The gaming journalism community was shaken this week by the announcement that Nintendo Power, one of the longest running video gaming magazines, would publish its final issue in December. The news prompted not so much a bout of introspection as an intensification of the hand-wringing that has spread through the community over several weeks now. Never mind that the decision to shudder Nintendo Power seems to have had as much to do with Future Publishing’s relationship with Nintendo itself — many have taken the news as a harbinger of what’s to come.

Giving It Away

Even before the NP announcement, Alan Williamson of Nightmare Mode put it in particularly stark terms. As he would have it, unpaid writing is “killing games journalism.” His account features a familiar culprit, the changing economics of digital media. “Just as free-to-play games and ad-supported apps for smartphones have lowered our expectations of what a video game should cost,” he writes,

free writing has lowered the expectations of what good writing should cost. This isn’t just a problem with games journalism: it’s a problem with all media, and outlets have struggled to adapt in an age where we can get news from Twitter and Facebook before the newspapers. Games media struggle more, since not everyone can travel to Iraq as a war reporter or investigate a political scandal, but anyone can write about games.

That sort of analysis lends itself easily to the “death of journalism” school of thought, with the caveat that the more strenuous forms of reportage are safer than those that traffic primarily in commentary. But as I’ve argued extensively in The Message, it’s too early to say that digital media is actually killing journalism. It’s certainly changing the mode of communications, and that necessarily has the effect of unmooring settled traditions. The result is a veritable shuffling of the deck, those on top ending up somewhere closer to the bottom.

If, as Williamson suggests, the gaming journalist community has been more susceptible to that shuffling, it may be due to the nature of its relationship with the subject matter. On his Twitter feed, games writer Dan Hindes took the argument a step further, saying, “That’s because we are [an] enthusiast press, not – for lack of a better term – ‘real’ journalists.”

If that’s the case, then Williamson’s article would seem to have things precisely backward. His solution to the tacit murder of games journalism is two-pronged: readers should acknowledge the value they place on such journalism by forking over the dollars to pay for it, while writers should preserve that value by refusing to write for free. If, however, games journalists are not “real journalists” at all, but rather an enthusiast press, then there’s no real stopping them from writing. They write not because it so happens that gaming falls within their professional competence, but rather because they’re enthusiastic about the medium.

Of course, that need not be an either/or proposition. A great deal of the material being published, both online and off, is written by professionals. They’ve got writing in their blood, and gaming just happens to fall within their competence. Insofar as they journal the changing state of the industry and practice of gaming, it seems rather arbitrary to deny that they are, after all, journalists. But the fact remains that many of them could, and no doubt would, continue to write about gaming regardless of whether or not they were paid to do so.

What’s more, they would almost certainly continue to write about gaming even if there were no digital platform. They’d distribute them as ‘zines and newsletters, or simply harbor them in spiral-bound notebooks. As such, there’s not much use in exhorting amateurs to hold their tongues and still their pens for the good of the few who stand a chance of getting paid. Why should those who write for love or enthusiasm, or from the ineffable pressure brought to bear by their own talent, care how their compulsions affect the market? And if the amateur’s not going to get paid one way or the other, why should they deprive themselves of an audience?

The advice to never write for free is eminently reasonable — provided that there is someone willing to pay for what you’ve written. As a specimen of altrusim, though, it’s bunk. That’s a point that John Walker, the gaming freelancer cited by Williamson, makes explicitly clear in a clarification to the rule. There, Walker draws a distinction between unpaid writing for non-profit sites and unpaid writing for sites that profit off of unpaid content. The latter is essentially a form of content farming, bad not only for the industry as a whole but for the exploited writers in particular.

Ultimately, though, the willingness of some writers to write for free is a symptom of the games journalism malaise, not its cause. What’s really driving down the cost of such journalism is the nature of the audience.

Making the Case for Criticism

A few weeks ago, in a piece that sought to provide a defensible definition of gaming, I wrote that the growing quibbles over what it means to even call a thing a game is an indication that “our conception of gaming is in something of a crisis.” In all honestly, though, that depends on who you include in the category “us.” For game theorists and journalists, the problems are as thorny as they’ve ever been, and growing more complex as developers continue to push at the outer limits of the form.

For the majority of people playing and reading about games, though, categorization doesn’t present much of a problem at all. A game is whatever they play on their preferred gaming machine. That straightforward, common sense approach to gaming indicates a degree of disconnect. Diagram it out, and the overlap between the interests of most online games journalists and the gamers they presume to write for tends to encompass little more than the inescapable facts of gaming, namely economics. Most readers want to know, “Which game will be worth the $50 I’m willing to spend right now?” They’re not particularly exercised by the issues of ludology, cultural impact or narrative representation.

Perhaps they should be, but that’s a case that the critics have to make, and not just once. To some extent, it must be made every time a journalists sets out to write more than just a rating or news brief. But it’s also a case that’s made cumulatively, by the critical mass of writers communicating about the issues that matter to them.

Not only do the current wave of game writers qualify as both journalists and enthusiasts: they’re also participants in a conversation that is steadily justifying itself to the rest of the world. Like the proverbial snowball rolling downhill, it increases its own mass so long as you keep it rolling. That winds up being one of the more important roles played by gaming journalists. It not only feeds the industry, but also shapes it.

Ultimately, it may also make it profitable. When criticism is valued, it builds an audience, and an audience that values criticism will tend to be discerning. When books are treated as little more than commodities or distractions, critical journals tend to flounder. It’s only when audiences value public discussion (no matter how ersatz) about the content of books that people are willing to pay to increase the quality of the criticism that literary enthusiasts feel compelled to write anyway.

Even now there is a growing audience for that sort of criticism about gaming, but it remains small compared to the total number of people buying games, most of whom are still looking for the most efficient thrill or news about the next installment in their favorite franchise. The more noise the critical community makes, the more likely they are to attract the attention of gamers in general. To that end, the proliferation of voices can help gaming journalism — provided that you want more gaming journalism to adopt a critical stance.

In order to do that, though, it’s important to look at the current state of gaming journalism less as a publishing venture, and more as a very broad and public discussion. To some extent, the proliferation of gaming websites and blogs is already doing that for you. As I suggested several weeks ago in an article on social media’s impact on literary publishing circles, the structure of digital media lends itself to interactions that are less like the more one-sided discourses of traditional publishing, and more like a vast, networked conversation.

In that regard, then, I’m merely suggesting that we roll with the nature of the medium. There is a role for journalists in that conversation. Just as with critics in other mediums, they serve as moderators, helping define the topics and questions that shape discussion. The critical question facing the industry right now is not whether or not there are too many voices, but whether or not it can justify the conversation they’re having to an audience that’s bigger than just ourselves.

is the founder and editor-in-chief of Culture Ramp.
— Please submit all corrections, responses and rebuttals as letters to the editor.