Archive for the ‘ Journalism ’ Category

Should Game Journalists Be Good At Games?

In the last week or two, the debate has once again flared up on Twitter and various sites over whether or not games journalists should be good at games. The source of the new dust up of discussion stems from Dean Takahashi’s article at Venturebeat ‘Cuphead hands-on: My 26 minutes of shame with an old-time cartoon game.’

Takahashi starts his piece by acknowledging he sucks at Cuphead, but he immediately offers a defense: “the run-and-gun platformer from Studio MDHR and Microsoft is difficult.”

That would be a fair defense if not for the 26 minute video that shows Dean’s inability to overcome a jump in a tutorial and then his repeated deaths on the first level, even the first encounter with enemies in the first level to some degree.

Takahashi goes on to say “While my performance on the captured video below is quite shameful, as I never finished the level, I think it shows quite well why Cuphead is fun and why making hard games that depend on skill is like a lost art.”

I agree with the statement and it’s a reasonable one to make that could warrant some interesting discussion, but it doesn’t resonate with gamers when you don’t get through the first grouping of enemies in the first level. Takahashi didn’t finish the first level… he barely even started it. Yes, Cuphead looks fun and making hard games that depend on skill is rarer now than the late 80s and 90s, but the video doesn’t really give gamers a reason to believe Cuphead is an example of a throw back to those style of games.

I give Mr. Takahashi a little leeway, unlike many lambasting him on social media who seem to have watched the video and never read the article. He notes he didn’t realize you can’t jump on enemies like Mario games. If a gamer comes at this with a platformer mentality, that’s fair. This isn’t a platformer, it’s a run and gun more akin to Contra.

My issue is that the video also shows a lack of learning from those mistakes. You should only die a couple of times jumping or running into enemies before you realize that should be avoided. Takahashi also notes “I think you’ll all agree that at the very end of the video, it was very unfair that I died by jumping into the forest canopy.”

No, Mr. Takahashi, I don’t agree. You didn’t jump into a forest canopy, you jumped into an enemy that we can see descending from that place just before. The final death just happened to jump into that enemy before it descended into sight from the leaves. The fact that a games reporter doesn’t realize this, even after reviewing their own video, is disappointing.

I am not without sympathy

However, I’ll give Dean some credit. He roasts himself in his own article. He talks about his shame. He invites us to laugh at his poor gameplay video. I think he goes wrong trying to justify it with the reasons I’ve mentioned above instead of continuing to roast himself and keep encouraging the laughs.

There are also plenty of reasons that could better explain, but not try to excuse or dismiss, the poor performance. Dean Takahashi has been in the tech and games journalism industry for 25 years. Assuming he started fresh out of high school at 18, that would put him in his early 40s.

Hard truth, gamers: we’re not immortal and the one boss we can’t defeat is time. We age. Our reflexes will slow down. I see it on forums all the time as gamers in their 30s and 40s feel they no longer have the motivation and reflexes for twitch gaming, hard mode difficulty, or hardest level raiding in MMOs. Many note their reflexes and reaction times have decreased.

Now compound this with the possibility of action platformers and run and gun not being your favored game genre since childhood and it starts adding up to a more sympathetic picture. Add to it that he was apparently trying to hold a bit of an interview with the developer at the same time and things continue to add up to contribute to poor gameplay. Dean didn’t address any of this, but if all of these factors hold true, he should have. It would have added a touch more sympathy to the painful presentation and could have painted an increasingly hilarious picture.

Now, I’m not entirely excusing Dean. Others have noted he gave Mass Effect a poor score when he didn’t realize he could assign stats and points to basically level up in the game, so there’s some history of being bad at games here. I’m not telling anyone to give Mr. Takahashi a free pass, but 2 incidents shouldn’t be a career execution.

Nice advice, but shouldn’t journalists be good at games?

Short answer: No.

Medium answer: Not necessarily good, but competent.

Nuanced answer: If they’re reviewing games, they should be competent to play them, but not all game journalists are reviewers and thus not all game journalists need to be good at video games. Some just need to be good at journalism. (Though, yes, I’m aware of the Super Meat Boy error).

Maybe Dean Takahashi really is bad at playing video games, but still loves playing video games. I would say this just means he shouldn’t review gameplay, not that he can’t be a good games journalist.

Takahashi notes in his article on 9/8/17 “The DeanBeat: Our Cuphead runneth over” he writes around 30 stories a week, or around 1560 articles per year, but only a dozen or so game reviews per year. So Takahashi is, by admission, more of an industry games journalist, not a gameplay/game review journalist.

That’s perfectly reasonable, and gamers should actually want people like this in the industry. They’re the ones likely to bring us stories about developer profiles, company rumors, analysis of what various industry circumstances could mean (like the ongoing Ubisoft battle to fend off Vivendi) that don’t require being good at games, or even competent at them, or even understanding game design concepts.

That doesn’t mean Takahashi, or journalists like him, should never touch a controller at a convention like Gamescom, either. I still found value in his shameful gameplay article noting the 1936 Japanese propaganda film inspiration for the game. If a journalist is bad at a game, but can offer more bits of info like this from developers during their 30 minutes at a convention preview, I can find value there.

