During the “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Game Journalism” panel at PAX East, Chris Grant, the Editor in Chief of Joystiq, stated his opinion that there is no real “news” in video games, and his fellow panelists declined to disagree with him, probably because he’s correct.
The most functional, general definition of "news" is "a report of a recent event." We don't have many proper events in the video game world other than the annual conventions and conferences and expos, E3, the Game Developers Conference, and PAX Prime being the biggest among them. These are events where members of the video game media can actually be journalists in the classic sense and cover the news and report back; but the news coming out of events even as large as E3 can be stale in just a few weeks after they take place.
One of the chief complaints that critics of the video game media like to make is the reporting of rumors as news. I think it would be more accurate to say that these are not rumors, but "industry buzz." Writing a news story about Activision potentially charging players for Call of Duty multiplayer gaming is technically a factual report of an event which did take place, but the event is that someone said a thing might happen, not that it was going to.
Complaints about covering industry buzz as news would hold much more water if these "buzz stories" were obfuscating "real news" that needed to be hitting the press, such that gamers were missing out on more important information; but events like the West/Zampella debacle and the legal action which followed are rare occurences. Once we get past the big expos and conferences, what we're left with are press releases for the most part, such as announcements about upcoming titles, often accompanied by screenshots and videos.
The video game media sometimes has to report rumor rather than fact because this is a very closed industry. Investigative journalists usually have multiple avenues by which they may research their stories. Public records, outside groups that track information, eyewitness reports, or archived video footage or audio records, for example; but in the video game industry, it's much more difficult to dig into the facts. Take, for instance, a recent piece on VG247 about a cancelled XBox 360/PC connectivity project. Unless Microsoft decides to open thier mouths about it, we will never get confirmation that this is true, and if Microsoft did cancel the project one has to wonder how publicly commenting on a dead project serves their interests.
Technically, this is "rumor posted as news." However, speaking as a gamer, I also think it's fascinating. It plays off a topic of conversation among gamers that is consistently hot throughout the years, particularly among first person shooter fans, to wit: can consoles possibly replicate the precision gaming of a PC? Video game journalism "purists" would ask that VG247 not cover stories such as these, because they're "only rumors." If the video game media was forced to only cover news in the classic sense, we would get staccato bursts of information during the big events followed by weeks or months of press release tedium until the next event or big game release – and most of the noteworthy game releases are shoehorned into the same time of the year, every year. Perhaps this tedious version of video game media would be preferable to the critics?
In our conversation, Ben Paddon told me, "I think I could probably tell people what I think would be the better way to report the news, but it's not necessarily the way to make money doing it. If you can crack that formula – a gaming site that has integrity and is enjoyable to read whilst remaining profitable without resorting to posting trash – then you're a better man than I."
In order for criticism to be truly valuable, it needs to be actionable. Fighting for traffic is one of the logistical realities of running a video game website which the critics need to swallow and deal with if they want an online video game media at all. Ad space is only worth anything if the sites that are selling it have high traffic. We return to the fate of Crispy Gamer. The audience speaks with their page hits.
Another common complaint specifically of online video game media is the use of "misleading headlines" to draw hits to an article. In an age of information overload, readers' natural tendency to skim the headlines is only heightened out of necessity. Competition for the currencies that matter most online, to wit unique users and page hits, is tremendous because that' s all the public relations firms care about, and they are the gatekeepers of the information the video game media requires in order to justify its existence. There are benchmarks for total hits and unique users that websites must meet if they want to deal with companies like Sony, who can be very stingy with their access. PR firms are the gatekeepers to access and information, and they must be appeased.
It's easy to get upset at video game journalists for being "PR shills", but consider game reviews. The most valuable reviews for gaming magazines and websites are those whose results are printed on game cases, which punctuates the importance and relevance of those magazines and websites, or those reviews which are released the day that a game hits the market such that gamers checking the media will flock to those websites who have the reviews first, and thus spike the unique user and hit stats for the site that day. These early review copies are handed out by PR firms to the media outlets that command the highest readership, and with whom said PR firms have positive, established relationships.
Even when it comes to the events like E3 that drive the closest content we get to real news in the video game media, it isn't just a matter of being a member of the press and therefore getting the stories. One needs connections to the PR firms that represent the developers and publishers in order to get appointments at booths, which in turn become the stories that the audience wants out of these events, like previews of games in development.
Interviews are, admittedly, one aspect of video game reporting in which having the education and skills of a journalist should, theoretically, come in handy. To quote again from my conversation with Ben Paddon, in reference to how games journalists/writers conduct interviews:
“The journos don't seem keen on actually asking the pressing questions, largely because they don't want to risk losing publisher support. Just as Fox News is more or less an extension of the Republican Party PR department, gaming journalism seems to bend over backwards to appease developers and publishers in order to maintain good relations. That's not how journalism is supposed to work.”
