& this week in gaming news

(Strictly speaking this is actually last week in gaming news, but what can I say: I didn’t have a chance to read my RSS feeds for a few days.)

Steel yourself for a rant, readers. And yes, this is a rant. I make no pretence that this is a well-researched argument. It’s largely an under-developed response to some things that I’ve read on the Internet lately.

Recently I’ve found myself getting frustrated by games journalism (and, by inevitable proxy, those who read it). More frustrated than usual, I mean. Incidentally, this is not an attack on any particular venue or writers; I know that games journalism, like all games writing, is a rarely well-paying gig that demands a lot of personal investment, that many people working within it have little or no journalistic training, etcetera, etcetera. Similarly I’m not having a go at readers of same; I’m among them and I’m as much a part of the problem as anyone else, I’m sure. Having said all that, a lot of my links will be drawn from the same few sites, because they’re the ones I read most.

I have a longstanding opinion that the priorities of games journalism are off-kilter. And no, I’m not referring to the ludicrous idea that #gamergate, at root, was actually to do with “games journalism ethics”. I mean, let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater or anything, there are some legitimate problems that were raised along the way, but the baby was left bobbing around in a tub full of piss, shit and bile. Ultimately, there are institutional problems with games journalism and it’s as much to do with readers and advertisers as writers and publishers. It’s the unwholly trinity of commercialism.

What I specifically want to comment on today is what games journalism focuses its coverage on. And this is why it’s also to do with its readers, by proxy.

Take, for example, Destiny. Since the game was released four months ago, or at least it feels that way from the amount I’ve fucking read about it, game news outlets have been stuffed full of stories about loot caves, bugs, top players, so on and on whatever. It’s no surprise that this is the case. Destiny’s promotion has been funded to the eyeballs and a lot of people are playing it. People that are playing a game a lot will want to read about it on the game news sites they read. Game news sites exist to be read. So far, so obvious.

Andy Falkous, Future of the Left frontman

“The music industry is lying to you / It is telling you you are excited / And you are excited / And you are excited / Or rather you have confused excitement / With the fear of missing out.” ‒ The Singing of the Bonesaws, Future of the Left [Image source]

(A song that takes aim at excitable, hyperbolic music criticism and writing. Sound familiar?)

The downside to all this is equally obvious: articles about this and that in Destiny are barely newsworthy. I can see the case that updates regarding exploits in the game, or exploits being shut down, are of interest to players – of significant interest to heavy players, no doubt – but it is not news. It’s the sort of thing that should be covered on a fan or developer blog, frankly.

When a publication’s probably meagre budget is being expended on covering transient events of no significant interest to anyone not playing this particular game – or any other, this is hardly something to lay solely at Destiny’s door – more significant stories are being overlooked. Such as the news, spotted via Quarter to Three, in which a Call of Duty dev who directed Black Ops 2 stood before an audience composed of Washington think tank members and said:

“When we have a new product that has elements that we’re not sure how people will respond to, what do we do as a corporation? We market it, and we market it as much as we can – so that whether people like it or not, we do all the things we can to essentially brainwash people into liking it before it actually comes out.”

“I look at the U.S. military and government, ironically, as having some of the very same problems as what the Call of Duty franchise has. We are both on top of our game. We are both the best in the world at what we do. We both have enemies who are trying to take us down at any possible opportunity. But the difference is, we know how to react to that.”

This is just one of a number of troubling instances – stretching back years – in which the creators of entertainment products are involved with the process of policy formation, and not only in the US. The quote above contains several remarks which ought to be considered startling and worthy of wider reportage and discussion. Key amongst them is the argument – from a game director, no less – that this videogame series, often criticised for its fetishising of militarism and military hardware alongside its general adhesion to a US-centric narrative around military intervention, warfare and terrorism, can be perceived as possessing parity with the US government and US military.

