For the past couple of years there’s been talk about videogame journalism’s lack of integrity. There is a perceived and vocalized need for more worthy journalism. A call to grow up. I agree wholeheartedly.
Edge Online published an article calling to doubt some of the message in the Loot Drop Kickstarter, “Old School RPG”, by Brenda Garno (Brathewaite) and Tom Hall. (Now canceled.) I was really struck by the tone of the Edge article. It felt alien. It took a moment to register, but really it stands out because it’s written as a journalist reporting on something he’s external to.
Most of game media is written as if the journalist is part of the industry he’s supposed to cover. It is rare to see any criticism towards any facet of the industry, going as far as to ridicule all outside forces that may be seen as critical about games. Edge called to question both the message and its motivation, although taking careful care not to undermine the developers they covered. And deservedly so – these are veterans who deserve all the credit.
I am willing to pay money to see this kind of honest, proper reporting. That’s why Edge is the only magazine I have a subscription to. Online, Penny Arcade Report is doing the same sort of thing. They’ve managed a great line between, well, reporting and the kind of content fans are used to seeing. I would like more of that. Polygon is another step in the right direction, plus they’ve really made their online space feel like a thing that has value, and not just words on the internet. It’s not about running after a quick newsbite, it’s valuing my time as a reader and adding to the discussion.
If we extend this more critical way of reporting on games, what would gaming media staples like previews and reviews be like? I find it hard to stomach previews as they’re generally written. Very often previews are essentially re-worded press releases. If a journalist was to cover a game in preview with a little more integrity, they would maybe seek out an angle the audience wasn’t expecting, maybe go over the line of games the new game is going to belong to, ponder whether it’s adding anything new and interesting. And if it isn’t? Why even cover it? Let’s make the game developers and publishers earn that coverage.
The form of the preview is closely tied to the medium it’s featured in: online coverage. In a game of being first and scoring high on Google, quality doesn’t even factor in. Following the coverage of my own games online, it is all too often seen that “news” and, yes, even “previews” don’t even feature screenshots from the correct game, let alone get any of the details right. It’s noise through and through, yet the business of (small) sites is such that it’s the only way to work that makes sense (or seems to, anyway).
While previews are generally throwaway content, at least they’re mostly harmless. Reviews are much, much worse. I have a real problem with (okay, let’s soften this with a “most”) reviews. I’m not sure where it comes from, but for some reason gaming media treats games as technical products being graded on quantifiable, measurable scales. That doesn’t work, because games are a creative medium and in every way closer to a piece of art in a gallery than a Black & Decker appliance. They are not something you use, something you gain a benefit from.
Reviews should tell you what’s interesting about a game. They should tell you what matters in the work. They should set the work against the broader canvas of work that has come before it, and help you place it in the context of its authors and contemporaries. Or maybe the review could give you a unique point of view, a new perspective to value the work. You know, pretty much anything that is not a number.
I kind of lost hope just the other day when discussing the previous year’s best games with an experienced game journalist when we first spent a long while discussing the substantial merits of Spec Ops: The Line, and then he explained how he couldn’t really place it high on game of the year lists or even get it coverage, because it didn’t work that well on the accepted ways you could cover a third person shooter. So it’s made an impression on this long-time games writer, and he can’t cover it? That’s just wrong.
I wonder if the insistence on covering games as products valued as numbers comes from the media’s want to function as sales advisors. I guess that’s a valid approach. But having written quite a few reviews, I’ve found that my recommending or not recommending a game isn’t about whether it looks or plays or sounds better or worse than some of the competition. It comes down to whether there is a new kind of – or in some other way interesting – experience on offer or not. How do you assign a number to that?
In search of more interesting games journalism experiences, my very short list of people and sources you should pay attention to, in no particular order:
Penny Arcade Report: http://penny-arcade.com/report/
Leigh Alexander: http://sexyvideogameland.blogspot.com/ and https://twitter.com/leighalexander. I first stumbled on Leigh Alexander’s output in the first issue of Kill Screen and was so moved by her piece that had to see what else she had written. Turns out it was plenty and it’s all very good. She’s at Gamasutra now (also good).
Kill Screen: http://killscreendaily.com/
Jason Killingsworth: https://twitter.com/jasonkill
That’s not to say there isn’t a lot of worthy stuff elsewhere, but these consistently deliver.