Why Games Journalism Is So Tough To Define

I was really excited about my first post here, so much so that I posted it over on the other site that I write for (www.pnosker.com) about a day or two before it went live here.  The two posts weren’t exactly the same though, there was a one word difference that you probably wouldn’t have noticed even if you read both versions of the article.  In the pnosker.com version of the article I refer to myself as a part time journalist, whereas in the one published here I only refer to myself as a part time writer (the same thing the pnosker.com article should have said).  Normally the discovery of this editing mistake would simply warrant a facepalm on my part due to lack of thoroughness.  However, it became doubly so when one of the commenters challenged me on my self-characterization, stating “you, are you are journalist?. what education do you have?”  This intrigued me, not just because it challenged me as a journalist, but also because it goes hand in hand with an ongoing debate about what gives someone the right to call themselves a game journalist.  A bunch of people have explored the matter without coming to much of a conclusion, and today I hope to shed some light on why that consensus is so difficult to reach.

At the heart of the matter is the fact that, in the traditional sense, video game journalists don’t do much investigative work.  Think about the traditional view of a journalist putting together a story.  He or she gets word of an event and heads out to see what is happening.  Sometimes the author gets there in time to see the actual event take place, in which case he or she can give a firsthand account of what occurred.  Usually though, the journalist is late to the scene and needs to conduct interviews, cross references stories, and check background facts in order to put together an unbiased account of what happened.  In essence, the practice of journalism is an exercise in piecing together a story in which the actual facts of the matter aren’t easily discerned.

Given this model, there are scarcely any instances in which games journalists are actually classic journalists at all.  Do they report news?  Most certainly.  Do they ensure that the facts of this story of this correct?  If they are good news writers they do.  However, the essential difference is that rarely do video game journalists cover events, instead they are focused on news about reporting about products.  The change of subject matter alters the playing field entirely because when reporting about products two facts are true.  For one the day to day machinations of development are incredibly boring, something which you know to be true if you’ve ever read a development blog.  Seriously though, what is an insider source going to come out and tell you?  “We finished some sweet vector shading today”, who the hell cares about that?  Secondly, when covering products, news about upcoming releases is limited to one source: the company’s PR team.  Sure, you might have sources within the company itself who are willing to drop the occasional anonymous tidbit about an upcoming product, but even that is rare judging by how sparse such leaks are.

This single source mentality profoundly effects how news is reported in the video game industry because it ensures that all the information released is both carefully controlled and the extent of what is known at the time.  Sure, an outlet might get an exclusive preview, but even then, the developers have complete control over what levels and mechanics the writers see.  This means that all writers need to do to get a factual story is look at other websites, double check the facts with the appropriate people (something some publications still fail at) and then write away.  There is no need to go to multiple sources to confirm information, nor do you need to check for ulterior motives; there is a clear answer and it can be obtained with one phone call.   The resulting culture in which people only have to do a fraction of the legwork of investigative journalists do.  To be sure, there are some sites which do some excellent investigative work (Gamasutra immediately comes to mind), but these are few and far between;  it seems most outlets are willing to rely on others to break stories and then link back to that story.

What then to make of video game journalists as a whole?  First, I think we need to make it entirely clear that being a journalist only applies to a fraction of the stories a member of the video games press produces, ones where t he communication of pure facts is at the heart of the subject.  Within this framework we can then say that a journalist is someone who ensures both their own impartiality and the factual accuracy of their story before going to print (although even this definition isn’t purely satisfactory to me, as I do all of this on occasion and still don’t consider myself a journalist).

As is likely obvious at this point, this definition leaves an enormous group of people left out in the cold because they don’t report purely factual stories.  This is why I feel that some members of the press, a much larger group, need to stop fetishizing the idea of being a “real journalist”.  Instead, writers need to recognize that, by and large, the main function of the video game press is not just to be real, serious, factual journalists.  Instead, most of the value of the video game press comes from the opinions that authors pen, the reviews of latest releases, and the commentary that they provide on a particular issue.  Inside this framework, how much of a old school journalist you are doesn’t matter one bit, because you aren’t staking your piece on objective facts.  Instead, the value of commentary is entirely determined by the reader, whomever they may be.  This is why HipHopGamer will always be just as valuable to the community as Gamasutra, because regardless of how he writes or acts, Gerard Williams provides a valuable service to his readers by giving them a perspective they care about, and that is worth far more than publishing perfectly checked news.



Are Gamers Accepted Yet

Another day, another interesting question from the One A Day blogger community.  The a couple posts ago, blogger Weefz discusses how she feels that her position as a long time World of Warcraft player and video game journalist may have negatively affected her job prospects.  Although I’m not in a position to comment on the job hiring practices of British companies, the idea of whether or not gaming has become accepted as part of the mainstream is one worth exploring.

The short answer is it depends.  If we are looking purely at the act of gaming itself, then I think its acceptance is obvious.  This is in part due to the Wii bringing a much wider audience into contact with a console.  However, it isn’t just the Wii that we can thank for this.  There have now been two generations for whom home consoles have been available; people in the 2600 era may not have embraced them to the same extent that modern children do, but the mere fact that home console games have been in the public consciousness for over three decades now has gone a long way to having the public both consistently accept and occasionally fully embrace interactive entertainment.

