Top ten lists, objectification of women, and the wholesale copying of press releases; these are some of the unfortunate trends in gaming journalism today.
Some would call game journalism a kind of enthusiast press, and on many counts I find it hard to disagree with them. Like with other forms of enthusiast press, big gaming sites rely not only on strict gaming news, but also an array of gaming-related stories to flesh out their coverage. Sometimes these related stories fall within acceptable levels. At other times some of the content posted to gaming blogs makes me feel simply terrible for the state of the field.
Jim Sterling, review editor at Destructoid, says that calling game journalism a form of journalism at all is usually incorrect.
“I think calling it ‘journalism’ is wrong most of the time,” Sterling said. “Publishers have way too much power over outlets, the review scoring system is mired in backwards thinking that says anything below a 7/10 is unacceptable, and we have some websites writing purely for Google Trends and not for their readers.”
Stating that “we’re in an industry ruled by PR bullshit,” Sterling went on to discuss how outlets are under the thumb of publishers when negative coverage comes to light.
“I’ve lost count of the amount of times I or my editor-in-chief have received a phone call over something I’ve said,” Sterling said. “Nobody really digs honesty, least of all big publishers who get any score below an eight.”
Brett Walton, founder of VGChartz.com, thinks that the world of gaming journalism needs a kick to get itself on track. Walton is on the same page as Sterling when it comes to the issue of publishers having too much power in regard to the flow of information to outlets.
“Well, personally I feel that gaming journalism needs a big shake up,” Walton said. “Much of the current ‘journalism’ consists of re-worded press releases. Essentially, the publishers have most of the power and control the flow of information to the press. Given online media's reliance on ad revenues to fund sites (VGC included), we have to be careful to build and cultivate relationships. The pattern is along the lines of - we cover their PR, they send us review copies and invite us for visits, we give positive reviews and they support with ad budgets and campaigns.”
These are serious issues, and ones that are particularly troubling to a field that depends on official sources for the kind of coverage that brings in a strong foundation of readership. It’s difficult to run a site simply on original content so the foundation of news becomes central to bringing in readers on a regular and recurring basis.
How severe and structural is the problem of reliance on official sources? Is gaming coverage professional or does coverage lean towards off topic and sexist pieces to generate hits?
Anecdotal glances through top gaming sites reveal gamers to be little more than children in men’s bodies, giggling at the sight of breasts and having pseudo-intellectual discussions about facial hair. But is the coverage presented really as bad as it looks? To find the answers to these questions I planned a content analysis to gauge how well some gaming news outlets are performing.
I decided to visit three top gaming sites: Joystiq, Destructoid and Kotaku. Using a sampling method known as the constructed week, I assembled a total of 161 randomly selected articles from the three publications representing a week of coverage during the month of October. For each day of the constructed week, I pulled 25% of each publication’s total published articles, leading to a total of 63 articles from Kotaku, 51 from Joystiq, and 47 from Destructoid.
I wanted to find out quantitatively exactly how gaming journalism is performing when it comes to several factors: topic of coverage, number and type of sources, number of errors, aggressive and/or sexist material, and tendency to editorialize hard news.
My main interests were the measurements of sourcing and editorializing. It was my hypothesis that gaming journalism has an unhealthy alliance with official sources for information, and that many times those official sources are the only sources cited. Many fields of journalism suffer from this same type of problem, but it is beyond the scope of this study to discuss exactly why that is.
For editorializing, this is a trend I am seeing more and more on internet-based news delivery services. The trend to editorialize produces more entertaining or controversial content, generating hits and getting more people talking in the comments and becoming unique users for the purposes of calculating traffic data and advertising rates.
Unfortunately editorializing also forces the opinion of the writer into the news. While many argue that this allows the site to gain unique voices for reporting, I say that those unique voices can be heard through original pieces and not through hard news data. It is my hypothesis that gaming journalism is heavily editorialized and I feel that professional coverage suffers as a result.
The first focus of analysis was the first thing a reader sees – the headline. Headlines were graded as acceptable, misleading, wrong, or overly sensational. Out of 161 headlines, 141 were acceptable, which translates to an 87 percent acceptability rate. The remaining 14 percent was made up of four misleading headlines, one factually wrong headline, and 15 overly sensational headlines. The breakdown of misleading headlines by publication can be seen in the graph below.
For examples of misleading headlines, below are three randomly selected misleading headlines along with their publication.
Overall headlines are acceptable, but while unacceptable headlines are in a minority they unfortunately serve as stark anecdotal examples as some of the failings of game journalism. However, while 14 percent may seem like a small number, it is far too high for any field of professional reporting. Especially as a headline is the first thing a reader sees in a story, proper headline usage is critical in building positive relationships with readers, particularly that incredibly important first impression. How would you expect a reader new to gaming and gaming reporting to react if the first headline they saw on a noteworthy game blog was “These Are Some Nice Nuts?”
