The Critical Void in Gaming Journalism

The Critical Void in Gaming Journalism

An odd stage in an emerging form of media


There must be something about media institutions with three-letter names. They start off as great, breakthrough forces in their field, redefining what it means to like music or movies or games, giving fans new channels through which to absorb supplemental goodies for their favorite entertainment. Then that new countercurrent picks up revenue, starts to go mainstream, and the former supplier of real culture suddenly becomes mainstream and boring and useless. Instead of steering fans to the good stuff, it steers fans to the most advantageous places to spend their money. We've seen it with MTV (and Rolling Stone, etc.) in the music world and now we're seeing it with IGN in gaming.

One Redditor posted a nice retrospective analysis of how IGN used to review games versus how they do it now. It's merely a side by side screenshot of two reviews; one from 1998, in which a reviewer gave the latest Olympic Hockey Nagano game a 0/10 for being a near-replica of the former title in the series, and one from 2011, in which a reviewer gave Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 a score of 9/10. You used to have to make changes and improvements in your series in order to earn even a single point from the biggest gaming critics around. Now, all you have to do is make another wartime shooter inside of an established franchise, and you're a contender for game of the year.

What happened? When did journalists become dollar-chasers? Now, if you look at IGN's actual review section, it's riddled with score inflation. Any game that's even remotely decent gets upwards of 70% approval from their writers. The ones that are likely to do well commercially get well into the 9s. And, of course, there are ads splayed out all over the website. The genre became profitable, so the criticism became a flimsy veneer atop a sturdy advertising infrastructure. Like MTV, IGN isn't about liking or criticizing media anymore. It's about selling it.

That's not to say there aren't good, indie critics out there who tackle the art made within the gaming sphere. Some of the smartest writers out there today are writing about games. But they're few and far between. Part of it has to do with the inaccessibility of the genre; unlike music or movies, games are expensive and time-intensive. You need to set aside a lot of dollars and a lot of hours in order to experience a game fully enough to review it. Only the most dedicated gamers with critical eyes could hope to play enough to write intelligently about their media of choice, and so far, it's such a young breed of media that we haven't seen too many of them yet. Gaming is in a strange spot where it's old enough to have squadrons of commercial pseudo-critics, but too young to have much of an earnest critical following. If I had to guess, though, I'd say we'll see more and more folks willing to take an analytical stance on games as art.