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RPG Codex Editorial: Where Journalism Goes to Write Itself

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RPG Codex Editorial: Where Journalism Goes to Write Itself

Editorial - posted by Grunker on Tue 3 September 2013, 11:54:20

Tags: Games journalism; Gamescom

Where Journalism Goes to Write Itself
written by Casper Gronemann alias Grunker, edited by Infinitron

Gamescom is a place where journalism comes to write itself. The Big Publishers™, like Ubisoft, have gigantic halls with smaller booths for each game, where one or two guys from the development team walk about along with PR people, community managers and business people. Smaller publishers do the same thing on a smaller scale, with small booths no larger than dorm rooms to demonstrate specific games. In the larger booths, computers are placed all around, with playable demos of the newest games – the Might & Magic booth has Might & Magic X Legacy, Heroes Online and Duel of the Champions ready for any passerby to test. Other games, like Wasteland 2 or Watchdogs, have hands-off demos. Both demonstration methods have one thing in common: they are controlled. The playable demos are short, controlled bursts of gameplay that do not even show off most of a game's features. Hands-off demos have developers showing off a specific tailor-made piece of gameplay, which displays how their game works at its absolute best, and, perhaps more importantly, with perfect pacing between different styles of play.

The result is a conference where journalists are practically assaulted with potential content for their magazines, but without the conditions to filter them probably. There is no room for sitting down for a quiet talk with a developer, no space for contemplation, and no journalist here will need the capacity for critical thinking in any case. Hell, no journalist here needs to do any background research on the games he will write about later. When the two of us from the RPG Codex watched a demo of Wasteland 2 with a couple of journalists, I was at first surprised by the fact that Chris Keenan, Wasteland 2 project lead, started off with a bare-bones presentation of the game. “Wasteland 2 is a turn-based, party-based RPG” and so on and so forth. “Hopefully”, I thought, “any self-respecting games journalist will have gotten that far before scheduling an appointment to watch a demo of the game.” Farther into the demo, I was further astounded by the fact that only me and the other member present from the RPG Codex were asking questions. The other journalists were as silent as the grave from start to finish.

Thinking about it further, however, I realize that there is no need for them to ask questions to get the content they need for their articles. All of it is right there, ready to be plucked from the lips of PR guys and developers eager to tell pre-written tales about their games. As I walk into a showing of Watchdogs, I see game journos getting their pads out and starting to write. They write notes about what they see on the screen and hear from the show host, notes that will later turn into articles in their magazines. But the only things they see are specific segments of gameplay created to show off the very best parts of Watchdogs, and all they hear is the voice of someone who has rehearsed to death a speech designed to cast the game in the best possible light. I see the journalists taking notes on their pads, and I can almost see the golden stream of words coming out of the mouth of the host, trailing towards the audience of game journos, becoming text on a pad and, later, an article on a magazine website. This is a place where game journalists inform their audience based solely on what cannot be described as anything but advanced television commercials.

I cannot think of anything similar in any other field of journalism. I cannot conceive of a large industry of “film previews” where a bunch of critics write about a film's trailer based on the words of its producer and neither can I conceive of a silent press conference with a room full of journalists jotting down the words of the host and nothing more. Should you feel the need to make a sarcastic jab here – i.e. “that's pretty much what the White House press conference is, isn't it?” - then take heed: not even from the most politically or journalistically sceptical point of view is the comparison apt. No matter how passive you might think modern journalism, film criticism, or whatever are, they're nothing like this silent crowd of people, with their headphones switched on and their minds switched off.

Even if one of these journalists was hit with the sudden inclination to dig a little deeper, even if that journalist had done his research and came prepared with tough questions, he'd still be in the wrong place to do anything about it. In the large booths, you stand up among crowds of people, and the noise levels rise high. During the more private hands-off game demos, time is short and of the essence, and you barely have time for anything but the scheduled “program.” Both models of game demonstration allow little room for critical interviews or researching games in depth. For all intents and purposes, Gamescom is a seller's market, a place where the money finances an outlet for PR and community managers to communicate with reporters, who then communicate with potential customers. It is simply impossible for a journalist to get anything except the “official version” of game stories here. Almost nothing can be extracted except exactly what the PR departments want. It is a place where journalists get glances, which they will later name 'previews.' The stream of manipulated information flows freely, and anyone thinking he or she can stop the flow would probably be crushed by it instead.

I've always had a gut feeling that these conference previews all looked eerily similar regardless of the journalist who wrote them and the magazines who published them. After visiting Gamescom, there is not a shadow of doubt in my mind as to why.

