Hello, Kotaku. We meet again. But this time, nobody can stop me.
I kid, I kid. Truthfully, I’ve been avoiding writing this post—the one that acknowledges I’m back, and also, I’m in charge now. At first this was easy: Being hired two weeks before E3 meant I had little time to do anything but plan for the show. But now it’s weird to keep publishing stuff without announcing myself more officially, so. Here I am, and this is it.
It’s a scary proposition to write this post because it means laying out my vision for the site. And writing it down like this means that you know what it is that I want to do, but more crucially, get to judge if I’m living up to the standards that I set out. That’s terrifying, because what I want for Kotaku isn’t just ambitious. Of course I want more readers, of course I want to publish fearless writing, criticism, and reporting, and of course I want to foster a community where everyone feels welcome. Somehow, that’s the easy part—many of these things are a continuation of what Kotaku is already known for.
But also, I want to dismantle and redefine what a video game website can be. I do not like what I see. Where to even begin?
I hate that nearly every website’s day to day is predicated on the release schedule and news cycle set by publishers. I hate the coverage cycle of big-budget video games, and how a game is never more important than when it doesn’t exist yet—or when it just launched. I hate that so much of what video game websites consider worthy of coverage is often written for a specific type of presumed reader. It does not matter if a website is considered “progressive.” It says everything that, when writing about certain issues, video game websites often have to take care in explaining basic-ass concepts like “racism is real.”
At some point, having to explain power dynamics over and over again is not a question of informing the readership. It is a tacit acknowledgement that our audience likely has a specific background. And consequently, that reality means that even as we cover more mainstream subjects or marginalized identities, the writing is not truly for that wider audience. This haunts me. The presumed reader looks or sounds nothing like me, and yet here I am, leading a video game site.
It’s not a matter of being “woke.” It is a matter of survival. Video game websites, as they exist now, repeatedly fail to represent the wide swath of people who play games. And every year that passes, this failure becomes more and more evident. “Everyone” plays games now, yet most of these people hardly frequent video game websites unless they need to know how to do something.
And if we do reach this mythical mainstream gamer, it’s likely because Google willed it—not because we’ve cultivated that dedicated readership. Since social media websites throttle who can or cannot see our work, we spend our time worshipping the fickle SEO gods. Your favorite game website is likely quietly bankrolled by guides and service writers who try to predict what people will search next, not news writers, critics, or reviewers. Playing that traffic game and being good at it, of course, is only a temporary salve. Yesterday it was Facebook, today it’s Google, tomorrow, who knows.
Hilariously, gaming websites fail the capital G gamer repeatedly, too. The perpetual focus on what’s coming next is not compatible with the idea that we are here to cut through the hype. Don’t preorder games, we say, while dutifully covering the big event that exists to get you excited about the next big thing. Meanwhile, advances like Xbox Game Pass destroy the release cycle modern gaming websites have relied on for years. What’s new and shiny has no bearing on what will actually take off with the public, as evidenced by Among Us.
“New” in and of itself might be an outdated concept in the age of remakes, remasters, and re-releases across generations. The last two years have had a dearth of showstopping game releases between coronavirus and a new console generation, yet at the same time, there are more games than ever. Old releases, not new games, perennially top the gaming charts of late. I’m beginning to think my future grandchildren might still have to play the same duct-taped version of GTA Online that I have.
It’s tough to wrangle all of this, but it’s not like websites don’t try. Here at Kotaku, we have this concept of “embedding” within games, best described as an effort to continue covering games as they evolve and grow. When I was at Polygon, we called these “living games,” but the same basic idea applies. Games get updates, audiences change, we try our best to reflect that on the page as it actually exists, not as PR says.
But video game websites, as they exist now, cannot truly keep up with our subject matter. Games are now designed to take up as much of your time as possible, sometimes even punishing you for not logging in daily. Being up to date on certain big games is a job unto its own, only achievable if you focus solely on that title alone—or at least, only a few of them. But the mandate of a video game website is to cover widely. We have to make choices about which games we dig into, and which games we cover more casually.
All of this has to be balanced with publishing daily, multiple times a day. These pieces also require time to research and report. Doing this job well often means sacrificing free time. Even as video game outlets try to provide writers with better conditions, like having game time during work hours, most people who do this for a living clock out and then log in to whatever they’re covering next. When the “perfect” game is one that gives you dozens of hours of playtime, there just aren’t enough hours to stay abreast of everything that’s out there. Not if you want to produce thoughtful writing, anyway.
