on Lester Bangs and the ethics of game journalism

There were a bunch of things I had intended to write about today – the Tiger Woods / EA split, the generally, startlingly positive reviews for Assassins Creed IV and if that was enough to push me back into a franchise that I’d all but sworn off, etc. – but in light of Lou Reed’s death*, and the subsequent discussions of his life and, specifically, his notoriously hostile relationships with music critics, especially with Lester Bangs (Exhibit A), I started thinking about the current state of game journalism.

Everyone (including me) talks about “the Citizen Kane of video games”, but back in 2006 Chuck Klosterman wrote, rather infamously, about the lack of a corresponding “Lester Bangs of Video Games“, and how the gaming press desperately needed one.  Some people suggested that Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw and his Zero Punctuation series fit the bill; I’d argue, rather inevitably, that Tom Bissell, Leigh Alexander and maybe even Jim Sterling should be in the discussion, too, if we’re assuming that this particular discussion is “necessary”.

In this 2008 response, Kirk Battle (writing as L.B. Jeffries) broke down Klosterman’s agrument and wondered if Lester Bangs was the right person for game journalists to emulate.  There are pros and cons, but he ends the piece with this bit of insight:

What can the video game critic draw from the lessons of the critic of another medium? Stand up for the games that are critically panned for not fitting the mold. Criticize games that are stuck in boring molds and doing nothing but repeat what has already been done. Don’t get frustrated when things don’t change, because that isn’t your function. Like Johnson’s critic predicting the weather, talking about the games that are challenging and moving the medium forward is all one needs to do. These are all essential elements and represent what Bangs contributed to rock ‘n’ roll. Yet at the core of that is the idea of having an image about what that artistic medium should be doing and talking about the moments where that is happening. For every article or blog post about the failings of game criticism, there is an implicit idea about what video games should be doing and this defending or panning of a video game is what defines that vision.

This is all well and good, but there’s something larger at issue here, and that’s what I’m actually here to talk about.

Monday’s Scoops & the Wolf podcast talked in very vague terms about some sort of inside-baseball controversy that cropped up over the weekend; they succeeded in keeping it vague, so I’m not 100% sure I know what happened, but my impression is that certain high-profile journalists at certain high-profile outlets made certain vague tweets concerning… something that may or may not be related to the new console launches, and the console manufacturers being somewhat withholding, and the subsequent difficulty of those sites’ planned coverage for their launch events.  More to the point, Klepek mentioned something about how there’s a “tiered” system – certain outlets have “favored” status among publishers and therefore are afforded better and earlier access than others, and this strikes me, as an outsider, as deeply fucked up.

Here’s the relevant transcript snippet, edited for clarity – they start talking about this thing at 6:27, and the snippet below starts at 7:14:

PK: …Several members of the media over the weekend were tweeting vaguely about stuff (AN: “cryptic things”)… one of the things that people should keep in mind when we talk about console launches is that media outlets are bracketed, there is a tiered system, different outlets are treated differently; that turns into access, that turns into what they get ahead of time or how much they get of something ahead of time… the reasoning[ ] behind that, from what I understand, vary wildly; depends on – maybe they want to target a certain audience that they think that site is better suited for, maybe they’re targeting a more mainstream audience… and every outlet has different things that they use to cover or how they cover or why they cover; some outlets are very specific about wanting to have reviews of every game… The only [concern] that I will throw water on is this idea that publishers somehow have control over final review text… There is no way that is true, I’ve heard nothing to that, that is never something I have heard to be a legitimate or realistic [demand]…

I’d like to think that I’m not naive, and that I understand that the business of game journalism is first and foremost a business, and that there is, inevitably, some necessary degree of symbiosis between journalists and publishers, and that both sides do their best to sidestep whatever ethical weirdness such a relationship may entail.  But how can a professional game critic truly be objective if they’re writing for an outlet that has this sort of “preferred” status?

I understand that as objective as any professional game critic tries to be, they can’t truly be an independent voice.  I’m not suggesting that they can’t pan a tremendously hyped game if that game is deserving of a shitty review; but I am suggesting that tremendously hyped games might not get as objectively reviewed as they otherwise could, especially if the reviewer has had prior access.

This is why “preview events” seem so fucked up to me.  I understand why they exist – game companies want consumers to know about their upcoming games, and game outlets need things to write about – but the tremendous leverage that the game companies have over the outlets (i.e., embargoes) means that it’s very, very difficult for those previews to be truly objective – even if those writing the previews are desperately trying to remain objective.  There’s a very big difference between privately interviewing a game creator and going to a preview event where a publisher only shows a very tightly controlled “vertical gameplay slice”.

Rhetorical questions:  Do movies studios fly New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis to visit film sets and see dailies?  Did Lester Bangs get to watch Lou Reed write, rehearse and record his albums?  The music industry (and the outlets who cover it) is so tremendously fucked up these days that I’m not sure Lester Bangs could even exist anymore; I mean, Pitchfork used to be the vanguard of independent music criticism, and yet now they have an annual music festival featuring the same bands they claim to objectively review.

I’m not sure I know what the answer is.  (Or, at this point, what the question I’m asking is.)  I mean, I’m an aspiring journalist; I’m actively trying to become a cog in this same machine that I’m tearing down.  I’ve heard about “mock reviews” and how ethically horrible they are, but I’m not 100% sure I know the difference between a mock review and a prominently-featured preview article beyond where the paycheck came from.

And so I remain very much on the outside looking in, wondering just what the hell it is I’m looking at.

___________________________________

* I haven’t really talked about Lou Reed’s death yet, as it turns out.  Obviously, he is a mythic, titanic figure of rock and roll, a singular legendary figure on par with Dylan or Lennon or Bowie.  But I must confess I came to him too late for me to feel his loss personally.  It’s a failing on my part, to be sure; in my formative years, I was never introduced to those 4 VU albums, or Transformer, or any of the other many classics in his catalog.  I’m not sure I would’ve gotten into him, though, if I had; I was a prog-rock kid, who valued technical proficiency over all else, and so I probably would’ve heard 5 seconds of his singing and cringed and turned it off.  (Similarly, the primary reason why I got into The Smiths as heavily as I did in my high school years is in spite of Morrissey’s voice – it’s because of Johnny Marr’s guitar playing.  I wasn’t until much later that I appreciated Morrissey on his own terms.)  In recent years I’ve grown to appreciate the Velvets a great deal, and certainly in the last few days I’ve dived deep into Reed’s catalog on Spotify, but I’m not sure I’m ever going to be able to soak him in, the way that I used to, back when I had endless time and no distractions.

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