On Games Journalism and Skill

Posted in Kulturecade by - October 19, 2017
On Games Journalism and Skill

While I was perusing my Twitter feed not too long ago, I happened upon a fascinating video. In said video, a games journalist was attempting to beat an early level in a game, and frankly, they were not doing very well. I’m choosing to omit the specifics of the video because they are largely irrelevant; this article is not intended to disparage anyone based on their skill level with gaming, and I believe that gaming as a hobby, as well as professions related to it, should remain open and welcoming to all willing participants. I came away from the video with a question, however, and I think it’s one that warrants further examination: should games journalists be held to some sort of standard of gaming ability in order to credibly discuss and review games?

Most people will probably have a kneejerk reaction to this question, but regardless of your stance, the issue isn’t as simple as it seems at first glance. Let’s first examine the viewpoint of someone who might say that a certain level of skill should be a requirement to report on games. Setting a benchmark for ability is nigh impossible, as different genres of games employ vastly different mechanics, and even games within those genres that seem similar might actually vary wildly in difficulty. For instance, Uncharted and Dark Souls are both categorized by many news outlets and retailers as third-person action adventure games, but they provide players with incredibly different experiences and levels of challenge. “Normal” difficulty in Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare is not the same as “normal” difficulty in Wolfenstein: The New Order, and so on and so forth. When we look closer at just how fundamentally different games can be from each other, even if they share some surface-level similarities, the idea of finding a way to appraise skill level, in general, seems patently absurd.

On the other side of the matter, those who say that there should be no benchmark would likely call for objectivity. After all, as long as a player can take a step back and correctly identify if a game’s challenge stems from either the player’s own lack of skill or unreasonable and suspect game design, their review of said title should still be fairly accurate. To remove oneself from the equation negates the purpose of critiquing any kind of entertainment media, however. While it is possible to objectively examine the quality of a piece of media’s writing, visual fidelity, and basic structure, and it is possible to quantify length and technical specifications, none of these things matter if said media fails to entertain or engage the audience in some capacity. As a personal example, I think the Dead Island games are fun. They are, however, deeply flawed from an objective standpoint, with hackneyed writing, wonky hit detection and little variety. My objective review of Dead Island would be scathing, but my subjective review would be far more generous, conceding that I had fun in spite of the game’s myriad issues. By asking games journalists to remove themselves from the experience, we risk losing crucial perspective on whether a game succeeds at its most basic mission: to entertain. All of this is to say that the idea of a skill prerequisite for talking about games with any authority is a complicated issue, exacerbated by the fact the games are a unique type of media.

While movies, books, and music require emotional and intellectual engagement to fully appreciate, games often require a level of physical engagement that simply is not present in other media. Is someone who cannot fully grasp a game’s mechanics unqualified to review the game, or is their critical opinion just as valid as anyone else’s, provided they are aware of their lack of skill and take that into account for their critique? The question, for now, remains up for debate, but finding a definitive answer to the question of whether skill matters will not only have a tremendous impact on how games are discussed but perhaps also on how valid games journalism is considered in the years to come.

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