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?