Bridging the Critical Gap

Hi! I’m Patrick Klepek, the senior news editor at Giant Bomb, a website full of white dudes writing and talking about  games–it’s very unique. Two years ago, I was just the news editor, but then CBS bought us, gave me no additional resources, and told me I was the senior news editor. But it made me sound important!

My talk is labeled on the website as “Pushing big sites to have a more critical eye.” That’s a terrible title. Really, really bad. But I, uh, didn’t think this talk would be accepted. Oops.

Let’s try this: “Bridging the Critical Gap.”

I think we can tackle both ideas, and this sounds snappier, too.

It’s easy to be cynical about the power, influence, and privilege wielded by the biggest video game sites. It’s mostly earned.

Giant Bomb is not as big as IGN or GameSpot, but it’s certainly part of the entrenched gaming establishment. It’s a website made up of people who have been privileged enough to be paid to cover video games for a long time, some of them more than two decades. Video game media sites have an incestuous relationship with one another, often looking like a revolving door of the same names. Many in this room have a good reason to be cynical about hiring, and I say that as someone who has benefited from this practice.

Agreement is boring. Disagreements are exciting. When a new game comes out, I’m far more interested in the one person who hates it, not the 100 people who fell in love with it. Too often, there’s nothing but agreement on the big game websites, and that’s not because they’re bad people but they’re SIMILAR people. The reason we see such a divergence between the establishment publications and the critical circles many of us follow is because those circles have more voices with varying backgrounds in life. These people are approaching games from new directions.

The critical question is whether big has to be bad. I don’t think it’s a choice between being good but small or bad but big. Video games are an extremely popular medium these days. It means there are some extremely popular video game websites, as well. Here’s what the web analytics website Alexa tell us about sites in 2014:

  • IGN’s the 361 most popular site in the world. 217 in the US.
  • GameSpot’s the 973 most popular site in the world. 491 in the US.
  • Kotaku’s 1,494 most popular site in the world. 671 in the US.
  • Giant Bomb is, uh, something like…4,458. That’s not important!

For the record, I think these sites have done some good and interesting work. I am intentionally painting with a broad brush when talking about the current state of criticism at games sites.

All my criticism comes with love! Anyway.

Those are big numbers. Millions of people who play games are visiting these websites, and the writers, reporters, and critics there are influencing how they think about games. That’s a job to take seriously, but it can be easy to forget that. It’s important to both challenge your ideas and those held by your audience.

Let’s look at that list. It’s sobering. Why?

Critical Distance is not on that list. Nightmare Mode is not on that list. Medium Difficulty is not on that list. All three of those websites have done more to influence my own thinking about games than the popular ones, but I’m paid to think about games. I seek out analytical, reflective criticism. This is not your average player, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t a great many looking to be intellectually challenged. It means most of the big sites aren’t spending enough time to truly challenge them. If a reader haven’t been exposed to it, how do they know they want it? That applies to a new game idea as much as it does to criticism.

It’s easy to beat up on the big sites because they’re big, have an enormous sets of resources, and don’t seem to use them well. (That also sounds like our general critique of AAA games, too.)

That can make it awfully easy to lose sight of what’s working.

It’s a guess, but I bet this audience hated BioShock Infinite.

BioShock Infinite was a game that generally received glowing reviews from the press at launch, but it was quickly followed by a deep, sustained critical backlash. This cycle is not uncommon with many “big” games, and is reflective of an ingrained approach  to reviewing and, perhaps more importantly, systemic and longheld hiring practices. When GameSpot’s site relaunched last fall, it published a “re-review” of BioShock Infinite. The original review was a 9, while the re-review a 4. The re-review had this quote:

“Infinite avoids taking a stance on the situation that it constructs, instead diverting its attention to a pair of characters who encompass tired stereotypes (merciless killer, gifted damsel) that have no relation to the thematic elements set up at the outset. With nothing of value worth exploring, Infinite quickly devolves into a mindless shooter buoyed only by its stunning artistic design.”

That sounds closer to what I was hearing in critical circles.

I’m not saying one is right or wrong. That’s besides the point. What I’m saying is that almost no review of BioShock Infinite at a major gaming website was majorly divergent from the popular opinion. While the second GameSpot review came months after the game’s launch, it reflects a alternative but relevant line of criticism on a major games site that was uncommon in just about every other major review. Remember: GameSpot’s 973 in the world!

