This is an editorial piece. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of Boss Rush Network.
|TABLE OF CONTENTS|
+ (Not So) Brief History of Video Game Journalism in the U.S
+ Community Mistrust in Journalistic Integrity
+ Where Does Game Journalism Go From Here
+ A Massive Vertical Full of Opportunity
Questions About the Future of Games Journalism is Raised After the Washington Post Announces the Sunsetting of their Launcher Website
On January 24th, news broke across CNN and the New York Times of another series of layoffs. This time at the Washington Post, as they prepared to layoff editorial staff across multiple departments and sunset Launcher, their dedicated gaming vertical website.
The site was still in its growth stages, launching in 2019 and witnessing increased readership growth according to its now former editor Mike Hume.
News quickly spread across the professional community channels, with many already reeling from news of Microsoft’s layoff of their renowned 343 studios, best known for the Halo franchise. This is in addition to Google, Riot, Bethesda, Microsoft, Amazon, and Unity, as the gaming community continues to feel the effects of massive layoffs in Q1.
Niche gaming media outlets haven’t been left untouched either, as the wave of layoffs and shutdowns that have also affected GameSpot, Giant Bomb, Game Informer, the recently revived G4, IGN Entertainment, and numerous others.
In a Linkedin post shared by industry champion and Amazon Games Principle Publishing Producer Amir Satvat, many longtime game industry leaders and seasoned gaming veterans discussed their opinions on the news.
Amir shared his own thoughts, noting that “one sees the deathblow on serious journalism spreading to yet another vertical.” He went on to note his own devastation as decisions continue to affect spaces many readers, himself included, are emotionally and personally invested in.
Those reading the threaded discussion would quickly see how many (including myself) also expressed disbelief on the reasonings and implications as media and tech leaders claim the need to tighten their financial belts in response to the current economic climate as the root cause.
Launcher editor Mike Hume took to Twitter, describing the news as “sad, upsetting, and perhaps most of all, mind boggling.” In the long thread, he went on to share that Launcher had attracted “tens of millions of users, the majority first-time readers of The Post and almost all of them under the age of 40.”
And yet, for many others within the gaming space, it is evident that this news isn’t much of a surprise.
A trending reddit thread discussing The Post’s layoff announcement reflected feelings of cynicism and doubt in traditional media’s ability to cover industry news.
Oh man that sucks! The Washington Post reached people that wouldn’t normally play games, which is what made this section special.
I’ve subscribed to [the] Washington Post for years and I had no idea they had a dedicated gaming section called Launcher. It’s ironic that I hear about it on the day it gets shuttered.
Game media has been in free fall. I really don’t think they know how to appeal to an audience anymore. All their articles are either so generic and emulate PR or are extra snarky that just try to get a rise out of people, like calling older games problematic (e.g. persona 4). The golden era of game journalism existed during the magazine era, imo. People still gravitate to personalities, but all the personalities are on Twitch and Youtube now.
Games media and journalism has always been an odd duck. Gamers, at least those terminally online, seem naturally suspicious of anyone writing about games and don’t want to pay for their writing. I don’t know if [there is] a fix here.
In fact, for the past decade, the discussion as to whether games journalism was breathing its last breath has been up to debate several times.
Last year when it was reported by Digiday that esports-related editorial sites were sunset, people expressed the opinion that the niche was unsustainable ahead of a looming recession and that continuing shifts of readers to other channels were killing the media industry.
And as more media outlets see continued cuts the question remains – Is high quality gaming journalism really on its last thread?
A (Not So) Brief History of Video Game Journalism in the U.S.
While the gaming industry has seen immense growth, the reality is that the answer isn’t that simple. In order to really understand the complex implications we need to understand the origins that lead to where video gaming journalism (and journalism as we know it) is today.
Electronic Games Magazine Launches in the Winter of 1981
Founded by writers Bill Kunkel and Arnie Katz, Electronic Games is often viewed as one of the very first magazines dedicated to the still young video games and console market (referred to back then as a “programmable”).
This was the era in which Atari was fast becoming a household name, where Mattel was toying in the field gaining game development rights to Dungeons & Dragons, arcade games like Space Invader were all the hype, and Activision gained its beginnings as the first third party console maker.
Reading through the content, it is easy to see the influence of the sales and marketing tactics that defined the advertising practices during the ’80s and early ‘90s.
