Early game sites were much like early game publications; the garage-band versions of what would later become polished enough to play giant online arenas. 1994's GameZero.com (which you can still see the original archives of online) today looks hopelessly dated with its spartan layout and simple line art, but in its day, boasted a lot of firsts: first to feature gaming trade show coverage, first to show photos of the Nintendo 64, first to feature free, web-based video games, and most importantly of all (hardy har) first to feature a "Women of E3" photo spread.
From this and other such simple online beginnings came today's overwhelming proliferation of game sites as well as some would say, the resultant downward spiral in game journalistic quality. Once upon a time, the old timers tell us, to call yourself a video game journalist you had to be a talented, committed writer whereas today any jerk with a keyboard and an Internet connection can call himself one. While perhaps a bit of a generalization, there's certainly some truth to that statement.
We have to admit, the egalitarian nature of the Internet is both its boon and its bane. While we all have more and speedier access to information (both to consume it and provide it), the quality of that information is frequently questionable. That double-edged sword applies to game journalism as well since while it's easier than ever for journalists to find information, it's also easier for them to be irresponsible about creating and disseminating it. This has contributed to the increasing cynicism of the average consumer of game reportage and done much to discredit the efforts of the gaming media. Worse, talk of the big-time magazines and websites being "in bed" with game publishers taints these outlets' reputations and results in rampant accusations of their journalists being schwagged into slanting their reviews. As a result, some of today's most popular mainstream outlets like 1UP, IGN, and GameSpot – arguably the keepers of the traditional game-journalistic flame – are often touted as mouthpieces for PR, rather than credible sources of critical information.
Regardless of those allegations' falsehood or truth, journalists these days undoubtedly walk a fine line between gaining access to information and doing right by their audiences. Perhaps as a reaction to being put in that perilous position, some game writers in recent years have turned to new forms of journalism, focusing on the purely business side of things (Gamasutra.com or GamesIndustry.biz), collecting raw data (Gamerankings.com or Metacritic.com) or going the unapologetically subjective route. This last approach heralded a few years ago, the advent of the New Games Journalism movement, a movement which takes its cue from a trend in mainstream journalism from the 1960s and 70s. The practitioners of New Journalism unabashedly embraced a personal, almost literary approach to news writing that set old school journalism on its ear. Taking writers like Hunter S. Thompson and Tom Wolfe as a model, the practitioners of the New Games Journalism similarly attempt to critically examine their subject matter and reveal the truth of it through a subjective storytelling approach that emphasizes personal point of view rather than the objective recitation of facts.
A quintessential piece of New Games Journalism is 2006's "Bow Nigger" from writer Ian "Always Black" Shanahan. The piece is ostensibly a review of Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast, but in Shanahan's deft hands it becomes a poignant, emotion-ridden experience. This kind of piece would rarely be seen in a mainstream game publication or on a mainstream website, both of which are in general, committed to discussing the features of a given game and evaluating whether or not it's a good entertainment value. Pieces like "Bow Nigger" however, offer more individual insight into both the game and the online social/moral parameters that affect the experience of playing it. In addition to contending with New Games Journalism, the game journalism establishment has been increasingly undermined by independent websites, blogs, and even comics that don't just promote the game industry, but look at it with a critical eye. Popular blog sites like Kotaku and Destructoid provide gamers with information regarding industry trends, but also take the industry to task for its failures. Meanwhile, sardonic web comic Penny Arcade has carved its own niche (and created its own fan-con) by gleefully roasting the game industry's sacred cows.
Of course, despite its speedy evolution and the resultant profusion of mainstream and alternative game sites, the main issue game journalists of any stripe face today is lack of credibility. Several things account for that, aside from the widespread belief that game journalists start as uneducated barbarians and overnight turn into corrupt PR puppets. We can lay some of the blame on the Internet, but to be realistic, we also have to lay a portion of the blame at the feet of game publications, online outlets, and game journalists themselves. While game journalists everywhere kvetch about not being taken seriously, they also often spread the idea that by writing about games instead of say, working in a bank, they're successfully pulling off some kind of scam. Further, game journalists often undermine themselves by agreeing to work for free (or as near free as you can get without being paid in bubble gum). They seem to do this because they seem to believe what other people tell them—that writing isn't a real job and writing about games is even more not a real job.
Of course, it's not just the writers who believe this. The hiring outlets obviously believe it too, as evidenced by the wages they pay. And why not? Game journalist is (on paper at least) one of the coolest jobs in the universe, and as such, there's a seemingly endless supply of young, hungry people out there willing to do it for free. The unsurprising consequence is that outlets often overlook seasoned journalists in favor of less experienced (sometimes near-illiterate) candidates, thus perpetuating the cycle of mediocrity. These piranha-infested waters hardly make for an atmosphere friendly to cultivating the idea of the professional game journalist or encouraging a larger perception of game journalism as a legitimately professional pursuit.
Over its short, three-decade existence, game journalism has already seen its Big Bang, its evolution to a point of near-media-ascendancy, as well as its decline and dispersion. Along the way, its growth has gone hand-in-glove with that of the game industry itself, moving from something created by a small group of revolutionaries to something upon which big business spends millions of dollars. Today game journalism is once again changing, and as we move into the second decade of the twenty-first century, game journalists have their work cut out for them. Despite the ever-expanding gaming audience and the popularity of mobile reading devices (which has created more opportunity for game writing than ever before) game writers still can't seem to prove themselves either to each other or to the outside world. In consequence, while game journalism has learned much during its storied thirty-year history, its future remains disturbingly uncertain. Looking forward, perhaps all game journalism can do is work harder and hope its weaknesses are eliminated through some sort of journalistic natural selection. Either that, or it should do its best to remember that those who don't remember the past are doomed to repeat it.
CCC Freelance Writer
*The views expressed within this article are solely the opinion of the author and do not express the views held by Cheat Code Central.*