modern culture since 1991

Wings over Sealand


How 9/11 killed videogames journalism

Posted on September 11, 2011 by RevStu

There's been some truly horrible stuff passing for videogames journalism in recent times. Whether it's reviewers telling people to hand over £25 for a shoddy, lazy cash-in because it comes in a cardboard box or writers arguing with each other over the precise manner in which gamers should be gouged for more money, it's a depressing picture. (And having the president of IGN tell MCV last week that the recipe for the future was "getting celebrities involved" didn't paint it any prettier.)

I've always believed that writers are there to serve their readers, not their subjects. But as I was bemoaning the last case in a cloud of gloom and shame-by-proxy last month, I had a bit of an epiphany, and it wasn't a particularly cheering one. Because the truth of the matter is that readers are getting the videogames journalism (indeed, the journalism generally) that they deserve.

The epiphany was prompted in part by looking at Five-Dollar Fiction, a project by Ben Paddon of noted blog GameJournos.com (formerly Games Journalists Are Incompetent Fuckwits) in which he offers to write readers stories tailored to their individual requirements for the modest sum described. It's an inventive idea and I hope it catches on, but it led me to a realisation that made me really sad.

Before we get to that, though, let's take a moment to set the scene and somehow justify the shamefully cheap sensationalism in this feature's headline. Because 9/11 was the catalyst for a sea-change in gaming journalism – one that may well have been coming anyway, but which was accelerated greatly by the collapse of the Twin Towers.

In the aftermath of the attack, I posted what turned out to be a hugely controversial topic – now long lost to server crashes and whatnot – on a UK gaming forum. It was called "Total Perspective Vortex", and it argued that while the attacks had been appalling and horrific, ultimately they weren't (unlike everyone was claiming at the time) going to change our everyday lives, just as other terrorist attacks hadn't. It was around four months until I was proved wrong, when the destruction of the World Trade Centre reached out and had a direct and major impact on my own life.

In a very short period of time in the weeks after the attack, I lost three regular writing gigs, worth around £1500 a month (which measured against fuel and utility bills is about £4000 in today's money) because the publications concerned had either closed or massively slashed their budgets as a result of a catastrophic hemisphere-wide drop-off in advertising which was attributed to 9/11. One was my beloved Panel 4 column for Digitiser, the celebrated gamezine on Teletext – an institution particularly badly affected by the attacks because of its heavy reliance on ads from holiday companies – and another was my job (really more of a retainer) as Features Editor on Computer Trade Weekly, a games-industry paper for which the loss of revenue was the final straw and which closed in February of 2002.

Part of the reason CTW was in trouble was aggressive competition from a new rival trade weekly called MCV (mentioned back in our first paragraph and standing awkwardly for "the Market for Computer and Video games"). Unlike CTW, MCV was given away for free (a cynical marketshare-grabbing tactic which was abandoned almost the moment CTW closed) and entirely reliant on ad revenue, which meant that (a) it had almost no money to pay writers, and (b) it was pathologically terrified of printing anything even remotely contentious or interesting, lest advertisers be scared away. It was (and is) essentially a glossy brochure of news snippets, rewritten press releases and powder-puff "interviews", and the more perceptive among you may already see where this is going.

Games mags, of course, had been moving in this direction since the mid-1990s, when Future Publishing found out how many copies you could shift by having the word "Official" in your name and telling readers that everything was brilliant. It made gamers feel good about their games consoles, applecarts (ie the major game publishers and the hardware companies whose names the mags carried) were very rarely upset with critical reviews for triple-A releases, and for a while the money poured in – Official Playstation Magazine was at one point shifting close to an astonishing half-a-million copies a month (around ten times what it does now).

But 9/11 shifted the balance suddenly and comprehensively. (Be grateful I spared you a tortured and tasteless metaphor there about rubble crashing down onto a set of scales.) At publications of all kinds, ad sales teams were thrown into panic, and the advertisers realised their power. Senior management started to interfere more and more with editorial teams in case they said anything that might cost their publisher money, and magazines – whether "Official" or not – were effectively neutered.

But as we've said, it's debateable whether this was anything other than a speeding-up of something that had already been happening in print mags since publishers realised that happy-clappy cheerleading shifted more copies than critical analysis. Much more profound was the knock-on effect that it had on the up-and-coming medium of gaming journalism – the internet.

Because as web-based gaming sites took shape – often directed by former publishers of print mags – they began to realise that this new formula was ideally suited to the online audience. The internet democratises opinion and marginalises expertise, because nobody wants to be told someone else knows better than them.

