If You're Still Berating Dean Takahashi, You Don't Understand How Games Journalism Works
If you’ve spent any amount of time looking at gaming-related discussions on Twitter or Reddit in the last several days, you’ve probably seen Dean Takahashi’s name pop up here or there. He’s the games journalist behind the “shameful” 26 minutes of Cuphead gameplay that’s been getting considerable airtime in certain internet circles, as well as the accompanying VentureBeat article that touts the game’s difficulty while poking fun at just how badly he "sucked" at it.
Although VentureBeat originally posted the footage with fun, self-deprecating intentions, the Internet took it as an opportunity to reignite the explosive argument over the role of games journalists in this industry and how good they have to be at games in order to be trustworthy sources of information.
If you look at discussions happening on Twitter and Reddit right now, you’ll see two camps of people -- those who are willing to forgive Takahashi’s floundering as a ridiculous attempt at a game he just couldn’t grasp, and those who think that his inability to master the demo makes him totally unqualified to be writing in this industry at all.
Notable journalist Ian Miles Cheong (of the Daily Caller) even jumped in on the discussion to comment that:
Games journalists should spend more time playing or learning how to play games and writing about them than talking about themselves.
— Ian Miles Cheong (@stillgray) September 6, 2017
This Tweet alone sparked a miles-long set of replies that are mostly in agreement, with participants berating games journalists left and right for being arrogant, lazy, sensationalist, self-absorbed, and all manner of other adjectives that reflect a staunchly antagonistic attitude toward most (if not all) the writers who work in this industry.
In response, numerous outlets rushed to publish response pieces that tried to highlight issues of elitism in the games journalism industry -- only to be further mocked for taking every opportunity to turn the conversation onto themselves as writers. But the truth is that the journalists who have penned those pieces are simply using the first-hand, anecdotal information they have at their disposal to explain something that most fans still don’t seem to understand: if you’re participating in these conversations, whether they’re about Dean Takahashi or any other well-meaning journalist, and you’re spouting sentiments like the ones above, then you fundamentally don’t understand how this industry works or what goes on behind the scenes. There's more to providing the content that you’re so eager to ridicule.
Games Journalists Aren't Paid to "Git Gud" at Games
It’s easy to nod your head and proclaim that a games journalist should be good at games. It seems like common sense, right? After all, it’s their job to embed themselves in this industry -- so clearly, they can’t be trusted as reliable sources of information if they aren’t masters at every game on which they work.
But before you can actually argue what does or does not qualify a games journalist to do their job, you have to first define what that job is -- because it’s a hell of a lot more than just playing games all day.
Games journalists are responsible for providing accurate and entertaining content for their audiences. They’re industry insiders who must leverage their connections to answer questions and get exclusive information that fans wouldn’t have access to otherwise. They’re investigators that have to get a feel for new games or create sprawling guide content to help players through recently released games. And above all that, they’re intended to be objective liaisons between industry figures and the public -- hound dogs who peek behind the curtain and try to keep fans informed about what’s really going on with the games in which they’re interested.
It’s a monumental task. Without the work games journalists put in, fans would have little to no access to developers, publishers, and the general goings-on of the industry. They would only ever see what stakeholding companies wanted them to see. There would be no early reviews. No hands-on tech demos. No news. No guides. No muckraking. Nothing.
This isn’t to say that we’re the hot shots of the gaming industry. The developers make the games happen, and the fans make the industry thrive. We’re just the middle men who try to keep fans informed and keep devs accountable.
I can already hear the retorts about rampant issues with dishonesty, non-objectivity, and general shadiness in games journalism that have made the news over the last several years. And I'll be the first to admit that our corner of the industry is just as prone to corruption as any other. There are plenty of writers or publications who abuse their privileges and their connections for a number of malignant reasons, violating the inherent trust between reporter and reader. But Dean Takahashi isn’t one of them, even if he is a terrible Cuphead player.
Fans and Journalists Are Not the Same Thing
I can see why fans want to berate Takahashi for the content he created, and I agree that the article he created alongside the demo gameplay was subpar. But before flying off the handle and making bold proclamations about the utter incompetence of games journalists everywhere and demanding prodigious gaming skills in every situation, fans need to take a moment and remember one key thing: the industry in which games journalists work is vastly different from the one in which players get to participate.
A fan’s only "job" is to play a game and enjoy it (or not), and get good at it (or not). They choose what games to spend their time on, what genres to immerse themselves in, what skills to improve, and what developers to support or disparage. But for all the privileges that games journalists do have, the privilege of choice is rarely one of them.
At publications both large and small, games journalists are expected to keep constant track of multiple games in a given genre -- or even keep track of all the noteworthy games that are coming out during the calendar year. We’re constantly under pressure to find new perspectives and engaging content that will drive readership and earn ad revenue in a space that’s become completely oversaturated with news, op-eds, guides, and any other type of written word one could conceive of. We’re always on a deadline, always beholden to our editors, managers, and publication stakeholders. And to top it all off, we have to keep our readers happy while creating and maintaining amicable relationships with developers so that they keep giving us the access we need to do the job our publications and our fans expect us to do.
There are a lot of competing interests that we have to honor the best we can. And just as there are multiple competing interests, there are also multiple games demanding our attention at once. It’s very rare that a games journalist is lucky enough to be assigned to just one game at a time. Oftentimes, writers are juggling multiple releases within a few days of each other -- which means the window of opportunity for playing and mastering a game is much slimmer than we’d like.
