Why does EW suck at games?

Ok, full disclosure: I pitched myself as a freelancer to Entertainment Weekly in the mid-90s when Gary Eng Walk gave the Virtual Boy (and just about every other Nintendo product he reviewed) an A in its pages. I saw that and thought, okay, they don’t get games. It’s relatively new on the cultural landscape, they’re just starting to be taken seriously, and EW isn’t up to speed yet. Since I was already in NYC writing game reviews for Time Out New York and Flux, this was a potential opportunity. But they passed, and I kept on reading the mag, even if more insightful games coverage ever evolved. I’ve always liked it.

Over the break, I’m catching up on several issues I didn’t have time to read. (Because, yes, even outdated EW is still a good read.) And I’m stunned to see that all these years later, despite the evolution of gaming on artistic, cultural, and business levels, EW still doesn’t treat gaming with the respect and, in some cases, core understanding it has earned.

November 14, 2008, page 14. The Beatles have signed a deal with MTV Games to create a new video game, and author Shirley Halperin expresses surprise that the band’s first foray into digital business comes “in the world of gaming  — of all places.” Oh, you wouldn’t expect to see innovation down here in the ghetto? Better still, Halperin hopes that after slumming it in ConsoleWorld, this will finally open the door to having the Beatles music available for sale on iTunes. It’s as if the iTunes thing is so overdue that the press can’t see beyond it — like, this news story I have expected to write for two years now needs to be resolved before I accept that the Beatles may have spent the intervening time thinking beyond merely selling MP3s. Digital distribution of music was hot shit in the mid-90s, when the tech was new and the labels were stupid; it’s nothing special now. But having someone like Harmonix creatively explore your entire musical catalog and open it up to a new generation, that’s not valid news enough? Nah, fuck potential — we here at EW just wanna buy your CDs as DRM files, and whatever Super Ringo Bros. is going to be, we don’t care. Also, why are all these fucking trees blocking my view of the forest?

The annual Best of 2008 lists came out a few issues later, and Jeff Jensen did a very good job of explaining his picks. (Whether I agree or not with year-end lists really does not matter to me; I just want to see the person explain why that made their cut. But I happened to agree with his picks.) And the reader poll results — which game was your favorite? The winner, by 61% of the popular vote, was Guitar Hero World Tour/Rock Band 2. Yeah, I love that game almost as much as I love that Star Wars Star Trek movie, or Harry Potter and the Breaking Dawn. Because all those supernatural teenage things are the same, just like all the movies with the shiny spaceships are the same. The bizarre icing on the cake: a reader poll on the site gives people an either-or choice. Did some ignorant editor say “yeah, same thing” and smash them together?

And even when EW does say nice things about how games do have a place in the entertainment landscape, they’re misinformed. (I attended the conference call from Apple Corps and Harmonix, and for the last fucking time, there will not be a Beatles edition of Rock Band.) These are simply factual errors — ones the magazine does not make in other realms.

I don’t get it. How can such a good magazine — which clearly respects the slavish fanbases of other pop culture obsessions like The Office and James Bond and Friends and Star Wars enough to consistently nail the details and talk the proper talk — get gaming so consistently wrong? As a fan of this publication, it kills me. As a gamer, it angers me. And as member of the press…

EW has had its high points — I’ve noted in the past how Geoff Keighley used to write good stuff for them, but he doesn’t write much (if at all) now that he’s transitioned into a television producer and host. But as I’ve noted before, EW just doesn’t seem to have the passion for or knowledge to cover games, yet they still stab at the topic half-heartedly because, you know, they sell those things at Best Buy too, so we should probably be covering it.

My advice, like my freelancer clips in the mid-90s, is unsolicited, but here it is: Do it right or don’t do it. Either stop trying to cover this stuff and focus on your core strengths as a movie/TV/music magazine, or hire someone to be your gaming editor (and don’t dress it up with a euphemism like “Interactive Entertainment Editor”).  When you attempt to cover a topic unprepared and lacking passion, you wind up misinforming your existing audience and alienating the potential one.

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