However, I don’t think that is at the heart of what Weefz is asking, because anyone can look at the number of Wiis sold or the most recent Call Of Duty launch and see that gaming has become accepted on a macro level.  Instead, it seems that the root of her question is has it become acceptable to be a hardcore gamer in today’s society; that is a bit trickier one to answer.  Ultimately, it seems that society’s acceptance of your gamer life boils down to two things: the amount you do outside of gaming and the specific games you play.

The former is rather obvious and could apply to almost any hobby, but it seems that it uniquely applies to gaming.  At this point in its evolution, people are ready to accept gaming as a totally legitimate hobby so long as it isn’t the only thing you do with your life.  However, as I touched on in my most recent article, gaming is unique among hobbies because of its immersive power.  This can, at times, make it difficult to put down the controller in ways which simply can’t be emulated by any other medium.   Because of this, there will always be people who invest time in video games at the expense of real life activities, and for this reason there may always be a small raised eyebrow at being a hardcore gamer.  In spite of this, the number of people playing has reached such a critical mass in society that they can’t help but be accepted in the same way other hobbyists are.

However, this only extends up to a certain point, because as Weefz points out, society’s opinion of your hobby is directly tied into the titles you play.  In the eyes of the public, all games are not created equal and it seems that for all the acceptance console gamers have garnered, MMO lovers, and WoW players in particular just can’t seem to catch a break.  To my mind, this disparity exists for two reasons: the “second life” nature of MMOs and the particular reputation has garnered.

As to the first, massively multiplayer games are unique because they have a story that never ends.  So, while Mass Effect is an epic experience, once you stop Saren and the Reapers from taking over the galaxy, your time in that world is effectively over (unless you want to play through it again).  Not so in the case of Everquest; players get as much out of these games as they put in.  What results is people are able to craft a neverending life in an entirely virtual world.  The result is that the lingering negat¬ive stereotypes of the reclusive gamer are reinforced.  Thus, when regular folk hear about someone dedicating a lot of time to an MMO, the knee jerk reaction is to treat them like the high school geek. For no one is it worse than WoW players.  Horror stories of MMO players having their lives consumed by Blizzard’s MMO have given it the reputation (occasionally deserved) of stealing lives.  That stereotype has become so ingrained that it haunts every World of Warcraft player regardless of what else they do with their time.

Where does that leave us gamers with respect to society?  By and large, as gaming and society has matured to the point where society is willing to accept both the hobby and people who take part in it.  Nonetheless , there will always be a looming spector of anyone who plays certain types of video games because they do hold the potential to captivate unlike any other media.  If we are being totally honest with ourselves though, this stereotype isn’t entirely undeserved seeing as many of us likely have slightly eschewed the real world for the virtual one at some point in our lives.

Why We Play Video Games

So, two days in and LJ decided to stir the pot already eh?  Sinan has already chimed in with his thoughts on the matter, discussing the matter that maybe Laura hasn’t played the right games.  I’m going to look at the same question from a slightly different angle, taking a look at why gamers keep coming back to save the princess.   And yes yes, I know I’m supposed to do this only weekly but hell, the more the merrier right?  Anyway, off we go.

One of the biggest reasons people will invest time in games is because they allow you to conquer a challenge.  So, while puzzle fans try to finish the Sunday crossword and runners like to see if they can finish a marathon, I personally prefer to see if I can beat Gears Of War solo on insane.  Sure, I don’t get a fancy medal or a completed set of boxes, but I don’t see my accomplishment as any different than finishing a difficult sudoku or climbing a difficult mountain.  You see, whenever a developer puts together a game, especially a challenging one, they are issuing the gamer a challenge that requires a certain level of competency with a controller in order to be met.   It isn’t the same as your friend trying to beat you in 1-on-1 basketball, but if you doubt that developers aim to challenge gamers on occasion go pick up Super Meat Boy.

What ensues is a sort of competition between the player and the game, with the former constantly attempting to outwit and defeat the latter.  Eventually, after a period of time, innumerable curses, and even the occasional tears, the gamer wins in this competition, thereby accomplishing his or her goal of completing the challenge set forth.  Like so many goal oriented activities, the value of the goal is something determined entirely by the individual pursuing it.  So, even though non-gamers may not be able to understand why I’m incredibly proud my accomplishments in the Gears of War series, the fact remains that it took a truckload of persistence and patience to achieve them, and for that I AM proud of them.

