In his novel “1984”, novelist George Orwell envisioned a future in which society has come under the control of powerful government-constructed propaganda, noting “”He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.” While generations have used Orwell’s chilling allegorical tale as reason to fear the loss of truth in state-sponsored media, what if the coming of the fabled Big Brother is already here, and he is us?
In this edition of Popzara’s Ping/Pong, blowhard editors Mr. Universal and John Lucas examine the fascinating world of internet journalism, paying special attention to the rise of technology and gaming reporting and their growing influence. As always, we encourage your feedback and corrections on a topic that’s seldom discussed, yet ever-present.
The Media (Blame) Game
For anyone who’s ever grown up with dreams of being a professional writer, the internet has changed everything. It’s also true that immediacy is the name of the game, as millions of people who might have otherwise been shunned by the mainstream could now express themselves at the speed of broadband. While there’s little doubt the medium has forever changed how we communicate and share information, this freedom may have come with a price tag no government bailout could save.
It’s helped make sharing one’s opinion with the world not only easier, but fairly passive, as the tools to create and post content become slimmer and simpler, so has the tone of much of the conversation. Our world is now served in the juiciest sound bites and talking points, cleaved from their larger context and served with little (if any) regard for posterity. There will always be another headline, another rumor that proves/disproves the previous, as all signs point to a world in which only today matters and those with the most traffic wins.
I know that sounds pretty cynical, John, so I’m counting you on you to brighten things up. Is that even possible, or are we all doomed to fast-food journalism?
To me, it’s all about people’s intent with the technology. With each new technology humankind changes how they interact with each other and their environment. Think of the art of communication before the invention of the telephone and then think about how it’s changed with the introduction of cell phones. The sky used to be people’s late-night television. This is why star groupings got their names of Orion’s Belt and the Big Dipper. They’re just a juxtaposition of random stars, but bored people used their imaginations looking at the night sky for entertainment. TV came along and now people let their imaginations run wild with the stars of their favorite shows. It’s like Jim Henson’s “Rainbow Connection,” if you catch my drift.
It’s all about the intent of the people. Technology is just a tool like anything else. The invention of the hammer allowed people to construct buildings as well as assault neighbors. Knives are used by chefs and murderers alike. If people approach the internet negatively, then you will see negative results. They were calling it yellow journalism before the airplane was invented. True, the internet makes things faster, but it doesn’t have to mean there can’t be responsible journalism in this format.
Well, you’re 100% right that technology is a tool, but it’s also an enabler. Of course you could realistically say that about almost anything, but few have empowered so many and so quickly. It’s an overused term these days, but the vast majority of talkbacks, feedbacks, online polls, and user-generated ratings are positively overflowing with “schadenfreude” on full display. Leave it to the Germans to define such a perfect word that explains how some knuckleheads can find joy inflicting misery on others, but that’s precisely what it is.
With that in mind, you can begin to see the more-than-casual relationship that the majority of videogame journalism (or what passes for it) has with the rise of internet reporting. The rabid growth of the tech industry laid the framework that helped make this possible, and many of its most insular habits and quirks helped define the experience. Would-be writers would self-publish their work in the form of black & white fanzines, stuffed with the sort of spelling errors and improper grammar usage that would drive most English professors mad. Yet they held a special appeal, particularly with those who wanted information that most media was either ignoring, or didn’t quite understand. Looking back, it’s easy to see how influential these early fanzines were in imprinting their methods – and standards – as the technology allowed for wider audiences.
It would be suicidal to dismiss the industry as a whole (we’re part of it), and I’ll agree that there are responsible journalists and reporters out there, even within the gaming industry. But they are the exception, and not the rule. I think many of our peers who are easily-offended may want to turn away or stop reading at this point, because for the sake of proper reporting and respecting the audience, I think a few sacred cows are going to have to be sacrificed.
Another thing you have to remember is that the videogame industry is young. A person in their 30s or 40s is able to live in real time throughout most of the development of this pastime as a business venture. Like seeing a seedling grow into a tree. Tech like computers takes a specialized form of knowledge to understand so of course most everything that falls within this realm can lead to a narrowly-focused viewpoint. It’s what I like to call the Engineer’s Mentality. They are whiz-kids when it comes to composing and constructing the elements that make these marvels of technology run but many times that comes at the cost of seeing things from outside their tinker table vantage point. That’s your insularity right there and it comes from the nature of the beast.
The whole nature of this computer age which videogames is a part of has always struggled with this clubhouse VIP elitist mindset. Always great protest when the availability of these tools is “opened up” to a larger public. Computers were supposed to be strictly business and then some Apple guys said it should be opened up to every home. Nolan Bushnell and Ralph Baer took digital electronic gaming away from the exclusive domain of the MIT crowd to the folks at home. Remember the great protests when the World Wide Web took off and made the internet more accessible to the public? There were and are still some who want to use these tech wonders to separate themselves from most of humanity. To create their own self-contained culture which they may see as a utopia.
