A while back, I wrote a post about the gaming enthusiast press’ continual crisis of confidence. Now I’d like to talk about the other side, that is when the enthusiast press gets overconfident and dismissive of outside criticism, some of which may be deserved. As many are aware, there’s a wee bit of a hubbub going on over the ending to Mass Effect 3. One of my next couple of blog posts is going to detail my experiences and opinion on it but the gist of the uproar is that many gamers don’t like the way the sci-fi trilogy ended and have been loudly voicing their displeasure, even demanding that BioWare change the ending to one they would prefer. True to form, the enthusiast press has stepped up to comment, sometimes with insightful and interest pieces and sometimes with facepalm inducing tripe that insults their audience.
That items such as the latter one linked above exist in quantity is distressing enough but perhaps moreso is the way some generally respected members of the enthusiast press respond to attempts at constructive criticism of what they do. Late this past week, a series of articles at Forbes which are nicely summarised with additional commentary here asked the question of whether or not the universally positive coverage of Mass Effect 3 (almost none of which talked about the ending so many dislike) demonstrates a credibility problem in the enthusiast press. Now I will admit that Forbes has a reputation for writing pieces designed to rile people up (this is the same site that predicted Apple will have a $1,650 stock price in 2015 backed up by hilariously flawed arguments) and it should be noted that one of the first published articles on gaming by the author that touched this all off is well…an unflattering diatribe. Regardless, the series raised a number of interesting questions as to whether many in the games press specifically have a problem separating the fans within them from the critics. Many well known gaming reporters did not take kindly to it and lashed out pretty strongly. I also witnessed some strongly worded responses from Alex Navarro of Giant Bomb and Ben Kuchera of the Penny Arcade report with Kuchera having gone so far as to publicly block people on Twitter who have written him mature yet unfavourable comments.
Frankly I’m appalled that this is how some are choosing to respond to the people they write their content for (and I should stress that this is only a few high profile people doing this), as if they are somehow above the criticism. As I’ve said before, the games press seems to have this constant need to defend and validate what they do, whether it’s to idiot commenters or now to people from other areas of the press. Clearly the article hit a nerve with some, something I might add it was likely written to do and it’s likely the responses it provoked have simply validated the author’s opinions.
I will say that I don’t agree with all the points made in the Forbes series. I think claiming that the enthusiast press should be faulted for being enthusiasts is as ridiculous as it is paradoxical. Obviously you have to be a fan of a creative medium to write or critique it in a meaningful way because otherwise, you can’t relate to the other fans you are writing for. This is true in all forms of media and that’s why there’s also a thriving enthusiast press for books, music, movies, TV etc. There are however, several endemic elements to the games press that aren’t often found in the othes and I believe these hurt its credibility. They can be overcome but with few exceptions, there doesn’t seem to be many attempts to do so. I don’t know if this is because many gaming sites are owned by large media conglomerates that target them to niche demographics or simply because they feel its necessary to appease the vocal minority audience rather than simply tune out.
The first of these does tie in to the point the Forbes series made on critics also being fans. It’s something I’ve seen happening for years and it’s why I only trust reviews from a handful of sources. That is what I call “honeymooning” with games. When a hotly anticipated title comes out (especially if it’s a sequel in a highly regarded series) many critics have an initial honeymoon phase with it when the title is new and they’re so happy to have it that they will tend to overstate their praises for it and often gloss over obvious flaws or downplay their significance. Almost all reviews are written in this honeymoon period, they have to be. It’s only a few weeks later (usually after the next hot title comes out) that the honeymoon period ends and the flaws are discussed, often to the point where many wonder why they weren’t brought up before since they appear to be such big deals.
The best recent example of this I can think of is Mass Effect 2, the last game in the series. It was undeniably a fantastic title and in my opinion was the best of the trilogy but it had several major gameplay and narrative problems that were commonly agreed upon. Most of these were not reflected in reviews or in podcasts I listened to at the time. The podcasts in particular were full of lavish praise, some going so far as to call it one of the best RPGs ever made. I heard the term “perfect game” used more than once. However, several weeks later if someone on one of these shows were to bring it up, the discussion would almost exclusively be focused on the faults and how major and damaging to the experience they were. None of these points were apparently important before and of course by the time they were discussed, most of the game’s sales had been made and all the glowing reviews were out there and it was too late to change them. I think the inability many in game critics have to disconnect themselves from their fandom is a big problem and I don’t see this as often in other media. You can be a fan of something and critique it but you need to train your brain to look at something with straight objectivity when you’re reviewing it, even if it’s something you were looking forward to. I’m not a professional critic but I had no problem doing this with Mass Effect 2 at the time or many other games since. I loved the game but could tell you right away what was wrong with it and how that dampened my experience. Not everyone has to agree with me but many did, just later on. As a reviewer, you are supposed to be writing buying advice. If you can’t play games and not have a “honeymoon” phase with them, I dare say that perhaps you’re not the best qualified to be reviewing them.
The second issue is the intertwined relationship the games press has with the companies they are supposed to be critical of. I won’t say this never happens in other media criticism but it’s definitely the exception as opposed to the rule as it is in video games. The primary form of advertising on almost any video game web site is…video games. On top of that, they’re usually new releases which are of course the focus of most of the coverage. I have no idea how the web advertising business works or why it’s seemingly so difficult for these sites to get ads from industries they don’t cover but it’s a major problem and there’s no sure way to gauge the influence it has on coverage beyond the press’ assurance that they can be trusted which they’ve proven they often can’t be. If it is so hard to get non-endemic advertising, I can sympathise because these companies need to make money but if other enthusiast media can at least partially avoid it, I don’t know why they can’t.
