I had intended for the first iteration of this segment to be on an entirely different topic, but after this recent controversy arose within the games journalism community, I felt it prudent to start here. It’s current news, it’s better to talk about it now, and it will hopefully segue into a good mission statement about what I’m trying to accomplish with these write-ups.
With that said, welcome to Right Click to Zoom, the more in-depth article side of this blog. Today’s topic is “competency and professionalism in video game journalism”.
Allow me to begin by asking a question: if you go out to eat at a restaurant, you want the chef to know what they’re doing, yes? They don’t necessarily have to be world-class gourmet chefs, but if your food comes out uncooked and smelling foul as if the kitchen didn’t know what a stove was, you’d have issues with it. You would complain, take it back, or perhaps leave. When you go out to eat, that is the desire you would have of your chef: competency.
This can be applied to just about anything we do in our lives. We don’t want people unskilled and untrained to be repairing our cars, doing our taxes or running our stores.
Why, then, is it so hard for people to apply this to video game journalism?
The Cuphead Controversy
The moment that really sparked this conversation in its fullest is a 26-minute gameplay video where reviewer Dean Takahashi of GamesBeat plays a demo build of the game Cuphead at Gamescom. Cuphead is a beautifully stylised 2D run ‘n’ gun platformer with art style that greatly resembles classic cartoons to incredible detail. Playing like classic games such as Gunstar Heroes, the game is apparently not a straightforward walk in the park in terms of difficulty.
Difficulty is not the issue here, however; the issue is that Takahashi takes over a minute to complete a simple jump in the tutorial with clear instructions and controls on how to do so. Here’s the footage for your perusal. Even after the tutorial, the gameplay quality does not improve much at all.
It didn’t take long before this video was spread around the internet quickly, with a huge amount of negative commentary surrounding the ineptitude of the journalist’s gaming skills. In fact, the video name was changed from its original title of “It isn’t easy” to its current title after enough complaints regarding it. Much of this commentary was, while arguably valid, quite overblown and excessive in true internet fashion. Calls for Takahashi to be fired have been made, and it wouldn’t surprise me if death threats surfaced as well.
This probably wouldn’t have earned more than a laugh before the internet moved on, but what really turned this into a continuing conversation was a slew of gaming journalists emerging to defend Takahashi. Amidst all of this, the defending side occasionally made claims that “competency at video games is not required to be a good video games journalist.”
While many will continue to focus on Takahashi’s involvement in instigating this discussion, that is largely insignificant to my viewpoints. What has garnered my involvement in this matter is that claim that competency is optional. Quite frankly, I believe that claim to be absolute nonsense for the exact same reasons that I highlighted in the opening metaphor. Nowhere in life do we want those who are inept and incompetent at their jobs to nonetheless be doing those jobs and getting paid for it. Why are games journalists allowed a pass, then? Why are so many of them rising up to defend this?
So let’s take a good look at this from the base question. Should games journalists be competent at the games they play?
Competency and Professionalism: Why it matters
Video games are a luxury item that serve to entertain the players. That’s a simple enough statement. What is the purpose of a games journalist, then? Depending on the publication or angle of the journalist, this can be twofold: to inform, and to entertain.
The vast majority of games journalism is aimed at informing the reader. Articles will announce new games that are revealed at conventions or press releases and pass on video footage and information as soon as it’s available to a wider audience. Once games are available, reviews are written to tell you what is contained within a game and how it plays, and they either provide scores or otherwise allow the reader to come to their conclusion on whether or not they want this title.
On the other side of games journalism is the entertainment side, and while the two aren’t mutually exclusive, there’s usually more of an informal, personal slant in writing to entertain. Opinion pieces may discuss a game-related topic, or reviews may be written in a more light-hearted fashion. Entertaining people is arguably harder to do, but entertainment at its nature is subjective and what entertains some may not interest others.
Assuming then that a journalist’s purpose is to inform the reader, they must therefore be as accurate as possible. Your viewership seeks to get the most up-to-date and reliable information that they can from you, and if you’re misleading them or prove wrong too often, then you’re largely failing in your job as an informative journalist. Perhaps you can fall back on the entertainment side of things, but why not be both?
Using the example of Takahashi’s playthrough of Cuphead, what would happen if this footage wasn’t released but instead was the basis of a full review of the game? The review will most likely say that the game is brutally punishing and unforgiving, and not necessarily because of the game’s design, but because the writer was simply not skilled or familiar enough with platformers to manage it.
That might not sound bad in theory, but it all trickles down. What if the first person to read your article is an avid platformer enthusiast and is constantly seeking tough as nails challenges? They might be encouraged to buy the game, only to find that it’s too simplistic or basic for their preferences. At this point you’ve stopped being reliable to them, so are they likely to keep subscribing to your articles? Probably not. And with the video games journalism market quite saturated and full of skilled (and unskilled) writers, it doesn’t take much encouragement for a reader to find their information elsewhere.
