GameSpot


Huh? Who’s there? Oh, sorry…I was just taking a quick, 10-day nap to recover from the whirlwind of game-filled days and sleepless nights that was this year’s E3 Media & Business Summit. While the developers and publishers are the ones ostensibly driving the show with their “games” and “announcements,” I maintain that it’s us sleep-deprived journalists that are really the core of the event. After all, we’re the gatekeepers who have to condense the whirlwind of news into something somewhat interesting and digestible to the gaming public. With so many disparate journalists in one place, consensus on a game or company’s performance can coalesce quickly.

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In a perfect world, every game reviewer would be able to play every game to completion before crafting a thorough and well-researched critique of the gameplay and narrative. Of course, in a perfect world every game would be perfect, so there would be no need for reviewers at all. Unfortunately, we don’t live in a perfect world, and practically every professional reviewer admits to falling short of the ideal, play-it-to-the-finish standard at one time or another. The reasons behind these lapses range from the practical to the personal.

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Embargo issues, trade-association conflicts, and a tantalizingly inaccurate source for game-sales data highlight the month’s game-journalism issues.

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The media tend to come at video games from a lot of different angles. Various stories might alternately treat gaming as a multibillion dollar business, a growing cultural phenomenon, an art form worthy of critique, or the leading edge of a technological revolution. But there’s another potential gaming angle that gets comparatively little coverage or respect from the press in general: gaming as professional sport.

This is slowly beginning to change, though, as more and more media outlets begin to take pro gaming seriously. CBS, Spike TV, USA, and DirectTV have all experimented with pro gaming broadcasts to various degrees, and G4 recently announced a deal to show Championship Gaming Series events on its network.

The entire pro gaming subculture is also the subject of a new book, Game Boys, a fascinating look at pro gaming’s efforts to gain respect and attention through the lens of two competitive Counter-Strike teams. I talked with Game Boys author Michael Kane about his experience writing the book, the current state of pro gaming on television, and whether or not video games could become the next great spectator sport.

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When a console maker and a publishing house get together to create an “official” editorial product, the result usually straddles the fuzzy line between editorial independence and official access. Even if the actual content is fair and duly critical of the licensing company, there’s still the problem of perception. Without clear lines of division between promotion and editorial, readers might well wonder where the “official” part of the title ends and the independent voice of the editors begins.

This fuzzy line gets even fuzzier with Qore, a first-of-its-kind downloadable “interactive” magazine for the PlayStation 3. Qore is created by Future Publishing (the house behind all three “official” console magazines) but “presented by the PlayStation Network,” making for a product that is a confusing hybrid of advertising and editorial that often ends up feeling more like the former than the latter.

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“This article is awful! The author is so biased!”

It’s a quote that should be familiar to anyone who’s ever read a comment thread on a major video game Web site. The accusation can apply to a review (which is, by definition, supposed to be biased in one direction or another), a news story (which, theoretically, should be free from any undue bias), or, really, any piece that the commenter doesn’t personally agree with. The implication, of course, is that the author is being unfairly swayed by some unseen factor (money, swag, advertising pressure, or even simple personal preference) and that therefore their reporting or opinion shouldn’t even be considered.

While throwing up an anonymous accusation of bias is easy, answering the charge isn’t always so clear-cut. When I put the question of biased coverage to members of the gaming press, the answers ran the gamut.

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I look at a few game journalism issues that almost feel through the cracks in May, including a game media firestorm around Headline News’ Glenn Beck, a dead rumor site written by a mysterious “Surfer Girl,” and an “Influencer Network” meant to subtly influence the influencers.

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Was it really just a few weeks ago that some corners of the mainstream media were warning about how Grand Theft Auto IV was training an entire generation of immoral killers? It seems like ancient history now that the video game coverage narrative has shifted over to Nintendo’s Wii Fit, the savior of a generation plagued by childhood obesity.

The game industry really couldn’t have asked for a better high-profile follow-up to the controversy-plagued Grand Theft Auto release. Nintendo’s personal-trainer-in-a-box flipped the tone of mainstream game coverage from moderately negative to moderately positive practically overnight. An Associated Press story made the change in tone explicit, noting that Wii Fit wasn’t targeting “the ‘Grand Theft Auto’ audience of boys and young men” and quoting an analyst as saying “I don’t think we even had the imagination a year ago that Wii Fit could be compared to Grand Theft Auto.”

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In a previous life, Stephen Totilo helped create Hogan Knows Best.

Seriously.

It may seem odd to think about it now, but before he became MTV News’ first full-time video game reporter, Totilo was one of the people behind the idea for the pro-wrestler-based reality show. After his departure from the project nearly three years ago, the VH1 series was a modest hit, running from 2005 to 2007.

Despite the allure of pro-wrestler-based reality TV, Totilo wasn’t destined to let his Columbia journalism degree go to waste. He parlayed brief positions at Newsweek and Brill’s Content into freelance game reporting gigs for GameSpy, IGN and The New York Times. Now, Totilo heads up a team that covers games on the MTV’s cable networks, MTVNews.com, and MTV’s Multiplayer blog. PressSpotting talked with Totilo about his experience writing about games and what it means to be a game journalist today. Here’s some excerpts from our lengthy conversation:

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On April 28, the front page story on the New York Times’ Arts section wasn’t about a new Broadway play or a hot new CD or even a blockbuster summer movie. It was a balanced, 1,100-word review of Grand Theft Auto IV that described the game as a “violent, intelligent, profane, endearing, obnoxious, sly, richly textured and thoroughly compelling work of cultural satire disguised as fun.”

The Times wasn’t alone. Kotaku’s Brian Crecente briefly returned to the Rocky Mountain News to write a major 2,000-word feature on his five days locked in a room with the game. Marc Saltzman compared it to “an interactive episode of The Sopranos” from the pages of USA Today. MSNBC noted in a subhead that it’s “a blast to play a criminal in a safe, consequence-free environment.”

As much as Grand Theft Auto IV is being hailed as a revolution in gaming, its release also seems to herald a revolution in mainstream coverage of gaming itself.

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