Level Head

The list ar­ti­cle con­tains a re­veal­ing truth about the way game jour­nal­ism works, and how it ought to change


Ev­ery­one says they hate list ar­ti­cles. As a for­mat, the oft-de­rided ‘list­si­cle’ is pre­sumed to be disin­gen­u­ously abus­ing our at­ten­tion with se­quences of ar­bi­trary pref­er­ences. People who write list­si­cles are just lev­er­ag­ing a trendy for­mat for web traf­fic, say many – the writ­ers could have found a bet­ter way to con­vey their ideas, but chose the easy road. At best, lists are fun di­ver­sions for the of­fice, but most would ad­vise you to look else­where for real in­for­ma­tion.

Yet the game in­dus­try has its spine in lists, a long her­itage of putting num­bers on things and then putting those things in or­der. No event what­so­ever in games has been al­lowed to be held with­out sev­eral ‘bests’ be­ing prof­fered, usu­ally by the press, some­times by or­gan­is­ers in­cor­po­rat­ing the in­put of the press.

That’s one of the most as­tound­ing things about E3, for ex­am­ple: al­most ev­ery con­sumer pub­li­ca­tion gives out ‘best of’ awards to the games that ex­cited it the most, and there are dozens upon dozens of such awards. Some read­ers who fol­low E3 want to know ev­ery­thing there was to see from the event; most just want to know what was ‘best’.

The fea­ture round­ing up all the ‘bests’ is prob­a­bly the most im­por­tant com­po­nent of any game web­site’s costly event cov­er­age, which means it needs to be prompt and thor­ough. This in turn means prob­a­bly most work­ing writ­ers visit trade shows with the man­date con­tin­u­ally in the back of their mind that they will need to pick out what is ‘best’.

This makes some sense, or at least it once did – con­sumers are con­stantly flooded with game mar­ket­ing and new re­leases, and ris­ing hard­ware and re­tail costs mean buy­ing ad­vice has be­come in­creas­ingly im­por­tant. Dur­ing my child­hood, I read neonem­bel­lished, ad­vert-stuffed videogame mag­a­zines, pag­ing ur­gently for scores.

But the cy­cle of ‘best of’ lists gets tricky when you ex­am­ine the role the press plays in bom­bard­ing play­ers with mar­ket­ing ma­te­ri­als. Any new trailer could be an oc­ca­sion for a post on a con­sumer site. And as the trailer be­gins, you see the boast­ing: what you’re about to watch was awarded ‘best of’ and ‘most an­tic­i­pated’ by many web­sites. There might even be en­thu­si­as­tic quotes from an em­ployee of the site that you’re cur­rently view­ing.

Many people think this im­plies un­scrupu­lous com­plic­ity. I don’t. There’s no doubt in my mind that the ‘best ofs’ were con­sid­ered, the quotes were from en­thu­si­as­tic re­porters, and that no il­licit trans­ac­tion took place. But com­plic­ity need not be ex­plicit: we at­tended a mar­ket­ing event and the re­sult was ma­te­ri­als a com­pany could use in mar­ket­ing.

If a new fran­chise se­quel ap­pears, there is no ques­tion that it must be cov­ered, even by re­porters who are rel­a­tively dis­in­ter­ested in it. A pub­lisher’s event is an oc­ca­sion where writ­ers show up, even if cyn­i­cally, ev­ery­one drinks the free drinks and then prob­a­bly makes an in­for­ma­tive, un­sen­ti­men­tal post for the ben­e­fit of those read­ers who might care about that kind of thing.

No event in games has been al­lowed to be held with­out sev­eral ‘bests’ be­ing prof­fered

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