Five Lessons in Games Journalism: Lesson Three – To thine own self be true

Making games is a business. Promoting games is a business. Selling games is a business. Games Journalism is a business. When you get paid to do a job of work – that’s business. There is money involved in every part of the world of gaming and that money is very important. It’s the blood that flows through the veins of gaming. Maybe the heart is the excitement of playing, maybe the brain is the incredible creativity in games but in the veins courses pure cashola. The journalist though is expected to maintain a reputation for honesty, truth and service to the public more so than any other person employed in this industry. Yet the PRs, publishers and the advertisers are funding the whole industry, your publication, your boss and they are paying your wages. The Chomps you buy are bought with their money. Their aims are to make the business of gaming successful, fruitful and to continue its growth and very good aims they are too. Often though it seems that publishers and press are at loggerheads. Fighting on opposite sides of the same battlefield. Both aiming for quality, both serving the public but alas in increasingly different ways from one another.

The good news is you don’t have to worry about what ‘the other side’ is doing. As a journalist you must simply stick to the truth. The reader wants to know if they’ll enjoy the game, if it’s got a good story, is fun, is value for money. That’s it. Just tell them the truth. No Editor I have ever worked for has asked more from me than that.

At the end of 2007, GameSpot dismissed its Editorial Director Jeff Gerstmann. Rumours quickly surfaced that he’d been fired for giving Kane and Lynch a 6. The game’s publisher had pulled advertising from Gamespot and all hell broke loose. The rumours though were never substantiated in any way. Neither Gamespot nor Gerstmann have ever commented on what happened. The Gerstmann Affair though became a cause célèbre. Several other Gamespot staffers walked out. The integrity of journalists became a much discussed issue and Gerstmann’s apparent steadfastness was celebrated. The reputation of a thousand years may be determined by the conduct of one hour and in Gerstmann’s hour he’d cemented his reputation forever. He’s brought his conscience along today to Ready Up for us all to have a look at and a bit of a prod at the sqaushy bits.


RU Kirsten: It’s the big question every budding games writer asks, yet everyone gives a completely different answer. What’s your story Jeff? How did you get your break into games journalism?

Jeff: I went to high school with a guy named Glenn Rubenstein. At the time, he had somehow conned the local newspaper into letting him write a column about video games. We became friends and I started kind of tagging along with him a bit at industry events and the Consumer Electronics Show, where we met guys like Andy McNamara and Paul Anderson from Game Informer, which was in its first or second year at the time.

I wasn’t a great writer, but I had done some freelance work here and there. I ended up falling into a magazine job with Glenn not long after. That was called Blaster Magazine, and it lasted like three issues before the guys running it allegedly embezzled the rest of their startup cash and kicked everyone out into the street. So by the time I was 19 I had already developed a healthy mistrust of business-types.

That said, I advise people looking to get into this line of work today to actually go to college. The whole “fell into it out of high school” thing sort of doesn’t really happen anymore.

RU Kirsten: Many journalists flit around working for different magazines as they learn their trade. You worked for Gamespot for over a decade, becoming their Editorial Director. Do you think working in one consistent atmosphere helped your growth as a journalist?

Jeff: I think working for a growing organisation like that certainly helped, because as time went on, the size of the day-to-day problems one has to solve gets bigger and more complicated. But I think it’s largely the quality of the people around you that influences one’s growth. I’ve been lucky enough to work with some amazing people over the years, and I probably learned a little something from all of them. Those early years at GameSpot, working with guys like Ron Dulin, Trent Ward, Joe Fielder, Ryan Mac Donald, and Greg Kasavin are probably more responsible for shaping me than anything else.

RU Kirsten: Working in the online press for ten years at Gamespot you must have seen a massive amount of changes to the site and development of the games press. How difficult do you think it’s been for journalists to adapt to the ever-growing medium?

Jeff: Well, timeliness certainly matters much more than when I was first getting started. So the balance between speed and accuracy is probably the thing that’s required the most adaptation. That and the influx of video coverage and podcasts. I’m talking into a microphone either on or off camera around four days a week now. That’s almost completely different from the writing side of the job. Some people have been able to adapt to that, some haven’t.

RU Kirsten: You’ve become byword for integrity in games journalism, as you’re perceived to have stood by your word under great pressure from the money end of games industry, the publishers, PR agencies and advertisers. However working with the other parts of the industry is something every games journalist has to do, everyday. What’s the balance between serving the reader and not ‘biting the hand that feeds us?’

Jeff: Working with the industry is actually another factor of serving the reader. Obviously, not every publisher out there is going to be 100% thrilled with every piece of coverage that we write. But we take the responsibility of covering games pretty seriously, and I’d like to think that the industry can see that in our work. When the relationship comes from a place of mutual respect, it becomes much easier for publishers to handle, say, a low-scoring review.