What we’re seeing now in gaming journalism are the descendants of earlier efforts to broaden the appeal of the pastime. The “old newcomers” became the “new elitists” holding onto the world they value. They began as superfans excited to write about any and everything in this dazzling new world then became naturally jaded as the child inside became spoiled by all the unappreciated abundance. No longer content to just play the actual games they began to look at the games (politics) behind the games. That then became their new dazzle and this is where the thirst for rumors and gossip came from. Since drama sells, they then have to maintain this type of viewership which spirals into more negativity until the original reason for starting this endeavor has long been forgotten.
But ignorance of its function is no reason for distorting its form, John. I’ve met or spoken with few in the industry who are trained (let alone care) about objective reporting, or that a game should be judged on its merits alone. In their need to dissect and explain every facet of development, they often get all the pieces but fail at putting them together. The surest sign of this would be the Wikipedia Phenomenon, in which everyone is encouraged to contribute to the greater goal of a universal database of education. While I do love the Wiki, its methods help encourage consensus rather than individualism. Its knowledge sold as democracy, but often controlled by aristocracy.
Read any five gaming blogs and you’ll find yourself experiencing major déjà vu, as the single-minded hive mentality drives the bulk of what passes for personal opinion. The same top news stories are recycled (often verbatim), the same titles supported, the same shunned. We see this collective conformity so often and so readily on display, it’s often mistaken as a sign of popularity. While the excessive pimping of a particular title is often harmless, as you mentioned the need for information has led to the people involved in their creation to go under the knife of scrutiny. Failing that, those who dare comment on the industry become fair game.
A great example of this would be the attack on our reputation after an interview we conducted with (the) attorney Jack Thompson. I’m sure you’ll remember that immediately following its posting, we were lambasted and ridiculed by a popular industry lobbying organization ECA (by way of their online publication GamePolitics.com) for not towing the line and “challenging” Thompson on several key issues, specifically attacks on several industry blogs and websites. Sensing it might be appropriate to allow them to respond (prior to publishing), I spoke with GamePolitics’ Dennis McCauley and allowed him a chance to respond to some of Thompson’s more controversial remarks. However, upon reviewing our questions in advance (per the agreement) he then continued to disparage us in private, and mock Popzara openly with ad hominem attacks that struck me as highly unprofessional.
That’s not to say that I (or by extension Popzara) agreed with Thompson, but from the start he was extremely gracious and polite, adopting his ‘vigilante persona’ only when answering questions for the actual interview. I think anyone reading the final piece will be surprised at how complimentary he actually is towards the industry, going so far to acknowledge them as a true art-form. That’s not an admission you’re likely to see on the majority of gaming websites and blogs, who are so heavily invested in maintaining the status-quo they’ve created. I remain friendly with Thompson to this day, even if I seldom agree with his methods.
This happens in the art world, the literary world, the movie world too. The same elitist snob nonsense that Caesars either thumbs up or thumbs down what “matters” and what “doesn’t matter”. Like I said, the same superfans who became warped after too much indulgence in the things they liked seek to maintain their sense of relevance by increasing these types of behaviors. It’s what they come to believe the public wants or (if they have gone too far) what they come to believe the public “needs”. Nothing more than old fashioned egomania. After awhile they buy into their own hype and believe they can influence the business they were once wowed by. They believe their publication can tilt the direction of the videogame industry on its axis with a hyped review or score of the 8.8 variety.
Unfortunately, the readers don’t necessarily dispel them of these inflated notions since they have bought into the fantasy themselves. Instead of using the publication as a source for a viewpoint to enrich a perspective, they surrender their independent thought more or less taking the words as gospel. A young industry with even younger journalists who weren’t there at or before the beginnings and you’ll find them already pre-groomed to fall in line with this mindset. A nasty evolution. I didn’t agree with Jack Thompson either to say the least, but I would still give him the opportunity to present his side of the story to stand on its own merits.
It’s easy and maybe fun to demonize and make the “good guys/bad guys rah rah” dichotomy, but it doesn’t allow for proper revelation or discussion of the matters at hand. I stood and still stand puzzled at why Uwe Boll is so bad and why I should hate what he does. I don’t even know who the guy is and if he makes bad videogame movies, he wouldn’t be the first. I never jumped on that bandwagon because I don’t follow consensus for consensus’ sake. People really need to question whether their viewpoints on a subject are really their own, or perhaps something they heard somebody else say taking it as unvarnished truth and left unchallenged.