PG 12-13 of the 1981 Inaugural Electronic Games Winter Edition | Source: Internet Archive
The magazine itself was a spin-off of Video Magazine, in which Kunkel had a dedicated video games column called “Arcade Alley.” Video Game Magazine had its focus on the “videogame” and “programmables” (console) market, likely due to its deep connection and association with the growing television market.
Sharing space on the news stands were other national and global magazines like Electronics (1954), its leading successor Computers and Electronics Magazine (1982), Atari Connection (1981), and the now renown PC Magazine (1982). These publications were also vying for consumer attention in response to the rapid rise of another core piece to the games market: the home computer; several of which are still around today.
This is even as the Video Game Magazine ceased publication in 1984, shortly after the video game crash of 1983 that caused many of video game-centric publications to disappear just as the space was truly beginning to kick off with what is seen as console’s fourth generation: the entry of the first Sega Genesis and Super NES.
The crash also played a major role in how the media treated game makers as the industry tried to recover from a recession after years of producers under-delivering on their advertised experiences while everyone else was trying to get in on the console train.
This had a lasting impact, as console games (and gaming in general) were now viewed as a digital entertainment “fad” in contrast to the innovations in computer technology. Consumers and traditional media alike saw PCs as more cost effective due to its other functions outside of gaming. Journalistic quality also reflected this preference, resulting in uneven coverage between the PC and Console within established publications and media outlets.
Re-emerging game companies now had to work harder at convincing publications to cover releases, ultimately paying for every inch of coverage as they sought new ways to advertise and prove the quality of their products to magazine and news readers. Even Nintendo faced intense scrutiny in a New York Times article in 1988, titled “America’s latest toy craze and teen-age cultural phenomenon.”
The divide between studios and media publications would only increase, as public association of the games industry to a lifestyle trend would create a long standing barrier of entry into more traditional news and media channels.
Introduction of the World Wide Web Creates a Major Shift in Independent Games Journalism
This was the era of Oregon Trail, the rise of first person shooters like Doom and Quake, of hauling oversized equipment for a Lan party, gameboy handhelds, the advent of graphics cards, Unreal Engine, and explosive boom of online connectivity.
By the 1990’s, almost every household owned at least one television, and by the early 2000’s more than half owned a personal computer. Ownership of consoles were still behind as game software remained markedly expensive for the general consumer.
The rapid shift in accessibility affected coverage across both game product markets, with broadband internet and the invention of the world wide web pushing journalistic practices further from print and into the realm of broadcast and digital. It wasn’t long before a growing number of writers also began to do their own game and console reviews without the need or desire to affiliate with either traditional magazine publishers or studios.
As more households gained access to the web, the shift to online publication saw hundreds of independent video game and fan websites pop up, covering everything from FAQs to strategy guides, game reviews, release updates, fan content, and opinion pieces.
GameSpot Website in 2001 | Source: Web Design Museum Archive
It became a more common expectation that independent news from third party sites would show a more in-depth understanding of industry trends and games within an ever expanding range of genres, from strategy games like Worms (1995) to the action RPG Diablo (1996) and MMOGs like Ultima Online (1997) and Lineage (1998).
Independent video game journalism and coverage exploded, although the quality of journalistic quality would remain inconsistent as a result of the more open (or in some instances lack of) editorial guidelines and review standards, as well as the diverse, strongly held opinions of each writer.
This independent approach to journalism filled a vacuum in editorial coverage, leading to the growth of nonprofit websites relying on the loyalty and support of their readers to stay operational. Gamers and aspiring video game journalists alike flocked to open sites to submit their own personal views, freely engaging in discussions and reporting on the happenings within the industry.
Video game journalism also expanded with the rise of for-profit outlets like IGN, CNET’s Gamecenter, and Game Informer Online, and eCommerce game sellers like EB Games and GameStop.
And as many are aware, it wouldn’t stop there. Adoption of the internet continued to accelerate into what it is today at breakneck speed–and along with it the global expansion of the video game industry.
The Rise of Multi-media Journalism Helps Unveil a Rapidly Expanding Industry
Up until 2010, the games market remained relatively on the media sidelines while being wholly embraced by geekdom. And yet, major milestones within the industry were becoming increasingly difficult to ignore.
