In the first decades of the 2000s, when the violent video game debate was at its height, games journalism (aimed at an audience of avid gamers) was at the forefront of exposing moral panics. This journalism (found in a range of outlets geared toward gaming, geek, tech and related audiences) aroused the critique that it was too defensive of its audience’s beloved hobby, but research data ultimately proved skepticism of harmful video game effects to be well warranted. Curiously, even as mainstream media has improved its coverage of video games, specialized games journalism has actually got worse. Numerous articles have begun appearing, insinuating that video games might, indeed, have nefarious impacts on players. Why has games journalism decided to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, trading critical skepticism for virtue-laden pearl clutching and unfalsifiable claims?
The notion that video games contribute to mass shootings or other real world acts of serious aggression is all but dead. But, whether on violence or sexualization, a slew of new games journalism articles have suggested that video games may have pernicious effects on players’ attitudes and promote acceptance of violence, normalization of fascism, extremism, sexism and misogyny or even rape. The formula for such pieces is typically to state upfront that games don’t cause x since data can’t support a meaningful link between games and negative outcomes but rather that games may influence how we think about x. This seems like a dodge.
Such statements essentially acknowledge that there is little evidence for what follows, which tends to be reduced to a moral entrepreneurship narrative that nonetheless implies a vague causality. Yet, either the implied effects have themselves already been tested and falsified, or are put in terms that are simply unfalsifiable. Often, the argument relies on clumsy references to cultivation theory, or second-order effects, despite the fact that evidence for games having such effects is weak. For instance, regarding sexualized games, there are now more studies that haven’t found evidence of such effects than those that have. Some studies even suggest that sexualized games may be associated with more positive attitudes toward women, perhaps because game content tends to promote moral reflection. One deeply flawed Italian study from 2016 is often resurrected, despite having been thoroughly debunked.
Games journalism is vast and heterogeneous, of course. I don’t intend to paint with too broad a brush. Yet this turn toward moralistic overreach seems to have increased, particularly since 2013. There may be a few related factors influencing this trend.
First, the Gamergate controversy undoubtedly hit games journalism hard, though perhaps not in the way intended. Gamergate began as a critique of games journalism, although a segment of the movement ultimately attacked women journalists, designers and advocates with the worst venom of anonymous online communities.
In preparing for a recent talk on the sexualization of women characters in games, I decided to compile all the empirical academic studies of Gamergate. It turns out there are none. We don’t know how many individuals who identify with Gamergate’s journalistic critiques supported or were involved in harassment of women. For that matter, we don’t know how many individuals involved with Gamergate were women, nor their age, ethnicity or actual identification as gamers. Games journalism could have pushed for more empirical data but instead too often became mired in the vitriolic debates surrounding the issue.
Around the same time, some games journalists clumsily insinuated that the gamer identity itself might be dead. The olive branch offered by Kotaku’s Luke Plunkett “If you call yourself a ‘gamer’ and are a cool person, keep on being a cool person” seems insufficient given that Plunkett describes gamers in these terms: “[not] everyone who plays games, or who self-identifies as a ‘gamer’ [is] the worst. It’s being used in these cases as short-hand, a catch-all term for the type of reactionary holdouts that feel so threatened by gaming’s widening horizons.” Plunkett recommends one article that equates the gamer identity with “toxicity,” “hysterical fits” and “hatred of women” claiming “The gamer as an identity feels like it is under assault, and so it should … the traditional gamer identity is now culturally irrelevant.” A second article recommended by Plunkett refers to gamers as “obtuse shitslingers, these wailing hyper-consumers, these childish internet-arguers.” Adding the disclaimer but maybe some of you aren’t so bad does little to dispel the impression of disapproval.
Claiming a thing beloved to some individuals is dead has been a time-honored trope since the first obituaries for rock and roll. Such headlines no doubt have clickbait potential but are scarcely sophisticated analyses of gamer culture.
The second issue is that games journalism often mirrors the polarization and tribalism that characterizes so much of the modern political landscape. Games journalists and their audiences seem ever more divided over what types of content are appropriate for games. Pushing for some changes, such as more female characters in games, is worthwhile, but it can be tempting to move from reasonable requests to negative insinuations about people who enjoy other sorts of games. In this sense, games journalism, like mainstream journalism, may have found it more difficult to remain neutral amid the cultural and moral wars as to who is good and who is evil—screaming matches that seldom have much to do with a nuanced view of data or efforts to find common ground. These changes in games journalism may have been inevitable given the challenges facing journalism and modern society more broadly.
Curiously, in this sense, games journalism may have fallen into a trap that media effect scholars have struggled with for decades: the temptation to make sweeping claims for effects that are difficult to substantiate with data. Just this year, we saw yet another study on violent games grossly exaggerating the evidence for negative effects even when it actually found that, in self-reported surveys, enjoyment of violent games predicts aggression little better than a coin toss. Scholars have also cherry-picked data on sexualized games: highlighting the debunked 2016 Italian study, for example, and raising empirically problematic concepts like toxic masculinity. As the Bullshit Asymmetry Factor notes, when scholars say extreme things in new media, this tends to get far more attention than the subsequent debunking of those claims. This is one reason the general public often continues to believe sciency claims long after they have been scientifically discredited.
Maybe it’s unfair to expect games journalists to be critical evaluators of extraordinary claims when scholars appear to be so bad at it. Yet games journalism historically had done this hard work, contributing to a change in mainstream journalism’s consideration of games and arguably even aiding in reevaluations among scholars themselves. For most of the history of games research, particularly on negative effects, the scholarly community has ignored or dismissed the views of gamers. Games journalism helped push for more inclusion. It would be unfortunate to see that lost. Some writers may feel that a critical evaluation of the medium raises the level of intellectual discourse about games. But if such criticism is divorced from the empirical realities of scientific data, it does more to confuse than illuminate.
There have always been bad examples of games journalism, and there are still many excellent examples of games journalism today. However, a certain spark of critical thinking and skeptical inquiry has been flickering more weakly in recent years. This—whether due to the over-eager adoption of cultivation theory, humanities-based theories of media criticism or moralistic claims, or simply a decay in critical thinking—means that games journalism sometimes seem to be losing its soul.
Games journalism can find its way back: by balancing the need to critically examine relevant issues such as harassment of women and girl gamers, without making unfalsifiable claims about games’ effects on players. Games journalists should rediscover the ability to critically evaluate the claims of advocacy groups, even those operating in good faith. Articles that mainly seem to highlight the social virtuousness of the author, while critiquing game content or game culture may not be good journalism. Reliance on cultivation theory, or on the humanities more broadly, is unlikely to produce empirically supportable claims about games. In short, games journalists could use a bit more critical thinking about causal claims, even when these claims are convenient to otherwise reasonable advocacy goals. This would allow games journalism to highlight important social issues, without sacrificing accuracy and integrity.