Thursday, February 28, 2008

The Problem with Games Journalism is All of Us

Every few months we get another screed from another writer decrying the lack of journalistic value or critical merit in either online or print games writing. In the past few years we’ve seen a broad spectrum of views, from Klosterman’s infamous “Lester Bangs of Video Games” piece in Esquire, to stuff like this most recent essay, “Game Criticism, Why We Need It, and Why Reviews Aren’t It” which appears on Play This Thing. Before I go on, I want to make it clear that this isn’t another rebuttal, or counter argument to the usually very intelligently argued points that are made. No, instead I want to raise an issue that is never discussed. Something all games writers, reviewers, editors, and publishers think about, but rarely express for fear of the wrath it may incur. I don’t pose it as fact, but more as a topic of debate. A new element to consider when implying that the talent does not exist to provide this whimsical, mythical, artistic pontification that these editorials demand (because it does.)

Are you ready? Here goes.

The audience just doesn’t want it.

Or care about it, for that matter.

In the grand scheme of things, games are an unusual animal. Lots of people play games, but I would argue that the level of engagement across the spectrum of the audience is quite different than you find with, say, movies. Or television. On one hand you have the “mainstream” gamers who can barely remember the name of the system they’re playing on at any given moment, let alone give two shits about whether the game they’re playing has any artistic merit. On the other, you have the super-hardcore. The enthusiasts. The guys that express every thought they have about video games, every moment that they have them, in some kind of public forum. There’s a lot of stuff in between – but these are the extremes. All are consumers of games, but all have different requirements of the media that supports the pastime.

Let’s tackle the easy ones first. The “mainstream” guys. At best, they want to know what games are coming out, and they occasionally want to know if specific games are good or not. For them, service journalism is all they need, if any. “Hey, Madden’s out.” Bingo. They do not need “criticism” nor do they have the inclination to read anything into the symbolism of the banana-shaped cursor in Donkey Kong Barrel Blast, or the social metaphors explored in Mario Galaxy.

Now what about the hardcore? There’s a good number of them, they’re super-engaged, super-vocal, and super-opinionated. Ask a lot of them about games coverage, and they’ll call it “crap.” They’re plugged into so many different sources of information that they have no need for any single, definitive source. They identify with brands on a personal level, and will often irrationally see praise of one thing as disparagement of another. For years, they have been the engine that drives the games industry, and have been the meat of the audience for games writing.

What is becoming increasingly evident though (and this is the reason I raise this whole point to start with) is that when this group is given what it frequently claims to want – it doesn’t seem to want that either. There is no doubt much evidence that could be raised to back this point up, and plenty to counter it…so I assert again that this is raised as a topic of a debate, not vilification of the audience. However – I’d like to point to a few very specific examples, and get the conversation going;

A few years ago, Computer Gaming World editor in chief Jeff Green and I spent a lot of time scratching our heads and musing on how best to serve the magazine’s readers with our editorial product. We frequently spent money on research against the audience, and had a very clear view of the demographics, the spending power, and the playing habits of the audience. From responses to blogs, message boards, and articles, and letters to the editor we felt we had a good handle on what the readership wanted. They constantly complained about games media treating them “like children” (and we had the data that showed that they really weren’t…they were predominantly dudes over 35. Who’d have guessed?) and that they demanded writing that credited them with maturity and intelligence. So, much in the vein of the Play This Thing editorial we chose to completely blow up the reviews section. Instead of “reviews” we would provide criticism, and context. We would embrace the fact that print was invariably late to the reviews party, and instead of banging out 400 words and a score to add to all the others that got sucked into MetaCritic, we’d discuss the way games were received by the audience, discuss other reviews, and talk to developers about how they would be addressing problems. We’d tackle the need for patches, ask questions of the visionaries, and summarize the way the audience had received a game.

The result? The audience hated it. I mean they really fucking hated it. They responded, almost as one, with the comment that they “don’t care what other people think” and that they “want to know what score CGW would give it.” Far from wanting an “essay” about a game – they wanted an at-a-glance indication of quality. Despite being enthusiasts (they spend $5 to get games information printed on much more enthusiastic could they possibly be?) they still wanted their taste vindicated with a simple number, rather than something more obtuse.

The second example is more recent, and concerns a recent NeoGAF thread about Newsweek writer (and occasional 1UP Yours buddy) N’Gai Croal. My personal opinion is that much of what N’Gai writes about video games is very squarely in the wheelhouse of what the vocal gamers say they want to read. He exists outside the “enthusiast” press, and is able to mull over a broad spectrum of issues, and tackle them in an intelligent fashion. He, along with a number of others, represents the coming-of-age of games coverage.

So you’d think the enthusiasts that decry the “garbage” they read in the games media would embrace him, right? You’d be surprised. Now, admittedly, NeoGAF provides but a snapshot of the gaming audience, but as a barometer of the feelings of the hardcore or “enthusiast” set, it’s arguably the most reliable source. On the subject of N’Gai’s games writing, a conversation on the conversation was kicked off with a post that stated, “Reading this guy's blog is an exercise in pretension. I do not consider myself stupid, but his use of obscure vocabulary that completely disregards his reader demographic is insulting.” The ensuing (currently seven-page) thread is quite a roller coaster of emotional response, that should be read to be believed. Personally, I was quite surprised by the term "completely disregards his reader demographic," but then I was also equally surprised at the annoyance expressed at the fact that N'Gai's name has an apostrophe in it.

My final example concerns the wonderful British games magazine, Edge. Long held in the highest regard by many as the epitome of intelligent games coverage, and often cited as something to which all games writers should aspire to mimic, it’s current circulation is just over 35,000 copies a month. To the best of my knowledge, this number has ever blipped much higher than 50,000 over the course of its long life. There are several video games magazines in Edge’s home market with double, triple, and quadruple the circulation. Bottom line? Edge goes deep, the others don't.

So here’s my point, I guess. In a long-winded, roundabout fashion; The media produced about video games is a direct reflection of the audience it’s produced for. It’s not that editors and writers are unable or unwilling to wax poetic on the art of video games (there are plenty of examples to the contrary); it’s that in the present climate the majority of the audience just doesn’t care to read that. Media is not produced in a vacuum. Editors don’t just throw the dumbest things they can come up with at the wall to see what sticks. Publishers research their audience, and produce a product that is intended to appeal to the largest possible number of people, so in turn that audience can be monetized with advertising. This is why crap like TMZ exists, and why the AP (of all people) is adding 20 "entertainment journalists" to its staff while the New York Times is laying 100 people off from its newsroom.

As enthusiasts, if the energy we all spent constantly complaining about games media were put into drawing attention to the excellent examples of intelligent criticism and journalism that are produced, then the rising tide would, perhaps, raise all ships.

And there you go. I just wasted 1400 words on the subject, instead of telling you to go read The Escapist, or subscribe to Edge, or read the essays on What a jerk.
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