Critics in the Headlights

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Published by Jim Sterling 6 years ago , last updated 1 month ago

(This is another edition of /RANT, a weekly opinion piece column on GameFront. Check back every week for more. The opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not reflect those of GameFront.)

It seems sometimes that videogames are just the distractions we play in between online videogame controversies. This week’s delightful bit of drama started with a simple image of one Geoff Keighley, sitting dead-eyed and soulless amidst an entourage of snacks and drinks, all backed by the good guys at Microsoft. It became an image for GAME JOURNALISM, the Perfect Final Form of an industry long thought to be in the pocket of publishers and marketing departments. It went from funny meme to whirlwind of shit pretty quickly though, once Robert Florence got hold of it.

Florence, writing for Eurogamer, not only used the image to paint a picture of the games press as too cozy with PR, but also slammed UK writers in particular for cuddling up to business suits at the Games Media Awards — a PR-sponsored event to reward PR-picked writers. He named one Lauren Wainwright in his criticism, a writer who had defended the practice of Tweeting from the GMAs with a sponsored hashtag to try and win a PS3. Lauren and her employer, MCV by way of Intent Media, complained to the point where Eurogamer felt it had to take her name out of the article. Rab got angry. Then shit went everywhere.

I won’t go through all the grisly details of what happened, since many of you know already, and others have done a better job. First of all, let me say that I acknowledge the simpering self-indulgence that comes when writers write writing about writers. If you hate that kind of shit, you best leave now. Second, I should say that I know Lauren. I’ve worked with her. I’ve recorded podcasts with her. She’s seen the stained, stinking, miserable den of sin I shared with a man who pretended to have a math degree to teach students when I lived in London. I also sort-of know Rab, though I’m mostly just a big fan of his and I’m delighted he even reads my own drivel, let alone talks to me. I’m an advocate of his sketch show, Burnistoun, which must be tracked down by any means. Watch it. It’s good.

That in mind, some folks have demanded I talk about all the llama-drama that’s happened this week. It’s tough to tackle, mostly because it touches on so many different subjects. It’s difficult to know where to start, or whether to just single one thing out and address that. I think for me, the most pertinent part of this is how game critics handle criticism. We are, after all, some of the most scrutinized people around, and how we handle that scrutiny ultimately determines how we’re received by the public.

It’s true what they say, critics can be pretty bad at handling criticism. Part of this, I think, is because critics don’t always receive criticism as it should be. When they review something negatively (or even positively in some situations) and say stuff a reader doesn’t like, it’s not often that rational and reasoned debate will occur. Usually it’ll just be misguided screams of “BIAS” or “Paid off” or “I’ll kill your family.” It does give you a thick skin, but it also gives you sharp claws, and using them to strike back can make you come across as incredibly sensitive, rather than simply tired and vicious, as is more truthfully the case. Honest criticism is rare and precious, but to the jaded writer, it can be misconstrued as the other.

I definitely feel that’s what MCV did with Rab’s article. To quote Intent’s Michael French, “We asked Eurogamer to remove cruel content about a staff member.”

Cruel? Let us look at this cruelty. After quoting Lauren’s Tweet from the GMA’s, Rab had this to say:

“And instantly I am suspicious. I am suspicious of this journalist’s apparent love for Tomb Raider. I am asking myself whether she’s in the pocket of the Tomb Raider PR team. I’m sure she isn’t, but the doubt is there. After all, she sees nothing wrong with journalists promoting a game to win a PS3, right?”

This is not a new argument, and it’s far from nasty. I’ve made it myself. An accusation of corruption is vastly different from warning somebody that what they’ve done could easily be open to accusations of corruption. Rab did the latter. He even went as far as to exonerate her from actual accusatory sentiment, and simply said it looks bad. It does. It LOOKS bad when you use marketing hashtags to win stuff. It LOOKS bad when you fly in a helicopter to review a Call of Duty game. It LOOKS bad when your world exclusive review has WORLD EXCLUSIVE REVIEW written across the page. It’s not proof that you ARE bad, it’s not evidence that you ARE corrupt, but it whacks a massive question mark above your head, and how you behave underneath that mark is what ultimately decides your fate in the eyes of the public.

The behavior of MCV demonstrated how that question mark becomes an exclamation. Rather than simply let the criticism stand, or write an even-handed rebuttal, the offended parties instead snapped like a cornered animal. The word “libel” was used a lot to describe what Rab said, carrying with it all sorts of implied legal threat. Eurogamer was made to remove the offending sentences entirely — not issue a clarification, nor an update, but a full eradication of any mention of names. Images of dodgy accountants feeding mysterious files into shredders instantly comes to mind — the more desperate somebody is to silence another, the more guilty they look. Whether they’re guilty or not, it just LOOKS bad.