As both Walton and Sterling mentioned earlier, publishers have an unwieldy amount of influence over outlets and the information they can receive. Out of 161 articles, 126 of them had only a single source listed, equaling 78 percent. Only 11 articles used 2 or more sources, and 24 cited none. When it comes to the issue of citing only official sources for a story, 91 or 56 percent of articles only went to the official source, which can include press releases, quotes from developers about their upcoming game, or quotes from publishing executives. Below are two graphs detailing the breakdown of sourcing by publication.
It’s hard to single out where this problem originates from. Publishers and other officials are expected to be tight-lipped about information, but to what extent are outlets responsible for searching out more sources? Obviously a good deal of game-specific information merits only a single source, so maybe the problem of sourcing is a flaw with the makeup of game journalism itself.
In any case, the makeup of an industry is no excuse for complacent reporters and even if searching out other sources constitutes a good deal of dead ends, that’s par for the course for a journalist. Readers demand and expect journalists to go the extra mile and find not only the story that is being told, but also those stories that aren’t being told.
Jim Sterling had something to say about this topic that I wholeheartedly support. He advocates that outlets need to be more daring in their coverage, and that outlets should express solidarity in that tenacity.
“We need more outlets to have the balls to risk getting blacklisted by publishers,” Sterling said. “If enough publications did it, then publishers would be forced to re-assess how they deal with negative publicity.”
When it comes to the subject of coverage, it would not be a stretch of the imagination to guess that larger companies receive the most coverage. As more people are interested in the work of larger companies, coverage of those companies equals more relevant news for more people. Of course running the news of larger companies over smaller ones can have the effect of causing unbalanced coverage; especially when that fact is combined with the problems of sourcing discussed earlier.
Electronic Arts had the largest percentage of coverage with 12 percent of the 161 articles. Sadly, articles unrelated to gaming tied for second with Sony at 9 percent. Nintendo and Microsoft rounded out the top five covered topics at 8 percent and 6 percent, respectively. Of the unrelated posts analyzed, Kotaku published 73 percent of them.
The fact that topics unrelated to gaming rank above coverage for companies like Nintendo and Microsoft is absolutely terrible. While blame can be pointed at editors, writers, or readers I hold that those primarily responsible are the editors of these publications.
In an internet world, the ability to comment on stories allows readers, editors, and writers to interact on coverage in a way never before possible. The problem is that comments can be heavily moderated to reduce the appearance of dissent to these articles. You’ll discover that going through many of these unrelated stories that there is little comment about why this particular story is being placed on a gaming website. Is that because readers truly enjoy this unrelated coverage or is it because of heavy-handed moderation? As publications allow for little transparency in their moderation procedures, I place responsibility in the hands of those in charge of producing content.
The following is a randomly selected list of three unrelated gaming articles, by publication.
A fundamental issue to this problem is that these blogs thrive on hits and post counts. Given their immense popularity, anything that is published will generate at least some readership, so the guideline seems to be “post often, anything goes, censor dissent,” rather than simply “let’s report solid news about video games.”
These sites are some of the top gaming sites in the world yet 12% of their coverage deals with lawn decorations, facial hair, and Japanese culture. It is unfair to paint Joystiq and Destructoid equally as culpable in this respect as Kotaku is responsible for a majority of these posts, but all of these sites have a responsibility to not only responsible and professional coverage, but responsible and professional coverage relevant to gaming as a subject matter.
The world of internet news is driven by interactivity. Readers do more than simply read; they interact. Reporters and readers communicate in story comments, Twitter, and various internet forums. As a result internet reporting has a tendency to promote an editorial form that promotes people to discuss a story rather than simply digest it.
Of the articles analyzed 68% demonstrated some form of editorializing. Kotaku editorialized at 60 percent, Joystiq at 67 percent, and Destructoid at 79 percent.
While I understand the need for publications to editorialize to generate interest and controversy in news stories, there are clear problems in the levels of editorializing seen.
Writers are in a position of authority to readers pushing opinions through hard news can have detrimental effects on simply digesting the news itself. If a game release is mentioned to be garbage in the article, gamers unfamiliar with the title may not research that opinion and simply take it as fact. Couple the authority of writers with the potentiality for harsh comment moderation and you have a readership that is digesting more opinions than news.
If gaming journalism is ever to become a respected and professional field, editorializing should be left to the editorial page. Analysis and commentary can be presented separately from stories in a different section. Alternatively (and less ideal) is the application of opinions solely at the end of a news story, rather than interspersed throughout. While this still maintains the same problems as aforementioned, at least the opinions would stand out by themselves and be more easily recognizable by readers.
Grammatical and factual errors are the bane of any journalist. Details as minute as a misspelled name or improperly placed photograph can lead to libel or false light lawsuits. While gaming journalism is not quite at risk as other fields of enthusiast press to libel suits, the standard of perfection in copy should be desired and in most cases, attained.
