‘Games journalists are not journalists. There, I said it.’

Originally published 12/3/07 on GGL Wire.

I didn’t plan to write anything about the Jeff Gerstmann imbroglio. Games journalists writing about games journalists seems incestuous to me. But there is an important issue here — can games journalists be trusted to give information and opinions that gamers can trust?

Here is a timeline of the Reviewgate scandal:

November 13: Gamespot Editorial Director Jeff Gerstmann publishes a negative review of Kane & Lynch: Dead Men, giving the game 6 out of 10. An accompanying video review is also posted.

November 29: Gerstmann is fired. According to a rumor repeated on a number of gaming sites, Gerstmann is let go because Eidos is unhappy about his negative review of Kane & Lynch (the company paid a great deal of money to advertise the game on Gamespot). The text of the review is edited, although the 6/10 rating stands. The video is taken down.

November 30: A Penny Arcade comic (which was actually drawn before the firing) ignites the controversy. In an editorial, Jerry Holkins quotes Gamespot as saying there had been problems with Gerstmann’s “tone” for a long time. Gamespot owner CNET responds to the rumors: “For over a decade, Gamespot and the many members of its editorial team have produced thousands of unbiased reviews that have been a valuable resource for the gaming community. At CNET Networks, we stand behind the editorial content that our teams produce on a daily basis.” CNET’s Sarah Cain: “We do not terminate employees based on external pressure from advertisers.”

December 1: 1Up and Ziff-Davis staffers march on the Gamespot offices to protest Gerstmann’s firing. No, really. In addition, the fora on Gamespot and the Eidos web pages are slammed with thousands of complaints.

December 3: Gerstmann speaks to Joystiq, defending his original review. “I stand behind my work, regardless of where I do it. If there was content that I felt I couldn’t support, it wouldn’t see the light of day.”

The truth is, we don’t know why Gerstmann was fired, or if the Kane & Lynch review was the reason, or one of the reasons. Gamespot won’t tell us what happened; and according to rumor, Gerstmann signed an NDA to get his severance pay, and can’t tell us.

Why is this minor firing causing so much consternation in the gaming community? It’s complicated, but it has to do with gaming journalism’s precarious place in the videogaming moiety.

One the one hand, there are the developers and publishers. These people are “The Industry,” and it’s a cliquish world with intentionally high barriers to entry. Like their counterparts in the Film Industry, game developers are very protective of their little world and paranoid about keeping their careers. On the other hand sit the gamers; also very cliquish, and often hostile to outsiders. Mostly young, mostly male, gamers treat their favorite videogames like fetish objects, and demand greatness from the high Brahmins in the Industry. If the Industry fails, say by producing a poor sequel to a beloved game, the gamers can turn ugly.

Each group requires the other to exist — that’s why I describe them as moieties. But they are also at odds with each other. To say they hate each other would be greatly overstating the case. Let’s just say it’s a complicated relationship. The Industry sees the gamers as the unwashed masses, fanboys whose loyalties (and dollars) are often taken for granted. The gamers see the Industry as a golden castle on a far hill, where everyone has a dream job, and drinks sparkling champagne out of cups shaped like Master Chief’s helmet. When the Industry disappoints, the gamers feel personally betrayed.

This relationship would be combative enough, if there weren’t a third faction. Although we’re gamers, we aren’t considered part of the gaming community. And we certainly aren’t loved by the Industry (try spending five years of your life developing a game, only to have it trashed in the reviews). The problem with being a games journalist is, you don’t have anywhere to fit in.

Games journalists are not journalists. There, I said it. Let’s look at what a journalist is supposed to be. (Most of America’s so-called journalists have sold out to corporations, and are no better than a games journalist. But the rest of the English-speaking world seems to still have some real journalism.) A journalist knows he can never be truly impartial, but can give a hearing to both sides. A journalist keeps opinion separate from factual reporting. A journalist questions his or her own sources, and depends on alternate sources to determine the truth. A journalist never accepts bribes, and avoids even the appearance of impropriety. A journalist wears a felt hat with a press card stuck in the band and drinks bourbon straight from the bottle.

Real reporters cover important issues like politics, crime, social issues and science. They report what the public needs to know to be effective members of a democratic society. They should never be “stenographers to power.” They’re the Fourth frickin’ Estate, and should act like it.

This is not what a games journalist does. Don’t worry, I’m not singling out my own kind; this also applies to tech journalists, business journalists, sports journalists, boating journalists, real estate journalists, knitting journalists and the writing staff at Cat Fancy. We’re all writing about a specific industry, just for fans of that industry.

