I rarely notice "games journalism" outside of its dedicated media. The most oft-repeated advice I've received as an aspiring games writer per how to break into the industry was first told to me by Stephen Totilo at the Kotaku PAX East after party: find media outlets that don't cover games and convince them why they should. Ostensibly those media outlets aren't doing so, however, because their audience isn't looking for that sort of news.
In terms of local media, the Boston Phoenix has always stood as an "indie" press outlet, the "cool" magazine that the college kids and hip adults read; so it comes as no surprise that if I want local coverage of video gaming it resides in the hands of Maddy Myers and Mitch Krpata in the pages of the Phoenix.
When PAX East came to town, the only coverage of note I saw in mainstream Boston media was from The Boston Globe's online outlet Boston.com. The story was written by Hiawatha Bray who I don't believe is a gamer (and thus lacks context), and the coverage was in the Business section. How do we explain to the editor of an old media entity why they should either start cover video gaming, or cover it properly?
We can quote the statistics that more than half of American adults play video games, or that the video game industry has long since outpaced Hollywood and the music industry in terms of growth. We can point out that the Wii is being used in retirement facilities and physical therapy regimens, the Obama Administration is seeking a video game on budget balancing, and the plethora of other odd stories that suggest how mainstream video games have become. This still may not be enough to argue to the uninitiated that the video game industry matters outside of its own circles.
I believe that the primary reason entertainment news is covered outside of its dedicated media is the power of celebrity. Kyle Orland made a related argument on his blog. The video game world lacks these personalities for the mainstream media to cover. All of this adds up to the gaming media remaining insulated, and the potential for choking critical thought with long-term repercussions on the quality of video games.
There's an opinion piece on the fate of Crispy Gamer, a website Kyle used to write for, in this month's GameInformer print issue written by Scott Jones, the Editor-in-Chief of Reviewsontherun.com. He tells the tale of a publication constructed to cater to the tastes of maturing gamers, staffed by industry veterans and producing "some of the most sophisticated writing the industry has ever seen." After two years the entire staff was fired and replaced by a solitary, 20-year-old, wet-behind-the-ears intern.
Jones cites the publications Incite and PC: Accelerator as enterprises with a similar remit which also failed and says:
"What killed Incite, PC Accelerator, and Crispy Gamer wasn't 20-year-old interns. Gamers are always talking about how dissatisfied they are with the lack of maturity in video game journalism. Yet…whenever a publication or website comes along that purports to offer something more erudite and sophisticated…that publication flies around like a duck with a broken wing for a few painful months before finally dying."
The more video game journalism I read, the more I realize just how devoid it is of critical thinking. The one place I would hope to find some critical thought would be in the Review sections, but game reviews serve as buying guides, not serious discourse.
Critical thought of any value regarding media requires time for digestion and reflection, and game reviews disqualify themselves as a venue for this on account of their need to be released early in order to maintain relevancy. In some cases the gaming media will have their reviews written well before a title’s release at the behest of publishers who want to print those reviews on the game boxes.
The dominance of Metacritic and its influence on bonuses for PR staff, and relationship to sales figures, dictates that the gaming media relegate itself to using numbers and simplistic analysis to satisfy game publishers. This meaningless blather-reviewing fosters no spirit of critical inquiry whatsoever because the goal is to generate a number, not inspire thought. Kotaku, with its refusal to publish reviews through a scoring system, is a singular exception among the big-name sites I read; but Kotaku is not a primary review site for most gamers.
That title would land more squarely at the feet of sites like GameSpot, G4, IGN or 1UP, and it also makes them interchangeable. With all their "news" stories feeding off the same press feeds and PR contacts, the only way to differentiate themselves from one another is through scoops and exclusives, i.e. industry access. These sites can't afford to publish reviews that feature a substantive level of criticism. It's the same bind that political journalists find themselves stuck in: criticize the administration, lose your access, lose your readers/viewers to the competition who maintain that access by playing along.
Who among them is going to publish an article about how out of whack the Modern Warfare 2 review scores were considering multiplayer is the most relevant aspect of the game's performance and it was decidedly sub-par on a purely technical level? The review scores for MW2 are outrageous in light of all those frustrating bugs and glitches that drove significant numbers of players straight into the arms of Battlefield: Bad Company 2, which isn't short of technical shortcomings to question its own review scores.
