Personally, I’ve grown weary of the boring debate about what games journalism is. Like other debates this industry breathlessly engages in every month, such as the are social games real games and girl gamer arguments, I used to fight them before I realized that it was pointless to waste my breath. Any interest a few people had in the issue was always cast aside by those who had larger agendas in mind (read: their own visibility), and nothing ever got done. It still doesn’t to this day. The games journalism debate is one that I once fought so hard about that I started the very site that you’re reading this on. For years, I’ve thought that games journalism has been a hand-holding clusterfuck of journalists who only want to rub elbows with their idols and public relations people who are only to keen to exploit the sucker-born-every-minute that waddles into press events to be able to tell their friends that they played a game before it was released. Since starting Gaming Bus over a year ago, my attitude has gone from “Games journalism sucks!” to “Yeah, games journalism sucks.” It’s so epidemic that it’s hard to get worked up about it anymore.
Of course, the past week has brought on more mouth-breathing on where games journalism is, has been, or is going. I won’t waste words rehashing the sordid tale of Rob Florence’s article on Eurogamer and the ensuing debacle that is everything Lauren Wainwright has done since the article went live (anyone who doesn’t know, copy a classmate’s notes). Her ensuing actions have been so blatant that they’ve taken away from the hilarity of Geoff Keighley sitting among a table of Doritos and Mountain Dew, ashen faced, like a prisoner of war forced to do a video by his captors. “I have been treated well… I have access to medical care, an Xbox 360 with Halo 4, and three square meals of Nacho Cheese Doritos with delicious Mountain Dew Game Fuel…”
I went through the usual stages: agreeing with Rob’s big point, aghast that a journalist threatened a libel suit against another one1 to stifle what was minor criticism; and everything that came about afterwards, showing a woman so shameless in her lack of ethics that she reminded me of Rebekkah Brooks and not just because they’re both female British journalists. In it, there was this need for the usual suspects to have yet another debate about games journalism, with a lot of those people saying the same things they say every single time. Over the years, I’ve learned it’s a pointless debate because games journalism will never change.
I Used to Hate I.T.
The main reason for my aversion to this argument is I used to be one of those Very Serious People (™Paul Krugman). In fact, I was so serious that it’s the main reason I started Gaming Bus; I wanted to get away from the hand-in-hand relationship that most outlets have with publishing public relations firms. Virtually any site with any kind of presence has one, and they make absolutely sure to stick to it. There are many reasons for this, with the major one being the fact that reviews, especially reviews that hit right at the embargo point, are usually the biggest drivers of traffic for a web site. The other reason, and something I’ve learned since starting Gaming Bus, is that the promise of getting games for free is how sites draw in 99% of their writers. I’ll touch on this more farther down.
Losing companies because of reactions to bad reviews, or even not-good-enough reviews, is a common occurrence, and I’ve seen a lot of companies blacklist organizations for some of the stupidest reasons possible. It’s been stated ad nauseum, but it bears repeating: in the relationship between outlets and publishers, the outlets are the prison bitch; they’re completely at the mercy of the companies who deign to grace them with their presence. I don’t like relying on the goodwill of others with a financial interest, nor do I care to beg, so my attitude towards PR has been an antagonistic one: we’ll work together, but on my terms. I have a few positive relationships with some of the more progressive outfits, but I assure everyone Aileen has a difficult job as the public relations manager for a business with a stated ambivalence towards public relations.
Of course, my ideals on what Gaming Bus is and can be don’t bring as much money in via advertising, which is heavily reliant on hit counts. I applaud Penny Arcade’s efforts to Kickstart their way around that while still running a massive media enterprise, because the reality is that advertising isn’t going away as the dominant revenue module in this heavily competitive industry. I’ve done what I could to keep my site independent, and I’ve succeeded in the independent part at least; every advertiser on my site, whether through Project Wonderful or my affiliates, is personally vetted and selected by me. The good news is that I have a trusted list of companies and that they get a good deal of traffic from my site, but the bad news is that they don’t pay the bills sufficiently. I could eschew that, run with everything, and go with a more volume-driven approach, but that would destroy everything I’ve worked towards to this point.
