If you go on Twitter you’ll notice damn near everyone who writes about video games considers themselves a journalist. If you go to your favorite “news” and review sites and click the “About Us” tab, you’ll see sites claiming they bring you journalism and editorials, and they’ll only be half right. There are only a few actual journalists if any at all, and in the last few years things have gotten worse.
The issue is these “journalists” are really just critics, and that’s okay. As long as entertainment exists there will be a need for critics. Critics are an invaluable resource for consumers and help regular people sort through tons of content and determine what is worth their hard earned dollars. The only thing is, that’s not news, it’s an opinion and now a days the people delivering them can hardly be considered experts. Their opinion isn’t any less valuable than others but it raises the question what are they actually reporting?
Go to a “News” site and every article is just a reworded article about a press release from a developer. Nintendo will announce a new game is in the works, and they write an article stating so. The purpose of the site isn’t to bring you news but to serve as a megaphone for the video game industry. Before Twitter, Facebook and Google+ (yeah, I’m one of the few people on there) the only way to find out about what developers were up to was to pick up an issue of EGM or Gamepro and read an article informing us of what was in the works. Now, companies have the ability to talk directly to their consumers and these sites are repeating what was just said, while adding a little bit of their own opinion.
PaxEast just ended and we’re in the middle of GDC, and this is like the election cycle for traditional news outlets. There’s tons of “news” coming out every hour and journalists are doing a great job turning their site into an information hub, but they’re not investigating or discovering anything. Based on their credentials, they’re just given an opportunity to hear things first and given a (sometimes) large platform to regurgitate it. They get a press badge that allows them into an event, they listen to what is being presented, type it up, post it and there you have an article by a video game journalist. Usually this information isn’t being obtained first hand, but taken from another website and then given credit after the fact.
Video game journalism has become an occupation desired by many who pick up controllers. Who doesn’t want to get free games, play things before anyone else, and have their opinion trusted? Other industries contain people who have those perks but they rightly call them what they are, critics. No matter how early an opinion is released or how valid it is, it’s an opinion and it should be addressed as so.
Earlier this year Aliens: Colonial Marines came out and was the target of every journalist on the net. They reported how consumers were duped into preordering a game based on early footage when the final build didn’t measure up to the previews they earlier posted. This would have been news had they informed the public before its release but due to embargos journalists tied their own hands for the opportunity to play the game early, and sat by silently while the game was released and it was too late. This was a great opportunity for actual journalism, where the information uncovered could have saved people money and given them an opportunity to make an informed decision. The journalism surrounding Aliens: Colonial Marines didn’t benefit anyone except the game companies who put out an inferior product and the media companies who cover them, by demonstrating their willingness to obey orders from the people they’re supposed to be reporting on.
Embargos are very important in the industry and breaking them can have a media outlet blacklisted, where they won’t be able to provide reviews until the release which sometimes hurt everyone. When it works, and a site reviews a game like Mass Effect 2 before it’s out and let’s the public know the game is good, consumers can save money or preorder a game and be better off for it. But when it doesn’t, we listen to podcasts with our favorite editors telling us they’re playing a game that they can’t talk about right right now, and we’ll have to wait for it to come out to know what they think. Thanks, but that’s not helpful to anyone except your site which will get hits for being first and get you some more advertising money, meanwhile I’m left with a $60 piece of shit.
Sony live streamed the reveal of their newest console, the PlayStation 4, and I watched online while simultaneously checking Twitter, and that was a demonstration of just how valuable journalists were. Writers from top companies were tweeting the exact same “news” as my friends. They brought nothing new to the stream. The video showed a game, Sony tweeted about it, my friends tweeted about, I tweeted about it. The only person who was actually bringing news was Sony, everyone else was just almost retweeting.
If you follow every video game developer’s Twitter account, aside from reviews and the occasional information that’s given through an interview you’ll be as informed as if you read every article on IGN, Destructoid and Joystiq. Again, that’s okay. It’s great to have a hub where you can go to one place and read every press release from every developer or console, but to call that journalism is a stretch. These people work very hard and I don’t want to take that away from them, but if you take the extra steps to engage directly with the companies, these writers are almost useless and companies like Electronic Arts know this.
Recently at EA’s Battlefield 4 event, all journalists in attendance were forced to sign a legally binding contract stating they wouldn’t post their opinions about what they saw until 11pm. Unfortunately for the journalists, EA released the footage at 10pm, so by the time these journalists revealed their thoughts about what they just saw, their readers saw it an hour earlier and could already form their own opinions.
Day by day, the role of the video game journalists are getting smaller and smaller. The news they report is already posted on the developer’s websites and Twitter feeds and the reviews they’re posting are being overshadowed by consumers posting their own gameplay videos. Lately instead of reading an article by an editor, I’ll just watch the first few hours of the actual game, posted by some random guy or girl allowing the game to speak for itself and giving me the opportunity to determine if the game is worth my money or not.
Journalism has also been replaced by social activists, who report about every instance in which someone is offended. This form of journalism is a popular tactic by Fox News commentator, Bill O’Reilly, who says he’s not a journalist but instead a commentator who provides editorials. His “War on Christmas,” where he reports about offended people who are forced to say “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas,” is no different than most articles about the women who are offended by current games. I’m not making light of what women go through, but it’s presented in a way that is more activism than journalism. An editorial, even if it contains big words, interviews and is 1500 words is still an editorial.
Do we really need video game journalists? Yes. Now more than ever, but until then we’re stuck with a sea of critics and people who reword press releases. I’m fine with that. I reword a shitload of press releases and write what I think but I’m cool with that and don’t claim to be something I’m not. Whatever you are, know it, and be proud of it. Calling yourself a journalist won’t make you one.