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Response: Why Video Game Journalism is a Sham


A little over a week ago, I became aware of some serious charges were leveled at Game Informer by an Unreality Magazine editor named Paul Tassi in an article titled “Why Video Game Journalism is a Sham.” Basically, Mr. Tassi claimed that Game Informer was accepting bribes or kickbacks from video game publishers for higher review scores. The ridiculousness of this claim, which I want to make clear was based on no evidence, should be evident. But, in case it isn’t obvious, I decided that I would break down “Why Video Game Journalism is a Sham” into its core arguments and describe precisely why it is wrong. I want to emphasize that to make such claims against such a reputable organization and talented, committed people who know a thing or two about something called journalistic integrity is extremely unprofessional.

1.    Larger Video Game Websites/Magazines Are “Mere PR Puppets”

Okay… there are several problems with this. Let me just ask a few rhetorical questions: video game websites and magazines provide information on video games, right? These news outlets put out information on video games regardless of their respective sizes, right? Video games are consumer products, right? Correct on all accounts. The function of video game journalism is essentially to spread information and news related to video games. That larger sites get more exclusives isn’t surprising; publishers want the most possible people to hear about it. To imply that these journalists are under the thumb or in the pocket of publishers based on the fact that they get more scoops is absurd. News flash! The bigger your company, the more clout you have in any given industry. This isn’t a new thing.

2.    Smaller Video Game Websites Are Afraid to be Honest

This argument seems to me like an over-inflated conspiracy theory about how the “system” has got video game journalists under its heel. The worst part is that Mr. Tassi works for a smaller video game website. By his own argument, both he and the website for which he works should be suspect for being too “afraid” to give accurate reviews or legitimate opinions. Despite this logical fallacy, he lists it as a major strength of his position in the industry because he is freed to speak his mind. Later, he claims the opposite saying:

“[Writers and sites] inflate their scores in order to not piss off the gaming overlords too much. If they do, they might not get free games anymore or might find themselves left off the list when it comes to the next big press event. It’s borderline blackmail.”

He is claiming that small sites are essentially coerced into giving boosted review scores, while simultaneously claiming that his Unreality Magazine is above such attempts to alter the truth. Ugh. 

Let’s think about this for a second. If video game publishers had a common practice of intimidating smaller sites (which is implied in the article) to obtain favorable reviews or previews, the general public would find out. In the modern age, where documents can be leaked from the highest and most secure parts of government, you can bet your bootstraps that eventually this would come out. If we have learned anything from the Mass Effect 3 ending outcry it is that gamers are not a very tolerant, forgiving, or silent bunch. I feel like I don’t really have to explain how that would be a devastating blow to the PR of a publisher. I believe there is a word for it… something about poop raining from the heavens….

3.    The State of Game Journalism is Poor

The video game industry these days is making bank. As of June 2011, Reuters estimated that the industry was worth around $65 billion, up from 10.3 billion in 2004.  It is growing despite economic depressions while other parts of the entertainment sector are negatively impacted such as the movie and music industries. What does this mean in terms of video game journalism? People go where the money is. The field of gaming journalism is growing as evidenced by the number of gaming sites being created and the number of listings for journalists in the industry across the board.

Perhaps what Mr. Tassi means is that video game journalists as a whole are unskilled writers/journalists. If that is the case, it is an unfounded generalization. You could just as easily appeal to racial or gender stereotypes for the same level of accuracy and usefulness. It also claims a certain amount of self-superiority, which is not the case in anything, especially not the written word.

4.    Game Informer Cover Stories Always Receive Higher Scores

Though Mr. Tassi did later insert a grudging retraction, I’m still going to make a point to insert information debunking this for anybody who might share the misconception. The following are cover stories that received less than stellar reviews or were just cancelled:

Epic Mickey – 7.0
Alpha Protoclol – 6.5 
Dark Sector – 7.5 
Kane & Lynch – 7.0 
Superman Returns – 6.0 
Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer – 5.0 
Snoop Dog: Fear and Respect - Cancelled
Starcraft: Ghost – Cancelled
Azurik: Rise of Perathia –  4.5

Keep in mind that this list is nowhere near exhaustive, but I believe the number of examples is sufficient to make my point. A game is not granted magical, score-boosting properties simply because it lands on the cover of the magazine.

