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On the ethics and integrity of game criticism

Journalism and thoughtful criticism not anchored by justified concerns for readers is writing worth discarding.

Good game writing should be the first line of defence against marketing nonsense. We rely on journalists and critics (I’ll use the terms interchangeably) to aid us in making the best choices with our finite cash. When a game journalist, then, becomes indistinguishable from PR is when he’s failed. We need to begin a conversation about what integrity and ethics means in a media culture of shock-jocks, swag braggarts, and paint-by-numbers reviewers.

People who make games are doing all they can to get purchases. The job of PR people is to do all they can to promote these products. Embedded in the creation of their unthinking monster of marketing lies information we actually need to make an informed choice.

Journalists’ loyalty is, first, to their readers, not (usually big) corporations trying to sell the next gritty military shooter. It is journalists that readers can rely on to take down the marketing monster, rip off its dazzling skin of hype, and find those nuggets of truth.

We don’t need to take torches to marketing, since marketing is a way to stay informed: we just need to know how to handle it. Thus, PR isn’t necessarily bad, but responses often are.

Separating fact from bluster, testing earth-shattering claims that sound glorious (also known as Molyneuxisms*) — journalists have access to the necessary material and information to perform these acts so that we buy the game we want, not the bluster businesses proclaim.

We should take issue with those proclaiming themselves journalists, who always share on social media their lavish “gifts” from the very same companies that should be the constant target of journalistic insight, not unthinking fandom. When you share on social media, or — bizarrely — have entire articles dedicated to unboxing beautiful packages your readers probably can’t afford (yet) or will have access to (soon), you’re not a writer, a journalist, or a critic: you’re a show-off.

Indeed, fandom is incompatible with being a critic. That’s not to say you can’t adore, love and admire the products you’re critiquing. It only means that conveying that fandom is not what readers are supposed to obtain from you. Anyone can be fan, but not everyone is well-trained, eloquent and thoughtful enough to be a critic or journalist.

Again, this doesn’t mean you have to be the most eloquent, the most well-trained and so on: It only means you’re not only a fan. Sites dedicated to loving and worshipping every aspect of a game, creator, film, franchise, etc., are the background noise of the Internet. Journalism should be the signal, guiding us toward insight, not yet another provider of self-indulgence.

Just as we don’t rely on our racist relatives as the source of political insight, so we shouldn’t automatically treat as gospel the words of those who have a blog or website, an audience and “write”.

We, as readers and consumers, must begin scrutinising more harshly those who do nothing but convey enthusiasm or seemingly endless snark; those who are quick to show off material most of us can’t afford or have access to (just yet); or who create reviews that are nothing more than a reading of the “back of the box”, with grunts of enjoyment or moans of displeasure.

Game writing banality is most telling, indeed, from reviews. Most are boring, paint-by-number affairs, offering little insight you couldn’t glean from a thousand other places. Detailing hackneyed criteria that is either so specific it seems obvious (graphics), or so broad as to be meaningless (gameplay).

Further, reviewers often offer nothing but subjective interpretations that become the previously mentioned grunts and moans added to behind-the-box details you could acquire from 5 minutes in a store. Reviewing requires being put on trial for your statements: we may not question your adoration of Mario as a character, but we can interrogate your assertion that Black Ops 2’s story gets us to question the use of drones.

Navigating the waters of subjective emotional impact that no one else can really experience and the rocks of actual argument is difficult; but that’s why we’re reading critics, not other people with a keyboard, blog and desperate opinion. If you’re unable to justify your assertions, or retreat into the torrid handwaving of “that’s just my opinion” and so on, you’re not someone worth reading. We can obtain such writing and “insight” from every knee-jerk internet comment or fan site.

Of course, insight requires time which, with the creation of things like MetaCritic, seems antithetical to criticism and insight (not to mention the inclusion of review scores — which is a different topic). It’s precisely why journalists should have games before release date (and why readers must recognise games and consoles aren’t gifts but ways for game journalists to do their jobs. But that’s a topic I’ll tackle later).

We as consumers should recognise that, in many cases, nothing is significantly gained by acquiring products as soon as they’re out — giving the lie to having review scores up as soon as possible. But MetaCritic isn’t really the problem, so much as it is the banality of game criticism and our tolerance — and therefore fuelling — of its banality.

Thus, when considering a review, a site, a journalist, there are a number of properties to consider: all of which tie into integrity.

For example: Is this person/site/etc. operating with you, as the average reader, in mind? Is he showing off items almost no one else can afford or will get — or is he reviewing the bare bones product? Is she conveying insight into the game you couldn’t get from the back of the box or not? Is speed of publishing of first importance to this site beyond quality writing or reflection? Do you feel respected as a reader or are you talked down to or shamed for having the opposite view of the writer for no good reason? And so on.

Yes, media is imperfect because humans are, but that doesn’t mean we abandon principles trying to fill the cracks of imperfection. We keep raising their failure, we keep pointing them in out, since these are efforts not laws.

This matters because we readers are potential consumers, forking out expensive sums toward acquiring items that aren’t “essential”. All areas of journalism should be about accuracy and insight; we can and do target where such places fail. Game journalism is no different, even though it is facing the menace of equating fandom with thoughtful criticism or journalism.

As a reader, it should matter greatly that we begin creating our own principles, defending our own integrity, to begin undermining the braggats of swag — or the shock-jocks who namecall and mock and sneer like petulant teenagers instead of offering actual, justified insight (hint: saying developer Phil Fish is “whiny” doesn’t tell me what’s wrong with his games — which is what I actually care about, not your judgement about his personality).

Journalists, too, should recognise where their “loyalties” lie: insight, not PR; criticism, not fandom. With your life going wider on social media and so forth, you have an added responsibility to respect the industry you’re in and, more importantly, your readers. Don’t show off your swag which you didn’t purchase; don’t show off where you’re flying to or what you’ll be playing before the rest of us (basically the equivalent of “first” in comment sections). Readers aren’t stupid: don’t make reviews which are essentially the homeopathy of insight, whose main ingredient is a game’s summary from the developer.

This doesn’t mean there can’t be websites of pure fandom; that there can’t be news aggregates, that you can’t enjoy or love and so forth. It only means questioning what your role is, as a journalist, whether you acknowledge or care about ethical responsibility that is anchored by your readership.

Indeed, this is to say nothing of being aware of the industry’s various political problems, such as the representation of women and sexism. When you perpetuate that, on your site itself, you must at least provide a good reason for doing so (another hint: there’s no need to appeal to straight male gamers. Race and sex minorities’ concerns are a current problem we can all — readers and writers — help combat).

Game journalism isn’t “broken” or anything so dramatic: it’s mostly just banal, due in part to us as readers not demanding — or perhaps expecting — better. There exist amazing writers and sites and publications; but there also exist other: those who treat their positions with access to new toys with a cynical attitude toward their readers and a self-indulgence insulting to what journalism should be.

We can all do better. We just need to decide what that is and push for it.

* After Sir Peter Molyneux, who is renowned for making incredible claims about his games that turn out to be actually unexciting, underperforming, or non-existent. This is not a disparagement of Sir Peter, but an example of first order information from PR sources and hype machines. Journalists should immediately be testing these claims and not accepting them as truth until proper examination. The use of “allegedly” should be used a lot at that first stage.

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