Magazines on paper still carry some inherent level of authority for at least two reasons – the fact that one can't just be knocked out in an afternoon by any halfwit with a WordPress template (hello viewers!), and because the reader has (usually) invested money to buy them and is naturally reluctant to then ignore what they say, because that would mean they'd wasted their cash.

(Alert readers will have noticed the similarity between this phenomenon and the fact that people like to read mags which tell them that all the games they're buying are fantastic and wise purchases.)

But because websites don't have this inbuilt degree of authority, critical opinions propagated by them are almost entirely worthless. The odd piece of provocative clickbait to keep the fanboys enraged is always useful, of course, but online readers don't want to hear reviews that they might disagree with on a daily basis, especially if they've already bought or pre-ordered the game. (The evils of "pre-ordering" itself will have to wait for another day.) And gradually, online writers have shifted from resenting this fact to colluding with it in what amounts to something close to Stockholm Syndrome, except bolstered by cold hard economic logic.

Ben Kuchera's recent piece for Opposable Thumbs, in which he peevishly asserted that everything was amazing and gamers should stop complaining all the time (and I'm not even paraphrasing), was well rebutted by the reliably-excellent Jim Rossignol on Rock, Paper, Shotgun, but – as the examples at the start of this feature show – Kuchera's embittered polemic against ungrateful consumers now represents the prevailing attitude among games journalists, not the exception.

Those of us still awaiting the final asteroid collision to end our era might bemoan such developments, but it's hard to build a convincing argument against writers representing the interests and outlook of their advertisers rather than their readers. Because the fact is – and this is the epiphany mentioned way back at the start – the writers are simply serving the people who pay the bills. Readers don't give them a penny, so why should Kuchera et al fight for them or approach things from their perspective or even care about their opinions, rather than those who provide his pay-cheque?

(Especially when the internet age has also created/enabled a culture in which readers can – and do – easily and instantly spew torrents of vicious anonymous abuse in the reviewer's direction should they have the temerity to offer an opinion differing from the reader's preconceptions of the game or issue in question. Mags and writers didn't get nearly so much daily crap thrown at them when people had to write it down, buy a stamp and walk to the postbox with it.)

Now, that's not exactly a blinding insight, of course. But the reason it's hard to spot, or at least to accept, is that websites still habitually present themselves as doing the same thing that magazines used to do, and wear the same clothes. They still pretend that their purpose is to serve the reader, still give lip service to the idea that they're there to protect consumers by guiding them away from poor-quality products and towards good ones, regardless of who made them or what their marketing budget was.

Indeed, in some cases that may even still be what individual writers believe. Another recent RPS piece saw a heated debate in the comments thread on the age-old issue of review corruption, and I had an interesting IM chat with Jim Rossignol about it. We agreed that instances of straight-out old-fashioned payola were few and far between (though we both knew of examples), but people's suspicion is founded in the fact that they don't think someone employed on a big site like Kotaku could possibly be writing something as mind-bogglingly horrendous as the article discussed in the RPS piece if Kotaku wasn't getting paid for it somewhere along the line. (And if they're getting exclusive early coverage, they basically are.)

Similarly, I don't think EG's Simon Parkin is corrupt or took a bung from Nintendo (if nothing else, Nintendo are way too cheap for bribery), but when he told a million readers they should pay £25 for a shitty, insulting port of an ancient SNES ROM on the Wii because it came in a cardboard box, he has absolutely no business complaining if people allege corruption, because it's simply astonishing that anyone would write something as grotesque as that WITHOUT having been paid off. I don't blame readers for smelling fish, because the smell of fish can exist even in places where no fish has ever been.

So the problem isn't that reviewers are personally corrupt, but that the system within which they work is institutionally corrupt, at least in the (technically inaccurate) sense that readers would use the word. Which is to say, it's a cosy mutual-benefit relationship between websites and advertisers. The websites add a veneer of credibility to press releases and present them as "news" – which is what the reader now craves rather than reviews (either because they no longer feel a reviewer's opinion is any better than theirs, or that the reviewer's integrity can't be relied upon, or both) – and in return the advertiser keeps those press releases coming. Cut off from a constant flow of them, the site would no longer have anything with which to draw readers, leaving it hopelessly compromised when it comes to writing anything critical.

