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It takes all kinds: Video game culture's weird identity crisis
It takes all kinds: Video game culture's weird identity crisis Exclusive
October 25, 2012 | By Leigh Alexander

October 25, 2012 | By Leigh Alexander
More: Console/PC, Social/Online, Indie, Programming, Art, Design, Production, Exclusive

Amid a variety of heated discussions online in recent weeks about the role of awards and of the games media alike, Gamasutra's Leigh Alexander wonders why the discussion is so reductive -- and argues that it takes all kinds.

The GameCity festival is on this week in Nottingham, and Journey took home the big prize. Unlike many game awards this one's not selected by industry insiders, but instead is determined by a jury of people not traditionally acquainted with games.

The jury's chaired by Lord Puttnam, and includes juror Lucy Kellaway, who wrote in the Financial Times about how she dug into some video games for just about the first time ever.

Disinterested generally in game conversation but curious to connect with her son, she gamely investigated a medium that had previously been foreign to her. Jurors convened in London to play Johann Sebastian Joust together (except for Lord Puttnam, for whom, as a chairman, the highly physical game would have been undignified).

Her feedback on many of the games was surprising to gamers, who bristled to hear Mass Effect 3 called "boring sci-fi tosh," or that her view of the relatively-complex Fez was generally limited to an appreciation of the music and colors. Kellaway struggled to make progress in Mario 3D Land, a game that focuses on being quite forgiving to beginners, and could hardly even move her hero in Mass Effect 3.

How can someone who doesn't play games award a prize? Even those who accept the basic idea that it's valuable to have games judged on how they appeal to new audiences -- especially alongside countless other awards from reviewers, designers and indies alike -- feel a little skeptical. One designer whose work was also in consideration for the prize suggested you wouldn't have a literature prize awarded by people who are unable to read.

Analogies between games and other media don't generally hold up. Still, it's interesting to think of games as requiring "literacy", and about what that literacy might look like. The insularity of games in general is a threat to their economic health and cultural relevance, and it's hard to argue that art and industry alike could benefit from the inclusion of new kinds of players -- who in turn help form the next wave of new creation, ideally.

At the same time, a specialist culture -- multiple molecules of specialty, even -- is not only valid but equally essential to art. Maybe we can't force a middle-aged mother who struggles with games to enjoy Mass Effect 3, but that doesn't detract from the value of BioWare's work and the massive community of fans it creates.

The culture of appreciating games has a strange and pervasive problem: This idea that only one sort of thing can exist.

Why are we like this?

Like the goal of making some kinds of games more accessible will necessarily eliminate all complex and specific niches; like a prize awarded by non-gamers can't exist equally alongside prizes selected by game developers or critics. As if one way of looking at games somehow threatens or invalidates other games. Like we need to choose between ambassadorship or insularity, like it's impossible to have both.

Part of this probably comes from the early shape of game consumer culture, which had a much narrower range of products specifically targeted toward only one major demographic. Magazines existed to rate these products by the numbers in crude categories and numeric scales, and enjoyed a close advertising-oriented relationship with the industry.

Media on games has long straddled an uneasy line between "product guide" and "fan culture," and the idea of journalism in games surfaced relatively more recently, with the idea of proper "criticism" even newer in the past decade.

We struggle with how to move on from that past, when there was no game that couldn't be viewed as a simple commercial entertainment product to dissect only in basic terms. A complex cultural environment has since spawned around games in a fashion that's only accelerated rapidly alongside online and social media, digital content and platforms for casual games. Game developers have negotiated this seismic shift admirably -- media, marketers and fans less so.

Why are we so bad at this?

The game industry has grown faster than our understanding of it, and most people who do any stripe of writing on games often wear many hats -- a reviewer stretches to cover industry events, a fan blogger feels obligated to wear the mantle of "journalism," and roles and definitions are frequently in dispute.

Marketers are little help, still keeping an incredibly close relationship with those on the frontlines of consumer writing so that many game blogs still act as participants in the preview-review-sales cycle even as they struggle to present a front of objective coverage to their persnickety, passionate readers. Games journalists most frequently "retire" to community management roles because it's not that much of a stretch.