While those journalists are doing a few previews at a show, but mostly writing stories about industry events, people in the industry, and potential impact of industry changes, or even technical facts about hardware, other writers who make it their focus to play and review games can simply do that (and hopefully also go to the conventions and shows for previews as well).  People like Takahashi enjoy talking to people. Others like playing video games. So why send someone who loves playing and reviewing games out to talk to people if they don’t enjoy doing so?

Why ask a tank to heal and a healer to tank? Different classes can have different specializations and there’s no reason journalists can’t, or shouldn’t, do the same.

Is there a place for bad gamers in games journalism?

 

People have said Dean Takahashi is incompetent at games, that’s he’s not even at a basic level. He’s bad at games.

(Mr. Takahashi, if you’re reading this, full disclosure, I had a good chuckle at the Cuphead Tutorial vs. Pigeon Problem Solving comparison. I won’t apologize for that chuckle and as much as you’re buried in hateful criticism, I’d hope you can get some self deprecating amusement as well. That said, you write better than the pigeon, so don’t feel like the Internet has entirely gone to the birds. You could fully embrace that and ponder a “Dean & The Pigeon Review Team” as a bit)

I’d go so far as to say that journalists like Takahashi could be beneficial to the industry in ways that core gamers are overlooking. Nintendo loves to attract the demographic of “general consumer” more than core gamer. It’s been explosive for them with the Wii and even the DS and 3DS to some extent. Mobile games are huge with general consumers rather than core gamers. MMOs have long been bastions for wide range of demographics, particularly skewing older than core gaming traditionally has. Square Enix has Father of Light (Dad of Light in the US) on Netflix right now about a son reconnecting with his 60 year old father through Final Fantasy XIV.

A journalist who isn’t a core gamer could possibly offer insight to parents who didn’t grow up gaming and are curious about trying it. As in Father of Light, retirees have time on their hands and with gaming an ever growing phenomenon across all age groups, why shouldn’t people who have never picked up a game be allowed to do so? Why couldn’t they have some articles aimed more towards them than we core gamers?

I’m not saying Dean Takahashi, or journalists who have shown similar “fails” with their gameplay, are all equivalents to 60 year old retirees who have never played a video game, but I am saying that the journalists who do more industry coverage and less gaming might have a voice those similar not-yet-gamers may find useful. Possibly even to the point of a whole new, if small, division of games coverage.

So, yeah, much to my surprise and complete opposite of my first instinctive response, bad gamer journalists may actually have a place in the industry. I think the key is to go a step further with, and now we get sticky, disclosure of that fact.

AAAAARRRRGH GERBLURGAAAATE!

I’m just throwing it out there because others are already doing so and it’s going to get brought up anyway. Yeah, yeah, GamerGate, “actually, it’s about ethics in game journalism,” etc., etc. Get it out of your system. This isn’t really about that, but tangentially it is about a layer of disclosure.

This entire dust up started with “I suck at Cuphead.” I’ll reiterate, I think the mistake was the follow up “but in my defense” statement, which I think Takahashi agrees with per his later article.

If a journalist isn’t a core gamer, doesn’t get to spend much time gaming, and is more of an industry journalist, that’s fine. Just say so up front. Just comment your time is spent writing about things and people in the industry more than the games and gameplay, but you did have the chance to go hands on at a press event, convention, or whatever.

Write it from the perspective of someone who doesn’t get to pick up a controller often. Write with the clarity that the game isn’t for people who aren’t really gamers. It’s not an entry level game. If someone who’s been in the industry reporting on games for years finds themselves screwing up this much, someone who’s never played a game might want to find something else to start with. Find an angle that uses your weakness as a foundation and a strength. Make it clear you’re not really “among” core gamers at this point and this article really isn’t written for them as they won’t benefit from it as much.

Absolutely some will still call for your job, but you’ll find a lot of gamers surprisingly reasonable when they’re just told up front the article probably won’t help them along with some insight as to why.

And if you played poorly and you know you played poorly, but you want the readers to join in and laugh, don’t make excuses. Own that comedy of errors to the fullest extent and roast yourself thoroughly in the article. The readers are going to, you might as well fire up the grill and get the cookout started yourself.

The Unanswered Question at #SPJAirplay’s #GamerGate Panel

Like many other gamers, I was watching the Airplay panel on #GamerGate at the SPJ convention in Miami, FL yesterday. While you’re sure to see articles about the event and the debate, as well as the results of a bomb threat forcing the venue and surrounding neighborhood to evacuate, I wanted to talk about what wasn’t actually discussed as a result of that evacuation.

The moderator, Michael Koretzky, wanted the afternoon panel to discuss how journalists should approach hashtag groups in the future, not specific to #GamerGate, and was adamant about not bringing up past mistakes and past issues. He repeatedly stated he, and the journalistic ethics representatives Lynn Walsh & Ren LaForme, weren’t originally there and didn’t know who did what in the past and thus wanted to hear nothing of it. Breitbart’s Milo Yiannopooulos questioned how to advise what to do going forward if past mistakes couldn’t be cited.

