I've been thinking a lot over the past few years about what the point of video game journalism is, as the circumstances of its production continue to change at an overwhelming pace. (I’ve also recently launched a new branch of a games website, which kind of forces you think about what the point of it all might be.) Here in the UK, there were probably around twice as many traditional, salaried jobs in games writing 7 years ago as there are now (and even then, the odds of landing one weren’t too good) - but the realities and difficulties of making a living out of games writing is another discussion for another time. What I want to talk about is the role that we, the games press, play. As the media and the industry keeps changing, our function has become more nebulous.
There was a time when the point of video game journalism was to tell people about games, to give them information; this was back when the press was the only source of such information, which now feels way back in the distant past. Now there is information everywhere, far too much information, trailers and tweets and YouTube deconstructions and developer diaries and official publisher- and developer-led outlets bombarding us with constant information about video games long before they're even playable. PlayStation Blog is just one example of a publisher-led outlet that does what the independent games press used to do.
The Internet means that there is now a direct line between the people who make and sell video games and the people who buy them. The press is no longer needed as a middle-man, and hasn’t been for a long time. Some publishers, like Nintendo, have essentially cut us out altogether. The press still occasionally gets to see and play games earlier, but it does not have the gigantic advantages over the ordinary games-player that it once had. Press conferences are live streamed, and gameplay video is accessible to everyone.
I don’t think all of this is a bad thing, particularly. I am greatly in favour of the freedom of information, but I distrust companies’ eagerness to remove any filter between their intended message and their prospective customers, mostly because they call their customers things like “engaged consumers” and are obsessed with “activating” and “connecting with” them rather than just, you know, talking to them. Anyway, this is a thing that has happened, and it has vastly impacted what the games press does. It has removed what used to be its function: to tell people about games.
At other times, games journalism was once perhaps ultimately about advising people what to buy, but that's fallen by the wayside, too. If there is one thing that there is no shortage of on the Internet, it's opinions, and a professional critic's opinion is now no more or less accessible or inherently valuable than anyone else's. Besides, the aforementioned surfeit of information has equipped everyone with an Internet connection and money to spend with ample ammunition to make their own, very informed decisions. People still look at reviews, but they also talk to their friends, watch videos, play a demo or a beta. Plus, as almost every comments thread ever amply proves, a lot have people have decided whether they’re going to buy something LONG before it actually comes out. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve been told I’m wrong about a game by someone who has literally never played it.
I think a lot of the older games media is still clinging to these two things, these two definitions that may well be on their way to obsolescence, if they're not obsolete already. They are still trying to give people info and advise them on what to buy, even though people don’t need that any more. People still read reviews, but I’ve worked on a lot of websites now and I can assure you, people do not read previews. Nobody reads previews. Meanwhile, coverage of a game often just stops at review, which is pretty laughable when you look at the fortunes being made by people making videos about games that have been out for years.
What is games journalism for, then? What's the point of it?
Let's leave aside "making money" and "generating page views" for the moment. Those things underlie what we do, sure, but nobody every got out of bed in the morning thinking "Hoo boy am I gonna generate some page views today!" Those are the things that games writing provides for publishing businesses. But what should it provide for readers?
For me the main point of modern games writing is to invite people to think differently about something - even something they thought they knew intimately. It can achieve that by telling a human story, by deeply investigating an issue or an event, by letting me look through someone else's eyes, by showing me an opinion different from my own. This is what I look for now in the things I read and the things I publish. Every piece of writing that I've voted through in this year's Games Journalism Prize has made me think differently, either by telling me something I didn't know or by presenting me with a viewpoint I had never considered or recontextualising something in an interesting way.
I also think that the games press has a responsibility to celebrate and, where appropriate, try to improve the culture of video games. It should celebrate what games are and the amazing things that they and their players do, but it should also point out the darker things, the things that need to change, whether that’s the representation issues still that hold gaming back or a horrific developer working culture that's ruining lives. It’s calling people out on their bullshit.
There’s also another aspect to what the games press does, and it’s always been an aspect of it, despite terribly srs pretensions to the contrary: entertainment. Often, we write or make videos to entertain. I’m not very good at being funny, but a great many people who work in this field are. It turns out that there is money to be made from being funny and personable and talking about games. The games media should see that as encouraging, rather than threatening.
Besides, we can still help people figure out what they should be playing, by finding interesting things and communicating our experiences of them. It’s just that we are not the only people doing that any more, which some of the games media is (perhaps understandably) struggling to accept.
When we were launching a new site a couple of months ago, the line I ended up coming up with was “see games differently”. I thought about what the foundations of the site were, the sort of thing we would cover and why, the attitude we wanted to convey; the point of it, in short. It all boiled down to seeing games differently, for me. It’s not an especially grand aim (hell, we've published everything from an investigation of fanboy psychology to some pictures of Nintendo characters as otters), but I hope it might keep us focused. God willing, it might even keep us relevant, at least for a bit longer.
There are more different voices writing about games now than ever, and the great benefit of that is having this opportunity to see games differently. That’s what the games media should encourage people to do.