In a sense, gaming journalists are like freelance public relations staffers for the videogaming Industry. It’s our job to be stenographers to power — or at least to Blizzard. But there’s one difference between us and the actual PR guys. A PR person’s loyalty is to the company. A games journalist’s loyalty should be to the gamers. Not to the Industry, nor even to his or her own employer — but to the readers.

Gamers count on us to sift through the gaming Industry bullshit and present the nuggets of truth we find there. They rely on us to use our greater resources, our contacts within the Industry, our ability to attend all the conventions and gaming events, to give them information about their beloved hobby that they couldn’t and wouldn’t get without us. They trust us to provide, if not the truth, then at least our honest opinion.

Unfortunately, when we give that honest opinion, it often harms our relationships with the people in the Industry — relationships we need to cultivate, if we’re going to tell the gamers what they want to know. Film reviewers run into this problem all the time. If they give negative reviews to films, they lose their invitations to junkets and press screenings. But they write their opinions anyway, and I can’t think of a case where a film reviewer got canned for pissing off an advertiser.

Game reviewers run into the exact problem in the Gerstmann case — there must be a firewall between advertising and editorial. Honestly, the bad behavior here is not on the journalist who writes negative things. The journalist’s employer is ethically required to shield their reporter. And the advertiser should not think buying ad space on a web site or in a magazine makes them immune to editorial opinion. Do the people at Eidos really want to live in a world where product reviewers have their opinions dictated by advertisers?

Games journalists are not journalists, because we must break the rules of journalism to do our jobs. We must have friends in the Industry, people we like and don’t want to piss off. We don’t write about important issues — we write about trivia, even if it’s fascinating trivia that is important to people in a particular sub-culture. We don’t write unbiased pieces — why would we? We write what we think. We repeat rumors. We speculate wildly on the psychological diagnosis of a certain Florida lawyer.

Just as the Industry doesn’t like us because we snoop out their secrets and trash their games, the gamers don’t trust us. They know we’re in bed with the Industry, to a certain extent. They know we work for media conglomerates. They’re jealous that we have such cool jobs. And the minute they get a hint that we might be liars, such as in this case, they go ballistic.

I can say with absolute confidence that no game review at GGL, GGL Wire, or Epileptic Gaming has ever been altered in any way for the benefit of anyone. But we’re still a small site, owned by a small company. We won’t always be small, and we’re already growing. What will happen here at GGL when the ad guys strike a major multi-million dollar deal with some game publisher, and the game sucks? Will someone tell us what to write? Knowing our CEO, Ted Owen, I don’t think so. I can’t imagine him going for that — he believes in the editorial/advertising firewall, because you can’t build a community if people can’t trust you.

But what will happen when that day comes? Will we show the integrity of the Penny Arcade guys, or the (alleged) spinelessness of Gamestop?

I hope GGL will do what Gamestop and their CNET masters should have done. Because standing up for your reporter means you’re also standing up for the gamers.

Guardian: Will videogames create a two-tiered society?

Originally posted 7/20/07 on GGL.com

A blogger for Britain’s influential Guardian newspaper is asking, “Will playing games create a two-tiered society?” Writer Bobbie Johnson, the Guardian’s technology correspondent, writes in response to a Discovery magazine article touting the benefits of video game playing.

Studies have indicated that young people who play video games have increased abilities in reasoning, puzzle solving, and “forward thinking” (although it has been pointed out that kids who already possess these abilities may be attracted to playing video games.)

Johnson asks:

Given the increasing interest in virtual worlds and near-game environments, it’s not hard to imagine that some people will adapt much more quickly to a futurenet based around 3D – the kind of thing imagined by William Gibson’s Neuromancer or Neal Stephenson in Snow Crash.

But given the research mentioned, will we end up with a divided society? Imagine a future internet where games players have a massive advantage over ordinary users. Will we see a divide between the visually literate and those who just don’t (or can’t) get it?

It’s an interesting question. It’s one thing to have economic and caste inequities – but a medieval lord was no more or less intelligent than the average peasant (and not always better educated). The science of anthropology, invented in the 19th century to prove that some races were inherently better than others, instead showed by the middle of the 20th century that “racial” differences were shallow, and that intelligence has no correlation to race or ethnicity. Is technology moving us towards a world where one set of people is demonstrably more intelligent than another?

