#GamerGate, or How Do You Fix Video Games Journalism? Part 1

A just balance and scales belong to the Lord;
All the weights of the bag are His concern.

Proverbs 16:11

I told myself I would not talk about the “Zoe Quinn scandal” (or whatever spin you want to place on that situation), but I do believe the whole event brings up something incredibly important about video games and the journalists who cover them. Or, lots of things. Be prepared; this is going to take a lot of thinking to get through.

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Obsolete

Frankly put, the Internet and game companies alike have made game journalists obsolete, in a sense. Whereas a decade or more ago I would look up to game journalism personalities like the entire staff of Electronic Gaming Monthly, I feel no such connection anymore. Learning more about those editors and writers made them more human, and by definition less trustworthy. Being able to communicate with a celebrity, minor or major, on the Internet totally changes the dynamic. You can see this all over the World Wide Web – the more we know, the less we know. The more authoritative we think ourselves on a particular subject, someone will immediately usurp that standing with more fervor and dedication. Journalists aren’t experts, nor should they be, but that’s beside the point here. Most any subject matter now contains a wealth of people who know more than even the people we placed into positions of power, regardless of the specific topic of interest.

That’s no less true of the games journalism press – they exist in a flawed system where they are seen as experts (as they once were, for all we know), and all they can do is keep the armies at bay through a moat of anger and click-bait (and apparently banning people from discussing topics they don’t like). The way people consume information is different; the rise of the citizen journalist through Youtube and blogging platforms make them completely obsolete. Furthermore, unlike other media, ANYONE can participate in playing a game with no difference from the journalist except for how early they can play it, and even that advantage slowly slips away. ANYONE can become a cultural critic (maybe with a Kickstarter and a smile, perhaps?)

The universality of Early Access, crowd-sourcing, and public access conventions like PAX and Eurogamer Expo mean that even the general public enjoys the same benefits if they seek them. If you want information on a game, more people trust PewDiePie than any one person who writes about games. Just look at how Five Nights At Freddy’s exploded with zero influence of the gaming press – they were, shall we say, fashionably late to the supposed “independent” games party. Gaming pirate radio, for the moment, holds much of the power. As barriers fall, gamers want to know the opinion of other gamers, and Kotaku’s ilk simply do not represent those people anymore. Companies communicate directly with consumers via their own websites, videos, and press releases, removing the middle man (while keeping the review score for a higher aggregate – all they are good for, from a company perspective).

The model of the old has not well-adapted to the new. Rather than covering video games as products – the good old days, for many – video games turned into an “art form” several years ago mostly for the purpose of writing. It was a surprise to me when games like Braid and Limbo got critical acclaim, but I finally understand why: survival. They needed to talk about something different to survive, and it wasn’t going to be the traditional “gaming” subject – hence, “games as art”. That claim has allowed people of a liberal arts stripe to cast the video game media towards articles of particular interest to themselves and to frame the situation for their continual existence. Hey, I have one of those degrees myself, but it’s just too much sometimes!

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A Shift in Authority

Too many video games come out, many of them quite similar to each other; while people like me find such minute mechanical differences fascinating, I hesitate to say a single video game journalist thinks so (excepting the staff at USGamer, probably). This shift away from “gameplay” remains utterly necessary, considering that they would be listing off features and iterations otherwise (yes, this might require them to gather expertise and mechanical depth on video games). Now they can use their degrees and apply them to video games, the qualitative rather than the quantitative. That’s all well and good, of course; if that’s where they want to go, I’ve no problem with that. IGN then goes in the complete opposite direction, keeping the product review angle while offering nothing different except a focus on a particular demographic – the “gamer” as defined by Call of Duty advocates everywhere!

The problem, in reality, remains in the trappings of the original “video games journalism” continue while that same model continues to date itself. Why do they still do reviews, for example? Who exactly are these reviews aimed for? They’re definitely not for the mainstream consumer (barring IGN or Gamespot, about the only two that seem to care about such people in any sense). They still act like the press which housed the sole information vessel, that the games which they point out as notable are really the only ones worth talking about.

Even unique games like NieR and Drakengard fall to the side, simply because they require more than one playthrough to fully see and understand. They still operate under the old model, and somehow can’t display enough independence to take new game experiences on their own terms, instead dealing with them as their own beliefs see fit. What kind of story reporting is that? They mix consumer reports and other strange outside elements for seemingly no reason other than clickbait. Truly, that’s a damning criticism in itself.

The new political slant to the whole business really hasn’t changed their mode of operations, short of conflating a particular worldview to the coverage of video game products, out of all things. Reviews still provide game companies with external (just barely) authentication of their games’ quality, and for that purpose will video game journalism remain…apart from its off time, which holds little relevance to me anymore. Still, they keep the authority while operating under entirely different values – “experience” replaces “gameplay”. And yet, they don’t think it’s important to say this! Why not help both audiences out, and place amicable terms for both sides? Or, at least, writers who can do either/or at equally effective intervals?

Because, why bother? Their new authority isn’t so much derived from legitimate concern as it is from the video game equivalent of “yellow journalism” – that is, the whole Sarkeesian Angle. Journalists place a figurehead (Sarkeesian, Quinn, etc) who discusses controversial issues; said controversial issue makes a whole lot of people, who click and read articles about it, mad and they share with their friends. Said figurehead claims attacks or opposition to their cause, therby leading to their ascendance in their market of choice. How did Sarkeesian become a consultant to multiple video game companies with zero academic research and no degree to match? Now you know! Sensationalism gets hits, and that’s as true on the Internet as it was when William Randolph Hearst turned news into a crime-focused venture that recast events as “morality plays”, for lack of a better term. Legitimate stuff just doesn’t provide the same level of monetary compensation anymore; media scares have always brought in the cash, and that’s no different here than it was when people were scare of music, television or even Dungeons & Dragons!

Or you can call me crazy, say whatever you will. Integrity doesn’t bring in the cash, nor does it let you keep your job. The system’s broken, and gamers blew the whole thing wide open for real this time.

Part Two

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.