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What is the Point of Video Game Journalism?
by Keza MacDonald on 06/25/14 08:42:00 am   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

I've been thinking a lot over the past few years about what the point of video game journalism is, as the circumstances of its production continue to change at an overwhelming pace. (I’ve also recently launched a new branch of a games website, which kind of forces you think about what the point of it all might be.) Here in the UK, there were probably around twice as many traditional, salaried jobs in games writing 7 years ago as there are now (and even then, the odds of landing one weren’t too good) - but the realities and difficulties of making a living out of games writing is another discussion for another time. What I want to talk about is the role that we, the games press, play. As the media and the industry keeps changing, our function has become more nebulous.

There was a time when the point of video game journalism was to tell people about games, to give them information; this was back when the press was the only source of such information, which now feels way back in the distant past. Now there is information everywhere, far too much information, trailers and tweets and YouTube deconstructions and developer diaries and official publisher- and developer-led outlets bombarding us with constant information about video games long before they're even playable. PlayStation Blog is just one example of a publisher-led outlet that does what the independent games press used to do.

The Internet means that there is now a direct line between the people who make and sell video games and the people who buy them. The press is no longer needed as a middle-man, and hasn’t been for a long time. Some publishers, like Nintendo, have essentially cut us out altogether. The press still occasionally gets to see and play games earlier, but it does not have the gigantic advantages over the ordinary games-player that it once had. Press conferences are live streamed, and gameplay video is accessible to everyone.

I don’t think all of this is a bad thing, particularly. I am greatly in favour of the freedom of information, but I distrust companies’ eagerness to remove any filter between their intended message and their prospective customers, mostly because they call their customers things like “engaged consumers” and are obsessed with “activating” and “connecting with” them rather than just, you know, talking to them. Anyway, this is a thing that has happened, and it has vastly impacted what the games press does. It has removed what used to be its function: to tell people about games.

At other times, games journalism was once perhaps ultimately about advising people what to buy, but that's fallen by the wayside, too. If there is one thing that there is no shortage of on the Internet, it's opinions, and a professional critic's opinion is now no more or less accessible or inherently valuable than anyone else's. Besides, the aforementioned surfeit of information has equipped everyone with an Internet connection and money to spend with ample ammunition to make their own, very informed decisions. People still look at reviews, but they also talk to their friends, watch videos, play a demo or a beta. Plus, as almost every comments thread ever amply proves, a lot have people have decided whether they’re going to buy something LONG before it actually comes out. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve been told I’m wrong about a game by someone who has literally never played it.

I think a lot of the older games media is still clinging to these two things, these two definitions that may well be on their way to obsolescence, if they're not obsolete already. They are still trying to give people info and advise them on what to buy, even though people don’t need that any more. People still read reviews, but I’ve worked on a lot of websites now and I can assure you, people do not read previews. Nobody reads previews. Meanwhile, coverage of a game often just stops at review, which is pretty laughable when you look at the fortunes being made by people making videos about games that have been out for years.

What is games journalism for, then? What's the point of it?

Let's leave aside "making money" and "generating page views" for the moment. Those things underlie what we do, sure, but nobody every got out of bed in the morning thinking "Hoo boy am I gonna generate some page views today!" Those are the things that games writing provides for publishing businesses. But what should it provide for readers?

For me the main point of modern games writing is to invite people to think differently about something - even something they thought they knew intimately. It can achieve that by telling a human story, by deeply investigating an issue or an event, by letting me look through someone else's eyes, by showing me an opinion different from my own. This is what I look for now in the things I read and the things I publish. Every piece of writing that I've voted through in this year's Games Journalism Prize has made me think differently, either by telling me something I didn't know or by presenting me with a viewpoint I had never considered or recontextualising something in an interesting way.

I also think that the games press has a responsibility to celebrate and, where appropriate, try to improve the culture of video games. It should celebrate what games are and the amazing things that they and their players do, but it should also point out the darker things, the things that need to change, whether that’s the representation issues still that hold gaming back or a horrific developer working culture that's ruining lives. It’s calling people out on their bullshit.

