On Objectivity (4)

Posted by on Sep 12, 2014 in Video Games | 0 comments

So, let’s talk journalism and objectivity. In relation to all the stuff happening around #GamerGate, there’s been an ongoing focus on objectivity in relation to reviews, previews, and general news within our industry. There have been calls to return to objective journalism all around, to which some journalists have simply stated that pure objectivity doesn’t exist.

Objectivity and subjectivity exist on two completely different sides: one is concerned with “just the facts” while the other illuminates a specific point of view. There have long been discussions in journalism – beyond straight news reports, polls, and scores – as to the true nature of objectivity. Most of these arguments came to a head in the 60s and 70s, with the rise of journalists like Tom Wolfe, Truman Capote, Hunter S. Thompson, and Joan Didion. You’ve probably heard of them before. Wolfe called for something called new journalism, while Thompson took it one step further with gonzo journalism.

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“So much for Objective Journalism,” wrote Thompson in Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72. “Don’t bother to look for it here — not under any byline of mine; or anyone else I can think of. With the possible exception of things like box scores, race results, and stock market tabulations, there is no such thing as Objective Journalism. The phrase itself is a pompous contradiction in terms.”

“I don’t get any satisfaction out of the old traditional journalist’s view — ‘I just covered the story. I just gave it a balanced view.’ Objective journalism is one of the main reasons American politics has been allowed to be so corrupt for so long. You can’t be objective about Nixon. How can you be objective about Clinton?” said Thompson in a later interview with The Atlantic.

“If you consider the great journalists in history, you don’t see too many objective journalists on that list. H. L. Mencken was not objective. Mike Royko, who just died. I. F. Stone was not objective. Mark Twain was not objective. I don’t quite understand this worship of objectivity in journalism. Now, just flat-out lying is different from being subjective.”

Again, many have asked for objective game journalism and that certainly has a place, but it’s also largely trite and boring.

“Assassin’s Creed Unity is a game from Ubisoft coming out on November 11, 2014 for the PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC.”

That’s objective journalism. That is just the facts. Essentially, it’s the press release without the executive quotes. There’s a site called Objective Game Reviews that’s largely tongue-in-cheek, but its reviews are 100% objective. They also don’t bring across the experience of playing the game at all, making them rather useless for a reader looking to make a purchasing decision or have a discussion about a title.

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The problem is once you make a value judgement – the story was well-told, that gameplay feature is fun, those are good graphics – you’re entering a subjective realm. There are certainly objective facets within those statements – perhaps the story is told in the classic three-act structure with a concrete beginning, middle, and end – but otherwise you’re dealing purely with subjectivity. You can’t write a real review without being subjective. We each bring our own biases to the table; what’s a deal-killer or major benefit for me may not even phase you. This is where we get into that fight where some journalists and gamers are fine with resolutions below 1080p or framerates below 60FPS, while others put their foot down and say “No!”

What people on the internet usually mean when they’re saying “objective” is actually two different things. The first is “around the status quo”. The problem with this idea is the status quo is completely dependent on your frame of focus. The status quo in the game industry isn’t the status quo in the tech industry. Even within our industry alone, the status quo for a developer in the United States is different from a developer in Japan. Drill down: the status quo for a AAA developer is different from that of an indie. It’s all about your specific frame.

The status quo of enthusiast gamers is based on the products that are sold to them. They enjoy them, they obviously want more. “Objectivity” then becomes the tropes and aesthetics that stick closer to that status quo: 1080p, 60 FPS, power fantasies, sexy people, fantasy in the Tolkien manner, science-fiction as a combination of german expressionism and pulp, guns as the primary method of interaction, etc. No, that’s not the only thing that everyone wants – Japanese game enthusiasts often feel ostracized by the other gamers and the media because their tastes diverge from this, for example – but there is solid core that everything orbits around. This core evolves and changes over time.

When certain people say they want “objective journalism”, they mean they want content that assumes these values are correct. In fact, most of the games media produces work that reinforces this, which is why it’s so noticeable when errant signals appear. You notice the 0.44% of articles with deal with social topics because they’re the tall blade of grass.

The second version of “objective” that people ask for involves “The View From Nowhere.” The idea is that a journalist seeks to place themselves above what they’re reporting, standing completely neutral between two sides. This view assumes that both sides have equal validity in their arguments, which is certainly not the case many times. I’d go so far as to say it’s rarely the case. It also assumes that there’s a middle ground between these opposing parties, even if their beliefs or ideals are mutually exclusive.

