Sunday, June 6, 2010

Moving towards real games journalism

Comic via Penny Arcade.

I think people sometimes get the mistaken impression that "videogame journalism" is nothing more than reviews of games, previews of games, top 10 lists that compare various aspects of games to each other, and so on. In reality, there's much more to being a journalist than just playing a game and doling out an arbitrary score from 1 to 10.

If you read publications in any other area of arts, entertainment or culture, be it Rolling Stone or Entertainment Weekly or The New Yorker, undoubtedly what you'll find are not just articles about films, or CDs or what have you. What you'll find are articles about people. These are usually the most important and most interesting stories in any given magazine. Rolling Stone even has what it calls "The Rolling Stone Interview," detailed profile pieces on notable figures within popular culture.

I point this out because I can not find anything like this within the world of videogame journalism. Yes, there are interviews, but they are almost universally about some new game that's coming out. The interviews in essence turn into free commercials for the game company.

Luckily I'm not alone in identifying this problem. Leigh Alexander, author of the blog Sexy Videogameland, recently posted a piece bemoaning this exact issue. She linked to a New York Times article on M.I.A. and compares that to the state of videogame journalism. She writes,

Let's pretend I was skilled enough a writer to do a piece like Hirschberg's. I couldn't in this business. Because game developers aren't vocal enough about who they are. If they have creative identities (many don't), they don't express them. But even if I could grasp at a couple people who would be nuanced enough "personalities" worth covering -- the Housers, Infinity Ward, Bobby Kotick -- there's no way in hell I could get close enough to them to do a piece like this. The PR machine wouldn't let me.

Essentially, the problem is twofold. Many game companies seal themselves off and only want to talk about their product, and I believe there's a lack of real games journalists who are willing to pursue personalities in the industry. The one notable exception I've come across is the 2005 book Smartbomb: The Quest for Art, Entertainment and Big Bucks in the Videogame Revolution by Heather Chaplin and Aaron Ruby. The book contains candid interviews and profiles with such noted videogame figures like Cliff Bleszinski, Nolan Bushnell and Will Wright. Read it not just because it's a good book, but because it's practically an anomaly in the world of games journalism.

So far, I don't see a real resolution. Alexander notes that games need to be more culturally relevant, and that's certainly true. I think the pursuit of serious games journalism goes hand-in-hand with making serious games. Roger Ebert won the Pulitzer Prize for film criticism, and he was the first person to do so. Can you imagine anyone winning a Pulitzer for writing about games? I sincerely hope that the answer will one day be emphatically yes.


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  2. You don't see David Geffen get interviewed on MTV, but you do see Lady Gaga. You don't see Jerry Bus (owner of the Los Angeles Lakers) at press releases, you see Kobe Bryant.

    What the videogame industry needs are not journalist insects crawling their way into the corporate offices... it needs SUPERSTARS for journalists to write about. It needs someone to put on a SHOW. As long as the games themselves are the exclusively entertaining part of the industry, then public interest cannot extend past buying the games and playing them.

    The videogame industry is like the computer industry, it's run mainly by businessmen and programmers. The big difference is that the game industry needs writers, and these writers are the closest thing the industry has to true insider journalists.

    So until the game industry gets better role models than this guy,

    don't expect there to be much improvement.