There has been a degree of unease among many game journalists recently thanks to the attentions of a blog on Tumblr called “Game Journalists are Incompetent Fuckwits”. The blog casts a critical eye over the many percieved transgressions made by game journalists and shines a light on the poor quality that has beset the industry. Is it just an exercise in negativity or are there greater concerns for the blog’s creator?
We fired off a few questions in an attempt to learn what motivates the man behind the blog and find out if there’s more to it than just a general frustration at the industry.
Let’s start with the obvious question: Who are you and what is your general background, what qualifies you to critique those who write about video games?
My name is Ben Paddon, and I am unequivocally, unashamedly, unabashedly in love with video games. I’ve been hooked on games since I was a young kid. My earliest memories include playing Lemmings and ThunderCats on an Amiga 500, and I learnt to read so I could play The Secret of Monkey Island. Games are a huge part of my life. They’re part of who I am, and what makes me tick. Really, that’s my only qualification. I’m not a game journalist, or a developer, or an engineer. I don’t even want to be any of those things – not with how the industry is now, at least. I’m just someone who’s passionate about games, and who would like to see media with that same level of passion.
I’m also a writer. I write a scifi-comedy webcomic called Jump Leads, and I co-wrote a Left 4 Dead parody miniseries called “Boomer’s Day Off” that went viral last year.
There was a period of time when you were perceived to be an “anonymous blogger” or a kind of industry whistleblower. Was this a deliberate ploy to gain more buzz around what you were doing or was it a case of people’s imaginations running away with them?
I’ve never kept my identity a secret. I don’t exactly broadcast my identity or anything, but it’s out there for everyone to see. The first email address I used for the blog when it launched had my name in it, so it’s not like I’ve ever really made an effort to remain anonymous. Even now I occasionally get messages and emails from angry journos that say something like “Hey dickhole, I know who you are!” and I imagine them staying up all night, going through filing cabinets and cross-referencing old newspapers on Microfilm trying to deduce who I am. It makes me laugh, really. There’s a link to GJAIF on my personal homepage. Has been since about a week after I launched the blog.
GJAIF could be said to be revelling in the negative, do you think there is a positive side to what you do?
Absolutely no idea. I hope so! I like to think that there are two types of people in the world – the ones who moan about something, and the ones who try to actively fix something that’s broken. In my personal life I usually (but not always!) fall into the latter category, but with game journalism it’s… that’s something I can’t fix. I don’t have the power. So I moan, and I bitch, and I whine about the stuff I think game journos are doing wrong, and I hope someone pays attention and maybe tries to fix it. Sometimes it takes enough moaners to make the doers actually do something.
Currently the blog is just that, a Tumblr stream of blog comments. Do you have any plans to expand or consolidate your position, perhaps with regular features or less transient, wider-reaching criticisms of the industry or stated guidelines for how you think it should be done?
If I had the time, maybe. I have this dream where I host a weekly show – a web series, probably – where I take a Daily Show-like look at the industry as a whole. And I’ve toyed with the idea of launching a game review site, but I don’t buy enough new games at launch to really make it work (I tend to wait for prices to drop – games are hideously overpriced).
What are your own personal pet-hates that you see occurring repeatedly on gaming sites?
Every now and then I think about compiling a list of all the things I hate about game journalism, but the first item on the list would be “lists”, and immediately after typing it I would be sucked into a gaping vortex of ironic hypocrisy. I hate lists. They serve zero purpose other than to fill space and get debates going in the comments – “How can you possibly think x is better than y?” or “Why didn’t z make it to the list?” – which leads to repeat page-visits which leads to more pageviews, which leads to more ad revenue.
Generally, though? Non-News pisses me off. “Company announces announcement will be made” isn’t news. “Developer says game they’re working on is awesome” isn’t news. “Game that was due to be released today has been released today” isn’t news. This is all stuff that gaming sites post on a regular basis, and the reasons for this sort of article are so ridiculously transparent it’s comical.
Do you think that the lack of quality you highlight on GJAIF is mostly down to laziness, ethical bankruptcy or some other factor?
