Objectivity; The Challenges Of A Free Gaming Press

At a time when discussions are rife with ethics and objectivity, spare a thought for those struggling inside the vortex already.

Journalistic ethics is always a very sore point. As is the debate, especially inside a medium that gives critical feedback on video games, of objectivity.

But let’s begin with objectivity. What exactly is it, and what does it mean? Well, in most cases, the goal is simply “keep your opinions out of reporting”; this is actually a critical part of reporting on certain issues, because the role of the news is to cover events with as close to an open-mind as possible. Most cases have at least two sides to any given story, after all, and one of the greatest crimes for many years in the sphere of journalism is to give one side a veneer of greater import than the other. Of course, that’s quite an easy thing to say; a childishly simple goal that – with the wealth of words we have to utilise in the English language – can be complicated to extremes.

I’ll run you an example here; “The brave protesters stood defiantly against oppressive government policy.”

How does that read to you? Not surprisingly, this is usually the kind of thing journalists are encouraged to avoid. The adjectives of “brave” and “oppressive” denote an internal bias within the comment; the sentence is throwing it’s weight behind the protesters, and calling their stance “defiant”. This is a very common sentence used to clarify the dangers of an overuse of descriptive expression, because it doesn’t take much to change the line in such a report to something a little less biased towards one side, such as, “The protesters demonstrated against government policy they considered damaging and harmful.” We’re discussing facts here, of course. The protesters are demonstrating, against a policy they don’t like, or consider damaging and/or harmful. You leave it open to a reader to make the conclusion themselves whether or not the policies are harmful or not, usually by similarly outlining what policies are being demonstrated against.

In a world where many reporters are being absorbed from the blogging world, where journalistic education may or may not have played a role in their lives, it’s very important for editors of all kinds to ensure that reporting on certain issues remains objective in such a sense. You are supposed to be representing the facts of the matter. It’s all too easy to find yourself personally involved in a certain issue because it’s important to you, or is a part of your life as it were, but that isn’t always where good journalism lies. You are supposed to report findings, and give people ample and equal opportunity to defend themselves from that criticism – requesting comment is an important part of journalism, because it denotes a lack of bias and giving an opposing viewpoint, especially if the findings are negative in some capacity, the chance to defend and/or explain themselves, or to give them the opportunity to look at the findings in order to make constructive changes.

But that’s what we expect from the gaming NEWS. One that isn’t demonstrably skewed in some way towards publishers and press events. This is getting better, as the gaming press attempts to wrestle back some independence from these huge multi-million dollar corporations. We’ve known this for years, and last years awful Colonial Marines spectacle showed the pitfalls of being overly reliant on the industry to provide freebies, or early copies. Being contractually tied down to certain stipulations can be inherently anti-consumer, and regurgitating press reports, footage and screenshots when you are already somewhat know it is untruthful or deceitful damages the trust between readers and the journalists making a living in the sphere. It’s towing the line between self-preservation and consumer information, which is a knifes edge where one slip can claim a persons middle parts.

Whew. That was a bit of a meal, I know. The flipside however is whilst gaming news SHOULD be as objective as possible, reviews by their very nature cannot be objective.

A review is, by definition, “a critical appraisal of a book, play, film, etc. published in a newspaper or magazine.”

The problem with objectivity in a review is that no two people will definitely and wholly agree on what constitutes truth within a critical appraisal. One person may, for example, find an actress somewhat timid and nervous on a stage play, whereas another may interpret that as an actress seeking to represent a different angle to the role that is given. You can see much of this in recent reviews of Lindsey Lohan, in her stage role of Speed the Plow. Some found her average, others felt she coped “tremendously well” in a show that “wasn’t very well executed”. This is the very issue that accompanies reviewers and critics. Trying to be impartial is impossible when the task being asked of you is your own personal as well as professional opinion. Reviews are inherently both, and trying to avoid adjectives and descriptives in a review can make it… well, somewhat tedious reading. Note a review is also in itself meant to inform AND entertain to some degree. Reviews are in themselves also pieces of performance art. We’re expecting to read what someone thinks of a certain thing; we don’t particularly want them to mince their words. Tell us what you really think, and don’t go soft on it. Good critics are themselves often celebrities in their own right; the likes of the late Roger Ebert, for example, became famous for their scathing wit and general ability to inform AND entertain readers.