I don’t think it’s difficult, but it is best approached by redefining Koretzky’s question, which is what I wanted to do here, as well as answer it using the broad beginnings of GamerGate as the example:

If GamerGate had only started within the past week, how do gamers feel journalists should approach the situation to present a fair story?

My answer:

Examine what’s happened to start. Assuming we’re in the first week of stirrings, there’s been a post from a jilted lover claiming their ex, a game developer, was emotionally and psychologically abusive as well as involved in repeated infidelities within their relationship. One name specifically mentioned is a game journalist, though no accusations of conflict of interest or quid pro quo relationship has been mentioned in this post. Nonetheless, conversation has started in community forums and social media regarding perceived conflicts of interest and moderators have responded with very heavy hands to silence any discussion of the accusations to any degree.

If your publication is involved with anyone named in the post, the first and immediate thing to do is to talk to those named and understand specifics. Was there any positive coverage or mention of this person in your work and what was your relationship at the time? Is there any actual or potentially perceived conflict of interest? If so, update the articles with disclosures immediately and place those updates prominently at the top of the article.

Second, release a statement acknowledging the accusations and informing your readers that not only is that specific incident being evaluated, but your group is evaluating their ethics policies regarding conflicts of interests and disclosures as a whole. Update this if necessary, expanding to other topics that may have grown since its last revision, such as the arrival of platforms like Kickstarter or Patreon.

Third, if your site hosts forums, allow for discussion under heavy, but reasonable, moderation. Personal attacks, release of private information, or unhealthy comments are not acceptable, but in silencing all questions or discussion, moderators only add to the perception that there’s something more going on. Moderators should have a responsibility to help guide discussion in the right direction. In the case of the post that sparked GamerGate, the discussion should have been directed not at the game developer, but at the journalist, the publication(s), their policies, and if those policies lacked in ways that would allow, or already had allowed, other misconduct.

If you’re just a journalist wanting to cover a story about an online hashtag and weren’t involved in the situation to begin with, Milo said “just do the work.” Simple, yet also complicated in a leaderless, largely anonymous, online group. As a group of people only united by a hashtag to say “I agree there’s an issue here,” the question of who to talk to is obvious, but I don’t believe it can’t be answered.

So what would a journalist need to do? Again, we’re assuming the controversy is in its infancy here.

  1. Follow the hashtag for a day or two and identify two things.
    1. Who is well spoken and commenting on it favorably?
    2. Who is well spoken and commenting on it unfavorably?
  2. Contact a number of these people and ask if they’d be willing to be interviewed. As discussed at AirPlay, explain the difference between complete online anonymity vs journalistic anonymity where their full real name won’t be used in the article, but the journalist and their editor need to know who they are. I believe people will be willing to talk.
  3. Listen to both sides, take their statements and comments, then follow up on those by verifying them as much as possible. Find chat logs or online records such as Twitter history, archived pages, etc. to support claims. Basically, “trust, but verify.”
  4. Present both sides of the story. With GamerGate, it would have been: detail why one side believes the outrage is an attack against an indie dev for being a woman developing non-traditional games and the other side believes there is justifiable concern over impropriety and conflicts of interest in the publications they rely on to give them information on where to spend their money.
  5. COMB OVER DETAILS.
  6. When presenting the story, make it clear these are individuals who support the concept of the hashtag as they personally relate to it, but that they don’t claim to speak for the group as a whole.

I honestly believe in its infancy, it was this simple. Now, a year later, there may be more nuance and complications, but I wouldn’t change much. The only main addition I would advise journalists today, as the 1 year anniversary approaches, would be slight alterations/additions:

  1. Follow the hashtag and see which prominent online figures are cited. If the opposition to a position is citing someone as a prominent figure, it’s worth contacting that figure whether they are legitimately involved or not.
  2. Lurk on forums like Reddit and see where the users are listening for information, then talk to that source. Again, this may largely be YouTube channels.
  3. Contact people for interviews, as before.
  4. Be prepared to do multiple stories on the topic. There will be plenty of material.
  5. Again, COMB OVER DETAILS.
  6. When presenting the story, make it clear these are individuals who support the concept of the hashtag as they personally relate to it, but that they don’t claim to speak for the group as a whole.

I emphasize number 6 because I think it’s crucial to covering online groups associated with one another only through social media hashtags. With enough interviews, though, I think it is possible to identify common themes and present both sides of a story, even with sources who can be paranoid about their anonymity.

So basically, that’s what I think should be done not specifically to cover #GamerGate, but to start laying the groundwork for future stories with hashtag groups, which will likely only grow as our reliance on social media to communicate continues as well. This is simply my opinion based on nothing more than my thoughts. I don’t have experience in journalism beyond a single community college class years ago and don’t claim to be an expert, but I think it’s something that will grow more important in the years to come.

To paraphrase Oliver Campbell, journalism is essentially about communication. The people aren’t going to tell journalists how to do their jobs, but journalists are going to have to adapt to evolving methods of communication among people to pursue their stories.