On any given Friday, you can open up your news site of choice (or newspaper, if you’re one of that dwindling tribe) and find a bevy of reviews, aimed at helping you decide which movie you might want to go see. Even limited release and art house films reliably get enough coverage for the movie-going public to make an informed decision about them.
But video games don’t get the same kind of love, despite the fact that in 2014 they accounted for $22.4 billion in sales, almost twelve million more than the 2014 box office sales in the US and Canada, which were $10.9 billion, and more than the music industry during the same period, which brought in revenues of $15 billion.
Some obvious caveats apply here: box office sales aren’t the sum total of the film industry’s revenue, and the music industry is managing a complete shift in how—and whether—people buy music. The video game sales are not all, or perhaps even mostly, for new games. But the numbers do offer enough comparative value to make it seem incredibly bizarre how frightened and tentative the mainstream media are when it comes to reviewing video games.
There are a lot of reasons why the mainstream press has largely shied away from proper coverage of the video game industry. One is simply generational: adults fifty-five and older make up the majority of newspaper readership (online and in print). Another is the fact that news and content sites of all types struggle to retain relevance in a decentralized industry which sees most users coming in to read a particular article rather than logging in daily to read the news; they can’t afford to alienate the few people who are still loyal/repeat readers.
Long-term, however, simple human mortality precludes this from being a winning strategy, and if the mainstream press wants to continue existing in the next thirty years as its core readership dies off, they have to make an effort to engage younger readers.
But video games still carry a strange stigma.
In May, Overwatch, a multiplayer first-person shooter from Blizzard, generated $269 million in digital sales, and June numbers are likely to top that. Overwatch is on its way to becoming a popular phenomenon. So which of the top media outlets-say, The New York Times, Slate, Washington Post, NPR and Salon-have written about it?
One: Salon reviewed Overwatch, praising it as a potential esports juggernaut. The Washington Post did slip in a mention-in a decade-late article on how to get into World of Warcraft, inspired by the Warcraft movie. (In all fairness to the Post, they actually do publish a decent number of timely game reviews of popular titles.)
This doesn’t mean these outlets don’t write about video games, however. Four of these outlets, all but Slate (which also doesn’t publish movie or music reviews on any consistent basis, but tends to publish articles about properties generating a lot of interest in the culturesphere) had at least one article on That Dragon, Cancer, an indie game released earlier this year, created by a father about the experience of losing his young son to cancer.
I would never suggest that That Dragon, Cancer doesn’t deserve coverage—I’m pretty sure there’s a special place in hell for people who dis games about losing your child—but at the same time, I think the widespread coverage it has received in the mainstream media reflects a certain discomfort with traditional video games. That Dragon is a short, story-driven, sad game that can be easily understood by culture critics with experience writing about books and movies. It’s “art,” in a very obvious way.
But I’m not willing to concede that it’s more art or more worthy of attention than an epic, richly developed game like last year’s Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt, whose merits come from story, visuals, and design. But only two of the above outlets (Salon and the Washington Post) wrote about it.
Short, story-driven indie games have a huge advantage in receiving broad coverage over something like Witcher 3 not just by virtue of being a more recognizable type of cultural artifact, but also on the very basis of length. To fully discuss a game as enormous as Witcher 3 would require probably a hundred hours of gameplay and ideally experience with the first two Witcher games.
More, most general interest news outlets don’t have a dedicated gaming journalist. Usually it falls either to a tech writer or a film writer to discuss them, and neither necessarily has the skills to get through an action RPG. The vitriolic response to Polygon’s recent stream of DOOM gameplay raised a lot of questions about how good we actually expect our gaming critics to be at playing games. Given that, shoving a controller into the hands of a baffled film critic would be cruel to the critic, readers, and game alike.
The absence of ongoing substantive game reviews and commentary by large news outlets is compounded by their disproportionate coverage of negative gaming-related topics. In an informal search of these same five major outlets (New York Times, Slate, Washington Post, NPR and Salon), I found that each had provided significant coverage of the Gamergate controversy-at least 10 pieces each. When most of your coverage of video games is about Gamergate, you’re giving your readers a pretty dim picture of the gaming community.
There’s also, of course, still the weird idea that video games are for kids, and odd as it seems, you can still in 2016 publish articles asking surreal questions like, “Why would an adult man still play video games?” Leaving aside the gendered nonsense there, what other genre of popular entertainment is subject to this kind of idiotic inquiry? How can this even be answered? Why do people like to do fun things?
The obvious solution would be for these outlets to hire staff writers who specialize in video games, but in a Catch-22, their dwindling readership means that they’re constantly in the position of slashing staff, making it harder to pivot to content that might appeal to a younger audience.
Something has to give—and the trends suggest it won’t be people’s appetite for video games. How long until the mainstream press catches up?