I think one of the biggest problems is that the games industry is, relatively speaking, still young. The film industry exploded nearly a century ago and so film journalism has had plenty of time to mature and refine itself (Ain’t It Cool News excluded, obviously). You wouldn’t see Total Film posting shit on their website that’s only tangentially related to movies. They don’t post stories about assaults or crimes that were committed while a movie was playing in the background, or where copies of Scarface or something were found in the assailant’s apartment or something. Then again I don’t read a lot of film blogs – there’s probably an entire swathe of Kotaku-like movie blogs for all I know.
But yeah, the youth of the industry is a huge problem. There’s no real focus. The developers themselves were still pretty loose during the 90s, doing stuff simply because, and we sort-of lost a part of that in the later 90s and during the 2000s when it became less about “Wouldn’t it be cool if…?” and more about “Wouldn’t it be profitable if…?” – and gaming journalism has followed suit, being run more as a business than as a means of getting gaming news out there reliably. Yes, to a degree you have to run news as a business, and it’s not something that sticks specifically within the gaming sector of journalism, but a lot of the sites I’m lambasting seem to be focused on bringing in pageviews rather than reporting the actual news that people want to hear about. “Developer announces impending announcement”? Really? That’s cool. Come back when they’ve actually said something valuable.
And they’re all doing it, too. There are very few gaming sites out there that seem genuinely interested in being honest and reporting the proper, actual news. Rock, Paper, Shotgun is pretty good. GiantBomb have their moments, although they’ve taken a ding to their front bumper thanks to Brad Nicholson. But there’s no money in doing things properly, and so gaming sites go where the money is. Sometimes, and I won’t name names here, but sometimes that leads them into the pockets of the publishers or developers because they’ll get an awesome exclusive in exchange for, say, a high score. My favourite example of that is Rise of the Robots, which was critically acclaimed by a number of publications in the 90s and yet it is easily the worst game I have ever played. It’s terrible. Even worse than E.T or Superman 64. A more recent example is Batman: Arkham Asylum. A number of publications got early-access to Arkham in exchange for a high score. In that instance it’s ridiculous because Arkham actually deserves high marks – it’s a great game – but the game mags want that first bite. They’ve gotta be that guy commenting “FIRST!!11!1”. Then people come to them first, and they reap the rewards in the form of delicious ad revenue. They’re lucky that Arkham wasn’t another Rise.
Almost all of the criticisms posted on GJAIF are levelled at people and outlets which are paid to ply their trade rather than the numerous casual bloggers. Is it a conscious decision to indict only those who receive pay for what they post?
Not really, no. I’ve attacked a few volunteer-run sites in the past. Used to be if I found a new gaming blog I’d add it to my RSS reader immediately, but I look at so many stories a day now, so many websites, that I can’t keep up. I suppose a sensible person might try to split the responsibility between a couple of people, maybe find someone willing to help, but who can I trust? Batman works alone for a reason!
You gently encourage tips on the blog, are there a number of people who repeatedly send you tips, like a group of researchers, or is it a random spattering of sympathetic readers sending one-offs?
It’s a bit of both. Sometimes I get a tip from someone I’ve never heard from before, but a bulk of my tips come from people who’ve sent me something before. And, ha, they’re almost all journalists too. That’s why I don’t name my tipsters – some of these people are sending me links to articles on sites they themselves write for. If someone were to lose their job for writing a shoddy article, I’d be fine with that. If someone were to lose their job for calling attention to someone else’s article, I wouldn’t be happy at all.
Do you think there will ever be a need to expand your operation more formally?
No idea. Maybe. Someone needs to make game journalists accountable and keep them on their toes. They need someone to call them on their bullshit because Glod knows they won’t call themselves on it. They don’t even like to acknowledge that they’ve made a mistake, and they’ll go back and edit a post and trim out the mistake like it was never there. So someone’s got to be there to say, “Hey, I saw that.” Maybe someday there’ll be a more formal set-up for that sort of thing, but I don’t think I have the discipline to oversee anything like that!
Your presence on the fringes of the world of games-writing has caused quite a stir, some say you should help improve rather than constantly pulling the field down. How would you answer your critics who say it’s easier to destroy something than it is to build it?
