By request: The impact of games journalism

By request of sebtownsage

The impact of games journalism? About 56 meters per second.


I tend to be fairly philosophical about this weird career path I’ve ended up on. I am not exactly changing the world with what I do. Like I mentioned yesterday, I’m writing about escapist diversions for people with both a surfeit of free time and the personal wealth necessary to own a computer or computing device, which is a rather small percentage of the world. It’s not exactly on a level with the Peace Corps, or a suicide prevention hotline, or an interpreter at the United Nations. At some point, I will probably write a retrospective about Boogerman. That sort of self-realization tends to instill a sense of humility in a man.

But looking beyond myself to the work that surrounds me… sure. Games journalism has had some impact over the years, especially if you expand the definition of “journalism” to what it actually means (creating and publishing editorial content whether factual or opinion-based) as opposed to the bizarrely narrow definition that people on gaming forums use when they sneer about games “journalists.” There’s a tendency among certain people to cripple the term journalism by limiting it to news reporter; I have no idea if this is true for other facets of the press, but it’s curiously pervasive around these here parts.

At its most basic level as a vehicle for offering consumer advice, games journalism has had plenty of impact. Think reviews. For all that I see people haughtily proclaim that they don’t deign to take advice from game reviews, someone out there must be looking at scores, because there are certain publishers and PR who get really bent out of shape about scores they find unsatisfactory. There are probably publishers who still cancel ad buys and boycott publications because of review scores, though I’m happy not to know about those situations — it’s kind of tough to be objective when you know someone is effectively holding a knife to the throat of your livelihood.

But let’s assume that the entire world has evolved beyond the need for game reviews, that people only read them for kicks — to confirm their assumptions and have their opinions corroborated — and even so, reviews still had a pretty good run. I know I certainly used to pore over magazines to look for high scores and unexpected praise. A great review score in EGM could reinforce my enthusiasm for an anticipated release or whet my appetite for some game I’d never heard of. And of course I figured anything that showed up on the cover of Nintendo Power had to be worth buying, which is how I ended up with Metal Storm (awesome!) and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (d’oh).

But we can be less glib and reductive about this, too. I actually do think the games press — both large and small — has played a valuable role in changing the way people think about video games. Or rather, in making people think about video games. Certain I can credit my own heightened awareness of the medium and the mechanisms behind it to a string of excellent issues of Next Generation in the mid ’90s and, a few years later, some great pieces in EGM as the magazine reinvented itself into something richer and more substantial than a gallery of screen photos from Japan. Not that I minded the “galleries of screen photos from Japan” era; those early glimpses of games that sometimes made their way to the U.S. and sometimes didn’t were always interesting.

That spirit lives on today as the games press occasionally steps back from republishing one another’s regurgitated news bits to say, “Hey, maybe we can think about games in a different way.” Sometimes those efforts are very clumsy and embarrassing, it’s true. But sometimes they offer food for thought. Sometimes they open people’s eyes to other perspectives, other ways of thinking, other needs and concerns. They can fill people with the desire for games to aspire to be more, or for games to work more effectively, to be more ambitious.

They can also fill people with blind rage and deep distrust. The weekly “LOL games journalism” thread on NeoGAF is always fascinating, just to see how frequently people will complain about the same damn things. Every single week, as it turns out.

And fair enough; there’s some pretty terrible work in the world of games journalism. But those, I would say, are the tiniest exceptions to the rule; the games press just as often (if not moreso) provides great value. Even if you don’t care about reviews, think of all the great insights you’ve seen into your favorite developers or games or creative personalities through interviews and profiles. Games journalism has helped spread a better understanding of the challenges and processes and flaws and potential of the medium. Like everything, it has its share of crap, but at its best it can heighten your enjoyment of and appreciation for a favorite game.

Of course, a lot of the best writing has to come from small sites or independent bloggers. (Not all of it, but a lot of it.) Because great writing rarely pays the bills nearly as effectively as material crafted specifically to generate headline clicks. But I suppose that’s OK, too. Little acorns and great oaks and all of that.

Anyway — I think this trilogy of posts has been quite enough on this topic. Next time, a less navel-gazing topic. Maybe I’ll do the horse racing request. Or the Scott Sharkey one.

12 thoughts on “By request: The impact of games journalism

  1. i look forward to seeing how you integrate my request for Dim Sum into this string of introspective essays.

  2. The best stuff these days seems to come in the form of histories and retrospectives, old dev and industry folks that are just now starting to tell their stories from the 80’s and 90’s. With how closed off most of the developers are now, stories covering the present day industry tend to come off as very speculative. That or its someone breaking a big (usually unfortunate) story. Maybe that’s the biggest sign of games entering mainstream culture. No news is good news and things were always better in the past.

  3. You may not be “changing the world,” but I appreciate and enjoy your work. Whether it’s Retronauts or your editorial work at 1up or USGamer, or the stuff you post here, it is consistently entertaining and insightful. Reading a critical analysis of the games of my childhood or my favorite TV shows (Mad Men) is such a welcome escape from the weight of “real life.” Thank you!

  4. You mention that some gamers often confuse “games journalist” with “news reporter.” I suspect that’s due to the medium, and by extension its press, being relatively young. No one ever called Ebert a “movie journalist;” he was a reviewer, or a critic.

    I suspect that as games become a more legitimate, recognized form of entertainment (I won’t say the A word), and the press expands, then perhaps we will see a more defined divide between “reporter” (or blogger) and reviewer/critic. Or maybe not, I dunno.

    • I dunno, man, journalism itself has been a profession for a long, long time. The definition of the word is pretty well established.

  5. I feel like game journalism is really hitting its stride recently. I really like in-depth retrospectives and think pieces over bog-standard previews and there’s a lot more writing like that lately.

    As for reviews themselves, they don’t usually influence my purchases, but I still like to read them. I feel a well written review can bring out details, good or bad, I never noticed in a game.

  6. I think your writing lends the whole genre (?) a sense of introspection and sophistication that’s actually pretty rad. Keep up the good work!

  7. Most people that pejoratively joke about game journalism are living in their mother’s basement. How do I know this? I conducted a poll.

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