This sense of accomplishment is only part of the reason that people continue to come back to video games, the other reason is that they allow you to take an active part in an epic story.  Imagine the last book or movie that you really enjoyed; do you remember how it sucked you into the narrative and kept your attention until the very last moments?  To gamers, the most recent video game they played is exactly the same, with one critical difference: they are the main character.  As such, when well written, games have the potential to emotionally involve the player in the same ways that movies or books do.  What’s more, because they are interactive, video games empower players to take an active role in saving the world/unraveling the mystery/whatever.  Thus, when the story completes, it was not Harry Potter or Robert Langdon (sorry for the lame references, I don’t read much fiction) who was responsible for saving the world; it was you, John Doe sitting on his average couch in the center of his average apartment in an average city.   This sense of importance is something that you don’t normally get in the real world and it is one of the reasons that people are occasionally willing to sacrifice real world connections for the sake of playing video games.  Or, if you don’t believe me on this one, check out Jane Mcgonigal talk about it in her excellent TED Talk.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I completely agree with Ms. Vickers that gamers shouldn’t be sequestering themselves in a room all day to kill orcs.  However, I think that we need to break down this societal idea that playing video games is some sort of wasted time that provides nothing to gamers.  I don’t necessarily believe that people who believe games are worthless will ever be swayed to my side.  However, at the very least, I hope that non-gamers can come to understand that we aren’t just picking up a controller to waste away our lives.

On Being A “Real Gamer”

There’s a phrase in gaming that is tossed around internet forums which grates on me like nails on a chalk board.  It is a seemingly innocuous phrase that comes up every now and again in discussions of all sorts: fanboy arguments about which console is best, reasonable opinions about the length of games, and subjective comments on how enjoyable a title is.  Although it is a concept expressed in only two words, the implications that these two words carry are far greater than those of any message board flame war.  These terrible two words are “real gamer”.

So, why is this phrase so darn insidious? Well, that’s simple, the concept of a “real gamer” implies that there is an ideal gamer who has reached a pinnacle of gaming knowledge and everyone else is a misguided peon who can’t form a complete opinion. It presumes that, should you play enough games, you will automatically feel a certain way, regardless of your past experiences or personal preferences.  What’s more, because the criteria for being part of this elite club is often based on owning a certain set of titles or thinking a certain way, the concept limits creative discussion within the community.

However, this idea is innately flawed because anyone reading this possesses their own unique gaming experiences and memories. Personally I’ve spanned every stereotype imaginable: xbox fanboy, uber competitive Halo 2 player, less competitive Xbox 360 owner, casual gamer, and now part time writer who looks at the entire industry on a day to day basis.  At each of these stages I had a very distinct perspective on gaming, yet I was always a real gamer.  But how can this be?  I’ve never owned a Sony console since the PSOne (I simply didn’t have the money), 13 year old me flamed Greg K for giving Halo 2 a 9.4 (before playing it I might add), and 18 year old me had become so disillusioned with the scene  that it took meeting some incredible people at E3 to get back into it.  Throughout it all I was a real gamer because at each and every point along my journey I loved playing video games.  And that, more than anything else, is what makes you, me, and everyone else who has ever touched a joystick, a real gamer.

Sure, there will always be people who have a bigger library of titles, just as there will always be people who agree with the majority and can afford to own multiple consoles.  However, this doesn’t make their views any more or less correct than anyone else’s. For example, over the past six months I have spent more time thinking about video games than I care to admit, yet I still found the most recent Uncharted 3 gameplay trailers terribly underwhelming; it just seemed like another action adventure game with some nice cinematic sequences.  As an informed gamer how can I possibly not be impressed with the sequel to one of the PS3’s best reviewed gamer ever?  Regardless of the reasons, it is an opinion which has been decidedly shaped by my 10+ years of gaming and is neither objectively right nor objectively wrong.   However, under the “real gamer” paradigm there is no room for disagreement, the Uncharted 3 Trailers were awesome and my thoughts are incorrect beliefs of a young man who has not yet been enlightened.  The most disappointing part about this squashing of ideas is that it immediately shuts down any discussion about how the action adventure genre could be improved.

More than just inhibiting discussion though, drawing such lines in the sand creates divisions that don’t need to exist. By implying that a “real gamer” acts a certain way, has a certain set of preferences, or owns a requisite set of hardware creates an elitist strata of gamers. And let’s be real here, did anyone ever pick up a controller and thought to themselves “I want to play videogames because this way I can have other people tell me my beliefs are invalid”?  No, people play video games because they want to experience something bigger than themselves:  they want to save the princess, save the world, conquer the world, or just plain win a game of Black Ops.  They stay around not because they get to feel as if they’re part of some special club, but because they find a group of people who love the exact same things that they do.  If you need evidence of this idea just look at PAX.  Gabe and Tycho’s semi-annual convention attracts massive numbers of gamers across the country because it celebrates the power of gaming to bring people together.  Invalidating people’s opinions because they don’t meet an arbitrary set of requirements does the exact opposite: it drives a wedge between people where one need not exist, harming the power of games to bring people together.

So, the next time you seem a journalist or fellow gamer toss around the phrase “real gamer” as if it doesn’t include you, challenge them on it.  You have a console, you have an opinion, and you have a set of experiences that make your just as valid as the next guy.  What’s more, don’t be afraid to voice your opinion, get into discussions, and challenge the status quo.  Who knows, maybe you’ll change some minds and start your own revolution.

Hello world!

Hey everyone, if you happen to have stumbled upon this page, welcome to the wonderful and wild world of my inner monologue.   This is still an under construction project, so check back soon and hopefully I’ll have something interesting for you to read.