And even though the game industry has diversified, rich with festival and indie culture, art games, experiments, social games and an entire industry of so-called "casual" titles that appeal to everyone, the traditional commercial industry still exists, of course. In fact, it's doubled down on blockbuster commercialism, and is viewed with increasing unease even by people who've been gaming fans since childhood.

Can a writer who's a fan of a commercial franchise and fervently evangelizes it be trusted as an objective source of information? Moreover, do they need to? Can a reviewer whose job is to score games also be qualified to publish investigative, objective work on the company that makes those games?

These are the kinds of questions we wrestle with -- and just like the discussion around the GameCity prize, the discussion is reductive. Like one must be all or nothing, like gradients can't exist, like the work of a fansite somehow owes an explanation to game criticism or trade writing.

It happens in the media, too

The early game industry itself has trained us to be reductive, to look at any problem and ask how you "win," or what score it gets out of five, whether it was worth our money or not. The attitude of the media shapes the outlook of its readership and vice versa, in an ongoing struggle to comprehend the simple idea that it takes all kinds.

A picture's been circulating of a bleak-faced Geoff Keighley sitting among Mountain Dew and Doritos advertisements to discuss Halo 4. It kicked off discussion on the face of games writing and whether some of us have become glorified shills, too close to the marketers that soothe our desire to be treated as important voices.

I myself wrote in Edge about how a professional press corps should be more circumspect and maintain better distance from marketing's preview-review-sales cycle -- should grow up, if you will.

Now in Eurogamer, Rob Florence critiqued the UK's Games Media Awards as a display of cronyism and amateurishness, and he was not necessarily wrong. At the GMAs, a minor scandal broke on Twitter when so called "professional" media were encouraged to try to win a PlayStation 3 by tweeting some corporate hashtag -- and like a bunch of fanboys, some did.

Let something be what it is

However, the problem isn't that the kind of writers he discussed are unethical; it's that they're trying to be something they aren't, and failing to reconcile that with what they are. Games writing has terrible self esteem.

Instead of trying to crown enthusiast writers as "professional journalists" worthy of awards for some unknown purpose, it would be better if it were somehow possible to accept the validity of the work they do even if it's different from reporting, or trend writing, or games criticism or whatever one's definition of "journalism" is.

Whether awarding games or looking at our press, why do we still feel the need to be all things to all people? Geoff Keighley's work on Spike is mainstream pop culture in the most basic sense, but that doesn't mean it can't exist alongside other approaches to covering the game industry, other perspectives thereupon.

It's when we start trying to hold an incredibly diverse game industry and an incredibly diverse array of voices to the same uncompromising standards we run into problems -- especially, as Florence points out, because the standards are still relatively little-understood in a rapidly-changing landscape.

According to the GameCity prize, Journey was the game that non-gamers best understood, an admirable achievement; Fez was the game most-acclaimed by the Independent Games Festival at the Game Developers Conference. Neither is "correct" nor excludes the other.

A fan writer who's always the first to post screenshots of her favorite game does not do the same work as a trade reporter, but neither discipline is mutually exclusive. Writers shouldn't struggle with mixed success to wear a mantle of "professionalism" or "objectivity" if it doesn't suit them -- if they could just admit they're cultural enthusiasts and that such work doesn't need to be explained, defended or elevated, it'd be healthier for everyone.

The game industry offers something for everyone now, and it's time the rest of us caught up.

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Benjamin Leggett
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If you're a "massive fan" of a game that *hasn't been played by anyone yet* outside of guided PR demos then you need to sit down and think about what you're doing.

In the film business that's the kind of thing industry gossip columnists do. Cover every studio press release, every leak about every new movie, always positive, always ready to do interviews with the stars and features on how amazing the special effects are before anyone actually sees it. And the movie is rarely mentioned again after it releases, except to talk about how much money it made.

I don't really see how this is so difficult for people. Either you love games, are educated in the accomplishments of your medium, and can talk clearly about how and why you enjoyed/admired/disliked something you played, or you squeal and cheer giddily at press conferences and jump when PR says jump because the flash and boom of how the industry presents itself is more exciting to you than honestly and carefully considering the flaws and merits of a complicated bit of co-operatively created art.

Either you're a child, with no self-control, or perspective, or capacity for forethought, or you're an adult.

