I Am Not Games Journalism, or: The Limits of Symbiosis

I spend a lot of time with game developers.

This should not come as a surprise, but I know a lot of game journalists who don’t actually do this, so maybe it will be. And, to be fair, the internet has made a lot of things possible that once seemed magical. Like reporting on an industry which you never physically observe. OK. It’s a valid strategy. Just not mine.

So I spend a lot of time with game developers. I would even go so far as to say that some people who make games are people I would call friends. But here’s the thing: I am not one of them.

Multiple developers have told me over the years some variation of the following: “You should be more careful how you write about us, or interact with us, because we are all in this industry together.”

This is bullshit.

I can understand how someone could come to this conclusion. This is a small industry, and we all spend a lot of time around each other (unless you don’t, see above). As journalists, we get our bread from reporting on what developers do. Games journalism is, at the end of the day, a product-focused field. It is dependent on the existence of the product. Therefore, it makes a sort of logical sense to conclude that games journalism, as a nebulous whole, is dependent on games development.

While that may be fair, here’s the thing: I am not games journalism.

Let’s take a thought journey. Imagine you’re a developer of video games and suddenly, some day, games magically disappear. Like, from all existence entirely. Boom. No games. They no longer do, nor did they ever, exist. It was all a dream. What then?

If you are a game developer, your job ceases to exist. What do you do? This is a wildly impossible hypothetical, so it’s similarly impossible to answer the question with any degree of clarity, but one would have to assume (if one were playing along) that each individual game developer would end up on a different path according to their talents and tastes.

Game artists, for example, might end up making art for films or books or road signs. Game writers would end up doing similar things (minus the road signs). Level designers are actually problem solvers, and so could end up doing multiple other jobs. And so forth. Each person may or may not miss their (now anachronistic) former career in games development, but given the vast ocean of possibilities for talented, creative and smart individuals to make a living, I feel confident suggesting they would all be OK.

In a world without games, then, the people who make games would do other things. This is not a controversial opinion.

So what does a game journalist do in a world without video games? Well, if they’re a journalist of any competence, we must assume they could also journal about things that aren’t games. Or wash cars. Or whatever.

Point being, because I write about you does not mean I depend on you, the people who make games. If I wasn’t writing about Developer A, I’d be writing about Developer B. (And this is not idle speculation. We get turned down for interview requests all the time.) If all developers suddenly vanished, I’d be writing about something else.

This is no different from the assumption that game makers can make other things, and yet, in our industry, it’s a controversial opinion. Why, you may ask? I’ll tell you. It’s because a lot of people in our industry are full of shit.

You, as a game developer, are not my meal ticket. You are someone that I observe and try to understand and relate to people who want to know more about you. You are a fascinating and inspiring subject. You are a person living in a world that is magical to the people outside of it, and someone I take a great deal of pleasure in getting to know — and allowing my readers to get to know, through me. Occasionally, you are even a friend. But you are not my colleague.

Worth repeating: You are not my colleague. Nor am I yours.

I think most of the people who say that the journalism depends on the development understand this difference. Game developers are, by definition, pretty smart. While it is possible that some game developers actually do consider journalists to be in the same business as they are, but slightly to the side, or perhaps underneath, I don’t think that’s a widely-held belief. Not in so far as saying, “we’re literally in this together, so do what I say or else.” I think the people who genuinely hold this belief are easily spotted and avoided, and we all kind of know who they are.

I also think that most of the people who say things like “we need each other” are actually trying to say something else. I think they’re trying to say: “Take it easy on us, because we do this out of love and so do you, and you have the power to do us a lot of harm and that would be bad for both of us.” And believe me, I understand this and I’m not unsympathetic.

For as much talk as exists about how much money there is in making video games, I know that most of the people who actually work on the ground level could make a lot more money doing other things, but choose to work in games because of their passion and love for the medium. So there is a certain logic to the suggestion that, as passionate fans ourselves, we should consider ourselves a part of the industry and, so, “take it easy” on the people who make the games.

And yet, Journalism.

I consider myself a journalist first, and a game journalist second. And as much as I love the products of this industry and respect and admire and even care for the people who make them, I can’t go along with the idea that we are in the same business. Because we’re not. Developers make games, and I make journalism. We work near each other, but not with each other. And no matter how interdependent we may be on paper, we will always have dissimilar — and at times opposite — goals.

Developers and journalists work side-by-side and often in tandem, but we must also occasionally work in different directions. I am reminded of this every time I’m turned down for an interview only to see it show up somewhere else. Or when I see one of the story proposals I’ve pitched to a game company’s PR representative come back across my desk as an invitation to a press event that sounds amazingly similar to what I proposed, only with the added benefit of my competitors also being invited. Or when I am warned in harsh whispers, by a close friend, that they can’t be seen speaking to me or they’ll lose their job. Or when the head of a game company flat out lies to me because telling me the truth would be harmful to their business.

I am a journalist. They are game makers. We have different goals and strategies and that is as it should be, even when it causes pain.

I know that people who make games suffer when they see embarrassing news stories come to light. I know that their lives might be more pain-free if they didn’t have to answer to or defend against journalists. I know that many would greatly prefer if journalists actually did work for or with them and shared the same goals and strategies.

I also know that game developers are not alone in feeling this way. Politicians and Hollywood producers and sport figures and kings have all felt the same thing. Journalism is not designed to be their friend, even when it exists to primarily promote their products. I’d say especially then.

**

I was given a remarkable opportunity recently by Hidden Path Entertainment to visit their studio in Seattle and observe everything that happens there over the course of a one-year game development cycle. All on record. My report on this will be published at Polygon, in pieces, over the course of the next several months. Part One is up now.

Making this offer took an amazing amount of courage on the part of Hidden Path, and I have an enormous amount of respect for the members of that company for agreeing to let me in. But the most important part of our agreement (to me) is that even though I am embedding in the studio for days or weeks at a time, taking meals with them, getting to know them and even hanging out with them, they understand that I am not their business partner. They understand (and accept) that I am a journalist, and I am there to report on as much of the bad as the good. That even though I might come to like each individual a great deal, I am ultimately there to relate to my audience the true story of what is happening, not the version Hidden Path would have paid me to write. And when Hidden Path told me it wouldn’t have me there under any other terms was the exact moment I agreed to the assignment.

One could say that because I’m working closely with Hidden Path on this story, and that I wouldn’t have a story to write without its work or even permission, I should “go easy” on Hidden Path or consider we are part of the same industry, and attempt to build them up even if the truth didn’t reflect that point of view. I’m not going to do that.

The good news is that Hidden Path actually is a remarkable company, and the people who work there are fascinating. Telling the true story about their studio and game will not be a struggle for me, and after having spent a good deal of time with them already, I dont expect for it to be a painful experience for them, either. Although, who knows. This is game development. If shit goes sideways and I’m there to see it, that could be a difficult day. But they’re open to that possibility and ready to accept whatever comes of it, and I cannot overstate how much I admire them for that courage. I’m looking forward to sharing more of their stories in the months ahead.

Thing is though, if Hidden Path had told me it wanted me to “take it easy” or avoid certain topics or clear my copy through the company before filing or be sure to hit certain bullet points, or whatever, I wouldn’t be there. I wouldn’t be writing the story. That would be marketing and I am not a marketer.

I am a journalist. I am there to tell a story. I like telling stories. They have a story they’d like to have told. We are working in symbiosis only so far as those goals align.

To suggest our relationship is anything more is bullshit. And to anyone who thinks that it should be any other way, I’m sorry, but you’re dead wrong.