You would struggle to find a more clear statement around the ideological collusion taking place here. “We both have enemies who are trying to take us down at any possible opportunity.” Now, there’s a world of difference between socially retarded players sending death threats to developers and the enemies US policy wonks and brass believe are “trying to take them down”, of course, but one thing you can say about Call of Duty games is that they are one of many works of fiction that are sold as entertainment but which also help to normalise and legitimise the idea of US military adventurism, intervention and ‘anti-terrorist’ operations.

I’m aware that the above may smack to some readers of my political views muddying the waters of GAEMZ. Perhaps this sort of collusion is not troubling to some. Incidentally, back before video games were big business, SF writers including Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle became involved with US policy making. These purveyors of works of fiction advised Reagan on the Strategic Defense Initiative (you know, that missile shield project that caused a huge amount of international argument for decades after its initiation) alongside space exploitation and, later, homeland security. But you know, this sort of stuff is just entertainment. It can’t possibly have any impact on the real world.

But regardless, how about an example that does not hinge so much on issues and ideas external to games? How about something that simply indicates that some basic journalistic undertakings have not been… well, undertaken?

Here’s a recent Eurogamer story concerning Steam’s new Curator system. The story concerns Steam Curators being obliged to disclose paid for recommendations, and Steam developers being granted some control over the user reviews that are displayed on their store pages. I think the following quote really speaks for itself.

“This effectively gives a developer the power to highlight anyone who is writing nice things about their game (and potentially hide anyone who isn’t). But hopefully people won’t do that – with great power comes great responsibility etc. etc.”

How embarrassing! “Hopefully people won’t do that”. It is difficult to imagine something as lazy and uncritical appearing outside of games journalism, though perhaps I have my shit-blinkers on because I don’t greatly follow film, comics or TV coverage. In any case it’s particularly egregious that said vacant utteration is immediately followed by a half-arsed paraphrase of Voltaire, a philosopher and essayist who loved clarity and reason, though in fairness this may actually have been intended as a misquote of Wing Commander IV.

It is perhaps unfair to expect incisive reportage and journalism in the world of video games. There are a lot of factors as to why. I’ve already alluded to miniscule budgets for actual writing. I’ve already mentioned that coverage is largely led by what people are known to want to read. But it’s also worth noting that games journalism has effectively zero history that precedes the general decline in the quality of journalism at large, an event that in Britain at least is largely attributable to Rupert Murdoch and Margaret Thatcher breaking the print unions (perspectives: one, two) and beginning a process of decline in journalist standards from the mid-80s onwards. This is a fascinating piece of history that is covered in the first few chapters of Nick Davies’ Flat Earth News (2008). Games journalism was born, struggled through childhood and adolescence, and now is trying to come of age in an era when genuine journalism has arguably come under greater existential threat than ever in the past (although I’m not so naive as to imagine a glorious past full of fearless, no-holds-barred journalism). The pattern has been that journalism has become less about investigating and developing stories and more about repackaging stories pushed down the wire by over-stretched press associations.

Games journalism is in many ways a child of churnalism. Perhaps the moments when it has ever been better than that will always be the exception, never the rule.

As to where games journalism might go from there, well, I’ve no suggestions around that today. Maybe next time I feel driven to rant about the subject, eh?

It’s not all bad news, mind. Eurogamer also had a short piece last week on a survey that indicates far less money is being invested into Kickstarter game projects in 2014 than in 2013, which is something that’s been speculated on for some time. The article itself is light on such speculation, quoting only one theory from an analyst behind the survey itself, but in fairness this is a news article rather than an in-depth opinion piece, and seeking multiple analyses is not usual when reporting only the results of a study. Still, at least some of the large news organs of gaming are trying to cover actual stories, right?

That’s relaxed my desire to rant. All good. Oh, but I can’t sign off without letting this news without comment:

Over the past 48 hours, fans of Angry Birds have discovered a reveal within the game: by slinging one billion birds, fans had the chance to unlock the voice cast and get a sneak peek at the new look of the characters of the Angry Birds feature film.

There’s an Angry Birds film in the works?

Fuck off.

We’re all doomed.