Insomnia | Commentary

State of the Gaming Media

By Jon Rose / December 11, 2008

I've been mulling this over in my head for a while, and it's been sort of slippery because all the key points of the industry are so screwed that the issues tend to bleed into each other really easily, but one thing that's always bothered me is the rather narrow view the gaming media has toward the industry itself. Specifically, it's the way that each region seems to be only minorly aware of the others; even in matters of discussion, UK gamers tend to gravitate to UK sites and so on, with little overlap. So most times, everyone ends up preaching to the choir while everyone else remains blissfully unaware, and the only mainstream exception seems to be the odd story on Kotaku or whatever where someone pipes up about how screwed their particular region sometimes gets.

Now, this applies to the media themselves and the way they cover things, and why it's rather stagnant. There are a few really nice attempts at growth, like the recent bit Leigh Alexander did on the salary-fixing of the Montreal industry. Actual journalism, once in place, can help the developers when they're in danger of getting screwed by the publishers, thus making things better? Gee, no wonder no one wants journalism in gaming to exist, and go figure that several former US editors have gone on to work for game publishers. The point here is that we don't have journalism in gaming not because no one wants it or because there aren't any stories to uncover -- but because no one really wants to step up to the plate.

The thing to remember here is that the people with any sort of position in the media are, or at least were, editors of review mags or long-time reviewers, and as such are nothing but glorified reviewers themselves even when they hold journalism degrees. This is a really convenient place for them to be, too, since when they do something that comes close to being valuable they get to suck up that prestige, but when they fall short of what they could be it's "Hey, man, I didn't claim to be anything more". This is why I'm sick of Dan Hsu in particular: I can't think of anyone who is a bigger exemplar of this. Steve Bauman always came close with his industry-apologist viewpoints, but in any case the majority of those in the media have somehow gotten a loftier reputation than they deserve. And they've gamed it for all it's worth.

I think this is part of why they're not really worth much in the eyes of long-time gamers; what they are is ultimately what a lot of us are, and what they do a lot of us do. The conventional wisdom is that the worth of reviews has diminished because people can just pop into a forum and get an opinion on a game. What I see, though, is that a lot of forums are completely worthless for getting a bead on a game in any critical terms. Most popular forums are full of retarded gamers with retarded views. But when you look at the stock of experienced reviewers, they've all worked for or helmed mags that have crappy reviews. So it looks more to me like the bottom has fallen out for crappy "professional" reviewers simply because now we can get the same uncritical views, the same hackery, the same crappiness without paying for a subscription. And since that's the pool from where new reviewers traditionally come, it's all gotten rather rancid. It's exactly inbred.

In addition to that, the inner workings of the traditional media are pretty fucked too, stuck in some circular situation where journalistic spirit would help a lot, but it doesn't grow because there's little done to cultivate it, and in fact there seems to be a lot of effort coming from the inside which tries to squash it. The key position here IS the EiC, which from what I've heard can be a particular wall a writer might ineffectually slam into even when they DO want to shake things up. See any ombudsmen around?

This seems to be a huge bottleneck. What a writer or journalist can do is get the word out about something that's wrong, but what if the person in control gets it up his ass that it's more beneficial to "play ball", or some such bullshit euphemism for being a sycophantic slime? This is probably what gives certain PR doofs such disproportionate sway over things, and what can a writer do about it? The most immediate place to blow it open is his own mag, but the gatekeeper could very well put the kibosh on that. People like Dan Hsu in all his emotionally damaged naiveté would have you think that it's uncommon, but that just doesn't add up. And again, what does he know, since he wasn't smart enough to suss out that he was taking part in a fucking radio advertisement for the PSP? And if it did happen, how would it get out with such a bottleneck in place? Any real media would be wary of one company holding all the cards, but no one in the gaming world seems particularly concerned with Future Publishing gobbling everything up. And yet there are plenty of chewed-up staff writers who have stories that are quite contrary to Hsu's visions of generally blue skies.

This is where blogs come in, but they've also proven useless. They get all this lip service as making print and even online institutions obsolete, but all I've seen them do is all the media has ever done. Interviews that don't ask anything anyone actually wants an answer to, and editorials that can, at BEST, air what a lot of us have already been murmuring for years. This would seem to be the check to the above situation, but they don't bother to be more than what they are themselves. In fact, most of the writers for popular blogs, instead of trying to create something to actually replace the broken old media, are still freelancing in it. It's possible for those with grievances to air to make their own blog, but the problem is that readership just doesn't appear there on its own -- all the big gaming blogs had lead-ins from several other very visible points. And the cherry on top is that the established blogs don't seem that interested in even seeking blogs out, let alone finding real stories on their own. Rock, Paper, Shotgun recently posted a lead-in to a new gaming blog attached to boingboing, a parent site that has about 20 billion times more visibility than RPS itself. Good job there. In fact, most blogs, as we know, are just giant circlejerks that deliberately look in around while merely pretending to look out.

