While it’s not a universal choice, the UK’s games journalists tend to lean to the left, politically speaking, making The Guardian a cultural touchstone for many games writers. And that preference is likely to be reinforced by the newspaper’s recent hire of Keza MacDonald to lead its games coverage.
MacDonald is arguably the journalist’s journalist – literally so after she won a peer-voted award of that very name in 2016 – being held in high regard by her industry peers, with stints at both IGN and Kotaku UK establishing her in the top tier of games writers.
Even as the perfect woman for the job, the move to the paper is a big one, with MacDonald adjusting to a broader audience and the paper shifting its games coverage.
The big change at The Guardian is games being moved from the technology section to the culture section, where it sits alongside other arts coverage such as “architecture, the visual arts, opera” MacDonald tells us, adding with a smile: “I sit next to the folk music critic!”
“Nobody on my desk has ever heard of a video game, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
“Being on the culture desk is important, it sees games as a holistic part of our cultural diet, rather than a specific thing that you’re into.”
– “The way the games media organisations have adapted is instead of being deliverers of information, they are now the deliverers of authority.”
That means MacDonald has to decide if a game isn’t just a great title but whether it warrants a reader’s time over and above a TV series or a film, for example. That also means adapting to the culture section’s scoring system where three stars isn’t a bad score – publishers and PRs be warned.
“It’s a real honour to work somewhere like The Guardian,” she adds. “I had to fill out a form for press accreditation the other week, and it asked how long has your outlet been in business… I typed 197 years.”
The long-running publication also comes with a heavyweight cultural and political agenda.
“The Guardian certainly isn’t shy about expressing its political agenda. We don’t politicise everything about video games but when something comes up that is easy to talk about in the frame of liberal or progressive values then it’s really important for us to tackle – diversity is obviously a big focus of The Guardian’s output.”
As well as tackling the difficult issues, we hope MacDonald can use her huge experience to help improve the broader perception of the industry – which often gets a rough ride from the mainstream press. In practice though, with today’s 24-hour news cycle, that’s trickier than it might sound.
“The idea is that I’m a focal point for gaming for the whole organisation, part of my job is to advocate for games within that building, not just to readers,” MacDonald explains.
“So if anyone has anything on the comment desk or news desk, they can come to me, but I don’t have control over what other desks publish – there will always be articles coming out that I didn’t commission and do not agree with… And that’s fine, that’s how a newspaper works. I’d never presume to dictate what The Guardian publishes globally on video games, that would be ridiculous. Though I’d like to get to the point where people come to me more often than not.”
And MacDonald isn’t planning on exclusively championing games either: “It’s very important to note that not everything we publish about games is going to be glowing, there’s a lot of very troubling stuff about games that I don’t think we should shy away from: working practices, developer practices, some of the negative cultural impact it can have.”
She’s also keen to get back into the kind of investigative work that Kotaku is known for. “But it would need to be the right subject as it’s very expensive to do that kind of thing,” she accepts.
And then there’s always the possibility of the broader news agenda scuppering the best laid plans of the arts desk: “You’re like ‘right there’s the release of Far Cry 5’ and then a mass shooting might happen. The actual news takes so much precedence over what you do, but it’s actually quite useful for somebody who’s been working in specialist press for so long to have that sense of perspective. The whole news is happening! And your tiny section is important but it’s not the be all and end all.”
With over a decade of experience under her belt, MacDonald is acutely aware of the huge changes that have affected games journalism.
“When I started writing for magazines in 2005-2006, journalists were the main conduit for information between the publisher and their audience. But that hasn’t been the case now for many years… because of fan culture, because of Twitter, Twitch, YouTube, there is no need anymore for an intermediary.
“Generally the way the games media organisations have adapted is instead of being deliverers of information, they are now the deliverers of authority,” providing deeper information and analysis, she explains.
– “Journalists aren’t the frontline for discovery, that’s influencers and YouTubers.”