Video Game Statistics 2010 | Source: Omer Saleem, WCCFTech
The Xbox, PlayStation, and Wii console wars were now in full swing, while the success of the Nintendo DS and Sony PSP brought more attention to online gameplay expanding within the portable gaming market.
At the same time, video streaming was shaking up how people accessed information with the launch of Youtube and Justin.tv (which would later spin off into Twitch).
Game publications were faced with issues of relevance, as players were eager to watch real-time gameplay footage over marketed advertising and more sophisticated launch trailers.
There were now more ways for people to play, more people playing as the gaming demographic widened with each generation, and greater visibility into the world of gaming as social media channels like Facebook and Twitter took off.
It wasn’t long before publications felt the squeeze of consumers shifting to the newest forms of digital media.
Decline of U.S. Physical Media: 2002-2020 | Source: Adam Grundy, United States Census Bureau
By the time smartphones and app stores hit the market in 2007, games (and their journalistic coverage) saw a series of evolutionary phases as they pushed to the forefront of mainstream recognition. The impact of this increased exposure was evident in how mainstream media responded to the growing overlap between what was considered hard news worthy of quality coverage and what was simply topics focused on entertainment.
Debates were aggressive and fierce on the social implications of gaming, with publications like the Fast Company and Bloomberg highlighting arguments from the industry’s critics.
In a similar vein, their criticisms seem to mirror the challenges faced within journalism in accepting video games as an inherent part of the world’s cultural structure and therefore worthy of public discourse. Games were no longer “just for the kids.”
Unreliability and Monetization Breed Community Mistrust in Journalistic Integrity
One could easily argue that with its global entry into mainstream culture, game coverage should have become more integrated than ever before with hard news channels–especially as more journalists and critics have begun highlighting the real socio-political implications of decisions made by studios at all levels as the industry grew in global popularity.
This is still far from true as gaming continues to struggle in gaining journalistic exposure after years of being seen as pure entertainment for the younger demographics within the US. This is even with evidence of the game industry’s impact on a visibly diverse player base across topics such as DEI, economic impact, monetization practices, mental health and employee rights.
In a journalism study conducted in 2019, it was argued that gaming journalism had a continued association with “a lower, marginal form of journalism based on perceived differences in professional values and journalistic savviness.”
However, the reality is that early sales and marketing tactics, a history of undelivered player experience, unregulated news reporting tactics, and discovery of major breaches of ethics across known video game sites strongly contributed to the struggle for validity across online and traditional games media channels.
For all appearances, games journalism as an editorial vertical hadn’t yet achieved the recognition or maturity it needed for long term sustainability.
This came to head with the rise of social media and podcasting, as independent content creators became an influential force in holding the media and studios accountable to meeting higher standards of quality. This contributed to the increased mistrust and questionability of accuracy and authenticity to what is now seen as “bought” game reviews.
One of the biggest differences between independent creators and those in more traditional journalistic practices is the rigorous investigative elements and fact checking that happens to make sure information is as accurate as possible. There is a focus on uncovering truths, on revealing a deeper analysis on topics relating to people and events, and takes an almost academic approach arguing for or against a specific angle.
This differentiation in some ways worked against game journalists, as the field became congested with content from not simply games subject matter experts, part time writers, and more human-centric creators who produced game content purely for entertainment.
In the past, many publications reviewing a game did not disclose their partnership agreements and the advertising revenue they received from the game’s publishers. Thus, demands for further separation between marketing and advertising practices continue to grow as gamers want to ensure conflicts of interest did not exist between a media outlet and the games they covered.
The continued questionability of a writer’s journalistic further devalued the medium, resulting in even the carrying of a game press pass meaning very little as the vertical became inflated with individuals who cared more for likes, clicks and views in contrast to honest coverage for the benefit of everyone.
Seeing the growth of an industry with high-spending potential, opportunists with no true expertise or knowledge in gaming flooded the field with clickbait articles and jumped on the hot button topics while caring little for quality control or impact to the player market.
GamerGate raised additional questions about the integrity of gaming journalists across a variety of media outlets, challenging the ethics in gaming journalism with stories of harmful and exploitative reporting. This forced journalists to as journalists had to tackle the important issues that were flagged throughout the controversy.
Ultimately, the massive explosion of coverage forced more outlets to finally acknowledge game journalists as news spread into mainstream media.
