Video game addiction, mass murderers trained on Call of Duty, the video games warping your children’s brain. Does mainstream media have an agenda against video games? Does it purposely publish negatively skewed stories?
It often feels that way.
And it’s frustrating. It’s tempting to go on the defensive (or often the offensive) each and every time video games are unfairly chastised in the mainstream press, but video games are mainstream now. More people play video games than don’t play video games. The moral panic is over.
So why does this type of reporting still exist? Today, numb to the exposure of scare-mongering stories, this might be the only question still worth answering. So we decided to investigate. We asked a number of journalists who are either working, or have worked, in the mainstream space: What’s the motivation?
Why is the mainstream media still writing scare stories about video games in 2016?
“Anything that instils fear in people. Those stories always rate,” one journalist explained.
Almost everyone we spoke to for this story made this point: Negatively skewed stories score higher than positive stories in terms of traffic. And that plays double when those stories involve children.
One journalist, who asked to remain anonymous, explained: Stories about video games affecting children’s brains or behaviour were guaranteed traffic hits. For some journalists the temptation to write and publish those stories was difficult to pass up.
“Those were usually written by some shitty journalist quoting research from some moron,” he told us. “They would quote stupid university professors and build their case of that.”
Stories like these are rarely written or published by tech journalists, we were told. Usually it’s the work of “annoying general news or consumer affairs journalists”.
In the mainstream space negative press releases are “pounced on”. Mainly because negative stories tend to score more traffic, but also as a result of ignorance. When it comes to video games most mainstream journalists lack the knowledge to ask the right questions of any research release that lands in their inbox.
“Even casual gamers know when something is bullshit,” one journalist said. “Those who don’t genuinely think it’s true.”
And that’s the case with many of these scare-mongering stories. There’s no real agenda. Just a simple combination of ignorance and a search for the type of content that has been proven to work for that broad, mainstream readership.
“Traffic is king,” one journalist explained.
And complaints barely even matter.
“Most senior editors of the publication don’t know any better themselves. Most just pass off social media retaliation as dickhead commenters finding something to whinge about.”
There’s no real malice involved, just a simple case of reporters chasing the story their audience wants to read, and an inability to separate facts from spin. Quite simply, a large number of journalists don’t understand video games.
“I’ve never heard of a MSM reporter who actually hated games and wanted to portray them in a bad light,” another journalist told us. “But when an expert or a piece of research tells them games rot the brain … a lot of reporters seem a bit quicker to take that at face value then they might be if it was a different artistic medium.”
Stories in mainstream media don’t need to be negative, but if you’re writing for a broad audience some sort of ‘lifestyle’ hook is required otherwise — according to the journalists we spoke to — the story will completely disappear.
“Our site is so big that the only way to get heaps of hits is have it placed on the front page where a million readers will see it,” one journalist explained. “Nobody comes here looking for games coverage. So choosing a gaming story to cover usual boils down to: Will it run at the front? Is there a hook? Stories about games rotting kids’ heads always do well. But so do other stories that have a non-games element that editors and the mainstream audience can grab on to.”
So instead of stories about Uncharted 4, we get stories about video game addiction (apparently stories about video game rehab centres in Asia are a 100 per cent guaranteed traffic hit) or the effects of video game violence.
Apparently there’s a new angle on the block: Esports.
Currently, the “Esports is a real sport now” angle is popular in the newsroom. As is the “Man Makes $1 Million Playing EVE” story.
Stories that work well on mainstream audiences tend to feature games on the periphery. The example we were given was Pokemon GO. Video game sites are more likely to cover the game itself but mainstream sites only wrote about Pokemon GO as a social phenomenon.
“Barely anyone here had any idea what it was,” explained one journalist. “Nobody was playing it, but everybody churned out a story or two about it because it was suddenly of general interest.”
It can be quite difficult for young journalists to write about video games in a mainstream publication. Particularly when the editors they report to don’t necessarily understand video games. Or perhaps they just understand their audience all too well.
One journalist we spoke to told us a story. He had spent all weekend playing and writing about Uncharted 4, but when he got to the office the following Monday he was chastised by his Editor for not writing about Doom instead. Uncharted 4 was what ‘gamers’ were buying, playing and discussing, but Doom had the brand name and the historic legacy of scare-mongering that would resonate with a mainstream audience.
In this case the journalist we spoke to knew he was in the wrong.
“It illustrates the issue,” he explained. “I thought Uncharted was a no-brainer to take priority, but Doom is a property people recognise even if the last game they played was in 1995.”
Another example: The same journalist asked if there was any interest in a review for the most recent Call of Duty game, considering its enduring popularity among a broad audience.
“Is it the best game ever?” a senior journalist asked.
“Is it the worst game ever?”
Again, probably not, so there was no interest.
“A headline like ‘Is this the best game of all time?’ might have got it over the line,” the journalist said. “But of course very few gaming stories can fairly earn a headline like that.”
One person we spoke to believed criticism of video game coverage in mainstream media was a difficult one to parse. By definition it speaks to a large audience and, if done well, merely presents the views of experts. From that perspective very little understanding is required, but only if the reporting is fair.
“I certainly wouldn’t say hardcore gamers should be in charge of who can and can’t cover video games,” he said.
But he did admit there were issues specific to video games. The main issue: Mainstream journalists, in his experience, simply weren’t interested in games. In his experience, senior journalists were more likely to be interested in sports, travel or politics and video games – being what they are – are difficult to understand if you don’t have that specialist knowledge. In addition, many old journalists still carry that old media view of video games.
“Many reporters I’ve talked to seem to carry the familiar biases when it comes to video games. That it’s mostly for teenage boys but is somehow also the realm of children, that it’s mostly violent and sexist.”
Certainly the games industry and the games they produce are not invulnerable to criticism. Often video games (as a medium and an industry) deserve criticism, but the scare-mongering is what feels unfair.
But there is hope.
“I think we might see those scare mongering stories drop a little,” one journalist told us. “Editors are starting to see the value of games and writing half decent gaming stories.”
But, sadly, the moral panic surrounding video games persists.
“As long as there are those general journalists who don’t know what’s really going on and just want to ‘protect the children’, we’ll still see those types of stories pop up.”
Featured image: iStock