Video games have for a long time been viewed as an ordeal for children and teenagers. This is only logical, seeing as young people are more inclined to adapt to new technologies. And with the medium only surfacing as a widespread form of entertainment throughout the 70s and 80s, there is little surprise that our grandfathers generally have little clue of concepts such as run & gun or MMO. However, with an increasing number of adults who have grown up on gaming, things are bound to change. Gradually, the veil of adolescence is being lifted from the public perception of video games. This can particularly be noticed when one compares the uncomplicated, formulaic manner in which reviewers approached games some 10-15 years ago to the more recent attempts to place games in a broader, cultural context.
There is little doubt that the process of maturation and diversification in video game coverage is a positive development. Unfortunately, this evolution is often marred by an inability to marry the subject matter in this branch and the more developed analytical discourse that one may stumble upon in the coverage of media such as cinema and music. Part of this can simply be attributed to the fact that the majority of video games still tend to be too simple and technical in nature to let loose on them all sorts of philosophical, intellectual contemplations.
However, there is a more alarming issue at hand, one that undermines the credibility of the trend of reflective writing on video games: video game journalism or at least its mainstream component suffers from a serious lack of commentators who possess both the passion that allows them to empathise with the gaming audience, and the savviness to come up with well-founded, thought-provoking viewpoints. As it stands, most attempts to lift video game writing to a higher plain have run ashore due to the instigator either being motivated by extrinsic factors, or hindered by a limited ability to convert shards of reflective observation into a structured and consistent argument. We may have matured as gamers, desiring a more complex, multi-faceted experience, but more often than not our (in)ability to write about these experiences betrays the teeny bopper origins of our trade.
"Where video game journalism is characterised by amateurism, academic research on video games is plagued by blatant sensationalism."
A recent example of an attempt to contextualise a video game from a societal point of view is Carolyn Pet!t's controversial review of GTA V. In this otherwise positive review, Petit called the game out on its alleged misogyny. This unsurprisingly sparked a wave of criticism from readers of Gamespot, where the review was published. Granted, a considerable part of this criticism consisted of the petty insults and other infantile kneejerk reactions that one has come to expect from legions of fanatical teenage gamers. After all, these kids were always going to virulently reject the notion that such subjects should even be discussed in a video game review. Violent personal attacks will always be part of an industry infested by rampant fanboyism, and hard as it may be at times is best left ignored.
The most important element in Pet!t's review is that it highlights exactly why video game writing still tends to fall short whenever it tries to delve into a games cultural/societal aspects. It is the dis-jointed and tacked-on nature of Pet!t's point on misogyny that reveals not only the authors acute desire to tackle this issue, but also her blatant inability to canalise this sentiment in such a way that it harmonises with the overall tone of the review. As a result, the fire of the outrage is fuelled by the simple fact that the most controversial argument of the review is not its main focal point. This awakens the suspicion that it arose from a personal grudge or, even worse, the ordinary desire to generate some controversy.
It is disheartening to behold how the more serious approach of video games in media and academics cannot yet be reflected properly by the video game journalists who are in the middle of it all. The larger number of mature gamers in this day and age would denote a growing demand for a more mature discourse surrounding their passion. And lamentably, simply turning to the academic world for a satisfactory discussion on gaming is not a viable alternative. For, where video game journalism is characterised by amateurism and undigested intellectualism, academic research on video games is plagued by tunnel vision and sensationalism.
"It is by no means a given that those who cherish the ambition to analyse video games in a scientific way have any affinity with the medium."
One has to understand that the popularity of video games and the ubiquitous controversy that constantly surrounds them make this industry an attractive field for researchers looking to make a name for themselves. Anyone who has ever written on an academic level knows that, for your research to be noticed, you should ideally find a topic that is hot (i.e. a current affair) and allows you to distinguish yourself with a unique perspective. Research surrounding video games tends to make for juicy headlines, while it is also a fairly new field of expertise with endless stretches of uncharted territory left for ambitious academics to explore. As such, it is by no means a given that those who cherish the ambition to analyse video games in a scientific way have any affinity with the medium. For the academic world, this is of course not a problem. But when it comes to writing for a gaming audience, the outsider-looking-in perspective will often result in mutual dissonance and frustration.
As it stands now, the spectrum of video game journalism is still torn by a large vacuum. It is waiting to be filled by writers who have both the talent and the passion to write about games intelligently without disconnecting themselves from the gaming audience. It is true that there is already a number of niche publications out there that are cultivating this approach successfully. But for a real breakthrough, mainstream websites and magazines should have the courage to not only passively, but actively offer a platform to more analytically flavoured coverage. Only then can the branch diversify to a point where it has the means to cater to each segment of its potential audience, instead of merely frustrating everyone.
Article originally written for System Wars Magazine.
SWMs report on the Petit controversy