Perhaps you can still prove to be somewhat entertaining, but you are going to get so much further by being reliable. To be reliable, you must have at least some competency in order to properly experience the games and portray that information back to your readers. And in the event that you aren’t competent, then you need to relay that information back to readers as well. State that you’re not great at this genre of game and don’t try to pretend that you are, or make excuses based on the number of years you’ve been employed in the industry.
That all goes back to the concept of professionalism. Whatever else it may be, games journalism should be taken as seriously by those who undertake it as any other career or focus. It’s courteous to both your readers and the industry as a whole if you be as professional as possible, making sure you’re as clear and accurate in what you do regardless of how entertaining you are. If you’re going to do it, you might as well do it right.
Of course, it’s not a simple matter to label someone as good or bad at video games as a whole, regardless of what people might say to each other on the subject. Consider a game like League of Legends; millions of people play it, but only a tiny percentage of these people reach Diamond or above ranking. Despite this, it’s a fairly common notion that anybody below Diamond is flat out bad at the game and has no business talking about strategy or balance… despite the fact that this playerbase would outnumber the higher ranks a hundred times over. A similar notion has arisen in just about any game with a competitive ranking system, regardless of the genre.
The thing is, being good at one game does not necessarily mean you’re good at all games. Those with the skills to climb to these vaunted ranks in a single game might not possess the same traits needed to rise in another. A good League of Legends player might be a terrible Overwatch player, while a good Overwatch player might also be bad at League of Legends.
Expand that further to the massive amounts of games in existence, and it’s almost impossible to imagine someone who is good at all of them. Even in my own household, my youngest sibling is extremely good at competitive games and rises to high rank in whatever he plays, yet will often struggle with puzzles or strategic concepts that I can spot and solve in seconds.
Getting back to games journalism, this presents an interesting situation. Video games are far too broad a topic to cover everything at once. It’s usually only the biggest websites and publications that are broad enough with their resources and writers to reach out to multiple systems, genres, or games all at once; otherwise, they’re usually more niche and selective in the content they focus on.
Ideally, journalists need to stick to their strengths and skills. To go back to the recurring example, Dean Takahashi might actually be a decent gamer with a lot of experience in certain areas, but may have never touched a 2D platformer before in his life. In a perfect world, he would not be the one assigned to cover this game and provide that footage, but that’s how it ended up. Perhaps there were none better suited from GamesBeat present to do so. Maybe their collective experience with platformers is equally lacking. Who knows? But that’s how the situation unfolded.
Beyond any skills with games, there’s also the other elephant in the room: skill at writing. Yes, we need to be competent at the games we’re playing to write about them, but we also need to be able to write well in order to express that information adequately and keep our readers focused.
In a perfect situation, you’d always have the right person in the right place at the right time to cover what’s necessary. Sadly, that doesn’t happen often, so such incidents can happen. Is it cause for people to lose their jobs over it or for them to stop being journalists altogether? Probably not. Skillsets are too broad and varied, and they might actually still be good at their job in other fields. One incident is hardly a good spotlight to use for their entire career.
You would hope that that’s where professionalism can come into the picture, with the writer identifying and accepting their mistakes and flaws humbly while focusing on what they can do. If you end up taking to Twitter or demanding that readers prove they can do a better job, well… that’s when I would start questioning your eligibility for the task.
So where do I stand?
I’ve gone back and forth over this incident and the core questions at hand by now, so hopefully I’ve presented the topic of discussion adequately. Should games journalists be required to be competent at the games they are covering? Yes, I think so. It might not always ideally happen, but that is what one should strive for simply out of professionalism.
That tenet is at the core of all my writing, and why this subjected resonated heavily enough for me to want to speak on this matter. I’m not a paid professional, and my video games journalism could right now barely be construed as anything more than a hobby. Still, I have always done my utmost to put my best work into my writing. I want to exhibit professionalism in what I do, and with that comes competency.
I won’t claim to be the best writer, but I’m always looking to improve myself and do the best I can. I’m certainly not the best gamer, but whenever I write about them, I do my utmost to at the very least be well informed on the subjects at hand.
Some journalists might try to argue that competency at video games is not a requirement, but I strongly disagree. If you want to write about video games, you should be able to play video games. You don’t have to be the best at them, but you should certainly strive to be as competent as possible in order to perform your job accurately and with as much depth of experience as possible.
That’s ultimately the mission statement here of Right Click to Zoom, and of Delfeir vs. the Backlog at large: I want to be as competent and professional at this as I possibly can be. With the first installment of this weekly article now concluded, I plan to strive to uphold this as the segment continues.
If you’ve made it this far, then thanks very much for your time and attention. I hope you enjoyed this article, and I’d love to hear feedback from you. Share your thoughts with me, and I’ll see you next week. Delfeir out.