Benjamin Leggett
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That's not what I meant. To become so caught up in the glamor and glitz and excitement of a PR rush that it clouds your judgement about the game itself, or affects you so much you make very unwise decisions, that is childlike.

The entire issue here is that a would-be journalist lost focus of the *game*, and got caught up instead in the *buzz and press activity around a game*.

I'm not calling for robots, I'm calling for perception and wisdom.

Benjamin Leggett
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To have passion and giddiness without also having understanding is the mark of immaturity. It renders those two things meaningless as well.

Mark Venturelli
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If it were a bunch of dude-bro gamers giving awards for independent french movies you would have a similar result than that of the GameCity festival. Amusing, of course, but should not guide the creative direction of those types of movies.

Very good article. There are already several very different things in this "games industry", in different formats, produced differently and that appeal to different audiences. It is a sign of maturity.

Tom Baird
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So are you comparing the entire spectrum of the games industry to independent french movies? Would it not be more fair to say it would be like a bunch of 'dude-bro gamers' giving awards for movies? We should be comparing medium to medium after all, and not medium to region-specific sub-genre.

I felt that the meat of this article was actually talking about the issues inherent to the 'games are for gamers' perspective you just relied on in that comparison.

Edit: Also considering their chosen winner was the fastest selling PSN game to date, shows that there is definitely some value in the opinions of people not already entrenched in gaming culture.

Raymond Ortgiesen
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Of all the articles of yours that I have read, this is my favorite. You've pretty accurately diagnosed a real problem that we have culturally (both developers and game players) and its reflection in our media.

On your last point: "Writers shouldn't struggle with mixed success to wear a mantle of 'professionalism' or 'objectivity' if it doesn't suit them -- if they could just admit they're cultural enthusiasts and that such work doesn't need to be explained, defended or elevated, it'd be healthier for everyone."

IMO that's exactly what Rock Paper Shotgun has done pretty consistently and they remain one of my favorite sites to read.

Will Hubbell
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I think it's a question of framing. How does the average gamer see things framed for them on the average game website? In so many cases, the world of video games is seen through the intrinsically filthy lens of marketing. I agree that games journalism doesn't need to be any one thing. But for those interested in the progression of the medium and dialogue surrounding it, there's a very strong need to get away from the language of hype and PR. It's embedded in gamer culture and needs to be rooted out.

EDIT: Robert Florence was fired from Eurogamer because Lauren Wainright, a writer originally mentioned in his article, threatened legal action. Let's all think about what that means.

Kevin Oke
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Apart from the cozy, blurred relationship that (it seems) many journalists have with PR, another thing rampant in the industry culture that greatly irks me that ties in here - The general fury that gets unleashed (all too easily it seems) in people (journalists, developers, players) when ideas are brought up about the need for change or to admit something is broken. People want games to remain the safe, warm, cathartic, "hear no evil, see no evil" place it was when they were kids, and they'll be damned if you'll ruin it with F2P, alternative voices making games etc etc.

My recent blog post on Gama sort of hit on this topic. People boo films at Cannes, walk out of screenings etc. With the current culture that seems to pervade in mainstream games journalism, I can't ever see something like that happening at an E3 or similar event. I think we need a culture where that is sort of thing acceptable - then we can really mature the medium, we all (journalists and developers) will be held to higher standards.

Edit: Anyone else think it's disgusting that Robert Florence gets fired, yet Eurogamer keeps his article up and on the front page?

Edit 2: Apparently he resigned.

TC Weidner
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Gaming media has for too long basically just been a puppet of marketing and PR. A game coming out could be on a cover of a mag or site for months even a year or so before it comes out, every month, articles about its awesomeness, then the game is released, you get one review and how it fails to live up to whatever PR spin was being spewed all these months, and the game falls off the radar never to really be spoken of again.

For the average gamer or consumer, they dont have time nor interest for all this upcoming PR nonsense, they like most consumers of things are just concerned about what is actually available now, and as I just mentioned, our industry is never interested in what is actually out, its whats coming out thats important. There is your disconnect.

Craig Stern
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I can't speak for everyone else, but my problem with the Lucy Kellaway piece had nothing to do with the existence or concept of GameCity, and everything to do with the way that she casually dismissed an entire field of artistic endeavor before she'd attained even a rudimentary understanding of it.

