Life, The Universe And Gaming: The Dark Side Of Games Journalism
A few months ago I saw a Twitter thread between some folks I follow regarding the topic of entering gaming-related competitions on local websites. Specifically, they were interested in those entering when they’re already involved in the gaming industry at some level. Now as far as we’re concerned here at eGamer, we tend to opt out of entering such competitions in order to allow readers the opportunities to win cool things. So it was never that important for us who won this argument but rather, it was important for us what points were raised.
See, a lot of people who aren’t in the gaming industry in some context (the readers, let’s say) consider the review copies and hands-on opportunities and event invites that we get to be ‘benefits’ of being in the gaming industry. This is something of a fallacy in my eyes. Yeah sure, it’s great to get games for free especially considering how expensive they are. And yeah, it’s awesome attending these closed-door events to see games before anyone else. And the press lounge at rAge really is the greatest place on Earth that isn’t your bedroom. But what a lot of people don’t consider is that as with any job, we work for these so-called ‘benefits’ and they are in fact a part of our jobs.
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Of course, there are occasions when review copies for a game aren’t even available and so we are forced to buy them on our own. Review copies themselves are not-for-resale promotional copies and so they are effectively worth nothing after the review is completed. Then when you consider the exclusive event invites, we still have to actually get ourselves there and that involves paying our own way — for example purchasing flight tickets and finding accommodation during rAge weekend. To put this into some perspective, let’s consider a different occupation compared to games writing: There have been months when I’ve put out two articles a day, every weekday, at minimum, and only had my free review copy for the month as recompense. If you work it out, that’s a not-for-resale promotional copy of a game valued at say R600 for a month of part-time work. Meanwhile someone who works as a waiter for two week-nights a week earns R2000 by the end of that month for far less work, and can then afford to buy three games with that money, or spend it however they please.
So you start to see why I wince at hearing the word ‘benefit’ when really, it’s just a part of the job.
But don’t get me wrong here; this column isn’t meant to be a cry-fest. The truth is that writing about videogames is something of a dream occupation and while it doesn’t always have security and relevancy and at least in South Africa it cannot pay the bills all on its own, it’s still a very fun kind of job to have. The kind of job that isn’t really ‘work’ all the time. At least, until it is. And that leads me to the point of this column. No cry-facing, but I do want to highlight some of the often-overlooked aspects of writing about games in order to show everyone that while it is great, it’s not all sunshine and roses all the time — I used the term ‘games journalism’ in the title because I know how riled up people get when you say it like that; I have no illusions about being a real journalist, I’m just a gamer who happens to be good with words and has an affinity for alliteration.
We’ll do this in sub-sections for clarity sakes, and because everyone loves big bold titles to skim in these kinds of TL;DR articles. And yes, this totally is a very obvious thematic metaphor for Star Wars and specifically Darth Vader’s descent (ascent?) to the dark side. For the most part I am going to be highlighting only the little-known bad parts, because I think we’re all pretty clear on the good parts of being a gaming writer. Shall we begin?
Dealing with public relations & corporate bullshit
Bureaucracy is one of the ugliest words in the English language to me. As with various other occupations there’s always various channels and in order to get to point A, you simply have to pass through points B, C, D and E. This makes dealing with developers and publishers nigh on impossible at times. If you want commentary, an interview or perhaps just to get a developer’s side of a story, you are forced to go through these channels and have to wait for a response, failing which you risk the reputation of the site as well as possibly never get what you need out of whomever you wish to reach out to. I’m still awaiting a response from BT Games to something that happened last year. At this very point in time, YouTube personality TotalBiscuit currently has issues of his own in this regard.
This is to say nothing of the incompetence of some PR companies that handle interactions with gaming websites on behalf of publishers or distributors. Pretty much every reviewer has a story to tell about their review copy going to the wrong address, being weeks later than expected or just not arriving at all. This obviously impacts on the site’s ability to put out a review in a timely fashion, which means lost views and lost relevancy. And then of course there’s quotes such as the following: “We didn’t think there’d be enough interest to bring it to South Africa.” This, ladies and gentlemen, was why we had no Killer is Dead review for you guys.