But I think we all need to be prepared to be cut off by any company, at any time, for any reason. If your entire base of coverage is built solely on access, ensuring your relationships with publishers are running smoothly becomes more important than your relationship with your readers. Obviously, that’s a pretty bad thing. Once you start throwing in ad dollars, it gets even messier.

RU Kirsten: The Gerstmann Affair at the end of 2007 was based on entirely unsubstantiated reports about the reasons for you being let go by Gamespot. The fact that such a huge furore grew out of the situation though shows how contentious relations have become between publisher and press. Do you think lessons have been learned by either?

Jeff: Publishers have been putting pressure on the press since the dawn of time and I don’t think anything will ever stop that. It’s how that pressure is dealt with by a given outlet that matters. I don’t think any unsubstantiated reports are going to make a dramatic difference in those relationships. If anything, the way the economy has gone lately only raises the stakes on both ends for many companies. Each game release matters more for publishers and developers, each advertising relationship matters more for each outlet.


RU Kirsten: Giant Bomb as a games website takes a step away from the reporting of industry news and is much more community friendly. Do you think community sites are the way forward for online games press?

Jeff: I certainly think that having a community focus is a great way to go, and it’s worked out very well for us at Giant Bomb. But there are many different ways to cover the game industry, and I think the different approaches being taken out there are absolutely vital. If every outlet covered games the way we do, we’d miss out on the more measured and investigative stuff from people like Stephen Totilo, the genre-targeted coverage from a guy like Brian Ekberg, and the thought-provoking stuff from people like Leigh Alexander. There’s no single right answer when it comes to building a site and a style.

RU Kirsten: At Ready Up we don’t use a rating system for reviews. Giant Bomb has a simplified five star system. As a games journalist of many years standing I still believe the ‘out of ten’ system works better than any other. What are your thoughts on scoring games?

Jeff: To me, having a score is just another way of presenting your review that assists slightly different slices of your audience. While we’d like to think that everyone will dissect every single word we write, it’s a busy world. Some people want a shortcut, even if it means they aren’t getting the whole story. For those people, there are review scores, or “pros and cons” summaries, and so on.

But I do think that there isn’t much point to a system that’s too granular, especially online. As you start getting years and years of reviews stacking up, the scores start to make less and less sense when compared to each other. If you find yourself spending all of your free time explaining your scoring system to readers who can’t wrap their minds around it, you’re probably doing something wrong.

RU Kirsten: Our up and coming games journalists more than ever need to know where to draw the line when it comes to their integrity and honesty in their reporting. Where is the line, Jeff?

Jeff: Hey, I’m not here to tell anyone what to do. That’s up to the individual. I wouldn’t feel comfortable telling someone that has mouths to feed and bills to pay that they should sacrifice their income for the sake of the truth. But I’d feel pretty comfortable telling that person that they probably aren’t cut out for this line of work and should probably move on. While there’s a segment of the audience that will just constantly throw out conspiracy theories over every review score, I’d like to think that there are people out there who can tell when someone isn’t being honest with their reporting. The dishonest person can’t hide forever.

It’s also worth saying that hiding under the guise of integrity and honesty doesn’t give writers carte blanche to say whatever they like, however they like. Be prepared to answer for your words with something more than “well, hey, it’s just, like… my opinion.” Don’t say something unless you’re willing to back it up. I see a lot of people out there–professional writers or otherwise–falling into this huge trap where they act as snidely as possible at all times. For humor’s sake, being snide certainly has its time and place. And there are certainly moments of genuine outrage that benefit from that approach. But it shouldn’t be the first point in your style guide.

RU Kirsten: What are the most important things you’ve learned as a games journalist? What motto should our budding writers take throughout their career with them?

Jeff: I’ve learned that nothing about this line of work is going to stay still for very long. Between the constant ramps of technology and the varied demands of the audience, you need to be able to adapt to survive. It’s better to get out in front of things and do what you can to lead change and carve out a new niche than it is to sit back and let the world pass you by. We’ve been seeing it lately as print media slowly slips away, one publication at a time. I won’t be too shocked when online outlets that can’t remain nimble end up in the same boat.

So stay nimble. Don’t limit yourself. Oh, and being loyal to the people around you is far more important than being loyal to whatever corporation happens to be signing your check.

Thank you to Mr. Jeff Gerstmann for his time, his wisdom and for being a great example to us all. For the next lesson please do not wear loose clothing or jewellery. Hard hats and reflective safety jackets will be provided on the day.







