Friday, May 7, 2010

Video Game *cough* Journalism

Pardon the recent spate of negative essays. I'll try to get all this out of my system soon.

Here's a conundrum. How do you 'tell it like it is' in an industry where the guys you report on supply your advertising dollars?

Well, if you're reporting on cinema you don't rely solely on running movie ads (Premiere). Or you come out on a less frequent schedule to reduce costs or keep the distribution ambitions for your magazine modest (Video Watchdog). A lot of movie magazines are total ass-kissing fests but they don't try to pretend that they aren't (Starlog, any franchise-specific authorised poster magazine). They don't profess to be journalism. If you see film mags with REAL reviews in them than they aren't beholden to the studios. It isn't that there are NO perks, but generally you can't bribe Roger Ebert, Pete Travers, or any of the reviewers at Fangoria. It doesn't hurt that film reviews are stretched across all sorts of outlets including general lifestyle publications and newspapers.

Music magazines, at least the ones I read, do rely on advertising from the objects of their reportage. Yet somehow they maintain their impartiality. I'm not saying a reader can agree with all views and reviews... they are opinions after all... but you can tell (particularly with a mag like Brave Words & Bloody Knuckles) that the deal is: 'We run your ads but we're going to call it as we see it'. And if that means a record company pulls its ads, so be it. Plenty more where that guy came from. I can even remember a specific example of that... a space of time where John Schaeffer of Iced Earth got into a dispute with BWBK over some article and stopped all cooperation. And really, the music publishers HAVE to advertise somewhere. The framework for information outlets to be critical already exists and there is nowhere else for them to go.

What the fuck game industry? You want so much to be considered legit in similar ways to the movie industry (despite Hollywood's own set of hypocrisies) and yet there isn't a standard by which watchmen are enshrined inviolate. The major mags and sites can barely get enough superlatives out on their keyboards because their hands are too busy ball-tickling while they fellate the game companies. How did we, the gamers, let it get to this state? We (well some of us) want to be taken so seriously as art but we just let legitimate criticism and commentary (necessary in the arts) br spoken only in a few corners of the internet.

Y'know, perks and swag doled out by manufacturers DOES have a place in an industry. AT THE RETAIL LEVEL. As a reward for sellers who sell the products. Or as incentive to push a new/future product. Sellers don't have an obligation to be unbiased. It might help them with their customers if they have legitimate experience-based reasons why they prefer a product. That inspires consumer confidence, but they can reasonably push anything they want. Caveat Emptor buyer. Game magazines and websites, despite the advertising ARE NOT THE SELLERS. Top sellers at fucking Gamestop should be the ones getting free shit on Capcom's nickel not Gamepro's magazine editors.

In other endeavors we call that corruption or bribery. I love the posts on Kotaku and IGN where they talk about the latest package arriving from Konami with all the cool Metal Gear stuff in it or whatever. I don't blame the game companies for doing this actually. If you'd found that sending out swag or threatening to pull advertising got you what you wanted, I can see pursuing those courses. They will pursue any legal means (and a few illegal or unethical) they can to maximise profits. Especially the listed (publically held) ones. But if you are supposed to report on the industry or review their products you're not supposed to be presenting your willing ass to them. Film, print/literature, and television media don't do this, as a rule. Journalism is supposed to be above it.

You can find inependent, uninfluenced voices if you look, but most hi-profile video game information outlets are hopelessly corrupt or are house organs/sanctions like Nintendo Power or Official Xbox Magazine. For the so-called hardcore gamer (whether you identify yourself that way or not, you know who you are) it is easy to find writers voicing their opinions in unvarnished colors on all gaming topics imaginable, including the topic of... yep... video game journalism. But how many hits do these guys get compared to the number seen at Kotaku or IGN? How much exposure and money does Gamespite Quarterly get compared to Gamepro?

A large part of the problem is the masses. The herd.

