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Breaking Through the Press

Jaime Skelton Posted:
Columns Player Perspectives (Archived) 0

Although it's closed its doors to the general public, E3, and events like it, are still geared for the general gaming public. While the press holds the invites, the material is geared for gamers: mostly eye candy like trailers and screenshots, with demos being filtered through press feedback. Even without a circus, the shows tend to be over-the-top with hopes of wooing gamers early.

For those of you who have tried to follow all of E3 this week – and not just a few games or companies – I salute you. E3 is overwhelming for anyone, and like many other gaming journalists, I've been struggling to stay afloat in a sea of information. Although I didn't get to make it to the show this year, I'd wished I had simply for my sanity; the ability to focus on demoing products and interviewing instead of sorting through hundreds of press releases, dozens of trailers and screen shots, and filtering through varying opinions of those on the floor would have been a relief.

In the video gaming media, however, there is an increased trend of a lack of information actually being shared with gamers. Some argue, in fact, that gaming journalists are becoming incredibly incompetent. Video Game Journalism Jobs doesn't even take the term “video game journalism” seriously, and who can blame them? The truth is, many of us aren't “journalists” in the traditional sense at all. Most video games journalists belong to a new type of media, one that fits the video game industry very well. After all, gamers want to hear news and feedback from other people who play games, and the new media embraces the kind of writers who have more experience in their field than in journalism.

Like any industry that people write about, there are good writers and bad writers, good publications and bad publications. It's much easier to point out the bad before the good. Out of interest of neutrality, I'll simply refer you again to GJAIF, a blog devoted to calling out poor gaming journalism, if you'd like to see specific examples.

On the “bad” side, you have a group of publications whose general practice is to regurgitate the hype that game companies feed to them. If Game X's marketing tells these gaming publications that “Wow our game will be awesome!!!!!1!” then the gaming publication will quote them as news. Readers, of course, don't care. Of course the publisher, developer, and CEO's mother are going to tell everyone that the game is going to be “awesome.” Even if they don't believe in a product, it's their job to sell it to you. Gaming companies aren't stupid; they know when their games are bad, but they're not going to sell a product telling the press, or gamers, that it's not worth their time.

Some gaming publications find this hype – usually dosed out in press releases – newsworthy, and happily regurgitate it to their readers. This is something I touched on last week in talking about how free-to-play games will become “the future.” They hold back from investigation, and tell their readers exactly what the game companies want them to. It's a perfect puppet relationship, even if it's a quietly subverted one – one that perhaps even the publications themselves don't realize they're feeding.

It's not easy to be critical as a gaming journalist. No one wants to ask the hard questions, because there is (whether anyone wants to admit it or not) a delicate relationship between reporter and company. There's advertising issues, sure, but there's a greater worry in the gaming journalist's mind: offending the company you're working with. Exclusive information doesn't just get handed out to the gaming press; it comes through building reputation with companies through their PR and Marketing  departments. It's not just a matter of what sites draw in the most numbers; it's also a game of who you know and how well you know them. Say the wrong thing, ask the wrong question, and you may cut off your relationship with a major developer or publisher.

Why does keeping good relationships with companies matter? Contrary to popular belief, it's not about advertising dollars: it's about reputation, something which has a snowball effect in the gaming industry.  Say a writer types a piece that's very anti-Game X. Game X becomes offended by article, whether the reason's fair or not, and ceases communication with the writer and their publication. Game X no longer offers press materials, interviews, or exclusives on their title or other titles they publish. The game publication, in turn, loses all readership related to the developer/publisher's title, and may in turn lose readership to other publications who have better coverage. If that's not frightening enough, you also risk alienating other gaming companies, depending on how badly you offended and what the gossip about your publication is in the games industry  (and they do gossip). So when it comes down to it, your favorite publications sit down to interview the game directors, producers, and developers and don't give you the same kind of hard-hitting questions you really want to know the answers to.

That's not to call all gaming journalists cowards, or imply that all gaming companies are liars. All too often, however, developers maintain a level of intentional obscurity with gamers (and often, too, the press). Not wanting to be the bearers of bad news, they instead tuck away what they know players won't like in patch notes, and that's if players are lucky. So when gaming journalists don't attack that weak spot where the answers to player's burning concerns are hidden, even though they may be unpleasant for the gaming companies, they are doing a disservice to their readers, to themselves, and to the industry.

I've heard people make a counter-argument that those of us complaining about the gaming media are just riding on a train where it's popular to media-bash. Perhaps that's true, but I have no doubt that there are attitudes and behaviors that need to be addressed. A little less fan service and a little more investigation; more searching for the diamonds in the rough and less gawking over polished cubic zirconia. Until more publications shape up, however, it looks like the players will be asking the tough questions. Just make sure you dodge the assault of screens and trailers along the way.


Jaime Skelton