June 27, 2008

You're Not A Journalist

I can't stop lying. It's such a thrill. Here's another story from GDC 2008. On Friday, there was a panel of game journalists -- Stephen Totilo, Garnett Lee, Brian Crecente, some other dudes -- and someone asked a question about the "cult of the amateur"; about whether the proliferation of amateur bloggers and journalists was devaluing the profession. Crecente jumped in immediately with "well, I'm not an amateur" and cited the many years he spent on the police beat.

I thought it should be self-evident that if you get paid to do it, then you're not an amateur. Instead, Crecente was apparently compelled to defend his journalistic credibility. 'Amateur' doesn't mean 'amateur' anymore, it means 'hack'.

Ben Fritz, the guy who blogs video games for Variety, wrote a post about Civilization IV: Colonization and how the concept was intrinsically offensive and racist. He made the mistake of admitting he'd never heard of the original Colonization before, which of course everyone seized upon as the chink in Fritz's armour; the thermal exhaust port on his Death Star.

Did I, in the year 2008, just use the word 'chink'? Someone write an outraged blog post about me please.

I'm not smart enough to directly contest Fritz's position, although judging by the response so far, that shouldn't stop me from taking to the comments and calling him a tard. What I find interesting, though, are comments -- which appear both on the Variety blog and on Quarter to Three -- like this: "
This is why bloggers are not journalists and should not pretend to be."

That's a weird statement, Fritz notwithstanding. Basically, the internet cannot be an avenue for legitimate journalism, amateur or otherwise. Okay, that's patently ridiculous, whatever. What's puzzling to me is how Fritz writing an opinion piece somehow disabuses him of his journalist credentials. You're not a journalist if you're ill-informed? You're not a journalist if you're wrong? You're not a journalist if you say something which many people vehemently disagree with?

'Journalist' doesn't mean 'journalist' anymore. It doesn't refer to a profession. It's an endorsement; a statement of preference. Like "yeah, Kieron Gillen, man, that guy's a real journalist." Or "yeah, that Geoff Keighley feature on Half-Life 2, man, that was real journalism." Or "yeah, Jeff Gerstmann, man, giving Zelda an 8.8, that's not real journalism." How many times have you gone to a message board or a blog and seen the phrase "video game journalist" in mocking quotes? Well, at least once.

Journalists are art now. Unlike 'journalism', 'art' has always been a subjective proposition, but I see it used a lot to indicate merely that something is at a very high level of quality. There's no discussion about aesthetics or influence or genre or whatever, 'art' just means A+. Metal Gear Solid 4 is art. Why is it art? Because it's really really good!

But I think that the people praising Metal Gear's artistic merit aren't taking their vacations at the Louvre, and the people telling Ben Fritz he's not a journalist aren't taking inspiration from the opinion pieces of journalists they do like. The words don't have a lot of meaning beyond serving as cards to play in reviews and internet arguments. How do I feel about that? I don't have even a little bit of an idea.

This isn't a blog where I link things, but I am linking this. I don't know if it's journalism but I know what I like.


Michael Abbott said...

It's impossible for me to understand what these words mean anymore. Blogger, journo, enthusiast, amateur, professional. They honestly have no real significance to me. High traffic sites with paid professionals produce writing that barely reaches the elementary level. Bloggers nobody has heard of write sophisticated analytical essays that challenge my perceptions. And vice versa.

Is the internet the great field leveler everybody said it would be? I have no idea, but it does seem to me one useful benefit of all this is a clear imperative to think for yourself. Good writing about games is out there, and it's not terribly hard to find. The same can be said about the bad stuff.

Great piece, Duncan. Thanks.

Duncan said...

I think the internet has soundly disproven the notion that the journalism/writing industries were ever meritocracies. I'd say that in the internet age it's harder to find good journalism but there's more of it to find. That's based somewhat on signal-to-noise ratios but also on the hyper-competitive, globalisation dynamics that tore apart the TV media in the nineties.

I'm fascinated by how the internet will affect people's careers. Used to be that the first time someone famous appeared in the public eye, it'd be when they starred in a movie or having a novel published or playing for a baseball team. You know what I mean? If you saw DeNiro in the Godfather in 1974 you couldn't google him and find his facebook and his blog that he'd been writing for ten years. Because the internet has such a low barrier to entry, it's exposed more people to a public audience than ever before. You can really track the course of their lives.

Duncan said...

Oh, wow, this has nothing to do with anything, and I don't want to be the blogger sneering at the rest of the internet but I want to highlight this comment from Ben Fritz's blog:

"When people start whining about racism, that is when I tune them out. You removed any doubt anyone might have had that you were clueless."


qrter said...

This pretty much boils down to the grand ol' discussion of the internets - whether the internet is responsible for something called The Age of the Amateur. Now everyone can write a blog. Now everyone can make music and find an outlet for it. Now everyone can make an indie game and sell it.

A significant part of the professional classes react by saying how terrible this is, how they're losing their 'gatekeeper' function directing the huddled masses to the 'good stuff'.

This ofcourse completely ignores the idea that the whole 'gatekeeper' thing was/is controlled by huge corporations in it for the big bags of moneys and that this whole notion was desperately in need for an overhaul anyway. It also doesn't acknowledge that people are smart enough to recognise quality for themselves.

I think you're right in your assumption that when you get paid to do something, you can call yourself a professional - but it's still just a title, it says very little about the quality of what is produced (sadly, really).

Games journalism seems to be almost hysterically self-conscious - there is no natural evolution, everyone is fretting about not just writing "consumer guides" but instantly being the "Lester Bangs of videogame journalism", which is a pretty hard thing to do anyway when the games industry itself is still mostly an entertainment industry at the moment. This is where those little review explosions like BioShock, GTAIV and MGS4 come from, I'm guessing.

Duncan said...

Yeah, completely agreed, and you make a really good point about game journalism stagnation.

It's ironic given that point about "natural evolution" that I'm trying to resist a natural language shift here with the word "professional". Regardless, I think that redefining it as a measure of quality is a particularly counterproductive and demeaning change. Amateurs, like anyone else, can of course produce fantastic game writing but it's still a binary state. You're an amateur or you're not and that affects the quality of your writing about as much as your gender or your ethnicity or your sexuality. There's nothing wrong with being an amateur so how did the term get so pejorative? The world allows for so much more gradation than "good" and "bad".

Korey said...

Great post, Duncan. I've really enjoyed reading your blog. I'm still amazed at Internet users' ability to attack, attack, attack. Personally, I don't agree with everything Ben says at Variety, but I often see where he's coming from. Surprisingly to me, I felt like I really understood what he meant about Colonization, since I had been thinking something similar about the Civ games.

It's already been said, but being a paid journalist has little to do with the quality of your writing or ideas. Oh, and that quote you highlighted is everything I dislike about anonymous Internet commenting.

Keep up the great writing. I look forward to your next post.

Duncan said...

Thanks Korey! I'm not a regular reader of Ben Fritz's blog, but yeah, every time someone's linked me there I've appreciated what he's had to say. The Colonization post really seems like an out-of-nowhere overreaction.