Sessler: Games journalism needs a more "humanistic, holistic approach"
The long-time TV personality talks to us about the evolving games media landscape and how TV journalism still matters
Adam Sessler is best-known for his long tenure as co-host of X-Play, the TV show about video games that originated back in the '90s as GameSpot TV. Later, the show transitioned through many changes and mergers as ZDTV became TechTV and then merged with G4. Sessler proved a durable fixture as the show went through numerous format tweaks, changes in location and co-hosts. Finally, Sessler left G4 in April of 2012, and the network has subsequently given up on gaming coverage, re-branding as the Esquire channel.
Sessler has now joined San Francisco-based Internet television network Revision3 as Editor in Chief/Host at Rev3 Games. GamesIndustry International caught up with him to talk about his views on game journalism and specifically video journalism.
Q: Is there still a place for game-related TV shows on cable, or is all of that content going to transition to the Internet?
Adam Sessler: I know people that are making game content on television and I'm very glad that they're doing it. We regard TV as something a little more grand than the Internet; it does give a nice framing device to games to give it a sense of importance and a sense of celebration. At some point games are going to be so suffused into the larger popular culture that they're going to be present on television one way or another.
Q: Do you think the changes in the game industry over the last few years - mobile, social, online, the decline of consoles - mean that broadcast TV is no longer a viable medium for game-related programming?
Adam Sessler: I think it may create challenges if you want to do something that is games and games only. When we started X-Play proper back in in 2003, one of the things we did is we added in a lot of humor. We were seeing the reality that you can get a lot of information about games out there on the internet, but what does TV offer that is special and unique? We said, "let's also make it into a piece of entertainment." There is this very narrow thinking that if someone likes games, they somehow only like games. When the show was in its heyday, we really had turned it into something where even if you were a Sony fanboy you'd sit through the Xbox review because there was something there that would be fundamentally entertaining. I think that's the direction things have to go, where getting that game information is merely a portion of something larger that is of itself very, very entertaining.
"That's the direction things have to go, where getting that game information is merely a portion of something larger that is of itself very, very entertaining"
Q: What's your view of the state of game journalism, both written and video? Is it getting better, getting worse, changing in some way?
Adam Sessler: I don't think something horrible is happening in game journalism. I think there's a sense, particularly among people of my generation who've been doing it for a long time, that something feels less controlled because of the ability of people to start small sites. People start to think that they aren't governed by certain rules. That may or may not be true, but I think that sometimes we get so self-critical - and it's based on the sense that no one is taking us seriously - I sometimes think we're a little too hard on ourselves.
If you look at the wider media that's also having to deal with the immediate demands of what the Internet requires, that does create some problems. I don't think we're any worse than what's happening with the larger media as a whole. Maybe because the people that we write to, that fan base is so suspicious, can be so virulent when you slight them, that it puts us on guard even more than people that are reporting on actual politics.
Q: The fanbase is certainly devoted and ready to pounce on something they don't like, aren't they?
Adam Sessler: I've struggled with this, and I've been doing it for a long time. There are two types of volume: There's volume in terms of the level of noise, and there's volume in terms of the amount of people. I think we conflate the two, and it's very hard when you're dealing with the Internet to actually get a sense of if I have a hundred angry people commenting on my 4 out of 5 review for Uncharted 3, does that mean everybody hates me? Or is just a hundred people that are really, really angry? I think no one has really wrapped their head around how you can dissect that.
Sometimes the danger is - and I don't want to say that we're frightened of it - it also makes us very defensive when one of our colleagues steps out of line, or we think they've done something objectionable. There almost needs to be group therapy, to deal with the essential people who are the ones reading our site and the ones that seem to be dominating the discourse. If I have one goal down the line, it's to try to allow those who might be a little bit more middle-of-the-road and would like to engage in a discussion for discussion's sake to have a voice out there when it comes to games. I think we've become so dependent on what the reviews are, it's unhealthy because it creates this black-and-white situation.
There's a lot of things and instructive learning you can get from a game that isn't good. There are a lot of times I've played a game that isn't very good, but something about it makes it very pleasurable for me to play. Then there are those games that are really good but they just don't resonate with me like some others out there. That's not a clear good/bad evaluation of it, and I think those could be so much more interesting. It would allow, hopefully, game companies which seem to be way too interested in what these reviews are, to allow for something a little bit more experimental coming out of their games.
Q: Are there examples of that you can think of?
Adam Sessler: Playing a game like Dishonored or a game like Xcom was just glorious because they were definitely taking chances. They don't always hit on all pistons, but I was so much happier to be playing those games than to be playing the most perfect version of the first-person shooter because I've played so many of them.
Q: Do you think reviews are adapting to the changes in gaming?
Adam Sessler: We're in the world of Metacritic, and we do know there's compensation that is being withheld from developers based on these reviews. It really starts to corrupt that process, and it takes it from something intellectual into something thoroughly objective, which is entirely the opposite of what a review is about. I think a lot of the readers have taken it on themselves to represent their favorite developer, and when they see these bad reviews come in it's almost like this militia goes out there to defend them.
