Video Game Reviews Should Talk Politics

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Video games are expensive to make, and the multi-billion dollar industry around them needs media to survive. The marketing machines behind some of the more controversial releases in the modern era prove this. The recent release of Cyberpunk 2077 shows how powerful the manipulation of opinion through reviews really is.

Despite a major failing of potential in terms of performance and gameplay, the game has still gotten rave reviews by outlets beholden to secret NDAs that kept the dark secrets hidden, even while CDPR lied about them to our faces. Keep in mind that this is the same company that forced crunch on employees while lying about how bad the game was. And then they went a step further and told us we were wrong for calling them out.

These practices and their impact don’t exist in a vacuum—games are not made by amorphous drones with no skin in the game, and video game reviews too often act like they are.

I get it, game reviewers need to talk about a product and its merits purely as a product. And if anything can be learned from the storms of harassment that the industry has dealt with, it’s that having opinions is considered dangerous by far too many gamers. The harassment suffered by the people behind games needs to stop, but it does have one silver lining; it exposes the reality of consumerism and the uncritical consumption of ideology. Grifters of all political strides have built careers pandering to certain views, and games are not immune to this. The growth of reactionary screeds in response to “making games too political” is proof of that enough.

Then there are the fans. Many people who play video games — myself included — pre-purchase games based on these same reviews. Companies keep getting away with selling less than the minimum viable product. All of that needs to end, and people need to be more critical of the things they do.

We all need to change.

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Game Reviews Need to Make Politics Front and Center

Now hold on, I’m not saying we have to turn every review into an opportunity to rail against the developers we have an ax to grind with. Way too many outlets and online personalities have taken the idea that they can replace genuine criticism with ideological agendas and gotten away with it. And all too often, that just means suppressing genuine criticism, just what the publishers really want.

If the EA’s, Take-Twos, and other mega-companies of the industry get their way, we would never talk about their abusive labor practices ever again. We would never get any inside access or privileged info, that way they can keep all the dirty laundry hidden. That’s exactly what Bethesda did. “We want everyone, including those in the media, to experience our games at the same time,” Global Content Lead Gary Steinman wrote on the company’s website when it announced it was ending review practices in 2016. And the industry barely even batted an eye, it just kept rolling on.

Of course, the company never really made any changes. When they re-released Skyrim for the 407th time later that year, they still engaged in the same old practices.

So I say damn the torpedoes. More views should be open about the abuse heaped on developers and consumers alike. If CDPR doesn’t want gamers to know about the things they do, blast them from the rooftops. Every review should begin to include sections about the union-busting, illegal firings, and everything else that toxic gaming companies do. Make the discourse so commonplace that it literally can’t be avoided.

Though there’s a problem, several in fact.

Dinos die hard, and these companies that are the worst offenders will just put their enormous finances into buying positive criticism. Any major AAA publisher can find outlets that will give them the sanitized coverage they want, and they’ll pay large amounts of money for it. And the same sentiment is true for consumers. The marketing for video games is too tightly controlled, and consumers are way too eager to be uncritical of their favorite games and companies. Consumers need to end that, but the media needs to help them do it.

Also, there’s a lingering credibility problem. High-profile scandals in the practice of games journalism have damaged many major outlets. Collusion between the worst offender and the most uncaring outlets —both real and imagined — has had a major fallout over the years. Consumers are loathed to trust the industry, but continue to buy its games.

But it’s worse than that

Worse, is when a gaming company intentionally forces their staff to be trapped in this same cycle of sanitized reviews as well. With the sheer volume of games coming out, reviews are important to make sales. And when a publisher ties developer payments and bonuses to review scores, things can get really bad. Entire studios can be soured if they miss the review average they’re mandated to hit. That’s the reality of why publishers have built this complicated little web they’ve built. We’re all flies trapped in the spider web, being sucked dry for profits.

Steam Gaming Service

(Image: ZDNet/CBS Interactive)

I guess what I’m saying is that gaming needs to echo the social causes of the current age and have its own sustained causes for justice. And by justice, I do in fact mean equality of representation and transparency. Consumers need to be aware of all the terrible things this industry does.

Consumers Need Honesty and Passion

A big problem comes down to timing, and paradoxically, it requires publisher cooperation to fix. The simple fact of the matter is, that reviews are often rushed. For media to get reviews out when demand is at its peak, they often have to blitz through a game, leaving their opinions on it only half-baked. And the solution is that reviewers actually need better cooperation from publishers to get more transparent access to video games. But given how ubiquitous blacklisting is, the outlet in question is unlikely to get it while also airing out the skeletons in the closet. Staff have been fired over negative reviews, not exactly the environment that fosters that necessary transparency.

Publishers keep doing this stuff because it works, and that needs to be broken immediately.

The only way I can see that changing is if the gaming press refuses to back down, and gamers support them. A more honest games media is one that engages in real solidarity, not one that reports on simple stories for hype and then abandons issues when they’re no longer worth the money. That transformative will has to come from somewhere, and there’s plenty of passion to be found in video games.

And that passion is toxic too, or it can be. The hype surrounding games is extremely cyclical, and it can be used against us. Press outlets are far too eager to sweep bad—or what they perceive as low value—news under the rug, often to never get covered. And the self-fulfilling failure comes into the equation when major publishers are buying ad space on sites that are covering their games. How is a company supposed to balance transparency and a paycheck?

Instead of shying away from coverage of game unions, or majorly flawed game releases, ram them down our throats. OK, not literally. But more people should be talking about this. Instead of choosing not to talk about the firing of 800 people from a multi-billion dollar company weeks after the fact, hold the executives accountable. Make them admit that they only care about money, and do it constantly. There’s an enormous will to change, we just need to foster it. We need to keep the focus on that change.

And even more importantly, let games media and outside perspectives mingle. The infusion of new talent and views into any industry is vital for both its long-term viability and innovation. If you’re an outlet that is not striving to bring in passionate and committed people, you’re doing it wrong. If you’re a consumer who is not trying to at least put some thought into what companies and outlets get your support, you’re doing it wrong. Personal opinions matter, and it’s a big part of how the corporate narratives can be broken. If you want to live in a world where politics don’t impact the things you enjoy, you’re not living in this reality.

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ISKMogul is a growing video game publication that got its start covering EVE Online, and has since expanded to cover a large number of topics and niches within the purview of gaming.