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Why write about video games?

Why do we do what we do? Why is this article being written? Why do sites like Thumbsticks even exist?

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Dangan Ronpa

Why do we do what we do? Why is this article being written? Why do sites like Thumbsticks even exist?

These are perfectly valid questions considering the wider concerns people around the world deal with. Why do individuals feel the need to write about what is essentially a hobby? And why do so many of us come together to form spaces where we collectively write to provide shared opinions relating to this medium?

In short, it is the result of the importance that video games play in the lives of those individuals.

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At present there are more people than ever before writing about video games, and there is an almost insatiable demand for content. Yet video games writing/journalism is facing a troubled existence. This has been highlighted with the recent, unfortunate demise of Joystiq after its parent company AOL no longer deemed the website viable despite it being a highly respected source for almost a decade. Even though it is now operating within Engadget (AOL’s technology site) replacing its gaming section, many of Joystiq’s former writers now find themselves looking for new places of employment. What’s more British magazine publisher Future is constantly struggling and has seen its various video game outlets (both print and online) reduced and restructured.

Some might conclude that it is as a result of the rise in video content, and whilst that will play a factor, it is not a take all replacement. Videos about video games often serve a different purpose but are also an alternative method of exploring a topic. Likewise written content still provides an efficient means of criticism. Video game criticism is essential for the continued growth of the medium, like criticism is of any other medium.

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Criticism takes different forms, yet the one that most people will think of is that of the review. This is the form that attracts many people to writing about video games in the first place, that and the allure of playing a video game early. However the ability to play a game early is no longer what it used to be. Some games such as Destiny or The Crew cannot be properly assessed prior to launch due to their online requirements, and this is becoming a trend that is now no longer just the domain of MMO’s (Massively Multiplayer Online). Then there are also games like Assassin’s Creed Unity that use embargos to prevent reviews appearing until after its release, only to discover that the game is by no means finished. A trend that has afflicted a notable number of the AAA games from 2014. Then adding to the confusion is how to review early access games, when do they reach the point when they are “complete”?

The furore that can often accompany review scores has become a tired trend, and it is frustrating to see the bickering that will appear in the comments section and on forums following an apparent low or undeserved score. This has led to the recent debate regarding the necessity of review scores. The problem with reviews is whether they should be subjective or objective, and the issue of the scores themselves further muddy this distinction. When people write about video games, are they doing so to provide consumer advice to inform people what product they should or shouldn’t buy, or are they providing criticism of an art piece informing people about the nuances of the work?

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Different sites have battled with this distinction. Kill Screen went through a period where they stopped providing review scores at the end of the review, judging that the content of the review should provide the reader with the information that they need to make up their own mind, rather than basing it solely on one number. Yet last year they changed their mind and reverted back to providing review scores, and placing them proudly at the start of the review. Kotaku have replaced reviews with a simple box system stating whether or not you should play the game, which is then supported by positive and negative aspects of the game. Joystiq – prior to their demise – removed review scores all together.

Eurogamer has also recently joined the trend of removing review scores, except in this case it is more akin to a replacement system. Even though the scores themselves are gone, in their place are new ratings, which are; Avoid (this is self-explanatory), No Recommendation (mostly for annual sports titles or indie games that don’t deserve to be criticised), Recommended, and Essential. Accompanying the last two are Silver and Gold medals (respectively) which seem to go against Eurogamer’s argument that having a score is reductive, yet what equates to medals are not. Further unravelling their argument is the fact that when viewed via Google the reviews will be accompanied by stars based on the categories provided, meaning; Avoid is one star, Recommended is four stars, and Essential is five stars.

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The interesting thing about Eurogamer’s approach is that it comes off (as proposed by Kyle Bosman of GameTrailers) as an exercise in trend setting. That they are creating their own curated list of Eurogamer approved games. At first this might seem elitist, who are they to say what video games are essential. Then again why can’t a publication provide a list of games that represent what it considers to be the best games? It helps to personify itself and makes it more than just another outlet churning out ratings. They are passionate about video games and believe in what they write about them and want to display this in a way that reflects this.

Writing about video games should be much more than just providing reviews and news, although both are still essential (perhaps more essential than Eurogamer’s use of the word). Reviews of a game (or related news) do not always provide the whole picture of a game and therefore should not be the sole determining factor of whether a game is good or not.  For if one solely relies on review scores they might miss out on obscure gems like Deadly Premonition and Killer7. Sure those games will not be to everyone’s taste (part of the reason why they have inconsistent review scores), but just because a game has a score of 8 or above (or be deemed essential by Eurogamer) doesn’t mean that it will appeal to everyone either. Spelunky might technically be a great game, but it will be off-putting to many. Likewise just because many reviewers did not like Killer7 does not mean that it isn’t a good game in its own right and will bring enjoyment to some people. It is up to us as writers to inform people about these games and add to the dialogue that is continually taking place around the medium.

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This is not to mean that it is our responsibility to educate the uninformed masses, but rather to share our passion and bring attention to games that have been overlooked in amongst the ever growing number of releases. The Vita might not get that much publicity these days, yet at the end of last year Danganronpa (1+2) received a good amount of attention (as well as being included in our own favourite games of 2014) despite being an obscure Japanese murder mystery visual novel with each murder ending with a class trial that takes place in real time. This is a game that originally came out on the PSP in 2010 and only arrived in the West four years later when it was rereleased for the Vita, yet has been able to find success here. The thing is the Vita has managed to find its place, that being a home to obscure Japanese titles like Danganronpa and an array of indie games. This might not be what people had originally envisioned for the system, but it has helped it differentiate itself from the 3DS and mobile games in general. But because of this new approach it has been the role of writers to help promote these smaller titles, not because they are obliged to, because they want to.

The way in which video games are covered has gone through some difficult times as of late, yet  this hasn’t stopped people, in fact it has spurred many on to continue with a new vigour. There are some people who are paid to write about video games, yet for them it isn’t about the money, the only thing the money is for is so that they can continue to do what they love. People don’t get into writing about video games because they hate them, they might criticise them, but it is only from a desire to help them to improve. This is why we write about video games.

We hate to ask, but...

Thumbsticks has a couple of goals. We want to write interesting articles and cover games that most outlets won't, and we want to give opportunities to new writers and new voices. And right now, with the current state of online publishing? It's tough to meet those goals! We hate to ask, but if you want us to continue writing what others won't, or to keep covering weird indie games, or to be able to give opportunities to new writers – and only if you can afford it – then please consider supporting us on Patreon.

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Despite studying Politics at Undergrad and then War Studies at Master's level, James managed to write multiple essays relating to technology and more importantly video games.