Everyone's been buzzing this weekend about the Gamespot shakeup involving Jeff Gerstmann and there's been plenty of talk flying around in various places. Gamasutra, for instance, has a good editorial up entitled Numerals, Game Reviews, And The Game Media on some of the problems with the review structure in the gaming industry; Destructoid has a brand new look to let us know exactly what they think of Gamespot; people are planning a boycott of Gamespot and other CNet sites; our very own Crecente posed a question to all the reviewers out there: Have you been forced to rewrite a review due to advertising pressure? We've been inundated with examples of bad journalism, bad bosses, and big, bad, mean companies. And of course Mark Wilson wrote his own take on the problem with game reviews.
There are a couple of themes from all of this, both the personal accounts that have wound up in our inbox and the wider discussion as a whole: this is nothing new and the ramifications are a little further reaching than a single reviewer, game company, or site. I've been musing on all of this, mostly because reviews are part of an academic's life - epic flame wars have been fought on the pages of academic journals in every field, frequently over a scathing review or editorial. Feelings get hurt, professional relationships get strained - but money is almost never a concern. Your average PhD may make shit for a salary, but the upside is that professional integrity is rarely compromised in an attempt to hold on to the all mighty dollar.
It's amazing to me that some companies find this an acceptable course of action in some situations, and even more amazing that some bosses go along with this. Is losing credibility and mountains of bad press really worth those advertising dollars? But Kevin Gifford's Gamasutra editorial points to the very way video games are reviewed as part of the problem:
But many outlets have failed to stir up any reader interest in the text behind the review, or the overall atmosphere of the mag or website they're exploring — instead, readers increasingly care exclusively about the score, so they can praise and/or whine about it online. Entire game-media outlets have been, and are defined by, the numerals they publish...instead of, you know, how fun they are to read.
The Internet has largely made the job title "critic" redundant. The problem is that no one at most game mags and websites got the memo. Until they do - until they realise that it's their content that defines them, and not their scores - they'll have to be content with being abused by publishers and their readership for the rest of their existences.
I don't expect that game reviews are going to start looking like something out of The New York Review of Books - but getting away from the numbers would probably help on a number of levels. That's not to say that all of us - or even most - are somehow in some company's back pocket. Write anything, be it critical or glowing, and someone, somewhere will accuse you of horrid biases, even if you're simply speaking your mind and not acting as a surreptitious corporate mouthpiece. Our inbox attests to that. It would seem that game reviewers (and journalists at large) are frequently in between a rock and a hard place, and something needs to give.
It'll be interesting to see what the long term fallout from all of this is. It just makes me glad I've never aspired to a high powered career of game reviewing for a big site. I'll take my chances in the shark-infested waters of the Journal of Asian Studies and Modern China, thank you.