There’s also another aspect to what the games press does, and it’s always been an aspect of it, despite terribly srs pretensions to the contrary: entertainment. Often, we write or make videos to entertain. I’m not very good at being funny, but a great many people who work in this field are. It turns out that there is money to be made from being funny and personable and talking about games. The games media should see that as encouraging, rather than threatening.

Besides, we can still help people figure out what they should be playing, by finding interesting things and communicating our experiences of them. It’s just that we are not the only people doing that any more, which some of the games media is (perhaps understandably) struggling to accept.

When we were launching a new site a couple of months ago, the line I ended up coming up with was “see games differently”. I thought about what the foundations of the site were, the sort of thing we would cover and why, the attitude we wanted to convey; the point of it, in short. It all boiled down to seeing games differently, for me. It’s not an especially grand aim (hell, we've published everything from an investigation of fanboy psychology to some pictures of Nintendo characters as otters), but I hope it might keep us focused. God willing, it might even keep us relevant, at least for a bit longer.

There are more different voices writing about games now than ever, and the great benefit of that is having this opportunity to see games differently. That’s what the games media should encourage people to do.


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Comments


Martin Cross
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Sounds like a bit of a crisis. I couldn't do what you do. My writing just isn't that good.
I really rate you guys, and I follow people from place to place if I like 'em enough. Bought Hiliary Goldstein's comics. Followed you to Kotaku, too. Figuratively.
I read previews of games I'm interested in, (and also ones I'm not interested in, if they are written by someone whose writing I like).
This is what renders reviews less relevant - to me, at least.
Were it not for you (meaning Kotaku, IGN, or whatever), I'd have to trawl the internet looking for all the info, some of it likely unreliable because it was hatched from within publishers' reality distortion field. I need you guys to collect it, be objective about it, and make it available.
That's not to say games websites are just digital collators. That would be like ... Disqus' bubbles on the homepage - bland and impersonal.
Opinion pieces make us think and question how we perceive this industry and it's achievements. Comment sections can sometimes be hostile, angry little corners of the web, but points raised in opinion pieces require healthy discussion, and surprisingly get it.
The value of games journalists to gamers is still invaluable but I should imagine difficult to quantify to people who hold the purse strings. Generating money online can be very difficult. I wonder how people like Greg Miller can find the time outside of work to make all those videos (which all look very professional), and then has to organise printing t-shirts and badges to try and monetise it in some way. I wonder how Dan Maher gets on, I like the Exploding Alan podcast, but wonder how the hell he pays the bills.

I digress - thank you for your hard work. I enjoy it daily, and feel not a little guilty that I haven't paid in some way.

Bob Fox
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The reality is most gaming websites are merely echo chambers where people tribalize according to shared opinion on a topic.

The modern 'gaming press' (and lets not call it that, any ad driven business which games writing that relies on publishers for revenue can never be honest about games).

Gamasutra is a case in point, where gamasutra is an echochamber in and of itself that caters specifically to game industry interests.

Larry Carney
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"Let's leave aside "making money" and "generating page views" for the moment. Those things underlie what we do, sure, but nobody every got out of bed in the morning thinking "Hoo boy am I gonna generate some page views today!"


Actually, according to most gaming reporting sites this does in fact appear to be the supreme focus of what they do. Controversy and dividing gamers, fanning the fires of flame wars and dangling clickbait in front of the very people they then disparage for being the irate and irrational mob. If this is not the truth of most modern gaming reporters then I am not sure the alternative is any better: for then we are dealing with an industry mostly of immature, emotionally juvenile men-children who are incapable of even being aware of what things in the industry they cover need to be covered.

I welcome the rise of YouTube and gaming personalities. At least that PewPie guy is making money by playing a fool on purpose.

Michael Ball
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If I knew you, I'd buy you a million lunches.

Dave Bleja
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I must be atypical, because I find a lot of this article puzzling, in that I consider traditional games journalism to be, if anything, more important than ever.

