Games Journalism and Framing

Watching X Factor last night was a bit…weird, to say the least. I can say I am a consistent viewer of American Idol from its first season to now, so making the adjustment wasn’t too hard. After all, both of them are singing shows, to some extent, and both involvement harsh criticism (AI less in recent years) of people who sing badly. Simon Cowell alone makes the show worth watching, I’d say.

Can you resist that lovely face? And the bile that comes out of it?

What I noticed most of all, however, was the responses that the judges gave certain contestants over others. Some had stories of their success and the things that they accomplished; others had pasts filled with emotional abuse. Now, if you’re quick on the uptake, the former tend to fail completely and utterly when they pridefully mention their own greatness, while the latter tend to perform excellently, resonating with the audience both through their story and whatever song they sing.

It’s probably just as much a result of editing as the contestants themselves, but the judge’s responses certainly aren’t scripted outright. They’re experiencing performer X for the first time, but they don’t realize that by asking that particular person about their past, they actually change their own opinion by default. In a way, they’re “framing” their own opinion through empathy. It’s difficult to say no when somebody’s sobbing on stage about their personal problems AND put on a decent vocal performance, I’d imagine.

Good old Wikipedia gives us a good definition of this “Framing effect”: an example of cognitive bias  in which people react differently to a particular choice depending on whether it is presented as a loss or as a gain. Would it be a loss to lambaste a distressed person on stage, and wouldn’t it appear as a bit harsh? Certainly! There’s nothing to be gained from eliminating someone that early, especially if their voice is mediocre; they can be quietly eliminated when their five minutes of fame are up.

Now, I’ve remarked before that I am amazed that Rockstar games continue to get high rankings; I hated GTAIV (which I do plan to try again, although I doubt I will like it), yet every mainstream publication doted upon it like it was the greatest game ever made. To wit: the original release of the game garnered a 98 Metacritic score; that’s out of one hundred, and that’s simply an aggregate! The PC version, released many months later, received a 90, considerably less (although much of that ranking was due to the technical problems with the engine).

Which you can’t see in still screenshots, but it was definitely a problem four years ago.

Public opinion since then has degenerated to the point where GTAIV has become a significantly flawed but ambitious project in the gaming world. The idea of friendships and dating didn’t work. The story was mediocre. Missions were boring and repetive. Yet, somehow, it could obtain high scores without so much as a genuine review in the lot. The hype overtakes the actual content. If there’s anything I am not quite clear on, it’s how a hundred different reviewers can, through some bout of collective unconscious writing, all universally agree that this is exactly how the game should be reviewed and/or described. Maybe the publishers told them they needed to cover certain things, maybe not. The firing of Jeff Gerstmann from GameSpot was due, in part, to his negative rating of Kane and Lynch: Dead Men, which was actively advertised on GameSpot at the time. Yet, he goes back to work for the exact same company (GiantBomb is now owned by cNet or some subsidiary).

The game press represents the very height of incestuous writing. I mean, I’ve never seen so many similar reviews; when people review a game differently from the crowd (Tom Chick being the most well known for such things over the last decade; check the reviews section and you’ll see what I mean, or his infamous negative Deus Ex review), he’s called a “troll” or just being intentionally incendiary to get hits or stir up controversy. Maybe he’s just displaying a personal opinion.

When you think of how games are covered in the modern press, that’s not a surprising result. “Gamers” are less a subgroup than they are “consumers” in the exact same media blitz as every other entertainment field. It can embody consumerism to its greatest extremes, how single screen shots are used as Pavlovian devices for masses of people, how the quality of “games” has deteriorated into some kind of melting pot of movie, music, and game, and how the whole industry is going to collapse someday just from the sheer dearth of great material. Most games today aren’t “games”, but interactive entertainment. That’s a weird position for the industry.

So, they have to frame it. And they frame it well, using screen shots and videos as devices to make the game appear good in advance. If you’re impressed by a trailer, or a preview, or pictures, or any of these things, you may be more likely to buy the product in question. I find myself giving into the same impulse at times, but I have recognition that this is the case. The problem is that many don’t understand this aspect of the industry, and they assume their rationality is part and parcel of their buying habits. But not really! It’s all a form of subtle manipulation, and actually finding out what you like has become increasingly difficult. I couldn’t even find a review of Xenoblade Chronicles on 1Up; that’s because there’s no money in it. It’s a weird system, to be sure, and obscure games that may be innovative get the shaft.

Excessive cynicism isn’t the answer. Nor is a blatant approach of innocence. Reading game journalism is nasty business, and actually requires one to sort what is increasingly manipulative and what’s not. As Jesus says in Matthew 10:

16 “Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; so be shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves. 17 But beware of men, for they will hand you over to the courts and scourge you in their synagogues; 18 and you will even be brought before governors and kings for My sake, as a testimony to them and to the Gentiles. 19 But when they hand you over, do not worry about how or what you are to say; for it will be given you in that hour what you are to say.20 For it is not you who speak, but it is the Spirit of your Father who speaks in you.

Which, bizarrely enough, has interesting parallels to this situation! Those who speak out are put down or relegated to side status, or merely ignored as a crazy kook. Perhaps I’m taking this metaphorical route a bit too far, but it’s the same here or anywhere else. You can’t just be the paragon of total innocence, nor be a horribly cynical person who removes his/herself from the world. Engage, but know that there will be opposition. The truth is difficult to accept; reviews are considered opinions, yet treated as if they were definitive statements on quality.

This applies to life and video games equally. Truth isn’t  always accepted with open arms; it is fought and attacked relentlessly. The Holy Spirit gives us the words to say when we respond in kind. As something Karl Barth would say, our faith meets with God’s faithfulness and that’s where grace comes into the fray. It’s up to the individual to know what’s going on when they digest media and not to accept things at first glance.

That’s how I see it, anyway.

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.