One movie I like a lot is called Quiz Show. Based on true events, it tells the story of how early US game shows were rigged, with popular contestants being given answers, and then asked to take dives when their popularity wore off. Charles Van Doren, a prestigious instructor, gets on the show and initially refuses to be given answers ahead of time. But as his popularity heightens from the show, he gives in and starts taking answers for the ease of the production.
Later, a disgruntled previous contestant blows the scheme wide open, which culminate in hearings before the House Committee of the legality of the show’s practices. In the end, only Van Doren gets burned by the hearings. The show’s producers vindicate themselves of any wrongdoing, claiming that it’s entertainment, the same as any other scripted program on TV. There were no laws at the time that shows presenting themselves as “reality TV” had to be truthful (in this case that the contestants were honestly answering based on their own knowledge).
I had a similar revelation within my work at The Mega Man Network. We maintained our own wiki about Mega Man, and we strove to make it the most accurate, neatly looking Mega Man wiki available. We used our own images and resources, and we did not allow the public to contribute. This was in contrast to Mega Man Knowledge Base, a Wikia site that could be edited by anyone and was perceived to be poorly organized and made up of much worse quality content.
Nevertheless, MMKB became the premiere Mega Man wiki, even after we eventually opened TMMN’s wiki to the public (in a restricted way). How come? Well, one part was we limited our own manpower, when we only had so much time to contribute to what would be thousands upon thousands of entries.
However, one evening I was reading a random topic on Wikipedia. Another link caught my interest, and I followed that. Then another, and then another, and so on. And after reading Wikipedia for the better part of an hour, I realized I was treating the site not as a knowledge resource, but as a form of entertainment. I had no interest in “learning” from the site, I simply wanted to read the fascinating background to particular topics and feed my imagination.
The success of MMKB was a similar feature of that, in my mind. Only the most hardcore Mega Man fans would really care how accurate and well-cited the data was. Most readers just wanted to be entertained. They didn’t care if MMKB’s content wasn’t carefully crafted, they just wanted to flip pages. And MMKB’s structure made it the winner in having pages. Fan wikis, containing lots of fanciful information and images, are essentially digital magazines.
So I find myself perplexed with the explosion of arguments about the integrity of games journalism in the past couple weeks. Many say it’s a thinly veiled effort towards promoting misogyny in gaming culture. Many others argue back that it’s really about blowing the lid off of corrupt practices in gaming journalism. It’s hard for me to see it as the latter because of two points. One, because of the grand scheme of things, the circumstance this humongous debate surrounds, indie developer Zoe Quinn, is such an incredibly small part of a gigantic scene. And two… this is kind of something we already knew about.
I mean, we’ve been hearing these kinds of stories for years now. Publishers paying and pressuring review sites for good reviews. Reviewers getting fired for writing poor reviews. Publishers flying writers out to press events and putting them in nice hotels. Hell, even I’ve been to Miami, Florida for a press event on Capcom’s expense.
Now not all games journalism is the same. Some people write particular opinion pieces. Some write articles focusing on the players or the developers, or the culture. Some write about social issues and how they apply to games. But by and large, we go to big sites like IGN, GameSpot, Kotaku and so forth to hear about what’s new. We go to absorb the latest press releases and trailers. We go to be advertised to.
Whether you’re writing for a major, professional gaming site, or a small time fan site like The Mega Man Network as a hobby, it amounts to more or less the same thing: you are an advertiser for products. Whether you’re knowing of this or not. Unlike the classic idea of the news, games journalism surrounds promoting merchandise. We read it, and the writers write about it, largely because they are consumers of such merchandise.
But like the quiz shows of the 1950s, we like to think our entertainment has a sense of integrity, even if it’s primary purpose is to advertise to us. So really, knowing all the scandals and faults of publishers and developers abusing the trust of consumers in the past 10 years, of not only manipulating the press but other things that are generally frowned upon like on-disc DLC, pre-order bonuses, attacks on used game sales, and so forth, how is it that a situation surrounding a small indie developer, many of the accusations on whom have been rather dubious, has caused such a greater uproar than anything else in memory?
I don’t mind so much that games journalism is a funded practice, because like many other things, I view it as entertainment first and foremost. You can’t cover a game without somehow supporting the company that makes it. For my own part, what motivates me most in game purchases is my own tastes and history of buying games. After that, it’s the consideration of what my friends like. Then, finally, maybe games media plays a role (as in, man I suck at Smash Bros, but those character reveal videos are so darn cool).
So I really don’t get the integrity thing. We’ve always known about it. It really comes off more as an attack on a developer who has some negative attention. If you want to say it’s about integrity you’re certainly free to, but why did it take you until now to get angry?