Slate readers are over, declining—a dead demographic.
Why on Earth would I start a column with this thesis? There is no faster way to alienate my audience—that is, the people who pay my bills. And yet, this is exactly what writers at not one but half a dozen online gaming publications did to their audiences last week, and it points to a significant shift in the business of gaming. Gamers are not over, but gaming journalism is.
Some background: Recently, there were some egregious incidents of harassment in the gaming community, as I covered in a previous piece. The harassment story quickly spiraled into a much larger fight, clumsily dubbed #GamerGate, between an angry, mostly anonymous mass of gamers and the gaming press. The fight blew up on Twitter, Reddit, YouTube, gaming sites, 4chan, and elsewhere last week. With rhetorical shrapnel flying everywhere, one ironic low was achieved when popular and resolutely positive gamer Steven Williams, aka Boogie2988, found himself simultaneously maligned as a brainwashed feminist by self-declared men’s rights activists and fat-shamed by self-declared social justice advocates. Another low was when thoughtful freelance gaming writer Jenn Frank decided to leave the field altogether after being unfairly singled out for relentless criticism.
Trying to sort through GamerGate is like sinking into quicksand, but the general tenor of the discussion has been: A fair number of gamers hate the journalists who cover them, and the journalists hate them back.
The attacks on the press have ranged from well-reasoned to offensive to paranoid, but the gaming journalists unwisely decided to respond to the growing, nebulous anger by declaring that “gamers” were dead. Such articles appeared concurrently in Gamasutra (“ ‘Gamers’ are over” and “A guide to ending ‘gamers’ ”), Destructoid (“There are gamers at the gate, but they may already be dead”), Kotaku (“We might be witnessing the ‘death of an identity’ ”) and Rock, Paper, Shotgun (“Gamers are over”), as well as Ars Technica (“The death of the ‘gamers’ ”), Vice (“Killing the gamer identity”) and BuzzFeed (“Gaming is leaving ‘gamers’ behind”). These articles share some traits in common besides their theses: They are unconvincing, lacking in hard evidence, and big on wishful thinking. A good number of them link to an obscure blog post by academic Dan Golding, “The End of Gamers,” which argues, again without evidence, that “the gamer identity has been broken” and that the current unrest “is an attempt to retain hegemony.” Kotaku writer Nathan Grayson linked to a similarly obtuse piece of academic argot (“ ‘Gamer’ is selfish … conservative … tribalistic”), which in Grayson’s words “breaks down the difference between ‘gamer’ as a manufactured identity versus loving games on multiple levels.” I’ve written essays comparing games to the work of artist Kurt Schwitters and poet Kenneth Rexroth, and even I can’t muster this level of vacuous self-importance on the subject.
Returning to the real world, the biggest problem with all these claims is that they are demonstrably untrue. A quick glance at financials shows that “gamers” are not going anywhere. If “gamers” really are dying, no one told the marketing departments for these publications, which continue to trumpet their “gamer” demographic to advertisers. What is going on instead is projection. As long as these journalists held a monopoly on gaming coverage, they could maintain a dismal relationship with their audience in spite of the fact that “most games coverage is almost indistinguishable from PR,” in the words of disaffected game columnist Robert Florence, who himself wrote about corruption in gaming journalism before quitting Eurogamer. But all that’s changing with the rise of long-form amateur gaming journalism and game commentating on YouTube and Twitch.tv, the latter of which was just bought by Amazon for $1 billion as the gaming press was declaring the end of gamers.
Game companies and developers are now reaching out directly to quasi-amateur enthusiasts as a better way to build their brands, both because the gamers are more influential than the gaming journalists, and because these enthusiasts have far better relationships with their audiences than gaming journalists do. (Admittedly, most anyone does.) This week, Nintendo’s Shigeru Miyamoto signaled a focus on hard-core gamers, and Nintendo has already been shutting out the video game press for years. As Gamasutra’s Keza MacDonald wrote in June, the increasingly direct relationship between gamers and game companies has “removed what used to be [game journalism’s] function: to tell people about games.” Another Gamasutra article cited game developers saying that YouTube coverage had far more impact than all website coverage combined.
I generally don’t read gaming websites because I don’t like sifting through rewritten press releases and underage toothbrush incest anime coverage to find one or two genuine pieces of content. Instead I go to affable enthusiasts on YouTube and Twitch, people like Ryan Letourneau (Northernlion), Michelle (TheRPGMinx), Nick Reineke (RockLeeSmile), Daniel Hardcastle (NerdCubed), and the unfathomably popular Felix Kjellberg (PewDiePie), a 24-year-old gamer who has 30 million subscribers, the most viewed YouTube channel of all time, and makes $4 million a year off his channel by, more or less, playing video games.*
It is understandable that online gaming journalists would be uncomfortable in this situation. The antagonism of the gaming press toward its audience stems partly from justified outrage at the horrible behavior of a small subset of it, but also from helpless resentment toward the entirety of the press’s shrinking audience—hence the self-defeating attempt to generalize the former into the latter. Rather than stressing that the vast majority of gamers are reasonable people who don’t harass women, hold reactionary, protectionist views, or start vitriolic online campaigns against the press, the websites trashed the entire term “gamer” and, to no one’s surprise, earned 10 times the enmity overnight.
These articles were additionally unseemly because gamers were being preached to by the very same people who have been commodifying them. As Florence said, so much of the game journalist’s job has indeed been glorified PR, and the rest is not reportage but cultural think pieces, like the ones that have earned so much opprobrium over the last week. Consequently, great, lesser-known stories—and games—fall by the wayside. Just one example: Stephen Lavelle, aka Increpare, is one of the most fascinating game designers around, but he has been largely ignored by the gaming press, even as he’s grabbed the attention of the New Yorker. I found out about him from Northernlion’s channel. (Disclosure: I have corresponded with Lavelle; I wrote to tell him how much I like his games.)
Maybe gamers don’t trust their press as much as they trust the enthusiasts because the press doesn’t seem as engaged with the games themselves. Compared with the enthusiasts, the journalists’ hearts aren’t in it. This isn’t true for criticism of other art forms. Sure, there are always hack writers, but Pauline Kael didn’t have to put together five hype-building posts about Destiny for every thoughtful review she wrote. Gaming journalists are caught between capitalist reality and their own frustrated aspirations to be serious cultural critics. But they cannot solve their problems by preaching about the death of their audience. That audience is dying only in that it is leaving them, a process the journalists have evidently decided to accelerate. Game journalists are rage-quitting their meal ticket.
Correction, Sept. 9, 2014: The original version of this article misspelled Nick Reineke’s surname. (Return.)