Exclusive! – Games Journalism and the Race Against Quality

In 1981, the first dedicated video game magazines were launched. In 2009, they continue a pattern of decline that has characterized the last several years of their history. Generally this is attributed to the emergence of the Internet and its overwhelming capacity to provide information rapidly, efficiently and democratically to a technologically savvy audience. The advantages of websites catering to games over their physical counterparts are well-rehearsed – free content that’s open for all to contribute to and rapid delivery of it.

These are the things that magazines have never been able to provide, and which have allowed websites to make their gains. Writing, printing and distributing a magazine comes with substantial costs, precluding giving them away free; the professional nature of the medium demands experienced, paid writers to provide content; and the usually monthly publication schedule of magazines means that they routinely fail to stay genuinely up to date with the machinations of a fast-moving industry.

EGM’s recent trials and tribulations are proof of the perils games magazines are facing.

Mostly, all these developments have probably been good for games both as a form of entertainment and as an industry. With a variety of free-to-access websites to choose from, we’re more able than ever to make informed decisions on where to place our cash when it comes to looking for quality gaming experience. Similarly, the openness of these sites means that almost anyone can at least comment freely on online articles, and even contribute their own. Gamers participate in games journalism, and it’s not just imposed upon them. Whilst magazines have long accepted letters from readers, these are always chosen by staff, often for the wrong reasons, and consigned to just one or two pages. With websites, readers can participate in every aspect of content, quickly, openly and actively. Games websites are organic affairs, driven by a symbiotic relationship that ties readers to writers to advertisers in a much tighter way than magazines ever could.

Online games journalism, though, has its own shortcomings. Quality of content is arguably more variable due to the medium’s openness. However, some of the very best content that appears online would probably never have appeared in print simply because it was written by so-called unprofessional or amateur journalists. More worrying is a potential danger of online journalism which is connected to the third of its advantages over print media: its ability to stay up to date and current.

The potential problem is that more than simply having an ability to stay up to date, many games websites also have a vice-like imperative to stay up to date. These sites compete with each other to get their content online before their rivals, so they can gain larger readerships and thus acquire greater advertising revenue. I’m eager to refer to this specifically as a potential problem, because in many cases it is a good thing; driven by competition, content is genuinely provided far quicker than magazines could ever hope to. The problem comes if this system encourages websites to put up poorly thought out, poorly edited content, lured by the rewards that come with being the first to interview an industry luminary, cover a major event, or perhaps most dangerously of all, review a new release.

The area of content most associated with this rapid-fire routine of publication is of course gaming news. As a relatively closed-off medium, gaming and its industry don’t produce a particularly huge amount of news content, and stories don’t “break” dramatically like they do in the world of current affairs or business news. Nevertheless, the urgency believed to be required by the news format is one of the factors that have meant that games journalism has come into criticism for a lack of journalistic rigour. Driven by demand to beat opposing outlets to get news up first, it’s not uncommon for websites to re-post information accumulated from other sources without taking the time to fact-check properly.

Is the race to be first leading to sloppy work all round?

Sometimes this information can be completely spurious and without basis, or even a deliberately started rumour which the content urgency mill spreads like wildfire and reproduces as sovereign truth. This problem is widespread in online journalism in general, but it’s the almost alarming growth of games which makes it of particular concern in this industry. As games continue to expand as a medium and as an economic force, its connection with the ‘real world’ will grow and the quality of games reporting must grow accordingly. In an era where games are often under attack in the media, and where games journalists are sometimes accused of giving a weak defence of games, this need for a strong, conscientious news machinery to inform both the gaming public and the outside world is especially pressing. The scale of games reporting is destined to grow massively, and its rigour and quality must keep pace. Part of that involves employing a little patience.

Whilst news as an area of games media is growing, probably more significant to the average gamer today are reviews. These allow publications to play an important role as a conduit between gamers (consumers) and video game publishers and developers (producers). How a game is reviewed can have a major impact on its legacy and in particular sales – with great power comes great responsibility. Many gamers already have a highly critical and cynical view of games criticism both in print and online. Whilst much of the vitriol is borne out of conspiracy theory and blown out of proportion, some of the sceptical feelings are arguably not without justification. It’s rather extreme to claim that publications are in the pockets of greedy publishers, but a much more viable threat to the quality and reliability of reviews is the culture fostered between writers, their editors, and their advertisers that ostensibly requires reviews to appear so very quickly. This culture causes the time management of writers to be more dictated by inter-outlet competition, and less shaped by the realities that must be confronted to put together the informative reviews gamers increasingly demand. Games are complex and multi-faceted things, a fact which forms a major part of their appeal but also a major part of the difficulty in covering them adequately. In many cases it simply isn’t viable for a reviewer to play all or even most of a game before setting pen to paper, and this isn’t a problem in itself provided the reviewer play as much as they can before tempering their subsequent writing with an admission that some of the game remains not played. The real risk is when overzealous reviewers make brash, confident and unqualified judgements about games when the sheer pressure of time has resulted in their only having played the minority of a game. If the game in question is linear then the negative impact of this is magnified greatly. 

This is not to say that some reviewers aren’t able to complete whole games in a few days and then write up honest, entertaining and informative criticisms of them for their publication – it happens all the time. But given the depth of games as a medium, given the human tendency to re-engage with and re-think experiences after the fact, would it not make for a better form of games criticism if reviewers were allowed more time to engage with games in a fashion closer to that of a ‘normal’ gamer?

For instance, given the persistent nature of the massively multiplayer RPG, surely the 2,000 word written review is a template so unfit for the task as to be almost comical? A process that would better reflect the real gamer’s experience would be to review the game progressively in a blog-like style over a period of weeks and months. This would be possible only for websites, and require more effort over a longer period of time. That may just be the price to pay in order to cover the MMORPG phenomenon satisfactorily and to evade the persistent controversies that the mixture of MMORPG reviews and deadlines are currently bringing.

Covering a game like World of Warcraft requires patience, not speed.

In summary, the issue of time pressures affects both gaming news and reviews, and in different ways. News can sometimes be poorly researched and lacking in factual accuracy when the demands of competing with rival outlets come into play, and reviews can sometimes betray a failure by their writer to play enough of a game, to engage with it deeply enough to fulfil their responsibilities to their readership. Both elements of coverage can be affected by any number of other, more basic journalistic lapses. But given the expansion of gaming and its related media, and given the growing demand for coverage and speedy content delivery, what can be done to keep quality from being sacrificed?

Perhaps ultimately it will be gamers, the consumers of gaming media, who will have to make a choice about how they rank and weigh up the respective virtues of prompt writing and quality writing, consciously or subconsciously. To have the maximum of both in any case – unless a game-playing/writing supercomputer is conceived in the near future – is impossible. A gain in one all too often requires a sacrifice in the other, and in every article we read about this fledging art form, produced by its infant media, a form of that sacrifice has been made. As games writing enters its adolescence, and as games themselves change, games writing will change also. It will mature, change its methods, and find new ones. This particular sacrifice between time and quality merely posits that perhaps one of those changes ought to be to take out feet off the gas – just a little.

Author: Andy Johnson