Games Journalism Is Broken

I’ve always liked reading what game journos have to write. I’ve seen videogame journalism change over the years however, and not for the better. I still enjoy reading it, and for many reasons; to find out the latest news, to garner information about new and upcoming games, to read exclusive interviews – and now and again, to enter competitions or nab a free beta code of some kind.

You may have noticed that nowhere in my list of reasons for reading up on games, was mention of the writing itself. I don’t want to sound old before my time (the age of thirty is stalking me, gnashing its teeth) but there’s no two ways about it: the writing really was much better when I was young.

Younger.

Before the release of the PSOne, videogames were seen around the world as strictly for kids and geeks – much more so than they are now. This stifled the industry of course, and games becoming more and more socially acceptable is only a good thing. Back in the eighties and for much of the nineties however, 99% of gamers were what we would call ‘hardcore’ gamers today. This was the audience that magazines (and later, websites) were writing for. All the journalists had to do was write about games, for people who loved games – and have some fun along the way.

I ought to clarify here that so far as print magazines go, I can only really vouch for UK based publications. I used to treat myself to an issue of EGM or GamePro every couple of months, but that was as far as my experience of reporting in the colonies went.

Anyway, the freedom and enthusiasm involved in the magazines of yesterday was obvious. Good games would be praised with schoolground enthusiasm, bad games ripped apart with malicious glee – and yet the words would always (in the good magazines, of course) be chosen wisely and manipulated skilfully. It was like being told which games to buy and which to avoid by your most intelligent friend. Even the news was reported with genuine interest, and the reader letters…were what often let the side down, to be honest. Fanboyism has always existed without start or end it would seem, like God (though the evidence for the existence of fanboyism is much, much stronger). Only the very best magazines, in fact, featured writers with no signs of fanboy tendencies themselves.

Nonetheless, only the very worst magazines (print or electronic) were missing generous helpings of humour. It was not uncommon for people to snatch the latest issue of their favourite magazine from the shelf, read it cover to cover as soon as they got home, and put it down with a smile on their face, a whole month seeming much too long to wait for the next one.

Fast forward to the present day.

Print magazine sales are plummeting year after year for almost every title, and it’s not hard to see why. The rise and rise of the internet is a huge part of it, of course. Who wants to pay five quid for three week old news and trailers when you can get it all for free as and when it’s made available? What will prove to be the final nail in the coffin however, is surely the writing and presentation that these magazines offer. The fault does not, however, lie with the writers themselves – not entirely. Rather, to apportion blame, we must narrow our eyes in a threatening manner in the direction of our old enemy Marketing.

We live in a world of consumer demographics, focus groups, industry analyses, and target markets. Mainstream games journalism is no longer written for people who like games, but for specific of the games market. What nobody seems to have realised is that if you focus all your energies into aiming for one market, you end up alienating all the others.

Xbox 360 and PS3 magazines (again I’m just talking about the UK market here, but you may see some truth to this if you live elsewhere) are mostly aimed at 18 – 30 year old men. Specifically, womanising 18 – 30 year old men with alcohol and pornography addictions. There are therefore lots of throwaway comments about women getting in the way of enjoying your games, lots of talk of ‘having a pint’, and the occasional word about how lovely pornography is. Oh, and in case you’re interested, there are some adverts in the back pages where one may procure certain photographs and videos for one’s mobile phone. These images will often involve women in various states of undress, usually doing things that their mothers would not be particularly proud of.

Nintendo magazines, it would seem, are aimed at children who have only just learned to walk. They always feature lots of big colourful pictures, and usually give away lovely sweets, stickers and posters. Sort of like the Cbeebies magazine, but more expensive and without the crayons (or perhaps I missed that issue).

Multiformat magazines vary ever so slightly. They are either similarly childish (usually featuring wrestlers on the front desperately trying – and failing – not to look like gay porn stars), or exist at the other end of the spectrum. These others are achingly desperate to have games recognised as ‘art’ (ugh) and so are determined to write like grown ups. I’d rather have this style of journalism over the others any day. I find the reviews easier to trust, and it produces some fascinating articles. The problem here however, is that these magazines are so busy trying to be serious and ‘mature’, they end up with their heads up their own backsides, and can’t see the light of humour.

