Cause professionalism means shouting.
Rock Paper Shotgun’s John Walker recently sat down with noted developer Peter Molyneux to discuss Molyneux’s Kickstarter-funded project, Godus and some of the questions surrounding the delayed implementation of that game. The interview was notable for its antagonism towards Molyneux. Walker didn’t just bring up problems, he ripped into the developer and even started the interview by calling Molyneux a pathological liar. It was brutal and unnecessarily hostile. It also showed the complex lack of journalistic professionalism of much of the video game criticism world.
The media surrounding video games sits at an awkward position between hobby news, artistic criticism, and genuine journalism. It’s clear that video games reviewers and editorialists have very little formal training in their chosen craft and that most are selected based on their writing talents and love of the medium. This means that they are often unfamiliar with the basic rules of reporting and struggle with issues like gifts or under what conditions a game can be reviewed. The end result is a critical community that passes on industry announcements as major news and fails even the most basic tenets of professionalism. I don’t make any claim to particular knowledge about journalism, but the mistakes are obvious.
I’ll start with Walker’s interview as it shows two major problems. The first is Walker’s interviewing skills. Walker started that interview with the intention of getting the story he wanted. He wanted to crucify Molyneux and so hurled accusations at him until the very end. Now, Molyneux is infamous for overpromising, so there is some validity in calling him out, but rather than understand Molyneux, Walker tried to shut him down. There is an interesting thread throughout the entire interview of how Molyneux justifies his repeated failures that would have made for a fascinating article, but Walker was too incensed to ever grasp it. He just hammers the same point relentlessly as if there’s some value in Molyneux admitting his failings for the fiftieth time. Even if the first attack was worthwhile, the subsequent attacks push out any further fruitful discussion. This is the interview by an annoyed fan, not a skilled professional.
The other interesting aspect of his interview is how it contrasts with the rest of the industry. Games journalists are notorious for softball interviews that show a game in the best light while glossing over flaws in the existing game or its predecessors. This, combined with the regular publishing of release dates and new features, turn video game websites into marketing arms of major publishers. The hobbyist element is most apparent here. Journalists share in the community excitement about a game, but rarely move beyond that. The only time a developer or publisher truly gets push back on their product or practices is when the review drops. At that point, many gamers have already imbibed a wave of hype that may have influenced them to buy a game that otherwise stinks. I also see this problem with previews. Reviewers generally give previewed games positive responses. Rarely will a reviewer speak out about how terrible a game is, even if it’s only weeks away from final release. At that point, the quality of the game should be obvious, yet the reviewer has the audacity to say its promising and then give a completely opposite opinion in the review as if this was the first word they had on the subject.
Perhaps the most obvious failing is the website’s and magazine’s handling of broader interest news stories. Gaming doesn’t have many, but they do occur such as the link between games and violence or GamerGate. The response from the big websites is generally muted with little reporting and even less follow through. In the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting, major websites regurgitated AP news stories with very little additional content. Surely someone at Gamespot or IGN could call up a local university psychologist for additional background. I saw the same with GamerGate where gaming’s biggest websites barely made mention of the massive cultural phenomenon that was sweeping through gaming. Those that did rarely went in depth or followed basic journalistic practice. I saw exactly one article that consulted pro GamerGaters, but a number of articles that spoke to the author’s twitter feed or regurgitated some other post. That isn’t journalism, its gossip.
Gamer culture and all that surrounds it is going through an interesting phase. We’re developing a greater cultural relevance and expanding into new areas, but key parts of the mental and organizational infrastructure of the community have yet to adapt to these new circumstances. We’re at a point where games journalists (and gamers) are going to have to decide what kind of role they want to play in our developing society. If games journalists want to own the moniker “journalist” then they’re going to have to make major changes.