To them I say: Get building. I’m not the guy who’s tearing the building down. I’m the inspector who walks into the building, notices the floor is sagging and says, “This place isn’t up to code, you’re gonna have to tear it down and start over.” I don’t even get to drive the bulldozer, which is a shame because they look like fun. No, I just get to stand by and watch.
It’s akin to a developer seeing a bad review for their game and saying, “Well if you think our game is so bad why don’t you make a game?” – and it’s not the critic’s job to make a better fucking game. It’s the critic’s job to critique, to say “This sucks and here’s why”. It’s sort-of ironic that the people who critique for a living can’t handle a little criticism.
It seems that some of the worst, or at least most common, offenders listed on GJAIF are also the most visited – and therefore most lucrative – sites. Don’t you think that, ultimately, the general readership is getting what they want or at least what they deserve?
They may be getting what they want, but maybe that’s because they haven’t considered that there’s potential for something better. Some people eat at McDonalds all their lives, for instance. It’s what they want, but is it good for them? They deserve so much more.
The worst offender on my website is Kotaku. They post so much irrelevant bullshit. Occasionally they forget entirely what they’re doing and post stuff about medical science. And this is a blog who describes themselves as “The Gamer’s Guide”. I don’t doubt that there are gamers out there who are interested in medical science, and Glod knows Bashcraft is fulfilling a general gamer interest in breasts (although, in all honestly, I think he’s negatively feeding into that stereotype of the sex-obsessed gamer), but there are other blogs for that sort of thing. This isn’t a “You got chocolate in my peanut butter!” scenario. These aren’t two great tastes that taste great together. One is videogames and the other is medical fucking science. Unless I’m playing Trauma Center or Theme Hospital these are not two areas I expect to overlap.
I’ve described it as akin to buying a cookery magazine and finding articles on car engine maintenance inside. There are people [with] interests in both areas, I’m sure, but that’s not why they’re buying a cookery mag. Someone who’s interested in both will pick up both mags, and someone who’s interested in medical science will be reading a medical science blog (just as someone who is interested in breasts will be reading virtually any other site on the internet). Sure, you can filter out stuff on Kotaku, and you can ignore or tear out the car maintenance articles in that cookery mag. But why should you have to?
I’ve been told that Kotaku are a “pop culture” blog. Why the fuck do they call themselves “The Gamer’s Guide” then? They market and promote themselves as a gaming blog. That’s what they push themselves as. So I go to their site and I expect to see shit that is relevant to my gaming interests, not “Attractive Japanese actress is attractive and Japanese” or “Hey look, now we understand how fuckin’ magnets work!”. If Kotaku changed how they presented themselves, if they stopped calling themselves “The Gamer’s Guide”, then my assault on them would be limited specifically to their gaming news (which is still pretty bad, by the way).
Finally, what is your vision for the way the industry should work, do you think that the existing frame-work of “me too” news-and-list regurgitating sites can ever foster real, well-researched, quality journalism?
Do game journalists even do any journalism anymore? The actual researching of things? I don’t know! I don’t think they do, and I can’t say for sure if they ever did. In the last week I’ve had to do research to verify the content of at least three stories where it looks like zero research was done. Two of these weren’t exactly big deals – one was about the release date of an old game, and the other was about whether or not The Goonies II was the only Goonies game ever made, which of course it wasn’t. But one of these was huge – a bunch of gaming news sites cited a Reuters article as confirming flat out that Hulu was coming to the Xbox 360. I read the article on Reuters and it doesn’t confirm a bloody thing. There’s lots of “possiblies” and “includings”, and there’s a line that says Hulu and Microsoft declined to comment.
So many gaming sites reported this “fact” based on something they didn’t even bother to read properly. Some of them didn’t read it at all. That sort of research takes less than a couple of minutes, and they’re not even doing that properly anymore. I can only see this sort of scenario playing itself out over and over and over.
We would like to thank Ben for taking the time to talk to us with unreserved honesty and candour. Here at TheSixthAxis we like to think that we all make mistakes (we’ve been featured on GJAIF ourselves) but that’s okay as long as we learn from them. A blog pointing out our mistakes may be painful initially but ultimately won’t it help us strive to improve?