Insert Quarter Here: Materialist Schilling and Pop Culture Writing

8 Jul

This post is going to address the question of ethics in games writing. Really address it, though, not sealion my way around true problems by waving flags or pointing fingers. This is a problem that isn’t specific to games journalism, but impacts games writing across the board in different ways. And, truth be told, it isn’t even specific to games writing, but is a more broad problem with popular culture criticism, particularly online.

The question of “ethics” at issue here has to do with social, cultural, and economic pressures faced by every person who wants to do the most basic human things a person can do – eat, find shelter, support themselves and their families. For most people, economics end up deciding a lot of things – whether a person gets paid or not often determines whether they have the luxury (the privilege) to take a stand on an issue, whether they are able to express their true opinions, and whether they even take a chance at being able to try.

As an academic, I have the privilege to be able to publicly say a lot of things that many people simply cannot if they want to keep earning a paycheck. I have the support of an institution that permits me to voice my opinions without threatening me with the withdrawal of my paycheck, and that makes me a very privileged person. There are a lot of writers out there–freelancers, independent bloggers, and writers working for professional on- and off-line presses–who do not have that luxury.

What this means is that there are a lot of pieces of “games writing” (popular culture writing) that are little more than materialist schilling for major publishers like EA, Microsoft, or Sony. These writers produce “stories” about how much they love a product in order to encourage consumers to spend more on it–take, for instance, Polygon’s piece about mystery figurines from Fallout 4. There is nothing (to my knowledge) false about the information contained in this piece, and so, in that sense, it is an accurate piece of writing. However, the purpose of this piece can only be to encourage people to buy the damn things.

(Side note: mystery figurines are themselves a horrible form of corporate coercion, since you have to keep buying the little bastards in order to collect all of them, and will end up spending more money on duplicates in order to obtain rare ones… like Magic: The Gathering or Pokemon cards. It’s a corporate tactic that forces people to spend money and I think it’s disgusting.)

There is nothing at all of critical value being added to the world when journalistic or cultural outlets (and I usually like what Polygon has to say) functionally produce advertising for corporations under the guise of journalism or cultural criticism. Sadly, these are the kinds of pieces that the games community has not only come to expect, but–sickly–to demand as “journalism,” although–sadly–it is not exclusive to games. More and more, we are seeing news outlets focusing on products rather than on social problems, which in turn contributes to what we now see being called “outrage culture.”

To a certain extent, I think our society needs more outrage, not less (although I understand that “outrage culture” itself is a problem of a different kind–it’s artificial, inflated egotism that presumes that Tweeting angrily is tantamount to effecting social change). But what we need is actual, critical outrage. We need to stop pandering to corporations and the status quo with pieces about the next thing we’re supposed to buy and start taking about the real issues that are impacting us on a human level.

As consumers, we need to take what we read seriously, and to demand media that are critical and thoughtful. When we read a piece designed only to make us spend more money buying another game or DLC or–worse–figurine, we need to turn away. We need to focus more on outlets that are doing actual, critical work, and support them.

Cultural criticism and journalism are shifting, not only because of digital technology (that’s a whole different kettle of very confused and weird fish), but because we have grown increasingly willing to accept schilling as critical writing in order to fill a cultural gap. It’s happening on both the production and consumption levels, and if we’re to have any hope for the future of critical thought, it has to stop.