I agree that this is not like judging a literature contest without knowing how to read; it's more like writing a superficial review of modernist poetry and panning it all because you don't understand it upon a cursory reading. "T.S. Eliot's The Wasteland is nonsensical drivel, though I thought the phrase 'I will show you fear in a handful of dust' was quite pretty." Who does this help? Why would any self-respecting journalistic institution publish such a thing?

I agree that we need all kinds of games, including both really complex games steeped in tradition and really basic games geared toward accessibility--however, that does not mean we need to put up with newspapers giving space to people who are entirely ignorant of the subject on which they are writing. Perhaps Lucy Kellaway should not have had to struggle to wear a mantle of professionalism or objectivity, but I do still expect a bit of that out of major papers like The Financial Times.

Lyon Medina
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I think this article touches on a lot of key issues, and I have too many favorites to discuss but this one caught my attention.

"The early game industry itself has trained us to be reductive, to look at any problem and ask how you "win," or what score it gets out of five, whether it was worth our money or not."

I remember growing up and having the ability to receive "two" games that would have to last me 4/5 of the year, and then the Christmas bonus at the end of the year would be my third. That was when games weren't $60 dollars, and consoles didn't cost a month’s rent.

(When the internet was only a very loud dream of constant beeping and shjshsonsksk'ing, and it took you a month to load a page that had one .Gif on it.)

Getting off topic, emotionally people invest a hell of a lot more today. Perfectly honest if Nintendo for whatever reason went under "back then" I would have cared, but it wouldn't emotionally impact me like if it were to happen in today's times. Because now I love Nintendo for all the great memories I have gained with them. (Regardless of the shovel ware)

The reason why games are way more invested emotionally now, then they ever have been in my opinion. The industry is growing up. It's like Football, Basketball, Soccer, that it is now hitting a melting point from hobby to mainstream. People can argue that video games are already main stream, but look at what it was like before now. Yes games have “hit” main stream where you have a big marketing campaign and everyone knows about “X” product or “Z” release date.

But look at the magnitude of everything now and how everything reaches critical mass. The discussions that are being brought up to the “general public” not us the gamers segment. Are Video Games an art form? Professional journalists in Gaming? Fandamonium? E-Sports being a real sport?

There is no line anymore that separates games from the general public any more. Not everyone is a gamer, but everyone can now play games. We are no longer a minority, we are the majority.

Sorry if this sounds like a campaign speech, it’s been a long season.

Jack Garbuz
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I think it is time to divide up virtual reality as we do actual reality. In newspapers reality is divided into categories, such as domestic and foreign news and opinion, sports news and opinion, arts & culture, cartoon pages, puzzle pages usually featuring crossword puzzles, and so on and so forth. The time for specialization has arrived. We need to divide up those who cover puzzle and platformer games from those who cover sports games, and from those who cover shooters, RPGs, etc. The industry is now huge and diverse and gamers tend naturally to gravitate to the type of games they enjoy most. There is no one genre that fits all, though overlapping is natural.

For myself, I prefer "interactive movies." I'm a big fan of RPG-style game franchises such as Deus Ex, Fallout, Max Payne, et al., though I also enjoy military style shooters. I have little to no interest in puzzlers or platformers, sports games or cartoonish games. So when I am looking for a review, I would like to put my trust in someone who has the same leanings as I do. A developer/reviewer who tends to inherently favor puzzle games cannot be very credible to me when opining on a shooter or an RPG. For example, such reviewers have given stellar rating to "Dishonored" made by Arkane under the aegis of Bethesda. While it was a reasonably compelling game to play through, it did not deserve the kind of stellar ratings given by those who are most interested in the "gameplay mechanics" versus the overall structure of the game as I appreciate one.

Basically I want to be able to find a reviewer that I can trust for the kinds of games I want to play, and not a generalist who is all over the place.

Graham Luke
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We'll get there.

Bart Stewart
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Excellent, thoughtful article on a subject that's only going to matter more.

Journalism -- which once was called "reporting," a shift that also tells you something -- is about trust. You succeed in informing people to the extent that they trust you to tell the truth.