8 responses to “Five Lessons in Games Journalism: Lesson Three – To thine own self be true”

  1. Del Torro El Sorrow avatar
    Del Torro El Sorrow


    JEFF GERSTMANN!!!!!!!!!!!!

    Awesome. Now all you need is Greg Kasavin and I’m sure everyone who reads these will die happy.

  2. markBOSS avatar

    A BIG DITTO TO THE ABOVE^^^^^^^^^^^

    I was a huge fan of the early Gamespot years with Gerstmann and co. They were such an easy going likeable team.

    In fact Rich Gallup is easily my biggest inspiration, and I pretty much want to be just like him, only British.

    Im also a big Greg Kasavin fan, Ive had him on my xbox dashboard awaiting friend request approval for over two/three years now. His was always such a good read.

    ahhhhh the gold ol days of Gamespot. Things seemed more simpler back then.

  3. Scott avatar

    Thank you for putting this up, Kirsten. I have a ton of respect for guys like Kieron Gillen, but Jeff Gerstmann is one of my personal heroes.

    Jeff Gerstmann, Rich Gallup, Greg Kasavin, Brian Ekberg, Ryan Mac Donald… these are the people directly responsible for making me stand up and pay attention to video games as an industry, and not just as a hobby. I listened to the Hotspot podcast and watched the weekly On the Spot shows religiously for two years, and I still follow Jeff’s madness on Giant Bomb today (includng the fantastic Endurance Run, which resulted in me playing 99 hours and 45 minutes of Persona 4).

    The thing I like about Jeff is his logical but wholly consumer-oriented approach to games. He tells gamers how it is; that honesty comes through crystal clear in the interview here. I don’t always agree with his opinions on specific games, but I’ve always agreed with his stance on telling consumers exactly what they need to know before they make a purchase.

    I also like that he’s a gigantic dork like the rest of us. He’ll buy a Japanese 360 just so that he can boost his gamer score, or purchase an Elite just to get HDMI, even though his component connection is perfect. He’ll spend $1000 on a Japanese Neo-Geo cartridge, or seriously contemplate importing a Street Fighter IV arcade board so he can be the first in the USA to own one. He’ll throw random C64 and Amiga references out there, knowing that someone will get them. He makes no attempt to hide that he is a passionate gamer who loves this industry. And that’s fantastic.

    So Jeff, if you get around to reading our responses on here… thanks.



  4. Alan Ismail avatar
    Alan Ismail

    Kirsten’s Five Lessons in Games Journalism is the sole reason I visit this Blog. Lessons 1-3 have been excellent – genuinely insightful. I’m an ex videogame journalist – not through choice I’ll have you know – and I’m always looking for helpful advice on how to establish a foothold within the industry. I used to work for Future Publishing before dwindling circulations forced me into redundancy. I’ve also had a recent run in with Imagine Publishing. I’ve all but given up. But I still love the industry and interviews like this one fascinate me.

    I was pleased to see Jeff mention Leigh Alexander as an example of how to carve out an original role in such a niche industry. I’ve recently interviewed her for my blog – Digital Gigolo.Please forgive the plug but I think those of you that enjoy Kirsten’s ‘Lessons’ will find something of interest in my interview –

    Can’t wait for Lesson 4.

  5. […] Kirsten at Ready Up continues her Five Lessons in Games Journalism series, with an interview with Jeff Gerstman on writing about the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the bloody truth. […]

  6. itamarw avatar

    Sterling work, Kirsten.
    A few dozen more of these and I’ll be ready to work in the industry 🙂

  7. DunK avatar

    Another lesson, another legend. Riveting read.

    I have to ask though… if you believe that the ‘out of ten’ rating system is the best… why does ReadyUp not use it?

    Don’t get me wrong, I love RU reviews because they don’t have an arbitrary score tacked on the end, but I’m curious. 🙂

  8. Brandon Campbell avatar
    Brandon Campbell

    I absolutely love these blogs, Kristen. I am a recent college graduate and have a bachelor’s degree in journalism. I am looking to break into game journalism full time and your blog has given me innumerable insights. In fact, I picked up Rossignol’s “This Gaming Life” and tore through 60 pages in one sitting.

    I’ve been a bit disheartened as of late due to that sorry state of journalism in general. Your blog however is giving me hope that I just may be able to find that ever elusive game journalism job I’ve been pining over for the past two decades.

    Additionally, I am glad to hear from Gerstmann. I was never sure of what to believe regarding that whole Gamespot debacle. It’s nice to hear how highly Gerstmann speaks of integrity in games journalism. Honesty is a premium in this industry.

    I am anxiously awaiting your next post in this series. You’ve whet my appetite for all things game journalism related.

Leave a Reply