(Another) Sign of the Times
The U.S. paper of record is back at it again with clueless games coverage.
Tell me, are we really surprised by The New York Times at this point?
On Wednesday, the most-read newspaper in the U.S. published one of the most confounding articles in games journalism that I’ve read in a long time. More than a month after the release of one of 2022’s most highly anticipated games, “Elden Ring,” the Times wrote a review.
Its angle: that the game is a byproduct of the pandemic—a mix of being stuck inside and the parallels between the difficulty of the latest FromSoftware title and what it’s been like to live through the past two years.
There are some lines in the review that check out, such as when it correlates an increase in gaming and the popularity of some titles due to the pandemic’s effects. That much is true of “Animal Crossing: New Horizons,” which was released two years ago, just days after many U.S. cities went into lockdown, and sold 32 million copies in its first year. But other points are stunningly off and very poorly researched.
“It’s difficult to imagine Elden Ring having this sort of cultural cachet in any other era,” the piece reads.
“Elden Ring” is the latest installment in a series that’s been commercially successful for a decade.
Yes, it outsold its “Demon Souls,” “Dark Souls” and “Bloodborne” predecessors—but those titles have raked in tens of millions of players since the first release in 2009. Those games also have a cult-like following, with hardcore players drawn to their high difficulty level—another trait that’s evident in “Elden Ring.”
Oh, and by the way, the writer behind “Elden Ring,” if you didn’t know, is George R. R. Martin, the creator of one of the most successful fantasy TV series of all time in “Game of Thrones.” Martin attached his name to the “Elden Ring” project from the beginning, and his success in world-building was essential to the game’s promotion, even years before its release.
A cynical person could speculate that “enragement equals engagement” and that the Times writes about video games this way to whip people like me—and the millions of gamers on Twitter—into a frenzy. I don’t think that’s necessarily true, though. More so, the publication writes for its regular audience, middle- to older-aged, predominantly white liberals, and has no desire to create journalism for a younger audience, at least not in the main paper.
The Times is actively making other attempts at engaging with Millennials and Zoomers, as Recode’s media writer, Peter Kafka, pointed out in an April 6 story. That includes the acquisitions of sports website The Athletic and games such as Wordle, a hit among young people on social media. The company also created video and audio ads featuring voices of subscribers from diverse backgrounds. What that doesn’t include, though, is a more open approach to coverage in areas such as tech and gaming.
When I lived in New York a few years ago, I got the pleasure of meeting some of the editors at the Times. Here’s a disclosure, too: I taught at their affiliated summer high school program, The School of the New York Times, which is run by a separate entity from the paper. I’m also a Times subscriber and am friendly with some of the technology writers and columnists, many of whom I believe do good work.
I have championed esports and video games to some of these editors. But their games coverage has been a mess for years, and it's disappointing to see it continuing.
It seems like once or twice a year, these broad, sweeping stories about games land in the paper or on the website. Last year, the Times published a sob story about parents whose 14-year-old became “addicted” to gaming during the pandemic. “I’ve failed you as a father,” is the quote in the lead, from the dad to his son.
What horseshit. I ranted about it on Twitter at the time, but if your 14-year-old is hooked on games and not something else—porn, drugs, etc.—you should be proud.
The saddest parts about how the Times covers games are two-fold: one, from my point-of-view, the paper doesn’t want to change. And two, it doesn’t have to be this way.
On that first note, anytime I’ve spoken to people working at or with the Times, it seems that their tech section only truly cares about four subjects: Amazon, Google, Facebook or Apple.
It’ll stray from The Four from time to time and I think it’s unfair not to shout that out—reporter Mike Isaac has exposed Uber’s toxic culture and deception of government and partners, and columnist Kevin Roose is doing some vitally important work about the Internet and Web3. Kellen Browning, who joined the Times in June 2020, has done some solid esports reporting, too.
Yet, it always seems that the technology pages of the Times veer back to The Four.
On the second part, other mainstream publications are making gaming work, without catering to the lowest common denominator. That includes the Times’ biggest competitor, The Washington Post, whose Launcher is doing great work (disclosure: I’m working on a freelance piece for the Post at the moment).
The Post is hitting the usual suspects of games coverage—reviews, SEO pieces, etc.—but it’s also diving deep into sexual-abuse lawsuits and issues at Activision Blizzard and discussing predatory contracts within esports.
Even in my time at ESPN, whose direction I often disagreed with, I believe we did some crucial work that focused on human beings and bigger investigations within esports that resonated with an audience outside of gaming.
It may be tougher to dig into these subjects, and as Jen Glennon from Inverse pointed out on Thursday, it’ll require the Times and other mainstream publications to lean in and hire writers and editors endemic to gaming. I’m just less willing to give the Times a pass and chalk it up to a lack of knowledge. It feels more like a lack of caring.
On the Subject — The Times’ “Elden Ring” Review and How Media Covers Games:
“Elden Ring just exposed a huge problem in games journalism — here's how to fix it” (Jen Glennon / Inverse)
“The success of ‘Elden Ring’ had nothing to do with the pandemic” (Gene Park / The Washington Post)
“Axios Gaming, April 11, 2022” (Megan Farokmanesh / Axios)
Since we’re in our second week here, I wanted to open the floor to questions from readers. I’d love to take the time to answer one big question from readers each week. If you have a question, feel free to shoot me an email at [email protected]. I’ll answer these questions next Friday.