The games journalism cult of personality

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Hello boys and girls. I’d like to tell you a story. It’s a story of joy and sadness; of oppression and freedom; of regression and progress; of human beings. Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.

Once upon a time, the internet was new. It was slow, and expensive, and nobody really understood exactly what it was. The prospect of online shopping sent shivers down the collective spine of the populace, most of whom were convinced that credit card details typed out on a keyboard would instantaneously become available to a thousand thieves. A single web page, containing nothing more than text and a handful of photos, could – and often would – take a minute or two to load. The prospect of watching moving pictures of a videogame on the internet was, at the time, little more than the ravings of a madman. It was not somewhere you went to read about games.

Your only way of seeing games in motion that were yet to be released, or that you didn’t have the money for, was to go round a friend’s house – or watch them on TV. You’d scour the TV listings each week, eager to ensure that you didn’t miss the next episode of GamesMaster, Bad Influence, or – best of all – Movies, Games and Videos (and for those desperate enough to stay up well past midnight, Cybernet). The first two you’d bear rather than enjoy, wishing the stupid humans would shut up so that they’d get on and show you more game footage.

The beating heart of the games industry was – as it still is – the constant stream of news stories, interviews, and reviews. ‘Constant’ in this era, though, generally meant ‘monthly’. In a well-stocked newsagents or supermarket, there would be acres of games magazines as far as the eye could see. Relatively speaking, at least, given that today you’d struggle to find four magazines dedicated to videogames in the same shop.

For my generation, games magazines meant titles such as (but most definitely not limited to) Total!, Game Zone, CVG, Mean Machines, Super Play, N64 Magazine, and the official magazines that everybody was slightly suspicious of. There was even a fairly strong market for import magazines in the UK, which saw Brits get their hands on titles such as Famitsu and Electronic Gaming Monthly (albeit with some pretty lengthy delays).

So unreachable did unreleased games seem, and so agonising could the month-long wait for the next issue be, that despite the pocket money strain that you’d often find yourself reading a few different magazines each month. There was a lot of good writing about, too (not to mention Wil Overton’s gorgeous covers for Super Play). I particularly remember Game Zone as being a bounty of absurdist hilarity. Another Zone – PC Zone – entranced me so much with its writing, I carried on buying it for a short while even after I stopped using my PC for games.

For better or for worse, the cult of personality amongst game critics began – and thrived – amongst the popularity of the seemingly endless magazines. Most would be sure to thrust photographs of the writers at you at the front, and room would always be found for anecdotes that created an image of the writers as people in the readers’ minds. Sometimes this would be taken too far and, generally, the magazines guilty of taking it too far did so all the time. You’d pay your (or your parents’) hard-earned cash for a magazine, only to find yet again that hundreds of precious words were taken up with egotistical tales that had absolutely nothing to do with videogames.

One particularly odious example sticks in my mind. I forget the publication and the game – just as well, I’d be tempted to name both – but one double-page feature told the tedious tale of a paintballing event some publisher’s PR had paid for the staff to go on in order to help promote some war-based game or another. I don’t think the game it was promoting was even mentioned within the article. It was just about how crazy and cool these journalists thought they were, and how much they enjoyed their free paintballing session. As you may know, each square millimetre of space in a print publication is hard-won and highly valued. Knowing this infuriated me all the more.

My favourite magazines were rarely, if ever, guilty of such extremes; but they were in the minority. Most definitely in the minority, too, were games magazines which didn’t wallow in “lad” culture. Regardless of what proportion of the market may have been hypersexed teenage boys at the time, that’s the sole demographic most mags were after. There was incessant talk of beer and tits between the games news, and far too many of the ads featured scantily/uncomfortably tightly clad women with no pretence of them knowing or caring about the games they were sat next to, or had rammed between their breasts, or whatever. Most cringe-inducingly of all, some of these mags would even have multiple ads for phone sex lines. Gee, I wonder where the sweaty sociopathic teenage boy stereotype came from?

