Tropes are for dopes
November 21, 2011
spitting in the wind: [spit-ting-in-the-wind]
idiom; euphemism (see also pissing in the wind)
1. A futile, self-defeating act.
2. Wasting time trying to achieve something than cannot be achieved. e.g. “Assigning Congress the task of addressing the budget deficit is like spitting in the wind.”
Bellyaching about mainstream media coverage of video games is an exercise in expectoration blowback. No amount of complaining seems to make a difference, and those of us who believe media coverage imacts public perception battle high blood pressure every time we hear another outmoded, ill-informed piece of reporting from journalists who clearly lack first-hand experience playing games, or have simply failed to do their homework.
NPR (National Public Radio) generally bucks the tired ‘soundbyte-news’ trend with thoughtful reporting that goes deeper and wider than other news outlets. Recently, the network has attempted to address its stuffy ‘east-coast intellectual’ image with refreshingly astute and lively coverage of the arts and technology. Video games, in particular, have received frequent attention. In the last week alone NPR aired four segments devoted to games on its flagship programs, All Things Considered and Morning Edition.
But apparently not even NPR can avoid the common pitfall of shoddy reporting on video games. Like its mainstream brethren, NPR consistently frames its game coverage with ‘analysis’ that fails to illuminate the games themselves. This kind of coverage produces four threadbare tropes that have come to define game journalism in the popular media:
Video games make a CRAP TON of money. Even more than movies!!
RENEE MONTAGNE, host: The new version of the video game “Call of Duty” is out now, released last week. In the first 24 hours on shelves in the U.S. and the UK, the game made a staggering FOUR…HUNDRED…MILLION…DOLLARS in sales - a new record.
Coverage of the game industry as business news will inevitably include sales data, and it’s certainly newsworthy that the COD franchise generates big revenue numbers. But Montaigne’s conversation with Harold Goldberg (G4TV) wasn’t a business report. The segment focused on “this season’s hot video games…” and Goldberg’s remarks were limited to 20-second blurbs - on COD: “It’s almost a lifestyle for certain people”; on Skyward Sword: “…at once sweet, adventuresome, heartwarming, and a little scary; on Skyrim: “It’s much more than slaying dragons; it’s building up your character…”
Goldberg does the best he can, but the segment is yet another consumer-focused “game buying guide” story that doesn’t say much about the games themselves.
- Gamers are CRAZY! (see also lazy, anti-social, obssessive, etc.)
In a segment called “Gamers Take Advantage Of Three-Day Weekend,” Beth Accomando of KPBS recorded an interview with her 18-year-old son and his friend who spent three uninterrupted days playing Skyrim.
DAVID: Oh, for a game like this, you should more or less just say goodbye to your life now - your wife, kids, job, bills - bye.
KYRA MORALES [customer in line at San Diego GameStop]: I’m going to play like 24 hours and then drink a Mountain Dew to keep me up.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
KYRA MORALES: And then play another 24 hours.
The report is a personalized and lighthearted take on gamers and their devotion to certain games, but once again we learn almost nothing about the game itself. What’s more, the piece feeds the popular misconception that gamers are mostly obssessive teenagers with time on their hands…when reams of data on games and gamers proves otherwise. Lots of players stood in line and bought Skyrim at midnight; but far more of us unwrapped our copy when it arrived from Amazon on the day of release.
- I don’t waste time playing games myself, but I’ll happily discuss why you think they’re interesting.
One of the saddest aspects of games reporting is that few of the journalists covering them seem to know much about their subject. NPR relies on experts like Jamin Warren (Kill Screen) or Brian Crecente (Kotaku) to discuss games with its on-air hosts, but rarely do these experts get to weigh in with more than cursory expertise. Warren recently discussed Batman: Arkham City with Renee Montagne:
MONTAGNE: Now “Batman: Arkham City” is getting attention for more than its good reviews. And it’s gotten good reviews. It is being sold with 10 percent of the game missing – that missing part would be Catwoman. How does it work?
What follows is an informative exchange about the industry’s increasing reliance on DLC, but once again (noticing a theme here?) we learn almost nothing about the game. Why did it get good reviews? Ironically, Warren co-founded the preeminent print magazine devoted to games criticism, but here he’s limited to being an industry pundit. He performs admirably, but one wishes he could have weighed in on why these Batman games have so deepened the cultural footprint of this iconic character and series.
- I don’t have anything interesting to say about this game, but here’s a provocative montage with lots of carnage, accompanied by blurbs with numbers in them.
I’ll admit this one’s a bit of a cheap shot (not aimed at NPR, by the way), but if we’re compiling a list of media coverage tropes for video games, this one must be on that list. Offering lots of heat, but very little light - this familiar encapsulation of games as wildly popular, violent, newfangled, ever-more-realistic, etc. has become the de rigueur presentation of games as a pervasive form of entertainment invading our living rooms, competing against TV and movies for our money and attention.
I focused on NPR in this post because I’m a true blue fan of the network. I financially support my local station, and I’m a devoted listener to its full slate of programming. I single out NPR because I believe it can do better in its coverage of games, just as it routinely does better with its national, international, and political reporting.
During the same period in which the stories I mentioned above were aired, NPR interviewed artists like novelist Don DeLillo, musician Keith Jarrett, and filmmaker Alexander Payne. I’m happy the network has expanded its coverage of games, but it can truly lead the way by focusing on games as creative expression, not just as commerce or cultural curiosity.
Reporting on Skyrim multiple times without talking to its director Todd Howard is a curious and disappointing omission. I’m happy to hear Harold Goldberg’s thoughts on Uncharted 2, but why not sit down with Amy Hennig and discuss her goals for the series…or what it’s like to be the most creatively influential woman in an industry dominated by men? Games offer so many compelling hooks for good reporting. Break free of the tropes and blaze a new trail.
What would such coverage look (or in this case, sound) like? Last Friday, P.J. Vogt from WNYC's "On The Media" reported on Ian Bogost's Cow Clicker, and "what happens when your creations take on a life of their own." It's the kind of smart, illuminating reporting on games that I hope we'll see more of in the future.