“A game reviewer is a unicorn kind of job,” says Ludwig Kietzmann, U.S. editor-in-chief of GamesRadar+, while addressing a packed room during a four-person panel on “actual ethics” in games journalism. Despite the job’s appeal, co-panelist and former GameSpot.com editor Carolyn Petit nails the clear problem journalists face: “This is enthusiast press, but game developers really see it as an extension of their own PR. Reviewers have to somehow challenge the hype.”
She’s right: given access to free, unreleased merchandise, games journalists feel pressured to publish glowing reviews or else potentially lose their access and ability to preview upcoming releases.
What Kietzmann and his colleagues haven’t realized is that this talk isn’t just about the ethics of games journalism, it’s about the very survival of games journalism.
Managing developer and reader relationships takes quality — and quality costs.
“What you have to say has to be worth the cost of saying it,” Kietzmann says. “When you’re paying [writers and editors] to get the level of quality you want, you’re whittling down your potential audience.”
That potential audience may be thinning quicker than they realize. At several GX3 developer panels throughout the day, in all the advice for marketing games there’s no mention of writing press releases or engaging journalists. Instead, the focus remains on personal branding and the new golden ticket of game marketing — streaming (that is, offering commentary on games through your own channel, often while playing the game itself, rather than going through an “established” gaming publication).
Despite the sparse audience at the streaming panel, the mood at the panelists table is animated and welcoming, quite different from the journalism panel.
“Live streaming is not new, but we’re starting to see a large volume of streamers coming out of the woodwork,” says Dylan Zaner, who livestreams games as 8BitHomo. “People stream off their phones. It’s crazy.”
Zaner says he always wanted to make game content, but never had the equipment. So he tried streaming. Now he and fellow streamers are bringing vibrant, humorous, honest commentary to a dedicated fan base that he and managers moderate through Twitch.
“Branding is huge with Twitch. Not only is it going to help people find your channel, it’s going to help you get recognized by other channels,” he says. “You have to bring out a personality. If there’s a part of your personality that you like, exaggerate it.”
So video game readers have a choice. Do they read the traditional reviews from professional journalists who, while they vet their process, must balance the demands of developers and industry friends looking for good press? Or do they join a community of peers on their favorite livestream that, while still a performance, provides more than just an access-driven, scale of one to 10 rating for a game?
Live-streaming is the death knell of games journalism. Twitch and other platforms have effectively democratized enthusiast press—even though some barriers remain, such as minimal queer representation. Perhaps the time is ripe for games journalists to quit defending their ethical honor and start diversifying how they deliver content—and how they can compete with millions of content creators everywhere.
Otherwise, the games journalist may truly become that unicorn—a beautiful, yet fantastical, creature of legend.