One of the things I learned early in my career as a journalist is something I’ve come to realise is so obvious that I should have never had to learn it in the first place: a journalist should never have an opinion that they don’t have the evidence or plenty of experience to back up.
It’s a mantra that a lot of games journalists need to learn. Whether they realise it or not, putting digital ink to a publicly-available digital piece of paper (in other words, writing for a website), can be hugely influential. Journalists are capable of shaping bad opinions, and spreading misinformation. Essentially, being wrong has consequences.
That’s not to say that journalists can’t have opinions that others disagree with. In fact, one of the most important jobs of a good journalist, I believe, is in opening discussion and being the instigator behind the flow of ideas. But it can’t be a case of the blind leading the blind. A journalist needs to accurately represent the issue at hand for a productive discussion to occur.
But, as I look around the Internet, I find all kinds of examples of “armchair experts;” and it’s these people who ensure games journalism remains down the very bottom of the barrel in terms of not only ethical reporting, but quality writing.
The armchair expert is notable for a few things. They know a lot about games, and so they’ve developed a deep passion for games and, as thinking beings, have decided what they like and don’t like about the industry. That’s the good bit. But then they make assumptions that are based purely on their own subjective opinions. As just one example (and I’m sorry for calling this website out in particular, but it just happens to be around – there are plenty of other similar examples out there of all sizes), because the armchair expert doesn’t like timed exclusives, timed exclusives become “shady” business practices.
In other words, going beyond knowing a lot about games, many games journalists assume that they’re qualified to comment on the games business. The author of the aforementioned article has a BA in English. This means she can write, and that’s great, but it hardly qualifies her to pass judgement on the business practices of major global corporations. Or another common example: games journalists with no background in marketing whatsoever are happy to tell Sony that “they” (a common error that bugs me – businesses are not people, they are “it” not “they”) need to advertise more and all “their” problems will be solved.
I’m inevitably drawn to this thought: do games journalists walk into operating theatres to instruct a surgeon how to perform heart surgery because they’re big fans of medical shows? Or do they walk into an airplane cockpit and tell the pilot they’re “doing it wrong” after playing a flight simulator? No, of course not. So why do they think they understand business better than a CEO of a company, who has likely been doing business for 20, 30, 40 years? A CEO can be a bad businessperson, just as a pilot can be a bad pilot and a surgeon can make mistakes, but that doesn’t mean the typical games journalist knows why they’re bad. Business is a profession, not a study, and it’s only learned through practical experience.
Of course, we all pass lay judgement on corporations, politics, religion and everything else imaginable in our private conversations, on Twitter and on Facebook. I don’t need to know much about being a President or Prime Minister to know I don’t like what they’re doing, and I say as much regularly amongst my social circles. People are social animals, and people have opinions. This is of course fine. But journalists have an ethical responsibility to be accurate and balanced, and not just throw out random opinions. Unfounded opinions and unsupported analysis are never going to legitimise what will become a very important form of journalism in the future – this is why I refrain from writing about politics.
In most other forms of journalism, you need to know about the subject matter before you’ll get a job writing about it. Medical writers typically have medical degrees. Business writers usually have either years of experience in trade press or economics degrees. But not games journalists. There are exceptions, of course, but aside from the trade publications like Gamasutra or Edge, the games journalist is usually a student or very young graduate.
Part of the problem is the fact that anyone can buy up a bit of web space and call themselves a “journalist,” but being a good writer is more than being able to string sentences together and having correct grammar. Being a life-long gamer allows you to have an articulate opinion on what is a good game, and what is boring as hell, sure. It doesn’t make you an expert on how games are made and sold.
(Disclaimer, because I just know this is going to come up in the comments – I’ve got 15 years games journalism experience and six years of business journalism, three of which as an editor. I’ve got two degrees, one in media and communications, and another in marketing and commerce. I also care a great deal about the games industry, and I would love to see the journalism side of it come up to standard).
"Part of the problem is the fact that anyone can buy up a bit of web space and call themselves a 'journalist,' " –– I've come to believe that "games journalism" not up to snuff when compared with other types of journalism, in particular, which is one of the reasons why people gripe about the current state of the games writing community. Regarding the quote above, do you think the influx of people who can say whatever they want wherever they want on the internet has negatively impacted other types of journalism, or are we seeing it most in the games industry? I have a feeling the answer is a big fat yes but I'd be curious to hear more about how game journalism stacks up against say business journalism these days.