Just because we have a gazillion new avenues to read about games doesn't mean any of us actually has more hours in the day with which to read about them. Sorting through the noise of information overload isn't my idea of a good time. And neither do I have a spare 20 minutes to devote to watching Let's Play videos of each game I consider buying. Thus, I rely on people like you to do much of the research and sorting - the 'manual labour' as it were - for me, and produce a succinct, balanced review that I can digest in 5 minutes.

The ease with which the Joe Bloggs' of the world can share their opinions about games often just makes it harder to find fair and reasonable accounts of them, since you'll quickly come across all parts of the spectrum, and won't necessarily know where the real balance lies.

Take Metacritic. On the left side, you have a distillation of reviews by people who are more or less obligated to write mature, thoughtful reviews after they have spent real time with the game. On the right side, you generally have a sea of 1s and 10s, alternating between uncritical, hyperbolic praise, and vicious rants that often hone in on one specific weakness. Which side do you trust more? I know which one I do.

And indeed, Metacritic is usually my first and last stop to get a sense of a game before I decide whether it's worthy of any further attention. Like most other people, I feel busy and rushed when I'm online, so I want to the experience to be a smart and efficient use of my time.

That means that I often don't read your lovingly worded reviews, but merely skim the last pull-quoted paragraph as offerred by metacritic. But I do this because I trust that you've put some serious effort behind the review, that you've strived to remain professional and fair, and that you're a good writer whose final paragraph is a relatively successful summary of the game's qualities.

I can't get that sort of assurance by just frequenting gaming forums or social media sites. At least, not without putting in some serious time and effort into filtering and sorting through the crap to find the gold. That's not my job. It's your job, and I'm as grateful as ever that you do it.

Jennis Kartens
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"Take Metacritic.[...]"

The general outcome of all the 1s and 10th creates a way more realistic number in the end, as the biased press does, where you seldom find someone going really harsh onto big titles because "hey, its not that bad is it?" Well yeah, they are. And that is too something journalists need to reconsider. If still using this system, they need to realize the scala has numbers below 7 too and 7 cannot be "the worst" as it is widely considered.

Take this for an instance http://www.metacritic.com/game/pc/watch-dogs

I don't care about the infantile comments of most of the players, but the 4.6 reflects my opionion of Watch Dogs a lot more as the 7.8 from the "press"

That is true for almost any game on Metacritic. The user score reflects a way more honest and realisitc "meta data" as the press reviews. They may have the better writing paired to the numbers, but given what Metacritic is about, it doesn't really matter that much.

Nathan Mates
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It is quite possible to astroturf (both for AND against) much easier with user reviews. Amazon and other places can flag if a user reviewer is on record as having bought the item from them, which makes it a bit harder to spoof, but still quite spoofable.

Jennis Kartens
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That is true, though happens seldom I think (as in actively manipulated by a large number of users... I think there was *one* case that went public a while back on MC?)

However if you look at it just now, I think it does reflect the perception a lot better as press reviews do. Just check out a few titles you may have played a bit more intensive. I just checked around 8 games and they all match up to a more honest number that, if you want to put it into numbers [smth. on a different topic, I don't really like that at all], comes a lot closer to the actual quality.

Ian Richard
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It's not exactly a difference in quality of reviews, but a difference in HOW they rate a game.

I read a few years back that game journalists need to rate a game completely on technical aspects to avoid being "Biased". A game's entertainment value,or quality of content depends on the player and his expectations... therefor it is ignored.
It just so happens that publishers who spend millions and have hundreds of employees have pretty graphics and high technical achievements. compared to the average dev... leading to a result that seems rather... umm... bribed.

Players come in without any need to skew their feelings. They tell you how they feel about the game directly... even if it's irrational hate or blind fanboy-ism.
This means that the player scores take different things into consideration and give a more "accurate" result. People like me will rate a clunky but fun game higher, while other's require great story and voice acting. Because we're getting many different viewpoints it averages itself out.

Both the Player and Critic scores are honest but they just have different expectations. I trust the critics when I want to know how pretty a game is and I trust players when I want to know how fun it is.

Jennis Kartens
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Definitively a point of view I could see. But it's not that easy sadly. I agree on the players site, but the publications are different.

