Should Gaming Journalists Be Good at Video Games?

A few weeks ago, gaming website Polygon got a lot of criticism for its coverage of the new Doom title.

Why? Because the person playing the game in their video didn’t seem to know all too much about it. Or heck, all too much about playing FPS games in general, since the quality of their play was equal to a three year old that’s been given an Xbox controller and let to chew on it a bit. You can see a ‘highlights’ reel of this here:

This quickly sparked a debate. Well, more like a flame war, since this is the internet after all. None the less, people were arguing about whether a gaming journalist should be good at video games in order to do their job. Some people said they should, because playing video games to a decent standard shows a level of interest and familiarity that’s crucial to covering a game. Some said they shouldn’t, and that the ability to write about/present videos about games mattered more than the individual’s skill at actually playing them.

So that’s the argument anyway. But what do I think? Should gaming journalists be good at video games?

Well to be honest, it’s a slightly more complicated question than you might think.

On the one hand, I think a critic of anything (games, movies, TV shows) should at least have some sort of expertise in what they’re criticising. That way, their points are coming from an informed perspective, and actually make some sort of logical sense. What happens if this doesn’t happen?

Well, you get the Irate Gamer. Or various other hacks and nobodies on Youtube that know very little about the games in their videos. You get poor quality, often completely misinformed attempts at ‘features’ that makes things worse than they should. Like the various idiots saying ‘Super Mario Bros 2 is a game on the same level as Hotel Mario in terms of quality’ or acting like the game being based on Doki Doki Panic is a shocking new revelation. Or the ‘oh so original’ theory videos about how Mario is a communist based on him wearing a lot of red and having a ‘Stalin esque’ moustache.

Above: Not really a scandal. Unless you’ve been under a rock for a decade or so.

So in the same way a film critic needs to have watched a decent amount of films and know at least some basic facts about the medium, a gaming journalist needs to know their stuff.

Not to mention that when it comes to decent reviews, some semblance of skill is necessary. Okay, you might not have to beat everything in the game; no one expects a reviewer to 100% every Smash Bros game before putting their review out. Or to say, nail all those Mario & Luigi mini games and bonus challenges while a review deadline is looming in the near future. You can give a fair enough review of Mario & Luigi Dream Team without having to complete the Giant Medley in hell… okay, ‘hard’ mode.

But you are generally expected to be able to beat at least the single player mode. And to have some experience with the campaign mode. For example, why do I often mention that Gamespot review of Luigi’s Mansion Dark Moon as a poorly done one? Because the reviewer simply didn’t have the level of skill necessary to beat even the third boss… out of six. The person playing got to a boss fight, got stuck and then slapped it with a 60% review because the difficulty was ‘unfair’. For comparison’s sake, this is that boss battle:

As you can see, it’s not exactly Dark Souls level hard. Pretty much no other reviews complained about it, few actual fans or players complained about it, and it was a case where due to the reviewer’s incompetence, people might actually be misled about the game and how it plays.

There’s also the fact that a lot of games don’t really stay consistently good or bad throughout all of their however many hours of gameplay. Some do, normally the ones that get the game of the year nominations near the end of it (or the turkeys that end up on Wikipedia’s ‘games notable for negative reception’ page). But a lot either start slow and get better, or start good and get gradually worse. For example, the Legend of Zelda Twilight Princess is a bit of a snorefest in Ordon Village:

But a lot fewer people would be too negative about Snowpeak Ruins or the City in the Sky or the final boss battle. If you can’t get far enough to see that sort of stuff, what impression would you get of the game? That it’s a monotonous mini game and sheep farming fest that rips off a bunch of dungeons from Ocarina of Time?

Need another example? Well, professionals don’t exactly review them much, but a lot of Mario ROM hacks and fan games start slow and uninteresting than then get really good during the endgame. For example, one notorious example had about 90 levels that were mostly terrible, and then 10 levels at the end which had really interesting ASM gimmicks and level designs. Or Brutal Mario, which went from this (outdated):

To this:

Say what you like about the level design, but the game at least got a lot more interesting at it drew to a close. And how about games that go the other way? Cause that’s a thing too, as Disappointing Last Level on TV Tropes will show you. Remember Xen in Half Life? Yeah, there’s a reason the page there used to be called ‘Xen Syndrome’. Because it was nowhere near as good as the rest of the game and was a mark down in quality. Similar things happened with the orginal Trine (last boss was a pain in the ass that was poorly tested and designed and didn’t fit the feel of the rest of the game) and the Legend of Zelda The Wind Waker (Triforce Quest, rushed Ganon’s Tower area, etc). You need to be good enough (and persistent enough) to have played most of a game’s single player to give it a fair review.

Above: The team apologised for how poorly this section went. Apparently, they didn’t playtest it much, and it didn’t fit with the game’s earlier design decisions.

In addition to this, anyone who’s trying to ‘help’ people do well at a game should ideally know what the hell they’re talking about. Writing a strategy guide? Then please don’t suck as badly at Mario Kart as many guide writers out there. Sure, the people behind the physical books have a slight time delay issue (and stuff like ‘snaking’ wasn’t found till the game and book were both was on the shelves), but at least they should have tried out more characters, tried more strategies and came up with ways that wouldn’t get people slaughtered in online play. Is that hard to guarantee? Of course, but there’s no acceptable explanation for the giant gulf in skill between ‘professional’ guide writers and people writing on say, GameFAQs.

