Gaming's Dysfunctional Media Relationship

When I worked regularly as a game journalist, I received an interesting, and telling, piece of advice from a colleague of mine:

Interviews are a battle to uncover the truth from the interviewee.

Rock Paper Shotgun's interview with the esteemed (and somewhat hated) Peter Molyneux exemplifies this piece of advice better than words ever could. That's not necessarily a good thing.

Overpromising While Underaccountable

The biggest problem with gaming media is that its relationship with developers is one of symbiotic hostility, and Peter Molyneux's penchant for hyping his next project brings that hostility out to the forefront.

In the interview with John Walker, Peter Molyneux interrupts Walker constantly, often to try to divert him into different subjects. While Walker focused on the continued development of Godus and the lack of its promised features - the God of Gods winner receiving money, for example, or the Making Of book promised by the Kickstarter - Molyneux gave vague answers or tried to change the topic entirely.

This slippery, self-promotional attitude towards interviews is all too common. Prominent developers overpromise in order to sell copies, and then avoid accountability in interviews and post-release discussion by either refusing to talk about it or changing the subject. In its most extreme, they'll outright boycott or put pressure on media outlets in order to get damaging - though truthful - information removed.

To their credit, most of the big outlets have enough weight that developers can't hold them hostage like that. There are also a number of developers that talk frankly and forwardly with the media, regardless of how it makes them look. Despite these exceptions, though, the industry as a whole has serious problems with the truth.

Much like all the other garbage the gaming scene deals with these days, these problems with truthfulness stem from primarily from gaming's capitalist roots. Developers, as businessmen, seek primarily to sell you a product; if you think the product is more than what it is, all the better. As promises regarding its contents were made before the product was finished, and current advertising doesn't reference or mention those promises, there's no "false advertising" dilemma, even if consumers purchase the title without further research.

What Peter Molyneux does - and what John Walker calls him out on - is promise the moon. As Molyneux is a bit of an eccentric, he doesn't promise to sell games as much as he promises because his head is in the clouds, but he is emblematic of the serious problem developers have with realistic goals and speaking the truth to journalists.

In that respect, John Walker did a fine job interviewing Peter Molyneux. He tried to pin down a snake-oil salesman on his promises and lies, and generally succeeded.

It also showed a connected problem with gaming media.

Infatuation With Spite

While John Walker's rudeness did serve a purpose in his interview with Peter Molyneux - presumably to shake up Molyneux, to get him to talk outside the party line - it was still too much.

When working in news media, reporters are urged to be graceful, calm under pressure in the same way that a politician might be. Public speaking is incredibly important, as is understanding the meaning underneath a person's words and the ability to push and pull the pace of the conversation. We want our reporters to be machines, robots that systemically dissect and remove the lies and exaggerations until only the truth remains. We don't want them to be nasty, and we place a premium on those who can pull information without resorting to more traditional interrogation.

The Peter Molyneux interview does dismantle the lies built up around Godus and Molyneux, but by hacking at Peter Molyneux's life with a metaphorical cleaver, destroying his ego and reducing him down to a small, pitiful man with no present and probably no future. To call it a hit piece wouldn't be entirely accurate, as hit pieces are fundamentally untrue, but it definitely has the tone of a hit piece. Walker was out for blood.

Are the truths it reveals, both about Molyneux and Walker, any less true? No, of course not. But Molyneux is not a politician, he is a game developer, and he should not be publically gutted and hung in the town square as an example.

Not "Real" Journalists

The plain fact is that game journalists are not real journalists.

If you'd told me that eight years ago, when I started as a game journalist, I would've been angry with you. Indeed, game journalism offers many examples of excellent investigative journalism. In my case, I like to think my pieces on Mechwarrior Online's poor community management and the complexities around YouTube copyright law are among the best pieces I've ever written. Articles on the disastrous GAME JAM and the real-life police state implied in Watch_Dogs are other examples of well-researched, well-written, genuinely journalistic pieces about gaming.

Unfortunately, that isn't the majority of game journalism. As game journalism is a subset of entertainment journalism, it exists primarily to catalogue and evaluate gaming, not dig for nastiness. When problems and controversies arise, game journalists investigate and report on it, but their job is primarily to disseminate easily-acquired information in digestible and entertaining chunks.

Game journalists are more like librarians or historians, constantly recontextualizing games according to the latest and greatest developments in gaming media. Indeed, there is no better person to talk to about gaming history than an experienced game journalist, as it is their job to report on history as it happens. Whether it's the Hot Coffee mod scandal or EA pulling out of Steam to promote its own service, journalists understand the context of events better than anybody, except perhaps a dedicated historian (such as HardcoreGaming101).

No Solutions

These two problems - developers with truthfulness, media with spite - don't have easy solutions. Indeed, journalists and developers have to walk a careful line between being friends and being enemies, especially in the money-driven industry of selling games. There are a few things we can do to improve our medium, though, even if they are small.

  • Developers: Be frank about the problems you encounter during development. Promise what you know you can do with the resources provided. Do not freeze out publications because they didn't toe your party line.
  • Journalists: Be graceful, not spiteful. Do not seek out developers in bad faith. Do not try to destroy somebody's ego or career. Report directly and honestly.
  • Readers: Be realistic about upcoming games. Don't pre-order. Don't hound developers and journalists for having relationships.

It's doubtful gaming media will ever truly break free of its dysfunctional relationship with developers, but we can, at least, try to make our hobby better.

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(Post-Script: Kudos to John Walker and Peter Molyneux alike for putting their names on such a controversial and potentially-damaging interview. Walker could've edited his questions to make himself look less fanatical or out for vengeance, but didn't, because he's a consummate professional and decent person who believes in honesty. Molyneux could've walked away from the interview after that first question, given its rudeness, but stuck around for an hour and a half to make his position heard. They are both good people in a complicated situation, and they should be commended for their courage in allowing the interview to speak for itself without alteration)