The problem with The View From Nowhere is that some journalists, in their dedication to being objective, try to present two sides as equals, when the facts tend to argue in favor of one side. This leads to an exclusion of information and context in an attempt to appear unbiased. This View From Nowhere is frequently shown in the idea “I think both sides are wrong, but I’m largely uninvolved in this.”

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“Occupy the reasonable middle between two markers for ‘vocal critic,’ and critics look ridiculous charging you with bias,” writes New York University professor and media critic Jay Rosen. “Their symmetrical existence feels like proof of an underlying hysteria. Their mutually incompatible charges seem to cancel each other out. The minute evidence they marshall even shows a touch of fanaticism. It can’t be that simple, that beautiful, that symmetrical… can it? Temptation says yes. You learn the attractions of a view from nowhere. The daily gift of detachment keeps giving, until you’re almost ‘above’ anyone who tries to get too political with you, or at least in the middle with the microphone between warring factions. There’s power in that; and where there’s power, there’s attraction.”

“It’s Bill Keller insisting that ‘torture’ is the wrong word for the New York Times to use in describing torture because it involves taking sides in a dispute between the United States Government and its critics,” continues Rosen in a different article. “It’s Howard Kurtz suggesting that Anderson Cooper was ‘taking sides’ when he called the lies of the Egyptian government lies. But it’s also the reporter who has to master the routine of ‘laundering my own views [by] dinging someone at some think tank to say what you want to tell the reader.’ And it’s that lame formula known as he said, she said journalism. It’s the way CNN ‘leaves it there’ when two guests give utterly conflicting accounts.”

The problem is everyone has a bias. Everyone. Even just within something as simple as news reporting, there’s a bias in what is covered. Choosing this press release for Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare over this press release for Birzzle Fever. Picking the Resident Evil Revelations 2 trailer over the one for Dengeki Bunko Fighting Climax. You can note the bias will tend to stick to the status quo I mentioned above. We’re all human, we only have so much bandwidth, so we choose things to focus on.

“The reality is that, as desperately as they try, virtually no journalists are driven by this type of objectivity,” writes The Intercept founder Glenn Greenwald, who helped Edward Snowden leak the NSA spying documents. “They are, instead, awash in countless highly ideological assumptions that are anything but objective.”

“These assumptions are almost always unacknowledged as such and are usually unexamined, which means that often the journalists themselves are not even consciously aware that they have embraced them. But embraced them they have, with unquestioning vigor, and this renders their worldview every bit as subjective and ideological as the opinionists and partisans they scorn.”

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There’s even the fact that our mere presence changes how a story will turn out. If Ben Kuchera asks Cliff Bleszinski a question, he’ll get a different answer than I would or Kat Bailey would. How Bleszinski (or any interviewee) answers a question is dependent on numerous factors, including how they relate to the interviewer.

“The whole notion of the “view from nowhere,” the idea of completely objective reporting that’s supposed to be the gold standard of journalistic practice in America in particular, is of course utter hogwash,” writes Laurie Penny. “Every view comes from somewhere, and who you are as a writer, reporter, filmmaker or blogger changes how people behave in your presence. It changes what they say to you; it changes whether they speak to you at all.”

“It matters because the fallacy of bland and faceless reporting hurts journalism, by allowing bias and prejudice to masquerade as hands-off objectivity, by giving reporters license not to be honest about how their outlook affects their output.”

All this is not to say objective facts don’t exist and should be ignored. That’s not to say that there shouldn’t be research and fact-checking. That’s certainly not to say there shouldn’t be ethical concerns. It is to say that we journalists should try to mean something with our words. To make you feel, to make you think, to move the dials, to make you act. The perfect journalist informs as an agent of change.

For those of us within the game industry, honesty and transparency is paramount, not some slavish devotion to “objectivity” in any of the above forms. Knowing that I enjoy Assassin’s Creed or dislike Gran Turismo may be the bar you need to know if my reviews or previews on a certain title will resonate with you. Knowing that I work with Otakon, a convention about Japanese culture, may inform you about my stances on certain Japanese games. Who I am matters to the work I do. That certainly won’t mean that I’m the focus of every story, but letting you, the reader, know where I stand is important.

PS4: Joey Chiu is the first to buy Sony's next-gen console at the Standard High Line in New York

So when journalists say “objectivity is myth in games journalism”, they’re not talking about getting rid of hard journalistic principles. They’re talking about the fact that the thrust of most of our journalistic work involves our relationship with you and the industry. Our work is comprised of our voice and expunging that completely leads to nothing but boring, bland press releases. There’s no indignation and criticism, but there’s also no joy and excitement.

And I’d hope that no one wants that.

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