In this case, MCV’s behavior took some minor criticism and turned it into a controversy. Ironically, the intent to remove Rab’s words have seen them salvaged, regurgitated, and read by many more people than have read the original editorial. In the eyes of the onlookers, Lauren and her employers were caught shoving files into a shredder. It prompted them to dig deeper, find further connections with Square Enix, and call her reviews into question. All stuff that could realistically be explained, had attempts not been made to obscure or hide any of it. Now it just looks suspect, and no amount of context will be enough to justify the hiding. Had everything been owned up to from the start, it would have gone away by now.

I know this, because I’ve been there. Only in the past year or two have I actually learned to sit back, relax, and let the criticism flow — sometimes reserving the right to make fun of it when it’s hilarious. Even in my more feisty years, there were some things I knew never to do. There are articles about me full of straight-up LIES, and words far more venomous than anything Rab wrote. But they’re still standing years later, because I have the best defense against any kind of libel — reality. Getting angry, lashing out, trying to hide things when you’ve done wrong, that distorts reality, shapes it, crafts an all-new narrative. It’s like catnip to people who want you booted out of town in a tornado of shame. We’re people. We fuck up. We do wrong. We have to own it. I’ve overseen competitions that, in hindsight, were just me doing some PR department’s job for it. I tried reviewing a game based on a PR-controlled review event (once was enough to let me know review events are bullshit). At the time, these things didn’t seem like a bad idea, and the intent was purely innocent, but it can look shady, and if I don’t own what I’ve done, it’ll look practically sleazy. Even worse, I’d not have faced how negatively this shit could come across and subsequently instituted a rule to not do such things in future. We are not defined by the things we do as much as we are by the things we learn from them. If your M.O. is to bury anything that calls you into question, you not only confirm peoples’ suspicion, you refuse to learn anything.

I owe what little amount of talent I have to the years of people letting me know when I was doing something poorly, incorrectly, or stupidly. Just because we’re critics, we’re not above criticism. In fact, we perhaps stand to gain more from it than anybody else. Our job is to scrutinize. We do that even better when we’re subject to scrutiny ourselves. A person who improves through critique can hold his or her head up high and critique others, confident in the knowledge that they’ve grown stronger through the very practice they’re perpetuating.

What’s more, trying to bury certain criticisms can often turn things into insults or slurs when they’re not actually insulting at all. Like those writers who insist on being called “game journalists” and not what most of them are — bloggers. Nowadays, there are gamers who use the term “blogger” or “enthusiast press” as a slur, because there are writers who try to hide from it, bury it, and not own up to reality. I say, what the fuck is wrong with being a blogger? What’s wrong with being enthusiast press? Do you guys really think most of you are above that kind of label? Oh please. You’re fans, you’re gamers, you’re no more qualified than people on NeoGAF or your own comments sections. Many of you are more akin to entertainers than journalists. You’re just lucky enough to be paid for your opinion. Don’t get me wrong, many of you work hard, work long hours, and have a lot of writing talent. You should be proud of that. You should be confident in that. If you’re the kind of person who feels insulted when you’re called a blogger or an enthusiast, you don’t come across as proud of yourself at all. You come across ashamed. You come across as needing approval for being what you’re not, rather than what you are, and then you’re just another dodgy accountant, pouring those files into that shredder.

Whether you agree with everything Rab and John Walker have said or not, the criticism deserves more than arrogant, sneering dismissal. It’s disappointing that many writers refuse to look at themselves when a mirror’s being held up.

I feel that there is very little genuine corruption in this industry. As I’ve said before, our pathetic little lives just aren’t interesting enough to justify the conspiracy theories that often occur. However, when people respond to light criticism about sketchy appearances by closing ranks in a defensive formation, all while hurling insults and condescension at their critics, they take mildly suspicious behavior and use it as fuel for conspiracy. You’re enthusiasts. You’re fans of games. You like getting little toys and bits of tat from publishers, and you love being unpaid advertisement for games if you truly believe in them. Don’t be ashamed of that. Own it.

Or, if you ARE ashamed, maybe just don’t fucking do it anymore. Either accept what you are, or become what you want to be. You can’t be one and simultaneously act offended when accused of not being the other. I have plenty of respect for both the enthusiastic blogger and the serious, super-ethical journalist. I’ve got no time for Quislings.

None of the people involved in the shitstorm are bad human beings. I don’t think they’re corrupt — not in any conscious, shady kind of way. Some of them sure as fuck look it, though, and it’s all because of what they did when faced with the headlights of an incoming drama-car. If you want to be a big success in this — I guess we call it a profession — then you need to understand that, eventually, you’ll be in those headlights, and which way you’re able to run will determine what happens.

Run to the side of the road that embraces your talents as an entertainment blogger.

Run to the side of the road that embraces your upstanding record as a journalist.

Stand confused and get smashed the fuck to pieces.

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