Before I continue, I feel that it’s important to preface this article by establishing that video game journalism in and of itself is not a bad thing – there are many fantastic writers in the field, and several of them are well-versed and knowledgeable about the subject matter they cover. However, for every Charles Onyett, there’s a Jim Sterling – a professional with a knack for journalistic critique for every needlessly controversial amateur. With such a rift between the two types of game journalists, the concept of taking the whole entity seriously falls by the wayside when so much of the content that is pumped out of the mainstream news sites is trite, uninformative, or childishly incendiary.
Don’t believe me? Think I’m just a jaded gamer who hates how “mainstream” one of his favorite hobbies has become? Take a gander at IGN’s Resident Evil 4 review, and then give any review written in the last six months a glance. It’s not just a matter of pages and word counts, it’s a question of critical exploration versus socially-induced apathy. Video games are unique in that they provide a level of interaction and agency that other entertainment media completely lack, and as a result, lose much of the gravitas that video games can deliver through narrative-driven experiences. Based on the coverage and reviews you see today, however, you’d be forgiven for thinking video games were as infantile and simple as mainstream society often claims them to be.
Personal feelings about the title itself aside, IGN’s Modern Warfare 3 review was unworthy of the term “review”. While it was structurally and grammatically sound, the content present therein was hardly in-depth or analytical, and read more like a press release straight from Activision with mild hints of an opinion sprinkled throughout for good measure. In fact, if you examine the majority of the Modern Warfare 3 reviews, you’ll notice that they all say, more or less, the exact same thing with only slightly different words. Most reviews in this generation of consoles have become increasingly more bite-sized, and have settled for becoming mere overviews while being perfectly satisfied with glossing over key points without digging into the meat of the games themselves. While the argument that a plethora of deadlines and an abundance of games makes for a limited amount of time to review each heavy-hitting title is certainly not unfounded, some of the biggest games of the year in the last generation of consoles (Halo 2, Half-Life 2, etc) released during very cramped timeframes where journalists were required to write roughly the same amount of reviews for similarly big-budget titles. Despite this, quality was still of paramount importance during such crowded times, while today we have arguably more complex games that are receiving considerably less attention than their somewhat antiquated predecessors.
“It’s not just a matter of pages and word counts, it’s a question of critical exploration versus socially-induced apathy.”
Video games, like paintings or sculptures, deserve an exaggerated amount of attention to understand and identify the numerous intricacies they possess, and the best games often times unconditionally demand such attention. As it stands, only the so-called “arthouse” games receive this kind of professional investment by the press, while “dumb” or “simple” titles get the bullet point treatment and a score that (depending on which site you write for) is designed to either generate as little or as much controversy as possible. The fact that very little time is spent discussing the design decisions of the developers or how the mechanics interact with one another is a bold indicator of just how immature gaming journalism has become as the lowest common denominator continues to plummet and news sites constantly strive to appeal to such a demographic.
While I’m not arguing that every review (or game, for that matter) is deserving of a 10-page magnum opus consisting of every possible perspective on the inner workings of the game in question, I do believe that the purpose of reviewing video games is largely misunderstood by both the industry itself and the gamers that demand them. It is most certainly possible to be succinct and concise without compromising critical details (as Roger Ebert has proven on numerous occasions in his film reviews) but video game reviews are written in such a simplistic fashion that it’s difficult to see how anyone could develop an informed opinion after reading one. Critiques of game mechanics are short and under-developed, pacing and artistic direction get little attention, and the conceptions of value and functionality are almost completely undermined by the fact that reviewers are sent advance copies accompanied by gifts from the developers. How could anyone possibly determine the value of a $60 title if they: 1.) Did not purchase it themselves, 2.) Did not play it in a controlled, neutral environment free of outside bias, and 3.) Did not play the game for longer than a weekend?
The problems with video game reviews don’t end at the words that they consist of, however. It could be quite easily argued that the most fundamental problem with game reviews lies in the scale by which we score and rate such titles. The unfortunate truth of the matter is that video game scores are placed on a heavily-weighted scale that is ridiculously unrepresentative of the quality of the games they are assigned to. Apparently unbeknownst to a large number of gamers (and journalists), a 7 on a scale of 1-10 is not actually an “average” score. Speaking in purely mathematical terms, that role actually belongs to the number 5, which has been universally recognized as a “bad” score. In fact, many big-budget games are often viewed as “flops” if they fail to score under some heavenly-ordained number that is seemingly identified in accordance with the amount of hype the title is receiving prior to launch. Such a mentality is growing increasingly more widespread, and only creates additional problems for the credibility of video game reviews as scores become more and more meaningless to the average consumer.
Unlike film or literature, video games are experiences, and as a result, it shouldn’t be unexpected for a wide variety of opinions to be expressed across a range of reviews. The fact that so many reviews currently read like carbon copies of each other is a depressing representation of the level of respect we give video games. This apparent disinterest in delving deeper into the complexities of video games extends further than just reviews, however, and is present in nearly every level of game journalism today. Opinion pieces and investigative reports, while certainly not completely scarce, are relatively underrepresented while press releases are continually regurgitated and previews (that are almost always entirely too positive) lack any form of subjective feelings about a title’s potential shortcomings or missteps. Much of the personality that drives the grueling process of game design is depressingly absent from video game journalism, and although several sites attempt to tap into this largely unclaimed charm and character, (Destructoid being the most apparent) many of them forget that they are primarily paid professionals with a journalistic responsibility and integrity to uphold.
Video game journalism isn’t a boon to the industry, it’s just not reaching its full potential in its current state. When a fledgling medium becomes wildly successful in such a short span of time, it’s understandable that growing pains will be present, but as video games continue to evolve, the industry often fails to follow suit. While absolute ignorance of other entertainment media would be foolish and short-sighted, emulating it wholesale is equally so. A sensible combination of professionalism and charm is something the video game industry should strive to exemplify in every aspect of itself, and defying the traditional conventions we’ve come to expect from the entertainment industry is instrumental to obtaining the respect and reverence it so deserves.