Games Journalism. An Industry In Decline?

   26/07/2009 at 20:50       Richard Horne       26 COMMENTS.
Videogames journalism has been in somewhat of a decline recently. And by that statement I specifically mean that interesting, engaging, well thought-out and passionate videogames journalism has been quickly sliding down that slippery slope to oblivion.

In fact to some commentators, even calling what we do 'journalism' is a contentious issue. We don't chase hard-hitting political stories. We don't report from a dangerous war-torn location. And what we do do - even though games are becoming more mainstream than ever - still doesn't garner the respect it ought to from people outside of the industry.

To say that games journalism is in decline might sound like an odd thing to say given that there are thousands of videogame websites out there - with new ones springing up on a daily basis - all professing to have that one single killer unique hook that makes them better than everyone else. Our hook, in case you're interested, is that we really don't care what you think, we write about games because we want to. But while generally I'm of the opinion that 99% of the games websites out there just aren't worth bothering with, there are a few notable exceptions, mainly: Eurogamer, 1UP, GiantBomb, WhatTheyPlay, Kikizo, Australian Gamer, The Escapist and ourselves of course.

The decline I speak of, in my opinion, can be accredited to a number of things, most of which unfortunately I just don't see going away any time soon.

First of all, as the internet evolves into what seems to be commonly referred to as the Web 2.0 era, it's possible to setup a 'website' in a matter of minutes. Wordpress, Joomla, Blogspot, Blogger et al make it so easy for anyone with a modicum of internet nous to build a fully functioning internet blog, complete with user registrations, comments and a quick and easy-to-use content management system, in no time whatsoever. And while I'm not criticising the fact that a lot of websites go down this route - hell I often wish I'd followed suit when developing the site you're reading - the fact that a teenage fanboy can knock up a quick and dirty blog and call themselves a 'reviews site' means it's that much more difficult for publishers and developers to separate the wheat from the chaff. Don't get me wrong, I heartily approve of such blog services and it's both refreshing and rewarding to see the internet become an all-inclusive media, unlike other forms such as television or newspaper but you do have to wade through a lot of shit to find the good stuff.

Take the recent release of Red Faction: Guerilla for example. Some two weeks before its release I contacted the publisher to request a review copy and was told that at that moment in time they'd already received almost a staggering 500 requests for review code.

Just stop and think about that for a few seconds.

500 requests.

I can barely recall 20 videogame websites, never mind anything approaching 500.

The signal to noise ratio makes this a hugely difficult task to manage. How are publishers supposed to determine the genuine 'websites' from the chancers simply looking for free games? What even constitutes a genuine website these days? And while generally PR types aren't looked on particularly favourably in some quarters for their often cynical attitudes towards coverage, in this situation they have my utmost sympathy and I'm not sure I'd like to have to deal with such an avalanche.

Secondly, news reporting has become such an arms-race that if you're not the first site to break a story then you might as well not even bother reporting it. Time really is of the essence and it often feels like there's no point whatsoever any more in researching a story properly in order to produce an article that's compelling, engaging and offers the user more than they would get from just reading the original press release him or herself. In fact, I've lost count of the number of times I've spent ages crafting a news story, mixing in some of my own personal opinion with a bit of satirical humour only to see it receive less than a hundred reads and disappear off the front page never to be read again in no time whatsoever.

On any given day you can see the same press releases tirelessly, and sometimes shamelessly, regurgitated over and over across the majority of the more popular sites. Very often with little in the way of thought, research or imagination applied to them. It's almost as if everyone is fighting over the same morsels. We report on what the publishers want us to report on, devouring their hand-fed scraps like ravenous vultures. Exclusives are rare and short-lived and whenever a site does publish a story that's a bit of a coup for them, there seems to be an overwhelming tendency for the internet to suspect foul-play and claim that that positive 'exclusive' was actually 'bought'. I'd even go so far as to say that I'm not sure I've seen a community or following as accusing or as suspicious as those I've followed that are supposedly supporting the games industry. It's as if everyone's bullshit-o-meters are permanently set to full.

And to compound things even further, as AllAboutTheGames is run as a hobby site and not as a full-time job, (though not for the want of trying) for those of us that do post news stories on the site, it's very often not until after we've already worked a 9 hour shift at the place that actually pays us a salary, that we get the time to write a news story. At which point it's already usually about 8 hours too late.

I repeat, is there really any point? It doesn't feel like there is sometimes.

And the quality of the reporting across certain sites also leaves a lot to be desired. I've seen on countless occasions a website devote literally only 2 sentences to a story. Now whether it's simply because they want to be the first to break it, or because the 'journalist' in question is simply downright lazy, either way, it stinks. And I'm not buying either as a valid excuse. And for those that do work in the industry and get paid for doing what's no doubt your dream job, there really is no justification for just cynically churning out an obligatory paragraph here or there. Put some thought and effort into it will you? Even if you only add a couple of witty sarcastic concluding sentences to what's an otherwise boring and tepid story, it shows you care and that you at least engaged your brain, even if you neglected to actually use it.

