The Soapbox: Game "journalism" is not journalism (yet)


Disclaimer: The Soapbox column is entirely the opinion of this week's writer and does not necessarily reflect the views of Massively as a whole. If you're afraid of opinions other than your own, you might want to skip this column.

Hey folks, welcome back to the Soapbox. Before I get started, let me add a personal disclaimer onto the Massively disclaimer you just read: I don't hate game devs. On the contrary, I hold a couple of them in pretty high esteem. What does annoy me is the way that most of them get a free pass when it comes to tough questions. Another thing that sticks in my craw is the way readers sometimes confuse journalism with game journalism. The two aren't often the same thing, and in fact the latter term is a complete misnomer.

So, when you throw together my disdain for PR-soaked reporting and my facepalming at any mention of the phrase "game journalism," you end up with this week's Soapbox. In it, I'd like to take a crack at educating the folks who erroneously refer to both me and other game bloggers as "journalists." To do so, I'll spend some time examining "game journalism," and I'll start by defining journalism itself. Then we can look at how applicable the term is to the current landscape of MMO-centric media (and really, game media in general).

Merriam-Webster defines journalism as "the collection and editing of news for presentation through the media." So far, so good, right? Well, look deeper. A more thoughtful, thorough, and instructional definition is provided by the folks at Journalism.org. Rather than quote the entire nine-point synopsis here on my front page, I'll highlight what I consider to be the second most important principle of journalism (the first obviously being truth). Not coincidentally, this principle is one that game "journalism" utterly fails to uphold on a daily basis: "[Journalism's] practitioners must maintain an independence from those they cover."

Let's cut right to the chase, shall we? The vast majority of "game journalism" isn't journalism in the traditional sense. There are many reasons "game journalism" isn't journalism at all, but in the interests of paring a few thousand words off of this piece, I'll boil it down to the three most important.

Number one

First and foremost is the lack of separation hinted at in the intro. Some game "journalists" not only want to be friends with game devs or publisher reps, but they also want to be game devs or publisher reps. Suffice it to say that Philip Seymour Hoffman's Lester Bangs character was dead on when he told his journalistic protege that "you can't make friends with the rock stars" in the 2000 film Almost Famous. His point was that you shouldn't buddy up with your subjects, lob softball interview questions, or sugar-coat your opinion if you want your work to be taken seriously. If you want to use one of the film's own catch phrases, the Bangs character's creed was "honest and unmerciful."

This wisdom applies to pseudo-journalistic pursuits like game blogging as well. Sure, you can be on a first-name basis with devs, have a few drinks together at the conventions, and even accept in-game items and other perks. I'm not sure where this leaves your objectivity and credibility, though, and I suppose it varies depending on the individuals in question.

Along the same lines, game journalism is viewed by many of its practitioners (and critics) as nothing more than a networking opportunity. Don't take my word for it, though. Check out what former Meridian 59 developer Brian "Psychochild" Green had to say on the subject in the comments section of his personal blog: "It appears many people who do write about games also aspire to make them. Lots of people saw how a rant site writer (a really good one, mind you) turned his site into a game development career. I think this leads some 'journalists' to see writing about games as a stepping stone to getting into development work, and thus don't take the work very seriously. Not to say that we can't also get quality writing, but I completely agree that it's a different mindset getting into journalism for the sake of journalism and getting into it in order to pad your resume and get to meet developers. I would like to see more people get into journalism to really improve it," Green wrote.

The primary way to improve it, in my opinion, is to stop treating developers like celebrities and to recognize PR people for the journalistic roadblocks that they are. To be clear, I'm not saying that game writers who aspire to work in a more journalistic manner should be combative, cantankerous, or otherwise unpleasant when it comes to dealing with devs and PR types. Quite the contrary. What I am saying is that true journalists have an adversarial relationship with their subjects, even if it's buried under a layer or two of politeness. The very nature of the field dictates that a journalist is constantly trying to discover things that his subjects don't want discovered, and if a game blogger is only publishing what the game company gives him to publish, well, he's less of a journalist and more of a mouthpiece.

Now, if you're a game journalist (or thinking of becoming one) and you're getting all uppity while remarking on what an asshat I am, consider why you're interested in game journalism in the first place. Is it because you want to be a dev? Is it because you want to be a writer/journalist? I can't answer that, but I can tell you that the field needs a lot less of the former and a lot more of the latter.

Number two

The second hugely important difference between actual journalism and game journalism is professional standards (or more accurately, the widespread lack of them). While Massively and a few other sites around the web boast some pretty talented and professionally inclined writers, these folks are the exception rather than the rule. One look through your gaming-centric RSS feed -- or an aggregator site like N4G -- will put to rest any doubts you may have had as to the quality of what passes for gaming press.

Game "journalism" is a bit like website "development." The barrier to entry is so low and the tools of the trade so readily available that there's really nothing stopping anyone (and everyone) from setting up shop and (mis)representing himself as a pro. In the same way that someone with no actual skill can press a couple of buttons, install a Wordpress blog, and call himself a "web developer," so too can people with nothing more than a stack of video game boxes and a word processor call themselves "game journalists." The reality, though, is that there's very little journalism going on in this field.

This low-entry barrier and lack of professional standards is both a blessing and a curse, as it allows some talented writers and budding journalists to break into a field that, prior to the explosion of internet media, was pretty exclusive. On the other hand, it also gives a decent-sized microphone to a slew of folks who can barely spell their own names correctly, let alone crank out a thousand well-polished words with an eye towards critical thinking.