The sites where this sort of content might actually have an audience waiting for it, the insular community of online gaming media, aren't going to run those stories on the front page. These sites have no vested interest in questioning the status quo, and by stifling critical thought about gaming at its logical source they fail to encourage it in the audience. Discerning readers become the outliers, and they are spread out among all the various mainstream sites.
Perhaps the lesson to be learned from the fate of Crispy Gamer is not that critical thought cannot be supported in gaming media, but rather that this maturity of content needs to spread throughout the entire gaming media rather than concentrated in a single location requiring wholesale reader relocation.
What is the repercussion for the video game media's inability to stimulate critical thought among its audience? We can look to the minimal criticism in other entertainment media, and the developing parallels between the film and video game industries, as a stark reality check. Note that in regards to both film and game reviews the only time it is safe for a mainstream publication to give a bad offering the critical savaging it deserves is when the product is so bad that even the distributor or publisher cannot defend it. There's a reason why Susan Arendt of The Escapist says that reviewing bad games is fun. The gloves get to come off and game writers can finally speak their minds without worrying about economic repercussion.
My belief is that the video game audience is more capable of supporting vigorous critical thought than audiences of competing entertainment industries. Listening to music, or watching movies and television, are much more passive experiences comparatively than playing a video game. The abilities to quickly process visual and auditory information and conduct risk assessments in tense and competitive situations are skills that gamers develop for the fun of it. Intuitively, one would think that video gamers would gain some benefits from consistent exposure to this sort of cognitive environment. There is very preliminary psychological evidence to that effect.
Is it therefore possible that if this potential for critical thought among its audience was engaged that the video game industry could avoid falling quite so deeply into the morass of cynical marketing ploys, recycling of ideas, and lack of talent that the film, television, and music industries are known for? The question is how mainstream gaming sites can tackle this question without committing economic suicide.
The solution lies in turning the insular nature of the gaming media to its own benefit. For the moment, new gaming sites cannot compete with the established industry leaders. Publishers have a finite set of options to get their message out to the fans. They cannot run to the mainstream media to generate the coverage they require – so it's high time that gaming media realize their collective bargaining power.
There are review policies which could encourage critical thought to the benefit of fans without unduly favoring them over developers and publishers. One example would be issuing only a preliminary rating on any game with a strong multiplayer component upon release, keeping an ear to the ground for reports of bugs or glitches while reporting the information, and then issuing the final review two or three weeks later.
There would be a period of adjustment, but the quality developers could only champion this policy because the fruits of their labor would shine all the brighter. Publishers might have to learn to be more discerning in the projects they green light, but in the end wouldn't this serve them, as well? To get a more guaranteed return on their investments by recognizing they had a more stringent gaming media to deal with and thus not throwing money away on potential clunkers?
The video game industry is maturing and rising to prominence much more quickly than the music, television, or film industries, in no small part due to the exponential advances in the technology that drives video gaming. How long will it take, with unchecked expansion and a continually-lowered bar for high review scores, until the gaming industry is flooded with the same percentage of garbage product that those other entertainment industries are currently plagued with?
The truly cynical might argue that the ratio of quality to garbage has been historically steady in the film industry, but I feel it is getting worse, decidedly so in music and television. Video games are still a young medium, hence the bottleneck on how much media the market can currently support; but there seems to be a general agreement that the video game industry stands on the brink of meaningful expansion in light of the successes of casual and social gaming. There is still time to act prior to that expansion and set new ground rules and expectations that fans will apply to all the media entities and game journalists who will take advantage of this growth.
The other choice is to continue providing the conditions for an audience who increasingly has no concept of what a good video game is. That's not going to be economically beneficial for anyone. Do you ever wonder if part of the reason why so many people don't bother paying for music and movies anymore has to do with the unreliability of the quality and value of their purchases? Low quality video game reviews will foster this same distrust in the minds of the consumers, and as Ubisoft has learned recently, there's no fighting piracy. The speed with which DRM is defeated gives us some anecdotal evidence as to that propensity for quick problem solving, i.e. critical thinking, that gamers tend to develop.