Hatchet Jobs and the Hype Machine

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With all of the energy surrounding the release of Sony’s PS4 and Micrsoft’s Xbox One, it’s especially glaring how much the video game industrial complex can skew games coverage.

Most gaming news and reviews sites are busy right now pushing out content on next-gen consoles and the bevy of mediocre launch titles released to accompany them. Despite their superior processors and more consumer friendly UIs, neither the PS4 nor Xbox One matters at all right now.

Though embargo dates help orchestrate otherwise arbitrary reportage in order to increase visibility and communicate some semblance of an “event,” this only highlights how incapable of generating interest the machines are by themselves. With so little to inspire thoughtful analysis among media gatekeepers, consumers are left with reviews that are often more pretty to look at than enlightening to read, much like the systems themselves.

The PS4 plays Killzones much like the PS3 did, and the Xbox One is an overpriced media box just like its predecessor. Eventually, the platforms will be crucial to the next wave of blockbuster AAAs and flashy indie staples, but until then their discs are left spinning haplessly amid the rapidly dissipating PR bluster.

But still we will talk about them endlessly. Not any of the hundreds of surprisingly satisfying PC games just waiting to be downloaded, or the two greatest games to appear on dedicated gaming hardware so far this season, muttering instead with feigned incredulity about the latest annualization that failed to live up to the stale promise of yet another dried up franchise.

One way to greet this absurdity would be to come out with the hatchet swinging. Review Call of Duty: Ghosts, expunging the evil with vitriolic grace. Pen a 5,000 word manifesto against the a system that promises little and delivers even less.

Imagine if every critic who declared off-mic that neither system was worth buying, at least not right now, with their current libraries and in their present states, made that the centerpiece of their review? What if both consoles were reviewed not based primarily on their potential as gaming systems, but on what specifically each was doing to make playing games better right now?

Or what if they just didn’t review them at all? At least not until either one had a library of games worth talking about (I mean really worth talking about)?

As much as I enjoy a good hatchet job, I find myself wondering if the entire approach shouldn’t be employed with more reserve. Even if a popular media outlet decides to take the ax to gaming’s most recent sacred cow, an indisputable improvement over the apathetic indulgence which usually wins the day, maybe it would be better not to waste time on them at all.

Buzzfeed‘s new books section editor declared the site will not be including “negative” reviews in its coverage. Cue the snark, outrage, and bodily disgust. “Civility” in the book review space has been an issue of some contention over the last year, from Clive James’ brief essay on the benefits of criticism that pulls not punches, to Lee Siegel’s call to “bury the hatchet,” starting with himself.

Jacob Silverman bemoaned the “epidemic of niceness” plaguing online book culture, while Roxane Gay defended it. She explained,

“I don’t write many negative reviews, not because I’m scared or nice, but because my time is finite. I recently read a book by a well-known writer from a major press. There was a grammatical error in the very first sentence and the rest of the book was not good—shoddy editing, shoddy writing. I could have written a scathing review but for what? Nothing would have been learned from that review and writing about that book would have given it undeserved attention and been a colossal waste of my time.”

While I don’t completely agree–a well-timed and exquisitely brutal take-down can be its own reward, and on occasion even required–I find the position more and more attractive as the last cycle of consoles crawl to their graves. Is another rebuke of the latest bro-shooter’s politics, exploitative gameplay loops, and repetitious execution really contributing all that much at this point? Perhaps in another few years when a fresher product deserves a fresher critique, that level of scrutiny on those games will be well spent.

Instead, here are over 500 IGF entries well worth experimenting with and probing deeper. Some have some interesting ideas, others simply an inspired presentation.

Leigh Alexander recently tweeted, “It doesn’t actually matter anymore what gamers want to play as much as it matters what game developers want to make.” There’s a cynical way of rejecting this statement, one which I was and remain all too ready to make. Pushing that aside though, I take it to the logical extension of the combined facts that more people are playing video games than ever before and more of them are open to a more diverse gaming diet. The only thing that remains then is to connect the game that X developer wanted to make with Y player who’s interested in playing it.

In all of this there’s an analysis of the effects of the Internet and digital technology on the political economy of entertainment production, but that’s almost beside the point–for now. At present, it’s enough to see that between books, comic books, movies, television, music and video games, the task of trying to curate a canon of consumption and police the ideologies guiding a given medium’s most financially salient works pales in comparison to that of simply trying to sort through everything that’s produced, and everyone who might want to engage with it.

So does Buzzfeed need to add to the chorus of snarky take-downs attempting to put someone like Pynchon, Rushdie, or Franzen in their place, even when new authors are releasing fiction every day through blogs and ebooks? Do I really need to know what the newest Katy Perry album says about the state of post-9/11 pop when hopping around the “related artists” links on Spotify for five minutes will give me enough music to listen to for the rest of the month? Comixology allows self-publishing. Netflix could too someday. And an hour digging deep into the Google search results for “upcoming indie games,” or through the backlog of Steam Greenlight nominees, will yield any number titles worth sharing.

But hey, Sony just released its fourth Playstation. It’s called the P(lay)S(tation)4. It plays games, on discs, using a controller that bears an uncanny resemblance to the one designed for the original system over ten years ago. It’s going to “revolutionize” gaming or something though, so we should all pay attention to it, cause even if it doesn’t, and we know it doesn’t, and any games critic worth their salt knows it doesn’t, we can at least naval-gaze about why it doesn’t, and continue speculating endlessly about how some firmware update yet to be imagined will transform it, and how Uncharted 4 (Halo 5) will bring out all of the PS4’s (Xbox One’s) latent potential.

Or even a quarter of that energy could be re-focused on discovering any number of creative successes that continue to proliferate on the devices we already own.

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