Becoming demotivated by the destructive nature of the industry
A game comes out that is awful. Gaming writers report on it and point out what a bad game it is. The developer of the game gets sudden attention. Their game sales start to go up because of this sudden interest in their products. Optional: The game writer is then accused of promoting the bad game from the bad developer.
The gaming industry is extremely destructive because it doesn’t want to be told how to operate and what to do with itself. Gamers don’t know what they want but want to be empowered so publishers give them an illusion of choice when really they’re just over-saturating and leading them down a dangerous path of over-indulgence. We’ve seen this in the past with companies the likes of Activision releasing so many Guitar Hero games that the rhythm genre is now practically dead in the water save for Ubisoft’s novel attempts with Rocksmith. Publishers think short-term and don’t care about the consequences and gamers don’t even think at all, opting to defend the practices of publishers because the last game they played wasn’t actually that bad. Nobody stops to consider that perhaps we’re not moving forwards or progressing at all but rather stagnating or moving sideways instead. Then a gaming writer comes along to point this out and gets disinterest and indifference for all of their efforts. I would know.
Fans of games are so vehement in their defences of bad gaming practices and it is the gaming writers who get the shaft for trying to expose the bullshit. As if we’re the ones who are perpetrating these practices or something.
Long work hours without breaks or holidays
Your immediate first thought might be, “But isn’t that the case for everyone?” Not so. A lot of people don’t get Christmas holidays but they get ‘leave’ that they may take at some point in the year. Not always the case, sure, but for the most part people go to work and their work stays at work — unless they’re CAs or lawyers they rarely bring their work home with them. This allows them weekends free, if not for end-of-year holidays. We at eGamer close our imaginary doors for a few weeks in December, but for the most part when you’re in this business of writing about games, it’s a more-or-less full-time occupation. If you miss out on a week of gaming news then you’re left behind and must catch up. There is no picking it up later. At the risk of sounding a little whiny, with games writing you come home from your actual day job (unless you work full-time as a games writer, but those are rare especially in SA) and you spend most of your evening writing about games instead of, you know, actually playing them like everyone else. It’s a strange sort of feeling upon realisation.
Any part-time job is strenuous but the gaming industry doesn’t stop producing content and whether it’s controversies the likes of Xbox One’s DRM policies or something small such as Steam’s next wave of Greenlight games, if there’s news coming out then it must be covered and for me personally, opinions must be shared on these goings-on. Then you get those folks who work tirelessly to create unique video content which then goes onto YouTube and gets DCMA’d for various copyright reasons, entirely unfairly so. Gaming journalism, surprise surprise, means work. It means sacrifice. It means late nights and early mornings. And trust me when I say, the human brain at some point does need rest. You try producing original content every day of your life for years on end and tell me how it feels.
You inevitably become cynical and jaded towards games
This one’s obvious, right? I mean, pretty much every well-known gaming writer of some sort has talked about it. When you have to always be critical of games then what happens is your critical mind takes over and you can no longer simply play a game for personal enjoyment. In the past half-year or so, I played The Last of Us and the Uncharted series and my critical brain went crazy on all of them; I think I actually lost friends in my criticisms of The Last of Us. And it’s not something I actively try to do; I can’t help it. When I play a game, I must be critical of it.
I guess in a way this could also be flipped onto the games themselves because being hyper-critical doesn’t stop a good game from being good. So perhaps the curse of the games journalist is the ability to filter the bad in even the really good games (The Last of Us) or to see through the superficial presentation layer of the experiences presented to us, a la Journey. Still, at some point you tend to stop looking at games as enjoyable experiences and start looking at them as objects to be critiqued. I’m not sure if there is another occupation where this is the case for gaming, but it is very much the same as movie critics who watch movies and art critics who go to art exhibitions; at some point you forget how to enjoy something dumb and must pick everything apart right down to the finest detail. Or at least ostensibly think that’s what you’re doing, in the case of those who do it badly. Cough.