Anyways, I wanted to just put it out there that I personally do not go so far as to call myself a games journalist. I'd say myself and many others who write about games these days are just that, games writers
To be honest I can't compare it to citizen journalism (or blogging, or whatever else you want to call non-professional journalism) in other fields – I don't know whether the writers that cover films or books think they know the business better than the business people there.
I suspect it's the case, though. It's a simple formula – no formal training (in things like ethics or the journalistic process) + webspace + opinions = armchair experts. The games industry is one that inspires a lot of very young writers to have opinions without a subediting or fact-checking process. When it comes to the business side of things, these folks can't be expected to understand how it all works, but they comment anyway.
All that said, there are so many good game writers out there – everyone in my "website friends" list there are impeccable in being citizen journalists but only making claims they're able to back up. You know what they say about rotten eggs and batches, though 😉
ah yes, that's a problem alright. those so-called journalists are some kind of necessary evil – the industry (forgive me talking about "the industry" here) needs them, and even more importantly indie gaming. there simply needs to be a "word on the street" that can be used as a cheap and important marketing tool. so that's where all the blogs and smaller websites fit in. but yes, you are absolutely right – those writers should not try to overreach. it doesn't work in other fields, and it definitely doesn't work in games journalism. this small niche of journalism is, however, really interesting. I do hope it will evolve into something glorious one day. but not this day, apparently. games journalism has long way to go.
As someone who has insecurities about my place in all of this, I appreciate your viewpoints on the matter, Matt.
I'm glad you brought up the point about productive discussion as that is exactly what I love to see when it comes to games journalism. However, when this becomes a turnabout or scapegoat for presenting thin or even, as you said, unfounded attacks, then I start to question its role and really the roles that people are decidedly playing.
I realize this is a longer discussion as I feel I have all these thoughts in the back of my mind about the present state of games journalism, where it's going, and the role I'm playing (if any), but I would love to read and engage in more discussions like this in the future.
I have seen good games get dumped on in reviews with no solid reasons which resulted in it getting other people spreading an incorrect rumor that the game was bad until other people actually started playing the game for themselves then they realized its cool to read reviews and get someones opinion but then read 3 more of the same game review maybe on different sites and then use all the diff. thoughts to make an educated guess on if you should get the game or not. This is also why i think it is huge for game companies to put out a good demo for a game at the same time as launch so that people can experience the game at the same time they are reading these different reviews.
" Or do they walk into an airplane cockpit and tell the pilot they’re “doing it wrong” after playing a flight simulator? No, of course not."
The community for a popular AAA review game site troll-voted for a niche simulator to be 'reviewed' for friday funnies because they were baited to. The two junior reviews tasked with playing the game on live stream were laughing and mocking all the way through not having not read the instructions or understanding what they are doing either in game or the genre the title was simulating. Is this appropiate for a AAA respected game publication?
I saw this happen today, which disapointed me as I had respect for this particular publication that I am reffering to and its staff. Friday Funnies I can understand but communities can be impressionable.If you dont know something, do research or ask. Its not hard. I guess seriousness isnt what some auidences want to see or hear?
Plenty of videos of people making a mockery of GTA4 and various
simulators on youtube If I want to see 'doing it wrong' or 'crash
Also because a title is on sale in steam for $3 doesnt mean its crap by default either.
Can I ask which game that was? You don't need to mention the publication, but I'm a big fan of these niche simulators you speak of 🙂
Also, thanks for dropping by! Glad to see we encouraged you to drop in from Twitter 🙂
Railworks 3:Train Simulator 2012.
I did tweet the editor of said site saying it was not a good time to mock a sim given MS Flight's cancellation but no reply – I dont think he took me seriously.
For those who have not heard. MS Flight was canceled this week and there are various reports in the professional game media regarding the outcome for the staff and projects. Anyone who has been following what MS Game studios has been doing over the years can grasp the signficance of these annoucements both to staff and projects.
MS Flight was the final hope for all simmers of all genres, due to its legacy/lineage and the fact it was Microsoft behind it who decided to give their own sim brand one more try after many canceled attempts and studio reorgansiations.
I had a more detailed post prepared regarding why I know this software is not crap due to years of experience with the software and sim community but I don't seeing what the point was of going into detail.
A true gamer likes many types and genres of games?
Railworks is exactly the kind of game I would like, haha. I love the Farming Simulator games, for instance.
And yes, I heard of the Flight Sim news. Very sad indeed 🙁
Incidentally, Mad Catz (the people behind the Saitek/Cyborg range) are launching an online flight sim soon. It's supposed to be a realistic, military-themed, combat MMO. Hopefully it should scratch that Flighty itch.