Press Alert: Games journalists speak on the past, present and future of games journalism

I don’t think anyone needs to be told that the internet has drastically changed the face of journalism. The reach of reporting has dramatically expanded, while its ability to actually make money has uh, not.

More specifically though, games journalism has changed dramatically over the last couple of decades. The internet and the rise of social media and the influencer has forever changed not only how consumer games journalism functions, but what it actually looks to do.

Journalists are, at least in the triple-A space, no longer needed to tell players what games are coming out, when they’re coming out, or sometimes even if they’re any good. Influencers on Twitch and YouTube can provide their viewers a more direct experience of a game than any games magazine (remember those?) ever could.

And that’s while gaming outlets are being squeezed by the same financial pressures that have affected traditional media too. Which begs the question I ask myself every day on press week: What exactly is the point of games journalism in 2021?

WHAT’S THE POINT?

Alice Bell, deputy editor at Rock, Paper, Shotgun (RPS)

“That’s a tough one to answer,” begins Alice Bell, deputy editor at Rock, Paper, Shotgun (RPS). “It’s tempting to copy the BBC’s homework and say ‘inform, educate and entertain’.

“But if that’s the case, there’s a lot less emphasis on ‘inform’ these days, because companies have a direct line to consumers via things like social media, so when a game is announced they don’t need to see the info on a website ‘cos there’s already a tweet from EA with the full trailer in it, or whatever.

“We can give more context, I think, and dig out the various oddities and fun things people might not have seen. RPS’s unofficial internal slogan is ‘a good time should be shared online’.”

That point about context is key – journalists may not be needed to tell people that the new Call of Duty is coming out, but they are in a unique position to provide important information around it.

“For me the purpose of games journalism is telling readers something they didn’t already know,” says Keza MacDonald, video games editor at The Guardian.

“Whether that’s through a review of a game they might love, the inside story of a game’s development or cultural phenomenon from the gaming world, or something fascinating that players are doing.”

Still, however you define it, the job has changed significantly over the years. For those who have been in the business for quite some time now, they’ve had to make significant changes to their work to keep up with the changing times.

“I would say the role has evolved,” says Wesley Yin-Poole, deputy editor of Eurogamer. “From being, predominantly but not exclusively, an arbiter of information and impressions closely tied to the preview and then review cycle of big-budget games dedicated by triple-A publishers, into a storyteller. While on-diary news remains important, it is the off-diary coverage that has emerged as most successful, most interesting, and most fun to do.”

There’s more to it than just having to compete with influencers and social media campaigns, though. Gaming has become a significantly more mainstream affair than ever before, meaning the definition of a “gamer” (for want of a less hideous term) is an increasingly diverse one.

“Compared to when I started in the early 00s the games audience is far more inclusive,” says Andy Robinson, editor in chief at VGC. “More people than ever play games and combined with fewer barriers for game developers, it’s led to an incredibly vibrant landscape within which there are many stories to tell. In that same 15-year period, the industry has exploded; Wii, the App Store and high-speed internet have transformed the medium in a short space of time to the mainstream monster it is today.

“What that means for games writing is that there’s much more room to specialise, whether you’re a critic, news writer, broadcaster or long-form writer. Compared to 15 years ago, a lot of the most successful games journalists – especially in freelance – are ones who own their niche. The people I work with are either best-in-class game critics, methodical guide writers, hilarious video presenters or died-in-wool newshounds.”

PREVIEW, REVIEW, GUIDE?

Andy Robinson, editor in chief at VGC

While some of these changes are welcome, it means the traditional games writing cycle of rumour/preview/review/guides feels less relevant than it used to. Guides can still drive traffic, but when pre-release gameplay footage is available all over Youtube, how necessary are previews? And when games can change drastically post-launch, particularly when dealing with live service titles, how does an outlet approach its reviews?

“We still turn up for preview opportunities, but our reliance upon them has decreased,” says Eurogamer’s Yin-Poole, “which I think is a good thing for everyone. We still aim to hit review embargoes where possible, but we are not beholden to them. In some cases, it is much better to run a review after a pre-release embargo has lifted, for example if the game has a heavy online focus.”

Previews may have less of an impact than they used to, but the rise of the live service titles has made post-release coverage more relevant than ever before. Titles such as Destiny 2, for instance, will still attract articles and videos years after its initial release.

“The rise of service games has created an ecosystem for post-launch coverage that didn’t exist before,” says VGC’s Robinson.

“There’s a market for specialising in a few games and covering them from an expert player’s point of view as they evolve. Because most of these games are online, it’s also interesting to hear human stories about the communities they’ve created. There’s certainly a lot of traffic here, especially if you’re wandering into guide territory – but that is incredibly contested.”

Both the diversity of voices and the ability to specialise and find your niche is, of course, a welcome change. But this fragmentation can also lead to the development of cliques and, in collaboration with the hellscape of Twitter, can lead to some misplaced priorities.

“I do think there has been a rapid shift, in the last few years, to games journalists caring a lot about their ‘personal brand’ on social media,” says RPS’ Bell. “Rather than, I dunno, writing.

“I understand that using Twitter for networking can be important, especially if you live anywhere except London, or struggle with in-person networking for other reasons. But there are weird cults of personality popping up online and I am concerned that freelancers or new games journos coming up see their presence on social media, and being ‘in’ with the right cliques, as being of more importance than anything else.

“Twitter accounts for a tiny, tiny, almost insignificant percentage of our traffic, so statistically speaking your Twitter pals are probably lying and didn’t read your article. Nobody’s Twitter feed has made me more likely to commission a freelance pitch, but it might make me less likely if I read it and think ‘Wow, this person’s opinions on, oh God, Bean Dad, have made them sound really annoying’.

