The Objectivity Myth …

So, in Shamus Young’s Twitter feed that I read at his site I came across a link to this video about a presentation at a conference by Maddy Myers about “Gonzo” journalism and, more importantly, and the issues games journalism is having due to an overly strong focus on objectivity. Now, it’s a video and I don’t see a transcript handy, so you aren’t going to get a lot of quotes, for which I apologize. But it seems to me that this video illustrates the main problem with the “Gonzo” style of journalism.

When the title of the presentation is “Why Games Need Gonzo Journalism”, it’s pretty safe to presume that the main goal of the presentation is to argue for that position, and to do so in a way that will appeal to people who either disagree that it does or are at least on the fence about it, and aren’t sure if games need “Gonzo” journalism. The problem is that this video doesn’t spend a lot of time arguing for that position. What it does is, it seems to me, follow exactly what Myers thinks is the way “Gonzo” journalism should be done: it talks a lot about her own experiences and the experiences of others, lists people she thinks are doing it well, and makes a few minor points — mostly about how other forms of journalism have already shifted towards this sort of model — but doesn’t make a coherent case for why this sort of approach is good and works for games. Now, it might be fair to say that my attitude is part of the problem, as I was looking for an objective approach and she thinks it better to have an experiential approach. But my counter is that if you want to convince someone to side with you — especially if they already disagree with you — it is a difficult thing to do by focusing on your experiences and your perspective. Chances are, if they shared your perspective and experiences that closely, they’d already agree with you. So what you’d need to do is appeal to their experiences and perspective, and try to guide that towards your desired conclusion. Or, alternatively, you could present the facts and arguments, and let them filter it through their own experiences to come to the conclusion you want, or express their perspective through facts as well. And that can indeed include facts about your experience.

See, part of the issue here is that I think everyone has an overly strict idea of objective and subjective. Myers talks about using “I”, and while I’m sure she doesn’t really consider that a definitive criteria for subjectivity, I just want to note that I use “I” all the when talking about philosophy, and even in formal papers (see my pages that represent my actual essays) but don’t think that I’m making any kind of subjective argument or appeal to personal experience. Those are as objective as they come. As I also just said, talking about your own experiences doesn’t make that critically subjective either, as long as those are treated as facts that need to be considered and not as simply a statement of opinion. So when it comes to game reviews, there are indeed going to be times when you have to talk about how you experience it, and when you have to acknowledge your own biases. That’s not an issue. The issue is to make sure that we don’t conflate opinion and fact.

Why this is important is that I definitely see the worth of the sorts of works that she cites. I definitely think there’s value in people reporting on their experiences at a conference, or with a game, or with game journalism. I think there is value with people talking about how they experience games, and in fact my whole “Not-So-Casual Commentary” line was spawned from my considering what my experiences as a gamer were and noting that they were a bit different than anyone else’s. But I also see the value in objective assessments as well, where people list the facts of what was presented at a conference, the technical specs of a game, and an objective review that lets me decide if this is the sort of game that I’d want to play. Again, you don’t have to be limited in a review to just listing off the features, but you do have to present it in such a way that the experiences are more facts than opinions.

And I see it as being very hard to effectively mix the two, as someone who likes both sorts of works but doesn’t generally want them at the same time. If I’m trying to decide whether I should buy the full series of Star Trek: Voyager, I probably shouldn’t really watch Chuck Sonnenberg’s reviews of them to decide, because he’s clear that these are just his opinion and that while he does analyze them in a semi-objective way, it’s not necessarily a good representation of its features in order to allow me to decide “Will I enjoy watching this?”. While I bought Saint’s Row the Third after reading Shamus’ comments on the game, I had to do that by filtering his comments through my own goals and desires and ended up distilling it down to one precise note about something that he liked and really pushed my own buttons. The more you appeal to your own perspective in talking about a work, the harder it is for me to distill it down to a set of facts that I can use to then build up my own opinion about what that would all mean for me, who is rather definitively not you.

If you mix the two, then I have to wade through a lot of subjective experiences in order to get to what I’m really interested if I’m looking to decide “Buy or not?”. On the other hand, I also encounter a lot of “dry” technical data if I happen to be interested in the author’s personal perspective and experiences. To paraphrase Miles O’Brien’s mother, if you try to combine personal accounts and reviews, you’ll end up doing neither very well. The two do have different goals, and combining the two just ends up with major portions of your work not appealing to people who aren’t explicitly interested in both right now.

There are definitely uses for both, and I think that both need to be represented in games journalism. But neither is inherently superior to the other. Neither are inherently more interesting or more boring than the other. Can the same person do both? Sure. Can the same person do both at the same time? I argue not very well. If people can do so effectively, then I say more power to them, but I don’t agree with holding that up as some ideal that everyone should strive for, because even if done well it often is less effective than a more focused work. To cycle back to my first paragraph, as I think this video highlights: as someone interested in the debate, I found the lack of facts … disturbing, and found the focus on experiences to be distractions from what I personally needed or wanted to know to decide if she was right or not. So I don’t consider it an effective way to argue for the position. This is not to say that the presentation was bad or boring or whatever, just that since I came to it as an argument it seemed to lack the things needed to convince me. As a presentation of her experiences with “Gonzo” journalism and what others have done with it, it would be quite effective. There is indeed room for both, and they don’t have to be in the same car all the time.

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3 Responses to “The Objectivity Myth …”

  1. Crude Says:

    Facts, facts, facts.

    That’s what I want from my reviews. Not flowery language, but precise detail with a good analysis of gameplay and (from a bird’s eye view) storyline.

    And for God’s sake, no social commentary.

    • verbosestoic Says:

      I’d like to think that my first thoughts on Conception II did it well, although I’d certainly like to hear what the perceptions of people who are not me are. I mentioned that it had more sexual innuendo than a comparable game — the Personas — had, noted that it didn’t bother me personally, but then turned that into an objective point about how it fits into a small niche of people who don’t mind innuendo but also aren’t looking for it. So in the Bayonetta 2 review, if he had simply pointed out that it was there, noted that it caused him issues, but didn’t dock the game just for it, then things would have been better and it would probably have been a better review, because scores do matter. When I look for reviews of a game on Gamefaqs, I always read some high ones and some low ones to get a good overview of the game. Docking a game for this makes it look like the reviewer didn’t think it was that good a game as a game, which clearly wasn’t actually the case.

  2. The State of Science-Fiction and Fantasy … | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] start from the objectivity myth idea that I’ve talked about previously. While scores aren’t a big deal for me, there’s always the risk that I’ll find a […]

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