This is to the journalists among us.
The Double Fine Kickstarter project has been a rousing success. It represents a key turning point in our industry, where developers no longer need to be held captive to publishers’ pocket books. There is the possibility now for some developers to find a dedicated fan base to fund their projects.
But there’s also a real danger here.
Many of the people giving to this campaign are the older gamers, those who were around during the 90s when point-and-click adventure games were at their peak. The very mention of a quality developer such as Tim Schafer behind a new title saw these men and women laying down respectable amounts of money, in anticipation of such an adventure. And why not? If you’re convinced the quality of such a project will be high, there’s no problem in funding it – crowdsourcing has allowed projects to come to life that never would have before.
But plenty of game journalists have given to the campaign as well. And that shouldn’t be happening.
I don’t mean to go on a tirade about how gaming journalism is the next big thing and that, you know, what we’re doing here is actually really serious, guys, really. But there is a razor-thin difference between advocacy and participation, and the industry has come so far that it’s more than ever a dangerous line to tread.
Gaming journalism finds its roots in that advocacy. When gaming was first becoming a big thing, the earliest magazines and publications were built on the idea that what’s happening in the industry is exciting and we should all be a part of it. New games, new consoles, new faces making interesting leaps in coding and logic. That quickly found its way into the publications we see in the 90s. And while there were a few publications that catered to fairly serious discussions of games and the gaming industry, most of these were simply previews and ads for whatever SNES game would be coming out within the next six months.
I’m generalising, of course. But I point out the serious, philisophical discussions we have about games and game theory is new. Very new, and film criticism has us beat by a long shot. It was 60 years ago the greatest filmmakers of their day were writing feature-length articles about the French New Wave, Neo-Realism and so on. This has been going on in the gaming industry for barely a decade at a mainstream level.
Of course, you can point back to the debut of the film industry and quite credibly argue movies were made as pieces of entertainment. While film began as a weird photography experiment, this quickly exploded into what we see in the 30s and 40s – a product made by a company for consumption by a mass audience. As time as gone on, however, the criticism and discussion around film has grown to be as important as the films themselves. Eisenstein, Godard, even Ebert – these are the great minds of criticism.
And yet, could you imagine Ebert contributing to Spielberg’s next picture via a Kickstarter campaign? I can’t speak on behalf of the man, but I’m going to side towards “no”.
There’s a link between the origin of games journalism, and film journalism, in that both are products. But while film has had time to develop and mature, games are nowhere near that point yet. We are just on the cusp of what can be accomplished here – and we shouldn’t abandon that journey by continuing to be participants, rather than journalists.
No, we’re not at that point yet. Gamers still view gaming journalists as advocates, those who should champion new titles rather than cut them down. (Which obviously goes against the very nature of being a journalist – remaining skeptical). And it’s clear publishers still view the industry that way as well – remember the Rage fiasco from last year? Gamasutra’s Brandon Sheffield dares to question the game’s creators about some questionable design elements, and the man was ripped to shreds by the gaming community. He claimed to have received an email from a AAA creative director who instructed PR not to respond to his requests.
This is journalism. And so is Tracey Lien’s piece about the fall of Red Ant, and so is all the work being done around the introduction of an R18+ rating. It’s stuff that people don’t want printed. As our industry grows, matures and expectations grow around design and execution, so should the quality of its scrutiny. And that cannot happen while we are participants, rather than objective eyes-on-the-wall.
There’s nothing wrong with saying a game is great, or even praising it to the point of hyperbole. But games writing has come so far in 20 years that actually participating in the creation of such a game is not only inappropriate, but counter-intuitive to what games writing should be accomplishing.
We should be pressing hard. Asking the deep questions, probing into the issues and discussions that gaming creates. And while few of those are likely to come from Schafer’s new point-and-click adventure, it becomes extremely difficult to judge that game having invested a piece of your efforts into it.
I am a business journalist. If I were to buy shares in a company, I would have an ethical obligation to disclose my interests. Kara Swisher on All Things Digital does so, and is promptly criticised even for that by some in the industry. This is not a perfect comparison, obviously. Those who contributed shares here don’t have a portion of the game’s profit, but as I spelled out earlier –
There is a distinct difference between advocacy and participation.
The counter-argument to this is that the first Kickstarter reward of the Double Fine project is a copy of the game. You might say it’s simply a down payment, a pre-order. I wouldn’t have a problem with that except it’s not the same as a pre-order. At all. You’re actively making a decision to assist in this game’s development, and are not simply putting up your hand and saying, “yes, I’ll buy that when it comes out”. But again, you’re not just buying an end product. Your funds are part of what is enabling this game to be made. We as journalists must remain objective, and we cannot do so while we’re standing alongside developers.
We encourage, yes – even tell people to donate themselves. But we also criticise and remain objective.
Maybe I’m taking myself too seriously. But there’s been too much great writing coming out of the gaming scene over the past few years to not take it seriously. We must remain skeptical, objective and on watch. If you want to be a developer – be a developer. As journalists, we owe it to our readers to remain apart. And we cannot do that while handing out investments.