At the same time, studios and software companies have grown wary of collaborating with gaming news outlets. It’s become a common rule for publishers and game developers to never speak to the press. The impact of leaks and proven risk of associating with game journalists leading up to a major game launch remains problematic to the entire industry and to the ability for good writers to be taken seriously.
Still, for the past decade game-focused publications continue trying to claim the prestige of a traditional media organization. An example of this can be seen in website media disclaimers, which shows an attempt to rebuild trust within the marketplace.
There remains a strong desire to level up the way game journalists cover the industry in order to gain the assumed credibility carried by traditional news channels. Yet, the round robin divide between traditional media, games journalists, players, publishers and developers remains.
Where Does Video Game Journalism Go From Here?
Journalism as a craft has continue to evolve across generations, with game journalism challenging mainstream perceptions and stereotypes of the industry. From game reviews and publisher updates to promoting social causes like Extra Life, themes for gaming have long outgrown their portrayal in the media.
Now it really is about investing in a bringing awareness of what is now a globally connected community, in part due to the studios and industry leader commitments to tech innovation and player immersion.
Game engines from publishers like Epic Games and Unity are now being leverage for more simulation-focused environments. Just a few months back, Epic Games revealed Lockheed Martin using unreal engine for their next generation of aerospace simulation.
And it doesn’t stop there. Unity’s latest deal with the US Army supports efforts in 3D simulation and advancements to military system designs, even as the military continues to use gaming technology to build better cognitive and virtual combat simulation environments for training across various branches.
The benefits of gaming in this sector was even brought into building of soldier morale with the growth of military esports programs and the metaverse.
The education system is also another heavily impacted sector as school-age children adopt greater use of technology within the classrooms and at home.
This has led to the introduction of new education methods such as “gameschooling”, as well as increased gameplay learning integrations with online games like Prodigy, a gaming platform that helps students master complex problems while playing as wizards solve challenges and puzzles in the form of math battles.
Prodigy Math In-Game Battle | Source: Prodigy Education
Even the massive week-by-week success among gamers and non-gamers alike of HBO’s “The Last Of Us” adaptation based off Naughty Dog’s popular video game IP revealed the power of intersectionality between real science, fiction, gaming, and entertainment.
Whether top media moguls accept it or not, these use cases are clear indications that gaming and its technologies are more intertwined with modern living than ever before–and only growing larger by each generation.
A Massive Multi-Media Vertical Full of Opportunity
A Statista study published by internet and gaming research lead J. Clement earlier this year estimated that the global gaming market will amount to 268.8 billion U.S. dollars annually in 2025. North America itself is set to remain the top-grossing gaming market worldwide.
Long-standing media and entertainment outlets need to be willing to challenge their perceptions of the industry, which also means re-evaluating existing for-profit marketing practices to further encourage quality reporting. This includes existing subscription-based paywall models and advertising trends that the gaming audience is more likely to mistrust until loyalty has been earned.
Traditional media outlets, and a number of larger game media sites, continue to struggle with attracting and retaining the attention of gamers. The same gamers who have built their own multi-layer networks of reporting across their favorite social feeds, forums, content personalities, web forums, discord chat threads, and an endless array of easy-to-access media sources.
In what I can only describe as pure irony, in a separate 2022 Washington Post piece speaking to concerns about the Post’s own struggling business strategy, its top editor Sally Buzbee shared that, “There’s no question that we need to diversify what people come to us for,” noting that it was Washington’s Posts’ “whole strategy.”
However, diversification means a shift in existing journalistic practices, as different audiences consume and access information in different ways. This can be seen through the evolution of journalism within the games industry since its early beginnings.
It also means investing in subject matter experts familiar with key topics and understanding the channels being consumed by their chosen audience segment.
In her 2022 piece bashing New York Times for their game coverage of Elden Ring’s smashing success, writer Jen Glennon shares:
“This was never a niche endeavor or happy accident. Elden Ring could have gotten middling reviews and still sold a bazillion copies […] Instead, Elden Ring exceeded sky-high critical expectations and sold more than 12 million copies in just 17 days after its February launch.
What’s more, Elden Ring has accomplished a very rare feat that only a few games (usually ones made by Nintendo) ever manage. It crossed over — appealing to “normal people” in “mainstream culture.” Everyone’s talking about it! The people can’t get enough!
