More Notes On Games Journalism

I feel like I’ve probably written enough about the process of writing about games. Recently, I’ve been leaning towards the opinion that this kind of article might not be suited to our audience. I’m concerned that I am, essentially, writing for myself and the small group of individuals who do the same thing that I do. I’m worried that the people I want to write for – you – might not care about the processes or considerations of writing about games. So I’ve avoided commenting on the noisy carousel of navel-gazing that we’re all a little guilty of in this profession.

Do you care? Should you? Let’s see.

For me, it all started with a three part series I wrote several years ago about what was wrong with games journalism. That’s something that some people had done before and many have done since – with varying degrees of condescension and ill-advised airs of superiority. That mini series included a brief realisation that some of what we do on this website is journalism. I still feel like that: some of what we do here is journalism.

But we’re not journalists and we very rarely engage in journalistic practices.

I think of myself as a critic, a columnist or an author – depending on what I’m writing at the time and how pretentious I allow myself to be. For me, journalism is an almost sacred thing. It’s about finding truth when others would hide it, exposing facts that are integral about things that are important. Journalism is a noble craft and there are precious few journalists around in the world today, to say nothing of the rarity of journalists who turn their trade towards games coverage.

Of course, I also believe that games can be important. They’re an exceptionally popular media, a vibrant artistic endeavor that is defining this period of history and a form of expression and escapism that is unique and beautiful and engaging on many levels. I just don’t think there are many people in the world who take the subject of videogames and apply journalism to it.

I don’t know of many journalists who write about games. I of know dozens, possibly even hundreds, of “games journalists” – paid or unpaid – who write up PR-written press releases, republish what they’ve seen elsewhere or generally perpetuate the heavily PR-led “news” cycle that we take part in. I’ve never been a big fan of the way news is covered by the games media or how tight the grip of publisher marketing departments and PR firms is on how that information surfaces. But it is what it is and there’s nothing I can do to change it so I comfort myself with the occasional sneer or attempt at a witty observation and I get on with trying to provide what our readers want.

Please, don’t mistake this body of writing as some sort of crusade against the perceived ills of the industry, as has become fashionable over recent years. Sensational headlines, controversial lists and out of context mis-quotes are an accepted (by publishers and consumers of games media) side of the industry. That’s not what I personally like to see but it is tremendously popular, so magazines and websites who use those tricks to appeal to people are far more successful than those that don’t. People, it seems, don’t want quality: they want speed, conflict and drama.

The mantra of “Games journalism is broken” that some privileged individuals seem to have hitched their wagon to is perhaps partially true but the slogan applies in more ways than those who exclaim it intend. What I think is broken about “games journalism” is that most of those who use the title don’t truly understand what journalism is and therefore dilute its purity with their co-opting of a term. Some proclaim that there’s a better way and then retread their footsteps along the old path anyway. Others attempt to build an entire body of work on sneering at their contemporaries and claiming superiority, all the while appearing oblivious to the tragic irony of that situation. Rare is the writer who takes a brave new direction and swift is their voyage into obscurity.

[drop2]So, what of the other hot topic of games coverage: the review? Most recently, as is to be expected at this point in the calendar, review coverage has been the subject of some scrutiny. I don’t believe that a game review is “just one person’s opinion”, as many might claim. That’s, er, an opinion.

A review has to be based on experience and knowledge and weighs up the successes and failures of a game with as much objectivity as possible. Of course there is some opinion in there – that’s what makes a review individual and often what gives it the character that makes you enjoy a certain writer’s material and perhaps not another’s. That’s what differentiates a review from a feature-list. If any reviewer uses the “it’s just my opinion” defence when challenged on a review, I’d tend to ignore future output from them. It’s a cop out, a cheap excuse to avoid accountability. I always think “own your work, back your own ability or get out of the game and make room for one of the – literally – thousands of people who want to do what you do.”

Of course, there are other pressures that reviewers at some outlets are subjected to. It’s not always easy to give a game your all when you’re only being allowed four hours to complete that piece of your weekly work – some publishers are more demanding and less committed to honesty and accountability than they are to output and visitor figures. That’s fine, that’s their business and they’re successful at it. It quickly becomes reasonably evident to anyone who cares about these things which outlets care about what aspects of games coverage and although it’s frustrating that the methods I disagree with yield the most traffic – and revenue – that’s definitely not a subject that my readers generally care about so I’ll leave it alone here and find my way back to the topic in hand.

I have always believed that a review has to be an objective appraisal of something, coloured by the opinion and experiences of the author. Everyone has an opinion on almost any subject and, while most opinion is valid and almost all is interesting to hear, if it’s not properly justified and backed up, it’s not anything more than that. It’s one side of an argument without any urgency to consider what the other angles might be. A review considers those other angles but it has to be predictive: it’s a relatively solitary process. Otherwise, it’s not coloured by the opinion of the author but the shared opinions of all who have had input.

When I’m reviewing a game, I try to avoid all contact with the opinions of others. Occasionally, I’ll see someone mention over social networks, that they’re also playing the game for review but it usually never extends past “it’s pretty good/bad.” I do all that I can to avoid another reviewer’s score too, because I think that I owe it to my readers to give them an honest account, from me.

I can’t vouch for anyone else but I would be surprised if any committed reviewer didn’t do something similar. Sure, we all chat from time to time but it’s in loose terms and vague language. I’ve never had an explicit conversation with another reviewer about my coverage before a review is published. With a couple of exceptions, everyone I know who reviews games does so with an almost reverential respect for the process. We, generally, really care about doing it properly – to the point where we’re often over sensitive about criticism and a little too precious about how much it matters.

