Journalists' Game Skill, And Why People Think It Matters


I think I’m with you on this, but I think part of the issue is that analysing script work, sound production, and visual art is often qualitative in analysis, which leaves them open enough to interpretation to give lapses in ability a pass. ‘Skill’ has enough quantitative elements that people feel they can speak with a lot of authority on it, even if, of course, there’s a lot of qualitative aspects to being good at games.

In my view, I really enjoy reading people with expertise outside of games writing about games. Someone who really understands those other elements from a deep understanding of them in film (or other forms of art) often produce written works about games that, for my money, capture my interest and imagination much more than product reviews. I understand that’s a personal preference, though—and sometimes, a lack of familiarity with games can hamper those accounts.


A super aside, but for stuff written about games from outside of games, I want to show you Winifred Phillips’ A Composer’s Guide to Game Music.

It’s a book specifically written to let composers know how they’ll need to think about making music for games if they’ve never touched one, and breaks all games down into a few types of experiences based on how players are thinking and what their goals are while playing. It has a lot of technical and even psychological exploration of what makes writing music for games different and how composers can uniquely exert their skill in this field in ways you can’t with film/TV.


What’s interesting about this topic is how it can force a re-evaluation of one’s assumptions.

What does it mean to be “good” at a game? Because being good at a game and being able to talk about it well seem like two different things, and that’s fascinating. You wouldn’t say that someone with poor reading comprehension is good at analyzing literature. But you can be good at discussing games, even if you’re not supposedly “good” at playing them.

What I hate about a certain element of the Dark Souls community is the attitude that beating a difficult game reflects your value as a person, or even just your right to have opinions about games. Like, suppose an individual plays an RPG on casual mode, but can talk in detail about the story, describe their emotional journey with it, engage the fan community, and discuss at length the game’s politics. Are they still not “good” because they chose to play on easy mode?

Because that’s what the argument sounds like when people say a journalist or critic needs to be “good.” As if you have to beat it on the hardest difficulty level to prove your “mastery” of it. But no one says, for example, that Yahtzee isn’t a real critic, or straight up shouldn’t be a reviewer, because he refuses to play multiplayer. (Or used to never try it? It’s been years since I cared to pay attention, but I recall that detail.)

Also, no one says that because you’ve never seen a movie produced by Troma, for example, you can’t review any other movie ever. Yet, gamers do! There are gamers who say stuff like, “if you’ve never played a Nintendo title, you’re not a ‘real gamer’ or shouldn’t be allowed to talk about games, period.” It makes no sense as an idea, because there are different fields of expertise. A professor of medieval fiction and a professor of postmodern fiction will likely have similar, foundational knowledge for discussing literature (e.g. a familiarity with feminist theory), but the former might not know who Samuel R Delany is and the latter might not have read much of any Chaucer.

And while we’re on the subject, I really dislike how often the discussion of games is reduced to rote dissection of mechanics. Like, there’s a common belief that the mechanics are separate from the storytelling. But to argue that gameplay isn’t interconnected with storytelling is like saying a movie’s cinematography has nothing to do with the visual narrative. All the components of a piece of art become easily compartmentalized parts. But how a game plays can possibly change the experience of the story. Otherwise, every game could play exactly the same way and each individual story would be unaffected, right? I think this belief in a neat division of story and mechanics partially influences the worldview that what matters the most in games writing is proving you can play well.

Still, I disagree that if you struggle to play well, you can’t comprehend other aspects like story, characterization, theme, & etc. Especially when “mastering the mechanics” can be understood in multiple ways. Is mastery winning a game on the highest difficulty? Is it successfully solving the meta? Or is it being able to grasp the concept of how you’re supposed to perform an action, even if you’re not great at the execution? For example, I can play Gwent just fine. I “get” the basic functions. But I’m only level 16, after dozens of hours, because mastery of the strategy is a different thing. There are layers to gameplay! What one person calls “basic” may actually be a separate concept. Another example: just because you’re not the best at PUBG, doesn’t mean you don’t know how to play it or can’t comprehend what’s good about it. Good strategy is not same thing as mechanics. The can guide each other, but remain distinct.