Science fiction has dealt with this question many times; Huxley’s Brave New World and Wells’s The Time Machine are the most famous examples. Technological enhancement of the human mind is a common theme in cyberpunk fiction; and as in Gibson’s Neuromancer, not everyone can afford these enhancements.

Video games don’t directly enhance intelligence. But they train the brain, and not just in ways that help a player use a computer. (And I don’t think there will be a 3D “futurenet” as described by Gibson. Why direct an avatar through a maze of pretty 3D representations of web sites, when I can just click on a name on a list? See what I mean?)

A well-designed game teaches critical thinking (the single most important intellectual skill), reasoning, prediction and communication. It heightens visual skills and the reflexes. And the game content can be as mind-expanding as any book, film or music album.

I’m concerned about economic inequities that will lead to technological and intellectual castes. But that seems to be an issue for 50 years from now. Right now, we’re seeing a large segment of society choose to limit their own intellectual growth, both technologically and otherwise, for what they errantly see as moral reasons.

My mind is so advanced, I have chosen to present my argument as a chart.

Intellectual Enhancement Counter-intellectual Response The “reason” for the response
It's-a Mario!
Videogaming.
Jack Thompson.
Banning games.
Klebold & Harris.
Games engender violence, crime, moral corruption and asocial behavior.
The World Wide Web.  Information Superhighway.  Cyberspace.  The Net.
Internet use.
Ted Stevens, R-Alaska. The Internet is a series of tubes.  It's not a truck.
Internet censorship, tiered Internet, apathy.
Hey! I was looking at those!
The Internet is for porn, intellectual property theft, and plotting terrorism. It should be used only for business and profit. Also, it’s too hard to bother to learn how it works.
Stephen Hawking is smarter than you.  He could probably kick your ass, too.
Math, science, logic, & computer programming education.
George W. Bush wants you to know what he thinks of you.
No Child Left behind.
Shop class.  Well, carpenters and plumbers do make more than most physicists.  And more than most games journalists.
Schools should prepare kids for vocations; let the smart ones get scholarships.
Rock me, Amadeus.  Amadeus Amadeus.
Arts, music and history education.
Piss Christ.  If you don't know, look it up.
No funding; censorship of art, music, history texts.
The animatronic Lincoln at Disneyland.  He never mentions that he opposed freeing the slaves for most of his career.
Why am I going to need to know this? And teaching real history is unpatriotic.
Timothy Leary.
Pharmacology.
Winners don't do drugs!  And FBI Director William S. Sessions is a winner!
Banning development of mind-enhancing drugs.
I took my Paxil today.  That's why I'm not in the EG chat, flaming n00bs.
It’s okay to use drugs to treat mental illnesses and neuroses; but enhancing the healthy is unethical.
It's a very, very small digital camera.  Very sneaky.
Photography, sound recording.
How dare you take a photo?  In a public place?  Whaddya think, there's a First Amendment or something?
Banning photography and recording in public places, businesses.
The Rodney King video.
Intellectual property protection, privacy.
You'd think discovering the Secret of Life would cheer you up a bit.
Evolution.
Yes, that's Jesus.  Riding a dinosaur.  Seriously.
Creationism.
Ted Haggard isn't gay. It's all a big misunderstanding.
The only way to be moral is to believe the Bible is inerrant.
One small step for a man, one giant leap for Mankind.
Science.
Yep. Distilled water can cure anything.
Pseudo-science.
Ben Stein
If a scientific discovery doesn’t not fit with my political (global warming) or religious (cloning, physicalism, evolution) proclivities, it must be wrong.
Richard Dawkins.
Atheism, religious criticism, religious pluralism.
One of the Danish cartoons that can get you killed.
Political correctness, censorship, threats against authors and cartoonists.
Burning The Satanic Verses.
Criticizing religion is the same as oppressing the religious.

It’s one thing to have intellectual inequity forced upon you. It’s quite another to chose to hobble your own ability to think and reason, especially in a democracy. If your political, religious or ethical philosophy is rigorous enough, you should not need protection from competing ideas. If your lifestyle is successful, it should not require protection from new technologies.

If videogames were actually harmful, I would be the first to quit my job and come out against them. But I know from my own personal experience they are not; and as a writer I have carefully examined the arguments and studies for and against. The only way to believe videogaming itself hurts children is to be intentionally ignorant.

I call people who choose anti-intellectualism the “Stupid-American Community.” It’s a community that’s growing. And that’s the “two-tiered society” that worries me.