List articles contain a revealing truth about how game journalism works, and why it should change

Not too shabby IMO

Illustration by Marsh Davies.

Everyone says they hate list articles. As a format, the oft-derided ‘listsicle’ is presumed to be disingenuously abusing our attention with sequences of arbitrary preferences. People who write listsicles are just leveraging a trendy format for web traffic, say many – the writers could have found a better way to convey their ideas, but chose the easy road. At best, lists are fun diversions for the office, but most would advise you to look elsewhere for real information.

Yet the game industry has its spine in lists, a long heritage of putting numbers on things and then putting those things in order. No event whatsoever in games has been allowed to be held without several ‘bests’ being proffered, usually by the press, sometimes by organisers incorporating the input of the press.

That’s one of the most astounding things about E3, for example: almost every consumer publication gives out ‘best of’ awards to the games that excited it the most, and there are dozens upon dozens of such awards. Some readers who follow E3 want to know everything there was to see from the event; most just want to know what was ‘best’.

The feature rounding up all the ‘bests’ is probably the most important component of any game website’s costly event coverage, which means it needs to be prompt and thorough. This in turn means probably most working writers visit trade shows with the mandate continually in the back of their mind that they will need to pick out what is ‘best’.

This makes some sense, or at least it once did – consumers are constantly flooded with game marketing and new releases, and rising hardware and retail costs mean buying advice has become increasingly important. During my childhood, I read neon-embellished, advert-stuffed videogame magazines, paging urgently for scores.

“The cycle of ‘best of’ lists gets tricky when you examine the role the press plays in bombarding players with marketing materials”

But the cycle of ‘best of’ lists gets tricky when you examine the role the press plays in bombarding players with marketing materials. Any new trailer could be an occasion for a post on a consumer site. And as the trailer begins, you see the boasting: what you’re about to watch was awarded ‘best of’ and ‘most anticipated’ by many websites. There might even be enthusiastic quotes from an employee of the site that you’re currently viewing.

Many people think this implies unscrupulous complicity. I don’t. There’s no doubt in my mind that the ‘best ofs’ were considered, the quotes were from enthusiastic reporters, and that no illicit transaction took place. But complicity need not be explicit: we attended a marketing event and the result was materials a company could use in marketing.

If a new franchise sequel appears, there is no question that it must be covered, even by reporters who are relatively disinterested in it. A publisher’s event is an occasion where writers show up, even if cynically, everyone drinks the free drinks and then probably makes an informative, unsentimental post for the benefit of those readers who might care about that kind of thing.

We think of that as being objective: conveying information even though you have no personal investment in it, because someone else might. In many ways, that ‘objectivity’ limits conversations about games to the realm of products you buy or not. That’s huge. But importantly, has this approach helped the way we recommend games to players?

Many writers had to do ‘best of 2013’ lists, because it’s what we do. Often the game put at number one might not end up being the one they loved most, but the least-controversial recommendation for a purchase. There’s still an assumption our audiences do and ought to prioritise traditional commercial releases; as a press corps, we’ve been slow to recognise the transition in our business and stop consigning indie or mobile games to separate categories that are somehow less than console or PC.

But approaching the list items this way – in diplomatic service to ‘objectivity’ – means that a lot of lists end up illustrating the games that were unremarkable but marketed the most, such as BioShock Infinite. That game was just one of the many discussed online almost quizzically, as readers tried to parse the confounding gap between high scores and their own poor experience. The recommendation lists are no longer doing their jobs.

“Lists are polarising and controversial, and tend to mobilise readers in ways that everyday content doesn’t – that’s why they’re popular” 

Lists are polarising and controversial, and tend to mobilise readers in ways that everyday content doesn’t – that’s why they’re popular. And we loathe stirring up the hornet’s nests that inevitably hum when we stray away from the established publisher- and marketer-led way we’ve viewed games in the past. But we’re now entering an age when readership may be coming less from people who want to know what to buy, and more from people who want to know what to think.

Players are adjusting to new markets and new modes of consumption, which are in desperate need of good curation. It’s time for those who write about and recommend games to step up as curators of all great things gaming – big or small, expensive or free – and leave the consumer product culture in the distance. Let’s think about favourites, not bests. That’s where lists can be useful again.