The other day, at Microsoft’s annual Xbox holiday preview event here in Toronto, I chatted with a number of friends and acquaintances about the state of video game media coverage in Canada. It’s a topic I love discussing because generally speaking, things are not good. In the year or so since I last wrote about this problem, I’ve learned it’s actually a deeper and more holistic problem than I may have initially suspected.
In the broadest sense, there is no major mainstream media outlet in Canada that employs a full-time video-game beat staffer. Many newspapers have dedicated film, TV and music columnists, but no one – to my knowledge – pays an able-bodied person to opine or report on video games and just video games. In almost every case where a news outlet does actually cover the subject, it’s a poorly paid freelancer or staffer with other duties who is handling things.
Yes, it’s a double standard given that Canada is third in the world in terms of industry employment and right up there in regards to consumption, but that’s a river that has already been cried.
The problem looks like it starts further down the chain, in that there is no full-blown trade magazine devoted to news and goings-on within the industry itself. Canada has consumer-focused magazines such as Comics & Gaming Monthly, but nothing aimed at industry professionals themselves. The U.S. and U.K., on the other hand, have the likes of Game Developer Magazine, Develop and Games Industry International. Other Canadian entertainment segments, meanwhile, have their own dedicated trade magazines, from Playback for TV and film to Canadian Musician for, well, musicians.
The lack of such publications results in a few things. For one, there is no formalized training ground for journalists to develop a body of specialized knowledge about the industry, nor is there a repository of information for all of the industry’s happenings. In other beats, mainstream reporters often find ideas for their own stories within the pages of such trade magazines. In Canada, there are no figurative boots on the ground in this respect.
The lack of such publications also likely contributes to business editors not taking the industry seriously and therefore missing major trends. Several freelancers have told me they’ve pitched stories to editors, only to get the response of, “Actually, we just did a video game story five months ago.” That’s sad, although I’ve experienced the same thing.
Therein lies another problem. Although video games are inevitably made with increasingly better technology, they certainly shouldn’t be lumped in to that business/technology category of coverage. The National Post’s recently launched Post Arcade falls under the auspices of the paper’s business section, while my own coverage at the Globe and Mail is governed by the Report on Business. That’s flabbergasting; we don’t expect a review of the latest CGI blockbuster – say, The Avengers – to show up in the business section, so why does Super Mario?
From my own subjective experience, the issue is that while games are clearly entertainment or even art, arts and entertainment editors generally don’t want anything to do with them for various reasons. Some editors are old or snobby and don’t like or “get” games while others are driven by ad revenue, and video game companies just don’t advertise in mainstream publications – more on that shortly. Coverage of games has thus often fallen to the young dudes writing about technology in the business sections. Such reporters are usually gamers too and they’re only too happy to write about the things they love, even if the arts section doesn’t want anything to do with them. Ergo, games coverage often gets tied to technology and business rather than with entertainment, where it belongs.
Ultimately, though, it comes down to money. An industry insider I spoke with a few weeks ago estimated that about 80 per cent of the industry’s sales are driven by the big gaming sites, such as IGN, GameSpot and Destructoid. Mainstream media coverage – while nice to have – is therefore an afterthought for many publishers. As a result, the insider said, game makers simply don’t make mainstream media a priority, nor do they advertise through them. I have no way of gauging whether this is true or not, but I certainly can’t remember ever seeing a game ad in a newspaper.
With no related advertising revenue coming in, mainstream news outlets have no budgets to hire staffers to write about games. Throwing limited resources at the issue – whether it’s via poorly paid freelancers or staffers working over and above their normal responsibilities – results in a product that can’t possibly compete with the specialized websites, which means those operations are going to continue getting all the traffic, getting all the ad dollars and driving all the sales.
It’s a self-perpetuating cycle that’s going to be hard if not impossible to break, unless some mainstream publication adopts some long-term thinking and takes the incredibly bold step of pumping proper resources into video game coverage that can then properly compete with the specialized sites, despite not having short-term advertising dollars. And that is likely to take a generational change to effect.