You are forced to play nice
Again one of those things that applies to most jobs; you’ll never fully appreciate how great it is to be able to say anything you’d like online, until you can’t do that any more. I’m not necessarily speaking of 1984-inspired censorship but rather, there are certain things that you simply can’t speak about. For example if you’ve signed an NDA about a game and it’s a bad game then you are forced to sit in silence and wait for the review to publish. Trust me when I say, we never want to keep quiet about stuff you should stay away from.
On the other side of things, there’s also a lot of brown-nosing that goes on. I suppose again this is the case with any job really. A little sucking-up here, a little euphemism there, and you’re in the good books of whatever developer/publisher/distributor and you’ve basically earned their favour. I’m not making any accusations with this but rather, I’m saying that typical human behaviour will tell you that if you insult the creation of something then its creator will not want to work with you in future. Thus, good relations must be maintained while also trying to remain objective and honest. Tricky is a word.
You become the target of thousands of gamers
Have an opinion on the internet?
HOW DARE YOU.
Oversaturation of opinions
I’ve had this issue a few times where I’ve thought up something I felt was really cool, to talk about. Then I talked about it and someone linked me to, say, an episode of Jimquisition or Extra Credits or something and asked me why I copied them. I didn’t. It was something I had thought up all on my own. But the thing about the internet is that there are just so many opinions going around and the news is somewhat finite at any point in time, so there’s bound to be some crossover, right? … right?
Either way, whether it’s gaming-related or just in general, there are a lot of opinions on the internet and a lot of times it depends more on whom you trust and would rather read, instead of what they have to say. Granted there are a few people who do opinions better than others, the likes of Film Critic Hulk, Jim Sterling and our own Tarryn Van Der Byl, but for the most part you’re going to have to sift through a lot of opinionated content. Because again, having an opinion on the internet is like brushing your teeth with toothpaste. It’s just a given.
It’s still a great job to have
I mean, it’s better than hard labour, right? Getting any kind of money or equivalent just to talk about something you do on a daily basis anyway is kind of awesome. I know I’ve been lucky to get an opportunity such as this and if I’m allowed to say, I’ve done well to build on it, but there are others who will go their entire lives and only envy those who do it. Thing is, you could start a blog up right now and do game opinions. At some point, someone will notice; I guarantee you.
In recent times I’ve heard both Jim Sterling and TotalBiscuit talk of their disillusionment with games journalism and how they have stopped playing games for pleasure because they can’t really enjoy games any more. This is not uncommon in the gaming writing business and I hope that that day never comes for me, personally. But what it does do, at least for me, is highlight that it’s not the rainbows and unicorns kind of perfect job that a lot of people seem to think it is. No, it’s just a job like any other; it just has massive appeal because it turns what is essentially a hobby/passion/pastime into something lucrative.
A few months ago a lot of gamers took issue with how games journalists would tweet pictures of themselves getting a brand new PS4 before anyone else, calling them douchebags and criticising their integrity as journalists. A lot of people bag on Cliffy B for boasting about his good fortune or the shiny things he owns. But do you know what? I see those as inspiration, personally. I see those as something to aspire to. I look at those and think, “If I work hard enough in this industry then I too can reap such benefits.” Here’s hoping.
In any case, all I really wanted to do today with this super-long column entry is create some awareness amongst the masses that gaming writing as a job is just like any other job. Yes it has its glamours but there are also some dark spots to it that must also be dealt with. When I first started writing, an ex-writer told me that I should enjoy the buzz of being a writer while it lasts because it fades fast. He was one of those who became a ‘Darth Vader’ and lost the spark that he initially felt for writing. I’m happy to say that I haven’t, after many years of doing this. And hopefully I never will. But the world needs to know that the dark side exists. The
reapers sith are real, people! The enemy has a face and I have seen it! Etcetera.
May the force be ever in our favour. (Did I do it right?)