Gaming Hacks – The State of Modern Games Journalism

Here’s an essay I produced on the state of the games journalism industry for my media class. Let me know what you think!

With the rise of digital media, the past twenty years have seen a drastic shift in the way news is disseminated to audiences. Where once broadcast and print journalism were all that was available, the public now has a vast array of sources from which to gather information, including websites and social networking. It is often argued this has made reporters more accountable and information better and more freely available. The videogame industry has wholeheartedly embraced this platform shift and a plethora of websites and blogs have emerged in the past two decades that review games and report on industry happenings. However, there are concerns over the long term impact on the quality and trustworthiness of games journalism as a result of this trend – this investigation aims to explore the extent to which the digital revolution has impacted the quality of press coverage of the videogame industry.

According to statistics from the Audit Bureau of Circulations, the largest-selling games magazine in the United States is Game Informer, with circulation of 8,169,524 per month as of June 2012 (www.auditedmedia.com, 2012).This statistic seems to be positive for the gaming press, as it means a gaming publication is the third-best selling magazine in the USA. This is particularly impressive given that it is a ‘consumer specialist’ publication (one which focuses on a specific interest) rather than a ‘general consumer’ title like those publications which outsell it (AARP The Magazine and the AARP Bulletin, both magazines for retired people), which have much wider appeal (BAKHURST, 1996). However, Game Informer is an outlier in terms of distribution numbers – it has a huge amount of advertising through being owned by and sold in GameStop, America’s biggest games retailer, which places it at the cash registers and encourages subscription, along with covering multiple manufacturers’ systems. Comparatively, despite the official association with Nintendo, Nintendo Power sold around 475,000 copies monthly in that period, equating to one copy for every 17 Game Informer issues (LEBOEUF, 2012).

A major factor in the decline of games journalism in print form is cost. While hosting a website on a server that must be constantly running does incur expense, it is negligible relative to the cost to print tens, or hundreds of thousands of copies of 100-page, A4, colour glossy magazines.

Unfortunately, as magazines lose circulation, they lose advertisers that keep many of them running. This circulation drop has coincided with the increased availability and decreased cost of online advertising opportunities, which can often be more lucrative for companies than print advertising. As journalist Susan Arendt says: “As people have moved online for their information, it’s harder and harder and harder to sell ads in print publications, because they’re vastly more expensive.”(ARENDT, 2012)

The audience targeted by the gaming press traditionally consists of males aged 18-34, who generally have the disposable income required to purchase a reasonable number of videogames (meaning they are often in socio-economic categories A, B and C1). These audiences, generally quite proficient with technology and knowledgeable about the various news sources available, tend to be quite omnivorous about consuming their gaming news – they may have favourite magazines or websites, but they generally do not mind where their news comes from as long as they can absorb it somehow. Steve Kennedy states Maslow’s requirement of self-actualisation (achieving our full potential) as a key reason why people play videogames (KENNEDY, 2012); it could also hold true for games journalism – readers enjoy the self-esteem gained from their favourite games receiving positive scores, and the ability to use the internet to gather numerous opinions usually helps them find at least one view agreeing with them.

It is arguable that this shift runs the risk of making the press less accountable – once an article is committed to print, it cannot be edited or redacted and is physically archived. However, a website fearing controversy can quickly edit or delete offending content from their server, and if done subtly can help them avoid or mitigate criticism. This idea does not hold up to much examination though, especially when considering the fact that many websites archive their work and it is often recorded elsewhere as well. Indeed, in Journalism, A Critical History, Martin Conboy argues that “online archiving of stories and their links to related news sites are a boon for the engaged reader” (CONBOY, 2004).

Already, website traffic can eclipse the circulation of traditional magazines – in 2010, when Game Informer’s circulation was around two thirds what it is now, IGN, the world’s largest gaming website, drew viewing figures of 28.9 million per month (GRANT, 2010). While this doesn’t translate necessarily to the same revenue as magazines, it does mean that websites can have far greater influence than print when reaching international markets, particularly given the nature of the internet to transcend borders. Game Informer, in contrast to the worldwide IGN, is only sold in North American stores and is only available via subscription elsewhere, limiting its international appeal.

Citizen journalism is a broadly defined term, but can be accurately summed up as non-professional reporting of current events, which is transmitted via open media sources, like websites and social media. It is often considered the most democratic form of journalism, having neither qualifications required to participate, nor a need for employment by a company. It represents a power shift from institution to audience, where writers simply create what they would want to read and hope their audience does the same.

The struggle for print media to survive is often framed as a fight between large corporations and independent journalists trying to make a living. However, the ownership of new media is often well concealed, and can be less immediately obvious than that of print media. For instance, three of the biggest games journalism websites, IGN, GameSpy and 1UP, were owned from 2005 to late 2012 by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation (MUSIL, 2012). GameSpot and Giant Bomb are owned by CBS Interactive, meaning five of the ten biggest websites are owned by corporate entities. Ownership by large companies may affect the publications’ level of bias, and result in unchallenging journalism that avoids controversy – parent companies lose face if their publications draw negative attention from game publishers or the public feel they are being misled.

It is often claimed that we are ‘duped’ by media. This means we are convinced to believe an institution’s version of events, even if they happen to be biased or untrue. This can occur where an institution makes an emotive case for their argument, but in this context is more likely when consensus on a review score is reached across the review spectrum. Writer Robert Florence, in an article for Eurogamer, stated that:

Publishers are well aware that some of you go crazy if a new AAA title gets a crappy review score on a website, and they use that knowledge to keep the boat from rocking. Everyone has a nice easy ride if the review scores stay decent and the content of the games are never challenged. Websites get their exclusives. Ad revenue keeps rolling in. The information is controlled. Everyone stays friendly” (FLORENCE, 2012).

