The Problems with Game Journalism
Yes, I know that rants aren’t in themselves a solution, and yes I’m aware of new games journalism. And I’m not claiming to be the first person to perceive or write about these problems, nor am I doing a good job of backing up what I say with actual data. But hell, it’s a rant! Fuck you and your data!
Numerical scores suck
Agreed. They are pseudo-scientific and misleading. I’m not a huge fan of star ratings either, but they would be a mild improvement.
There is no category except gameplay
An IGN review will give separate numerical scores for the following categories: presentation, graphics, sound, gameplay, lasting appeal. To their credit, they qualify the overall score as ‘not an average’ of the category scores, but still: what’s the point? To make the inevitable comparison to film reviews, when have you seen a film review mention anything like this? Would The Blair Witch Project get a 1 in graphics? Would Citizen Kane fail in presentation because the credit sequence was boring?
If the cinematography is great or horrible, you mention it, but in most cases it’s not worth mentioning because the only important thing is how is this film overall. Putting gameplay on equal footing with ‘presentation’ and ‘sound’? WTF. But really, even graphics and replay value pale in comparison to gameplay. What does gameplay mean? What it feels like to play the game, right? What else is important? Which leads to
The industry is obsessed with graphics
Graphics historically is a handy way of evangelizing games. I’ve shown games to non-player friends who are wowed, and you hear “it’s so lifelike” “it’s like being in a movie” and so forth. But really, graphics are more important as a way of selling hardware, and it is not the game journalist’s job to sell hardware.
It’s a facile point, but great graphics do not a great game make, nor do they really convert people into gamers. What does convert people are fun, accessible games. The Wii, notoriously the worst of current-gen consoles in the graphics department, has done more to expand the reach of games than the last twenty years of graphics development.
What’s more, obsessing over graphics, like obsessing over CGI in film, conditions people to prefer new games over old, and so leads to a general ignorance of game history.
Down with Previews
Games journalism is unhealthily devoted to upcoming releases rather than current or past releases. I’m far too lazy to do any kind of quantitative measurement, but I’m sure you know what I’m talking about: the bulk of coverage on mainstream games sites is screenshots, trailers, ‘hands-on’ previews and pre-release gameplay footage. Articles in the ‘news’ category are more often than not release date announcements. Actual reviews of current games are drowned out by all of the preview hype. To say nothing of in-depth, quality ‘features’ that might take a bit of work and research.
You read a few previews and I’m sure you’ll see a phrase like “I’m sure they’ll fix it before the game ships.” You can’t criticize a game that hasn’t shipped yet – all you can do is hype it. Constant previews are of no benefit to actual players; they’re beneficial only to the developers and publishers. They are promotional material. And we gamers internalize all the hype, and we’re giddy with anticipation for games years in advance.
This is ultimately counterproductive to everyone in the industry, since the constant hype creates inevitable disappointments when we actually play the game, and it doesn’t have sex with us and deliver us to the promised land. Which makes us cynical about the whole process. That’s not to say that previews have no value. It is interesting to know what games are in development. But it shouldn’t be the bulk of the coverage.
That brings us to the next bullet point…
You are more than a press release delivery pipe
We get the press releases here too, and it’s sort of a running joke that you can predict the articles on a couple large gaming blogs based on what press releases have recently gone out. The PR companies send out the releases and give you access to their FTP site from which you scoop out the screenshots and then post them in a nice, pageview-inflating ‘gallery’ on your site. Everyone wins except the reader.
Press release journalism isn’t exclusive to the games world, but that doesn’t make it any better. Those of us doing sites and magazines or whatever should be acting as filters and not pipes. And that takes a little work separating the relevant from the ir-.
Games journalism is out of sync with actual players
The average Canadian gamer is 39. Now picture a 39-year-old reading IGN, gamespot or even GameFAQs. Picture them watching ‘Xplay’ or ‘Attack of the Show’. They do so with gritted teeth.
Now, what’s happening with that average age number is that the vast numbers of older, casual PC/online gamers, those who play the odd game of Tetris or Solitaire, are skewing the number way high. I’m sure the average age of a console gamer is way lower.
But that said, the essential truth is that the gaming audience is much larger and more diverse a group than is served by the mainstream gaming media. This is probably the biggest problem facing the industry, and it’s not necessarily the journalists’ or the publications’ fault, but it is something that they (we?) need to address. There is a problem with the age range and gender of readers targeted by the mainstream sources (obviously young male). There is also a growing hardcore-vs-casual divide, made all the more obvious by the massive growth of casual gaming thanks to the DS and Wii. When the mainstream sites actually review casual games, they often do so with poorly-veiled condescension and resentment. Go read a review of The Phantom Hourglass to see some examples of this.
It’s fairly easy to see how the age and gender problem can be solved, and in fact the growth in games coverage by the mainstream non-gaming media (such as newspapers) is helping to alleviate it. But I don’t know exactly how we best serve casual players, or even get them to read what we write. How do you appeal to someone who plays only one or two games? How would a regular casual game reviewer not themselves be a hardcore player? The terms ‘casual’ and ‘hardcore’ would have to be unpacked a little more, but that’s not what I’m on about right now.
That’s enough for today, huh? I’m sure there are many more problems, and any of the few I’ve given here could be discussed at much greater length. But my attention span ain’t what it used to be…