(The nadir of this formula is surely the depressingly successful VG24/7, which spews out a neverending drivelanche of literally anything PRs choose to send it, resulting in horrific "stories" like this, in which they revealed that Electronic Arts were planning to soon announce the date on which they would announce the date that the demo version of FIFA 12 would be released. That, viewers, is what award-winning videogames journalism looks like these days – the announcement of the imminent announcement of the date of an announcement about a promotional demo. And just imagine how much better things will be when celebrities are involved too!)

In other words, then, the same readers who regularly howl "Corruption!" are the ones who are bringing it about, because by placing no value on proper gaming journalism they remove any reason for it to exist. Readers who used to buy £5 magazines 13 times a year now refuse to pay a penny for the same thing on the internet, leaving sites with no revenue stream other than advertisers. (WoSland, which carries no advertising, is no different in that regard, with fewer than 5% of regular readers making any financial contribution towards the site's existence.)

The December 1993 issue of Amiga Power – which came out around the height of the mag's circulation – contained 27 pages of ads which would have sold at something like £1000 each, generating (tap, tap) around £27,000 a month. The magazine was at the time selling approximately 60,000 copies at £4 each, generating gross revenue of £240,000. Even after costs and retailer margin and everything else, AP made a lot more money from its readers than its advertisers, and therefore its loyalty was to the former. (The mag would have comfortably been profitable with no advertising.)

Readers who pay nothing, though, have no claim to such loyalty, and so they get none. For as long as they demand nothing more than to be spoonfed advertising – so long as they get it for free – they have no right to demand journalism, and no right to throw a huff when occasionally the mask slips and the latter is revealed to be the former. But if you're a little uncomfortable with that, you can always blame Al-Qaeda.

22 to “How 9/11 killed videogames journalism”

  1. Lenny says:

    Why is it video game sites are so insular in their advertising? Go to any of the big sites and they exclusively feature adverts for video games which, given the demographic of video gamers, seems like a wasted opportunity.
     
    Perhaps that's the answer: Get Tesco's, Sainsbury's, SpecSavers, Mothercare, WH Smiths, QS, Matalan and Waterstone's advertising on your site on completely unrelated matters. That way you'd never be beholden to a 9/10 review if the game was only worth 3/10.  
     

  2. Tom K. says:

    I would love it if there was a like-minded audience of critical gamers ready to read serious games journalism, and open to the concerns and tools of ‘high culture’ being used to dissect and analyse a popular entertainment form that is pretty much forced to exist as ‘low culture’.

    However, 9/10 games journalism consumers just want to be told that iteration X out of series Y is still the same as ever – and this is 9/10 good every time!!! Until, of course, when it isn’t, even though is hasn’t changed at all.

  3. Alan W says:

    I'll be honest with you Stu: your writing has often irritated me (but that's better than having no effect at all!) but this piece was truly enlightening. As someone who is still hoping to get into a career in games 'journalism', it did make me think "Hold on a minute… this sounds terrible!"
    Without trying to sound like I'm advertising myself, we don't get any advertising revenue at Split Screen and don't receive press copies of games, so the only service provided is to the reader and our own personal enjoyment from writing. As I've started freelance writing, the deadlines etc. have detracted from that enjoyment, but I'm still aiming to serve the reader and not the publisher.
    Apart from RPS, I can't think of any publication that really does that. Would a  solution be to found a new magazine that prides itself on integrity and editorial independence? I don't think you'd get a very big audience, sadly. Certainly not enough to pay the bills.

  4. Tom K. says:

    Alan W's comment confuses me.  I have no idea how the concepts link up.
    1) You irritate me.
    2) Reality dashes my hopes of getting into games journalism.
    3) I am not advertising myself.
    4) Here is an advert for my games journalism (?).
    5) It's hard to get an audience for games journalism that has integrity.
     
    The only thing that my Lemsip-addled, 'flu-snotty face really grasps is that you are advertising for an audience for your games journalism.  Good luck with that… er… not career.  Remember that, just because Stu has succeeded through irritating you, that does not mean you have to attempt to be irritating yourself.

  5. Irish Al says:

    Not 100% germane, but this article by a former AOL content slave has a nice diagram breaking down page views against advertising. I can only imagine what goes on in some of the big gaming sites.

  6. RevStu says:

    Blimey. Editing that in.

  7. Grumpy Smurf says:

    I used to write for Australian GamePro magazine.
    We ran a review of THQ's Supreme Commander, which received 5/10 due to its buggy, laggy nature. We were immediately accused of accepting bribes from EA to alter the score. In fact, my editor *did* alter the score – it was originally 0/10 but he freaked out about upsetting THQ. 