Despite my complaints there are one or two good magazines; but they’re sure as hell in the minority, and doomed to failure with the rest. The mainstream websites rarely suffer from any of these problems, but the writing tends to be rather… bland. All this considered, blogs to the rescue, right? Completely independent sites written by gamers for gamers. They know what they like to read, so they surely know what they ought to write. No publisher looming over their heads, they can be completely honest in their reviews, and when commenting on the industry in general. They don’t listen to marketers and analysts regarding the audience – they are the audience! It’s power to the people. It’s a perfect opportunity to emulate The Good Old Days.

Why, then, is the indie games journo scene a caricature of mainstream games journalism?

This isn’t the first or last time I’ll be saying this in this article, but I want to stress that I am well aware that it’s not tragedy across the board. There are some great writers out there, and there are some sites and magazines that hold together brilliantly as a whole. My point is that they are the exception rather than the rule – and nowhere is this more apparent than in the world of independent online games magazines.

Though it looks hideously unprofessional, it’s not the multitude of spelling mistakes, grammatical errors, and typing errors that many such sites carry that bothers me most. Even the best writers and editors allow such mistakes to slip through now and again, and most people wouldn’t actually notice many of these mistakes. The sheer lack of talent, however, certainly bother me – especially when it’s evident in the writing of those being paid for their contributions. And just so you know, wannabe writers out there, forcing long words you don’t fully understand such as ‘superlative’, ‘quintessential’, ‘hippopotamus’, and ‘Schwarzenegger’ into your writing does make you look intelligent.

Reviews are as good a place to start as any. Scoring, for example. It seems – to me, at least – that some sites score the biggest format exclusives unnecessarily high (especially if the site itself is format exclusive). I don’t doubt that in a few instances, this is because the reviewer genuinely loves the game that much; but I suspect that more often than not, the highest scores are handed out like sweets because a) the site doesn’t want to lose the large fanboy chunk of its readers, b) the reviewer in question is something of a fanboy himself (it’s always a man), or c) the site and/or reviewer feels pressured to score the game highly, because that’s what everybody else seems to be doing (this can apply to hyped multiformat releases too, of course).

Ridiculously low scores can be found too, and these of course are the scores that generate the most ‘flaming’ and hit spikes. The best recent example of this that I can think of, is when a well known gaming blog gave Assassin’s Creed II the unjustifiably low score of 4.5/10. I thought that the 8/10 I awarded the game when I reviewed it was perfectly fair, and I know that some people will enjoy the game more than I did – and some people will enjoy it less. Not everybody feels the same way I do about every game, and I don’t have a problem with that (I’ve even disagreed with scores my team has awarded in the past, but let the scores stand). But 4.5/10 for Assassin’s Creed II?

There are only two explanations for such a low score. Either the reviewer in question dislikes all third person action games in a similar vein, in which case he was entirely the wrong person to review the game (especially as his opinion would be associated with one of the best known gaming blogs on the net); or it was a deliberately provocative score intended to generate a huge hit spike. You may be thinking that perhaps the reviewer simply felt that this was the appropriate score. All I can say in defence of my assertions, is that if you’ve played Assassin’s Creed II yourself then – whether you like the game or not – I feel confident that you’d agree 4.5/10 is a ridiculously low score.

Artificially high and low scores aren’t the only methods used to suck in undeserved hits. Two words: sex sells. Make a page with at least one photograph of a half naked woman on, throw together a handful of words to pretend it’s related to videogames, stick it up on N4G, and hey presto – lots of hits from 14 year old boys who can’t get past their parents’ porn filters.

That’s not journalism. That’s pathetic.

Equally sad is the sight of dozens of ‘Top X of X’ lists (especially if they worm in the word ‘badass’). It’s a lazy, uninspired, hugely unimpressive way of filling a website when it’s done on a monthly or even weekly basis. And then there are the articles and lists that feed on the venomous, illogical reasoning of fanboys. Put something on N4G comparing the Xbox 360 and PS3 in some way, and you’re guaranteed a huge number of hits; especially, at the moment, if the PS3 comes out on top. You don’t need to worry about logic, and you certainly don’t have to worry about good writing. Just stoke the fires of the world’s most bizarre hatred, and watch your site traffic explode.