And while I can appreciate the logic behind shorter snappier articles being necessary in order to break a story first, I also can't help but worry about the state of the general public and their increasing levels of ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) if this is what we have to do in order to engage and sustain their attention. Sites like Kotaku, Joystiq and VG247 have made names for themselves by often writing as little as possible - yet somehow still managing to succeed and become hugely popular. And while I don't begrudge anyone their success, it frustrates me when I see lazy journalism from people that really should know better.

The term signal to noise ratio also applies here but in a slightly different context. It's understandable that a lot of sites don't give certain news articles perhaps the attention they deserve simply because there so many other news stories that have to be posted each day in order to be competitive. But do we really need to know that game X by company Y has been pushed back two days or that two new screenshots have been release for Need for Extreme Haste Twelvety Seven. Write about the stuff we're genuinely interested in. Give us some actual news instead of just meeting your daily quota of shit.

Of course the counter argument to this, and taking things to the other extreme are sites like IGN who feel the need to write thousands of words of inane detail that real dig down into the mundane, monotonous, minutiae of a game. Back in the N64 days when Matt Casamassina and Fran Mirabella ruled the roost, I used to read IGN on a daily basis. But now, their lengthy previews that read like garrulously bloated fact-sheets turn me off quicker than the latest 200 hour JRPG snore-a-thon.

And while aggregator sites like N4G and DIGG provide much welcome boosts in traffic for smaller less popular sites (and yes this is something we're guilty of utilising, but more on that later) they're also an extremely large part of the problem. Looking at N4G in more detail, this particular news accumulator rates articles according to their temperatures. The hotter, more popular articles will rise to the top of the front page due to their mind boggling 1000+ degree temperatures. While the not-quite-so-interesting luke-warm articles that only raise the thermometer to 10 degrees soon drop off the front page un-noticed. But this system is inherently flawed because a hot temperature isn't in the slightest bit indicative of the actually quality of an article. Instead, it's all down to how much of a vociferous reception it receives from the people that visit the site.

To highlight this point perfectly, the hottest articles on the site at the point at which I'm writing this are titled: "Girl in Evony Ad Slowly Shedding Clothing", "Zune Video on Xbox Live Could Finish Blu-Ray", "MW2 Boycott on the Horizon?", the snappily titled "Chrono Trigger announcement revealed a bit early, but don't get too excited" and "Microsoft is now Sony and Sony is now Nintendo". None of those headlines seems particularly well thought out. There're no witty puns or play on words. They're all simply speculative, sensationalist, salacious and fanboy baiting and all geared towards simply getting as many page hits as possible. And again, I can completely see the logic behind that. But where's the passion, the enthusiasm, the verve? It's all just a cynical marketing ploy that for those us that are genuinely devoted to the cause makes us frustrated by our inability to keep up. I also really dislike the way sites are increasingly taking things out of context, blowing them all out of proportion and writing deliberately misleading headlines just for page-hits.

At this point in time, some of the regular visitors to the site will no be doubt tutting, shaking their collective heads and be on the verge of calling me out for being a massive hypocrite. But before you do, let me explain myself. As some of you may have noticed over recent months, myself and a couple of other AATG writers have been conducting something of an experiment. In order to test exactly what it takes to succeed on a site like N4G we've been crafting articles outside of our normal comfort zone. We've allowed ourselves to become corrupted and compromised in order to lower ourselves to the level it takes to earn a high temperature on N4G and thereby benefit from the sudden spurt of page hits. Unfortunately, the results speak for themselves. If you use the handy filter on the front page of the site it's possible to view the most popular articles of all time. You'll see it's rife with filler.

"Xbox Murder: Man Kills Acquantance While Playing Videogame"
"Top Ten Most Violent Videogames of All Time"
"German Gamer Murders Fellow Advance Wars Enthusiast"
"Are the Left4Dead Boycotters Retarded?"
"The Ultimate Guide to Call of Duty Griefing"
"Babe of the Month - Sniper Wolf"
"Babe of the Month - Sheva"

And finally, my favourite "Babe of the Month - Cooking Mama" (Thanks New York)

And as you can surely ascertain from the aforementioned, none of these 'popular' articles are what you'd ever consider to be serious introspective hypotheses. They're all bawdy, contentious and antagonistic and specifically written in order to push the proverbial buttons of the people that can make or break a games website.

We're not proud of what we've done. I really had no interest in seeking out the most violent games of all time in order to vicariously get my snuff kicks. And the fact that there are people who will flock in their droves to read an article focussing on a polygonal videogame character and her relative merits as a sex object means that perhaps I've got it all wrong. Maybe I've been doing my fellow associates a dis-service. Games journalism isn't in decline. The human-race is.
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