There’s a hidden part of the games writing process – all writing, in fact –that creates headaches for both games journalists and fans alike. I’m speaking of the editing process, wherein a third party, who is essentially unaccountable for their words, has a great deal of power over the content of the final article. An editor can make changes, deletions, and additions to the original article which can change its meaning, and these changes are then published as the author’s words, sometimes without the author seeing the changes.
The process of working with a skilled, attentive editor is a joy. It makes a writer’s work better, and every professional writer wants to keep getting better. However, most editors are rushed, and take shortcuts that eliminate communication with the writer. Many editors in games end up being an uncredited rewriter, leaving a writer on the hook for views they don’t actually hold.
A simple example from a recent encounter with an editor was a comment I made about superheroes too often turning into Hitler-wannabes, a reference to the Avengers scene with Loki and Captain America where some extra makes a direct reference to World War II. An editor decided he didn’t want to “Godwin” the article, so he changed the line from “Hitler-wannabes” to “strongmen”. The resulting comment made no sense. Why the hell would I complain about superheroes being strongmen? Superheroes are inherently strongmen. They’re superheroes!
Had that article gone to print, I would have been stuck with an extremely stupid comment on my record.
One very serious change of this sort did end up in a national newspaper where an editor inserted a gamergate reference I had not made. When my twitter blew up with people screaming at me, I had no idea what was going on. It wasn’t until I checked the printed version of the article that I saw the change. I was, understandably, furious, but it was fairly impotent fury. All I could do was ask nicely for the comment to be removed. I had no power. Fortunately, the comment was removed… from the online edition. The print copy couldn’t be changed, so it’s still out there.
After the line was removed, accusations started that I was passing off accountability on others. People thought I was blaming an editor because I caught hell. There was nothing I could do. I knew what the truth was, but I couldn’t prove it. I had no record of the changes because everything had happened so fast. I’m paranoid, but not that paranoid.
One may wonder what an editor was thinking, throwing a unwitting games journalist into the middle of an ugly fight like gamergate. And I wish I could say it happened only once. Depending on the source you check, I’m either “clearly pro-gamergate” or “secretly anti-gamergate”, when in fact I was just a reporter looking to talk to credible sources on both sides. At some point, the anti-gamergate side determined I was the enemy and refused to speak to me, so I gathered the facts I could because it was clearly a story people cared about. Some folks on the pro-gamergate side tried to do the same thing, but a core group within those ranks made a point of keeping dialogue open, even though they didn’t like what I was saying a lot of the time.
I think it’s wrong to try to shame and blackmail journalists into backing away from something that requires unbiased documentation. A journalist’s job is to talk to people. Sometimes that means talking to people with whom you disagree, or even people you find disgusting. The only reason to shut that down is if you believe a source is deliberately feeding you false information in an attempt to pollute the public record.
The thing is, editors and activists do these misguided things thinking they’re helping. Unlike the reporters, they have no direct contact with the information that’s been collected, and in this vacuum, it’s very easy to alter things in a way that makes the story inaccurate. The editor is then the one that makes the decision to issue a correction. The reporter can make their case, but ultimately has no say. A good editor makes a reporter better. Not-so-good editors crush an eager reporter’s spirit. This isn’t just true in gaming. The turnover rate in media is high for a reason.
I’ve been on the other end of this as a subject of articles, especially during my TV days. When I first took over as co-host of Ed and Red’s Night Party!, a supportive reporter offered to help promote the first female co-host in the history of the show. In the editing process, a single word was changed in the first paragraph of the article that took a totally benign introduction and turned it into an implication that I’d gotten the job via the casting couch. I was furious and the journalist was mortified. He sent me the original story he’d written, which was actually radically different from what went to press. The offending line wasn’t the only change. The editor had gutted the article to shorten the word count.
It’s things like this that make journalists so cynical, and so seemingly uncaring when a mistake is made. There’s nothing we can do about this part of the process. If we complain too much, we lose work because we’re “trouble”. Similarly, when you’re ahead of the curve in media, and you become so used to being picked apart that you become deaf to some criticisms that may actually be useful, simply due to the sheer amount of criticism you receive on a given day. You can’t take all of it to heart. An editor or producer is supposed to be someone you can trust to steer you in the right direction. Sadly, that’s not the reality of many people in the media.
These issues are some of the reasons I’ve stepped away from games journalism and became an analyst instead. I feel like I can do better work when my words aren’t filtered by a revolving door of editors I’ve never met in person. I still do writing, but now I can walk away if my words aren’t my words, and I have a place where I can publish the original text of what I wrote.
On a human level, I also have empathy for other gamers who feel like they’re being unfairly depicted as monsters by their own enthusiast press. I’ve found it’s too difficult to offer an alternative opinion under traditional media structures. I can’t control how the establishment does business. All I can do is inform people about what actually happens in the games press to the best of my ability.
I’m one of the few people in this business who has been on both sides of the media circus, so I know how infuriating and hurtful it is when the press gets it wrong, or worse, demonizes someone for clicks. The thing that isn’t talked about enough is the fact that it often happens through broken telephone, not an intent to deceive. It’s hard to believe how badly something can get warped, just through the intervention of an editor who wasn’t on the scene, or a producer who recuts a segment without sufficient knowledge of the facts.
Unless an editor is willing to explain a change to a writer, don’t make the change. That sounds simple, but it’s harder than you think when everyone’s terrified of being fired because there are so many games professionals out of work. It’s a system that’s made up of dogs eating dogs in a shark tank.
Forgive the circular sentence, but the games industry hurting is hurting the games industry. It’s also hurting the games community, individual developers, and fans, and so we need to do better. Talking to each other and being supportive professional partners isn’t the terrifying thing it’s made out to be. Conflicts will happen; that’s okay as long as they’re properly resolved. People make mistakes; that’s not an unforgiveable sin.
The things we can fix are the parts of games journalism that are structurally unaccountable, and structural issues can be addressed without assigning blame or fault. The first step towards fixing this is to better inform the public regarding how games are made, and how articles get published.