But why do these indie sites use such cheap hit farming methods? If they can only be bothered to put up such lazy and pathetic content, why bother putting up anything at all? The answer is obvious, simple, and sad; free games, and cash.

Some publishers (especially some of the smaller ones) are happy to help indie sites out by sending them games, without ever asking for information about the site traffic. Many publishers and PR companies do ask about numbers of course, which is only fair. As a rule of thumb the more hits your site brings in, the bigger the companies that send you games. Therefore, talentless writers and shoddy sites use these cheap methods to ensure that their free games keep coming in. If they can provide the right numbers, they’ll have their pick of the latest releases, usually at least a week before they hit the shops. Never mind that most of those hits were horny teens drooling over almost naked women, or fanboys posting comments on a provocative article. Publishers never look that deep into the numbers.

If you’ve ever stumbled across such a site, it may very well have been one choked by advertising. This is the other reason for the hit farming. How many hits a month, do you say? Sure, we’d love to advertise on your site!

One issue I’ve been skirting around, of course, is the fact that drawing people in like a whore baring her legs at the kerb works. There will always be hormonal teenage boys ready to slobber over women in bikinis. There will always be fanboys ready to read and comment on so – called ‘flamebait’ articles. In short, there will always be the lazy and the greedy, and there will always be those happy to feed them.

But does that make it okay?

I want the magazines and websites associated with my hobby to be something to be proud of. Is that so ridiculous? You won’t win the Pulitzer prize for ‘Cosplay Girl Of The Week’. You won’t be awarded a knighthood for writing ‘Top Ten Badass Bosses’. You won’t get a book deal for trying to argue that the Xbox 360/PS3 is better than the PS3/Xbox 360. You will earn no respect from anybody worth respecting themselves for any of this crap. You’ll sure as hell never have a chance of writing about games as your full time job.

Surprising as it may be, I don’t want to end on a negative note. Though this may well be read by many thousands of people, I have no illusions about my importance or influence within the indie games journo community; very few people know or care who I am. But I know that at least some people reading this will write for and/or run a gaming site themselves, and I like to think that it’s made them think twice about certain things.

If you have any involvement in a games magazine of any kind, consider this a call to arms. If you already make sure to avoid the mistakes I’ve been talking about then fantastic, the very best of luck to you. If you’re guilty of anything I’ve outlined above, then do your dignity a favour and stop. It’s never too late to turn things around and actually do some writing. Well thought out articles may get less attention than high resolution photographs of semi naked women, but you’ll feel better in yourself; and just one nice comment about what you’ve written will hit you deep, in a good way. Plus if you start acting like a journalist, your chances of becoming a full time one will increase enormously.

Art R. Furie; Words Luke K

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Written by Luke K

Luke plays lots of videogames, now and again stopping to write about them. He's the editor in chief at Critical Gamer, which fools him into thinking his life has some kind of value. Chances are, if you pick up a copy of the latest Official PlayStation Magazine or GamesMaster, you'll find something he's written in there. Luke doesn't have a short temper. If you suggest otherwise, he will punch you in the face.

17 comments

  1. Michael J /

    The first half of the article reminds me of PC Zones Halcyon days, back when Charlie Brooker and Steve Hill used to write for them. It was a great publication, and often very funny. Haven’t picked up a gaming rag in a few years now though, they devolved and in my opinion pretty much became entirely obsolete with the advent of the internet. The only time you tend to see them mentioned is when they get an exclusive early review (OPM has a FF XIII English review today for instance) and it’s never entirely possible to dissuade suspiscions that those reviews are granted via some shady marketing deal.

    As for the latter part, I guess it’s difficult for a lot of websites to grow and attract a readership without resorting to N4G fanbait. I’m sure many of those sites have good intentions and are capable of much more, but they sort of need the hits to stay alive and retain their position. So they churn out top tens and fanboy baiting articles.

  2. One of the problems is that EVERYONE can become a game journo. We actually had an interesting discussion night about Game Journalism here in the Netherlands a while ago, with some interesting guest speakers (journalists, researchers and industry people). Games Journalism for a lot of people is in fact about the fame and fortune, the goodies, the hits, the praise from the readers… not about an intersting piece of writing. As one of the researchers put it: “We have lost our idealism. Background pieces are rarely written, because they think the masses don’t care.”
    A lot of journo’s forget that games are more than just games: they are a part of our lives, our culture, there are technical developments and discoveries involved, there are people behind the games.. and that we seem to have forgotten.