Even if you can write your way out of a wet paper bag, that's only half the battle if you want to be a real journalist. Real journalists are constantly cultivating real sources (as opposed to regurgitating what they're handed by PR reps), which is why I always chuckle when I visit game-related websites that bill their authors as "insiders." The real insiders in the game industry rarely ever talk (and when they do talk, it's usually to deliver a carefully orchestrated message under carefully controlled interview conditions), which is another reason why the term "game journalism" is such an abject farce.

This is not meant to make fun of the entire profession; clearly there are some very talented and hard-working folks in this business just as there are some very talented and hard-working web developers. The majority gives the minority a really bad name, though, and retards the elevation of the field above the 21st century equivalent of unskilled labor and into something approximating a real professional discipline.

ReporterNumber three

The misrepresentation of insider knowledge leads into the third and most important example of how journalism and "game journalism" rarely cross paths. Quite simply, the current system doesn't allow an intersection to happen with any regularity. This past December, VGChartz.com's Joseph Jackmovich published an article analyzing three of the world's largest gaming websites. The piece covered a lot of ground about the state of the gaming press, and regardless of whether you buy into the accompanying statistical exercise (in which Joystiq, Kotaku, and Destructoid were graded), the thing to take away from the article is that a fundamental structural change is needed before gaming press can be accurately labeled journalism.

VGChartz founder Brett Walton summed it up thusly. "Much of the current 'journalism' consists of re-worded press releases. Essentially, the publishers have most of the power and control the flow of information to the press. Given online media's reliance on ad revenues to fund sites (VGC included), we have to be careful to build and cultivate relationships," he said.

This is a completely unacceptable situation if your aim is true journalism (and maybe it's not; I can't say for sure at this point). Collectively, game journalists may in fact be content to remain a sort of "enthusiast press" (to borrow Jackmovich's kinder/gentler euphemism for fanboys). If that's the case, you can safely ignore this entire Soapbox. Assuming true journalism is the aim, though, what's the solution?

That's a tough one, and though people I've discussed it with usually end up saying something along the lines of "well, be a real journalist, do some investigative reporting, etc.," it's not that simple. While I certainly agree that there should be more reporting and less re-posting, the reality is that the games industry -- and the smaller MMO industry niche nested inside of it -- is incredibly insular. Everyone knows everyone, and there's such a hunger on the part of fans, bloggers, and anyone who's ever played a video game to get on the inside and be a "developer" (or rub elbows with devs, at the very least) that if and when insider status happens, there's rarely any inclination towards being a reliable source for reporters. Why would there be?

Even the worst game-dev working conditions probably amount to living the dream for a lot of the folks who spend hours and hours every day playing video games, so why would anyone risk that to provide info to a nosy reporter? The answer is he wouldn't, which is one factor in bringing about the current state of game journalism. Another factor is that many game journalists are gun shy when it comes to publishing criticism. It's a tiny, closed industry after all, and anything you write now will be remembered down the line when you're looking for an industry job.

Press pass
Still another consideration is that game bloggers don't really want to be journalists at all and are simply thrilled to have some supplementary income that allows them to get paid for doing something they'd do anyway (i.e., play games, surf the web, and update their social networking sites). These folks really do just love fanboying it up on behalf of their favorite companies, and I've got no problem with that. I do, however, have a problem with calling it journalism.

Most damningly, though, game journalism (if we must call it that) is an industry that is almost totally under publisher and developer control, as Walton mentioned above. Very little unauthorized news makes its way to the usual gaming website suspects, and cultivating sources and sifting news from B.S. is a lot harder on the game journalist than picking through PR emails. How we go about finding facts and sources is something that I struggle with on a daily basis. The only thing I know for certain is that journalistically inclined writers can't do it alone; there has to be some sort of willingness on the part of actual industry players to bring about change.

So, collectively at least, game journalists aren't journalists, as journalism carries with it a certain investigative and critical aspect that most gaming websites lack. Often they also lack a professional grasp of English or any sense of written style, but that's another column entirely.

In relation to where Massively stands on these three points, I'm writing this while employed at Massively for a reason. We don't accept developer stipends, we follow through with sources, and a few of us have turned down industry jobs because we're not here as a stepping stone. Most of us have no aspiration to work as game developers at all. Tooting our own horns a bit? Sure, but the fact that I can write this article and publish it on Massively should tell you something.

At this point I may have pissed off a few people with this piece, but contrary to popular belief, that isn't my intention. I simply see a huge opportunity for this field to expand and exist as a legitimate professional enterprise, but it can't do that when the information is completely controlled by one side of the equation or when many of the writers simply view it as a stepping stone to their real goals. Until a few of the larger players realize that they can get along just fine without publisher approval (or until the revenue model moves away from ads), game journalism will continue to be the butt of jokes and unworthy of the journalism descriptor. After all, good publisher relations equals exclusive content which equals more traffic, and you can see how this is counterproductive to everything that real journalism stands for.

So please folks, do yourselves (and us) a favor. Stop calling us journalists until we've earned the moniker. Game blogging is not journalism. Actual journalism (and the research, fact-finding, and sourcing that make it up) is a hell of a lot more work (and risk) than game blogging. About the only thing the two have in common is that neither will make you rich.

Everyone has opinions, and The Soapbox is how we indulge ours. Join the Massively writers every Tuesday as we take turns atop our very own soapbox to deliver unfettered editorials a bit outside our normal purviews. Think we're spot on -- or out of our minds? Let us know in the comments!
This article was originally published on Massively.