There were honourable alternatives of course. Then you had Edge, which suffered under the cult of personality in a very different way. In its early years, Edge was insufferably pretentious. Columnists would sometimes communicate as though they were shitting out a thesaurus, trying so desperately to come across as intelligent and aloof that it was deeply embarrassing. I’d still buy an issue now and again, simply because it was such a startling change of pace.

Finally, you had games reporting on Ceefax and Teletext. For the benefit of anybody under a certain age, Teletext was sort of like the internet through your telly, but with pixel art instead of photos. The pages of each article would cycle through a loop on their own, which meant that when you opened one, the chances were against you starting on page one. You soon learned to be a quick reader, too. Anyway, the point is, there was only one regular, quality games magazine of this kind to talk about; Teletext’s Digitiser.

Digitiser was like a physical magazine in structure, in that it had news and reviews and letters from readers and so on. In every other respect though – in every other respect that mattered – it was massively different. For one thing it was relentlessly surreal, aiming to amuse and entertain first and provide information about videogames second. It was an approach that worked. It was an incredibly rare example of the journalists’ cult of personality generating something positive. You actually looked forward to the non-gaming related content, because it would make you laugh, and brighten up your day a little. It was sometimes so surreal that the humour fell flat but, generally, it was fantastic. There was a relatively small amount of pages but it updated six times a week and, best of all, it was free.

Eventually, the Digitiser staff wandered off to do other things, and it was reborn as GameCentral. The surrealism was dialled down significantly – a shame, in many respects – but it remained funny and entertaining, and the dedicated following that Digitiser had garnered stayed strapped in for the ride. When it was announced in 2009 that Teletext – and therefore GameCentral – was to be canned, the audience was genuinely affected, and a hugely popular petition was started and signed to encourage another company to take the team on. I’m extremely proud to say that it was our very own Kevin McCubbin who started that petition. I’d link to it but, ironically, the site that hosted the petition (Petition Online) has itself since been closed down. There was, against all odds, a happy ending. GameCentral is now the permanent games reviewing arm of Metro. That warms my heart particularly because, although I shan’t bore you with the details, it is only thanks to Digitiser and GameCentral that Critical Gamer exists and, in fact, that I ever started writing about videogames at all. Nobody at Digitiser or GameCentral knows that, but it’s true.

Slowly but surely, almost without anybody noticing, the internet blossomed from an ugly duckling into a beautiful swan. And the world shifted in several directions at once.

The speed, affordability, and omnipresence of the internet had an enormous effect on videogames journalism. Infamously, magazine sales began to plummet as people found cheaper and faster ways to get their games information. Slowly at first, then with terrifying speed, hobbyist blogs and professional websites dedicated to videogames began to spring into action across the internet, in a dizzying array of countries and languages. Suddenly, anybody could write about games. Not everybody could do it well, of course; but where getting people to read your opinions on the latest releases had previously meant tackling the seemingly insurmountable task of breaking into a magazine, all you needed now was an internet connection and some kind of computer. Not even a good computer.

I’ve written many times about how most games writing is crap, and the internet age has a hell of a lot to do with this. I fully accept that’s a rather pessimistic view. The internet is after all a big place, and mathematics tells us that of course most of the writing is going to be bad when you’re looking at those sorts of volumes. There’s absolutely no denying that there are some fantastic writers out there, and even some top-quality ‘proper’ journalism. There are some sites though – which I shan’t name, but you can probably guess – which only produce good content on occasion by accident, through the law of averages. Throw enough shit at the wall, and you’ll now and again notice that one of the staff swallowed a gold filling the day before.

