The Triforce of Gaming Journalism
Do you remember that one kid in grade school who had the Nintendo Power subscription? Like a scholar, that kid always had a following of reverent disciples clustering around him with Pikmin-like gravity, trying to catch any word from the far away land of people who make video games. I remember that other than getting any news from that kid, and lunch table discussions over Lunchables, video games felt kind of isolating when I got back home to my NES and Genesis. I was on my own if I wanted to figure out a secret or if I got stuck at some point (for me, as a kid, Sonic 3 ended in Carnival Night Zone's second act). I would have never imagined the type of coverage and community which has developed in the video game industry over the past decade. We've focused a lot on the progression and development of the games themselves over the years, but sometimes we forget to stop and appreciate the very vehicle of video game journalism that has also grown alongside our games and consoles.
Last Thursday, I attended a panel at New York University's Game Center on video game journalism with Kotaku's Stephen Totilo, Sexy Videogameland and Gamasutra's Leigh Alexander, and Killscreen magazine founder Jamin Brophy-Warren. This discussion was part of NYU's Game Center Lecture Series. As the panel started, and stopped a few minutes later since Totilo needed to be re-mic'd, resulting in an akimbo situation on his collar, the discussion picked up on just how new of a medium video game journalism is, and how that presents unique challenges and potentials not seen in other media outlets.
The newness of video game journalism is at the crux of what Alexander meant when she said “games journalism is a broad word.” Though Brophy-Warren commented that their role “doesn’t differ too much from that of other journalists,” involving reviews, watching quality, providing critique, all which keeps developers in check, all three panelists agreed that there are a lot of gray areas when it comes to a lucid outlining of what their work entails. Brophy-Warren commented that the lack of a common vernacular speaks to some of these gray areas. A journalist on an internationally renowned site and a common fan with a blog can both discuss the same thing, albeit in very different manners, yet that doesn’t take away from the validity of either side since both can be insightful and compelling.
Brophy-Warren said that part of this can be described as taking the “I like blowing up stuff conversation” and taking it further, past the superheated shrapnel and airborne limbs, to what’s meaningful about said explosion. Totilo talked about his dislike of the term “it’s just a game.” That term calls the question of how and what he talks about in games whenever he wants to raise points of social issues in his writing. And too often is “it’s just a game” used as a clumsy escape or brush-off of a question and it really takes away from any discussion. Alexander elaborated on the point, mentioning how frustrating it is when she tries to speak to a social issue in a game and gets “a hundred comments saying ‘shut up b---h, it’s just a game’.” One funny point she made is that even when trying to explain what she does to peer gamers, a few have asked, “wait, so do you play games?”
A blurry line that really adds to the gray is the dichotomy of neutral reporting and opinion. In most traditional media, there is usually a clear division of reported fact and a criticism section, but all three panelists noted how those two mix in their roles. Totilo said this was one reason why he doesn’t want to review games sometimes. He says it’s weird to be both journalist and critic, to switch from opinionated to impartial mode. There are times he meets with developers and learns about their projects and their goals for those projects, and he sees the process behind that game and has to report on it. It definitely feels weird when he has to turn around and then critique the game and say what he really feels about it. Alexander described this as wall of opinion and reporting. She elaborated that there is a difference between technical success on the developer side and what the gaming audience thinks. This creates an odd situation when talking about video games. As Alexander stated, “we can’t just look at games objectively. It’s okay to use ‘I’.”
The strange point of subjective objectivity brought up the talk about the review approach to games. The problem is that sometimes reviews can have a pedantic and minimalistic approach about them. Brophy-Warren felt that Metacritic’s one to blame. He feels we really shouldn’t use numbers in reviews. He feels reviews can be important that first week a game is out, but irrelevant two years later. He stated that he wanted something that really captures a game and speaks about it through time. Elaborating on that point, Alexander felt reviews can portray games as “a finite thing.” Unfortunately, that has the potential to imply the desire of a “quick bang experience” to developers. She went on asking us about our time with the NES. Didn’t we play the same three cartridges over and over, sharing the experience with friends? She mentioned that today it’s way too late to write about and discuss a game like Mass Effect 2 even though it’s only a few months old; it’s all tied in to this notion, as Alexander was quoted, of demanding an experience just to bang through it to move on to the next discussion.
Totilo talked about this in reference to Team Fortress 2. He said that news about it does show up on Kotaku whenever Valve sends them a press release about upcoming updates, but that there’s no real coverage of what’s really the crux of TF2, the everyday gameplay. He mentioned that TF2 is a continuing, dynamic experience for its community, but that not really covered. Alexander really hit a great point in the question: that reviews are not reflective of the everyday gamer experience. She said that the nature of their jobs doesn’t let them exactly take the time or approach that a consumer might a home with their own copy. At home, a gamer can go back and replay a game and try different approaches, and discover new things about it they had completely missed on the first run.
This was a great discussion and really brought to bear the very odd nature of video games journalism. As to where the future of video game journalism is headed? Answers included the unknown and that its future is very contingent on the changing shape of games. What’s clear though is that interest is definitely rising and the medium will continue to evolve.