Burnout is endemic, which is ironic when you consider the ongoing push to highlight crunch conditions at studios. But because playing video games does not really seem like “work,” it’s not something reporters can talk about freely without sounding like assholes. Woe is us, it’s a tragedy that we have to sacrifice a weekend to properly cover that big game that isn’t available to the public yet. What is there to complain about when we probably got that game for free?
Vying for relevance versus dwindling time is sometimes only the start. Writers, especially those with marginalized identities, often have to grapple with nonstop anger. Anger over suggesting that video games reflect the real world in any way, shape, or form. Anger that we get paid to do something many people would gladly do for free. Anger stoked by influencers who need you to believe game journalists are awful, and they alone have your interests at heart. Anger fueled by four years of constant propaganda that mainstream media is fake news and not to be trusted. Anger that the news we report sometimes doesn’t present video games and its communities in a positive light to the wider public.
I do not think this latent yet ongoing anger comes from the majority of our intended or presumed audience. Really, it’s likely not even statistically significant compared to the millions of readers who read our work daily and love what we do. But harm does not require an army. All it takes is one asshole going out of their way to ensure a writer sees their bigoted screed. There’s always at least one.
I do not want to tell my writers to grow thicker skin, though inevitably they do. I want the world to be a kinder place. It shouldn’t require bravery to write about fucking video games.
But what I’m getting at here is that I am terrified about my tenure at Kotaku because I am an idealist. Realistically, a lot of what I just described cannot possibly be changed by a single person, or even a team of people. By printing this, I am opening myself up to criticism every time I don’t change all the larger forces governing this work. I haven’t even touched on institutional struggles here, but they aren’t a secret to anyone who has read any G/O Media sites over the last few years.
Failure seems inevitable. But I am the sort of cursed person who cannot shoot for anything less than changing the way the game is played. What would that even look like, anyway?
I want Kotaku to reflect things that are real. I want to print stories that you’d be able to tell a friend about at a bar, even if they don’t play games. The way that we talk about games on the site should be the same way that we’d talk about it in an actual conversation. I do not care if the language or attitude at Kotaku appears proper and respectable. Fuck that. Games are human, and so are we. Any time there is a discrepancy between what we actually think and what lives on the page is when we betray not only our readers, but ourselves.
I want to move away from treating gaming like a product or industry, instead examining them more as microcosms for the human condition. Games are worlds unto their own, often developing not only customs, traditions, and dedicated languages, but also their own vectors of power and influence.
Yeah, the biggest YouTuber in the world started out playing video games, and sure, Pokémon Go took over the outside world for a summer a few years back. The largest entertainment properties on Earth are created using game engines, and nearly everyone has a device that plays games now. The list of reasons why games matter is long, and if you’re reading this, chances are good that you know much of this already. I probably don’t need to give you the whole spiel about how games are worth billions and are technically larger than businesses like the movie industry.
I mention these accomplishments not to prove gaming is worth taking seriously, but to take that thought one step further. If games are indeed as important as we say they are, then we should feel comfortable enough to hold them to a higher standard. If we truly respect this space, we should be able to challenge the video game industry, its products, and the communities surrounding it. If we want the world to stop treating games like mere toys, we also have to stop treating video games like a wilting flower that must be protected at all costs.
The challenge for a gaming website like Kotaku is finding the right balance in coverage. Much of what I just described is the basic mandate of any good news organization; nothing but the truth is treated as sacred. The harder sell is that a website can do all of that while also retaining a sense of humor. Games matter! But also, games are silly and weird, because humans are silly and weird. Stating the truth is not just about reserving space for heady topics, it’s giving ourselves permission to have some fun on the page.
Some of what I’ve outlined is a continuation of the approach started by my predecessor, Stephen Totilo. But I don’t want just more Kotaku with a different stable of writers and editors. Why bother? The future of Kotaku, to me, spans beyond video games. Games will always be the driving force, but I’d like to think that what unites us isn’t our willingness to hold a controller. Nerds are defined by fandom, and an insatiable curiosity for how things work. Sometimes that drive and obsession unfolds in video games, but not always.
To properly showcase video game culture, it’s necessary to talk about our digital lives more broadly. We live in a world where your exercise bike has a leaderboard, and language apps have daily challenges. Maintaining anyone’s attention now necessitates treating platforms, their algorithms, and their functions like systems that can be gamed and won. Games provide a crucial framework for parsing modern life, and Kotaku will now be an attempt to capture that.
I believe a different type of video game site is possible. I hope you want to believe in that, too.