That is a question many people have had this past month. What should the people working for sites they have come to trust be doing? What should be their main goal? Ultimately it should come down to this: a game journalist should always give fair, unbiased reporting that has the protection of consumers and readers always in mind.
That is just the baseline for any kind of interaction or communication to readers. Game journalists by the very nature of their job have easier access to information than the average person. It is their obligation to then boil that information down to the key points. But at the same time they have to always be wary of unintentionally misleading people and of protecting the consumer. If not morally, game journalists should look at it practically. What is a more sympathetic and loyal readership, one who was exploited because they were unaware or one who is aware that the exploit exists? To which will the group be more thankful, the game journalist who reports the exploit or the one who doesn’t?
To look at this further, this will be framed in the ways that a game journalist communicates: news, investigations, editorials, and reviews.
News and investigations can be lumped together as they serve the very same role: informing the public. They let readers know the happenings in the gaming world, or they try through their own investigations to uncover something, which could be bad, like the GameJournoPros mailing list, or could be interesting, like discovering that a developer has secretly been involved with a charity but they don’t advertise that themselves.
How does that apply to what was said above? Let’s say that a journalist gets a hold of some news that looks suspect, like some kind of rumor. A recent example would be the rumor (though now confirmed) that Final Fantasy XIII was coming to PC. If you look at that article, would it have been right to report on it without the attached images? Without those, it is completely unsubstantiated. In other words, it would have been unprofessional to report on.
Now let’s say news of a new game comes out and it has a bunch of cool features that most gamers would be interested in. The game journalist decides to report on the game and looks at its website, where it finds the information is presented suspiciously. There are a few asterisks and a decent amount of fine print. Should the game journalist look more into it or not? Of course they should because the site looks like it is trying to manipulate consumers. Luckily, the game journalist reads the fine print to find out that some of the features were behind a paywall.
If anything looks suspect, or looks like it may harm the consumer, it is the journalists job to look more into it. It is not their job to just receive a press release then regurgitate the information to readers. More effort needs to go into it. The primary attitudes of a journalist are to be skeptical and cynical. The primary motivation of many businesses, including game publishers, is to make as much money as possible which often comes in what many would consider unscrupulous ways. Journalists are the first line of defense in regards to exploitation.
Many game journalists use editorials as a way to talk about things that they can’t talk about in news. For example, they should report on a game, but in the reporting they should not put down their opinion about whether or not they think it is an amazing looking, or terrible looking, game. Some commentary is fine, but nothing extreme. That should be left to editorials. And editorials are not limited to that either, but can be about literally anything in the gaming industry. However, the same rule applies above that they should be fair, unbiased, and have the consumer in mind at all times.
The perfect example of what not to do in an editorial happened with the Death of Gamers fiasco, which you can read more about, including analysis, in our Orthodoxy series. In that Orthodoxy series, you can see how none of the things defined at the beginning of this article were in those game journalists minds. It was unfair, biased, and not only didn’t have the consumer’s protection in mind, but actively attacked it.
Some good examples that follow what is outlined at the beginning can be seen here at TechRaptor. Here are some articles to look at which evidence this: one, two, three. In each, an opinion on a certain function of the industry was examined, and all came to the question of what this means for gamers as a whole. They all fulfill the criteria of a good game journalist. The function of a game journalist writing an editorial comes down to ruminating on a certain aspect of the industry to inform the public on whatever conclusion is made. In other words, the game journalist thinks about those things to 1) create a discussion about an issue and 2) so readers can be made aware so they too can think on the issue.
And this should go without saying for both news and editorials: all game journalists should report and discuss on all known sides of an issue. The game journalist may disagree with one side, but as with any argument that in this case would be in the form of an editorial, addressing the opposition is key. Arguments and discussions are only strengthened when considering all sides. And, when you take in all points of view, the game journalist’s opinion might change. It is only when the game journalist knows as much as possible that a well-reasoned response can be made.
Reviews are the greatest example of consumer protection that a game journalist can give. Its basic function is to have the game journalist play a game and give a review so that gamers don’t have to. In other words, a review serves to protect the consumer, in some cases, from purchasing a poorly made game. Examples of those kinds of games that are, near objectively, not worth anyone’s money are all over the place. Some of the more high profile cases happened with Totalbiscuit when he covered Day One: Garry’s Incident and Guise of the Wolf.
Game journalists play those games so consumers don’t have to. And on the flip side of that, sometimes game journalists will make consumers aware of a great game. Giving praise where it is due has the interest of the consumer at heart because it may very well lead to more games made by that developer. Many indie games rely on that awareness of success. The examples of those are many, but include things like Shovel Knight, SteamWorld Dig, and Legend of Grimrock.
To sum it all up I will say again what I said at the beginning: In every aspect of a game journalist’s communication, they should always have fair, unbiased reporting and the consumer’s interest in the forefront of their minds. Being a game journalist is only partly about having your own personal voice heard. Ignoring the moral obligation and treating game journalism like a transaction, game journalists should think of having their voice heard as being a trade off for protecting the consumer.
Game journalists should be the first line of defense for consumers and act like a filter to protect them from the various groups interested in exploiting the public.