  8. Tetsuo says:

    That bit "..people like to read mags that tell them all the games they're buying are fantastic and wise purchases" struck a chord with me, and it's something I'd not really thought of before, despite it being so blummin' obvious.
    I never understood why Edge magazine were (are?) always lambasted by the internet kids who cried so consistently "contraversy for controvesy's sake!" or "they are so smug using their big words" or "I'm cancelling my subscription" whenever they scored Crazy Taxi a 7/10.
    In fact the reason I stopped buying that mag (along with the fact the games market had just become too boring for my tastes) was that they no longer seemed as critical as they used to be with their usually excellent reviews. It was little surprise to discover this was no coincidence – almost the entire writing team left in protest around 2004 I think due to some editorial decisions that had been made because of a "controversial" article.
    Oh and what happened to Digi after 9/11 was such a shame too :(

  9. romanista says:

    and 9/11 killed the gamecube too

  10. Karl says:

    In that case Stu, since games journalism has gone to shit, how about setting up a fanzine?
    In the age of apps and digital distribution I'm sure such a thing must be viable. Fuck The Man (especially Future Publishing), I look forward to the day they all go bust.

  11. RevStu says:

    Well, essentially a blog already IS a fanzine.

  12. The Hip Priest says:

    When will there be a game website/magazine to have the bottle to just scrap review scores? (Do any exist? I  haven't seen many – let me know) It might actually make the readers read the review rather than simply scroll down to the bottom and throw a tantrum when the game they've ordered from Amazon only gets 7/10. It might make the reviewer improve the quality of their writing by not making the words between the  title and the score a complete waste of their time.
     
    I suspect that there are reasons why they won't, such as not being listed on metacritic, but you can dream.

  13. RevStu says:

    RPS doesn't put scores on its reviews, although they don't do all that many reviews. I think it's a mistake, myself, for the exact reason you cite and others too.

  14. daneel says:

    How about lying, like JN did for his Alien Breed 3D 2 review?
    Do people really buy games based on the (clearly pretty arbitrary, to anyone who isn't a vegetable) x/100 score? Are they that stupid? I guess they must – some people must decide what to watch at the cinema by the rotting tomatoes score. 
    The only games mags I ever subscribed to were Zero and then AP, and that was mostly because they were entertaining to read. They were good magazines that happened to be about games. As opposed to, say, glorified adverts for mediocrity, like ("Currant Bun" – Ed) or ("Michael Jackson" – Ed).

  15. Wil says:

    A mag about games that's just entertaining to read. Revolutionary! I'd buy (with cold, hard cash, digital or print) it. Stu, can we do it? Surely J.Nash has years worth of random nonsense to release on the world?
    Seriously, though. Great thoughts. I still love games but I rarely read an online review or article; just fleeting flit by to see what's been announced. I do miss a good (and, dare I say it, funny) read about the TV games.

  16. RevStu says:

    We've tried it before, with Digiworld (almost nobody wanted to pay for it) and Podgamer (we all stabbed each other). A third attempt would come squarely under Einstein's classic definition of insanity. I actually think RPS would come close to being it, if it didn't feel (almost certainly correctly) that it had to swamp all its really good features under an relentless stream of "news" stories to keep the readers coming. And if it wasn't about the PC, obv.

  17. Wil says:

    Ah, that's a shame. Mind you, our overseas cousins probably wouldn't quite get it anyway.

  18. WonderGra says:

    Agree with you wholeheartedly Rev-nice for a bit of sanity on the issue.  Those 'micro-transactions Vs increased upfront price' articles on EG made me want to hammer my face into the moniter until everything went white.
    P.S on a similar note and in the style of your gran turismo expose herebe todays main offender:
     
    "Resident Evil 4 is a brilliant game, but that's exactly why Resident Evil 4 HD is such a disappointment. This is no definitive version or director's cut (wouldn't that be something), but a criminally half-baked attempt to winkle a little extra cash from the still-beating heart of a classic. Resi 4 deserves better than this; Resi 4's legions of devoted fans deserve better than this; and Capcom should be much better than this… 7/10".

  19. Matt Thrower says:

    Hi,
    I sent this to a video gaming journalist friend of mine, and this was the response:
    http://nohighscores.com/node/1590
    Thought you might be interested.
    Cheers, Matt

  20. zipdrive says:

    Sad but spot-on observation.
    *sigh*

  21. Simon Cox says:

    Stuart – well said. And I'd like to also say that if you got the old Amiga Power gang back together to make a digital mag for iPad, I'd buy it. 



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