Gaming journalism is a complex beast. A paradox. Access is something most journalism needs, but to gaming outlets, it’s absolutely critical.

Gaming journalism is, by some accounts, a broken field. By others, its unjournalistic process is a symptom of reporting online, where advertising revenue is minimal, at least when compared to revenue from newspapers or magazines. And that isn’t just exclusive to gaming journalism — most outlets, both online and in print, face an uncertain future under the weight of a change in the way we absorb news and opinion. (The change is evident when you account for how many sites have recently undergone a design to accommodate tablets better. USgamer, Kotaku and Polygon among others.)

Destructoid highlighted one of the primary issues in March when its founder, Niero Gonzalez, wrote a piece detailing the site’s rampant problem with ad blocking software. Writing for a nerd savvy audience, he posited that half of Destructoid‘s readership blocks ads, eliminating half of the revenue stream. For game writers the salaries are already bad, with not much room to improve, but to get paid for half an audience is part of the business. It’s trying to survive in an online world.

That’s why gaming press seems like a corrupt industry, when it should be incorruptible. Corporate apologetics, publisher-granted exclusive reviews, mostly non-hard-hitting, superfluous bits to appease the companies. All of this is how modern journalism operates. (As an experiment, check notable outlets or magazines and look for the term “sponsored content”. More sites do it than you’d think.) But when the revenue stream is one-tenth of historical norms, journalists must find ways to continue writing, and that sometimes involves looking for sponsors. It’s not optimal, it’s not prestigious, it goes everything I learned in journalism school, but hey, money rules the world.

Exclusive reviews are a rarity these days. Though, when IGN scored BioShock Infinite‘s first review four days before competing outlets, it exhibited again how gaming journalists appear to be in bed with publishers. And of course, publishers will use the publicity to their advantage because free marketing helps sell a game. It’s a win-win-lose situation: IGN makes a boatload, 2K gets advertising through scandal, and sites like Destructoid are left to voice their displeasure on social media.

This problem is especially bad given how “journalism” is often used as a stepping stone to other opportunities. Most people looking to gain entry into gaming go the route of gaming journalism, only to find themselves catapulting to PR positions. Again, it’s a matter of necessity because salaries are notoriously low. Want to start a family? Try doing that on $25000 a year. But writing about anything in the modern age is more of a passion project, or should be, especially because the chance to leapfrog to an editorial position or higher is low as well.

For outlets, too, the constant threat of blacklisting from events exist, for the journalistic responsibility of reporting the news. In early 2012, Activision blacklisted a french gaming blog after it reported that Black Ops would get a sequel. That launched a semi-serious debate over journalist ethics in reporting, and if a business relationship with Activision overshadowed covering the story. The publisher relented later in a quote to Kotaku, who had put up a scathing interview with Gameblog.fr’s founder. (Give it a read.)

Access to games and prominent figures is paramount if gaming journalism should continue to exist. Because, as a readership, we’ve dictated that reviews and interviews are the most buzzworthy articles, therefore creating an interesting paradox. We demand better journalism, but the readership is also a source of the problem. Not the only source though, as the many improper things done by the journalists themselves are inexcusable. But that’s another post.

I hate using the term “necessary evil”, but nothing applies more perfectly.

What do you think of the problem? And do you even care, or is this so institutionalized that it doesn’t bother you?

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  • http://www.digitallydownloaded.net/ Matt S

    I have had a ‘donate’ button on my website for over a year. I’m a 15-year games journalist who has worked with the likes of Official Playstation Magazine, PC World and GamePro in my career.

    You might not agree with everything I write, but from an ethics and standards point of view, my work is impeccable. Digitally Downloaded is now recognised by all publishers, has been shortlisted for journalism awards despite having o full-time staff, and is only just shy of being inside of the top 100,000 websites across the entire Internet.

    I have yet to see a single donation.

    Gamers don’t want quality journalism. Gamers want utter **** that panders to their own ridiculous ideas of how things should be and what game makers should be doing in their own completely uneducated understanding on how business works. Gamers want the ending of Mass Effect 3 to be evil, they want Anita Sarkeesian to be a feminist whore only worth mockery and they want always-on consoles to be a bad thing because they say so, and they only want to read articles that agree with that point of view because they can’t possibly be wrong in those assumptions.

    But it gets worse. Gamers also think that they shouldn’t have to pay for this content because they already know all about it, and if someone disagrees with their world view, let alone has proof that they’re wrong, regardless of how well they argue it, gamers aren’t going to support that now, are they?

    The reason games journalism sucks is because of the gamers. That is the only reason games journalism sucks. The only monetary reward we get as games journalists is when we break journalistic ethics to pander to the mass of gamers that pretend to care about the quality of games journalism, but are really only looking for some random blogger that supports their world view.

    It sucks being a games journalist. It sucks because of the gamers. Not the guys making the games.

    • JeffHeilig

      Hah-ha, well that is rather dystopic view, but if anyone has been in the thick of it, you’d be the person to ask. It does suck, though, when you think about it. Over a year, I’ve only had 26 Facebook fans and 200~ twitter followers. That may be a reflection on me, but I’m not sure.

      I have considered (and have) expanded outward content-wise here, doing articles on Netflix and film reviews. I am going through the motions of transforming HG into a Grantland-style site, with long-form pieces about general entertainment. I’ll still cover games, of course, and I love writing about games, but from a web owner’s POV, writing about games alone is dragging me down.

      It is depressing.

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