The hive mentality owes a lot to this, and I’m glad you mentioned the good “Doctor” Uwe Boll, because I wanted to bring him up. He may be an awful director, but a large part of that is integral to his appeal – he’s this generation’s Ed Wood, having made his reputation making bad videogame movies. But for whatever reason he’s encouraged this reputation, carefully cultivating a celebrity status that’s not too far from the Paris Hiltons and Kim Kardashians of the entertainment world. These bottom-feeders have learned how to exploit the base instincts of mediocre reporting and generate interest by taking full advantage and using the media to gain exposure and self-promotion.
Some have even started calling this style the “Gawker Method” of journalism, although in all fairness this salacious, headline-grabbing extremism predates the internet by decades, its roots stemming from the outlandish ‘yellow journalism’ newspaper wars of the late 1800s that you mentioned earlier. But this insipid method has survival instincts that would make a cockroach blush, and has since become the de rigueur of much of today’s reporting on the cheap. Need to grab some headlines or stir the pot? Alleged racism is always a sure thing, especially if you’re a fireproof journalist.
The lack of critical thinking usually encourages this, with a blog-o-sphere eager for whatever bits of information (I’d hesitate to call much of it ‘news’), often distorting the source from its original intent by a succession of generations and filtered through any number viewpoints and opinions. But with so many eyeballs watching the page, its encouraging to see the truth (eventually) come to light, even if does have to travel through the meat-grinder of public scrutiny to do. Some may cheer this ‘spaghetti’ approach to reporting (throw everything at the wall and see what sticks), but I just wish it wouldn’t come at the expense of integrity and objectivity.
Yeah, I mentioned that about yellow journalism being as old as the days when men wore muttonchops and bowler hats. In fact, it’s older than that. It was there before there WAS a printing press. Simple word of mouth, gossip so potent that they had to invent that word “salacious” for it. Rumors reported and read as stone facts all in the thirst to be the first. To be considered an insider “in the know” who beats the competition to the punch for this title. No checks for bias which is inherent in every man, woman, and child. It’s about that big headline to rope in more and more viewers and make the publication and more importantly the reporter a star.
And don’t forget this point about today’s reporting especially when it comes to the videogame world. The recording world would call it “payola,” and you can best believe that a lot of what you see on these online pages is influenced by the perks given by the game advertisers/publishers. The Sway of the Swag. Buying off media personalities with cheap trinkets and merchandise, with exclusive access to the high chieftains in the industry, with trips to exotic locales like expos and conventions with all the booth babes you can ogle (and perhaps more). Give ‘em those riches and watch them become your unofficial mouthpiece to influence sales. That’s some superior outsourcing right there, boy. It doesn’t take much to dazzle a superfan, don’cha know?
You really have to wonder if what you’re seeing is really news, just trivia, or even worse? This is the problem of the 24-hour cycle mainstream news media as well. Is everything reported on REALLY a story? Are we seeing some try to invent a story to meet a deadline like a traffic cop tries make bogus stop to fill his/her ticket quota? Are we seeing exaggerated panic being sold as a legit crisis? Is this even an advertisement we’re watching disguised as a news piece? Happens so often on those morning shows and even your local news broadcasts. At least when I hear about the ShamWow! I know it’s an infomercial.
Well, in some ways we’re all complicit in keeping these wheels spinning, as these methods wouldn’t continue if people didn’t on some level enjoy them. For all my bluster and doomsday rattling, I enjoy the Kotakus and the Joystiqs as much as anyone. My RSS feeds pipe in the latest batch of scandal and rumor, and like a good addict I can’t get enough. I’ll take my information in bulk, served hot and scandalous, and seldom question why I know more about who Britney Spears is dating, or what turns on Koji Igarashi. Toss in a few haphazard and well-placed f-bombs and sponsored links and you’ve got one hell of a cheap date.
I understand that advertising drives the market, and often the content they manage to squeeze in between the commercials. I recognize the special – and often necessary – relationship of those blinking links on websites and blogs, and I’ve even learned to accept that payola and the monkey-business shouldn’t disqualify an opinion alone. I understand all of this and still choose to read the websites and the blogs, some professional and some amateur, and with any luck will be able to piece together some semblance of the truth and do what I can.
But as someone who enjoys the responsibility of being on the other side, I’m going to do my best to control the flow as evenly as possible. To filter out the particles and debris that is poisoning the well, because we all deserve a clean supply. We’ve been fortunate to have the trust and support of like-minded publications and reporters (this website in particular), and while our headlines and stylistic approach may not be the sexiest, its heads and tails more sensual. For those friends and colleagues, and especially the readers who hold us to task, I’m eternally grateful.