Many moons ago, in a land far, far away, there existed a thing called investigative journalism. I imagine most are not quite familiar with the term, so let us consult the all-knowing oracle of the Internet (Wikipedia) for an explanation of what that is:
Investigative journalism is a form of journalism in which reporters deeply investigate a single topic of interest, such as serious crimes, political corruption, or corporate wrongdoing. An investigative journalist may spend months or years researching and preparing a report. Investigative journalism is a primary source of information. Most investigative journalism is conducted by newspapers, wire services, and freelance journalists. Practitioners sometimes use the term “accountability reporting”.
An investigative reporter may make use of one or more of these tools, among others, on a single story:
- Analysis of documents, such as lawsuits and other legal documents, tax records, government reports, regulatory reports, and corporate financial filings
- Databases of public records
- Investigation of technical issues, including scrutiny of government and business practices and their effects
- Research into social and legal issues
- Subscription research sources such as LexisNexis
- Numerous interviews with on-the-record sources as well as, in some instances, interviews with anonymous sources (for example whistleblowers)
- Federal or state Freedom of Information Acts to obtain documents and data from government agencies
University of Missouri journalism professor Steve Weinberg defined investigative journalism as: “Reporting, through one’s own initiative and work product, matters of importance to readers, viewers, or listeners.” In many cases, the subjects of the reporting wish the matters under scrutiny to remain undisclosed. There are currently university departments for teaching investigative journalism. Conferences are conducted presenting peer reviewed research into investigative journalism. British media theorist Hugo de Burgh (2000) states that: “An investigative journalist is a man or woman whose profession it is to discover the truth and to identify lapses from it in whatever media may be available. The act of doing this generally is called investigative journalism and is distinct from apparently similar work done by police, lawyers, auditors, and regulatory bodies in that it is not limited as to target, not legally founded and closely connected to publicity.”
Words, right? To summarize succinctly (aka tl;dr), investigative journalism is when reporters get hands-on with a specific topic or issue, go into the field, and find out information for themselves so they can report their findings. That was simple, right? Surely not so hard, either. It used to be all the rage before the rise of the Fifth Estate. So, why am I bringing this up, pray tell? Put simply, we have a serious dearth of that in our gaming journalism today.
Let us consider investigative journalism’s cousin, watchdog journalism, which Wikipedia defines as “inform[ing] the public about goings-on in institutions and society, especially in circumstances where a significant portion of the public would demand changes in response.” Well hey, there are plenty of goings-on in gaming circles by the institutions that dominate the industry. There have been plenty of times when gamers have had sour grapes on purchases that seemed like a good idea at the time (still waiting for a refund on my pre-order of StarCraft: Ghost). Nobody likes to think of himself/herself as a sucker, and to an extent, that is where gaming reviews and, more recently, YouTube Let’s Plays have attempted to educate the populace. Personality-driven YouTube channels in particular have become a vehicle for urging a more consumer rights-oriented approach from developers and publishers. Nevertheless, we still get controversies like Aliens: Colonial Marines or Total War: Rome II from time to time (is it sad that both of those were Sega games?), in which games are plainly thrown together with slapdash cohesion. If we only had watchdogs inside the industry that were there to bark at the irresponsible producers, then fewer people would have been suckered.
