It’s OK to Be Mad at Games Journalism, But Don’t Be a Moron About It
"Games journalism is a joke," says the internet, without much to back up its claim, coming across as a jealous brat, tilting at the windmills of a blinkered hive mind.
I was on holiday last week. It was okay. I saw some beaches, some monkeys, and ate a burrito that was bigger than my head. Could have done with more salsa. What I didn't do was totally turn off from the day job. But how can you, when your inbox is in your pocket, and The Wonderful World of Video Games doesn't simply stop when you need it to. And so my attention was inevitably ensnared by several happenings and announcements, with a couple really standing out. Firstly, Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater is becoming a pachinko slot machine. (Just the 46,000 dislikes there, against under 1,500 thumbs up.) "THE BOSS DIDN'T DIE FOR THIS SHIT", indeed. And then there was Ollie Barder's article for Forbes on June the 2nd, with the headline: "Gamers Are Justifiably Calling Out the Mainstream Gaming Press for Being Inept."
I'm not here to say that Tokyo-based Ollie, who's also a games designer and has previously written for Eurogamer and The Escapist, is wrong to have a bone to pick with the current games media landscape. That's his prerogative. If he feels there are problems with it, and wants to write an article to that effect, cool. He does, he has, and here we are. Sure, there are parts of his piece that I take some umbrage with, but really only to a minor level of annoyance. The games press "takes itself too seriously" – well, if it was full of complete piss-takers, I don't suppose all that much work would get done. "The tide is turning against the press," he writes, on a site that features a wealth of games writing and is, you might argue, part of the problem that Ollie feels he's highlighting. But, honestly, we're all entitled to our opinions, and that's a beautiful thing.
And that's true even when those opinions are underpinned by a standard of naivety that leaves me completely beside myself.
What appears to have been a catalyst for Ollie's Forbes piece is a YouTube video uploaded on May the 31st by a user called The Black Hokage. It doesn't mess about: "Gaming Journalism is a Joke" leaves little to the imagination in terms of where the next four minutes are headed.
But you know, gaming journalism is a laugh, a great time, at least some of the time. I don't think that's quite what the video's creator means by his title, but it's worth saying, for the record, since the internet remembers everything (just ask those #gamergate-supporting sorts, who give up entire days to searching through the ancient tweets of anyone who might call them, I don't know, a cluster of arsepieces or something), that games journalism can be pretty amazing. It's introduced me to fantastic people, a clutch of whom I also today call friends; it's taken me to parts of the world that I'd otherwise most likely never have visited, like Espoo (snigger) and Horsham; and if you're lucky (and I am, and I am grateful for this, on the daily), it can just about keep a roof over your head. Which is fortunate, really, as I don't suppose your average PlayStation 4 would last long exposed to the unpredictable British weather.
The Black Hokage posts on Twitter as @Mr_ikeepitreal, to an audience of close to 140,000 followers. His YouTube channel has over 600,000 subscribers. His "one goal" is "to save my gaming community". In doing so, he doesn't take himself too seriously, too often. I kind of like the guy. He breaks out into infectious giggles when streaming. His reviews get to the heart of how a game plays, how its various cogs and wheels spin and interact, with palpable passion for the medium. He (not always, but often enough) finds that sweet spot between being a personality led YouTuber and someone who actually crunches the facts and figures around a given game into a palatable formula. His encouragement for experimentation and character variety in his Overwatch review is quite evidently from the heart. It's obvious enough to me that this guy loves his games, and the culture that both feeds into them and is repeatedly revitalised through them.
But "Gaming Journalism Is a Joke" is a joke, and not an especially funny one. It's not saying much that others haven't already posted online, shot the shit about on Twitter or shared uninspired memes about, so apologies to the man in question for picking on his particular expressing of these so-called "ills". But when a video blows up in your social feed, what else are you gonna do but watch it and feel a reaction swelling in your stomach.
