Talking Point: The Challenges When Writing About Games
Posted by Thomas Whitehead
Harder than it sounds
Various members of the Nintendo Life writing team will have seen one major issue clogging up their Twitter timelines in the past 24 hours, and it revolved around questions at the forefront of what we do: writing about video games. Video game writers often debate the whole practice of what you see on this site and many others, though some noticeable and high profile scenarios combined to cause a genuine controversy that was fairly big news, amongst writers, particularly in the UK but also in North America.
It's not our intention to recount or give specific views on what's occurred, but it may be of interest to you. It began with a widely circulated image of Geoff Keighley, a prominent and well-known figure in the games industry, sitting glum faced alongside a Halo 4 banner and a table loaded with endorsed products. The source of the biggest controversy wasn't that image, but an article that was written partly in reaction to it, as well as another issue doing the rounds on the Twittersphere. Rob Florence, a regular writer on Eurogamer.net, wrote an article raising a number of issues that surround commercial video game writing, though events then progressed quickly and ended with him leaving the website. If you want a full summary of these events, we recommend this article on Forbes.com.
It represents a rather tough reality at the heart of video games journalism or writing, whatever you want to call it. Plenty of websites, including Nintendo Life, provide coverage of games and profess to tackle issues of the industry and game reviews in a critical, fair way, all while relying on advertising money and access from the industry they cover. In addition, gaming websites and their writers have to balance between giving their audience content they want, without pandering to expectations and avoiding blunt opinions that need to be shared: game sites arguably have the most committed and supportive readers, but also a readership not shy of vocalising demands or slamming a review score that isn't as expected.
To tackle one example of impartiality versus advertising directly, this website has been adorned with an extensive advert for Professor Layton and the Miracle Mask for a number of days, and our review awarded the title 9/10. It's a good example, as the review was written before the advert appeared and without knowledge that it was even in the works. Even if the advert was evident as the review was being written, the demand is that our writers do not allow this to influence their review writing process. It's an example of our advertising policy in action.
Of course, it's all about whether you believe the publisher. At the centre of every website and its readership, surely, is trust. We say that we take this approach, and we do, but it's up to individuals to decide whether they believe that to be the case. It's entirely possible that someone will read our review, look at the advertising and say that the review has been "bought", or that the text was influenced by a reliance on advertising money. Some will wonder about the relationship between writers, PR agencies and publishers.
We're not exempt from these suspicions due to the advertising that we run, even if that advertising is needed for server hosting, game/hardware purchases, travel costs when visiting developers/trade shows, and so on. This is an industry where journalists and writers receive advance, free review copies of games, as well as invitations to press events, hands-on sessions, and more benefits directly from developers and publishers; they then write about those games. Many sites including this one ensure that writing maintains a critical distance and looks at games and more without inappropriate favour, but once again there's a perception that writers may speak favourably about a game because they enjoyed an event with some free food and drinks. Ultimately, work should be judged on the content produced.
As suggested earlier, there's also the challenge of giving readers the content they want to see. While posting a preview trailer for an upcoming game, for example, may be seen as providing free marketing, it's also footage that we all, as gamers, want to see. Gaming is our hobby and passion. In the case of Nintendo Life we want to share that enthusiasm and excitement with you, while also striving for a balanced view, while also running adverts for major releases on Nintendo systems; it's all one big balancing act.
These challenges aren't even unique to websites, as print magazines in gaming and other entertainment industries also have the same considerations. Nintendo Power is one infamous example, as in its early days it was actually published by Nintendo, while even today print magazines often include full page adverts for major games. It can't be escaped, as money is needed to bring magazines and websites to their readers.
The explosion of debate in recent days, prompting extensive musings on these issues and others, has once again led to video game writers at all levels, from the biggest websites to the smallest blogs, to debate the values, strengths and weaknesses of video game journalism. For our part, we'll continue to strive to deliver a brand of enthusiastic Nintendo coverage, editorial content that questions and challenges all things Nintendo, and reviews that represent nothing but the considered opinion of the reviewer.
Do you feel that advertising, freebies, launch parties and the relationship between game publications and the gaming industry often affects their content, or do you generally trust game writers to maintain impartiality? Let us know what you think in the comments below.