“Quis custodiet ipsos custodes.” Usually attributed to the Roman poet Juvenal, this Latin phrase translates to “who will guard the guards” and often arises within discussions about the expression of power in personal, corporate, and governmental relationships. The words question what constitutes a valid exercise of authority and the safeguards in place to prevent an abuse of such power. When applied to the video game industry, the question’s gaze falls squarely on journalists and reviewers, those who hold a responsibility as gatekeepers to do right by both consumers and creators. However, as the intermediaries between the two other groups, reviewers occupy a difficult position, expected to express honest critical opinions and also often pilloried for doing just that.
The recent example of IGN’s Dan Stapleton and his initial 4/10 review for Prey stands out. Though he offered praise for the mechanics, story, and atmosphere, Stapleton’s score stemmed from a game-breaking bug in the PC version that, in his opinion, made the title impossible to recommend. Fans and readers criticised the decision, claiming, based on their own time with the game, that Stapleton was irresponsible and guilty of doing a disservice to the community and creators. As might be expected, a patch for the game was released, resolving the issue, and that review was later updated to an 8/10. Similarly, OnlySP’s Marley Hannan recently prepared his review of Prey with the intention of giving the game the highest accolade of High Distinction. However, due to the mention of technical flaws within the review, an executive decision was made to reduce the final score to a Distinction. Prey still stands out amongst the games released so far this year, but all issues must be taken into account, lest the lessons of 2014’s Assassin’s Creed: Unity be forgotten.
With Assassin’s Creed becoming one of the most popular and recognisable gaming franchises during the PlayStation 3/Xbox 360 era, expectations were high for the first fully “next-gen” entry in the series, Assassin’s Creed: Unity. Despite widespread reports of uninspired design, poor characterisation, and severe technical issues, the game received general praise, with few outlets electing to offer even an average review score. Fans, in comparison, were vocal in their denunciation of Assassin’s Creed: Unity, leading publisher Ubisoft to make the Season Pass DLC free to all users and offering Season Pass holders a choice of a different game as compensation. Game reviewers, as a collective, were held to account for failing to uphold the values and responsibilities that naturally come with the position, and the vehement reversal of opinion aimed at Stapleton less than three years later spotlights a significant issue in the interactions between reviewers and readers. Rather than wanting journalists to offer an honest impression on the game in question, readers seem to prefer a writer to corroborate their pre-existing opinion. This desire cannot be condemned. All people share an inclination to find like minds, and conflict is almost inevitable in situations of differing opinion. While healthy discussion can be the result, too often does conflict stem from an opinion designed solely to spark a rebuttal.
Smaller outlets on the scale of OnlySP sometimes offer objectively unjustifiable review scores as a means of courting controversy and attracting traffic or otherwise write inflammatory articles that contribute little, if anything, to a topical conversation. In instances such as these, journalists are undertaking a dereliction of duty, ignoring their positions as gatekeepers, in an effort to reach a wider audience. The tactic is cheap, but effective, as a visit to N4G.com on almost any given day will attest. In seeking to further their reach, the purveyors of such provocative articles cast other outlets in a negative light, which reduces the general opinion of gaming journalism. Worse still, such sources cannot be held to account as, unlike general journalism, the gaming sector has no regulatory body in the vein of the Independent Press Standards Organisation or the Australian Press Council to ensure that content adheres to the demands of public interest and general standards. Somehow, more than 20 years on from the first outlets dedicated to gaming, the sector remains an unmonitored Wild West.
Ideally, the collective of game journalists would be self-regulating, weeding out those outlets that fail to adhere to general quality and content standards, but the contradictions between expectations and reality make any such feat impossible. While aggregate platforms such as N4G, VGRHQ, and OpenCritic exist, the structures, systems, and philosophies of these sites ensure that they are able to only promote, rather than censure. Furthermore, games journalists are trapped in a perpetual cycle of contradiction, as the examples of Assassin’s Creed: Unity and Prey exemplify. In 2014, the profession was criticised for not fulfilling the obligations of accuracy, impartiality, and accountability, and allowing developers to get away with practices that were unfair to consumers. In 2017, the pendulum has swung the other way, and journalists are criticised for pointing out the very real flaws in a production that is, nevertheless, almost universally loved. Beset by sharks on both sides, games commentators are forced to walk a tightrope, but matters should not stand this way. The effectiveness of games journalism is hampered by the focus on regurgitated news, embargos, gated interviews, and a pervasive unwillingness and inability to put the hard questions to the right people. Unfortunately, a solution to these issues would require a fundamental rethink of the approach that both journalists and readers take to creation and consumption of gaming news, reviews, and commentary. At present, journalistic power is centralised within a few major outlets, including Ziff Davis (IGN), CBS Interactive (GameSpot), and the Gamer Network, with their coverage being preferred and prioritised by publishers and PR, resulting in a self-perpetuating system. Moreover, even websites that take a different approach, such as Waypoint and Gameumentary, struggle to make a mark, meaning that the status quo remains unshaken.
Overturning these tenets requires a toppling of structural power that, at the present time, seems impossible, so matters will remain as they stand. Journalistic influence will remain centralised, smaller sites will continue to squabble over minor nuggets of traffic, and reviewers will still be seen as opinionated fools. The real question, then, is not “who will guard the guards,” but how can the guards ever be respected?