Friday, November 02, 2012
A Statement on Games and Journalism
I don’t really consider myself a Games Journalist. In private conversations I sometimes refer to what I do as “games journlolism.” I know that’s rude, but I feel it’s important I don’t take myself too seriously. I like to write about games. Sometimes I’m lucky enough to get a little kickback for doing this, be it in the form of goods, services, or just well-wishes. Sometimes I’m not.
The first time I was called a Game Journalist was when I made a mistake in a headline. I truly knew at that moment that I had arrived. I was just a games blogger... until I fucked up. Then I was a journalist.
Some game journalists have fucked up lately, or at least done some things that some people see as fucking up. Their ethics have been called into question for these various missteps. The most interesting article I read about this recently was this exposé on Eurogamer's behavior regarding one games writer and Tomb Raider fan Lauren Wainwright. Viewed from an outside perspective, saying she is friends with some people who do PR for games feels like a fairly tepid scandal. I think Lauren should’ve been more honest about which games she had potentially worked on. She should have been more upfront about her biases. If you work directly on a game, you should not turn around to review that game pretending you didn't. There is however, no call for a campaign of hyper-concentrated harassment against her. There is no call for this against any human being, especially since such attacks are so often fueled by gender. She did handle her response to the initial accusations very poorly, and this has added fuel to what would have been a minor fire.
I personally would rather be a game writer than a game journalist. I would also accept “game critic.” I think writing about games from a critique standpoint is more interesting than the news and the weather. I don’t have any training in classic journalism anyway. Critique, however, is not valued highly, especially critique from academic or cultural standpoints. The big money is in advertising. If game reviews are easily confused with advertising: that’s why.
I develop games as well as writing about them. This is a crossover that some people see as problematic. From my experience, other journalists don’t really seem to care as long as I am honest about this perspective. I think it's important that I be up front about my relationships. I rarely write about games on which I have worked. When I do write about games I have worked on, I phrase all the writing in that context.
Rock, Paper, Shotgun titles its game reviews as “Wot I Think.” I like this. All game reviews I’ve written, no matter the format, are ultimately just Wot I Think. I’m not telling you some universal truth. I’m giving you my thoughts on the game with biases intact. I don’t write “I think blah” around every sentence because that’s weak writing. (Sometimes I write “I think blah” on accident, and then delete it in a revision. Sometimes it still slips through on accident. Sometimes I look at it, waffle, but decide to leave it, as I did a few paragraphs above.)
I’ll read a game review if I’m interested in buying a game, and I want to see Wot People Think. I’ll read a review if I’m not interested in buying a game, but just want to get an idea of where it fits into the cultural zeitgeist and what people will be talking about next month. I’ll read a review after I’ve played a game to see if people felt the same way I did about the game. I’ll read a review if I have no interest in the game but someone mentioned the review was entertaining. I read reviews.
I don’t read the reviews on sites like G4 or IGN all that often. These are the least interesting reviews to me personally. I am not the typical games consumer. I am not sure I know how to write a review that appeals to the needs of the typical games consumer. I am not male; I am not twenty-something; I am not fueled by Gamer Grub and Slim Jims, Doritos and Mountain Dew. Then again, it’s quite possible this “typical games consumer” does not really exist, is a fiction of games’ incestuous mainstream marketing. Maybe he is like the boogeyman, and if we stop believing in him, he will go away. We can all enjoy Halo 4 in peace without his haunting spectre.
In my experience, there are many games journalists who are not paid for their work. They are doing it as an internship, for the exposure and experience, for the swag and kickbacks, or just for love. There are also many other games journalists - even really good ones - who generally freelance and are paid only by the article. There are of course some games journalists who have staff jobs doing regular game writing, for magazines or increasingly blogs.
Journalist kickbacks seem quite glamorous, and there are some people who get involved in games writing only for that reason. Lauren Wainwright seems fairly public about the goodies she's collected. I can't say that's her reason for doing the writing in the first place, but her attitude toward it makes it easy to paint her as a villain.
Having now established myself as a member of games press, albeit a fringe one, means I get swag on occasion. Sometimes these things arrive unannounced... as was the case with an entire season of Digimon DVDs. When this happens, I have a few options. I think the simplest thing to do is briefly pop the DVD in to make sure it works, and then rephrase the press release to report on this. This is what many outlets will do in this kind of situation. Reviews and news are due when they are due. But in my particular case, as I am not beholden to such deadlines, I felt it was more ethical to watch 18 hours of Digimon.
Lots of reviewers are forced to gun through a game under a tight deadline. This permits a certain, not often deep, reading of a game. I like Tap-Repeatedly's format of doing Impressions articles for quick release, and longer Reviews if confident. Of course this is obviously my bias; to me it's impossible to do a true read of a big game under tight time constraints, and "Impressions" in those cases feels more honest.
Swag is fun. However:
1. Sometimes it is the only way in which you are compensated for your work.
2. A free game is a free game, but it’s also a tool you need to do your job. There’s an expectation that you’ll play and review the game. There’s an expectation that you’ll deliver an honest opinion. Sometimes you are lucky enough to get a free game that you really enjoy! But it’s not really about getting the free game. At least, it certainly shouldn't be. (Full disclosure: I still pay for most of my own games. I get a free one on occasion.)
Nor should it be about getting a free PS3. "Shouldn't any game journalist already have a PS3?" some commenters asked. Hey, check your privilege. For one: I don't. I plan to get one soon, but, if I wrote only about PC and XBox games I would still literally never run out of games to write about. I would certainly not mind a free PS3. But I would not have tweeted a hashtag to win one. I'm uninterested in throwing stones at those that did, since I'm sure I've done at least one thing that would be otherwise considered unprofessional by someone else. Some think it's unprofessional for game journalists to back Kickstarters.
I will say that it’s exciting to be offered something for free. I like games and I like getting games. The getting and having is sometimes more fun than the playing, which is why my backlog is so very hilarious. I get a small thrill from getting early access to games because I like games and I am not yet dead inside from my exposure to the industry. Mostly though, I write about games because I really like writing about games.
I get that people want honesty in games writing. And I know there are people who want to provide that.
But who's paying?
Serious question. You want the unbiased totally real opinion of people who are comfortable enough and secure enough not to be swayed by being wined and dined by publishers. Right now, the game ads pay for the game journalists. Right now, that is a problem. There are independent blogs that don't make money and do this mostly for free for you out there, if you look. What else have we got?