When does a fan become a critic? When does a critic become a writer? When does a writer become a journalist? In these times of “fake news”, clickbait, polarised debate and a watering down of mediums, these questions should be the ones that everyone asks. Journalism, as a whole, is an industry under siege. Games journalism is a sector that seems to take a lot more hits than most.
In my day job, writing news for a business audience, I’m sheltered from this somewhat; venture out of that commercial bubble and into the consumer space and it’s a different matter entirely. For writers in the games industry, one conjures up images of the beleaguered defenders on the Hornburg in Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, grimly staring out onto an audience of braying, torch-bearing Uruk-hai ready to attack at any moment. Make a small mistake, like playing DOOM or Cuphead wrong, and you can expect that horde to charge, pikes levelled.
According to figures compiled by Ukie, the UK’s only trading body for videogames, the global audience for games stands at around 2.6 billion people. The market itself is predicted to be worth $128.5 billion by the end of 2020. The gaming penetration rate amongst children (aged two to 17) in the United States has grown to more than 92%. These figures are huge, and the pressure placed on journalists within this sphere are probably only comparable to those in the film and music industries.
The problem with critical media is that (in most cases) it is entirely subjective. A well-made videogame could be a best-ever title for one person and a middle-of-the-road experience for another. To this end, a good journalist will always ensure that their own personal bias doesn’t creep too heavily into their judgment of a piece of media. Despite that, we’re all capable of mistakes. I gave XCOM 2 a 10/10 at the time of release, in a move which I now regret. The game is still fantastic, but I probably should have knocked a point or two from the score for problems around its release and the effect that was having on other players.
I’m digressing slightly, but the fact remains that journalists, no matter the medium, should attempt to present an undiluted experience of the media to the consumer. There’s an argument to be had that a Gonzo style is more entertaining, but purely from a critical standpoint, a reader wants to know one concrete fact when they look at a review: “is it any good?”.
But, with the ever-tightening belts of publishing houses slicing staff across the board, suddenly the reviewer has to do news reporting and the news reporter has to do video features. Before you know it, you have multi-faceted, multi-talented staff members working across reviews, videos, features, news, listicles and streaming. From an editor-in-chief’s perspective this is fantastic - why have a team of ten when you can have a team of five, or three? This business decision places the journalist front-and-centre of proceedings, and often means that the most personable and best client-facing of them become the crème de la crème.
In a world ruled by the Internet, YouTube and digital publishing, interactive media is king. YouTube critics and commentators, through sheer personality, volume of content and audience-first strategy, have found themselves elevated to the same level as journalists. Why trust IGN when you can trust TotalBiscuit? Why go to Gamespot when videogamedunkey provides you with all you need? The list goes on. To combat this new breed of competition, video-first, personable editorial strategies have emerged. No longer are journalists just small avatars next to bylines, now they are full-fledged media personalities.
This fact was underlined for me when I saw journalists attending a meet-and-greet at an industry show. Hang on, I thought. Aren’t these supposed to be for celebrities? Journos do tend to have a larger following than most due to the front-facing nature of their work, yet the “games journalist” appears to have attained a special level of attention from the masses. This is in no way a bad thing. Most of the popular videogames journos out there are exceptional at what they do. Juggling the plates of reporter, YouTuber, critic and analyst is a gargantuan task and I do not envy them. The problem is what their audience takes away from this.
One of the major factors of digital publishing is that everyone can have a go. With some capital, a small starting team and a domain name anyone can try to establish themselves. All the “contacts” they have are often dredged from a one-time sign-up to a press release distribution network. Still, once a wannabe editor has got their site design, brand name and social profile sorted, they need only cast the net out via a few well-placed adverts to find writers eager to snap up any chance of exposure.
