Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Okay, I'm Off Your Lawn Already

The May issue of Game Informer arrived in my mailbox yesterday, and was a good deal more thought-provoking than one might expect from this cover.

GI's op-ed feature this month was a rant by Scott Jones, formerly of Crispy Gamer, ostensibly about age bias in games journalism. His piece isn't online, but it's certainly worth a read if you have a copy of the mag.

The unceremonious sacking of Crispy Gamer's - sorry for the terrible pun - seasoned editorial staff earlier this year has already been documented and discussed. The short version: a site devoted to mature, intelligent game analysis and discussion, seemingly on its way to profitability, crashes spectacularly when upper management decides to pull the plug. Cue immediate Twitter uproar.

Jones' op-ed attributes the demise of his site only partly to ageism - he and his veteran team are replaced by a cheap 20-year-old intern - but more to apathy among the target audience, who seemingly wanted CG's product but didn't follow through by generating traffic. He doesn't reveal his age at industry events, he says, for fear he'll be dismissed as a relic. He ends his article with a call to action: if you gamers want this kind of mature journalism, do your part. Show up to our site.

Look, I have a tremendous amount of respect for what Jones and writers like him are doing. That's why I love sites like Gamers With Jobs and Gamasutra. If we're going to overcome the stigma video games and gamers continue to endure in popular culture - a stigma that is sometimes well-earned, judging by the imbecilic Spike VGA Awards shows or any given multiplayer session of Modern Warfare 2 on Xbox Live - we need sharp, insightful writing that gives the medium the critical rigor and respect it deserves. We need places for gamers who are not mouth-breathing 14-year-old homophobes to gather and form communities. We need veteran writers who have the pedigree, experience, and talent to turn a critical eye to this increasingly visible (and profitable) industry.

Were I in Jones' place, I'd be amazingly pissed that I got canned in favor of atrocities like this.

That said, I'm calling shenanigans here.

I don't know - and the former editors themselves might not know either - what really caused management to clean house. I don't know how Crispy Gamer's business model worked, or what their marketing strategy was, or what other behind-the-scenes factors led to the layoffs. The company could have had obscene overhead costs, or the suits at the top could have just been heartless dicks. But it's not like this is the first time, especially in this industry, that veteran staff have been kicked to the curb for cheap labor. And presenting the argument that the gamer audience's fickleness and the game journalism industry's instability is somehow due to age bias seems to be conflating one issue with another.

For any media outlet, the onus is on them to identify, target, and engage the audience. Given the success and longevity of sites like Gamasutra and GameCritics (where Jones himself is a critic emeritus), I find it hard to believe the audience isn't there or isn't dedicated. True, mature gamers are a small and difficult segment to reach effectively - and it's probably more difficult to monetize a site geared toward rational adults than teenagers with disposable income and severe attention deficit problems. But people don't just show up to your site because you post great content. Many of the people I've heard talk about Crispy Gamer say the first time they heard of it was when the layoff scandal broke. That was true for me also. That's unfortunate - CG would have been right up my alley - but I think that's more a failure of marketing than of audience loyalty. Sorry, but I'm not to blame for not seeking you out.

But come find me, give me a reason to stick around, and I'll happily give you all the page views and clickthroughs you need.

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