Now feedback is easy, but journalism isn't really used to dealing with that. We have this cacophony of opinion out there, and we tend to pay attention to the negative. I do not feel that my job is to inform someone that they are making a good purchase for their $60. It's what is the quality of the game, what is the artistry of the game, what is the experience of the game. If the game is on the short side, or it doesn't really do anything the second time you play through it, I just don't see that as a fair way to somehow take issue with the game. Where to take issue with the game is 'Is it a satisfying experience?' Is it something you can stand to look at for an extended period? That opens up the discussion of the culture and the art that goes into game design.
Q: But customers want to make sure they are going to get a good value before they drop $60 on something they can't return, don't they?
"I do not feel that my job is to inform someone that they are making a good purchase for their $60"
Adam Sessler: That's why they should never listen to one critic. It is a more expensive proposition than going to see a movie. I think what's probably more comparable to it is going to a good restaurant, or going to the theater. There is a greater dependence on the reviews.
Q: The problem with reviewing many games is that you can't really grasp the whole game if you only spend an hour or two playing it. That's not even considering games that continually have new content that can substantially alter the game. How do you deal with that?
Adam Sessler: I got to sit down with a few of my colleagues and we talked about Mass Effect 3, in light of the controversy surrounding its ending. I finally had the opportunity to talk to three people that had finished the game and didn't have to worry about spoiling it to. As we were having this conversation, I didn't even realize things that could have happened in that game. Things that I thought were going to happen no matter who was playing the game were clearly far more procedural than I had ever imagined. It just shocked me. The thing in the back of my head when I was reviewing this game was 'I'm only playing this thing once. What's it going to be like when someone else plays it?'
That's only a minor example. As games are getting more sophisticated and really doing what people want, which is the game designs itself to how the person is interacting with it, it becomes harder and harder. It's a non-objective experience that we're trying to have an objective opinion about. It offers some real conundrums. I'd love for games to stop coming out for a year so everyone can sit down and figure out what is going on. It's really a game of catch-up, even by the best of us, because we're still trying to use an old-fashioned form of evaluation to apply to what is a very dynamically shifting and changing new medium.
Q: It sounds like the creativity in games is outpacing the creativity in journalism.
Adam Sessler: Yes, because games are virtual, they can be different. A movie is a movie and a book is a book, the same words are on the page, but games are different. I'm looking forward to figuring out how to approach this.
Q: So you're optimistic about the future of game journalism?
Adam Sessler: I am. We're going to have issues, we're going to have sites we all feel a little bit uncomfortable with in their practices, but that really is just a fact of journalism. I mean, come on, look at the Washington Times, look at a lot of papers that are put out on the street. There is room to allow for different approaches, and ones that you might have a problem with. It's almost like what I want to tell people about the reviews; if you don't like it, just ignore it. I'm not of the disposition to start chastising a lot of my colleagues because of how they go about doing it. They're adding to the discussion, I would rather have it incorporated and become part of it rather than we're trying to say that it's not even allowed in.
Q: Do you think journalists need to try more different approaches to how they do things?
Adam Sessler: That I think we do. I do worry that there can become a group-think that this is the way we do it and everybody gets in line. I'm not saying that people who aren't practicing good journalism are somehow to be admired, but there are outliers out there that we probably should be paying more attention to and how they approach games, how they want to talk about games, because if we get too much in lockstep again, especially with the rise in mobile and everything like that, we could find ourselves without a vocabulary trying to explain why these games are so good, why they're so interesting, or why they're not worth your time.
"I am one of the first to say how surprised I was that watching a livestream of somebody playing a game could be as successful as it is"
Q: Do you think for video journalism, it needs to become more entertaining, more inclusive of other things? After all, anybody can just put a game trailer online; won't video journalism have to be something more than that?
Adam Sessler: A lot of people think that video is just to look at the game. I am one of the first to say how surprised I was that watching a livestream of somebody playing a game could be as successful as it is. Because I've watched other people playing a game and I just want to stab them because I want to play it because I don't like how they're doing it. (laughs) I think you want to have great personalities and put them online, and put them in front. I think that's very important; we need strong personalities because that is where you help generate a sense of trust, and that is where you help define your outlet.
There's this sense that games are somehow separate from everything else. I have seen reviews that addressed the level of violence in a game, that they had an issue with it. That is a valid thing to evaluate a game on, to open up the discussion. These games don't exist in a vacuum; they're drawing from things that are happening in the world and they're putting back into the world. A more humanistic, a more holistic approach towards the evaluation of them would go a long way. Infuse that into the video that we see on the Internet and maybe on the TV I think would help draw people in that still regard games as this kind of strange, arcane language owned only by this one section of the male population.
Q: It's going to be a year of big changes for the gaming industry and game journalism, isn't it?
Adam Sessler: The change is scary, but the change is also really exciting because it means we won't have to do the same thing over and over again.