October 26, 2008 8:00 AM | Simon Carless
[When game journalists pluck out that juicy quote for an incendiary headline, it can have wide-ranging impact -- but unfortunately it's not a simple problem. In this opinion piece, Gamasutra news director Leigh Alexander addresses the dysfunctional relationship between game journalists, the industry and the audience they both serve.]
Video games have the potential to be a plodding, tech-focused industry, and while there is certainly a broad and nuanced consumer base for them (broader than most realize), those who read internet game journalism still represent a fairly niche portion of the audience. We're not accustomed to being buzzworthy or sexy, the way, say, celebrity gossip, fashion or the film biz is.
And yet, we'd like to be a little more buzzworthy, in general -- we've got the hot-looking (albeit digital) icons, we've got the big explosions, the talent, the high action and the tearjerkers. Why can't we have some sexy headlines, too?
It's a reasonable thought; I agree with the sentiment that the industry needs more celebrities, more champions, more people that can really stand at the forefront of things as beloved ambassadors -- as Cliff Bleszinski says in today's Gamasutra's current feature, "visionaries." We've got a few of those, of course, but generally those folks don't talk to the media much. They tend to be "Wizard of Oz" personas behind the scenes, don't they?
Failing actual celebrities, we often make "controversial" figures out of just about anything we can get our hands on, ready to seize on vague quotes to create an imagined feud, ready to populate and respawn relatively tame challenges or dissensions from industry people to craft them into maverick media stars.
Imposing Our Personal Narratives
Though the quote didn't make it into my final interview stories, I remember that during my talk with EA CEO John Riccitiello recently, he noted that "people wanted to impose their personal narrative" on his company's bid to acquire Take-Two, imagining a contentious war of egos, fierce verbal exchanges and slamming boardroom doors, an out-and-out, one-on-one testosterone battle between Riccitiello and the (rather generative!) Strauss Zelnick. Though I'm sure Riccitiello would not have told me if it'd indeed been that way, he maintains the negotiations were professional, civil, and essentially uneventful -- but that doesn't make good headlines, does it?
People want to impose their personal narratives on a lot of things, and often the media caters to this wish -- they do it with politics, business, art and film, whatever you pick. And "the media" is often criticized (as if "the media" comprised some nebulous, single-headed monster) for its steps over the line between sensationalism and its duty to the truth.
This leads me to a recent Edge story about Deus Ex. At PC game blog Rock Paper Shotgun, veteran game journalist Kieron Gillen was the first to discover:
"The forthcoming issue of videogame bible Edge has a large feature on Eidos Montreal’s development of Deus Ex 3. To tease it, Edge Online runs a short story with the headline “Deus Ex was “Kinda Slow” Says Deus Ex 3 Dev” before offering a quote from Lead Designer Jean-Francois Dugas: “There weren’t enough exciting, memorable moments. It was aimed more towards a simulation rather than a game experience.”. Internet explodes. It is only part of the story. In a literal sense."
In other words, the "kinda slow" line was out of context and dredged out of an interview with a plethora of much more relevant quotes, or at the very least, quotes that could have been taken out of context to precisely the opposite effect. And yes, this happens often in media -- but on the internet, news stories can provoke widespread reaction. And that reaction can impact people's relationship to their work at best -- and their game performance and their job status at worst.
Why This Happens
We live in a world where blogs, forums and Digg influence game-buying habits as much as, if not more than, "proper" media. When a journalist takes something out of context to grab a headline, that angle on the truth is free to proliferate across amateur sites and aggregators even further out of context -- in short, it becomes a game of Telephone, where the end result could theoretically turn out so divorced from its source that the source can no longer be found.
For example, Kotaku -- which, in my experience usually aims to be more responsible about context and sourcing than it's often given credit for -- picked up Edge's headline, and Luke Plunkett was apparently so worried about inappropriate reader reactions that he qualified the statement with plenty of context -- in italics, even! But even despite this, a good portion of Kotaku's audience is unlikely to read the whole post, and the editorializing will take place in the comments anyway.