In this, games journalism is experiencing its own subset of the democratization of the mainstream media. The growing connectedness of information consumers, coupled to the increasing perception that the accredited press is in the tank for someone but pretends to be objective, has shifted trust to bloggers and voices who aren't part of the establishment. These new commenters are also coloring facts with subjectivity... but at least they admit it. As goes honesty, so goes trust, and info-consumers will either follow the sources they trust or tune out completely.

All journalism, including games writing, must figure out how to adapt to this new reality of a diversity of sources.

Dave Ingram
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Thanks for this insightful article Leigh.

I especially liked what you wrote about journalists in the games industry having an indentity crisis. As an industry writer, I have always had the mindset of letting my writing be what it is naturally, rather than trying to fit it into a defined structure.

My articles always present a unique way of looking at something, providing alternative viewpoints for readers to consider. I don't consider myself a news writer, although I may cover news from time to time. I don't consider myself a reviewer, although I will share my opinion occasionally. I don't consider myself a part of the marketing machine, although I will share commentary on a marketing campaign's strategic elements. Like I said, my writing simply is what it is, and I hope people see it that way.

Justin Sawchuk
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I dont understand why gamers bend over backwards to be accepted by nom-gamers. Its like someone actually giving a prize to a basketball player for having the best hairdo

Robert Fearon
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I'm trying to think of one reason that would be a bad thing and I'm entirely drawing a blank. If the hairdo is good, let's do that!

Kyle Redd
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"Instead of trying to crown enthusiast writers as "professional journalists" worthy of awards for some unknown purpose, it would be better if it were somehow possible to accept the validity of the work they do even if it's different from reporting, or trend writing, or games criticism or whatever one's definition of "journalism" is."

As near as I can tell, the folks that are most eager to crown members of the enthusiast writers as journalists are the enthusiast writers themselves. I suspect that if you were to poll all of the reviewers at IGN and GameSpot asking if they would describe themselves as "professional journalists," every one of them would nod their head without hesitation.

Steven Ulakovich
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We see journalists jump to developers and publishers all the time, and vice versa. In the last couple of years, look at how many of the IGN/1UP editors ended up working as Community Managers for a video game publisher?

Another point that probably needs to be made is the popularity of bloggers/social media.

The internet gives everyone a voice. When someone gets really popular, they tend to get picked up by some mainstream gaming publication or website. The problem is that a significant portion of these writers just write what is on the top of their head, and never learned how important concepts like conflict of interest.

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Justin LeGrande
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If this legislation passes next week, current video game culture could REALLY be heading into an identity crisis...

Michael Joseph
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Maybe our reductionist tendancies and reflexes are largely a result of capitalism worship and the consumer culture we live in. The consumer culture is anti-intellectual, it wants simple appliances over complex tools, it throws away and buys another rather than DIY repair, it pits PS3 owners against 360 owners,it's rage against the opposing brand, reactionary over thoughful, about winning rather than how you play the game, it's Transformers in your face action over subtlety and nuance, it's pandering to folks instead of challenging them, it's who would you rather have a beer with over who is the more virtuous, it's material idols and golden calves over principles and virtues. It is the One Ring that seeks to control economics, politics and peoples religious and social lives that many of us can't remove from our fingers.

We are taught to be intolerant and afraid, to view the things we buy and the products we like as extensions of ourselves and our own self worth. We develop a reflex to defend those things that we've made apart of ourselves when we feel they are under attack. You disparage the game I like then you're disparaging me!

But maybe we're beginning to see some signs that at least the markets for cheap, low quality media products are becoming saturated. Maybe people are starting to suffocate under this thick smaug as evidence by the shrinking social games space, shrinking cable/sat tv subscriptions, decreasing box office sales, etc.
And I don't believe it's all just because of the slow economy and expanding and more affordable home video options.

We need to push ourselves and each other to become better people. I think the games industry is actually better than most. We have a lot of journalists, indies and non indie devs, and players out there who freely voice their opinions. Their unique perspectives, their unique games and their unique voices have created a welcoming atmosphere for those who sometimes speak against the grain and that continues to help shape the industry and our perceptions of it.

Andreas Gschwari
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There is a reason industry giants like EA, Activision and others hold large scale press events, cart "journalists" in en masse and hand out goody bags. It does not necessarily result in biased reviews, but it does result in favours. An honest (bad) review, that could potentially lower the metacritic of a game at launch might be held back a bit (often at the threat of being excluded from above mentioned PR events or no longer receiving early review discs). Here and there a review score might even be pushed up a notch. How many times have i read a review recently where i expected a 2 or 3 out of 10, only to find the game was a 5 or 6 out of 10 in the end.