It’s difficult to ascertain how much of this thought process is visible to our readers. Should those of us who write about games let our personal struggles with our craft go on behind the metaphorical curtain or should we simply concentrate on giving our audiences the best possible coverage of videogames that we can? Would it be better to be more open and honest about the processes and the motives behind them or is it more important to keep up with the closely stewarded news cycle?

Do you care about this? Should you?



  1. “or should we simply concentrate on giving our audiences the best possible coverage of videogames that we can”
    I think you nailed it right there?

    • There’s no way you read that in 2 minutes. :/

      • I did*, just felt I should wait an hour until I post a comment.

        *I did not.

  2. I personally only truly read games reviews from a few people. You Peter are one of them. I get a taste for how a reviewer goes about his or her work and i tune in to them. There is so much tripe about in all aspects of any review of anything that i have learned to steer away from alot of it.
    If i dont agree with a review then im cool with that. I certainly wont get my angry typing hat on the crusade around the web.
    And if i want to learn more about a journalist then twitter and blogs are where i would want to find that intel, not within a review.
    But this is just my own opinion ;-)

  3. I personally like to know what goes on behind the scenes, it adds a bit of personality which i think is lacking on other sites.

    That’s in addition to the usual honesty you give in the news stories.

  4. I could write an entire page about this, as I’m sure many could.

    I think that transparency is important, provided it’s given at the right times and in the right amounts (getting that balance is the real battle). Articles such as this one are perfect from time to time, to highlight and talk about some of the issues associated with the industry. What would be unnecessary (and probably wrong), however, would be a blow-by-blow account of every action (e.g. justifying every review, article etc. and detailing what went into it). Just knowing that site writers are sincere and in it for the right reasons is enough for me.

    And yes, readers should care. Many speculate on how the industry is run so when a person who can lift the curtain a little does so, they should take notice.

  5. Articles like these are one of the two reasons I keep coming back to TSA.

    I feel like I can trust you guys to give an honest opinion. I may disagree with it, but it always seems honest and well thought out. Or a bawdy joke from Tuffcub. :P

    Likewise in the way you manage the community, which helps keep it strong.

    Keep up the good work!

  6. While I wouldn’t say I don’t care, I do make a conscious effort to not think about games any more deeply than the entertainment factor which they can offer me. Partly because it’s all I need to know and I use games as nothing more than personal entertainment in what little spare time I have these days and partly because my spare time and areas of interest are spread thin enough already across the myriad of things available to us in the modern day.

    Having been playing games for over 20 years, I believe I have a reasonable handle on what I’ll enjoy long before reviews are ever published and usually already have my mind made up. I still read reviews but never factor them in to my buying process. I prefer a descriptive writing style as opposed to one more opinionated and as such, prefer some writers over others while some writers I avoid completely.

    While not relevant to everyone, these types of articles should be published because many will want to learn more about the industry and perhaps even want to enter the industry themselves.

  7. I think a main issue with games journalism is the different attitudes people have as a whole between films and games. I mean, in terms of reviews, a 6/10 movie is usually quite good, however, a 6/10 game is usually one to utterly avoid unless you’re a die hard fan of the series. Which is a serious discrepancy between the two.

    Why does this discrepancy exist? How did it come about? I don’t know, but because of it, when a ‘lower’ score is used in a review of a film, it doesn’t stand out as much when a ‘lower’ score is used in a game. Because reviews of films, are how they should be. A ‘5’ means average. Yet all the reviews of games seems to be at the top end, with the odd TERRIBLE game being given a 4. Which means we’re not using the rating system accurately! And when some reviewers do give a game a score on the lower end of the spectrum, they get a torrent of abuse from fans because we’re not used to seeing those scores used, and therefore some people seem to take it as an utter insult to the fandom or game they love.

    Another thing that i’ve noticed many times before, that’s wrong with gaming journalism, is the amount of bribery and corruption that exist in some (read most) of the gaming websites. It’s this that’s made me completely, and utterly disregard reviews and make my opinion solely on what the game seems to play like (from watching gameplay videos).

    It’s also the reason why i love Sixth Axis. Don’t go corrupt guys!! :D

  8. Interesting article, Peter. It highlights where things can go woefully wrong so it’s a little lost on me as I think TSA has it mostly right.

    I wish the industry, as a whole, could cut down on certain things but the feverish delivery of digital content has accelerated to breakneck speed and it’s something I just roll my eyes at from time-to-time.

    When it comes to reviews, I try to grab hold of the vibe of the text as well as the reviewer. I also need to strike off certain things I detest (particular genres and/or game-types) and go from there. I rarely make a mistake, thankfully, but it’s a truly respected thing to know that I’ve finally found a site I can at least trust to a certain degree. God knows I’ve not before.

    The odd “industry piece” here and there is fine with me. Especially on a quieter day where everyone needs a bit of filler. Good quality filler at that.

  9. To Peter and all the staff writers.

    Whilst I have not been an active member of the community here, the reason I come back, is that the content (whether that be reviews or not) is well-written, balanced and refreshingly free of hyperbole.

    Additionally, the fact that the community is intelligent, well-informed and, most importantly, friendly makes it more appealing than the ‘competitor sites’ out there.

    Keep up the good work and all the best for the future!

  10. Like most of your readers here, I value the honest & concise way you all write, yep, all on the TSA crew. I’ve always valued quality over quantity in journalism, whatever the medium but these days, with 24hr news & all the social networks, quality can suffer.
    Here, articles always seem well thought out, even those few that don’t initially appear to have anything to do with gaming.
    Keep up the great work guys & gals, we appreciate it.

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