The trials and pitfalls facing the modern game journalist, and what it means to be a critic

Trials and Pitfalls

Below is Steven Poole’s Trigger Happy column from our latest issue, E247. While print deadlines dictate that this was written some weeks ago, its content feels particularly relevant following recent events.

What is wrong with videogame journalism? Of late, that has seemed to be one of the most pressing questions for videogame journalists themselves. A cynic might respond with smarmy condescension: ah, look at the geek-haired scribblers in this young critical genre struggling to work out what on Earth it is they’re actually doing! But there’s more to it than that, and it’s not as though music or film critics ever complacently agreed to stop discussing their craft once their professionalised eyries were established.

This tsunami of metagamejournalism has coincided with renewed arguments about the utility of book reviewing, so it’s tempting to compare the issues as someone with a foot in both camps (and, presumably, freakishly long legs). Both waves of self-analysis have been provoked in part by a perceived existential threat. As much-loved magazines such as Nintendo Power close down, and mewling Internet freetards expect to be able to read anything for free, it’s increasingly difficult to get paid for writing about games. Similarly, newspaper editors, in their wisdom, wonder why the voice of a professional book reviewer is worth more than voluminous unpaid below-the-line comment snark. So it seems urgent for both videogame journalists and literary journalists to justify their existence.

Perhaps part of the reason videogame journalism in particular feels so unsure at the moment is because the term encompasses two different activities. First, there’s reporting on deals and moves in the videogame industry. Second, there is the critical evaluation of a finished work of art. In other fields, it’s not often the case that the same writer does both. Anthony Lane reviews films in the New Yorker but does not also report on mogul transfers or box-office stats for Variety. In videogames, writers routinely do both – most of the time with integrity, but it’s the lack of a firewall between the practices that sometimes provokes worries about corruptibility.

Consider, too, how weird it is that in videogames we have this unique journalistic form: the in-depth preview. Does Jay-Z invite music hacks to the studio when he is laying down tracks for a new album and invite them to fiddle with the EQ on the snare? He does not. Does Philip Roth usher literary hacks into his shed and bark out paragraphs from his unfinished novel? Dream on. But this is what happens in interactive entertainment, and I am no more immune than anyone else to its titillating drip feed of information, the videogame world’s carefully choreographed Dance Of The Seven Veils. (I watched the trailer for Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes with more Pavlovian salivation than a book-catalogue blurb has ever induced.)

The threat of withholding such preview access, of course, can be used to try to ‘manage’ critical comment. But critical comment worthy of the name is rare enough anyway. The fact that One Life Left gives seven out of ten to every game it reviews is still funny years on because most reviewers are still grading on a curve where a game that is average and conventional (and “thus not useful, thus burdensome, thus noxious”, as Milan Kundera once splendidly wrote of mediocre novels) gets a seven for fear of offending advertisers. Yet this problem of bland overpraise is not unheard of in other genres.

Indeed, one of the strands of the latest metabookreviewing discourse has people worrying about whether some reviews are too nasty. I think a review should be as intellectually aggressive as the writer feels is necessary to counter what he considers to be meretricious bullshit. As Samuel Johnson said, every author courts fame at the risk of disgrace. In videogames as in books, it is just as important – and respectful of the glorious potential of the form – to smack talk the garbage as to praise the good stuff. Be suspicious of any reviewer who is not on occasion roused to controlled apoplexy by a work that evinces contempt for its audience. The really hostile critic is an optimist, writing from a belief that things could be better.

It is righteous work to denounce the crass sexism of the videogame world (metal-brassiered heroines, girlfriend mode, brogrammers) or its products’ casual endorsement of torture; but it’s also possible to be too pessimistic and insular, and forget that such faults are hardly new to anyone who has ever gone to a cinema or turned on a television set. And yet some films and TV shows enhance our lives, just as some games do.

The imminent launch of a new videogame website named after a regular geometric figure (documentary trailered with hilarious self-importance) is not, I suspect, likely to solve all the problems of videogame writing at once. But perhaps I can suggest one small conceptual realignment. When I’m writing book reviews, I am not part of the publishing industry; I’m on the side of the readers, squinting through the hype-smoke. Similarly, though it’s nice to feel you belong, videogame journalists should always remember that they are not in the videogame industry. They’re members of the global republic of letters. That ought to be a source of sufficient pride in itself.

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