(Games) Journalism versus Enthusiast Press

I read an incredibly, incredibly petty article today. It’s written as a defensive piece that lashes out and, ironically, proves the very thing they’re railing against.

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Short version, so you can skip the article if you choose: Polygon is upset because Bethesda has evidently claimed that games journalism doesn’t matter. They cite Bethsoft’s “late” review copies as an attack on reviewers and, by extension, customers. They strike back by offering the “sage” wisdom of not preordering games. It’s honestly sort of a pity that this kind of thing is coming from Polygon, because of all of the gaming media outlets out there, they’re the ones who flirt the closest with actual journalism the most. Polygon has some really excellent articles on occasion.

I have a variety of thoughts about this. First of all is the difference between “journalism” and “enthusiast press”. We have a name for news written by fans of a thing, about that thing, that is generally excited about said thing. It’s called enthusiast press, and it is what virtually every gaming media outlet actually is. Enthusiast press is fine, it’s a way of being a marketing signal boost, it’s a way of celebrating common interests, it’s great for building hype, it’s great for getting the word out about upcoming things. It is not hard-hitting journalism.

Journalism is a different thing entirely. It takes a goodly amount of training, and is genuinely very difficult. You have to extract information from potentially unwilling people, you have to know exactly how to protect your sources, you have to understand concepts like fact-checking, reduction of harm, integrity, and accountability. You also have to find a way to keep the lights on in your office WITHOUT that revenue stream being a conflict of interest. You can lament reality all you like, but that separation is absolutely vital to calling your content “journalism” and having anyone take you seriously.

I have no doubt that there are people at Polygon who understand this. It probably chafes them, I’m sure they would love to be able to do actual journalism. It chafes me, because the games industry could use some really great journalist outlets, ones that can report and make the entire industry better through transparency without pandering to major publishers or allowing themselves to be influenced or controlled by the very people they’re supposed to be reporting on. The industry could use it. Unfortunately, what’s happened instead is that the games enthusiast press has, as their relevance has shrunk, started throwing around the term “games journalism” to regain credibility, painting an illusion of separation where, realistically, none exists. In so doing, they’ve devalued the term “games journalism”.

Allow me to retell a story I heard: A group of people from games media outlets were invited to a closed-doors showing of an upcoming title. Their trips were paid for by the publisher, as were their meals and their hotels. Fairly standard practice. While viewing the game, several of these people heckled the presenter, disrupted the play session, and otherwise made big enough asses of themselves that they had to be escorted out. Their later-published reviews of their experience were, unsurprisingly, extremely negative. The publisher said nothing, simply did not bother to invite said people to another event. They quietly made a note, remembered the behavior of the hecklers, and acted accordingly.

Some of you may think you know who I’m talking about here. You probably don’t. This is a story I’ve heard retold MANY times, and the only difference is the publisher response– did they uninvite people to future events or did they grin and bear it? Otherwise the stories I’ve seen and heard are virtually identical. There’s a term for this: it’s called “biting the hand that feeds you”.

This kind of thing is *why* journalistic integrity is important, and why it’s vitally important for any kind of “honest” reporting to have that separation. Lest you think I’m absolving the publishers from this, consider: if the publisher is paying for the trip, controlling what reviewers see, and otherwise bankrolling the entire thing, how do any of us possibly think the results are unbiased? What possible value is there in paying money to show someone something and have them announce publicly that it’s awful? From a business standpoint, that’s unacceptable and expensive risk.

It’s not an unsolvable problem. If games media outlets don’t like being classed as “enthusiast press” and don’t like what they consider honest reviews to be characterized as “biting the hand that feeds them”, they can take the route of legitimate journalism. The difficulty here is that journalism in general is getting crushed out by enthusiast press which can be controlled by the things it’s reporting on. Finding a way to make money, to keep the lights on, without becoming beholden to the very people you’re trying to report on is a difficult obstacle to overcome. Not a lot of media outlets have figured it out, and I’m not limiting that to games here.

It’s a nasty problem, and it’s not one with a clear and obvious solution. Highly trained professionals with decades of experience are trying and failing to solve it. There’s no shame in being enthusiast press, because it pays the bills and keeps the lights on. It’s what a LOT of media outlets have been doing. But much like publishers can’t get both unbiased, publicly trusted mouthpieces and universally good reviews, the reporting side can’t get both the trust of journalistic integrity and the money/support from their targets.

Games reporters can accept this and either live with being enthusiast press or try to forge a path to journalistic integrity, but sniping at companies because they cast aspersions on your relevance is, well… petty.

2 comments

  1. I fully agree with your and polygon paper. In fact i have missed why you are against polygon paper : they are sayong they cannot do their nob properly and try to make pressure on the game developer to be able to do it. This seems good practice for me, no ?

    1. I think that them trying to put pressure on the game developer is exactly the problem. Their ability to do their job isn’t and shouldn’t be dependent on the developer-side’s actions or opinion, and certainly not their money.

      They’re essentially asking to be paid (via advertising) to be able to publish hit pieces on the people who pay them, which isn’t exactly a winning business proposal, and it’s no surprise that development companies are saying “no, we don’t feel like paying you to spread bad press about us”.

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