“So what we need from publishers has changed, we no longer need straight information. What we need instead is interviews, what we need is access to people, to developers, to products.
“That transition was difficult – Kotaku was at the forefront of that, we don’t need your code, we don’t necessarily need preview events, we just want to concentrate on the stuff only we think we can offer. And that was a hugely successful strategy for Kotaku from an audience and perception point of view.
“What you’re covering isn’t so much the game [as a product], it’s the experience of play. It’s the culture of playing. You’re not so much reviewing a video game and its features now, you’re reviewing the experience of playing it, and that involves other people, and a bunch of stuff that isn’t just the code on the disk.
“When you’re writing features, and writing about video game culture, you’re writing about people and players as much as the product.”
VOYAGE OF DISCOVERY
Journalists may be writing less copy that simply informs readers about products, but in fact there are far more products out there to be discovered.
“Journalists aren’t the frontline for discovery, that’s influencers and YouTubers,” states MacDonald. “The many thousands of people whose job it is to play games all day.
“As a journalist now, your team is half the size it used to be, you have to cover the big events before you can even start thinking about anything else, so the time you have available to do discovery-based stuff is limited. I get probably 10 to 15 people sending me review codes for games every week – I can play one of those.
“It’s a really big problem. A problem for us because we want to be showcasing the games that people should be playing, but it’s as difficult for us to find out as it is for everyone else. And then we have all these obligations, things that are big, things that are important for our publication for other reasons.”
Despite the rise of social media, email remains the workhorse of journalists.
“I think email is the only way [to reach me]. But I get 150 emails a day, if I reply to them all that would be my whole job, so I have to be very selective. I’m sorry to everybody I’ve not replied to – my inbox is a disaster and I know for a fact that every other editor has the same problem.
“If you have an unknown game I’m not saying it’s a waste of time to email [specialist outlets], but it probably is a waste of time to email The Guardian. More success comes when the effort is concentrated into influencers. If something starts getting big on Twitch and YouTube that’s when the press take notice.
– “Being on the culture desk is important, it sees games as a holistic part of our cultural diet, rather than a specific thing that you’re into.”
“Things bubble up through a layer of players, just regular players, and then it gets to the press. Instead of press taking things to the players, we now respond to what players do.”
Both publishers and PRs will be pleased to hear that MacDonald still holds them in high regard as a way to cut through some of those discovery issues.
“Curation is an immensely useful role of publishers, given the immense mass of content today,” she tells us.
“I know it’s not always the sweetest deal for a developer, but if the publisher genuinely can offer added value in terms of marketing, that’s now so valuable. If I were an independent developer I would very seriously consider sharing my pie with a publisher instead of trying to crack it by myself.”
Though not all publishers are equal of course, with Devolver’s model being a great example in MacDonald’s eyes:
“I like a publisher who has people in charge with taste, who pick up games they think are good, and then put those out. I know that if something’s being published by Devolver for instance, that it will arrive in my inbox and I’ll know about it, and it’s quite likely to be interesting.”
And if a publisher is a step too far for a studio wanting to keep control of its own destiny then there are other options for indies looking for support: “If not with a publisher, then with a well-known PR firm.”
MacDonald has plenty to say on the topic of women in the games industry (you can read some of that in our gender pay gap feature). Despite the issues, though, she actually sees her gender as a motivation to stay in games: “One of my reasons for sticking around is that there’s not really anyone else doing the kind of work I do. Of course there are lots of other female journalists, but I feel like I’m the only one I’m aware of with my level of experience. I want to stick around to be the proof that you can. I would feel like if I quit, I’d be letting women down.
“I think it’s important to have visible women in the games industry and if I’m one of those that’s great, and I hope it helps somehow. That’s something I hope to have had some tiny influence over during my time in this job. I hope that some women have thought ‘If she can call herself a gamer then I can’. I really hope that someone somewhere has thought that.”