While his views are certain to cause controversy (the article was heavily edited after complaints from other journalists and Florence has since stopped writing for the website), they highlight the fear that without thorough regulation and distancing of journalists from Public Relations influence, the videogame press may become an unreliable source of independent opinion. IGN has come under fire from audiences for this perceived bias, being accused (without evidence) of accepting payola (money for positive reviews). Whether or not there is truth to this accusation, IGN’s average review score sits at 6.9/10, significantly above the centre of the scale. (METACRITIC, 2013)

Independent journalists have also been charged with sometimes failing to adhere to good journalistic standards. Often, game publishers will offer free review copies of games or special events for journalists on the unstated understanding that a positive review is expected. When a journalist negatively reviews a game that they are given free, the publisher is at liberty to send nothing more, and a website becoming unpopular with publishers can run into a lot of expense or difficulty. This can lead to indulgence of Galtung and Ruge’s news value of ‘Consonance’, whereby the press will only report stories that are simple or lucrative for them to write.

This can result in skewed review scores, including a phenomenon known as the 7-10 scale, whereby on a ten-point scale a 7 is considered the lowest acceptable score to give to a blockbuster game, despite the fact that 7 is above the average of 5. Thus, although smaller websites can put on the appearance of independence, they come under pressure from rich publishing companies to bend to their will.

While ‘Official Magazines’ have traditionally showed some bias towards games developed by the particular system manufacturer they are tied to, they usually have some flexibility to be honest with games by other publishers. This is because having ties with or being owned by a console manufacturer gives them a certain amount of protection against influence by outside companies – the magazine’s owner can take action if someone attempts to control their employees since they wish to avoid accusations of bias.

One effect of the digital revolution in games journalism is a drastic drop in the requirements needed to be a journalist. It has been said that blogs, podcasts and other social media are evolving, and changing the landscape, rapidly (DEMOPOULOS, 2006) – and we don’t yet know the long term effects. To write for a print publication, one could qualify with lower requirements than were needed for higher-end newspapers, but still needed to demonstrate good practice with deadlines and ethics as well as writing ability. Since the internet became a viable platform for game reporting, it is fairly simple for anyone with a connection to publish content and have it seen. While this has beneficial implications for aspiring journalists hoping to build a portfolio of work, it gives no guarantee of impartiality or writing quality in many online publications. Moreover, it fails to ensure that journalists are free of bias and will not mislead their audience in order to obtain personal benefits. (KAIN, 2012)

The Marxist theory of media ownership and control states that news media in its current form can never be free of bias since owners and powerful corporations exert executive control over journalists in order to be portrayed positively. There is a parallel in the way large publishers encourage journalists to be positive about their games which fits within this theory, but another supporting model is the hegemonic view. This is the Neo-Marxist belief that while ruling groups in the media do not mean to control people’s thoughts, they do so anyway because to them, what they believe is simply common sense. By disseminating this view in their publications, they create a consensus that their convictions are ordinary and expected beliefs. Propaganda is an example of when a limited viewpoint over time becomes established consensus.

This view does not correspond precisely to the model of New Media games journalism, since many publications have no direct contact with major publishers, but will often have their review scores coloured by the opinions espoused by more major sites, which often do have connections with the corporate world. If a reviewer for a small website looks at a game’s scores on an aggregate site like Metacritic, they might decide to change a score to be more in line with the average. As stated, this is often far above the middle of the scale. Indeed, while IGN’s average score is a 6.9/10, they actually score games four points lower than the average for Metacritic, 7.3/10 – far from the 5.0 that should constitute average. In fact, of all 378 game reviewing websites aggregated by Metacritic, none have an average rating below 5.7 (METACRITIC, 2013). Deviating from this average can draw the ire of readers, who have variously accused reviewers in the past of either inextricable bias against particular series or having been bribed by publishers.

However, it is arguable that many online reviewers truly are independent and not swayed by either public opinion or direct publisher. An example is writer and critic Ben Croshaw, who states his opinion on honesty in reviewing as “the cruellest thing you can do to an artist is tell them their work is flawless when it isn’t” (CROSHAW, 2010). Croshaw’s most well-known work, the video series Zero Punctuation, has on several occasions broken the consensus on popular games, such as Wii Sports Resort. While he does not believe in giving a game a numerical score, he has described many otherwise critically acclaimed titles in an overwhelmingly negative manner. Despite the controversial and unpopular status the Marxist and Neo-Marxist views would say he would adopt from taking his positions, his show draws several million viewers every week and is a respected source of opinion.

This popularity seems to confirm the pluralist view that “the question of media ownership is separate from managerial control of media content, and that journalists are relatively independent with respect to how they write their stories” (MILJAN, 2003). The Uses and Gratifications model, a postmodernist view of the media, claims that we use the media to gratify our needs (BENNETT, 2006). While there may indeed be reviews that keep to whatever score mainstream big-budget games are expected to receive, they exist because, simply put, readers want them. On the other hand, reviews that offer controversial opinions could just be fulfilling needs of readers who may not want to read wholly positive reviews.

It appears that while the egalitarianism of the internet provides a large working environment for many aspiring journalists, it can also be gravely dangerous for journalistic impartiality if left unchecked. While there are a great many excellent writers who operate online, it takes a lot for them to be noticed in a saturated market, particularly one in which there are very low requirements to offer one’s opinion on a subject and in which the dominance of the larger sites like IGN offering skewed review scales is very difficult to challenge. However, there may yet be a bright future for online games journalism, particularly if writers can find ways of distancing themselves from outside influences that may cause bias in their reporting.

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Robin Wilde

Co-Editor of Cubed Gamers, meaning I send out, take in, edit and upload content. I’m also in charge of doing much of the graphics and design stuff for the site.

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