    Which I why I love this site. Next to having reviews about games themselves and news, to fit our basic needs, intelligent, interesting and provocative articles fill the rest of the content. It takes balls and being a little different and more stubborn to stick with it, so guys, stick with it, you’re doing a great job!

  3. I’ve rarely visited this website before on my daily trips through N4G, but after reading this article, I’m subscribing to your RSS. This is one of the most down-to-earth pieces of text about gaming journalism to date, and you’re not the only one to have written about what a bad state it’s in. I often found myself bored or fed up reading reviews and I started to put it down to things like not being able to concentrate on one particular thing, but I later found that the writing was bland and flamebait.

    I say to you about these “journalists”, let them have their fun. If they’re not that good at writing but continue to do so, we should let them – they obviously have passion for what they do. I’m no writer, but I have always liked the thought of being a part of something – sharing my knowledge with a wide scope of people, even doing features time-to-time.

    Everyone says that gaming journalism is different to the rest, and they are right. In what other industry could Sony actively light heatedly mock journalists like in their first $299 PS3 commercial?

    TL;DR: Great article

  4. Chester W /

    these are the things that are ruining games journalism:

    1)today games are hyped for kids much much more than 15 or 20 years ago when videogames were for harcore gamers and articles and reviews were written by mature hardcore gamers.there was the same point of view among reviewers and readers.

    2)game journalists “fanboy”.this is the most irritating thing…unacceptable! today reviewers or editors of multiplatform magazines are worse than 12 years old fanboys bashing or idolizing a console rather than another.I read recently articles written by reviewers or journalists without experience on consoles and brands of the past generations (ps2 included) acting like a guru….depressing…

    3)perfect rating.until the last generation it was pratically impossible to find more than 1 or 2 titles reaching the perfect rating .today we have an endless amount of average games with perfect score.mostly review’s explanation is “a game with a short single player campaign but with a perfect multiplayer”……speechless…

    4)Multiplayer.most of the “new” reviewers and games journalists hype multiplayer games giving less care to the single player.instead single player campaign is the main and most important thing in a videogame. multiplayer mode is only an extra.

    • Robert L. /

      Sorry Chester, but I have to disagree with you when you say that “multiplayer mode is only extra.” True, I think there was a time when multiplayer was a nice addition to a solid single player experience, but we’ve got to acknowledge that gaming is splitting into different “camps” (I’ll return to this term in a moment), and that for some gamers, multiplayer is where the money’s at.

      I say “camps” because I feel games are splitting in several directions. On the one hand, you’ll always have games that tell a story, that have characters, etc. On the other, you’re seeing more and more games whose primary focus is multiplayer. And what’s wrong with that? I’m willing to bet that eventually, titles like Modern Warfare 2 will come without a single-player component altogether (though I’d be willing to be they’d still feature a co-op campaign). I mean, how many people bought that game for its single-player story? That’s not to say that some people didn’t, or that I didn’t play it myself, but I think it’s pretty safe to say that the main draw for that game is its multiplayer component.

      Having said all that, I can see where, as a reviewer, things become difficult. Games like Modern Warfare 2 are hard to review, because they’re doing two very different things, one of them extremely well and the other, well, just kind of okay. I think that as the industry moves forward, so will games journalism. I agree with Luke when he says that the writing used to be better, but that’s because you had some very devoted persons writing for a fan base they knew pretty intimately. As the industry has exploded, things have gotten a little squishy on our side. But (and this is a big but), I think that as games reach a wider audience, things will shape up. Games will be written for a more diverse, mature audience, and I think that the journalism will follow suit. We’re in a bit of a soft middle area now, the place between conception and maturation. Development is awkward. Games journalism is in full-on puberty, pimples, scratchy voice and all.

      Still, this article has the right idea, and I’m signing up for the cause. Even if I think a game can receive a high score if it delivers a stellar online package. 😉

  5. I hate ms and sony. They ruined gaming for me and many others in their endless greed. These so called gaming news are just mere propaganda anymore aimed to squeeze out the last dollar out of you; the consumer. We should boycott those greedy fucks whereever possible.

