[In this editorial, originally published in Game Developer magazine's January issue, EIC Brandon Sheffield looks at the sometimes tense but ultimately vital relationship between those who make games and those who write about them.]
There’s been a lot of talk lately about journalists twisting the words of developers, or representing them in a manner other than what the developer intended.
In the past few months, Cliff Bleszinski, Ted Price, and others have complained that their words have been twisted, and that better standards of journalism need to be followed by the games press at large.
Most recently, Chris Hecker wrote about how he was lambasted for joking during a GDC rant that the Wii is a “piece of shit.” His actual point was more nuanced than that, but that quote became the title of countless stories, even some three years later.
The result was that readers got up in arms about Hecker’s comment, and that caused them to reflect that upon his current work.
Hecker got upset and felt the media took it the wrong way. The media in turn got defensive, saying “well, he said it!” This cycle repeats as new controversial things are said by new people. When the same people say new controversial things, their old comments get drudged up by the press for context and convenience.
Who’s to blame?
No one party is at fault, here. It has always been in the nature of journalism to sum things up in headlines. Historically, the town crier was going to scream, “Troy falls!” even if the story is a lot deeper. It’s only when the crowd gathers that the full story is told.
Similarly, the headline of a story draws the reader in, and the body text should provide context. The trouble comes when the body text doesn’t give enough context, or when the developer feels as though their point was actually quite different from what was finally presented.
There’s also the issue of our current fast-paced news environment. Blogs are reporting things a mile per minute (although really that’s not so fast—who doesn’t drive 60 on the highway?).
Even the Associated Press is running “quick sketch” versions of stories, replete with inaccuracies, bad journalism, and typos, in order to get something—anything—up before the blogs get to it. About 15 minutes later, you’ll wind up seeing that same story a bit more refined, with better journalism and better grammar.
This necessity for speed has both created and been inspired by a new generation of information enthusiasts who feel they have grasped the entirety of a concept based on a couple of paragraphs. This has led to a whole lot of people not really reading articles very far past the headline, or the first few sentences, before coming to a conclusion about a piece.
And I think most people know that if they say something particularly controversial, it’s going to get reported by someone, somewhere. The illusion of privacy or closed circles has been shattered. Even Big Brother has had to wake up to this reality with the advent of WikiLeaks.
In a world that includes all the above, developers might be inclined to stop talking to the press entirely, or to view them as the enemy. I’m in both camps, working for Game Developer magazine and Gamasutra while also developing games - and I really don’t think that’s the answer.
Boredom and Whoredom
One solution that people have come to is to only give the press very select, very boring information, or info that does little more than talk up the product. “Here are our features. This is a new screenshot. Yes, we’re very excited.”
This rarely translates into good stories, if stories are even written at all. This is not because journalists are voraciously going after hits, but because writing about something you’re not interested in is a drag.
It’s with this in mind that journalists ask probing questions and try to dig something up. There may be some interest in scandal and controversy on the part of some - but in large part, they’re just trying to make their own jobs interesting for themselves. And if they don’t get good information, you don’t get a good story.
The press is great for getting the word out about your game, and if you give them the right information, they respond well. But no matter what, if you say something like “Yeah, we really hate our publisher, but we’ve got to work with them, oh well,” that’s probably going to wind up being more interesting than a statement about how the game now has 25 guns instead of 20.
Of course, those controversial statements the press has gleaned can turn into precisely the scenario Hecker found himself in - feeling like his intent was removed from the final stories.
The worst possible outcome is that developers will feel like they can’t say anything interesting for fear that it may be twisted into something other than what they intended.
I think transparency and honesty is good for our industry, and I would hate for people to live in fear of getting information out. If developers were afraid to share information publically, where would our industry be? Certainly a magazine like this one would not be able to exist.
Say what you mean, mean what you say
In Hecker’s case, he was giving a talk at GDC, which a lot of journalists attend. His rant was planned, and he knew what he was saying. It’s not wrong to say the Wii is a piece of shit, if that’s what you think. But you have to own it.
When it comes to the second instance though, a more thoughtful discussion was turned into a callback to his prior "misdeeds." Perhaps this was done by the journalists in question for context, perhaps simply for a snappier title, but given how many people form their opinions by the headline nowadays, that sort of damage can be irreversible, regardless of the article's actual context.
My conclusion is that developers should of course be able to say whatever they want - but choose your words carefully, as you might when speaking to your mother-in-law when she starts asking probing questions.
It’s less self-censorship, than it is knowing your audience. And if you do make a strong statement, embrace it! Backing down from it is about the worst thing you can do, because it makes you seem like you’re complaining about something you’ve actually done.
If you truly believe in and support what you say, how can your detractors harm you?
[This editorial was published in the latest issue of Game Developer magazine, for which paper subscriptions are currently available at the official magazine website -- the Game Developer Digital version of the issue is also now available, with the site offering six months' and a year's subscriptions.]