I loved magazines back in my formidable years. On a day-to-day basis I would watch television, play some video games, have friends over, or read a book (notice the striking lack of homework on that list). Magazines broke up that schedule for the better. Once a month I’d receive issues of publications such as Sports Illustrated for Kids, Highlights, and ZooBooks.
When I reached my teens my initial interest in video games grew substantially, so issues of Electronic Gaming Monthly and PC Gamer became my magazines of choice. With all of the above however, I just loved having hand-delivered to me the inside scoop about certain subjects from experts and columnists that specialized in that sort of thing. Every 30 days, anything worth knowing on a particular topic was available in a handy periodical to read at your own pace. Usually on day one of an issue’s availability I would flip through and absorb the items that I deemed most pressing for me to know about. Then the issue would become a fixture next to my bed along with whatever novel I was progressing through at the time, to be read occasionally until I knew everything there supposedly was to know about video games. Until next month of course.
Like a lot of avid magazine readers, I eventually fell out of subscribing to them due to the sheer amount of information available digitally. Put simply, why wait weeks to hear about something that IGN was covering right now? And so as I went off to college and then went on to join the real world, magazines were by and large dead to me. I actually miss them in a way though. It was a pleasant surprise every time a new issue arrived and the concentration of information was comforting. This as opposed to the internet where you can find countless opinions on countless subjects. Where does the truth lie among all that noise? Even though magazines offered an infinitely more narrow set of opinions, at least you could focus on those opinions and draw your own conclusions from there.
The great thing about the digital age though is that we’re not bound to one or the other. We can find an internet publication that we’re more or less comfortable with and nestle ourselves into its ecosystem, just like a magazine. If we can’t find one that fits that bill or simply don’t want to limit ourselves, we can explore dozens of sites each day, and that’s not even considering crowdsourced sites and message boards. Those enable us to get a feel for what the public is saying about a subject as opposed to waiting on our favorite influencer to tell us what they think. As with any category of news, we can tailor our consumption of video game info however we want.
We are in a time now where anyone, either in the individual or collective sense, can be considered a game reviewer. As a result I am utterly baffled by a trend that I’ve seen gain prominence more and more where we don’t just review video games, we review the reviews written by reviewers as well as the reviewers themselves. Still with me? If not I’ll boil it down simply by citing this Polygon article that discusses Jim Sterling’s review of LoZ: Breath of the Wild. Here we have one video game pundit from one website analyzing content from another such pundit on their own independent site. If you’re not familiar with Sterling’s work, his reviews often hit fans of certain franchises hard. He’s also not shy about just plain not liking a game. Where more mainstream publications who are bound by advertising dollars and pure clicks, Sterling’s content is entirely funded by his fans. This allows for a lot more creative freedom and likely, a lot more honesty.
So why does Polygon care? The Jimquisition website is for all intents and purposes a competitor of Polygon. Well for one they saw that Sterling’s review was causing a stir on sites like Reddit and NeoGAF, so they identified it as a topic people wanted to read about. This is a polite way of saying that they knew this “article about an article” would garner clicks. The other reason is that one could argue that there are far too many video game news sites and not enough to talk about to justify daily offerings, so sites like Polygon are padded with articles like this. For our purposes however, we are only concerned about the former..
Even when magazines were around video game publications have endured fans’ ire towards scores they didn’t like. I can remember as far back as the early ’90s reading letters from subscribers bashing reviews from the previous month’s issue. It was a little different back then though. These magazines set the tone in large part for how the public viewed a newly released game. Rentals and demo discs were in their infancy, and a purchase usually came down to what your favorite magazine had to say about the game in question. Nowadays if you don’t like a review you read on the internet, you’re free to find another review that tells you exactly what you want to hear (if that’s your goal). If that doesn’t work you can find a group of people somewhere that feels the same way you do. So why do we give so much credence to formal game reviews still, let alone put them on a pedestal as to be so influential that we provide secondary analysis of those reviews?
This is probably a good time to mention that there is definitely a justification to holding these reviews in relatively decent regard. These people do this for a living. That doesn’t necessarily mean they “know” more than you about video games, but they likely devote 8-12+ hours a day to the medium. That counts for a lot. They have a vested interest in keeping up with everything going on in the industry, so when they say something it’s always at least worth considering. The point is though: we don’t have to take their word as gospel anymore, so why do we treat it as such by poring over their work every time they say something we don’t like?
Again, everyone is a reviewer today in a sense. The only difference is that some reviewers have a much higher profile (and therefore more exposure) and admittedly can often write a hell of a lot better than you or I can. That’s not to say that they didn’t earn that status, because they did. One way or another they worked their way to where they are now, just like most other people.
The thing is though that regardless of status, reviewers deal in opinions, and as we know gamers are full of opinions. So in a time where digitization has allowed everyone to have a voice, what separates a professional reviewer from someone on Reddit or NeoGAF that plays video games for 12 hours a week? Hard work and writing acumen. While those characteristics justify their standing in the world of video game journalism, it doesn’t really give the validity of their opinions any more sway than the Reddit poster I mention above.
What I’m getting at is this: A lot of people play video games regularly. Like a lot more than we ever would have dreamed in the ’80s and ’90s, when video games were more or less lumped in with Dungeons & Dragons as something the nerds did because they couldn’t get invited to parties or attract girls. There is an obvious and legitimate argument to be made that video games, an industry valued at around $100 billion, are just as pervasive as film, television, and music. In other words a lot of people consume this stuff regularly and therefore have discerning opinions about it.
Like I said, that’s not to say that there isn’t any value associated with professional reviews. Quite the contrary, but there is absolutely no reason to be bound by them. When I see gamers rioting over a certain reviewer’s scores in ritualistic fashion, I see a case of people selling themselves short. We live and breathe this stuff too, at least as much as we can given that we’re not able to do it for a living. Most of us have probably played hundreds of games and read about hundreds more. We have our pulse on the industry as well, and while we fall short sometimes with regard to writing or industry contacts or means to express ourselves, we are fully capable of playing a game and knowing for certain how much we like or dislike it and why. The ability to do so is based on innumerable hours with a controller in hand and a consistent commitment to staying informed about the industry, just like the people we often canonize or demonize. The only apparent difference is that they happen to be attached to a brand under which their opinions can be focused and collected.
So how do I inform myself about games? Well I read the sites that I find easiest on the eyes that provide consistent news bits that are actually worth my time. I read their reviews on top of a few others whose opinions I’m interested in from their individual perspective. I don’t fully agree or disagree with anyone that’s ever spoken a word about video games. It would be weird if I did because I have an opinion too. I’m not bound by what a stranger thinks about a game, just as they most certainly are not bound by what I or any other audience member thinks of it.
Gamers need to focus more on fostering their own views and communicating them as effectively as possible, not worry so much about how they align with individuals who happen to have a fan base, and generally give themselves a little more credit. In my opinion of course.