Trust is an odd thing in gaming. Vocal legions wear the gamer label with pride, further dividing themselves into fierce camps in support of certain corporations, consoles or pieces of intellectual property. This is silly, but exploitable for financial gain and so it thrives, quietly encouraged.
The masses seem only to question information that challenges their own beliefs or expectations. The biggest camps will happily light flame wars over the quality of a game none of them have yet played, picking at performance disparity or simply writing off games they cannot play or otherwise compete with their favoured brand or franchise. Publish something negative, and the fans will find you.
One can imagine there is some motivation for journalists to go easy on big titles and companies just to preserve the integrity of their timeline and inbox for another week, but there’s a far better incentive.
Integrity is not easy to come by in the publishing world. The trade does not become easy once your opinion has a price tag, but it does become easier. The games media’s struggle is not a symptom of the internet age, it was rife when we all communicated by publishing magazines at each other. The problem is not only as old as the games media either, George Orwell wrote an essay on a similar problem related to publishing novels in 1936, for instance.
The barriers to entry have fallen very far since 1936.
Youtube was once seen as a promising utopia to save us from all of this and break the traditional cycle; a fountain of unbiased criticism of the medium, a beautiful meritocracy where channels would rise and fall based on the quality of their reviews, editing, composition and format. These were all silly things to hope for.
As audience trust was built, so it acquired value. Marketing groups needn’t put the effort into understanding their consumers if instead the intangible magic of audience creation had already been performed. By simply ramming a hand up a passage, independent and respected critics and outlets become corporate mouthpieces. Do it well and no one can see the hand.
Youtubers self-started and self-funded their own new media outlets, self-promoting them and self-separating wheat and chaff as they succeeded and failed. All that was left was to buy the winners.
Screws can be tightened by publishers and their marketing allies here: access to review copies, interview candidates, press materials and sweet, sweet advertising revenue are all under their control. Youtube’s own devices can be used against any channel not towing the company line; life can be made difficult for anyone making a stand.
So there comes a choice: produce insightful content worth reading and go out of business, or stay in business unable to produce anything of editorial value.
Some gaming consumers play into this deadlock perfectly. Finances often force a choice at the beginning of a new generation of consoles, at least initially. Instead of wondering at the new experiences and creative worlds locked behind console exclusive deals that could one day stream through the second HDMI port, the choice of the most vocal is to justify their few hundred pounds in savings by shouting and pissing.
It seems that only within this shouting and pissing will you find any talk of deceitful media practices.
It could be a sign of the maturity of the audience, a quirk of the volume of its lowest members or a part of human nature, but the swill-munching public don’t seem much to care about where their food was made, so long as it’s in their favourite flavour.
Criticism of a game is now so rarely a matter of assessing the individual merit of component pieces of a work, and more a matter of creating three word blurbs for posters and scores to justify advertising spend. The audience hardly seems to care, so long as there’s a good firm handle to hoist themselves onto the bandwagon, or a an easy weak spot to hammer lazily.
With a continued supply of drama and a war of their own creation, so many gamers are happy to be fed dubiously-funded content if it plays to their ego, reinforces their own opinions, and justifies their historical support of a franchise.
For anyone who prefers not stinking of shit, there are islands of firm ground in the sea of Acme-brand effluent. Jim Sterling sprung to independence from the pages of established media outlets through the backing of a generous fanbase on Patreon, and VideoGamer has added similar Patreon funding alongside its more traditional structure.
Both are willing to bring attention to the negative aspects of individual titles and the industry at large, a trait sorely lacking in the most established names in gaming media across written word and video. Gaming audiences would do well to explore the creations of both sites with an open mind.
The Patreon model creates its own problems. Gaming is an industry which draws its funds from countless millions of players, but Patreon-backed media is not for the masses. Backers must have access to regular disposable income, enjoy the content of the creator, see that content as superior to what is freely available elsewhere, and be willing to put a cash value on that difference.
That leaves a narrow base of subscribers who support the creator; a completely independent critic is entirely at the mercy of the supporters’ whims. Earning a living on such a basis is not for the faint of heart. Creating a Patreon following from nothing would be impossible without first having the means to sustain one’s self through a long period of very low income, not an easy ask for those without money to hand.
Patreon is no silver bullet, but is a place for an informed audience to express its trust in cash.
Jim Sterling rightly said that GameTrailers was a victim of itself, but it was serving an audience that is in turn harming its own interests.
(Stoopiduk is a trade journalist in a non-gaming industry, and is not compensated for his occasional outbursts on DarkWorld. He is a Patreon supporter of both Jim Sterling and VideoGamer, and was a guest on VG Podcast 144)