Tuesday, August 21, 2012

We are revitalizing games journalism.

There's a piece over at Nightmare Mode by Alan Williamson about how people who are writing about videogames for free are killing games journalism. I disagree with the article in multiple ways.

First off, I don't understand why Alan is so down on people writing about games for free, since he's writing for free for Nightmare Mode and has his own games site, which he explicitly states isn't making anyone money (I've contributed to Nightmare Mode in the past, so I'm going to refer to Alan by his first name). I always thought that Nightmare Mode could at least pay its server costs from ads, but it doesn't. I honestly thought the piece was going to end with Alan telling us they couldn't afford to continue publishing like this and Nightmare Mode was going to be a thing of the past, since that's the logical continuation to me. I think he was more frustrated that good videogame criticism often goes unpaid.

Alan's cognitive dissonance notwithstanding, I disagree with him on principle. Full disclosure: I've been working as an unpaid intern for Killscreen this summer, and I've been following videogame blogs for about two years. I believe that videogame journalism needs the casual, amateur, unpaid voices. 

For game reviews, the wisdom of the masses is more useful than the opinion of a rushed journalist. When I'm thinking of buying a videogame, I overwhelmingly trust things like Amazon reviews, which have little vested interest in maintaining a relationship with a PR contact for more review copies. Amazon reviews have a great variety--people who are fans of the series, people who play lots of games casually, and people who bought the game for their offspring. Basically the only thing professional game journalists have over Amazon reviewers is that they get to have the game sooner, and have an excellent grasp of the politics surrounding the publication of certain games. 

Really good game criticism is hard to find. I'm not talking about "yes! you should rent this game!" I'm talking about criticism that makes me appreciate a game I thought was terrible, or that helps me see the world in a different light. To me, reading really good game criticism is almost more fun than actually playing games. I think big game outlets are gradually realizing this, since they've been snatching up my favorite bloggers. Free games journalism isn't killing paid journalism; it is revitalizing it. 

You don't have to pour hours of research into writing a really good analysis of the level structure in Wolfenstein or a feminist critique of Monkey Island. You do need a good background in literary theory, though almost any liberal arts degree can give you that. Basically, I think videogame criticism can be really good even if it wasn't paid criticism. In fact, I think that unpaid articles are often less frought with "what does my editor want to see on the site?" and "what will give us the most hits?" and more concerned with what individuals writers are passionate about. 

It's perfectly possible to create good writing and get paid for it, I'm just saying that getting paid for writing adds a layer of external concerns. Sometimes those external concerns are about maintaining relationships with videogame developers, whereas an amateur who isn't making a career in games journalism might be more free in their criticisms simply because they don't have a working relationship with the publishers.

Alan's best case against free games journalism is when he states that investigative journalism requires more time and research than a casual interest can justify:
Researched writing is valuable. Investigative journalism is an essential check on the powers of the state, and games journalism is vital to protect us consumers from the motives of greedy corporations, never mind moving the artistic medium forward. I love writing, but frankly I can’t carry out that kind of research and hold a full-time job as well. If that research is your full-time job, whether salaried or freelance, your work will be better for it and readers will appreciate it more. Without the insightful criticism and investigative work that paid journalism allows, you’re left with ten thousand trite reviews and a smattering of Top Ten lists.
Alan's correct in that really good investigative journalism requires a lot of effort, and that the videogame industry would benefit from it, but the majority of stories have nothing to do with investigative journalism beyond "oh so-and-so posted this unpolitic thing on Twitter/Facebook." The most recent debacle with OnLive seems like it could have used some investigative journalism. The Escapist, which prides itself on doing journalism right, noticed that PopCap studios was also having some layoffs, but concluded that "the issue may warrant further investigation." It kind of feels like no one is doing this investigative journalism that Alan speaks of. Maybe there is some good investigative journalism out there and I'm not hearing about it?
so much... investigative journalism?

I think the bigger issue is probably that readers simply aren't as interested in company layoffs as they are in the teaser trailers from Gamescom. Sites that have paid content have plenty of top ten lists--to what mythical paid journalism does Alan refer? I believe he's thinking of more "highbrow" publications...

Alan ends in urging us to put our money where our mouth is and pay more money for existing, impressive magazines like Edge and Killscreen. I think that's a great idea, but Mattie Brice's piece on how our monied culture excludes those who can't afford to vote with their dollars haunts me. If we can't afford such publications, why not support good, free writing by reading it, thinking about it, and responding to it? To me, a community of critical thinkers is much more valuable than my subscription to Killscreen. I agree that the features we used to have daily on the Killscreen website were often really good videogame writing, but I also believe that Nightmare Mode has had articles that are just as good. Your voice matters to me even if you are not paid for it.