This is why The New York Times found itself reluctantly obliged to cover 2022’s biggest game, six whole weeks after it came out. And yet, The Gray Lady (as the Times is sometimes called) has a palpable distaste for this shit. This is evident in the article’s elderly compulsion to define what a “boss” is, even though the term has been widely used throughout popular culture since Mario first started bopping turtles with his butt in the mid-1980s.”
Access to high quality content remains critical in maintaining community faith in the integrity of media outlets across both political, business, and cultural channels. Even traditional media have been witnessing their own journalistic integrity issues as they continue to be called out for stereotypes and broad generalizations.
High quality coverage is already difficult to come by due to lack of access and willingness of gamers and publishers alike to engage in open dialogue with journalists. This is also not helped by the decision of top media outlets to cut much needed investments into perceived “soft” spaces.
Along a similar vein, younger outlets more in tune with the wants and needs of gamers must evaluate the cost of ad-free journalism sought by an audience unwilling to pay for content that serves no value or purpose.
These challenges appear to reinforce the continuing perception that game journalism isn’t worth investing in and continues to slowly exhaust itself. But this has been proven false in the sense that game culture has successfully touched multiple facets in our culture. Once value has been proven, the lengths in which gamers and fans invest both time and money shift to the opposite side of the spectrum.
Gaming as an industry continues to expand at a rapid pace, reflecting changes in the mainstream market at rates faster than any other. The still maturing interest in the metaverse, crypto gaming, and VR will only continue to expand, as online gaming continues to dominate the market across desktop, mobile, and console platforms.
Gaming’s direct intersectionality across global channels and ability to reflect the desires and wants across multiple generations means there is an even greater importance for a more unified journalistic experience across the entire editorial ecosystem.
What can be done moving forward?
- Traditional news outlets that look to add scale and value, whether through acquisition or in-house investments, must acknowledge the existence of journalistic biases that exist when shaping their content and see the industry for the value it holds in the current marketplace. There is a need for greater education and awareness of the gaming audience, as it breaks many demand generation tactics that news outlets have long since needed to rework and redefine for how they determine their ROI (return on investment).
- Gaps left by larger publishers are opportunities for more indie studios and gamer-centric businesses to step in with their niche experiences and better understanding of their game audiences. However, independent content creators need to continue building a quality-driven gaming content pipeline and stronger connections based on honesty and integrity with press outlets and publishers alike.
- Verticalized media publications and outlets need to strengthen gaming sections and be willing to explore difficult topics, not simply for trends and clicks–but to create value and uncover truths that have impacts on the way we view our modern, tech filled world. They must also closely monitor the influence of marketing and advertising on games coverage for the sole sake of hitting user KPIs (key performance indicator).
- Publishers and players need to be willing to support and invest in game journalists and publications. This can be done through social engagement and sharing, networking, or even being willing to allow personal or studio-related commentary to be included in a piece or shared. Greater connectivity and trust reinforces positive change in market perception, as well as being open to accountability.
With the undeniable expansion of the games industry, it is more important than ever for all parties to work together in building better avenues for players to openly access thorough, thought provoking content regarding topics and games they care about.
In the end, it comes down to us, the game writers of today, to reconnect the broken lines of communication and mistrust, to learn from past mistakes and pave the way for the future of video game journalism in today’s hyper-connected environments. We must build good faith connections with directors or developers with transparency and authenticity at the forefront, further opening the door to more exciting, unique, and interesting stories.
As publishing studios and software companies focus on delivering on their promises in creating better gaming experiences that positively impact the way we live in this world, so should we continue to highlight, share, and honestly challenge important topics in the industry for the sake of our readers-who are ultimately the ones we are all trying to create space for.
So, do the decisions made by traditional media to cut investments in game coverage mean a slow unraveling into obscurity of the colorful tapestry that is game journalism?
My personal answer is no.
So long as there are gaming reporters, journalists, content creators, publications, and studios that commit to delivering more authentic game-related experiences that people want, game journalism can never truly die.
It simply evolves.
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Sources: CNN, New York Times, Amir Satvat, Digiday, New York Times 2, New Media and Society, Unreal Engine, Unity, US Department of Defense, Prodigy Game, Statista, New York Times 3, Inverse, DG_OTAMICA
One thought on “Is the Sunset of More Gaming Media Outlets the Death Knell of High Quality Journalism in Gaming?”
Fantastic piece. Thank you for writing this!