It's the number that counts, that's what people look at first and that's what feeds into metacritic.

Once, when i worked at Funcom, i attended a press/launch event that was hosted at Oslo's ski-jump stadium. There was a famous live band, scantily clad girld dancing in cages, free booze and food, an entire conan village and performers of the Oslo symphonic orchestra - more than 200 journalists (and only a fraction of the development team) were treated like kings. In this industry, like in many others, marketing money is not spent without at least some expectation of a return.

Victor Arroyo
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I stopped from reading these professional journalists years ago.

If there is game I would like to play, I download the demo and
If I like the game I get it, else don't. I don't review a professional journalists
site, because they aren't adults applying their personal tastes to almost every game.

It's like If I qualify with a number these professional journalists.
Like saying IGN have 3/5 with "just advertising" and Lucy Kellaway have 1/5 "childish non gamer with closed opinions", just applying my personal point of view that it's not accurate, only prejudges.

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Michael Joseph
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If we were better people Joshua, everything you said would be so :)

But we're not. So in this light, what do we do? The only real answer I can come up with is that individually we can advocate our beliefs and individually we can try to live by our principles. And then we struggle with living up to our own standards day by day.

Most of us are trying to minimize struggle. Most of us are too consumed by our day to day practical struggles to worry about philosophical, moral, and spiritual ones. And that failing is I think mostly a product of how we are reared by our culture.

p.s. In the USA our election process is really a capitalistic process where only candidates who can raise money can compete and usually the candidates who raise the most win. That's not really democracy anymore. Campaign donations are anathema to democracy. I write this as an example of how oblivious we are to the broad hooks capitalism has sunk into all facets of our lives. I'm not anti business, but if nothing is more important than making money then we're never going to solve big problems or little problems like crappy games.

And if people don't want to have THAT conversation (they'd prefer to keep it in this tidy little safe sandbox) then I think they're kind of living in a fantasy world where you can solve problems without looking at their root causes.

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Ramon Carroll
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You speak my language Michael. Hopefully we will get what you are saying before it's too late.

Alex Covic
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There is "journalism" and then there is the perception of what "journalism" is?

If you write for a living, you know what you do. Credibility is your only trade?

There are so many 'young professionals' in this 'business' of "video game journalism", not knowing a thing about personal responsibility or moral or ethical values? For them "it's ok" to be fed by the hand, which can also take away their food, anytime? PR departments in those publicly traded multi-million and billion net-worth companies must love these relationships. Remember Microsoft making 'journalists' wear white robes for a E3 media event - turning them ALL into background extras? We arrived there a long time ago.

These kids "grow" from being fanboys and fangirls (perfectly fine, in your private life!) into older versions of themselves trying to make a living "in the industry" - not knowing what this industry really is, they pretend to be in? Or are they deliberately cynical? Or do they just not care?

Who is really surprised?

An industry (no, not video game journalism "industry"; the 'other' one) which makes more money than the movie or music industry, needs 'reviews' for consumers. Those companies will try to make consumers buy their products. They will not disclose or give up their marketing efforts with the media? Especially not with people, who are eager to play along with the corporate message for a "freebie". Some of which also proudly list their corporate relationship with companies on their Journalisted and LinkedIn website, only to be busy deleting them (why?) over the weekend?

[edit]And then, there is Geoff Keighley. I feel sad for him. This picture of him is iconic, indeed. But, the truth is, I for instance, always saw him in such a picture? It did not 'influence' my opinion of him. I never watched Keighley's Show for 'journalism'.

Consumers (the loud minority, which cares to click on video game websites, not the moms and dads, buying video games in Walmarts & Amazon, etc) don't want thoughtful, critical pieces, but affirmation of their taste and choices? They want entertainment and w a n t to share the hype, provided to them by "extended" PR (the enthusiast press) and actual PR?[/edit]

Oddly enough, I have discovered and read a lot of good 'journalistic' pieces in the aftermath of this 'affair'. There are good people out there. You just need to know where to find them? ;)