Thursday, January 20, 2005

You are Not a Journalist, Dude

I promised a rant on this. Well, actually, I was going to do one anyway, so there you go.

I was an editor on a game magazine. I did that work for five years, which I suppose makes me a bit of a veteran in an industry in which the old timers have only been around for 15 years. Here's a little bit about what an editor of a game magazine does:

1) Writes articles. Most articles we'd write were either features, reviews, previews, or strategies. There were always 3-7 news articles in there, but the magazine's 3-month lead time meant that the "news" was anything but. It was always as up-to-date as possible, but a lot of it boiled down to, "In case your cable was down last month, here you go."

2) Edits articles. Believe it or not, someone edits the articles you read in game magazines. In fact, at my old pub, an article would go through several layers of edits, each with a different focus. Here you look for content problems (which rarely happened), here you looked for typos, here you made sure that the text lined up right, etc. In general, the editing done by the actual editors (save that done by copy edit) boiled down to reading the article, making sure the words "workmanlike" and "presentationwise" were only used once each, and passing it on.

3) Keeps up with industry contacts. This is the weak link, here, which I'll explain in a bit. An editor has to keep up with industry contacts, meaning that he must call his assigned PR reps once every week or so and find out if they have any other information to spoon feed him. This involves pretending to like that contact (or, sometimes, actually liking them, and in rare instances, hooking up with them) and getting "sensitive information," like whatever that company's marketing plan allows the magazine editors to know that week.

4) Organizes stuff. You have to keep up with assets, press sheets (very important, since this is the bulk of your content), etc. You also have to keep track of any sections you're in charge of, keep a tracker of the games you think are worth covering (generally any game with a kids' cartoon named after it), and all that. Fun.

5) Sits in meetings. Sometimes they are cool meetings, like demos of games, and sometimes they are crap meetings, but sometimes it seems as though editors spend all their time in meetings. It sucks, because this plus everything else leaves precious little time for the least important thing on this list:

6) Plays games. Reviewers rarely play through games unless they are web writers with a huge staff backing them up or they work weekends and evening hours, which many lifers do. On a good week, I would play games maybe 6 hours for the week. Most of the time, those games suck. I aimed my section toward previews for that reason; I didn't feel that my section should have tons of reviews if I was the only person available to write them.

Notice that nowhere on that list will you find "Investigates stuff" or "asks hard-hitting questions." That's because no one--not the mag you're on, not the game publishers--wants you to do any of that. Despite the fact that I can go online right now and find timely and numerous reviews for games that came out this week, print magazine publishers still believe that reviews and previews sell issues. If your cover read, "XBOX CONSOLE ENTIRELY A TOOL MEANT TO DRIVE NINTENDO OUT OF BUSINESS, PROOF INSIDE," no one would give it another look unless the headline were next to Kanouyuko, the cute-and-sexy-and troubled-yet-independent-and-strong female love interest in an upcoming wannabe-Japanese action-RPG-collection game.

I was on a trip to a developer to see a game for our cover article, and on the wall I spotted flowcharts and diagrams and plans for a game that, even now, has yet to be announced. I could have easily splashed a news article in the mag about it ("FIRST INFO ON EARLY DESIGNS FOR SECRET NEW GAME"). I could have worked the situation so that I could be close to that board as much as possible, taken notes on what I saw, and maybe even asked a developer (not the lead designer, but maybe one of the lower-level working stiffs) about it off the record. Working at a developer now, I see tons of ways a smart journalist could spot clues and get info about secret projects planned for years from now. In fact, I doubt that visiting game writers have picked up on the acronyms and titles mentioned in passing by people who work here. A journalist would be listening in, aware that they will hear something they shouldn't.

The problem is, this sort of thing isn't encouraged. In fact, there is an understanding with game publishers that a journalist will not write about anything the publisher doesn't want written. Even with a review, the publisher can say, "Don't tell anyone about the fighting system," and the reviewer is obliged to comply. The punishment for failing to do so is an angry letter from the publisher to the mag's CEO and, often, witholding of assets from the magazine, which limits the mag's coverage of that publisher's games in the future. The bottom line is that game mag writers are the puppets of the publishers. You rarely read anything in a print magazine that the game publishers don't want you to know.

When I was in journalism, I and a few others at my mag tried to change the focus a bit. I was tired of features that were, essentially, just free ads for the game they were about. We're talking 5 page previews full of fluff about how awesome the game will probably be, with one line of caveat saying, essentially, "Maybe the game won't be as good as we hope, but we think it will!" A couple of other editors and I decided to try new stuff. Interview developers (NOT publishers) about game cliches and ask them why they keep using them. Confront developers about mature games and why they make them. Ask developers why they think gamers don't finish games. Even in the fluff pieces, include sidebars full of the developers' history, interviews with interesting people involved with the game, etc. Do anything more than the typical, "Why are you so awesome?" ass-licking that game journalism tends to be. In the months since I left, I could see that philosophy really taking shape, and the magazine was far more readable for it.

Writing reviews and previews is not journalism. Printing a "scoop" that the publisher gave you is NOT journalism. Asking that three of the seven screenshots the publisher is giving you be exclusive is NOT journalism. Writing an article about what you THINK a game will be like is not journalism. Giving in to Rockstar's demands that you run the screenshots they give you for your review, even when they are obviously not taken from real gameplay, is emphatically NOT fucking journalism. Actually, running anything that Rockstar Games allows you to run is definitely not journalism, because Rockstar is in complete control of who knows what when, and they are masters of making games seem better than they are by withholding information.

Anyone with a love of games and elementary writing skills can be a game journalist with the right contacts. Actually, you don't really need the love of games, because being a game journalist is a good way to kill that love for good. If you want to distinguish yourself from the flock, you need to do something different.

Try being a journalist.