Breaking The Rules: On Roger Ebert And The Lack of Standards in Games Journalism…ing
Ah, Roger Ebert. A name that brings forth vitriolic reactions from gamers who just can’t understand someone not considering the sex scenes from the God of War series to be art. I mean, who can deny the impact of these awkward, juvenile, rhythm-based mini-games? (insert Catholicism joke here)
But whether or not you agree with him on abstract definitions and media classifications, you can’t deny that the man knows more about reviewing films and covering the industry than just about anyone else.
Recently, he posted a link to “Roger’s little rule book” in response to questions about him possibly hiring younger reviewers with little to no experience for his new show. (By the way, no, he’s not.) The “rule book” itself is a list of rules, standards and lessons learned from decades of experience as a film critic.
While many of them seemed fairly self explanatory to me, a few entries in it dawned on me: he wrote these out for a reason. Even in film criticism with its more established standards, there are situations writers find themselves in that aren’t quite black and white. Some of these sounded familiar to me, but I’ve just finished four years of journalism professors drilling stuff into us about how every politician and PR person is a liar; never accept anything given to you while covering the news, and the classic: “If your mother tells you she loves you, confirm with a second source.”
I’m pulling a few from Ebert’s list, as well as a few others that have stuck with me from journalism school.
First, a few from Ebert on reviews.
Keep track of your praise. If you call a movie “one of the greatest movies ever made,” you are honor-bound to include it in your annual Top Ten list. Likewise, for example, if you describe a film as “the most unique movie-going experience of a generation,” and “one of the best films of 2007, and of the last 25 years,” it’s your duty to put it in the Top Ten of 2007. This is doubly true if you have published two separate lists naming 14 of the year’s top 10 films.
Do the math. If one week you state, “‘Mr. Untouchable’ makes ‘American Gangster’ look like a fairy tale,” and the next week you say, “American Gangster” was “Goodfellas” for “the next generation,” then you must conclude that “Mr. Untouchable” is better than “Goodfellas.”
These are great advice for any reviewer. Some sites seem to be better than others at stuff like this, but everyone should take them to heart.
I’ve seen a lot of 9/10 (or equivalent) reviews over the years that no one really even seems to put in the top 10 of that year. Maybe it was just a good year. Or maybe you simply didn’t have the balls to call a good game “good” and not “amazing.” Speaking of which…
Be prepared to give a negative review. If you give one to the work of a friend, and they’re not your friend any more, they weren’t ever your friend. As Robert Altman once told me, “If you never gave me a bad review, what would a good review mean?” He was a great man. He thought over what he had said, and added: “But all your bad reviews of my films have been wrong.”
In other words, who cares if Eidos’s PR guy is mad at you? If the game was crap, call it crap. You work for the readers, not the publishers. All they can do is stop sending you free crap. Which brings me to…
Be wary of freebies. The critic should ideally never accept round-trip first-class air transportation, a luxury hotel room, a limo to a screening and a buffet of chilled shrimp and cute little hamburgers in preparation for viewing a movie. If you go, your employer should pay for the trip. I understand some critics work for places that won’t even pick up the cost of a movie ticket, and are so underpaid they have never tasted a chilled shrimp. Others work for themselves, an employer who is always going out of business. Yet they are ordered to produce a piece about Michael Cera’s new film. I cut them some slack. Let them take the junket. They need the food. Also, I admire Michael Cera. But if they work for a place that is filthy rich, they should turn down freebies.
The vast majority of the gaming press falls under the poor exception, so feel free to take the food. Just remember why they’re giving it to you. Take PAX two years ago for example. The press-only party sponsored by Activision was open bar, but they didn’t even have a booth on the floor. An exclusive look at the games, plus free alcohol for the writers and nothing for everyone else. Again, I’m not saying don’t go; just remember to keep their motivations in mind.
And now for one that Ebert gets to, but was summed up much more succinctly by professors and every sports writer I’ve heard speak on the subject: “No cheering in the press box.” This one is not open to debate. I’ve had professors announce before upcoming games that if they caught us violating this one they would personally throw us out. If you are representing a publication at an event, you are supposed to be an impartial observer. For game writers this means no hooting and hollering when a company premiers a trailer. Polite clapping is fine, but don’t overdo it.
And staying with trailers…
Trailers. Have nothing to do with them. Gene Siskel hated them so much he would stand outside a theater until they were over. If he was already seated in the middle of a crowded theater, he would shout “fire!” plug his ears and stare at the floor. Trailers love to spoil all the best gags in a comedy, hint at plot twists in a thriller, and make every film, however dire, look upbeat.
Trailers are ads. Ads aren’t news. If you want to analyze a trailer, that’s fine, but “here’s a trailer, enjoy” is a free ad on the front page. And you wonder why most gaming sites don’t make money.
But now to the big question: why does the gaming press seem so hesitant to adopt some of these time honored standards of media professionals? Sure, many of them use the tried and true “We’re not journalists. We’re bloggers” BS, but most of that seems to be aimed at avoiding the responsibility and standards journalism brings with it. That’s fine, but remember, while a lot of high-minded ideals about serving the reader are thrown around, many of these rules exist to cover your ass.
Take the case of Jason Chen for example. He thought it wouldn’t be that big of a deal to pay some guy for a supposed iPhone prototype, even knowing the story the the guy found it in a bar.
Next thing you know, police are raiding his house. And I’m laughing my ass off.
Normally I’m all for freedom of the press, but this wasn’t that kind of issue. This was a man paying for knowingly stolen property, a crime pretty much everywhere. Now, even if he didn’t know that, if he would have followed journalistic ethics instead of taking the “I’m just a blogger” route he would known that YOU NEVER PAY FOR A STORY! It’s called “checkbook journalism” and only the slimiest of tabloids practice it. Or used to anyway, but that’s another rant.
Ethics aren’t always about some lofty standard or elitism. Some of them really are there to keep you out of jail.