We can all agree 2020 has been a write off of a year, but it also happens to be the year I graduated with a first-class degree in journalism. During the pandemic I wrote and completed my dissertation for my degree on the subject of video game reviews and the presence of news values in their content, and what differs between that and the norm in journalism.
I took to Twitter the other day and searched games journalists looking for what people are writing about and how other journalists use the platform for promotion in the field. Naturally with-it being Twitter, I got very little more than a lot of loud screaming. People do not like game journalists, in fact for many it has become a running joke that games journalists are ruining the games industry. While I wouldn’t quite push it that far I definitely agree that games journalists could and should do better. So, I want to get into what I believe is the issue behind games journalism in present-day and explain what they could be doing better and also what isn’t actually their fault. This is going to get a bit technical and I’m going to dive into a bit of journalistic theory here but trust me I will get to the point eventually I promise.
Churnalism, is a phrase that is ingrained in your mind from when you start any form of journalism degree and explains why the current journalistic climate often forces some writers to become puppets. Simple put, it’s where journalists are forced to churn out article after article to keep up with the news cycle.
This often occurs when management forces journalists to meet quotas and leads to journalists simply taking and repurposing Press Releases and syndicating other reports rather than producing quality journalism. The world of games journalism also falls foul to this. With larger outlets being sent hundreds of PR e-mails a day, it doesn’t matter how many writers you have, you can’t write a story and research all of them allowing fake news and poorly researched and sometimes boldface inaccurate stories to get published. But why not just publish less material then? well, that leads me onto my next point.
For large companies, this is a job and despite what people believe, journalism (particularly entry level jobs) are not well-paying positions. You work long hours for the public to hate you and shout at you with little reward. But at its birth when gaming was a niche and magazines were at the height of their popularity, we lived in this somewhat nostalgia-tinted world of the golden age of games journalism. While it is easy to argue that, yes, articles were likely better written and had more researched material, but back then so did all articles because the money was there (did I mention you can support us on Ko-fi so we can pay to keep the site running?).
Print media used to make a lot of money because they had people buying their products and an income from selling ad space in magazines. Now, ironically, niche magazines look like they are more likely to last than other general publications as readers flock to the internet. With the loss of revenue from sales, print media was limited to the ad income. Ad revenue online is so much worse nowadays compared with what it was for print production. In fact, it’s actually worse than it was in the 1950s adjusting for inflation.
It’s harder to make money with journalism but so what? Well, income is now directly proportional to what gets views, therefore the more articles you have, the greater the likelihood of gaining more traction and views. It’s why so many nothing stories are produced, it’s a cash grab. But that’s not necessarily what the employee who you’re swearing at on Twitter wants to write. They may want to do an investigative deep dive into the overworking of developers for AAA companies, but they can’t get funded by their employer because it will take too long.
Citizen Journalist is kind of loose-fitting title, but I’ll explain later. Now we’re still in a race for an exclusive except now your allies are leaks, your PR friend and the intern who can type really fast. It is so easy to spot typos in articles that have just been published because there is no time for proofreading anymore, everything is go go go! Get it out before IGN! This is nothing new, but now there is even more competition.
The world is ever-growing in technical competence (anyone that knows me is utterly shocked I managed to build and run a website). Anyone can write a blog now; anyone can express their opinions online. There’s Twitter, Facebook, hell even Instagram. But now you as an individual can get into the rat race through YouTube and Twitch and other video media platforms. You can take your idea for a story and rather than go through a lengthy pitching process you can do yourself and if you’re lucky you’ll go viral and get £5 (maybe). This is citizen journalism (you never really explained that this is what citizen journalism is). Then an article will be written about the viral video and the cycle begins anew.
I mean let’s be real here this website is very loosely technically citizen journalism. We aren’t getting paid, we don’t earn any revenue off the site, we’re doing it as a passion project. Even from only existing for a month I’ve already been tempted by the siren call of clickbait and excessively SEO to get us more hits so we can grow the site and have access to more review codes. You either die an indie site or you live long enough to become a corporation (very dramatic and not actually my point but I thought it sounded cool and I don’t have an editor to tell me I can’t put it in).
Ok so we’ve quickly skimmed over, (and I do mean skimmed. There’s a tonne of literature on the various points I’ve made in much greater depth), what is the industry’s failings now, let’s get onto what games journalism actually is and should be. During my research, I came across a paper titled The new gatekeepers: The occupational ideology of game journalism from 2008. The paper was fascinating as you could already see how much has changed and evolved over time from the earlier stages of the genre to now, and ideas that made sense back then had died off or weren’t viable anymore. So naturally, I e-mailed both the authors of the paper and David Nieborg got back to me.
