Is Game Journalism the Problem? No.

I’ve been in video game journalism for well over decade, getting my start by writing small for fan sites and eventually making a living out of it.  And I think I’ve gotten pretty good at it, despite the fact that some of my descriptives aren’t as strong as, say, someone who’s been banging away at a legal story for months on end.  I’ve gotten the hang of knowing the in’s and out’s of what makes a good video game, when something is flawed and when something works, and reflecting that back on the common reader so that they have an understanding of whether something is worth checking out or not.

That said, there are still skeptics — those few that believe that video game journalism, in this day and age, is broken.  They believe that reporters simply aren’t “in it” anymore, and the heyday of writing for the love of the game is gone.  Now, I can’t speak for everyone, clearly, but in all honesty, I don’t think that this is the case.  Video game journalism isn’t the problem at all.  It’s the elements within that level of journalism that need a closer look.

With that, I present the following argument, which talks about certain cases in which, at first sight, it appears something may be broken.  But it’s not the system in itself that’s to blame.  That’s like saying that there’s something wrong with the car when, in fact, it’s a part of the car that’s causing it to run with problems.  Nope, these problems deserve to be pointed out, merely for the sake of showing that video game journalism isn’t problematic at all.  Sure, it’s far from perfect, but it’s not nearly as infected as you might think.  Hear me out…

First, let’s bring up some examples.

The poorly reviewed product. 

There are times that reviews are questionable — absolutely.  Someone with no general interest in the genre that the game is based in could be “stuck” with reviewing the game and approach it from the wrong angle.  I know all about this.  Me, I’m not a fan of role-playing games, yet I’m given something like Final Fantasy XIII-2 to review.  Now, I can either dismiss it as just another pass-off of the original game (which, by the way, would not only be unprofessional, but also an insult to the programming team who were dedicated enough to give it another try).  So, instead, I’m actually pouring my time into the game, making sure that every aspect is covered, examining whatever problems exist and eventually giving an honest review of what the average gamer may think.  Not entirely my stance, because, again, role-playing games aren’t my speed, but what fans in general may like or dislike.

I’ve seen too many examples where players pour their personal feelings into a review and, as a result, sound either unprofessional or completely biased against the product they’re rating.  For instance, I recently watched a video review of The Simpsons Arcade Game, which I absolutely adored as both as a nostalgic flashback and a current piece of co-op gaming goodness.  This critic absolutely blasted the game, even though he loved it as a younger age, mainly because it hasn’t aged well.  Well, um, last time I checked, Konami didn’t release the game to remind everyone how aged it was — they released it for nostalgic purposes.  He approached the review the completely wrong way, making the result sound ugly and uncaring, rather than deeply thought out for the audience it was intended for.  An example in bad journalism?  Let’s just call it unfocused, but it’s something that could’ve easily been done better.  Next example…

People who are in it for the wrong reasons. 

Part of the reason that video game journalism is getting such a bad name is because there’s all these newbies who automatically think they’re good at it.  They enter through some new website or act like a hotshot with a degree and think they’re going to own the place.  That’s not how it works.  Good video game journalism comes from experience, from knowing the differences between Magician Lord on SNK’s Neo-Geo console and Theater of Magic in the Pinball Arcade collection.  Anyone can say they’re a dedicated journalist, but few have the skills to back it up.

And with that, the reputation can really take a beating.  You’ve got these hotshots who think that they need to review everything on the planet and attend shows merely for the sake of presence, rather than checking out the actual product that’s on display or talking with the talent involved to see what makes them tick.  These are also the guys that request review products like crazy, without backing up the promise of their word and brushing off PR’s request for some sort of follow-up.  These are the folks that are in the industry for the wrong reason, and also the ones who give it a bad name by being “rock stars” rather than the truly devoted gamers that they pose to be.

Now, the industry, as a whole, should be about the love.  A lot of us are in this industry because we grew up playing the likes of Asteroids, Defender, and the other old-school favorites that fashioned us into the hardened, dedicated people we are now.  And that love should still carry over, despite the changing face of video games.  The heart we put into our words and excitement should be just as upbeat as those that go into the game’s development and promotion.  It should never be about us, but rather what we cover, and our conveying of excitement or disappointment into said product.  The minute we let ego get in the way of natural talent, there’s a problem.  A few of us certainly suffer from this.  Not me, mind you.  I won’t name names, but they certainly don’t do any favors to the name of video game journalism.

Promotion gets in the way. 

Promotion can be a double-edged sword to the video game journalist, as it’s all too easy to convey the wrong message.  Sometimes it can be about you, talking more about your skills in a job rather than the importance of a job itself, or, dare I say it, that “pretty girl” who thinks she’d be a perfect spokesmodel for a video game company when she doesn’t even touch the things herself.  

Or maybe it’s a game company looking to promote a game product in itself on a popular website, and then its difficult decision to go forth with a review of said product.  You can either let the decision of ethics get in the way based on a high score, or risk telling the truth and upsetting said advertiser, to the point that changes would have to be made on the website.  (The Kane and Lynch/Gamespot conspiracy comes to mind, resulting in a loss of job for poor Jeff Gerstmann.)

Advertising on a video game website is nothing new, and this website does it as well, but the important thing is to not create a situation where you would have a conflicting point of view on said product that would “create waves”, so to speak.  Sure, you can do an article that talks about said product’s key features, or maybe even an interview that would better help promote it, but to criticize it in any way could possibly be a disaster, as we’ve seen from the past.  The best thing to do is avoid making critical comments unless it’s not being so blatantly advertised, or the deal eventually phases out.  Sometimes that means missing an exclusitivity window, or someone asking “Where’s the review?”, but it beats creating a situation where both the site in question and the sponsor make questionable mistakes that leave ripples.

Mass Effect 3

As for self promotion — that's never a good idea.  Save the taunts for the personal Twitter/Facebook sites, rather than the places you work.  And don’t try to boast about a job for the wrong ideas, promoting pretty looks and skills rather than exhibiting what got you hired for the site in the first place.  This isn’t a time to try and be something you’re not.  It’s time you prove that you have a place in this industry, that there’s a role to fill and not just something to “skate over” for the sake of your own ego.

And even if you don’t create egos, critics are going to exist.  We came across a situation where someone we know landed a role in a prominent video game, but a few folks called this person out on ethics because she had done a previous report on the game beforehand, not disclosing the fact that she was in it.  Hey, how do we know she made the decision to go forth with the report?  Maybe it was asked by her producers.  For that matter, how do we know the game company didn’t have an embargo in place for the announcement?  Sometimes folks miss out on the little things and pass judgment too quickly.  If there’s something this industry sees a lot of, it’s folks that pass judgment without getting all their facts.  (We’re looking at you mostly, fanboys.)

So, yes, this industry does have a few mild things that would shake it up, but does that mean video game journalism in itself is flawed?  Hell no.  There are people out there that definitely know what they’re doing, paid or unpaid, dedicated and all, in it for the love of the game.  Just because they’re flanked by those who aren’t doing their job properly or are in it for the wrong reasons doesn’t mean the industry in itself is to blame.  Just saying…