The more experienced supposedly-'levelheaded' commentators maintain that harcore gamers are a whiny, spoiled lot who are never happy with anything and really shouldn't be responsible for steering the industry. Conversely, the non-hardcore vote with their wallets for the same genres and franchises over and over again. And seem completely indifferent to breaking out of their rut. So we run into this sort of 'I want something new and different' from all the loudmouths, but there aren't enough loudmouths to justify work and assets taken away from Gears of Duty 9, a game directly targeting the common denominator. So a buying public that has its most massive, influential segment not particularly wanting to be informed is not helping.

Most of the gamers I know will by Gears of Duty 9, but will also fork out for the new Treasure, Vanillaware or Cave game. Hardcore maybe, but broad-minded in addition to being outspoken. They are also very much the minority. Joe gamer that goes into Gamestop once a week is going to buy Gears of Duty 9.

It reminds me of a vicious circle Charles L. Grant mentioned. Charles L. Grant is a horror novelist. His brand is a sort of quiet horror more atmospheric than in-your-face. He was talking about marketing, and complained (in a non-strident way) about getting attention drawn to his book. He had a publisher who thought his work warranted a contract and the release of his books, but they still lavished the in-store displays, wall-hangings, and huge spaces in the Barnes & Noble newsletter on the latest Stephen King novel. I don't think Grant has any personal grudge against King, but his point was that King doesn't NEED all that exposure. Its like the publisher is throwing even more money at an author for what is probably a negligible effect, a minor upping, weighed next to all the other publicity a new King work will get. Is that cardboard standup necessary for customers to find out there's a new King novel out? In the case of Grant and other middle-sales authors a cardboard standup could make a profound difference. Especially if it is put right next to the pyramid of King books sure to be located right at the front door of the bookstore. But because this isn't how it is done, King squeaks out a few more sales MAYBE. He also continues to be a golden child that the publisher throws yet more advertising behind, yet the same publisher also wonders why the new Grant novel just isn't selling as expected. So Grant gets LESS attention the next time. No use 'wasting' cash on that under-performer! Let it be said, I have no problems with Stephen King, and in fact he comes across as a fairly generous person most of the time. I don't think he's insisting he get umpteen feet of space and all other authors must defer. Movie celebrities might do that sort of shit, but I'm not accusing King. No, this has marketing suits and their logic written all over it.

But the point is that the game companies are already pushing money by the wheelbarrow-load to their big franchises. So that's what Joe Gamer sees. He also doesn't necessarily understand that there are other games worthy of his time OR a whole world of information that would tell him about it. Even if he's on the internet looking around, if he Googles Gears of Duty 9 the first page of entries is going to be dominated by Gamespot and IGN. Once he's read their 'reviews' (nee mating display) why would he go looking for another? How would he even know there is another view? What would compel him to look?

Nothing really. It is a quality-squashing cycle. The companies know Gears of Duty makes money, so they push Gears of Duty to the detriment of other games. Part of the push is to bribe the media. So when it comes time for Joe Gamer to buy a game all fronts are united, including the supposedly unbiased front, IF Joe Gamer even cared. Which most often seems he doesn't.

So in a way, you might almost look at this journalist corruption as a victimless crime. If the end customer is getting games he's happy playing within the system as it stands, what's the problem? The problem is that Joe Gamer is NOT the only gamer out there even if the others are a minority. And there is nothing wrong with that minority attempting to stand up for games that Joe Gamer could like just as much or more if only given a chance.

Also the situation pisses ME off, so that's justification enough for a major change right there. Even if a review or opinion piece in one of the major outlets was uninfluenced... how would you know? All credibility lies smeared into the journalists' bedsheets post-bukakke session.

See ECM's site (and some of the others in his sidebar) for egregious examples of this whorish behavior as it crops up. I really don't have the energy or the will to run this crap down on a regular basis. Being The Daily Show of the video game world can be their deal and not mine. I'll just bitch when my fed-up-o-meter tops out.

Note: I'm pretty much describing USA and Japan-based media in this rant. The UK-based mags present something of an exception. They DO report on the seedy underbelly of various game company doings, and are critical in their previews and reviews. The problem for me with these periodicals is one of tone mostly. It might be a fine balancing act to be positive without being fawning, but I'll save that for another post.

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