I’m not going to let this become yet another rant against people who, ultimately, aren’t doing anybody any harm. The internet democratised games journalism before the word ‘blog’ entered the public consciousness. It’s impossible to overstate how important – and fantastic – this democratisation was and is. There are so many people working as full-time journalists today that would never, ever have had a shot at their job before the age of the internet. Their talent wouldn’t have been any different, but their opportunities most definitely would have been. The internet provides a cheap and easy way to hang your writing out for all to see. In this industry, talent counts for much, much more than qualifications. If you can link to examples of your work (and that work is good), you instantly have an advantage over somebody with a journalism degree but no evidence of talent. If you’re lucky enough to have some spare cash and a good chunk of business savvy, there’s even a chance you could start a blog from scratch and turn it into your sole source of income. And, of course, there are now more paying games news outlets than ever before.

I find it very interesting that, generally speaking, the lad culture didn’t survive the journey from the page to the screen (CVG was an exception, and look what happened there). I wish I had the answer here, but I don’t. I can only presume that, as both sexes and all colours and creeds use the internet, reporters and editors admitted that they had to be more inclusive if their careers were to survive. Equally however, now that writing about games is no longer (so much of) a closed shop for the chosen few, you get writers from all possible backgrounds.

Well, I say games journalism has lost its clique qualities, but in recent years things have sadly slid back in that direction again when it comes to the best-paying sites.

The whole cult of personality thing never went away, and you could argue that today it’s stronger – and more important to those who help permeate it – than ever. It’s easy to blame Twitter and the ‘look at me’ attitude it encourages; nay, feeds on. It’s easy to blame Twitter (and editors’ insistence that their writers have Twitter accounts) because that’s the right thing to do, to an extent. What the resurgence and strengthening of this really started with, though, was pronouns. When paper magazines were king, news and reviews almost exclusively worked with “we”. Since the internet took over – perhaps because so many individuals writing alone were involved – “I” has become the fashionable thing. Combine this with a large number of people becoming drunk on the power of the internet, imagining legions of adoring fans regardless of the reality, and you end up with swathes of people inflating the value of their opinions to worrying degrees.

There are people like that out there – I know, I’ve seen some of them – but many bloggers are not like that at all. The good ones. They just get on with the job of writing the best pieces they can, and would have the same attitude whether they knew that their audience was five or five million. Not even they are safe from the clutches of the cult of personality, however. A cult which encourages damaging two-way traffic between writer and reader.

The “we” and “I” pronouns both have advantages and disadvantages, but I believe on balance that “we” is usually the wiser choice when it comes to games journalism (reviews and news, not necessarily things like interviews and pre-release events). I’ll grant you that using “we” for a review in the 21st Century might seem slightly absurd, when the reader knows it’s just one person doing the writing and that person knows you know. Sort of like the queen reviewing the latest Call of Duty. When using “I” for a review – an article meant to offer a definitive judgement on the quality of a product – you come across as arrogant by default, and it takes great skill and care to avoid this. A review is a personal opinion no matter what pronoun you choose to throw about. The psychology and consequences of which you choose, however, is more complex than it appears.

As an example, let’s say that I review a game that most of the press loves and awards 9/10. I think it’s massively disappointing, and award it 4/10. If “I” dislike the game, then the inevitable hate from people with nothing better to do with their lives will be directed at “me”. However, if “we” as a site dislike the game, then this hate will be deflected onto “us” (with some leftovers still going to “me”, of course). Conversely, if “I” write an excellent piece of journalism, “I” am lauded as an individual. If “we” write it as a site, then “we” are a respected and trustworthy outlet as a whole. Both approaches are valid. But it’s not just about incoming reactions for the writer. Like I said, it’s two-way traffic.

Some of the best sites have relatively lax editorial reins on their writers. This is ordinarily a great thing, but can easily prove itself to be a double-edged sword. Remember what I said about Digitiser, and how much I loved it? One of the main men behind the curtains was an individual who presents himself to the gaming world as “Mr Biffo”. He’s a ferociously talented man who, during his extended hiatus from writing about games, concentrated on his day job of writing TV and movie scripts. He recently brought Digitiser back to life (sort of) via his blog Digitiser 2000. As you may have guessed from the stage name, he’s not averse to a bit of cult of personality himself; but in a good way. As he’s essentially running Digitiser 2000 himself, he is the blog and the blog is him. Much as it pains me to say it, this has led to a few missteps lately in terms of content generated.