5.    The Video Game Rating System

I’ve heard this complaint before: “The video game rating system is flawed because it goes from one to ten, yet the average score is a seven. Clearly it must be skewed reviewing practices!” I am pretty sure most of us went through a little something called mandated public education. Schools make use of a grading system in which a passing grade is 70%-79%. Games are similar. Perfect ten scores are reserved for a minority of close to perfect games. A score of nine is reserved for games which are close to perfect, but have minor flaws which prevent them from reaching the heights of a perfect score. Eight is for games which are good but which might not appeal to everyone. Seven is average and, while functional, is not going to shake any gamer’s world. That being said, a seven isn’t bad, it just isn’t great. Below a seven are various levels of limited appeal, brokenness, and badness.

6.    Borderlands 2 Example

This part of the article honestly seems to me like jealousy. But let’s get into it anyway. So Mr. Tassi talks about a story that he heard about an unnamed site which discovered that Borderlands 2 was going to be announced. Said website then published that information without permission from Gearbox. Understandably, Gearbox was upset and threatened to sue if the info wasn’t taken down. A few days later, Gearbox announced Borderlands 2 and Game Informer got the story.

I’m sorry, but isn’t this common practice? Exclusive scoops, interviews, etc. are a part of journalism, video game or otherwise. Now look at it from a different perspective: why would a company like Gearbox want to announce its product in Game Informer rather than on a smaller site that doesn’t get as much traffic or have as much respectability? Because it doesn’t get as much traffic or have as much respectability. Is it Game Informer’s fault that they have a large readership and as such, companies want to announce their products in their magazine? This is just common sense, people.

Also, I’d just like to point out that video games don’t fall under the category of “the people have a right to know.” What I mean is that publishers have a right to withhold information on their products. Gearbox was perfectly within their rights to ask to have Borderlands 2 information taken down before they officially release it to the general public.

7.    Cronyism?

At one point Mr. Tassi states about Game Informer’s alleged practices that “It’s the worst sort of cronyism that has made reviews untrustworthy and investigative stories non-existent.” Let’s look at the definition of cronyism as supplied by Wikipedia: “Cronyism is partiality to long-standing friends, especially by appointing them to positions of authority, regardless of their qualifications. Hence, cronyism is contrary in practice and principle to meritocracy.” What he is saying is that Game Informer gets special treatment because of its position in the industry without regard for their talent. This implies that Game Informer has no talent and that they are glorified yes men.

Honestly, I don’t know if his intent was to be obscenely offensive, but he succeeded. I have been a subscriber to Game Informer for the last decade. It is clear to me after reading hundreds of reviews, features, previews, interviews, cover stories, and what-have-you that the Game Informer staff’s journalistic standards are high, their talent is undeniable, and their integrity is unquestionable. They are not afraid to call a game out on its flaws and present their opinions clearly and effectively. To call them “cronies” and make ludicrous assertions without evidence is dirty (and I hesitate to use the word) journalism.

8.    The Outside

“There are definitely some out there trying to get it right, but find themselves facing huge obstacles like an industry that treats those who cover it like peasants who must line up and politely ask for morsels of info, and praise them once they receive it.

I may end up on Peter Molyneux’s s***list for calling Fable 3 “an embarrassment to video games” and I might not be getting a Christmas Card from Bioware for telling the world I returned Dragon Age Origins to the store, but at least I said what I felt. And if that keeps me on the outside forever? So be it.”

Mr. Tassi, the video game industry is not the evil Empire and you are not a part of the Rebel Alliance. For that matter, journalists aren’t medieval peasants. The industry keeps its information private because they are private companies. Journalists are not entitled to receive scoops from them. It is not supposed to be a transparent system. Getting stories is hard. But wording it that way makes it seem like it should be the other way around with the industry doling out its secrets to every person who wants more information. The world doesn’t work that way and it never has. If you want to get information from a non-transparent entity, you have to ask.

As for being on the outside for saying “what you felt,” there is a difference between sharing an opinion and the wording of that opinion. Consider this: it might not be the machinations of the video game industry that keep you an outsider. Rather, it might be the way in which your commentary and reviews are worded. Words have power, respect what they can do.

I realize that I have been talking at some length about Mr. Tassi’s article. While it was not long, it provoked a need in me to voice a defense of the Game Informer staff (though they don’t need my help). I considered keeping silent also because I did not want to in any way validate his opinion by drawing more attention to it, but decided that I’d like to answer it, as others might possibly share a few of his notions.

To make it clear once again, I do not agree with any of Mr. Tassi's assertions or ideas regarding either Game Informer or the video game industry.

With that, I look forward to any thoughts people would like to share in the comments.

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