None of these people are stupid or malevolent, of course, and games journalists certainly aren't lazy by any stretch of the word. Being at Gamescom to fetch content is hard work. You walk for 10, 12, 14 hours among huge crowds of people, constantly trudging back and forth, juggling ten pages of notes along with maps to help you find your way around the giant conference center, while trying to pen down more notes when you meet someone interesting or play something worthwhile. Your head is assaulted by impressions constantly, and you become dizzy if you don't sort it all out in your head. You wait in line for people who are more important (read: make more money) than you and you say 'thank you' and 'amen' when they deign to make time for you. As with so many other things in life, people are not to blame here. Systems are. This particular system is one where the reporters are young and usually fans of what they're reporting on, and those who control what they're reporting on are rich people who know the business and have hired people to make sure the reporting is done "right". All the experience lies with the money, and little of it lie with the reporters. The same goes for the balance of power. In the middle of this are the developers, who just want to make the games they believe in. In their eagerness to realize their creativity, they certainly aren't the people who will break the system.

Yes, Gamescom is a place where journalism comes to write itself. Where overworked and underpaid journalists come with a massive workload and a short deadline to get told what to write. The mercy of the almost pre-written content flows from the cups of the PR departments into the greedy mouths of the tired journalists. Gamescom is where exclusive parties with good food and free bars are attended by serious business people who look like they've never played a game in their lives. They drink cocktails in the same room as geeky game journalists with long beards and t-shirts, and rarely if ever do the two groups interact. Both are attended to by an assortment of hired help, like the paid cosplayers who feel more out of place than anyone else simply because they, with their geeky outfits but astonishingly good looks, bridge the gap between the awkward geeks, the games journalists and the tidy business people. Perhaps I should stop saying 'games journalists', however, for not all writers here are journalists. Many are editors or administrators of fan sites or other such things, and it is often hard to distinguish between these two groups. The fact that both bring back roughly the same kind of content to their readers should chill any critical mind to its core. This is not a place for critical thinking. In fact, the very concept of a games conference seems to go against the notion.

As a fan here to write content for a fansite, my best moments are a long back-and-forth with Julien Pirou, creative designer on M&M X Legacy, a nice talk with managing director of Limbic Entertainment, Stephan Winter, a good discussion over a beer with Alexander Dergay, head of development on Legends of Eisenwald and a brief conversation with Michael Hoss from bitComposer. These quiet moments seem isolated from the rest of the busy conference, and Gamescom itself seems to strive actively to break them in half so that the show can go on. The interesting conversations with Julien and Stephan are halted partly by the rising levels of noise from the conference and partly by more people who see us talking and butt in, ending Julien's stream of interesting thoughts on Might & Magic and substituting them with the words of fans who want to talk about their favourite Might & Magic games and why they liked them. The talk with Alexander is interrupted by the fact that I have to go back to Ubisoft's invitational party so as not to seem rude to my hosts. The brief discussion with Michael is interrupted because I would otherwise be late to the continued program of the Might & Magic Fan Day.

As I have expressed in earlier articles, I had fun at Gamescom. My hosts were considerate and kind, I met tons of interesting people, and I played what I hope will be good games. But this article is not about whether I personally had a good time, but about my impressions of the relationship between Gamescom and gamers. The relationship between one of the largest venues for new information on games, the journalists who write about that information, and the fans who read it. As it stands, it seems to be yet another part of the gaming PR industry designed not to rock the boat. The system itself strangles any chance of elevated discussion. It leaves me with a strange feeling that so many deals about potential games are struck here, and so much reporting takes place here. The future of games is, in many ways, decided at conferences like this, yet any communication from here to the rest of the world is bound to be, like so much games journalism today, shallow and toothless.

Addendum

It seems I am not the only one who has issues with the way that Gamescom and other conferences handle journalism. Richard Lewis, e-sports journalist, writes here about how the companies at Gamescom barely pay attention to journalism anymore, as if they no longer need games journalists. All this tells a particular tale, a tale about the vaining importance of reporting in the world of games. PR departments communicate directly with their customers. No filter is applied to the bullshit. Why should RIOT care about Richard Lewis and his needs when the users can get their ”e-sports journalism” straight from the source, polished by the PR machine into glistening brilliance? The reporters on the LCS – RIOT's own e-sports league – are hired by RIOT. In effect, modern gaming journalism is becoming a commodity of game producers. Why should anyone respect someone like me, or even a professional games journalist, no matter the quality of their content, if they no longer need us/them to market their games and inform the consumer? The games journalist cannot write quality articles because he has no venues for solid information, and the people in charge have no interest in providing him with such. The system is to blame, then, the system we have all constructed for the transmission of information about games from companies to consumers. Companies are encroaching on the field of journalism, journalists lack integrity and consumers consume without asking questions. In a healthy world, business would need to rely on brilliant critics to 'yay' or 'nay' their game, and consumers would need to trust these critics, to know that their integrity is unquestionable. Unless that happens, neither business nor consumer will have any need of the critic, and the remnants of criticism will dissolve until PR bullshit sieves unfiltered through major sites directly into the eyes and ears of consumers who will have no other choice but niche media if they want critically angled information about their hobby. And then, dear sirs and madams, then, we will all be fucked. Perhaps we are already.

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