The state of games journalism

On one hand, you have Dan and Claire Ashcroft – idealistic, serious journalists continually asked to leave their morals at the door and sell their souls to the money men to get by.

Then you have the eponymous Nathan Barley – a man who has embraced the age of new media and, unfortunately, lowest common denominator appeal, to achieve great success with a little help from some worryingly amoral tendencies.

It’s a battle that rages on and on. If the money men and their advertising cohorts had their way, all independent-minded media would cease to exist and – in the case of games journalism – readers would only be recommended the titles that had the largest advertising budgets. While ‘the idiots’ in Nathan Barley’s world might not care, the rest of us do.

Well-publicised controversies such as the Driv3r review allegations and the recent (alleged) firing of a GameSpot journalist over advertising pressures have knocked the confidence of many readers of the games media’s output. So is all hope of completely independent editorial gone?

I don’t think a so-called ‘loss of innocence’ is due to advertising and marketing; I think it’s a function of its exponential growth,” says Guardian writer and TV presenter Aleks Krotoski. The games industry needs the advertising in order to propel it into the mainstream and some are better at exploiting that and retaining their vision than others.”

Veteran journalist Simon Munk of FHM (and many, many other big name publications) agrees – it is the increasingly corporate nature of the business that has transformed the medium. Gone are the days of PRs treating journalists like rockstars with associated sex or drugs offers,” he tells MCV.

But in its place is a bit too much emphasis on exclusive negotiations, packages and roundtables, briefings and such. We’re not the film industry, but we’re not accountancy either. Advertising money and corporate finance isn’t the problem. It’s the budget spreadsheets taking over everything from annual franchise updates for games to how pressured journalists are to grab the feature, write it, edit it, upload it and so on.”

But Paul Vale of The Daily Star and doesn’t see this trend as a problem. Dedicated gaming sites or magazines are far more dependent on cash from publishers, hence are more likely to be flexible when it comes to editorial integrity. In regards to innocence, commercialisation is simply a by-product of success. Not a bad thing, I think.”

Clearly things have changed – but that doesn’t mean the media has lost its integrity. It’s a slightly idealistic view, of course, but it is the media outlets that focus upon quality editorial which tend to succeed most.

But still, after all these years, video games journalism hasn’t quite grown up yet, says Munk. To me, the only possible long-term future for specialist games mags is in delivering real reads. I think we’re still waiting for the Q of video games, the definitive reviews bible. Or, for that matter, the Rolling Stone/Late Review of video games, delivering really thought-provoking, interesting features.”

For too long, too many print publishers and website companies have paid peanuts to over-enthusiastic kids – they’re so excited by merely being allowed to write about games that they’re happy to hype everything and don’t understand how to deliver depth or interest, just detail.”

Krotoski believes that games journalism still hasn’t shaken off some of its stereotypes either. It’s still a very male-dominated medium, which means that the output is very male in its approach. This applies equally to both online journalism and offline.”

But enough nit-picking; there’s no doubt that gaming is enjoying a boom time – and that has been reflected in the media’s focus upon the medium, adds Vale. There’s definitely been an increase in column inches dedicated to gaming, which is due to the vast amount of money invested by publishers and manufacturers. Editorial is often introduced as bait for advertising revenue, plus more and more celebrities are mining the industry’s vast resources. Celebrity sells papers, hence small stories become big stories thanks to endorsement.”

This heightens gaming’s profile in society, leading to debate about its nature and front page splashes in The Daily Mail criticising Rockstar for turning teens into baby-eating Nazis.”

With wider media interest continually on the rise and a far greater contingent of ‘casual’ gamers getting involved, the games media is continually changing.

Fortunately we’re still a long way from Nathan Barley’s shameful antics – but as long as publishers can maintain the fine balance between editorial and advertising interests, the games media can continue to thrive.

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