It would be easy to then blame the PR people for preventing the gaming press from doing their job by playing off the access concerns of an enthusiast media. Piss off the PR people with a series of probing questions and you might kiss your job goodbye; but according to a source of mine, who has been very successful in the video games journalism industry and specifically asked to go unnamed if I used parts of our conversation in this series of articles, PR people are there “Because the developers want them to protect them from the press.”
My response to this statement was to ask whether video game coverage that was unfiltered by PR people wouldn’t be superior coverage.
“A large majority [of readers] don't know or notice the role of PR,” my source said. “Most fans don't care about this insider baseball stuff. I speak from nearly ten years of experience trying to get people to care. Readers by and large do not care about quality coverage. They just want to read about Modern Warfare 3.”
My next question was how PR people decide who does, and doesn’t, get access and interviews. One would think that if a website or magazine provided a journalist who asked probing questions which led to interesting answers and therefore ostensibly more readers, that a PR firm would show preferential treatment to that interviewer and, by extension, that magazine or website, right?
“If the better writing leads to more readers, and the PR people want those readers it could happen that way, but often I'd say the PR people would rather give access to the journo who will ask the softball questions and make their product look good, because that is the PR person's job.” This also represents an assumed dichotomy which kills me, that probing questions somehow make a developer, publisher, or game look bad, and so I shared an E3 story with this source.
When I was in the Call of Duty: Black Ops booth at E3, I asked Treyarch’s Mark Lamia whether he felt, as the inheritor and primary designer of the Call of Duty games, that Treyarch felt more empowered to take bigger risks and make changes to the formula like they seemed to be doing with Black Ops from the demo we’d been given.
I could tell instantly from the look on his face that I was on thin ice. He answered defensively at first, stating that I was referencing recent events that hadn't effected decisions they'd been making for a year and a half wth Black Ops. I wasn’t trying to trap him in a comment about the West/Zampella drama, however.
My point was that with World at War, Treyarch had really elevated themselves in the eyes of gamers. They had ceased to be "the studio that makes Call of Duty games while Infinity Ward is working on the next big one," and had instead become "The second studio that makes big Call of Duty games." World at War upped the value of Treyarch's stock in the eyes of gamers tremendously, and Black Ops looked like it was also going to push the envelope, and it was being released at just the right time for them to fully lay claim to the Call of Duty throne.
In the end, it was an angle that was meant to elicit whether or not Treyarch felt excited at this opportunity which had been presented to them by fate, as Call of Duty is a billion-dollar franchise, and now they effectively are the primary developers. That certainly sounds like an interesting, more positive way to view the situation versus all the snarky negativity that came out of the coverage of the West/Zampella drama, doesn’t it?
“The probing questions are more likely to get you labeled a prick then the softball ones from the PR side,” my source said. “If that's what you mean by probing, then you'll get a reputation for asking good questions and giving good coverage. And PR may recognize that when granting interviews, but really, I think they'd care more about number of readers.”
In other words, even if there are video game journalists out there who ask probing questions without embarrassing developers or publishers, and try to write up copy that is off the beaten path and more thoughtful and engaging than what we’re normally served up by interviews conducted by the video game press, it still doesn’t change anything. The overall situation remains the same.
“Better writing leading to more readers is where [my ideas about conducting better interviews] fall apart," my source said. "Readers just do…not…care about good writing. They simply don't…the PR people are not devoted to good journalism. They are devoted to selling their product. If that means getting more eyes to worse interviews, so be it.”
The mainstream press is sometimes referred to as "the fourth estate," a saying which dates back to the 18th century. It means that the press is sometimes thought of as an additional branch of government, holding the powers that be to task by forcing them to answer certain, critical questions on behalf of the citizenry. By asking those questions, the press can incite the public and force the hand of the government to fess up to misdeeds, admit mistakes, or release information that the people ought to have.
The video game media has no such leverage. They cannot hold publishers to task. They cannot force them to answer the sorts of questions their readers might like to read about. There is absolutely no balance of power here, and it is all due to the video game press being an enthusiast press. Until such time as video games become accepted by the mainstream in the same way that pop music, television, and film have been accepted, such that traditional journalists are frequently covering the medium and providing avenues of inquiry that members of the dedicated video game press can also follow, we are likely stuck with the current state of affairs wherein news is fed by PR companies, interviews have to be softball in tone to appease said PR companies, and rumors have to often suffice for "news" due to this lack of leverage in getting at the truth.
This may sound like it paints a very stark picture for video games journalism, but only if we refuse to change the way we think about the industry. The “amorphous mass” psychology which leads to people like Ben Paddon wringing their hands in angst over “the state of the industry” is faulty, and needs to go for our collective mental health.
The fourth and final part of this series will discuss where there is realistic room for change in video game journalism, and what the obligations might be for any aspiring writer who wishes to attempt to effect that change.
Dennis Scimeca is the Editor in Chief of the English website Game Kudos, and a contributor to Gamer Limit.. If you tweet him @DennisScimeca he may get back to you, but is often distracted by the shiny new toy that is his iPhone.