I respect and admire Biffo as much as ever, even when I disagree with what he’s saying (which is surprisingly often lately). Two reaction pieces he fired off regarding separate Polygon controversies are examples of emotion taking over from rationality. Of course that’s going to happen sometimes. He’s human, and also doesn’t have an editor.

The issues he reacted to may be well known to you. The first was Arthur Gies’s refusal to not only finish Star Fox Zero, but to even write a review of it. What he did was write a piece where he mostly complained about being unable to use the motion controls. This provoked a furious reaction from many people. This is partly, as Biffo quite rightly points out, because many people will leap onto the slightest excuse to criticise anything Polygon does (I’m slightly guilty of this myself). Exactly what the problem here is depends on who you talk to but generally it’s because Gies didn’t finish the game, because he didn’t do his job and write a review of the game, or both. Remember, it’s the man’s job to write reviews. Then there’s also the fact that the main Star Fox Zero campaign can be finished in as little as 3-4 hours, and repeatedly failing a section triggers an optional invincibility pickup.

Make of that what you will, but it is at least fair to say that claiming all his critics were of one mind is inaccurate. What Biffo saw and immediately latched on to, however, was somebody who writes about games being attacked for not finishing a game before writing about it. Biffo writes about games, and has often written about games without finishing them. He therefore seems to have taken this as a personal attack on some level and, blind to any other criticism of Gies in this instance, wrote an article defending game journos who don’t finish games (as Gies didn’t) before reviewing them (as, er, Gies didn’t). With the crumple zone of a larger team, perhaps Biffo would have written a slightly different piece. We’ll never know.

P.S. Six days after publishing the review, Polygon published a Star Fox Zero beginner’s guide, which aims to “teach you how to adjust to the new GamePad-centric control scheme while maintaining the ace pilot skills you’ve had since the Super Nintendo”. I’m sorry, but that site is beyond parody.

The next Polygon kerfuffle that saw Mr Biffo leap to their defence concerned a Doom gameplay video. Pre-release, Polygon uploaded gameplay of the game’s first 30 minutes. Whoever was playing, however (it was claimed to be Gies, but he denies this) isn’t very good at the game. They shoot walls and health packs, stumble awkwardly around, and generally act like somebody unfamiliar with playing FPS games using whichever control scheme was used.

Predictably, the video and the skills of whoever was playing were ridiculed by waves of the internet. Some simply laughed and jeered at the imperfect play, while others expressed frustration at the fact that this virtual fumbling wasn’t showing off the game in the way that they had hoped, and they expected better from a professional full-time videogames site. Others still expressed concern that, if this was (presumably) the best that the site had to offer in terms of FPS skill, it could potentially impact their ability to evaluate games that their audience would have to pay real money for. Nonetheless, all Biffo saw was somebody being ridiculed for not being great at games. Biffo doesn’t feel that he’s great at games…

Do you see where this is going?

This is not a dig at Mr Biffo. He’s an intelligent and important voice in videogame criticism and commentary, and you can support him via Patreon here. Please do.

One of the few other blogs that I very much have time for, despite not being a PC gamer, is Rock Paper Shotgun. This largely comes from the flippancy with which they write almost everything, which I love. I don’t agree with all the opinions therein (that would be weird), and not all the jokes hit, but it’s one of the best videogame blogs on the web. They do eagerly lunge at the cult of personality on a regular basis though such as when John Walker (AKA “Botherer”) also wrote a reaction piece regarding the Doom video situation. One of the first things he told his readers in the article was – you guessed it – that he’s not great at videogames. Although he takes more time to consider the issue of skill potentially impacting evaluation than Biffo does, it’s still clear that he’s taken things personally and this has ultimately clouded his journalistic vision.

Which brings us to GamerGate.