So yes, I do think Edge crossed a line. I think it was poorly done of what's normally a very high-quality site. But while I could sit here and self-righteously excoriate Edge for being irresponsible, unethical, hit-driven, traffic-obsessed, blah blah blah, and all the things it seems knee-jerk to do, it's unfortunately not that simple.
Joined By Challenge
Both game developers and game journalists have a couple key things in common: First, serving their audience is their job, and if they do this well, they will be successful. Both game development and game journalism are highly competitive, even saturated -- developers must do their best to ensure that their game is the one that the average consumer drops $60 on this month, and game journalists must do their best to ensure that their site is the one that garners the biggest piece of the Web traffic pie.
As an aside, though the word "traffic" gets thrown around often whenever someone criticizes game journalism, it oversimplifies things; not all journalists are paid on the traffic they do, and not all sites have a direct correlation between traffic and money. It depends on other factors of a media company's business models. But the point remains that a web site that nobody reads won't be around for long; a writer who doesn't get read isn't going to have a job for long.
And this is the era of New Media. While journalists are busily aiming to score proper interviews, do research, cite their sources and observe embargoes and all those fussy details -- you know, journalism -- blogs not only have more freedom to make entertainment more important than ethics, but they also frequently have a devoted community around them that enjoys being free to speak back. So news sites like Edge (and like its competitor, Gamasutra) face stiff competition in attaining an audience's attention.
Not an excuse, I know; that's just business. And sensationalism is hardly a new issue. But I think we've got something a little different here in the games biz, something unique to us, that makes it complicated.
It seems situations like this might occur less often if we didn't have a larger culture within the gaming audience wherein we have, as I recently wrote at length, become extremely demanding in a fashion that borders on entitlement.
Our hit-driven business has created among the consumer culture an environment where each new event is required to be more exciting than the last, and the hype cycle breeds such high expectations that chronic cynicism and negativity is an inevitability. I mean, here we are, talking about how inappropriate it was to bait explosive audience reaction -- regarding what's really a vague, tepid criticism of an old game. Take a wider-lens view, and that "kinda slow" quote is hardly incendiary at all -- why is it such a big deal?
Here's another thing journalists and game developers have in common: They feel, quite a lot of the time, that they will never be able to please their audience no matter what they do.
We won't be able to make audiences happy, so we'll stand for just being able to hang on to their attention. Somewhere in the world at this very moment, game designers are putting heads together trying to puzzle out just what tactic they can try to make players engage with their next game for longer than they did with the last one. At the same time, a game publication's brass are discussing with their editors how they can boost reader retention.
If neither of them can cater to the consumption habits of their audience, they won't last -- especially in an oversaturated space where there is plenty of competition. And so to align with the audience's consumption habits, both games and game journalism are forced to align with the culture of their audience -- a culture that wants celebrity, wants controversy, wants things to buzz about, and, unfortunately, wants things to complain about, to take up arms about, to band together over.
Chickens And Eggs
And certainly, one end does perpetuate the other. Has the audience been trained to expect disappointment, to have minimal attention spans, by the hype-driven (and thus continually disappointing) game industry? Have the mechanics of games themselves engineered a culture that demands logically-placed, tiered rewards interspersed with occasional, unpredictable conflict?
Has the audience developed its resentful mob mentality by being told what they do and don't want by a slate of envious, immature game journalists whose largest qualification is that they are more obsessive enthusiasts than those for whom they write?
Journalists and developers will say that they've become whatever it is they've become because of turning backbends to please an unpleasable audience; the audience can just as easily say they've been made what they are by the media they consume.
I have in the past plucked out what I think is the juiciest headline quote from an interview I've done. And I confess that my standards for juiciness have at least a little to do with an awareness of what people will click on. I like to think I'm responsible about it, but I'm pretty sure Edge didn't think it was being irresponsible with this Deus Ex quote either.
As a matter of fact, I wonder if I might not have zeroed in on the exact same headline. I can't say for sure.
It's a slippery slope with no clear source of blame. In the dysfunctional family circle of game industry, game media, and game consumer, anyone can always point the finger to the left or to the right of themselves.