The mass media can seem like the enemy - but it desperately wants to "get" games
It's tempting, on occasion, to lament the fact that most of the mass media simply doesn't "get" videogames. It's even more tempting to imply that videogames, as the world's newest major creative medium, are alone in this plight - after all, however badly they may have misstepped in the past, the media "gets" such things as movies, music and books now, doesn't it?
Actually, this latter part of the argument is a fallacy - at least to some degree. While most media outlets, for instance, have been hugely enamoured of recent movie release The Dark Knight, that hasn't stopped a number of broadcasters and journalists from pigeonholing it as a "children's film", due to being based on a comic book series. This, I probably don't need to remind you, is a film which has been praised most for its dark and unsettling portrayal of a masochistic psychopath who cuts his foes' faces into hideous Glasgow smiles - it may be rated 12A, but this is no Disney movie.
In other words, the media is still perfectly capable of getting things wrong about all sorts of creative products. Many broadcasters, writers and researchers simply don't understand the wide array of creative media which increasingly interact with one another to create our culture. Games may be the new kid on the block, but misunderstandings, poorly formed preconceptions and downright bias can skew coverage of everything from movies and music to theatre, literature and art - especially when they cross over with less well-understood media like comic books, games and the Internet.
As a result, the coverage of all sorts of media, including games, is frequently needlessly negative or ill-informed - and in some media, with television news and tabloid newspapers being especially guilty of this, that turns into sensationalist, manipulative nonsense with startling regularity. Combine the screaming headlines you get from that with the base-line ignorance of many more august publications (resulting in poor coverage or no coverage at all), and you end up with entire industries and media feeling hard done-by in terms of their treatment by the mass media.
However, it's my view that the games industry - in common with other similarly maligned sectors, such as comics - is too quick to leap to conspiracy theories about why their mainstream coverage is so negative. There are three core reasons for bad coverage - malice, laziness and simple ignorance. Many gamers and industry professionals alike would probably rank the influence of those reasons in that order, from greatest to least.
The anecdotal evidence is certainly strong. Only last week, Bioshock creative lead Ken Levine told an audience at the Develop conference in Brighton that in the wake of the unveiling of Bioshock's "Little Sister" characters, an American TV news crew had come to his house under false pretences in an attempt to film a slam piece about him and his wife. The willingness of the gutter press in Britain and America alike to create front page headlines about videogames in slow news weeks is well-recognised - and every bit as cynical and malicious as it looks.
It doesn't help that other new media has very well documented instances of deliberate and malicious ill-treatment at the hands of the tabloid press. One particularly shameful recent example is the ongoing campaign of Facebook scare stories being trotted out by British tabloid The Sun - a newspaper whose proprietor just happens to own Facebook's largest rival MySpace, a blatant conflict of interest which The Sun consistently forgets to mention.
In the face of that evidence, who could doubt that the mass media has a malicious agenda? Scare stories sell more papers and get more viewers for your news broadcasts - and of course, if your proprietor has no business interest in the games industry, it's open season on anything and everything!
Yet, in years of dealing with the mass media in Britain and elsewhere in various different ways, I've found that kind of malice to be extremely rare. On the contrary, far from having a strong appetite for reckless fear-mongering, most of those people who find themselves covering the games market - writers, broadcasters, and researchers alike - simply don't have any hands-on experience of the medium, don't understand it very well, and don't have the time (or, less excusably, the inclination) to research it in-depth. Worse again are those who believe that they understand the gaming medium - but whose understanding is rooted firmly in the 80s and early 90s, thus pigeon-holing the medium as 'overgrown toys for overgrown children'.
The good news? Change is coming. It is coming slowly, but relentlessly, as a generation which understands videogames makes its way into decision-making positions at media outlets - assisted in no small way by the gradual infiltration of casual and mass-market games into the older staff who have previously had little exposure to the medium.
Meanwhile, the business decision-makers are waking up to a sobering reality - an increasingly large swathe of their audience knows videogames very well, which makes ill-informed coverage look absolutely terrible. Not only that, a badly researched, poorly pitched piece on videogames (or a total lack of any videogames coverage at all) could even lead some parts of the audience to question the overall quality of a media source. In a market which trades on confidence and competence, it's bad business to have dreadful reporting of a widespread, popular medium.
Change can be assisted, however, from the games industry's side of the fence. Loud outrage at particularly awful pieces of reporting will, of course, continue, and can often be a positive thing - Cooper Lawrence's utterly baseless comments about sexual content in Mass Effect, made on FOX News last year and subsequently retracted with a somewhat grovelling apology, is a perfect example.
However, in dealing with the mainstream press in general, a more gentle approach will yield greater results. PR and marketing firms already try very hard to explain and promote games to mainstream media outlets - but the medium as a whole, too, needs to be explained. More importantly, the commercial and cultural importance of the medium needs to be impressed upon those who make coverage decisions - and when they do come around to giving better, more extensive coverage to the games market, that must be supported readily and whole-heartedly.
The dream, of course, is of a day when games enjoy equal billing with other forms of entertainment and culture across the world's broadcast and print media. Progress towards this ideal may seem slow, but it's inexorable. With a little gentle prodding and a lot of support from the industry, that day may come sooner than most people dare to hope.