Vague Patch Notes: The objective truth of ‘objectivity’ in games journalism

This is garbage.

All right, folks, real talk: Originally there was going to be a much more sober and depressing column this week, but then this week happened, and while I don’t really want to talk in detail about my personal life, it took a lot of the wind out of my sails. Not in the sense that I don’t want to do that column any more, but just in the sense that I figured it might be worth doing a little preamble… and wouldn’t you know it, this week already involved not one but two studios doing a little “we’re getting in on NFTs” dance, including one that had previously tried to mollify fans who got angry about the concept.

You don’t need to know what I think about that, nor do you need to know what the site policy on these things is; you’ve seen the roundup because we put it in every post about this topic. But this also brought in the usual array of blockchain fans complaining about “objectivity.” Which is inaccurate, but let’s actually talk a bit about why that’s the wrong question, what the goal of objectivity actually means, and what it means in an industry where it can be really tricky to analyze things at times. But we’re going to do that in reverse order, more or less.

So picture this: When Final Fantasy XIV patch 6.38 arrives, Creative Business Unit III sends out a press release explaining how the patch addresses balance issues to give players exciting new choices in how to approach forming parties in the game by adding bonus effects on to pre-formed parties. However, what is actually changed is that having a Gunbreaker, Samurai, White Mage, or Bard in your party will boost your party’s damage and healing by 40%, and the effects stack. If you play a Hrothgar, you reduce your party’s damage and healing by 40%.

You don’t need to play the game to know at a glance that this looks unbalanced, which it would be. It would, in fact, be horribly unbalanced and destructive to the game. But the press release says it’s all great. How do you objectively report on that?

Restating what the press release says is just being a marketing arm for the company. Taking the all-too-common wishy-washy middle ground of “the company says X, but other fans say Y” is treating it like a difference of opinion. Calling it what it actually is, which is a massive penalty to players who aren’t necessarily enthusiastic about playing these specific jobs and avoiding that one race, is necessary.

Of course, you might argue that this isn’t being very objective because it’s not value-neutral. But the thing is that a lot of things aren’t value-neutral. If I want to set your car on fire and you want me to not do that, you’re not somehow inserting your opinion and being non-objective by claiming that I want to destroy your car.

Yeah, we're getting into the stones here.

The ideal of objective reporting is that all else being equal, the most responsible journalistic path is to present objective facts first and foremost. You are not supposed to insert your own personal biases about the subject matter under discussion, and you are instead supposed to observe the principle of objectivity like some sort of journalistic prime directive and treat anything but the facts as irrelevant.

But I used the word “ideal” there for good reason. The reality is that no one is actually capable of doing that both because humans are not purely rational actors and because actual objectivity isn’t something we even expect. If you don’t believe me, ask yourself how many times you’ve seen the word “tragedy” or “crisis” or “disaster” used in a news headline covering a variety of topics.

Some events, thankfully, happened before the advent of online comments, and thus we do not have historical records of people arguing that it’s not being very objective to call what happened to the Titanic a tragedy. (Please don’t correct me if I’m wrong.) But how could you now? As a human being, looking at the facts as they are presented, how can you look at those events and not call them a tragedy? Especially if by doing so you can help people realize this doesn’t have to happen again?

Objectivity, like any other principle, is a good thing to strive for. It is something you reach for while recognizing that you are probably never going to perfectly reach it because we are all bundles of opinions and biases, and some of them you probably aren’t even conscious of. You probably don’t think much about what your base assumptions are all that often because they’re base assumptions and that’s the whole point. How often do you think about the stuff you don’t think about?


That doesn’t mean there aren’t still best practices to observe, of course. If I’d writing about a new line of Destiny 2-branded soda and the flavors are Licorice, Chocolate, and Banana… those sound kind of disgusting to me as sodas, and I hate licorice. But bringing that up as more than an aside is not actually necessary.

And therein lies the root of objectivity. It’s a tool and a useful ideal to strive for, but just like the prime directive I mentioned above, that also just means that putting it there is meant to avoid you jumping the gun on when to break it. Any Star Trek fan knows that the prime directive gets broken on a regular basis. Objectivity is an ideal that is sometimes more harmful than beneficial, but you have to understand why you’re putting it to one side before doing so.

If Chronicles of Elyria shows up hat in hand asking for more money, yes, breaking objectivity to snark about how much money the game had previous raised would be non-objective. But it’s also important to do so because we shouldn’t treat the sheer act of asking for money as if it’s value-neutral, as if it’s completely without consequences and independent of any value proposition.

Journalism in an entertainment field can be particularly tricky in this regard. By definition, a lot of what we are reporting on is not world-changing. We definitely regard objectivity as a worthwhile ideal to chase after. But we also value honesty, accuracy, and knowledge, and sometimes “presenting the facts in a wholly neutral fashion” conflicts with those values. Sometimes it’s just insofar as we’re not about to pretend that two of the three games used as examples in this column haven’t had some truly bizarre cross-promotional merchandise, and sometimes it’s when a studio’s press release is full of breathless excitement for people to line up and be the first to be fleeced.

So let’s say I’m promising to sell you a miracle cure that you just have to swallow once and it will cure any disease. A minute amount of testing will make it clear that what I am actually selling are glowing pellets of radium. Don’t you want someone to objectively report that some people claim I’m just selling radioactive rocks that you shouldn’t ingest?

We’ll come back to this one in a bit. For now, just leave that swimming around your mind prison.

Sometimes you know exactly what’s going on with the MMO genre, and sometimes all you have are Vague Patch Notes informing you that something, somewhere, has probably been changed. Senior Reporter Eliot Lefebvre enjoys analyzing these sorts of notes and also vague elements of the genre as a whole. The potency of this analysis may be adjusted under certain circumstances.
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