“I’d rather more games journalists focus on e.g. knowing what constitutes libel and slander and not doing them; doing words good; reading books. I say this as someone who used to be pathetically concerned with Twitter, by the way.”

REVIEWING CRUNCH

Keza MacDonald, video games editor at The Guardian

Speaking of Twitter, with the issue of crunch at the forefront of everyone’s minds recently, many journalists have been taking to the platform to address issues of overwork and crunch in their own workplaces.

The troublesome combination of a trend of releasing longer, more complicated games alongside tight embargo deadlines can lead to critics sinking huge amounts of their time in a single game for review – often under the low salaries typical for the industry.

“I have spent entire weeks doing nothing at all except playing a big game for review and occasionally eating,” says The Guardian’s MacDonald. “Not much is made of the hours we work in games journalism because playing games sounds like a ridiculous thing to complain about, but the pressure is real, especially if you work for an outlet that places a lot of importance on hitting embargoes.

“Video games journalism is an underpaid and overworked career, for sure. And just as elsewhere in media and in the games industry, it’s often the least experienced, worst-paid people who are expected to put in the longest hours reviewing games. There is an expectation that if you don’t want this to be your entire life then you shouldn’t be here – an expectation that hugely limits who can actually afford to make this work as a career.”

Much like the wider conversation about crunch, it’s often a nuanced issue – and one that usually reflects poorly on the management of an outlet.

“On the consumer journo side it seems to be mostly about having a good manager,” says RPS’ Bell. “I rarely do overtime, and I always get time back in lieu when I do, for example (the situation is obviously different for salaried vs. freelance).

“Having said that, I personally think that while ‘playing a game for 36 hours over a weekend and then frantically spaffing out 2,000 words on it to an unfair deadline’ is very stressful, it’s not one-to-one comparable to ‘working 6 or 7 day weeks, every week, for months and months, to a deadline that keeps getting extended.’”

TRUTH TO POWER

Wesley Yin-Poole, deputy editor at Eurogamer

Crunch may be a broader concern throughout the industry, but journalists face their own unique issues too. If we’re to take the traditional understanding of journalism, reporting on new information, the industry’s habit of absolute secrecy can be a bit of a roadblock.

Information around games is arguably more heavily controlled than any other art form. Films are known about years in advance, I’ve already seen Robert Pattinson as Batman, and I know what Marvel film will be releasing in the year I die.

Still, learning about a game ahead of time is hardly hugely important information. Neither the industry nor consumers are particularly served by finding out about a game a few months earlier than usual.

“Players and journalists will find out all about the next Call of Duty eventually, whether a leak has occurred or not,” says Eurogamer’s Yin-Poole. “These kinds of stories are uninteresting. It’s more interesting to report on stories that have a genuine news value. Context is important here. Should we spill the beans that Microsoft is working on a new Fable? No, not in isolation.

“But consider Microsoft closed down the previous developer of Fable just a year beforehand and has now returned to the franchise with another developer, and you start to build a case for the story passing a news value test.”

More pressing are the stories regarding working conditions in the industry: ranging from crunch, to abuse to studio closures and layoffs. Frustratingly these are so often wrapped in secrecy too: emerging only in anonymous quotes from sources in fear of their careers if they speak out. It is perhaps here that the need for gaming journalism is most keenly felt.

“I think it is vitally important for games journalism to hold the industry to account,” says The Guardian’s MacDonald. “I’ve often encountered the expectation that games journalism should be there to cheerlead the industry, especially as games are STILL underrepresented and sometimes misunderstood in mainstream culture.

“But although one function of games journalism is to draw attention to the amazing things that creators and players are doing, another is to shine a light on the things that the corporate games industry would rather we ignore: toxic working practices, poor diversity, exploitative monetisation, and so forth. Look at the difference that exposing Weinstein has made to the film industry and in turn the world. Journalism can’t fix everything but it can certainly be a starting point.”

THE FUTURE

So, with all that change behind us, what does the future look like? In an ever-evolving industry, what can we expect from the games journalists of tomorrow? What skills do we need going forward, and what challenges might future journalists face?

“I think the world needs more young people who are passionate about becoming trained journalists, rather than those who are just passionate about covering games” says VGC’s Robinson.

“There are tons and tons of passionate content creators today, but not enough people, in my opinion, who have the same drive for investigative reporting or news journalism. It’s a challenge that faces journalism in general today, but I do believe that if you’re a young person who is dedicated to their craft right now then you will very quickly find paid work.”

Robinson may get his wish there: As The Guardian’s MacDonald notes, gaming’s recent successes have finally garnered the attention of more mainstream outlets.

“A big change in the past few years is how many established media brands are finally getting into gaming coverage in a serious way,” says MacDonald. “Wired, the Washington Post, Bloomberg, so on. I think the future of games journalism is going to be distributed more evenly across the media establishment and specialist games websites.”

Of course, some things never change.

“I dunno,” says RPS’s Bell. “Probably it will get even more extremely online. Endless pitches about BioShock? That seems to be the thing that never changes! If you’re a freelancer reading this: please, please stop pitching about BioShock.”

About Chris Wallace

Chris is MCV/DEVELOP's staff writer, joining the team after graduating from Cardiff University with a Master's degree in Magazine Journalism. He can regrettably be found on Twitter at @wallacec42, where he mostly explores his obsession with the Life is Strange series, for which he refuses to apologise.

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