I've been around 5 years in a position to select the proper number for games, how much fun it has been.

It was work. It was kind of honest, but it was work. You get the review copy late, you have to play the maximum out of it, while you maybe have to play 3-8 other games in the same time, all under pressure. You get disconnected from what it actually is to play a game. It becomes less entertainment and more actual work. Sure, to be enjoyed here and there. But with expectations from various sides on the other end. And that is often mainly because of the number on the end.

People, publishers as well as a lot of players, don't give a damn about what you wrote but pin you down on these numbers.

Laura Bularca
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In a time where people panic about games discoverability, where curation is demanded, and where so many developers fear the fact that they do not have any marketing skills, the role of the press is more important than ever. You give us game devs a voice (at least to those of us that don't have any), you can shed a light on games with added value, you are miners digging for gold, you can shape and set the industry and make a better environment for us all, creators and players alike. I am counting on you.... don't let us down :)

Michael DeFazio
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facilitate a conversation between the gaming public and the developers of games. (Play matchmaker between developers and the public)

More ways of engaging the audience -
it would be great if publications reached out to their audience more to ask ("Hey, I'm going to meet with the developers of game X, what do you want to know?") And solicit feedback from the audience to get an idea of what people want to know (for sequels to established franchises/studios) that'd be great ... i.e. don't assume you understand what people like about a franchise, and speak for the audience... just ask

More Deep Interactions (how was it made?)
I find play thru session with the developers very engaging... let developers show off and explain the details about why the game mechanics are the way they are, why was the character designed in a certain way... (There was a lets play with the creators of Minervas Den that I thought was fascinating)

Less Trash Talk
Don't waste your time bad-mouthing games you don't like, I'm all for (constructive) criticism, but going over the top in your explanation of why a game is bad screams "click bait" ... And worse yet berating people who like a game:
"The desperate or the gullible may find a glimmer of fun hidden somewhere in the pit."
source : http://www.destructoid.com/review-duke-nukem-forever-203658.phtml
makes you seem petty and immature.

Less Pretentiousness/Navel-Gazing
I'm also a little sick of the amount of "navel gazing" for journos... and chief among them might be Adam Sessler. He spends most of the time in his reviews trying to impress people with himself and his vast vocabulary...(I mean he snuck in "ver·i·si·mil·i·tude" into his Bioshock Infinite Review https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jchIi-vR_js&feature=youtu.be&t=4m3s)...But see... it's not about YOU, its about the game.

Less consensus - More Debate/Discussion
lastly, I'd like for there to be more discussion and conversation (disagreement) about games, seek different perspectives rather than trying to have each outlet come up with a consensus review that all journos must agree with... I'd even like it if two dissenting people gave separate reviews from the same outlet...

Jennis Kartens
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As the publishers trying to cut the press out as middleman, the same should be done vice versa. Cutting out selective informations for marketing purposes from the publishers, and reporting directly on the development.
Of course, that is very difficult. But that is one core issue that the games press always had and that lead towards it being more of another "marketing branch".

There is still a huge gap. Most people do not know much about game development, not even with the current trend in "early access".

I would also think, that a development towards professional opinions, insights, good interviews and a subjective view in general with personality from the respective site would be welcome, instead of trying to be objective and fall into the traps of that.

Kaze Kai
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I read "kotaku" and "journalism" both being used synonymously in the same sentence and laughed.

Daniel Pang
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Video game journalism has finally caught up to real journalism.

People only read it to have their views and biases confirmed.

Dustin Hendricks
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You have this wave of people who went to school for journalism, and are passionate about writing, entering the [game] journalism industry. When they get there, they see the man behind the curtain. Review mills. Hyperbolic click bait. The ever present "First!" for SEO.

For someone who is passionate about writing, I imagine that reviews must get pretty dull after a while. Events like E3 have become so predictable. So much so, that you could practically write about it before it even happens. I imagine writers want to write about something a bit more interesting. They reach for it. They create it if they have to.

I'm all for some non-run-of-the-mill games writing. Bring it on! I just hope the majority gamer audience does too.


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