Of the articles analyzed 30 grammatical errors were found in a total of 161 articles. There was only one factual error discovered, in the form of an incorrect headline. Below is a breakdown of total grammatical errors by publication.
Distributing out the numbers of grammatical errors with the number of published articles, Kotaku has a 36 percent chance of having a grammatical error in an article, with Joystiq at 4 percent and Destructoid at 11 percent.
As these stories are all internet-based, an accurate count of grammatical or factual errors is always in flux. Stories can be edited while they are live with no announcement to the reader of the edit. Of course this means that stories should be totally clear of grammatical errors as long as editors maintain vigilance and allow for readers to point out errors so they can be corrected.
Edits should be transparent. While striking out or changing large chunks of copy are very different kinds of edits, a note of an edit being made to a story should at the very least be included somewhere on the page to allow readers insight into the workings of the publication. Stories are always alive on the internet, able to be changed a minute or a year after publication. Some record should remain of changes made.
The final study of measurement is the inclusion of sexist and aggressive/offensive text or images in stories. Professional journalists should strive for the absolute elimination of sexist tonality in stories and aggressive/offensive tonality should be left to the editorial page.
There was a total of 27 aggressive/offensive articles for a total of 17 percent and a total of 12 sexist articles for a total of 7 percent.
Below is a randomly selected list of three sexist articles, by publication.
Below is a randomly selected list of three aggressive/offensive articles, by publication.
For sexism to exist in game journalism it not only perpetuates a negative stereotype of gamers but it establishes that stereotype as existing even in the coverage of gaming. Gamers should not be ashamed or worried to go to their favorite gaming sites in public or at work. I had to explain the hostess sausage feeding article to a few people in the graduate lounge at my university because of its content. Gamers are not breast-obsessed adolescents with only the objectifying of women and killstreaks on our minds. We are adults – treat us as such.
As for aggressive/offensive tonality, there is a certain amount of taste that each publication must agree upon themselves. For the addition of sensationalism there does come a price however. If an outlet wants to be sensational and aggressive in its tonality, it simply gives up the illusion of being professional. Professional journalists do not pen the kind of aggressive and offensive content found not only in game journalism stories, but also some of its headlines.
So what does all of this mean for game journalism? It means that while some of the problems may not be as severe as some may think, there is still a long way to go. But first game journalism needs to decide whether it’s an enthusiast press or not; also whether it wants to maintain a colloquial tone with readers or evolve a more professional tone.
Dan Amrich, a man with years in the field working for outlets like GamePro, Official Xbox Magazine, and GamesRadar, admits that the title of “game journalist” has always given him pause.
“I was never comfortable being called a ‘games journalist,’” Amrich said. “I was an entertainment reporter and a game critic, whereas journalism implies a more noble goal and a different skillset than I employed…I am providing a service, but I am not sure if I am providing journalism.”
Amrich has a strong point, and it’s one that I wrestle with as well. But is game journalism consigned to the fate of enthusiast press or can it become more?
Pulitzer Prize winner and Indiana University professor Tom French says that journalism is a part of memorializing the times that we all share together.
“The main job is to chronicle a little bit of what life is like on this planet,” French said. “Gaming is a part of many people’s lives and becoming more so every day. It’s important that journalists covering gaming take the job seriously.”
I contend that it can become more, but it requires the effort of editors and writers around the globe. We need to show solidarity in our professionalism and our commitment to the readers rather than spewing sexist and unrelated nonsense on our front pages. We can be professional, if only we act like it.
It’s time we changed. Gamers before were ostracized because they were nerds, social outcasts incapable of gainful interaction with others. Gaming, and gamers, has grown a great deal since then.
But the coverage has not. I am not part of a group that disrespects women and has a fascination with Japan and anime simply because I play video games. Stop presenting gamers as such.
Let’s turn our strength of colloquial reporting and passion for the industry into a passion for powerful reporting. Let’s discover trends, investigate poor game development, and do a real service for our readers.
Game journalism does not have to settle for the crumbs of information thrown from the tables of publishers and public relations agencies. Like other fields of journalism, game journalism should be expected to hold up the traditions of investigative reporting, fact-finding, and a dedication to giving the readers accurate and prompt information.
Journalism is a proud field with many powerful figures in its past. Ernie Pyle, Alice Dunnigan, the Bernstein and Woodward duo; these are names synonymous with the field of journalism. If game journalists want to share their title with some of these storied writers, they need to stop acting like contracted PR agents and start acting like journalists.
Is it foolish to compare game journalism to the likes of these storied journalists? Maybe.
Is it foolish to not aspire to give the best and most complete coverage available to readers, despite the field? Definitely.
We can do better.
Disclaimer: This article is the work of one writer, and does not necessarily reflect the views of gamrFeed or VGChartz.
Header photo credit: Flickr user e.phelt