Most video game sites are not beholden to such naive ideals. They’re there to make money, or at the very least make back their costs. Furthermore, writers are a dime-a-dozen. Very few games writers are trained in journalism, so you get a perfect storm: poorly trained writers who are raised on bad content, unaware or uncaring of the ramifications of how things actually work, writing for sites who would sell their souls for a few bucks or a couple more games.
One of the hardest lessons I’ve learned in writing professionally about games and the industry for six plus years is that, for all of the bitching, moaning, and complaining that we do about the intrinsic issues that affect both the video game industry and its press, nothing will ever get done to rectify it. There are numerous reasons that can be extrapolated and broken down, but it ultimately breaks down to one thing: what are the numbers. Simply put, the numbers say that people will click the garbage. Previews of a game? Screenshot posts? Reporting first and fact-checking later? Hits, hits, hits. When someone catastrophically screws up or misreports something, everyone goes to the site, bitches about it, bitches more, then keeps going back. We’ve talked about the Streissand Effect a lot in regards to Ms. Wainwright’s Quixotic quest to protect an integrity that wasn’t even really being threatened, but let’s face it: while researching this piece, I had to plug my nose and go to MCV’s web site. I guarantee you I would not go to that tabloid-quality place if not for this sordid affair.
Ultimately, it’s those hits that matter, and literally nothing else. Remember when Gizmodo ran a piece by a woman who made fun of her OKCupid date with Jon Finkel2 mainly because of what he was famous for and not who he is? Everyone called her nasty names, right? I said at the time that it didn’t matter because Gawker was raking in the hits, and she laughed all the way to the bank thanks to her hit-count bonus. If posting naked breasts in every article regardless of what is being written about drew hits without the consequential negatives that would override hits in the long run, someone would do it and they would make serious bank. The names on the byline, with the exception of a select few such as Jim Sterling and Ben Kuchera, are almost irrelevant in most cases. Sites know that they can replace literally anyone and have no impact.
This is why Lauren Wainwright was able to go after Eurogamer so hard: she will turn up again and have a future in the industry. While her career as a games reviewer is probably over, she will find a place to write, if only because her notoriety will lead to hits. She could probably even drop the facade of games “journalism” and just tread the well-worn path of others who went completely over to the dark side of publisher PR like Shane Bettenhausen and Nick Chester. Lauren is a terrible person and an even worse games journalist, but I guarantee you she will land on her feet once she shows an ounce of courage and comes out of her self-imposed shell.
When taken to task about not covering this issue, Kotaku Editor in Chief Stephen Totilo dismissed it outright saying, “I don’t think it’s a pretty important story. I think it’s the same tired nonsense about games journalism that some folks love to carry on endlessly about.” His comments have received criticism and he has since apologized for his tone, but they ring true: we’ve been having the argument about games journalism now for the entirety of my time in the games press, and it’s ended the same way each time: we’ve gotten bored, found something else to bitch about, and nothing’s changed. Our viewers have determined that this is simply not important; they are completely in the thrall of the very system we deride and yet work in every day. They still accuse us of being biased if we give their favourite game a low score, they still do the same if we give one they don’t like a higher score, and they do it at all points in between. As a writer with soft skin, it’s troublesome; but for an editor, it should be noted that my highest hitting pieces have always been my most controversial and my most polarizing. It could even be argued that bad journalism is good business.
At one time, I would have screamed from the mountain tops about this issue, called for a boycott of MCV, and asked for Lauren Wainwright to be blacklisted from working in video games ever again. I would certainly not mind any of these things occurring, and I particularly root for bad things to happen to Ms. Wainwright for crossing an unforgivable line. However, at thirty-two years old and having been writing for over a decade now, I’m simply too jaded to care beyond grunting at our continuing embarrassment and watching others move onto the next item in the Great Internet Debate rolodex. My pressing question: will the next one be about the slow death of too many sequels, or will it be about the breathless panting about the freemium market? Please tell me what it will be in our comments so I know which prior argument I can cut and paste.
1 – The real issue is that “libel” is an absolute joke in England. We talk about our press, and how corporate owned it is, but at the very least, no one is going to sue Fox News or MSNBC for anything they say; it doesn’t stand a chance in court. On the other hand, the burden of proof is on the defense in Britain, and the results of an arbitrary process can literally destroy companies. Eurogamer made a sound financial decision that, as shown above, will have no discernible impact on them.
2 – I can’t link it right now because Gawker’s data centre is still out due to Hurricane Sandy.