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VICE vs Video games

How Modern Games Coverage Has Reduced Critics to Human Punching Bags

War stories from the frontline of video game journalism, where change was afoot long before Gamergate changed nothing.

by Dave Cook
13 April 2015, 11:24am

Many people don't trust games journalists – even blind people can see that. But trying to pinpoint the exact moment at which gamers started to herd critics into the same fiery pit of disdain as lawyers and politicians is a tricky task.

There's a Reddit thread rolling called "What initially got you to distrust video game journalism? Was it Gamergate or was it before then?" that attempts to encourage a consensus in the wake of the Gamergate movement that, in reality, was less of a movement than my last shit. No one knows because it's a subjective matter, but most are in agreement that Depression Quest developer Zoe Quinn was "patient zero" of the sordid debacle.

I'm not going to relay the minutiae of this embarrassing chapter in gaming lore, but as a person who recently left games journalism after a decade of active service, it's interesting to reflect and take an outsider's view on how that area of critique now appears.

In short: I'm mostly relieved that I got out with my sanity (near) intact, had only a mild brush with depression during that time, and was victimised in only one Twitter "scandal". I tweeted a game's hashtag while drunk at an awards bash, won a PS3 as a result and suddenly became the new Hitler.

From that point on I declared every press trip, free game or console and gift I ever received in footer of my articles until the day I left the industry, and I refused every single free meal or buffet table offered at events. The heart-warming thing was that readers really responded well to that transparency, and not another word was said. It goes to show the power of a few additional lines of text.

Compared to some journalists I know, I got off easy. But the reality for myself, and many of my long-time press colleagues, is that the relationship between the writer and the industry is like that of an addict.

The hours are long, the lack of sleep is killing you, the amount of cheap swag you get sent with review code doesn't pay the bills – and yet there's nothing like the rush of getting a review out to embargo, surviving another E3 or pressing "publish" on a dynamite interview. It's a genuine rush, and you have to be in it to understand why.

Around 2010 I was working on the English coast for a media firm. It was my first full-time job in the games business and I remember listening in awe as my peers told me stories of mad press trips paid for on the publisher dime.

I'm paraphrasing here, but these stories mostly went something like: "One time we were in Russia getting pissed up in a vodka bar, and then Johnny Gamewriter was so fucked on blow he went outside for a smoke then went missing for five days – five whole days, it was amazing. We just went home without him. What a legend."

In my naivety, I nodded and laughed while deep down some part of me wanted to sample some of the batshit war stories I had heard from the frontlines of games journalism first-hand. I wanted to go to Los Angeles with the office and get wrecked in bars I could never afford to drink in on my meagre salary alone, and impress others with my tales of excess. And for a while I did.

Except my stories were pitiful by comparison, like the time I and some other UK game journalists were in an expensive Hollywood nightclub looking more like the cast of The Inbetweeners than professional doctors of the press.

Glance left, and there's our lord and saviour Kanye West sitting alone in a booth looking miserable, cordoned off by a row of intimidating, muscular men with firearms on show. Glance right, and there's the head of a major game publisher chatting up Teri Hatcher.

Clarity took hold and all of a sudden I yearned to go home. It was clear that we didn't belong in that world and I started to seriously question press trips. What was the point of them when I was going to give the game an average score at review anyway? It all felt so wasteful.

But the relationship between press and publisher is a symbiotic one, and as such, you often have to be in that "room" to get access to games, interviews and the things required to do your job – and yet journalists are painted as villains. It makes no sense. Consider that the press thrives on new content, and exclusives elevate outlets above the chaff. Now ask yourself: who allows writers to have that content? Publishers.

Now, I'm still friends with many people who work in gaming PR and at publishers, so the above is not a condemnation of them personally. They are simply doing their job as told, just like journalists. It's the unstoppable force versus immovable object scenario, where neither side makes a compromise. They're tethered together in such a way that only a colossal sea change can affect the status quo. Are the press taking cash bribes from the other side? Absolutely not, but you probably don't believe that and never will. More fool you.

Here's another real example for you. I was at a publisher showcase near Soho in London – a central point for many gaming press events. This was around the time when you could see the trend of wasteful trips winding down. There were less nibbles on the buffet table, bottles of water instead of beer, and no party afterwards. Corners were being cut everywhere.

Believe it or not, things were changing for the better long before Gamergate failed to change anything. The party was over, money in the industry was tighter due to spiralling production costs, and the excess was receding before our eyes. Events were shifting focus back to the games and the people behind them, instead of getting smashed in a swanky Canadian nightclub and having a dance-off with Spanish journalists. True story.

At this particular event I asked the head of a development studio an honest question about his average shooter: "Are you worried about releasing a game that's quite generic, on old formats, so close to the launch of the next generation?"

The bastard gave me the reverse Paxman treatment by offering a reply that went like, "We feel that this is an exciting product and a great showcase of our new engine. We think the current generation has a lot left to offer and we're looking forward to showing that here."

Perturbed, I pressed onwards. "But we've seen a lot of games similar to this one throughout the generation. I guess I'm just confused why you would want to release something like this so late in the cycle. Are you worried that people might not buy your game, and wait instead for the new machines to launch?"

No word of a lie, he repeated word-for-word the same answer he had just given me, as if he was really a robot whose internal processes had become stuck in a perpetual loop. We took a second to look at each other. I eyed him in disbelief, while he gave me his best poker face to avoid confirming my point. It was painfully awkward, like watching a man with hooks for hands attempt to cradle his newborn son for the first time.

I caved, and asked him about the game's graphics, multiplayer and so on. The PR stonewall had won again, and the man's memorised press script had successfully blocked me from doing my job. This, ultimately, is why I let the industry. I grew tired of "the script", of the false promise that Game X is going to be the best thing you've ever seen, and that you absolutely had to pre-order all five special editions if you didn't want your mates to think you were a dick.

Then there was the grovelling. I was tired of begging publishers to grant me access to developer interviews at expos, tired of writing articles that validated the hype spun by marketing teams. I quickly found that being brutally honest about this process and calling the hype out either got me ridiculed by other journalists or slammed by publishers online.

On the other hand, having an honest opinion gets game writers hounded by actual gamers on Twitter or in the comments, and although players at large claim to hate the triple-A hype machine, more of them read the shallow, pandering articles than those focused on indie titles or genuinely interesting topics. This doesn't apply to literally all gamers – so calm down – but the amount of entitled hypocrites out there just became too much to handle. So I quit.

The modern war stories of gaming aren't about jollies funded by publishers. They now revolve around tales of personal anguish at the hands of the reading public. Those same people who wanted to see the death of phantom corruption, the press parties and non-existent bribes now want to see the games press annihilated altogether.

They don't know what they want, but are convinced the journalists are evil. The press are mere human punching bags to be abused, doxxed and coerced into depression or outed from the industry.

If that's the "room" you have to be in today in order to do the job, I'm glad I got out on the last chopper before the abusers stormed in to make the trade so insufferable. Along with tight publisher control, it's clear that for many outlets and writers, hard-hitting and honest games journalism simply isn't enough to make it in today's business, and that's just incredibly sad.

All photographs courtesy of the author

@DaveSCook

Previously:

Is Going Mobile the Future of Board Games?

'Jet Set Radio' Shows Us, 15 Years Later, That Video Games Have an Influence Problem

From Sexless to Sexy: Telltale's Queer Trajectory

Tagged:
Gaming
Corruption
#gamergate
e3
critics
transparency
conferences
Video Games Journalism
Press Trips
Getting drunk on someone else's dollar