The Black Hokage, like several YouTubers and reddit-lurking whingers before him, singles out the footage of "the idiot at Polygon providing this incompetent level of DOOM gameplay" as an example of how games journalism is in a sorry state. This footage was published on YouTube on May the 12th (comments are disabled, because you can imagine the toxic waste otherwise), and the video doesn't seem to be on Polygon.com itself. I've seen the gameplay and, sure, whoever's responsible certainly isn't a natural with it. But I ask you: if an athlete is a champion at the 100-metre sprint, do you, the armchair sports fan, expect them to achieve comparable success in a marathon? Of course not, because that's an entirely different running discipline. And likewise, being good at video games isn't a case of you are or you aren't. And it's always been that way – sit Donkey Kong legend Billy Mitchell down in front of DOTA today and he'd suck at it. Round up Denial's Call of Duty world champions for a game of Hearthstone against its own elite players and the shooters wouldn't stand a chance.
I don't know who was playing DOOM at Polygon, for the sake of capturing that footage, but let's say that the company's most passionate FPS fans weren't in that day. Let's also say that a deadline was looming, and that footage needed to be sorted, ASAP. Like, right now. This is your window of opportunity – you take it with whatever resources you have, or it closes and you lose out. So you go with the best that you have. Is that a sign that games journalism is a joke? Of course not – merely that Polygon really wants to show you this awesome game (the site's reviews editor Arthur Gies awarded it an 8.5/10 score, so there's plenty of love for it over there), and here's their chance to do so, to share their excitement with their reader/viewership.
Article continues after the video below
Let me tell you: "playing" purely for work isn't all that much fun. Long evenings become early mornings, and the next day's a nightmare. Whole weekends are lost because of embargos lifting the coming Monday, causing disruption with one's nearest and dearest. And this play typically happens outside of designated work hours, too. A common "criticism" of games journalists is that they merely sit about all day, in front of the newest games, and that's their job. Obviously, that's entirely incorrect or the games press would completely collapse inside a day. Personally, I spend a lot more time reading and writing about video games, talking about them on podcasts and radio and on the phone to Actual People, and working on treatments for documentaries about them than I do physically manipulating control pads for my own entertainment, certainly during daylight hours. Think about reviewing a game, versus an album. To cover, say, the latest Adele record comprehensively might take a professional writer an afternoon. I listened to the most recent Radiohead album over four days for a write-up, but those plays could have been compressed into five or six hours, total. But a massive, open-world game like The Witcher 3? The games press is still covering it, with new articles, exploring new content, opinions and perspectives, a whole year and hundreds of hours of play after its initial release.
But a late-night session when the family's asleep at least affords you privacy: you can fuck up and nobody will ever know, or care, but you. (And oh boy, did I ever die a lot in DOOM just by falling off things.) Being put into a situation where you have to play a game publicly, or convincingly talk about one to an audience of people eager to judge you, when it's not a title from your own areas of expertise within the medium, is powerfully pressured. Nobody would invite Ed Sheeran onto live TV to talk about the legacy of Miles Davis, because it'd likely get as far as "Kind of Blue is tight, I guess" (apologies if I'm wide of the mark here, Ed); but in gaming, there's this bizarre assumption that everyone involved in the media, the medium, knows everything about every release, ever.
That pressure does funny things to your brain. The Black Hokage's video criticises an IGN producer, Sean Finnegan, for declaring in November 2015 that you cannot record gameplay footage using a PC. Of course you can. This was merely a temporary disconnect on the part of the man who said it – or, at least, that's the most likely reason for the gaff. When you're recording a podcast, or appearing live on air, or TV or Twitch or wherever, you're constantly thinking about not only what's being discussed in the moment, but also what's coming up next. And probably what you're having for dinner, and whether or not you locked the back door that morning. (Did you leave enough water out for the cat? You will be home late.) It was a screw up, an accident, a case of disconnect between brain and mouth. This kind of thing happens to us all. Here's Bill Turnbull of the BBC saying "cunts" live on TV. Is television journalism a joke, too?
Elsewhere in the video, shade is cast the way of Kotaku's Patricia Hernandez for ranking her favourite Overwatch heroes – apparently her mentioning of "gameplay mechanics" in the qualifying criteria after her appreciation of related memes, jokes and other fandom means it's of less importance, Because Chronology(?) – and whoever at Gamespot commented that Smite is a third-person game with "a first-person feel". On the latter: who is anyone else but the person experiencing the game first hand to say how it "feels", given that's a subjective factor in an assessment. Perhaps it stirred some memories of an older FPS through environment, characters, animations – the point is that you, the person now mouthing off, has no clue as to why those words were said. (And please, "objective reviews"? Guys, you're looking for an Amazon product description, not a human-penned assessment of the pros and cons of a particular piece of interactive entertainment.)