Yet, and I hope this isn’t hypocritical to say, I also strongly disagree that there’s no such thing as “expertise” in writing about art. Maybe we should call it “talent” rather than “expertise”? Because it’s important to understand how a game tells a story, or how a movie does, or a book. There is such a thing as objectively bad editing in a movie, for example. FoldableHuman’s examination of Suicide Squad is an excellent video essay on this. Lindsay Ellis’ series on Bay’s Transformers are as good as they are because she understands the language of cinema and the theories that inform how movies are made or analyzed. She goes beyond simply stating that a thing’s good or bad, and articulates why this or that aspect of Transformers communicates certain ideas. Whereas, I think Cinema Sins is bad because it gets information factually wrong, usually by deliberate misrepresentation, reduces the art of talking about art to a pedantic obsession with supposed “plot holes”, and mistakes being an anorak with having anything interesting to say.

Or, maybe a better example: did Roger Ebert ever write a good movie? Nope. But he understood the language of cinema. He could discuss the artform well, even if he arguably failed at making the art. Beyond that foundation though? There’s a wide open room for debate over quality or interpretation. We don’t have to reject the idea that one can be a good or bad reviewer to also agree that it is nonsense to argue that one must be “good” at games to write about them. At least, I’d like to think these aren’t contradictory ideas.


I think it’s valuable for a reviewer to have a grasp on all of them, but there’s no gatekeeping involved when it comes to analysing a game’s soundtrack (and nor should there be).


I’m disappointed that people (at least the guy on twitter in the start of this topic) assume that cause journalists said they hoped the game was much bigger after playing the boss rush, made the dev pull money out of their house to keep working. People that don’t working in games in any form shouldn’t assume things like that till they look at everything.


It’s way, way more likely that since the game is a huge indie headliner for Microsoft, they pushed the dev toward expanding it out to be more substantial.

For me it’s hard not to see this debacle as a natural outcome of the weird hate-on hyper enthusiast crowds of gamers have for critics, whether those critics choose to embrace or eschew homogeneity in games design.


This seems to fall into the weird fetishisation of the term “Gamer”.

You don’t just get to be one, you have to earn it. Leigh Alexander was right, the term is dead and pointless.


I’ll never call myself a gamer because of this. It’s a term that is now only loaded with potential angles of critique.

I’m a gramer. i play video grames


I am so glad to be having this discussion here and not on reddit. It’s an absolute shitshow over there.

Anyway, I think there’s some value in a journalist being “good” at a game they’re reviewing but that’s only one perspective. I’m also interested in a journalist reviewing a game that they’re not familiar with. If Danielle reviews the next CoD, I bet she will have a VERY different take than someone that’s played every iteration of the series. There’s a lot of value in having an outsider’s perspective to inform other outsiders if this game is a good place to jump in to a genre or series.

My biggest concern with some of the discussion I’m seeing is certain gamers (whatever the hell that term actually means) using perceived skill to crap all over games journalism. I was reading a bunch of comment threads on r/Games and a shrill voice in the back of my head screamed, “it’s about skills in journalism!”


Patricia Hernandez‏, writer and editor for Kotaku, made this salient point: “Sure, lets just pretend that some big gaming YouTubers aren’t actively bad at some games but nobody cares due to humor and personality.”

Sure, entertainers aren’t the same people as journalists, usually, but the former are taken seriously as “real” gamers who don’t have to prove their competency to get to have opinions about games.

And a lot of the big names in gaming on YouTube are (white, cis, straight) men, which could be relevant. Just sayin’.


I think the industry as a whole has a major problem with accessibility. I’m just starting to get into 3D action games with Splatoon 2 and Breath of the Wild, and my Splatoon skill is at a level I would describe as “terrible”. I enjoy the game because it’s presented in a relatively accessible way, so despite my lack of skill at action games I can improve and feel like the experience is worthwhile. Cuphead, meanwhile, is seemingly designed to emulate older, intentionally difficult games, so the accessibility is already limited. The inaccessibility of a game can be compounded if a dev has tons of experience with the style of game they’re emulating, and thus doesn’t know how to effectively design for beginners to the genre. I have no idea if this is the case with Cuphead, but it wouldn’t shock me.