Being 973 means you hold influence, and the bigger you are, the more you should be thinking about how that influence is used.

We’re seeing the impacts of diversity shifts elsewhere, too.

Keza MacDonald, a former IGN editor who often spoke about sex and gender issues, will soon be the head of Kotaku UK. She’s moving from the editor of one big site to the the head of another one.

Polygon recently published a review of Danganronpa, a visual novel for the Vita with a plot twist involving a character’s “true” gender being discovered by the player. In the review, there’s a side bar about this point by critic Megan Farokhmanesh:

 “While working on this review, I consulted an expert on gender and sexuality to discuss the character’s representation at some length. With help, I reached the conclusion that I didn’t have enough information to comprehend or understand the character’s preferred identity. However, Danganronpa’s handling of the situation remains troubling.”

This prompted a healthy dialogue in the comments section–yes, the comments section–about how different Japanese games have handled this issue. I raised a similar point in my own review of Danganronpa on Giant Bomb, but I was mostly criticized for having an “agenda.” Horray! What’s important is the point was raised.  We’re seeing more and more voices with big megaphones talking about issues that wouldn’t have been considered five years ago.

It may not happen as often as we like, and why not?

Maybe it’s not a surprise a critic shies away from this, and it’s worth remembering what comes with working for a site of millions. When Carolyn Petit reviewed Grand Theft Auto V for GameSpot and had the audacity to criticize the game’s portrayal of women, the review turned into a storm of critical commentary about Petit’s gender. It was insulting and ridiculous. But the reason this kind of commentary happens is a result of technology meant to amplify voices without tools tailored for the consequences, and because we’ve created a critical culture not used to hearing these ideas.

Ideas are scary when we’ve heard them for the first time. On sites like IGN, GameSpot, Kotaku or Giant Bomb, the demographics skew young, especially among commenters. This might be the first time they’re hearing this kind of criticism. Ignorance isn’t an excuse, but we’re all ignorant until someone tells us otherwise.

Screen Shot 2014-03-14 at 7.35.03 PM Screen Shot 2014-03-14 at 7.32.45 PM

These are two examples of readers who have told me talking about different issues surrounding games gave them pause, and it caused them to reconsider. I don’t share these because I’m proud to have “changed” someone, but to show the impact our ideas can have. For many Giant Bomb readers, Giant Bomb is the only site they visit. This is the case for many on Kotaku, GameSpot, IGN, and others. We cannot expect them to come to us. We need to go to them.

But our culture only changes with a mixture of new voices and questioning the old ones. There’s not a lack of talent in games writing, there’s a lack of mobility for new talent to move up.

Places like Patreon are great, but it’s not everything. That’s not health insurance, that’s not a 401k. That’s not stability. Criticism is a form of creativity, and it’s helped by stability.

What can we do? We can apply pressure, both internally and externally. If you, like me, are a member of one of these websites, it’s important to lobby for a more diverse staff. The hiring of yet another white dude is not, inherently, a bad thing, but make sure a conversation happens about broadening the scope of applicants. We tend to hire those we know because it’s easy, but that doesn’t bring new voices that might challenge old ideas.

Even if you’re not hiring, you’re still in a position to do something. I am in a position to make more diverse voices present on our website. It’s why I’ve featured Cara Ellison, Jenn Frank, Zoe Quinn, and others on our morning show. Giant Bomb has a big, influential platform, and I can use it to elevate others. Having a platform is a privilege, so make sure to give back, too.

On the flip side, it’s important that constant pressure and scrutiny is applied to these websites, including my own. It’s easy to become complacent in a cushy job like mine, and complacency is only dislodged by an external push. When Ben Kuchera was hired by Polygon to run its opinion section, the criticism was vocal and directed. Whatever you think of Ben or Polygon, that’s the time to be loud. People listen. I know I heard it. Maybe it will influence the next hire, Polygon or not. Shouting might piss some people off, but that’s okay. If you’re not pissing anyone off, you’re probably not trying hard enough.

What I mean to suggest is that we shouldn’t give up on the big sites. Big sites have a big reach, and that has the potential for a big impact, too. This means people need to keep their feet to the fire. And, no, I’m not excluding myself from this, either.

Thank you.

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