How The Video Games Press Sold Out Everyone

I’ve been meaning to resurrect this blog, and this is something that’s been bugging me for a while, so it’s as good a topic as any.

The thing that GamerGate most spectacularly misunderstands is that the video game press has betrayed them and it has lied to them. Just not in the way they think.

The video game press has done more to propagate the myth of the “gamer” than any other group. The myth is the idea that the most important people in video games are “gamers”, a demographic that is overwhelmingly straight, cis, white, male, middle-class, and aged about 16-35. They’ve fed “gamers” this line for decades, because it sold magazines and ad space.

More than that, they’ve done it while telling these same “gamers” that they’re getting the whole story, the real truth. The press constantly tells “gamers” they’re getting Exclusive VIP Behind The Scenes Access, and then feeds them PR junk. “Gamers” have been fed shit and told it’s ambrosia. Marketing does this too, but the difference is that the video games press has always done it behind the double blind of presenting gamers with the unvarnished truth, and claiming to have “gamers’” interests at heart. If marketing is a frontal assault, press has been the trusted friend who stabs you in the back so stealthily you don’t even know you’ve been stabbed, even as you bleed out.

The truth is, the games press has spectacularly failed to equip “gamers” with any real knowledge of who plays games, how they’re made, how the business works, etc. I deal every day with classes predominately full of young men who fit that core “gamer” demographic perfectly, who are so passionate about video games that they want to go to school to learn how to make them. I can tell you that almost none of them have any clue how games are made, or how the industry works. In my introductory classes it’s incredibly rare for any of them to have any idea about, say, the difference between a developer and a publisher. This is one of the most fundamental distinctions in the entire commercial games industry, and despite being immersed in “gamer” culture, these guys generally have no clue. It’s like being so immersed in film you end up going to film school but somehow you have no idea what a director is. Similarly, it blows their minds to hear that the majority of people who play games are women, or that one of the best-selling franchises of the past decade is The Sims, a series very much not aimed at the “gamer” market. The video games press should be helping its audience understand the medium and the industry, but they’ve given most “gamers” absolutely no understanding at all.

It shouldn’t be terribly surprising to those in the games press that when the truth starts to emerge, the “gamers” get angry. And with no knowledge of this reality, they have no way to explain what they’re seeing. So they cast around for scapegoats, come up with conspiracy theories, and lash out wildly and violently.

If anybody needs to take responsibility for creating the conditions that produced GamerGate, I think the finger has to be pointed squarely at the video game press. I want to make it clear that I’m talking about the video games press as a whole here, as an institution. Individual journalists are generally good people with good intentions, but they’re part of a broader structure of video games journalism that influences the whole business in innumerable small ways, to a much larger effect. Few can entirely escape complicity, and some are more complicit than others. And yes, many in the games press are now are taking steps to clean up the mess, but we shouldn’t forget that the press was ultimately responsible for creating it in the first place. Sure, the marketing of games has played to this, but it was the press that really nurtured and reinforced the whole concept of the “gamer” identity. It’s no great exaggeration to say that the games press has sold out an entire generation of people who play video games, nullifying a diverse population of players in favour of an easily monetisable demographic of “gamers”.

The video games press has basically betrayed everybody who plays video games, and they did it for the ad money.

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5 thoughts on “How The Video Games Press Sold Out Everyone

  1. This is a very good set of points.

    I think sites like Kotaku and Destructoid of several years ago helped craft and promote what a ‘true gamer’ was. We’re seeing the fallout now when people who strongly see themselves as these Kotaku / Destructoid ‘gamers’ are now being told by people associated with these sites that being a ‘gamer’ isn’t what it used to be.

    • The creation of the “gamer” identity by the games press goes way, way further back. The article at the first link in this post argues that it goes back at least to the late 80s. I’d agree with that article’s further argument that it really became entrenched in the 90s, which is when the generation of boys Nintendo marketed the NES to hit their teenage years. The Playstation is commonly thought to be the turning point in the marketing of games towards mid-late teen boys.

      Kotaku/Destructoid/IGN/etc. simply perpetuated and reinforced an identity that had existed for a long, long time before those sites were created. They bear responsibility for extending it, but not for creating it.

      • True – you can trace a lot of gamer tribalism back to Sega (who marketed themselves as being for more dedicated, sophisticated gamers) vs Nintendo, and even Atari Vs Commodore.

        However, I see the more modern rise of that coming from Destructoid / Kotaku, who were a lot more lowest common denominator than GameSpot or IGN.

      • It’s interesting you’d see those sites aligned in that way, because I’d personally peg Gamespot/IGN as being much more in the vein of that hardcore “gamer” culture, focused on reviews and scores, and largely ignoring anything outside of “gameplay” and technical aspects of games. That’s the kind of stuff that first article pegs as producing the “gamer” identity, and that’s what I’d describe as “lowest common denominator”.

        I was never that familiar with Destructoid, but I’ve been following Kotaku for many years, and I’d peg Kotaku as always having a broader appeal outside the “hardcore”, and focusing much more on the wider “gamer” culture. In the earlier years that meant posting about anything and everything even tangentially related to games, to the extent Kotaku’s many posts about video game-themed cakes reached the point of self-parody. And more recently that’s meant embracing the wider audience for video games, outside of the traditional “gamer” demographic, to a much greater extent than IGN et al. And Kotaku’s attempt to be a “big tent” has led to their muddled response to GamerGate, which I consider to be dropping the ball by taking a wishy-washy “can’t we all just get along?” stance rather than coming out and clearly condemning GamerGate. I actually wonder if, when you say “lowest common denominator”, you mean that sort of broader appeal?

        I should add that Kotaku Australia is quite a different beast than the main US-based Kotaku, so when I talk about Kotaku that shouldn’t be taken to include the Australian version of the site.

      • I was thinking that Kotaku and Destructoid did more with that broader gamer culture by having more cosplay galleries, more LOL-articles and more articles on gaming-related areas, plus gaming reviews. GameSpot was a better source of gaming news, but it seemed to me that places like Kotaku (a few years ago, anyway) were less formal.

        To be fair, it’s not just those gaming news sites, since a lot of gamer culture also developed in places like NeoGaf and other gaming forums. But the sort of “publishers are evil, woah check out this awesome video, hey look at this girl’s boobs” approach helped make Kotaku / Destructoid very popular in some circles.

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