Damned Audience Part 1: Games Journalism

Audience is a tricky word. Where literature is concerned, “audience” means the reader. There are entire libraries of literary theory on the relationship between the reader and the writer, and how they engage with each other. Multiple readings of masterworks have been sustained as part of an ongoing discourse as to the nature of these relationships.

I consider it a great shame that the petabytes of critique penned by intelligent people about video games so often neglects these relationships. We’ve taken great strides when it comes to writing about videogames, to be sure. “New Games Journalism” is so old hat by now in internet years we can largely term all games journalism “New”. Soon we will move into the era of Neo-Games Journalism and Post-Games Journalism, or whatever these people decide to call whatever they write next. I’m hoping for Maximum Games Journalism instead, because it gives me the wonderful mental image of chipmunks strapped into the Oculus Rift virtual reality goggles, hooked to typewriters and dosed with intravenous bottles of Lucozade.

From my observation it appears that “New” Games Journalism – to generalize broadly, forgive me – is primarily concerned about the writer’s own personal experience with the game. It makes for fantastic reading, especially if the writer is talented enough to make people laugh, or comes across as witty and personal enough to be offensive to the people who the reader finds offensive. Strike a point up for those everymen who struggled through Final Fantasy XIII to bring us thoughtful and insightful reviews that we will mostly ignore in favor of a number and a Metacritic score. God knows I wouldn’t like to be one of those people.

Who, then, is the audience for such writing? We’re not even talking about the games here. We’re talking about the reams of text in reviews, forum posts, blogs such as this one, game news sites, lifestyle magazines, etc. Who reads all this shit?

My Universal Theory of Pocky measures reality in percepts, or perceptions of the world. When our perceptions of the world are challenged, we lash out, and instinctively seek for those things that will reassure us that we’re not wrong. I believe this to be the primary formation behind crowd behavior in human beings. The humanitarians will say it’s because we don’t like feeling alone. I say it’s because we’re scared and insecure and we flee back to whatever makes us feel we’re in the right, usually to satisfy our own percepts.

I’m pretty sure this is why 90% of the people reading reviews don’t really do it to inform their purchases of a game. They read reviews to have their opinions validated.

(I’m also pretty sure this is why videogame fans have an aura of cynicism coloring the very air around them. Their faith in their opinions has been invalidated too many times. It’s why for every article that Play4Real, a satire website, posts, someone in the comments fails to get that it’s satire. They already completely believe that the failures of the industry aren’t being exaggerated for comedy.)

We’re all guilty of this. Come on – strawmanning and sockpuppeting (oh how I love those terms) aside, how many of us have reached for Youtube links or image macros on demand just to show the ignorant their mistakes? My own mother frequently spams me with chain emails warning of the dangers of this and that, of modern technology, of how X and Y will cause me to keel over and die of spontaneous organ failure or how certain food items are actually made out of desiccated orc teeth. She never does the research and is frequently ill-informed as to the actual information inside these emails – but they fall in line with her percept – her way of thinking. She sent me the emails with the intent of proving herself right.

I think we read reviews the same way. Every time I see a game review score that doesn’t fall in line with the zeitgeist at the time, the plethora of angry comments and hate flow like honey. Even opinions aren’t exempt from this; Roger Ebert, bless his soul, dared to claim video games weren’t art, and the beast that is the gaming public reared up and threw shit everywhere in the most glorious of temper tantrums.

Ebert’s response basically boiled down to “Why do you people give a shit?”

In the weeks that followed, everyone weighed in on the issue. Passionate defenses from gaming “celebrities” were everywhere, written by people who believed video games were art FOR people who believed video games are art, and a lot of back-patting and snide nodding resulted. Clearly WE were in the right and EBERT was in the wrong. People nodded and smiled and said “hear, hear”. I’m fairly sure Ebert just sighed and said he’d play Shadow of the Colossus to make us all shut up or something. I’m also pretty sure he barely read one out of the twenty thousand claims of “Video games ARE TOO art” that showed up on his monitors.

This is why I think the discourse surrounding video games has yet to “grow up”, to borrow a phrase from those people who like to stare down from balconies. We’re too insecure, and the discourse around video games is too busy with an audience of… well, people who think exactly like them.

It’s alright to be insecure. But let’s not pretend we’re contributing anything to the discussion if the audience for our writing is one-sided. Maybe it’s time we all sat down and took a good hard look at ourselves. Are we writing so the internet can be our hugbox? And are we reading to be challenged?

Next time – what the industry means when the word audience is thrown about! Dear lord, how we hate that word.

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