His main take away was that game journalism is actually a sub-genre of Lifestyle journalism:
His main take-away was that game journalism is actually a sub-genre of Lifestyle journalism:
This is something we sometimes allow ourselves to forget. Games journalism far too often has this hyper fixation on games and their culture and not the journalism part. Yes, there is a slightly less formal expectation and yes the audience may not be the same people who are interested in hard news. But the same can be said of Sports Journalism and this has an impeccable quality of writing and formality out there – which is starting to creep in with e-sports coverage. I’m not saying all reviews need to be written like hard news, by any means, that would be awful. Also while I’m at it, it is impossible to be objective in a review for a product such as games according to Nieborg.
“I don’t know what an “objective” review would look like, it sets a journalist up to fail. I’m aware that some gamers ask (or want) journalists to be “objective”, but what does that mean? I think they mean is for them to be independent from the industry (or other forces) and they should be. But that’s journalism 101, hold those in power accountable. So game journalists should do the same, which is hard(er) if you’re paid by or close to the industry.”David Nieborg
Lifestyle journalism’s purpose is to be involved in representing basic elements of the readers lifestyle and in this respect is most closely linked to reviews when it comes to gaming. When someone reads a review they want to know what you thought of the game and explain if it’s worth playing but the major element so many journalists miss are IS IT WORTH THE MONEY.
Yes, you got the game for free, but if it wasn’t, is the asking price worth what the game offers? This is a classic failing of so many reviewers and I will hold my hands up that this isn’t even something I push home on my own writers or myself (see my deadline obsession creeping in again). And the reason we don’t all do it is that it’s not something you immediately associate with the idea of a traditional games review. But if you check Steam reviews terms like “good for the asking price” and “get it on sale if you want to play it” are often thrown around.
The purpose of games journalism
Last bit of theory I promise. A journalists job, in theory, is to act as the Fourth Estate. This is a term coined long ago by a man who is now definitely dead, but it has the idea of journalism holding power to account as a pillar of society separate from the church, government and royalty. Now this has probably changed a bit because my local church hasn’t recently tried anything I need to hold them accountable and I mean let’s not get into holding the royal family accountable at the moment because that’s a whole thing.
In this case, as a form of Lifestyle journalism, you’re holding the game developer to account to the public. You are reviewing the material and deciding for the public whether it is good enough to warrant purchasing. But going a step further you are still a journalist. You must report the wrongdoings of games companies, the idea of holding someone accountable is to scare them into not doing it because of the uproar it will cause. The whole issue regarding the Hearthstone ban last year relating to Hong Kong’s protests last year is a good example. Blizzard needed to be held accountable so people could get mad. Companies won’t back-peddle on bad practices if no one calls them out on it and media outlets and games journalists for this industry have the biggest way of conveying a loud unifying voice.
What can games journalists do better
We live in a world where all journalists’ choice of the story is scrutinised by bystanders who don’t understand the reasoning behind it. That little fluff piece you say and said on Twitter: “Why aren’t they writing or talking about blah” it’s probably because they are and you just didn’t see it because it didn’t get any traction on the site. Dogs get traction, everyone loves dogs, they always get views. This is both the publics fault for not prioritising news over fluff but it’s just as much the fault of news outlets who allow themselves to lean into this trend. There are outlets for news and hard news in all genres but you have to look harder and they likely aren’t going to make the kind of money they can writing fluff pieces for <insert brand who won’t sue me here>.
Remember you are writing for the consumer, no one cares if you had a deep spiritually awakening playing the new Dragonball game, that’s not relevant for the review. How does the game control? What’s the game about? How does it look? For the love of God someone pay attention to the soundtrack and sound design! What do you do? What’s the story? How much playtime is there? Don’t turn a review into a feature then throw a score on it and hit publish. Review the game with the relevant factors and relate them to your experience. You can write all the other stuff in a separate article (this is actually something Polygon did well with their coverage of Death Stranding – I mention this because it was part of my dissertation research and no other reason, but I am a big fan of Brian David Gilbert who does some of their video content).
But at least in some sense, there are steps all games journalists can do better to improve the quality of work just a bit more. Press harder on issues that matter and stories that aren’t primarily focused around generic white man does thing well. Don’t report on games made by black developers and minority characters just because it’s a trending hashtag on Twitter because it’s pride or black history. Represent everyone all the time, don’t priorities the newest port of Skyrim over an indie game that embraces harsher themes.
Call out games that have outdated ideas, over sexualising women for no reason, unnecessary racism in games, games that have dangerous pay to win models and other micro-transactions that aren’t necessary. Don’t be afraid when reviewing a game to call out the companies poor practices, if you want you can even link to other articles, you do you boo build that link economy and get that bread, but don’t ignore it. If a game is good but was ‘controversially‘ abusing its staff due to crunch, call them out.
There are things all journalists can do better and it’s easy to get complacent particularly when the world is an absolute mess but everything has the capacity for improvement. Including games coverage. This was very long and very technical and if you read to the end I appreciate it. I’m not sure whether this was really a fit for this site but I had a lot of thoughts. If you enjoyed this more, I suppose, ‘meta’, post let us know.