I suppose, then, that the response should naturally be, “Let’s send in more journalists to ask hard-hitting questions of game producers.” Would that it worked that way! Producers would never subject themselves to a potential loss of credibility by making bold promises and then having to answer to someone when they fail to deliver. Games, especially in long-running franchises, tend to sell out of inertia; that is, a game sells because people are buying based on experience with the franchise (there really is no other rational explanation for anyone buying Shadow the Hedgehog). Thus, it is easier to release something of poor quality knowingly, provoke a certain segment of the gaming public, and make thin overtures to the tune of, “We promise never to do it again.” After all, even negative press can be good press when spun correctly. If a journalist did attempt to get in some developer’s face about covering up misdeeds, what would the developer do? Stop talking, of course, and probably double-down by blacklisting that journalism and his/her parent company. Developers everywhere would be chilled by the idea of talking to that journalist and then all of the exclusive tidbits and such that developers are fond of releasing to the gaming press to fuel their hype trains would dry up, at least to that journalist and his/her employer. At the end of the day, games journalism is still a business, and if there is no business being generated, that business is out of business. We therefore have the conundrum of gaming companies telling us, via the gaming press, what they want us to know, rather than the gaming press telling us what we should know about gaming companies. That is because the gaming press is entirely dependent on the existence of gaming companies in the first place
Wretched problem, isn’t it? This is comparable to, say, political journalism, with the difference being that there are, at least in more democratic countries, constitutional safeguards ensuring the freedom of the press and its ability to investigate. Much as I would like to see an addendum to the First Amendment of the United States Constitution guaranteeing the gaming press’s freedom to investigate game producers, my inclination is to say that fixing campaign finance laws might have slight priority here. Besides, the worse problem, at least from the perspective of the gaming press, is counteracting the effects of Twitter, Reddit, etc., which allow producers to interact with consumers directly and inexpensively, thus cutting out the middleman of the gaming press. In theory, the press not getting answers from the producers could run stories about how the producers are refusing to speak, but that is not a viable, long-term strategy when producers can spin-doctor to the consumers through social media and ignore the press sulking in its own corner. Moreover, print media has been in a state of flux for nearly two decades, and gaming especially does not lend itself to remaining in such a static form because it is a visual medium. The proliferation of gaming walkthroughs, playthroughs, reviews, and so forth on YouTube demonstrates that the gaming press cannot survive on the foundation of merely drafting a few paragraphs and closing with “7/10” anymore. There is only so much clickbait that one can consume before growing weary of it. Above all else, though, journalism is (or should be) hard work. The dedication required to do investigative journalism in particular is expensive in manhours and other resources, and the relative payout is always going to be small when one considers that gaming, despite being broadly appealing to the general public, is still very much a niche activity. It does not pay to be an investigative games journalist.
Professionalizing the gaming culture, or attempts thereto, has always struck me as hamartia, the Greek word for “missing the mark.” It is the great error of those who wield influence to dress up what should be a friendly, laid-back form of diversion in stiff-necked business suits with arrow collars. Games journalism always sticks in my mind as a prominent example of this because I am wont to believe that gamers like playing their games more than hearing journalists profess opinions about gaming. However, I also believe that gamers like engaging with other gamers about the games they play and are open to critical analyses of games and the people who make them. In that regard, games journalism does have a big role it could fill. Regrettably, this is not the practice because cranking out more clickbait is cheaper and faster than lengthy, studied research on industry issues. I wish there were more work done by games journalists to investigate and educate instead of try to claw for every last pageview possible. If we are going to have people call themselves journalists in the field of video games, they should aspire to correct the absence of reasoned analysis of topical matters relevant to gamers. Most of the other fluff peddled in games journalism neither advances the culture nor is as professional as advertised.
How to resolve this? Options are limited. Unlike old-school muckrakers, games journalists cannot go into the company headquarters of Capcom or Bethesda, rifle through design documents, and expose them like the Pentagon Papers (at least, not until selecting the Industrial Espionage ideological tenet). Also, as long as the cavalier attitude of piracy prevails on the Internet, any enterprise that attempts to compensate journalists appropriately for doing serious, investigative work will hemorrhage money. The niche, again, is too small and so circulation will be inherently limited first to those who are gamers and then even more so to those gamers who would care to read such journalistic work. Even if a confederation or cooperative gathered talented journalists and funding to undertake this kind of endeavor, there is a sense of intractability with gaming culture that responds to most of these issues with dismissive disinterest. In short, there would need to be a cultural shift among gamers, resulting in gamers believing these issues should be treated with sufficient gravity. Could that happen? Certainly. Could an enterprise of people working together to start doing serious, investigative games journalism be the thing that encourages that cultural shift? Sure. Is anyone willing to front that kind of money on such a risky gamble? Not as long as something as egregiously puerile as Buttgate is spoken of with more severity than game developers being underpaid and overworked. That is why my eyes roll like roulette wheels when I see people trying to professionalize the gaming culture: the level of discourse in our culture is more fixated on the buttocks of an imaginary character than it is on what genuinely can or does affect us as gamers.
We are left with no news that is fit to print. There is only the great abyss of social media rants. Call me when the great flame wars have finally scorched the Earth to a charred cinder and no one is left; I’ll be in my Fallout Vault awaiting the time people stop attempting to yell over each other at a rate of 140 characters per message.
How would you resolve these issues?