Regarding Hernandez's obviously-just-for-fun-anyway-seriously-you-guys-chill-out Overwatch list, which appears as part of a series called "Underexplained Lists" FFS, I ask you: when a football commentator reads out the left back's name on the team sheet ahead of the talismanic striker, pre-kick off, does that prioritise that player over the one whose shirt sales alone are making his club a cool couple of million a season? Have a word.
I've not the time here, nor the reasonable word count, to get fully into the common-on-social-media accusation(s) that a reviewer is only giving a game a good score because the publisher of said title "paid them". That's another article, but it's the purest poppycock, in short. Advertorial, sponsored, co-created content, however it's billed, is as abundant in the games media as it is anywhere else – music, film, television, sports, politics, gardening, travel, you name it. But it's always appropriately marked (or it certainly should be) – see our own Open Worlds series, "made possible by NVIDIA", for an example of how we brand content made in such a partnership. But actual critique is never funded, never bought, not in the outlets in the games media that tend to come under fire for that reason by those entirely naïve to the realities of the industry. If it was, the ground would collapse from beneath specialised games websites quicker than a (completely incorruptible, of course) YouTuber can blurt out "like and subscribe".
Imagine the fallout if a publisher was found to have paid IGN, or Gamespot, or Polygon, to award their latest title a high score, to push it up that Metacritic best-of-right-now list. Do you think heads wouldn't roll? It'd be a bloodbath on an unprecedented scale, for both parties. It's a disappointing inevitability that being sincerely positive about a video game will draw comment section accusations of financial unfair play, or some other "bias" that doesn't exist; but that makes it all the more hilarious/depressing when a writer is chastised for not liking a game enough. Remember the shitstorm over IGN's 8.8 for Uncharted 4? Come on, "traditional games media" haters: get your story consistent, at least. I wonder if Mark Kermode ever gets shit on Twitter for not recommending a movie warmly enough, when he's just spent eight minutes singing its praises to a live radio audience of millions. Does Grand Designs' Kevin McCloud have to duck and cover when he says he prefers one style of contemporary stairway to another?
There's a comment beneath "Gaming Journalism is a Joke" that reads, simply: "90% of game reviewers don't give a fuck about gaming". It's incredibly sad that what feels like (I can't quantify it, just as you can't tell me why a third-person shooter can feel like something else, to someone you don't know) a sizeable portion of the gaming audience thinks this way, because it's complete nonsense. I do my job, this job, because I love video games. I believe in their potential to affect those who choose to participate in them, to dip a toe in the culture and take time out from their days for a little digital escapism, above and beyond the possibilities of any other medium.
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Games are beautiful buds, yet to fully blossom, but we're already spoiled for countless classic titles, spanning several generations of hardware. Gaming has seen out the graphical arms race, and realised that competition is a compelling factor in virtual entertainment but it need not be the be all and end all of the art form. I'm yet to meet a single games journalist who doesn't live and breathe these things – often at the expense of actually having a healthy work/life balance. We do give a fuck, and if we come down hard on a particular game, it's because we already expect more from these things. And in pursuit of that, we're not able to "git gud" at every single FPS that comes out.
So get mad at games journalists, if you must. Hell, I've read my share of reviews and thought that the critic in question had played a completely different game to me. But I appreciate where they're coming from, what they've had to sacrifice to get that work done, the time pressures they've been under. I respect games journalists publishing their work online knowing that they're setting themselves up as targets for people who aren't in possession of the facts, but are happy to take their shots regardless. If you're in that camp, blindly attacking other people who, just like you, love video games, but perhaps don't think that This New Shootybang is quite as revolutionary as it wants to be, you need to take a step back. Turn off Twitter for an hour, like I can't. Find pleasure in your favourite medium. Play a game. (They're pretty good.) Have a holiday from the hate. Because it's one thing to have a contrasting opinion to someone in a privileged (read: fortunate as fuck) position to make theirs seen by millions, and be rewarded for it, but another to act like a moron about it, repeating and retweeting baseless rhetoric without a second thought as to the hows and whys of the situation. Gaming journalism isn't a joke, but honestly: some days, seeing the outright lies that gets spread about this business, only a sucker would sign up for it.
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