So, why do they do it? Is it to break into the journalism industry? Surely they could do that through the scores of openings at B2B and small-time publications in different sectors? Maybe they just want to get into the games reporting biz. Who could blame them? It’s only the most underpaid, oversubscribed and perilous sector in the industry - what fun! Maybe it’s to improve their writing? But why apply for a full-time position if you weren’t already sure of your ability? How many simply just want to be Internet famous and rack up the followers, and avoid entering that most awful of places: the real world?
Perhaps I’m being unfair - I’m sure there are a handful who genuinely just want their voice heard and more power to them for that, but they should still be aware of how unscrupulous editors can take advantage of them. For every full-time journalist and freelancer, there are guaranteed to be dozens, if not hundreds, of people wanting a way into the industry. For videogames, take those figures and multiply them by ten. Polygon received well over 1,000 applications for its recently-advertised games reporter job. I know of financial journals and websites that only average between 10-15 applications per position.
Why are people applying in such numbers for gaming sites? The easiest answer is, of course, that they want to be paid to play videogames. Yet there’s often more to it than that. One needs only to look at the Brash Games controversy to know that there is a wealth of people willing to write for absolutely nothing to play videogames, as well as editors ready to take them on with no regard towards career progression, feedback or support.
How does this refer to the first paragraph of this article? I see far, far too many people on Twitter, on half-baked publications and on blogs, calling themselves “journalists”. To be fair, the definition of the term is fraught with peril. Despite five years in the tech and finance industry and well over 2,000 stories published, I have never received an NCTJ or journalism qualification - in the eyes of some that means I’m still not a journalist.
A quick glance through the wannabes’ work will reveal a glut of mistakes that would make any editor worth his salt wince in anguish. Again, amidst the slush are a bunch of genuinely talented writers, looking for their chance in an industry that is extremely difficult to break into. They are in the minority. The voluntary brigade often out-shout and out-produce them. Free is free, so wannabe sites will take on wannabe writers and accept their mistakes, non-existent understanding of copyright law, poor syntax and awful proofreading skills and give them a platform.
“If we’re talking in terms of videogames, I don’t think you can go from enthusiast to journalist after publishing one 200 word rewording of a press release, you need to upgrade and grind to reach that max level,” a reporter, who writes regularly in print and online, told me. “I contribute to an industry-leading weekly publication but have never once considered myself a journalist. I might have journalistic tendencies and great sources in the industry, but as it stands, I’m a reporter. I report on breaking news stories and controversies.
“There are instances of fantastic games journalism in the industry. Names like Jason Schreier and Patrick Klepek really digging around and pulling up 1,000s of words of insight, but for every one of those guys there’s literally thousands of people who say they don’t like game X on their blog and demand the same credentials. Until my job title says otherwise, let’s leave the journalism to the journalists, the writing to the writers and the sass to the internet commentators.”
The phenomenon of “fake news” is fuelled by such problems in the industry. The pyramid of journalism is built on unstable ground, and now its base is crumbling beneath it. “We can’t trust games journalists anymore” cry the masses on 4chan, Reddit and Twitter. “They can’t write; they can’t play games.” Can you blame the truly talented journalists for fleeing a sinking ship (one that pays them awful wages in the first place)? They escape to editorial chairs, press relations roles or positions in the games companies themselves. What’s left to fill their place? Twitter journalists and writers molly-coddled by their voluntary-only employers into believing they’re actually good at what they do. Quality drops, consumer confidence drops, complaints rise and the whole cycle starts anew.
At the end of the day, a journalist is a person. They are not an infallible celebrity, and they are not here purely for the entertainment of their audience. They are there to provide crucial information, whether good or bad. By hounding the experts, veterans and impartial writers away, readers are only muddying the water further.
We are at a tipping point, where truly impartial journalism could be soon replaced by false-faced corporate-bought commentators, plugging the latest AAA release because it gets them ad revenue on YouTube. Or worse, by a horde of inexperienced, error-prone newbies stumbling from one controversy to the next. It’s not an issue that can be fixed easily, but it’s one that must be repaired before it goes too far. To quote Henry Ford: “a market is never saturated with a good product, but is very quickly saturated with a bad one”.