The Pointlessness of Current Videogame Journalism

I hate the videogame press. There, I've said it - after you don't know how many false starts trying to weave that statement into a cleverly constructed sentence, I've just said it outright - I hate (...the majority of...) the videogame press.

Being a part of said clique the feeling of eating my young is beginning to set in as I write this, but whilst reading various magazines and online publications for reviews, previews, features and editorials lately I've had a nagging feeling at the back of my mind which burst forth one morning into a revelation: I don't like what I'm reading one bit. And consequentially and rather unsettlingly, I don't much like most of what I've written in the videogame press in the past, particularly in the area of reviews and previews.

Why this sudden wave of self loathing and revulsion? (Well, to sensationalise it somewhat... I'm not going to cut my fingers off anytime soon as some frustrated artists, with emphasis on the "i", have been known to do.) Well I've just been a bit late coming to the conclusion that the formulaic, child-minded writing-for-the-lowest-common-marketing-denominator style that encapsulates 99% of the mainstream videogame press is a load of crap.

Starting in the most critical area of the videogame press's remit and where I have the most self-doubt about my own writings in the past, reviews and previews have to be the most generic, structured and circumspect pieces of writing which we produce en masse for a public which, despite perhaps doubting its value to them, would still crucify any publication which dared to do it any other way.

Previews are, alongside reviews, the bread and butter of most publications. You can fill up ¼ to 1/3 of a magazine or websites content with them, they're obviously relevant as readers want to know what to expect in six months time as well as a critique of whatever has already arrived, and yet most previews are not worth the paper they are written on.

Apart from a few scolding incidences where old scores are settled via poor previews, such as with the now rather old Red Faction 2, sequel to a game which many magazines ran previews on their covers with such exultations as "Move over Half-Life!" only to have to then quietly do a one page review of the terrible final product tucked away at the back of the publication, most previews are sugar coating.

For one publications do not want to tick off their PR contacts who probably won't be sending them further preview or review copies if the publication trashes a game at preview time.

I would contest that it is at preview time where the press can make the most positive contribution to an otherwise poor game - with constructive criticism, and not, mind, the opposite of the sugar coating we see now and simple-minded trashing of seemingly poor games, the press can affect the thinking of developers so that the final product will be much better received than it would be with great previews and then trashy reviews, which takes away from the standing of the publication as well as sinking many the game.

The other critical element of all videogame press coverage is reviews, and these are not much better off than their preview counterparts, except the author has more of a free hand to give an opinion as opposed to invoking every positive expletive known to mankind in the space of 800 words.

Most reviews follow a simple formula of going through the game, taking apart all the bad points if it is a bad game and sticking a line or two in about its redeeming qualities, if in fact there are any, at the end, or else (if it is a good game) going through all the really good points about the game, and then sticking down the negatives into a paragraph at the end, usually beginning something like "Despite all this, Game X does have one or two minor problems..."

The problem with this, apart from the single-mindedness and near clerical nature of reviewing games, is that picking out good points is almost as subjective as some reviews. Harken back to Half-Life 2 and read all the amazing coverage about gravity guns and reflective water and then go searching for a line or two on all the (far more critical to the overall experience, I would say) atmosphere invoked by the environment of City 17 - because one or two lines is about all you're likely to find in most reviews, as Matt Sakey correctly pointed out in IGDA a year ago.

Rather than being critics who add to the industry as film and music journalists arguably did back in the heady days of the 50's - 70's (though there's a whole other debate in the state of those two branches of critical journalism these days and in the past) videogame journalists are mere extensions of the marketing machine, pushing even the most mediocre of games into a good light with the public in previews and then trashing them for sport to see how many good puns can be dredged out of the 500 words which the author really doesn't want to have to write.

Previews are wasted so as not to annoy the PR machine and reviews are even more by-the-numbers, sometimes also softened in order to keep the marketing hacks well buttered up.

As well as this there is a pervasive childishness running through many publications as they attempt to appeal to the adolescent-minded with crude jokes repeated to the point of being not all that funny jokes in themselves. There is also an arrogance which runs through many in the industry, with the replies to letters and feedback from readers who do not agree with the stance taken by a publication reading more like cheap put-downs as opposed to real responses.

Having been eating my young for the past 979 words you'll note that I haven't named the names of magazines, websites or otherwise for obvious reasons. Apart from libel there is the issue of burning my bridges, and I do want the option of being able to work in the videogame town again at some stage myself, and I daresay this piece being dragged out in a few years will not do me many favours with all but a few.

This also means that I can't name the names of the rather decent publications, blogs and even one or two mainstream writers and publications which manage to do a decent job and push the envelope somewhat, though still not to the extent of being worthy of many accolades for real critical contribution I'm sorry to say.

It is up to you as the reader to decide if the sugar-coated previews with not a negative adjective in their columns are what you really want; though I daresay that as consumers of these publications we do not help the situation by our complacency in it. The Powers That Be would be more than happy to let the videogame press roam at least somewhat more freely if it was what sold magazines and attracted eyeballs to websites, and so the old clichéd adage of "Voting with your feet" must be applied.

I wouldn't expect an overnight change from the current superficial to a superfluous model of videogame journalism, but a gradual expunging of the arrogant, child-minded and ultimately pointless style of writing and mindset would be more than welcome, and perhaps essential if the videogame press is to survive as videogamers grow up and mature past the age of 16.

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