A few years ago, I wrote a blog post lamenting the sorry state of game criticism at the time. The critical discussion of games back then was not much concerned with the examination of their aesthetic qualities, or with evaluation of the creative decisions that led to those aesthetics, but instead was almost exclusively constrained to discussions of what happened in the story of a game, or what its feature set included. Almost before I could blink, however, that turned on its head. The subsequent year saw a total transformation of the nature of game criticism – at least online and particularly in the blogging space – and gave rise to what I would today consider to be a healthy and vibrant (though still very young) culture of game criticism.
Over the past several months, with this series of articles, I have turned my attention away from the criticism of games and of game design, and have instead been examining the game industry itself. I have been trying to take the industry to task for all of the elephants that seem to be standing around in our collective living room. By our elephants, I mean those issues both so serious that they must be dealt with and also so obvious that we can only be ignoring them intentionally.
For the most part (leaving room for exception as regards my article on workplace gender imbalance), I feel I have failed in that task. With each new month, as I sit down to write about each now topic on my hit-list of 'things the game industry needs to do better', I slowly find myself rationalising away the heart of my criticism. Of course, I was trying to be discerning, even-handed and fair in my analysis, and it is certainly true that in most cases my first blush appraisal of the industry's failings was overly simplistic. But in striving to elevate simple-minded finger-waving to the level of rigorous examination, I often ended up rationalising away the very real problem of the three-ton pachyderm that was standing in the living room.
They say that a simple thing is something whose complexities you are ignoring, and perhaps that was true of my initial stance on issues like the industry's approach to the annualisation of sequels, or on the limits of freedom of information, but in justifying the industry's stance on these issues (which is at least as simplistic as my own) by saying 'it's complicated', I feel like I have been at once misrepresenting myself and, at the same time, doing someone else's job for them. And that sucks. And I apologise.
Pointing the finger
By way of salvaging something out of all of this, though, I hope this acknowledgement points a big finger at the real elephant that has been standing in the room of this series of columns from the very beginning, and that is that, as a member of the very industry I am trying to criticise, I lack both the perspective and the credibility to do it correctly. And I suppose the real question that falls out of all of this is: 'Who should be writing these columns?'
Last year, following a piece in Rolling Stone magazine, US army general Stanley McChrystal was forced to resign his command following remarks he made that seemed to imply he was challenging presidential authority. In response to criticism of the article itself, the author, Michael Hastings, defended his piece by saying: "Reporting is what someone, somewhere doesn't want known. Everything else is advertising."
So to answer my own question, the people who should be writing articles that take the industry to task for its many elephants are not developers like me, but rather reporters working for the gaming press. Just as a few years ago the state of game criticism was in a relatively sorry state and the bloggers and game culture writers stepped up to fill in that gap, the time has come, I think, for the gaming press to stop re-reporting corporate press releases and public- domain information and start writing about the things that the industry doesn't want them to write about.
Journalism that matters
Of the hundreds of thousands of words that the gaming press generates monthly, how can there not be room for a well-researched exposé on the cultural impact of annualising a brand? How can we not have an unbiased investigative report into how industry employment contracts constrain (whether fairly or otherwise) freedom of information and freedom of workers? It's sad that we must rely on whistle-blowers like EA Spouse to air the industry's dirty laundry with a massive and shocking reveal of secrets that were never really secrets in the first place.
Over the past decade, the game industry has transformed from a fast-and-loose collection of upstarts and startups into a multi-billion-dollar industry and a primary driver of technology and culture. In face of the tremendous power of such an industry, it is now more important than ever that the press begins living up to its responsibility as the so-called fourth estate – the societal institution that stands alongside our other institutions and is granted both the freedom to point to our elephants and call them out by name, and the protection to do so without fear of persecution.