For the editorials themselves, most of them are as vapid as ever, speaking as though they were a knowledgeable authority only because they're assured that no one will ever think critically about what they write. N'Gai Croal gets big readership and, as above, respect, because he's attached to Newsweek, but he's a dingbat. Edge Online just ran a bit by him called Why Co-Op Makes all the Difference, with nary a mention of how we've all been clamoring for co-op for years only to get stonewalled by developers themselves, and their myriad self-serving excuses. "Oh, implementing co-op is hard. But here, look at the product of a few thousand man-hours of coding computational math techniques in our new engine!"

RPS, again, in its floundering attempts at insight, ran a bit by Jim Rossignol that cluelessly echos the same fuckwit excuses: "Despite our love for it, co-op has had a patchy history, and there’s a crucial reason for this: it’s really hard for developers to pull off successfully: the Half-Life games didn’t have a co-op mode, and there’s a solid reason for that. In fact the problems for the people making these games have only become worse over the last fifteen years. This issue is one of complexity."

And it's not backed up by a shred of evidence. It's regurgitating the same idiotic and easily disprovable rhetoric that developers have been spewing. There's no solid reason for the original Half-Life to not have co-op. And funnily enough, it's things like this that make being a long-time gamer the most frustrating, and makes it most feel like the dipshit media is simply not on our side. As players we know that co-op doesn't have to be perfect because the point is largely just to dick around in a game with a pal. The solutions for common arguments like closed doors is easily met with teleporters or, you know, not making such a fucking ramrod linear game. Like HL2, or CoD, neither of which are inherently unsuitable for co-op even WITH such linear design. The whole thing has to do with the modern industry's hard-on for pretentious "cinematic storytelling" that doesn't fucking work anyway, and here we have Rossignol parroting this shit like it was fact. This happens a lot when a writer wants to act like he's working from some knowledge of history. It doesn't even revise what's known; it's reFICTIONist history.

From all this, it's at least somewhat clear that who you know is the major factor in having a foothold in the whole deal, which is somewhat disheartening. Any of us could write the constant stream of meaningless bullshit that passes for regular content, but if these tools were out there writing the same shit on their own without an established readership, they'd be rightly ignored. There's a lot that I think a fair few -- those here at least -- have simply grown past, but everyone else is still stuck on.

This sort of brings me around to the original issue, which is that of a narrow view. There's much that nearly no-one knows, having to do with regions other than our own. Brazil, Japan STILL to a large extent, anywhere they speak languages we don't understand. The media can't even get their own turf right, and they're completely unaware of anywhere else. This could even have wide-ranging effects. I've been trying to find out anything about how things went down in China, and even the precious little I've had handed to me was far more interesting than anything that's come out of the US. There's the way that when the Famicom came out, it basically would've cost the Chinese a year's worth of food to purchase. Still wondering what started those Famiclones? Nintendo didn't seem to even CARE about the region until the DS, and even then it was pretty half-assed: China's DSes are effectively region-locked not by traditional means, but simply because the DSes everyone else got weren't equipped to handle the size of the Chinese character set, suggesting that it wasn't until AFTER the DS release that Nintendo finally started to care about China. The issue of piracy is but one issue that'd be turned on its head if people had the slightest avenue to experience that perspective. The issue of MMORPGs is another. And what do you know, those are two hot issues already. Go-go gadget reporting.

So you have exceptions not only in Leigh Alexander, but in the looks at Korea that Brandon Sheffield and a few others have done for Gamasutra. Any other regions that we're not normally exposed to would be the next step for games writing I think. Just don't tell fuckwits like Kieron Gillen, because he'd have no clue otherwise and probably wouldn't even know what to do about it if he did.

What's also disturbing to me is the way readers -- us -- are perceived. When you think about it, readers aren't merely the end-user or the consumer, but part of the process. It seems like people just look at the readers as the end-point from which nothing comes save for the revenue, but think about things like the EA Spouse deal. Or think of the DRM backlash with Spore. Things where the meat of the change, however small, was in the news filtering down to us. Even with the Spore DRM deal, I think it was an important part of gamers finally saying that they were sick of that shit even though the media itself hasn't been much help. In fact, the media was traditionally in the pocket of the publishers and devs on that matter, and it's only recently that the COMMENTS of such stories are starting to call bullshit. And that's what makes the reader a factor in change. The only real use of blogs, really, is in giving the readers a chance to be heard by a wider audience via whatever moronic story the comments section is attached to. In a weird way, the comments on blogs are having the effect that people think blogs themselves are supposed to have.