Reviews are¬†fraught with challenges of course; a critical review can often damage relations between a press and a company and/or individual. Part of this is reminding ourselves that people have feelings, and of course they don’t inherently like being told they are wrong, or they didn’t give it their all. Such comments or allusions are in themselves very personal critiques, and this naturally all too often leads to people taking offence. In the gaming sphere, as we more and more hold up individuals as representative of a product (or identifying them as leaders in a given project), this means that such people will naturally take offence if the feedback isn’t what they want to hear. Some people have a higher tolerance to criticism – Nintendo, for example, seems almost impervious to the stuff; whereas the likes of Gearbox and Randy Pitchford come across as having a very thin skin, unable to take criticism of their project and instead blaming others for not seeing the good in something. Sometimes it requires being somewhat aware of the tolerance a person has; or, if the need arises, being able to disregard that in order to inform others of the perils and pitfalls of a particular purchase.

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In this case… probably the latter.

On that note, another issue in terms of reviews is that we as consumers are incredibly diverse – moreso in the gaming world, where certain individuals identify strongly with particular brands. Someone who is a big fan of FIFA, for example, may consider a critical review of the latest game as “biased”; predominantly due to their own internal bias, but that’s a challenge that isn’t easily rectifiable in a critical review. A reviewer has to represent their opinion of a product, and that may not be what a fan of the series wants to see or hear. They may also find it irrelevant, as fans, because they are more tolerant, where a critical review perhaps considers those who may either be new to the series, or less tolerant of issues than a dyed-in-the-wool follower of the series. Far too often, commentators on pieces lament the lack of objectivity, when what they really want is something which tells them exactly what they personally want to hear. Which is, in itself, not really a review; it is pandering to a demographic, and therefore not really critique.

This makes the nature of a review very different to that of a mainstream gaming press reporting on the comings and goings of the industry; one side needs to be objective and hold facts and demonstrable data over personal and professional feeling, where the other needs and relies on someone expressing their feelings and opinion without risk of repercussions.

It’s often balancing these two quite different sides to the same coin where far too many can fall down.

Sometimes, reviews can be watered down to somehow accommodate a publisher’s involvement in their own advertising or promotional campaigns; the issue of detachment is one that remains a constant within the gaming sphere, where multi-platform websites are expected to hold an aloof position over the industry despite being inherently caught in the middle ground, between the industry and its need to promote and publicise content and a consumer and readers right for information free of the taint of public relations departments. And sometimes, it can be hard to be objective when an issue is so close or raw to an individual; the whole #GamerGate saga demonstrates that it can be extremely difficult to juggle objectivity on an issue which is in equal parts divisive and up for personal interpretation. In both cases, it’s important that individuals are held to account – there should be no free rides, as it were. If you want the publicity that an enthusiast press can offer, then you must be somewhat aware that people may not agree – but you SHOULD be entitled to speak your mind, and to do so free of the notion that a certain reporter can skew the facts for their own ends.

But so too must the press be seen to not become personally embroiled in such issues; articles that are heavily biased in places that seem to stand on a platform of objectivity can be damaging in the extreme. Facts cannot be selectively reported; you simply end up with two sides represented by two very distinct warring factions of the press, and this isn’t informative journalism. People are – let’s say it – rather lazy, and many websites themselves have wildly different cultures and fans who are intrinsically attuned to a certain outlets tone.

In all of this, we as readers and consumers of information and video games must be able to distinguish between the two very separate sides of the gaming press; we absolutely SHOULD hold them to account in terms of credibility and ethics, but we must also accept that critique, reviews, opinion pieces and commentary are themselves not objective pieces. We’re discussing oil and water – two things that can’t mix without an emulsifier, and even then, we kind of know the addition of such a thing is often done to cut costs and generally deliver an inferior product. By asking for objective reviews, we’re essentially asking for an inferior product. Likewise when people defend the individual bias in what should be objective news – it doesn’t really work, and only serves to incite issues within the community, rather than seek a middle ground.

