Why Ian Bogost is wrong, and maybe a little right

This morning, games academic, writer and developer Ian Bogost took a stab at games media site Polygon.

In fact, here’s the direct quote:

“My expectations for @polygon are set partly by the enormous warchest behind them. Yet, same crap as always.”

In response to a query from Polygon editor Chris Grant, Ian Bogost said the following:

“The crap being your website. Let’s not mince words: your product is shit. Your website is shit.”

 And then he said this:

“Maybe most folks in the “games press” have no frame of reference for actual reporting, journalism, writing, so the bar is set low?”

I want to talk about this. Because I think there is some truth here and it deserves to be discussed.

I can’t say for sure what made Bogost write these tweets. I assume it has something to do with the small controversy this morning over Polygon updating its review for SimCity based on server issues. It doesn’t seem like a big deal to me, but to others it may do so. Maybe not. That’s fine and fair enough.

It’s only fair to point out Bogost says he shouldn’t have made these comments and has apologised. He made a mistake. Everyone makes mistakes. He shouldn’t be pilloried for it. God knows I don’t want everyone ganging up on me the next time I make a mistake on Twitter. This isn’t a personal attack on Bogost.

But I’ll be honest. The comments made me upset.

I wrote a feature for Polygon last year, and I put a lot of sweat and literal tears into that story. I spoke to people who care passionately about making games, and I spoke to a father who was devastated that this three-year-old child may die. That is a serious issue, and I wanted to give the story the seriousness it deserved. I feel I created a piece of good journalism, delivering a good draft on deadline, working with features editor Russ Pitts to craft a well-constructed story. I felt it was a landmark moment in my freelancing career.

In other words, I did my job well. My prose, I felt, was tight and judging by comments from fellow journalists, they felt so too. I learned from Russ’s comments to help improve my future stories.

So you can imagine how upset I must have felt when reading Bogost’s tweets this morning declaring Polygon – and by extension, my work – was “shit”. I like Ian Bogost. I interviewed him for a story about politics in games last year, and I thought we had a good discussion.

Do his comments matter in the scheme of things? Not really. But they are indicative of a mentality common among readers and journalists that tearing something down and dismissing it altogether is better than building something up. If something is poor quality, it simply isn’t worthy of your time and so you won’t waste any trying to make it better.

This dismisses the hard work many writers – including those at Polygon, and myself – are trying to accomplish in doing better journalism.

So no, the comments themselves don’t matter. But Ian Bogost is a figurehead in gaming. He’s incredibly well-respected, and this isn’t just coming from some freelance journo. He’s a respected academic and his opinion on games and gaming is sought by media around the world. The relationship between the games media and academics is an interesting one, and Bogost seems to sit above that. He’s respected and generally well liked. He’s known.   

So I feel I need to respond.

My work may be some things, but I do not think it is shit. I do not think I became a successful journalist by being shit. I do not think that I managed to become deputy editor of a respected news website at 25 years old by being shit. I do not think I have been published in several magazines and online publications because I am shit.

Obviously, Bogost wasn’t referring to me personally. But I think it’s necessary to point out that when we dismisses the good work Polygon and other sites are doing, we dismiss every single writer who has contributed to the site as well.

Are we really to believe a piece like this, an intricate exploration of a failed game development, is just "shit"?

Again, this isn’t a personal attack. I get what Bogost is saying, and I’m not trying to take away the legitimacy of any criticism. Every site has problems and there’s nothing wrong with offering ways to improve.

But to dismiss everything on a particular site as “shit” isn’t constructive criticism. It’s just noise.

This is a big gripe I have with the industry in general. There are journalists who think they’re somehow above the rest of the fray, and so they look down on any site that’s at least attempting to improve.

Case in point: At E3 last year, I mentioned to someone I liked reading Kotaku. The journalist looked away and stopped talking to me. All because I said I liked reading Kotaku. How many people have you heard say Kotaku is shit and they won’t read it? It’s just trash, and not worthy of your time.

When you do that, you’re looking me in the eye and saying “your work doesn’t deserve to be published”.

I’m happy to hear that if it’s constructive criticism. But otherwise? It’s just noise. It's like people dismissing reviews because they think the scores are bought. 

And yet, those same people would admit, if you forced them, a site like Kotaku has improved a lot over the past few years, and has been publishing articles tackling some tough topics. It’s getting better. It’s just easier to call it “shit” and then move on, without offering any improvement. It may not have improved as much as you like. But can you deny its direction?

This mentality is a symptom of our “all or nothing” beliefs. Something is either “great” or it’s “terrible”. The internet is prone to hyperbole.

At the same time, however, there’s also truth here. Bogost’s comment about how most of the folks in the “games press” have no frame of reference for actual reporting, I feel, is correct.

Most people don’t have any frame of reference for what makes good journalism, and I’ve said as much before. Go to E3 and you won’t see seasoned journalists, you’ll more than likely see groups of fanboys with experienced reporters in the mix.

This is why I’ve dedicated an entire podcast to interviewing games journalists about journalism, and about improving their writing. It’s my small attempt to get the fanboys to wise up about their content and desire good prose, rather than just a good preview.

Gamespot AU editor Laura Parker said as much when we chatted on the podcast, saying that for any writer, journalism needs to be their first love, and games their second.

It’s absolutely true, and Bogost nails it when he says the bar is set low. I'm disappointed by that too. And I want to try and make it better. 

But let’s not just descend into a battle of mud-slinging. Let’s help each other get better. Let’s actually be constructive with each other. Sometimes that’s going to hurt, as all progress does. But it’s better than simply dismissing everything in one fell swoop.

If the bar is low, let’s help raise it together. Give harsh criticism, but make it constructive. Offer solutions. Empathise and invest in making games reporting better. Because if we simply dismiss anything and refuse to help, we become part of the problem.