This is where I pledge my allegiance, right? Where I tell you which side of the border I plant my flag? Well sorry to disappoint you, but… neither. Both sides make valid points on a regular basis, and both sides have extremists that the world would be better off without. Those who dedicate themselves most strongly to the GamerGate cause – seemingly above all else in their lives – are odious little pricks. Those who wear the term ‘SJW’ as a badge of honour, and go out of their way to be offended on other people’s behalf at every opportunity, are self-important little pricks. I can sympathise with either side depending on which way the wind is blowing. To take one high-profile example, I believe that there are valid and important criticisms to be made of Anita Sarkeesian’s work, which is (in my opinion) fundamentally flawed. Discussing this in a rational and open fashion has been made impossible, however, thanks to the tidal wave of disgusting death and rape threats that she’s faced simply for saying things that a bunch of spotty teenage boys didn’t like.

Of course, the anonymity and dehumanisation that the internet offers plays a huge part in all this, but investigating that properly is the job of another article entirely. While it’s not the root cause of GamerGate, the cult of personality amongst game journalists and bloggers has certainly served to catalyse each event as well as ensure the survival of the movement as a whole. GamerGate attracts egos in much the same way as a bonfire will attract moths. If each of those moths were carrying a few litres of petrol.

Today’s game journalism environment is one where the audience knows a great many writers by name (often of those they haven’t read, or have but dislike), and – thanks to ubiquitous video sharing – sometimes by sight, too. For obvious reasons, this has enabled and enflamed the intensity and regularity of abuse. Equally though, such an environment encourages – arguably requires – an engorging of the cult of personality, whereby journalists and bloggers project their personalities (or public versions of them) with great determination. Tied closely in to that is the fact that the internet ensures that everything they say and do is very, very visible. Visible to their audience, visible to other people’s audiences – and to industry contacts and potential employers.

The more bland and corporate a site and/or its employees, the less likely they are to engage with GamerGate. Generally speaking though, high-profile writers (and those who wish that they were high-profile) will be quick to express an opinion about whatever the latest GamerGate controversy happens to be. Repeatedly, in many cases. At least some doubtless feel obliged to even if they don’t see the issue as particularly important, worried that silence will be seen by the side they wish to appease as cowardice or treason. There are professional reasons to take sides; there’s a noticeable clique of successful writers who take enormous pleasure in attacking GamerGate wherever possible. Get in with them, or garner sympathy from them, and your freelance opportunities seem to instantly increase. Conversely, some pretty crappy blogs have seen their traffic explode by courting the unthinking extremes of the GamerGate community.

Possibly the best article I’ve read this year so far was recently published by The Guardian. Written by author Toby Litt, it’s simply called “What makes bad writing bad?”. It’s fairly brief but utterly fantastic, and I urge you to read it. Although it was written with fiction in mind, most of it can be applied to journalism; particularly videogame journalism, which tends to be less formal than most other kinds. The best, and most relevant, line is perhaps “Bad writing is written defensively; good writing is a way of making the self as vulnerable as possible”.

The cult of personality that runs throughout videogames journalism and blogging is, ultimately, a good thing. It’s led to some wonderful styles and personalities that would have otherwise been suppressed, and prevents writing from becoming dry and dull. It’s never going away. All the negative effects are a sadly unavoidable side effect of all this, but things can get better. It’s too late for some; but if you’re reading this, and you are or want to be a games blogger, please take my advice. If you have passion, don’t waste it on shouting matches with strangers on Twitter or in comment sections. Channel it into your writing. Make the voice you speak each and every word with yours, and only yours. Because that’s where the cult of personality belongs. Not in the sycophantic courting of your peers, nor in attacks on people you do not and never will know. It certainly doesn’t belong in long and tedious tales of your life outside of the subject people came to your site to read about. It belongs in the very fabric of your writing.

The End.

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Written by Luke K

He 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. He doesn't have a short temper. If you suggest otherwise, he will punch you in the face.

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