Reality Check: The Machine
Words of Value?
Looking at some gaming ‘news’ headlines over the past week, it’s hard to believe you’re reading about a multi-billion dollar industry: “BioWare developing a new game” is a statement as elucidating as “Eric Clapton has been playing the guitar this month”. BioWare are game developers. It is their job to make computer games. If they weren’t making computer games, that would be noteworthy.
Likewise, “THQ announce they are going to announce an announcement” is vapid rubbish that doesn’t tell anyone anything. In fact, it probably makes the reader less knowledgable by destroying neural links to genuine information.
Most game news reporting is regurgitated non-news churnalism: that’s a sweeping statement, but not an unfair generalisation. It’s so bad that a website called GameJournos aims to highlight the ineptitude of modern games journalism in order to raise standards: unfortunately its style is so standoffish, with articles shouted onto a Postit note stuck to a middle finger, that it’s hard to see the message through the flames.
News was once a regular, infrequent occurrence: print magazines were monthly and therefore so was the news. Finding the latest issue of your favourite magazine was genuine cause for excitement. I got into gaming in the early 1990s (it wasn’t practical to get into it sooner; I was more concerned with mastering walking and eating while breathing) and the print industry was in a state of flux: without the Internet, you’d only learn of a magazine’s demise when it disappeared from the shelves.
Exclusives were exciting, because they came from nowhere: there was no other access to such information. This started to break down around the PS2 era as news and leaks were distributed online, reaching a depressing landmark when Half-Life 2 was stolen from Valve’s internal servers. The mythos surrounding video game development slowly died as journalism’s intrusive tendrils permeated its every crevice. I liked the mystery. I liked reading detailed previews rather than small bursts of information. I liked playing a game without knowing every single moment of it before I’d inserted the disc.
News doesn’t happen 24/7 in gaming: when a game is announced, it isn’t coming out for at least a year. Welcome to the Machine: a continual stream of unsatisfying informational morsels, absorbed and powered by enslaved minds. Like The Matrix, but with junk food instead of liquified dead people for nourishment. If you watched an artist painting every day, it would be dull. We can only appreciate the artwork when it has been completed, and although seeing an uncompleted work is interesting, its power doesn’t compare to a completed piece.
The Internet brings freedom of speech: the freedom for anyone with the ability to mash letters into words to found their own website. There are many terrible ones out there- usually with names like ‘GameBoost’, ‘PorkBarrel’ and ‘XboxForce’- which makes the good writing harder to stand out. These sites cover every game release in large, messy brush strokes. They saturate social media with ‘me-too’ news copied from larger sites and cursory reviews with sections dedicated to ‘graphics’ and ‘gameplay’. Personally, I enjoy reading more focused sites that would never attempt to cover every release. We certainly don’t, because quite frankly, we can’t.
Most of these so-called journalists ultimately want a job in the games development business, and it’s not that uncommon a progression: to name a couple, Gamespot’s Greg Kasavin works at Supergiant Games and produced Bastion, while Old Man Murray’s Chet Faliszek and Erik Wolpaw were hired by Valve to work on games like Left 4 Dead and Portal. A consequence of this is that writers are often fans of the developers themselves, not just the games, and fail to be as objective as they should. Besides, your future employer wouldn’t look kindly on you slagging off their products, so critical thinking is counter-productive to your career plans.
It should be- it needs to be- better than this: less hyperbolic, less sexist, more thoughtfully constructed, less rushed, less plagiarised from press releases and fellow writers, more incisive and investigative, more consciousness-raising, deeper, more personal and yet more objective. As readers, we need a better way to separate the good from bad: a Read and Trust equivalent where we can all read Rock Paper Shotgun and Gamasutra in peace. If anyone knows of such an alliance, let us know in the comments. As writers, we need to try harder and challenge ourselves with every new article to think outside the box, rather than just reading the back of it.
Games journalism is a tumultuous, ever-changing sea of flotsam. Only the bravest treasure hunters will find anything good: the waves of hyperbole crash against their boats, while legend tells of a gargantuan “best game ever” just over the horizon that will swallow all free time whole. Sirens tweet their songs of false significance while transcribing the works of more famous songwriters.
As for me? I’m happy to be a land-lubber: the sea is more attractive from a distance, especially when you’re an unconfident swimmer. But that doesn’t stop me from trying to rock the boat once in a while.
Why not listen to our podcast on the state of the games industry, Industrial Action?
Every week in Reality Check, we tackle the most interesting issues in technology in the usual opinionated, irreverent Split Screen style. You can read past articles here.