And for those people writing after the game is already out and doing well? Sorry, they have no excuse for a lack of skill and knowledge. Do five minutes of research, look at Youtube videos, figure out how the game is played by decent people, then write your ‘top ten tips for doing well in Super Smash Bros’ or whatever it is. Nothing hurts more than coming across a top ten list or ‘feature’ video on Youtube made by someone who clearly knows sod all about the game they’re discussing and is offering vapid, utterly meaningless ‘tips’ for easy clicks and views.

lol what 1

lol what 2

Above: Someone didn’t play the game before writing a ‘guide’. The game has no DLC, has no dedicated servers and probably won’t have sound or loading problems. It’s also on a game card rather than a disc because it’s a 3DS game. Sadly, this ‘guide’ is real.

But what about sports you may ask? A few people have said that journalists are likes sports writers and hence shouldn’t need to be athlethes themselves!

Well, one small difference there; in sports, people don’t read the news to find out what a sport is like to play or how to get better at it. People don’t read the Guardian’s sports coverage for years, then go off and join Manchester United or West Ham. A world class tennis player (like say, Andy Murray) doesn’t learn his techniques from reading the sports pages. Most of the people that do read them are fans of the players or clubs or sport, who like to watch it, talk about it, etc.

That’s not gaming. People don’t read the likes of IGN to see how other people play the Legend of Zelda. It’s closer to how coverage of TV shows, films or music is written, by people who actively watch or listen to the media and give their opinions on it.

If you need a better example of the difference, well, imagine you’ve found a Citizen Kane review. Fair enough, it is seen as one of the best movies ever made.

But now imagine it was by someone who knew nothing about… anything the film was based on. Say, a Roman soldier in Caesar’s time. Now imagine they’d come into the screening half an hour into the film. That they also don’t speak any English (and there’s no subtitles). Would you trust their critique of the film?

Sure, it would be interesting to read. I mean, there’s certainly a place for opinions from people who know absolutely nothing about a subject and want to talk about it anyway.

Yet no one would take it seriously. And why should they? The person covering the film has zero knowledge of its context, has zero knowledge about what actually happens in the story and can’t understand anything that’s going on in it. That’s what a gaming journalist or media figure that plays a game this poorly is like. Perhaps fun to watch, but their insights just aren’t useful to anyone.

And when it comes to large sites and organisations, there’s really no excuse for doing so poorly in games. Oh sure, I’m not the best in the world at playing most games. I didn’t 100% complete the last two Mario & Luigi games. Super Mario Maker’s ‘Super Expert Mode’ is generally too much for me (and a lot of others) to play. The chance of me beating Dark Souls without losing a life/getting hit/messing up is basically nil.

But I’m one person writing about video games. One person can’t be good at all games, and I don’t expect it of them. So for bloggers, small gaming site journalists, etc, my standards are generally lower as far as gaming skill goes. Same deal with Youtubers operating on their own without the backing of a large company or network.

Polygon and their ‘friends’ have no excuse. They have a large team of writers, all of which (I hope) have a decent amount of skill in playing different types of games. In cases like theirs, they should be picking the best possible person to cover a game.

Does the writer like FPS games and do well at them? Then have them cover the new Doom game, since they’re perfectly suited for it.

But if they’re more of a fan of say, Street Fighter or Pokemon or Mario, and also have no real skill in regards to playing FPS games, they’re just a poor choice to cover the latter. Have your team take care of games that compliment their strengths and avoid their weaknesses. It’s common sense. After all, you don’t get the die hard graphics artist and Photoshop pro to do your site’s server management or program the CMS.

To mess up like Polygon does means that either their ‘FPS pro’ is utter crap at the genre they’re supposed to be covering (which is worrying) or they’re just randomly tossing staff at games they have no knowledge in or interest about.

Gaming journalists don’t have to be world record holders. They don’t need to be as good at video games as some of the crazy dedicated folks on Youtube or Twitch. Their job is write or talk about games, not to play them at a professional level.

But they should be good enough to finish a game they’re reviewing. Good enough not to mess up on stupid things like basic controls and gameplay elements of the genre. And if they’re not good enough? They should be willing to pass off the ‘job’ to someone on the team who is good enough and knows enough about the game or genre to do a good job.

Polygon did not do this. They picked the wrong person for the wrong job, and they’re seeing firsthand how people react to that. It’s not ‘toxic’ nor ‘trollish’ to say someone covering a game should know at least the basics of how it works.

Either way, gaming journalists should be at least decent at video games, and not review any game they can’t handle or have no interest in learning.


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Off the bat thought: They should at the very least be competent. If they cannot sit down to figure out the controllers and commit to play a good section of the game before start writing down because they know what they want to say before they even try the game is something to beware. I think attitude is probably more important than being "Good" at a videogame. *checks article* Oh, the Doom thing. I honestly think people need some chill pills. Unless the reviewer gave it an unfair score or didn't play most of the game before making a call,… Read more »


I do not think they should have to be good, but they should be at least decent. They should be able to play through the basic level of the game with little to no issues in my opinion. That way they can give fair and honest reviews.


TotalBiscuit made the point that it calls into question the competence of the reviewer with such poor gameplay. I don't know if the reviewer and the player were the same though, but it is relevant. Now on the other hand, it was pretty awful when I saw Ben Kuchera's review of a sandbox game where you use a firearm, and he ended up spending like half the review drawing it out with pathetically anti-gun views and that was a mess. I just hope he didn't get a free copy.


Here it is. [MEDIA=youtube]uwg6RTjCH7g[/MEDIA]

Also, I was wrong, it's not 50%. It's more like 90%, no hyperbole. You can tell the reception when they disabled ratings and comments (federation force federation force federation force)