It’s on us to be able to tell the difference; and to absolutely as readers who hold the cards to punish those unable to balance the sides by simply hitting the big “X” in the top-right of our browser windows. There are hundreds of websites out there, and not all of them are terrible. For all the complaints of late, we shouldn’t stoop to similar levels of generalisation. We should be better than that. We really should.

But let’s make no mistake – those who have been embroiled in these issues of late must themselves be offered a way back to a more tolerable middle-ground. We must be aware that standards can be improved, and that shutting off any avenue to reclaim our respect – even in part – can only ever exacerbate a particular websites viewpoint. The more you insist that your feelings cannot be swayed, the more any individual press and/or blog will sway away from you. Taking sides can be an extremely easy thing to do, but it only really ever shows your internal bias. And whilst we all have them, and we shouldn’t deny we have them, we must also be respectful of other peoples internal bias – or sometimes lack of it. We’re far too eager to change opinions, to shout at each other, than find a progressive solution that works for both sides.

Now for some opinion. *gasp*

The real beating heart at the centre of these problems of late (as I see it) is a fundamental issue with the growth of the Internet; we’re beginning to lose the ability to distinguish between different pieces, and we’re far too quick to jettison respect for an individual just because we don’t agree. I don’t agree with Anita Sarkeesian; but then, I don’t spend every waking hour of my day dreaming up critique of her. It’s wasted energy. She’s entitled to make her (in my opinion, poorly-researched and biased) videos. But I don’t have to watch them. I can not respect her journalistic integrity; but I can respect her rights as a human being to not be verbally abused.

At the end of the day, those videos are reviews; critique. And as such, I don’t think she can be objective (shots fired? No. You probably knew I was coming to this conclusion!). Her whole case isn’t meant to be objective, of course, but that’s the issue with critique. You have to respect her OPINION. It doesn’t mean her opinion should be laced into your news though. And when we get to this point, we can probably all move on to bigger and better things.

The press continues to struggle with this; moreso now, where twenty years of ‘t’Internet’ has changed how we consume information completely. And we have new challenges to face – Native Advertising is now a thing, where marketing and opinion is being interwoven with actual journalism in order to keep the money flowing. We want information; but of course, we don’t want to pay for it. But similarly, we want to be (and should be) critical of those who seek to deceive, hoodwink or otherwise influence us through personal or professional bias. It’s the thorny issue of our time. It’s probably the only thing I do agree with in the whole #GamerGate thing; journalistic ethics are hugely important, now moreso than ever. But it’s important that changes should be objective – and not based on personal feeling or heavily skewed in favour of any one side.

The gaming press has to serve us all. When it doesn’t, yes, there’s a problem. But don’t think destroying these sites will change anything; journalists are mobile, and can move freely to other places, often taking their emotional and professional baggage with them. You end up with a horrible, almost unending, game of whack-a-mole.

So there’s a feminist crusade to make women more important in our video games? Awesome. Make some. Make them commercially viable. Make them good. Sell it to us. Games are made as they are now because that’s what people tend to buy. Change has to come from within; and that doesn’t mean changing the industry, it means offering the alternative as an alternative.

Gaming ethics an issue? Make your own site. Make it strongly based on ethics and objectivity (apart of reviews, which as I explained, can’t be objective). Attract supporters. Readers. Get advertisers. Build relations with the games industry. Provide an alternative you believe is absolutely capable of demonstrating how it should be done.

This isn’t terribly new thinking, I guess. But it bothers me that people believe shouting at each other solves anything – subtle hint time; IT DOESN’T. If neither side wants to concede any ground, then they have to begin to demonstrate themselves the value in the alternatives. It’s oh so bloody easy to just say, “I don’t like this and I want it to change!” But it’s much harder to stump up the cash, get stuck in and actually instigate the change, and show the relative value of an alternative service or market.

If it doesn’t work – maybe it’s just not meant to be. But I don’t think demanding change from people who don’t want to change for whatever reason is the way forward; change only comes when there’s an actual necessity for it.¬†And in most cases, that usually means rising up to meet the new blood seeking (or perhaps dominating) a piece of the market.

It’s an imperfect solution. But we’re all imperfect to some degree. I think you’re awesome as you are.

Change will come in time. It always does…

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