    • Daniel /

      We live in a world where people want to make money. Everybody in this free market society has the same right to try and make as much money as they can. Why should we be mad that they are making money? I personally don’t like Nintendo much anymore since they have moved to the casual side of gaming for the most part. While I would like to have better games for it, I am not mad at Nintendo for making a business decision.

  6. KrazyFace /

    Great, great article. And I really like the art work!!! Who is that talented wonder!!! Ha ha ha ha ha! Sorry, I couldn’t resist. Seriously though, chester has a point about the perfect score thing. I remember when EVERYONE was talking about Mario All Stars getting a 99% score from Total magazine back in the day. Scores like that seem commonplace now-a-days, which only makes it harder to separate the crap from the gold.

    You know what? I think this site’s gonna do alright!

  7. Best article i have been read so far. İ’m a game editor too in a turkish website. I can situation is same here. Game journaslim now like “game magazine”. They write review after 1-2 hour play game. Thats a shame. How about video review. Video review is killing game journalism.

    Thanks for review.

  8. Adam R. /

    Didn’t our story, “Why the 80’s were about Saturday morning cartoons, videogames and Sybil Danning,” feature big boobs on the front page?

    • Yes they did, but they had a purpose 😛

      But it had that deadly combination of intelligence, humour, provocative content, and boobs. (‘boobs’ can in a different context be replaced with ‘naked man with abs’. Like in Girls & Games article 😉 ).

  9. I liked your article very much. Thank you for saying Sybil’s breast had a purpose. You’re spot on. And videogame journalism is such an evolving sport. I would disagree with one point only; gossip and sex have a place. It might be a sign of digressing as the larger news pool has, but gossip and sex are underreported and overly appreciated. Trust me, if I covered E3 in LA, sex would not be mentioned. But you go to Sin City and see all these electronics types being shady and sexual, I’m going to mock their behaviour and act the same.

  10. It probably all started going Pete Tong around 1996 when the Playstation was released with Lara Croft’s mahoonas.

    More internet use meant that the expected angle of a review morphed. In to what I cannot in all preciseness say.

    Then Sega stopped making consoles in 2001 and the Xbox was launched with its uber-masculine marketing. The journalism followed.

  11. half_empty80 /

    Games journalism is what you make of it, like any form of culture. You can choose to read celebrity mags and watch phone in vote talent shows, or you can read a broadsheet and go to the theatre. You can chose crummy games sources of you can choose reliable ones

    I don’t trust any newspaper reviews. I’ve given up on Official Nintendo since they are so juvenile.

    Regarding your reference to mature mags, I assume you mean Edge and games TM there, they are two of four review sources I trust. The others are GameCentral and (dum dum dum) Critical Gamer.

    I love printed magazines, much better than looking at the net.

    The problem with reviews is that you have to use the full range of scores, from 1 to 10, with 5 an average quality game by definition.

    The worst gaming journalism problem today is the overprevalent, constant, overhyping of games with previews. Even before the game hits the shelves it has been implanted in your brain, with no surprises come review time.

  12. I liked the comment in the newsroom:
    “PS3 better than 360, says unknown journalist.”

  13. djcybersurfer /

    What an excellent article, everything that was said is absolutly true and i agree with everything Halfempty 80 said. It’s very rare to find a Site/Magazine nowadays that has unbiased,honest,true reviews.
    The only games medium I trust 95% of the time is GameCentral. At the other end of the spectrum is N4G. If you’ve ever had the misfortune of having your brain hurt reading anything up on that site I feel for you.
    I’d just like to say keep up the good work guys and gals, don’t change what you’re doing, I’m sure you’ll prosper.
    I know a couple of you at least get your inspiration from GameCentral, you know who you are 😉

  14. What I don’t like in current gaming journalism is the nonprofessional attitude. I mean honestly between racism jokes, girls swallowing bananas, even personal attacks against people who comment, etc, I am just flabbergasted by the way gaming journalism is today. I don’t even take it seriously anymore. Sony, so far, has been one of the few that at least treats it’s viewers with some kind of respect with their coverage.

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