Erik Twice, who wrote the best and most searching review of This War of Mine, is right that the audience for games has reasons to distrust critics which extend beyond personal bias. An article recently published on this site explained that suspicion of contrary opinions, deployed automatically by the gaming audience, is a result of that same audience’s over-exposure to marketing and understandable weakness for group-think. Twice exposes the arrogance in that article by directly giving us myriad examples of journalistic compromise perpetrated by game critics and makers.
For good reason, game critics are without credibility. When we boast that videogames are the entertainment form of the 21st century and pioneering new ways for different people to express themselves, and vicariously experience life, we can’t also defend the acceptance of paid trips abroad on the basis that film, television and music reporters operate by the same means – if games are apparently setting new standards, we can’t defend ourselves using the old ones. We also can’t blame our audience for its suspicion. When our readers discovered the transaction between game reviewer and PR, they discovered also how long we’d been hiding it. And rather than try to thoroughly explain the nature of our work, or that our first priority is and always would be to honest criticism, we denigrated the idea that readers should expect honesty in the first place. For the freelancer, the good freelancer, in it for the right reasons but earning less than £15,000 a year, accepting sponsored trips or paid-for copies of games are the necessary means for delivering (potentially, hopefully) true-hearted criticism. But that isn’t the story we told. Instead, we thumbed our nose at the complainants, or gave mealy-mouthed excuses, and made it seem like we belong to cabal.
Simply: if the audience for games distrusts games and game critics it’s because the people who make games try to pay critics off, and the critics, sometimes without understanding that it’s happening, which damages their credibility even further, accept. Such dynamics are not arranged and agreed upon by a committee of corrupt publishers and journalists – there is no strict organistation. The reality is much more sinister. From their subject matter, racist, sexist, homophobic and anti-intellectual, to what their critics consider permissible behaviour and good writing, complacency and blithe acceptance prevail videogames. The audience for games is right to treat something so often slack and disinterested in quality with suspicion, especially when those suspicions are met with ambiguous or aloof replies, which make it seem even more like something is going on.
The realities of this work are more mundane than readers assume. The susceptibility of critics to bribes, or their inability to produce credible writing should they interact with the people they’re reviewing, are exaggerated. But to say so at this point feels like rank apologia. The game critics’ stock has never been lower. We may not be about to lose them, but in the sense that our professional and intellectual standards are under threat, if not already abandoned, our jobs are on the line. Game-makers have been caught trying to bribe the press. The press has been caught accepting those bribes and then lying about it. Those not directly embroiled in scandal have responded with offence at the mere suggestion things ought to change – we have failed to avail our readers of our correct professional beliefs or attempts to be better. As well as the article already published here, Erik Twice is also right. Verily, we have earned our mistrust.