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State Of Game Journalism, Part I: Press Talks Skepticism, Sensationalism

As part of an extensive feature on the state of game journalism, GameSetWatch columnist Simon Parkin gets input on key issues from some of the field's leading editors, examining here what's wrong with game journalism, and how much of a role does sensation
The specialist gaming press often gets a bad rap. Viewed as little more than hobbyists covering an adolescent industry, game journalists tend to get little respect from their peers, while bearing the brunt of vicious skepticism from their audience. This stereotypical overview is grim, but the gaming press is far from impotent -- it's got enviable raw readership figures to prove it, and even small publications can exert a considerable global influence on the industry in a way that few other specialists can. As part of a larger feature spotlighting the state of the games press in 2008, GameSetWatch spoke to a few leading editors on a broad range of issues it faces -- for example, what's wrong with video game journalism, anyway? Is It "Broken?" Edge Magazine's Tony Mott says the first problem is simply a matter of saturation, especially in the internet age, which makes it harder to form a catch-all opinion. "There's certainly an awful lot of shit out there, but there are lots of people happy to read shit about video games in the same way they're happy to watch shit on TV or read shitty newspapers," he says. "If if it's fulfilling their needs, such as they are -- then it's serving a purpose, right? It's just different to what we try to do." For IGN's Tal Blevins, problems begin with the limiting -- and specific -- classification of "video game journalism." It's no different, he says, than any other type of entertainment reporting or product critique. "Writing about video games is nothing to be ashamed of, and I don't feel the need to try and justify it as anything more than it is. Are we investigative journalists or war correspondents? No, but we don't want to be, either," Blevins says. "We strive to be just as accurate, in-depth, and compelling as any publication in existence, but we're also very aware of our audience, and we write with them in mind." Power To The People Eurogamer's Tom Bramwell says relatively low salaries and a distinct lack of glamor in game journalism tends to equal a lower quality threshold. Popularity is the currency by which editors can employ better writers -- "that's how I try and fight that," he says. The concept of popularity-as-power, however, often courts accusations of sensationalism on the part of the games press, especially for sites that thrive on traffic dollars from advertisers. IGN's Blevins prefers to see vociferous writer personalities as one of his site's strengths. "Our voice is as if we are a friend sitting on the couch next to you talking about this game that you probably haven't seen yet, so we want you to know when we are excited." he says. As editor of Edge's print mag, Mott says he's never had reader number concerns, and that he focuses on things the writers are interested in instead. And for Eurogamer's Bramwell, it's more important to earn reader respect in the long term. "As much as I'd like more readers tomorrow, I'm more interested in having even more readers on the same day next year," he says. "They won't come back unless you treat them with respect." Courting Controversy In fact, the article that each editor cites as his publication's most popular is related not to a controversial topic, but to a popular game. Mott says Edge's big hit was a cover feature focused on the making of the Grand Theft Auto series, while IGN's GTA IV review was its most popular piece, according to Blevins. Metal Gear Solid 4 received near-perfect scores from most sites across the board, but Eurogamer's relatively more measured opinion, according to Bramwell, was the site's highest performer. Controversy around reported "review guidelines" in force by publisher Konami drew particular attention to early MGS 4 reviews, Bramwell says, although after discussing the matter with reviewer Oli Welsh, he felt that the review was not inhibited by observing the guidelines. "Oli's review also drew attention because he didn't give the game 100 marks on a 100-point scale as some of our competitors did," says Bramwell. Welsh accorded MGS 4 an 8/10 review, as compared with competitors' 9s and 10s. When an 8/10 is perceived as "negative," it's feasible to view the volatility of the audience as a primary driver of sensationalism. "Anything with a negative spin tends to get attention. It seems that you’ll always attract a bigger audience by giving something a kicking," says Mott. "There are people out there who seem to make half-decent livings out of it, actually." But to IGN's Blevins, building a strong community, "where readers feel like they are a part of the site," is the largest readership driver, while for Bramwell, it's a simple matter: "Writing about the biggest games every day and being honest about them," he says. "I know it sounds obvious, but it works."

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