(This article continues a conversation began in Part 1 of this series, which you may read here.)
Jim Sterling, another one of Ben Paddon’s favorite targets on Game Journalists Are Incompetent Fuckwits, makes no pretensions about being a journalist, and some simple research into Sterling’s background elucidates that he wanted to be a comedian before he began writing about video games. There’s an interview with Sterling at the indie site Gamer Limit that should make it clear how factually inappropriate it is to call Sterling's value as a journalist into question:
“So how did you come about blogging, and where did you get your start?
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I started writing online about seven or eight years ago, slowly working for sites that no longer exist, like Oratory Opinions or Project Wonderboy. I set up my own Web site, Morphine Nation, which was a social satire site (it’s still going under new leadership, check it out). I’d never thought of writing as a serious career move, instead pursuing a career in comedy."
Sterling is a frequent target for often scathing criticism. His review of Final Fantasy XIII caught flak from several corners, most notably over at DualShockers. This criticism is ironic in that it's clearly being used to attempt to bait Sterling into wandering over to an indie site for the sake of their garnering page hits and web traffic, which essentially means they're using practices common to tabloid journalism while questioning someone else's journalistic practices. It's also criticism that makes no sense considering just how long Final Fantasy XIII is.
In film school, I was expected to sit through a French film called Jeanne Dielman, which was four hours long and had no dialogue whatsoever. It's one thing if a critic is handing out official industry awards at a film festival and then decides to nix a movie without sitting through the entire film, but if we're just talking about a commentator expressing a personal opinion? Is it wrong if they check out of Jeanne Dielman after three and a half hours of numbing boredom to express their opinion that they absolutely hated the film, or was that last half hour of silence really going to make the difference in how they felt about the movie? I saw that last half hour, and no, it wouldn't.
To a point, Sterling brings the sort of vitriol he receives on himself. In this opinion piece on Mass Effect, Sterling says "You may think the game is awesome, engaging, innovative, or any other buzz word, but you’re wrong. That’s not opinion, that’s just objective, scientific fact." Considering his recent video on the subjectivity of all game reviews, the contradiction is funny…but perhaps he's being delibately ironic. The fact is that Sterling is a humorist. He's not meant to be taken seriously, and to a point anyone who chooses to do so, and who uses Sterling as any sort of critical lens through which to view the video games industry, has no one but themselves to blame for getting upset when they read his missives.
In essence, Sterling may be no different at heart than Ben “Yahtzee,” Croshaw, the writer/producer of the immensely popular web animation “Zero Punctuation,” which routinely sticks video games on a spit and roasts them alive. Yahtzee declares himself a critic, not a reviewer, and I’ve never heard him refer to himself as a “journalist,” either. He also isn’t even primarily interested in writing about video games:
“BBG: How'd you end up with The Escapist? Have you been surprised by your success?
Yahtzee: I put my first two videos on Youtube and of the many offers of work that would come my way over the next few months, The Escapist were the first. They're good people and I am treated well with a big sack of money at the start of every month. The success has been pretty surprising, and I'm also doing my best to exploit it as best I can; I've gotten two free trips abroad so far and been making decent headway on my main ambition to be a professional game designer.”
Unless Yahtzee’s mind has changed in two years about where he wants to be professionally, consider that, like Sterling, he is a very popular commenter on video games, and has absolutely no training in journalism whatsoever.
Destructoid is right up there with Kotaku in terms of rampant popularity. Read the origin story of the site if you haven't before. Yanier Gonzalez never founded the site with any pretensions of being a journalist. He just wanted to get into E3 in 2006, and making his appearance there in a robot helmet galvanized a segment of the gaming public who thought that video gaming was taking itself too seriously.
Criticizing Destructoid as a lapse in gaming journalism, as Ben Paddon often does through laying his crosshairs on Jim Sterling, is not fair or accurate. Isn’t traditional journalism the antithesis of what Destructoid stands for?
Criticizing Destructoid’s style of writing would make more sense, but again it comes down to arguing with a successful formula. Not only is Destructoid incredibly high in its web rankings, it also commands a tremendous amount of industry access. They are not a force that the video game industry and its public relations arms can afford to ignore, which is why Destructoid can afford to flout conventions and do what they bloody well please….and which is why, at a guess, Destructoid is so popular.
Kyle Orland is a bona fide video game journalist. He has a degree in journalism, and self-identifies himself with the title in this Press Pass column produced during his waning days as a member of the Crispy Gamer Game Trust. Kyle’s column questions the need for physical gaming conferences, and the value of journalists coming out to trade shows when virtual booths could stream the relevant information and interviews could be conducted via Skype teleconferences:
“As a journalist, attending this virtual convention sounds a lot more appealing than hauling my laptop up and down some convention-center floor all week. But as a journalist, this idea also scares the bejesus out of me. Why? Well, as journalists, our stock-in-trade, when you get down to it, is access. Gamers read our reports of shows like E3 because they can't get into E3 themselves, even if they want to. This kind of virtual conference will further erode the already eroding access barrier that separates the gamers from the journalists.”
Kyle hits the nail on the head. The barrier is eroding, and quite frankly this may be due to the fact that an enthusiast press doesn’t need journalists. It needs enthusiasts. If we look at the highest-traffic, most influential gaming websites out there, I could only identify a handful of their writers who I know to actually have degrees in journalism, and therefore training in holding to these traditional, journalistic values that Ben Paddon bemoans don’t exist in the industry.
Here’s a good, academic definition for "journalism:"
“Journalism is the timely reporting of events at the local, provincial, national and international levels. Reporting involves the gathering of information through interviewing and research, the results of which are turned into a fair and balanced story for publication or for television or radio broadcast.”
That sounds like a fair and balanced definition…and it’s also not a standard that mainstream, broadcast journalism really holds to! This begs the question as to why we should be holding an enthusiast press up to standards which only the print medium of the "regular" press, a medium which is also dying a slow death, seems to adhere to anymore.
Again, we may be lighting upon Ben Paddon's real problem. Ben doesn’t like the nature of the business itself, but there’s likely nothing to be done about this anytime soon because in video games there's very little real news to need real, actual journalists to cover it; and everything else to be written about is doled out at the pleasure of public relations firms who often don't want to let anything resembling real journalism to come anywhere near their clients.
In Part 3 of this series, we will discuss what "news" actually is for readers of the gaming press, and the nature of the relationship between the video game media and public relations firms.
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.
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