Beyond that, there are the large number of incentives that the enthusiast press is often given by big publishers. Getting early copies of games to review is standard in most media and that’s fine. If you’re writing buying advice, it’s important to have your review ready the day a title launches. Indeed, music and movie critics get to sample new products in advance too and it makes sense. However, for most movie critics, that means getting a free ticket to an advance showing at a local theatre. With large game publishers, the big means of press promotion the last few years have been “media and review events”. When a publisher has a slate of big titles in the pipeline or a new title coming out shortly and wants press coverage, they will hold a fancy event that they will invite the enthusiast press to. These are often in lavish hotels or resorts in fancy locations like Las Vegas or Hawaii, they’re fully catered, include a bunch of free swag and sometimes even special events for the press that are themed around the upcoming titles. Occasionally the reporters are even allowed to stay for an extra couple of days after the event as a mini vacation. This is all paid for by the publishers. In the case of review events, the reporters are all placed in a special area together where they have a limited amount of time to play the game to completion at a rushed pace and are surrounded with PR people the whole time. Review events such as these are usually saved for large franchises such as Gears of War or Call of Duty and are often the only way enthusiast outlets can review these titles before release.
The third issue is one of access. One of the criticisms levied against cable news networks now is how they are always afraid to offend those in power for fear of losing the access to key people and information they require in order to report effectively and quickly. The games press has this same issue. Piss off a major publisher with a negative review and you may not get review copies next time or get invited to press events or get interviews or screenshots. They may even give a time exclusive to another outlet that will steal your traffic. Less coverage means less traffic and less ad revenue. This is the single biggest reason in my opinion that so many sites really review on a “7 to 10 scale”, meaning that even though they claim to use the 10 point spectrum, anything under a 7 is only reserved for truly bad titles and even the mediocre ones can be expected to score between 7 and 10.
I also believe it’s why bad games from larger publishers will often get higher scores than bad games with similar negative qualities from smaller publishers that don’t have bigger PR departments or large numbers of releases in a given year. A bad game from Activision or EA may get a 6 but a game with very similar problems from say SouthPeak or dtp Entertainment might get a 3 or 4. I don’t even know if this is done consciously a lot of the time but I’ve seen a definite score bias towards larger publishers over the years.
To say that factors such as these don’t have an undue influence on coverage is naive and ridiculous. You simply cannot have an industry that relies on advertising dollars, access and free events from the people they are supposed to be critical of to not have lapses in integrity. I don’t paint the entire enthusiast press with this brush but the problems are undeniable. So what can they do to fix this? I don’t know what they do about the advertising problem but when it comes to press events and access, the fix is simple: Say no. Activision won’t let you review Call of Duty prior to release without coming to their event? Then wait until release, buy a retail copy and make it clear to your readers why the review is late. Is EA hinting that you may not get preview assets for the new Medal of Honor game if you don’t lavish praise on Mass Effect 3? Then go without those assets and once again tell your readers why. If the publishers are playing dirty, there’s nothing wrong with saying so and if nothing else, we know that gamers are passionate people and will call them to account for that. All it would take is a couple of big sites to do this before the publishers would have to smarten up for fear of alienating big chunks of the hardcore fan base that evangelise the products they sell. The problem is, this all requires one or two outlets to be first and no one wants to be.
My point with this is that if the games press is going to operate with all these dubious ties to the industry they cover, they are going to have to live with the occasional accusation (be it in editorial or forum form) of foul play in their coverage. To see people like Alex Navarro, Jim Sterling, Justin McElroy and Ben Kuchera get all high and mighty because someone dared to point out the massive integrity issue that has hung over their entire industry for over a decade now is disingenuous and arrogant. The gist of most of their responses was “I’ve never personally done such a thing so how dare you say it’s a possibility for anyone to!” Sorry guys but your relationship to the industry you cover would be described in any other journalistic field as a massive conflict of interest. That the business model of your field is so flawed that it has to operate this way doesn’t excuse it and I think the concerns (and in some cases, criticisms backed up by real world examples and trends) are perfectly valid. You may be the pinnacle of integrity but many in your field are not and I don’t know if you noticed but the Forbes guy didn’t name names.
If you are so convinced that your work is proper journalism, who cares what some guy at Forbes thinks anyway? Once again, you feel the need to leap to the defence of your craft, almost as if you think it doesn’t have the means to stand on its own merits. Fox News doesn’t feel the need to complain about their critics because those aren’t the people they serve so why do you care? For a group that claims to have such a thick skin because of the often vile nature of their communities, the games press sure does seem to bruise easily.
That’s not to say there isn’t real journalism going on in games or that there are many sites out there that are trying to change the formula or are doing great work within it. There’s a lot out there but sadly, the really popular sites are the ones that rely and thrive off this dubious symbiotic relationship with publishers. It’s been like this for a long time and barring a major shift in how games are made and published (which could be coming in some form), I sadly don’t see it changing any time soon. Nonetheless, these problems exist and need to be brought to light. People of influence responding as some of them did only serve to further demonstrate how undeveloped and immature the games press is and why other press scoff at them. Want to be considered “real journalists”? Then earn it and when it’s questioned, prove the accusers wrong rather than just hurling insults. And for the love of everything, don’t write a response to an issue raised by a passionate section of your fans that basically calls them stupid. We’re not on the school yard here and no one even won an argument by taking the low ground.