I thought about this too, especially since a lot of the people I was talking to who were complaining about this video were openly telling me they preferred YouTubers.

Seems like an awful clear double standard. It’s fun for me to yell in the comments sections of these people’s channels about how they’re missing items or failing segments, but if a JOURNALIST is having trouble, they’re getting away with something and it’s a Big Issue!


@kcin Or someone who likes Grammar but not spelling.

@SigmaCross It really does. This kind furore shows exactly why. Any attempt to simplify things for a none game literate audience is seen as “pandering” (I cannot stand that word now).

It was interesting see various developers come out on Twitter saying that tutorials are hard. Significantly though, that they all needed to work on them to bring in as wide a net of people as possible. There is simply no reason not too be as accepting to as many skill levels as possible, unless you have a weird sense of self importance for knowing more a particular game genre.


I think there are a lot of people who play video games are “bad” at them. I think it would be better if people were honest with how bad a lot people are at games. I’m not saying there shouldn’t be a place for hard games, but most of them are cult classics for a reason. Most developers want to make a return on their work than create a cult classic that will appeal to a group of people who are good at games.


@unclebenny it always strikes me when I try to introduce games I love to people who don’t play games, I realize how much I take for granted in terms of basic games literacy, like knowing that the A button generally clicks through menus and whatnot.


“Games”, even “digital games”, is such a broad category that this isn’t even a games literacy thing so much as it’s a game console thing. I’ve never owned a console in my life (wasn’t allowed any as a teen and consequently never got into that side of things) and had to be coached on how to play Reign with a controller. (You know, Reign, the swipe-left-swipe-right game that literally uses like three inputs?)

So that basically feeds into the whole thing about not assuming that the traits of particular subcategories of “game” are common to every kind of game.

Anyway, it surprised me to see people opine that “mechanical competency” is more important than understanding/insight. I guess I can see that from the review-as-product-rating point of view, rather than the review-as-analysis point of view. But personally I’d pass over “skillful” any day of the week in favor of “well-informed” and “insightful”. (If you’re going to call it journalism, then why not live up to the name?)


I guess I don’t understand how anyone could be upset about a review or someone playing a video game bad who’s a journalist.

It’s not like that persons enjoyment of it impacts your enjoyment of it.


IMHO, of course Journalists don’t need to be good at video games to review them. They need to be good at writing/talking/whatever their medium of choice is.

Most of the times I’ve seen clips like the ones cited here (Cuphead, and Doom 2016 being recent examples), they’ve been accompanied by pretty good reviews, so it’s not even like it’s having much of an effect on anyone but how their audience sees their skill level. The only time I’ve been annoyed by something similar was Giant Bomb shitting all over The Climb because of what I’m pretty sure were mostly glitches related to their setup. Luckily it’s gone on to be one of the best selling VR games regardless, so I’m not that upset :wink: That wasn’t a skill thing though.

I think the more important thing people need to do is to not be a massive shit-head when it comes to criticising things (be that games, or game journalists).


So Dean Takahashi did a write-up of his experience in the backlash caused by this video.

It’s sad that he got so much abuse, apparently much more than I was even seeing, but I don’t think I need to tell a single person here “oh yeah, the gaming community is one of the most filthy”. I wish he didn’t apologize to the people watching this; I really don’t think they deserve his apology.

Also an interesting note; he had a one-on-one convo with one of the mean commenters who apologized and said they rarely leave mean comments but they saw his job and were jealous of it. Surprise, surprise–that is a factor.


To Dean he shouldn’t had posted that video and write the article in a way that was misleading sine he was not cut out for this game. Should had told his team he was not cut out for it and should had someone else do it.

To the people who harassed him shame on you. You can criticize him on his performance but telling him they will hurt him for it is very sad. Using his performance as a way to say all gaming press is bad is not good. These people need to take a step back and really look at what their getting angry at and find a better way to go about this.