As a managing editor, I’ve tasked writers with publishing a release day review and multiple guide articles within 2 to 3 days after launch, only to turn around and ask them to do it all over again in the same week with a totally different game. I don’t like it any more than my writers do, but the number of games coming out and the number of writers we have on staff demands that I do so.
The reality is that games journalists get little to no say in what games they’re assigned to, or what sort of workload they’re expected to handle. Because when play becomes work, it’s just work. And work means doing what’s expected to the best of your ability. So every writer, at some point or another, has been forced to work on games that they don’t like or genres they aren’t good at playing. But they have to muddle their way through nonetheless.
I’m not saying this is the way things should be. In an ideal world, publications could assign a specialist to every game or genre that needs attention. But that’s simply not possible when you’re trying to meet a bottom line and check all your boxes in an increasingly competitive market that will happily leave stragglers in the dust. This is just the way things are right now -- and as a writer, you can either fall in line or get out of the way. So fans would do well to let go of the unrealistic expectation that every journalist be a total natural at every game they pick up.
It’s certainly possible Dean Takahashi wanted to do that Cuphead demo. But it’s far more likely that he was told to do it, and simply had to muddle through an unfamiliar genre as best he could. And the unfortunate results of that effort seem to be less a reflection of his personal skill or worthiness as a journalist and more a reflection of the often unfair demands that this industry makes of its writers.
Surprise! Conventions Aren't Journalist Friendly
The expectation alone is difficult enough to live up to, even for long-time veterans of the industry and those rare journalists who seem to be good at pretty much any game they get their hands on. But when it comes to working live events like Gamescom, where this footage originated from, the difficulty level for being a journalist jumps from Hard to Nightmare mode. These events are obviously hectic for everyone in attendance, but they’re a completely different ordeal for the writers who work them.
Usually, only a handful of writers on a publication’s staff are able to make it out to these events, which means they have to work double-time to make sure everything gets covered. Our appointment books are packed with multiple demos and interviews each day. And while we might get to chat with some of our favorite devs and play some cool games during that time, we also have to sit down and work our way through a number of genres and games that we aren’t at all familiar with. The last time I worked PAX West, for example, I worked the entire show alone and attended nearly 40 appointments over the course of the weekend -- mostly for games that I knew next to nothing about.
It’s one thing to pick up a game and try to learn it on your own. It’s an entirely different thing to do that on a show floor packed with thousands of people -- all while a PR rep or developer shouts instructions in your ear over the roar of the expo crowd. On top of trying to parse out all the information being thrown at you in an environment that’s totally antithetical to actual learning, you also have to make sure you’re getting good gamecap footage, retaining all the contextual information being thrown at you, and worrying about how little time you have to race to the press room to get your coverage out before Google is totally saturated with first-impression articles.
In spite of the special appointments and exclusive access, conventions like this aren’t always a journalist-friendly environment. In my own experience working cons, I’ve had a number of demos go terribly wrong for a number of different reasons.
While trying to test ESO’s new 4v4v4 battlegrounds feature, I failed to get any usable footage thanks to an adolescent fan who thought it would be funny to spend an entire match spawn-camping me and raining down Nightblade fury before my slow-moving Warden could even summon a single defense. I’ve been shit-talked by shooter fans for sucking my way through a Quake demo where I had to fill in for an FPS writer who had gone MIA. And my crowning achievement was having a well-known RPG dev (who I won’t name here) snatch a mouse out of my hand and openly insult me for being incompetent, only to find that the demo was buggy.
I’ll be the first to admit that games journalists are lucky. We get to skip lines. We get exclusive access. We get all sorts of things. But what we do -- both at conventions and behind the scenes -- is rarely on our terms. We’re beholden to a whirlwind of expectations that normal fans simply don’t have to worry about. We’re expected to be a jack of all trades rather than a master of any given one. So sacrifice and failure is bound to happen somewhere. And for Dean Takahashi, that happened to be his Cuphead demo.
Takahashi Isn't Blameless, But He's Not Incompetent
I’m not excusing Takahashi entirely. There’s a lot that he, as a journalist (and VentureBeat as a publication), could have done to provide higher quality content for VentureBeat's readers and Cuphead fans. During the demo itself, Takahashi probably could have done a better job of communicating with whoever was in charge of the demo to progress further than he did. Posting the cringe-worthy footage in the first place was a questionable move, and the error-riddled article that followed reflects poorly on his accuracy as a writer and the thoroughness of the editorial team that allowed those inaccuracies to see the light of day. If you ask me, the article shouldn't have been written at all, since Takahashi clearly didn't see enough of the Cuphead demo to make a fair judgement of it as a game.
But that doesn’t mean he deserves all the backlash that’s coming his way. Up until now, Takahashi has established himself in this industry with a portfolio of decent journalism and numerous insightful books that evaluate everything from Microsoft’s console development practices to the meteoric rise of Zynga in the social gaming sphere. One bad demo doesn’t disqualify him as a talented writer and a quality source of information.
I’ve been where Takahashi was during that Cuphead demo. So has every other journalist worth their salt. And so has every gamer who’s ever picked up a game that just didn’t click with them.
It might be easy for fans to nullify our hard work and vilify us as unskilled egoists -- but it simply isn’t accurate. The key difference between us as journalists and them as consumers is that when they can’t get into a game, they get to put the controller down, walk away, and chalk it up as a loss. But if we want to do right by the publications who make our jobs possible and the audiences who expect the world from us, we have to dust ourselves off, hit restart, and keep trying again.