex, a major Swedish gaming convention, after being invited and paying for ad space and hotel accommodations. The intonation of both the author of the piece and his cited sources is that this was done to appease major publishers who would be in attendance and were uncomfortable being at an event that promoted IP law reform that could conceivably hurt their bottom line. It’s a serious accusation, but unfortunately without cited sources or any accounts other than TorrentFreak and the rejected PirateParty members (both of whom would have an angle here) it’s hard to say what the real reasoning is.
In a world where we had competent game journalists, there would be phone calls and e-mails. There would be research done to confirm that the rejection took place; to get an actual quote from the conference organizers as to why it happened; to corroborate stories and paint a complete and impartial picture of the events that had transpired. If EA, Activision, or Nintendo were throwing their weight around to suppress political activity they disagree with, gamers in this hypothetical world would be informed about it. If there was an easy explanation as to what actually went down, our crack team of journalists would be able to paint the TorrentFreak article as sensationalist yellow journalism with facts and cited sources. It might take a few days, but the story would be presented in a clear, meaningful, contextualized manner and we’d all walk away more informed about the issue.
Unfortunately, we don’t live in that world. Instead, Kotaku gave us this. It’s a short, empty piece of drivel whose legitimate content is mostly copy/pasted straight out of the TorrentFreak article. But the lack of original reporting isn’t even the biggest problem with the piece. The real concern is that they took a news story from TorrentFreak about industry heavy hitters silencing dissenting voices and turned it into a joke. This is the very first sentence in the article:
“Sweden’s Pirate Party had a booth all paid for at this weekend’s Gamex, the nation’s largest video games expo, until someone from Gamex came to their senses, phoned the pirates and said GTFO.”
And, in one fell swoop, the article establishes a completely dismissive attitude towards the entire affair. I mean, internet chat acronyms? They’re handy if you’re quickly responding to a friend on AIM while multitasking, but Owen Good, you are a writer. You were hired to write, and in most contexts that implies complete sentences at a minimum. Standards aside, the irreverent tone makes it clear from the outset that this is basically an op-ed masquerading as an informative text. His conclusion forgoes the illusion entirely, and becomes simply “I think…” style op-ed writing:
“”I find it absolutely hilarious that a gaming fair banned the Pirate Party on the official pretext that ‘our culture is harmful to gaming’,” Rick Falkvinge, founder of the first Pirate Party, told TorrentFreak. Considering what legitimate consumers must put up with in response to their actions, I find it hilarious that a gaming pirate thinks his culture isn’t.”
This isn’t journalism. This isn’t even the biased, potentially one-sided presentation of a legitimate news story that TorrentFreak posted. This is braindead snark and bile; piss and vinegar; Gen-X nihilism at its most crass and empty. Not only can Good not be bothered to do any further investigation into the matter, but he deflects the issue entirely through cutting remarks and internet memes. This entire article could be replaced by this tweet: “http://bit.ly/taC2lf Pirate Party pwned! GTFO of this convention. Thx!”
Compare that to this Rock Paper Shotgun article about Tim Langdell’s ongoing legal woes in his fight against EA over his “Edge” trademark. The article’s humor comes not from unjustified bitterness, but because Langdell’s attempts to defend himself in court with outrageous claims and incompetent forgeries makes him a well-deserved laughing stock. The piece cites plenty of public domain legal documentation in its explanation of what went down, and tries to explain legal terms in ways non-legal folk can understand. It’s a simple, easy, informative read that keeps me abreast of a complex legal situation. It’s everything games journalism can be.
The trouble is, I can only point to one or two articles like the Rock Paper Shotgun piece. But I can find a whole cornucopia of articles like the Kotaku piece – dismissive, vapid, snarky. Articles that actually hurt the public discourse on a given issue, and that’s probably the most damning accusation I can direct to a piece of journalism. Previews may be bribes, reviews may be bought, but the second we let game journalists start slacking on basic journalistic standards we’ve let go of our ability to be well informed. No one’s going to be coming in behind Owen Good to explore what really happened in Sweden this weekend, and I’d hate it if the last word we have on this issue as a community is something as anti-intellectual and vacuous as his.