Stephen Totilo

What I’m gonna tell you will annoy Stephen Totilo.

Totilo is editor-in-chief of Kotaku, one of the few news outlets that covers video games both exclusively and exceptionally.

He’s struggling to make video game journalism a respectable pursuit. After earning his master’s degree from the vaunted Columbia School of Journalism, Totilo worked as the first full-time video game reporter at MTV News. He also covered video games for The New York Times.

When he wrote for The Times, Totilo sometimes argued with his editors, because they insisted he tout numbers like these…

The video game industry raked in $36 billion in 2017, it was announced this month. The National Football League, the largest sports enterprise in the nation, expects to hit $25 billion – by 2027. Right now, video games are a bigger business than the NFL and Major League Baseball combined.

I’ve never heard of a pro or college newspaper without a sports department – and I’ve never heard of one with a video games department. If journalism is all about following the money, shouldn’t they follow this trend?

Totilo doesn’t appreciate that argument.

“People who don’t really understand video games often only raise an eyebrow of interest about this stuff when they hear how much money is involved,” he says. “Tell them there are billions of dollars on the line, and suddenly they care. But gaming isn’t just a business.”

To Totilo, video games are an art form, no different than movies or novels or paintings. In fact, video games are often all of those things smashed into one interactive experience.

“Covering games is about covering art and culture,” he insists. “It’s sometimes about product. But it’s most interesting when, like all of the best journalism, it’s about people.”


It’s about the social dynamics of how people interact with one another when playing a game. It’s about escape and role-play and what we want to be and how smart programmers recreate the real world as a virtual thing. It’s also about writing for an audience that, more than just about any other, expects interactivity. Yes, even with the journalism they consume.

Sadly, there are few rewards for quality video game journalism.

In fact, there’s only one award for it.

Two years ago, I persuaded a disinterested Society of Professional Journalists to launch an awards program for video game journalism. SPJ is the nation’s largest journalism organization, and I’m its longest-serving board member.

I made the financial argument Totilo dismisses, and I made the cultural argument he endorses. But the only way I could get enough votes was to promise never to ask for any SPJ money or staff time.

So the Kunkel Awards for Video Game Journalism are run by a handful of young SPJ volunteers, while many older SPJers still call the Kunkels frivolous and/or ridiculous.

(When I first told the board I wanted to recognize excellence in gaming journalism, one SPJ old-timer replied, “Why do you care so much about casinos?”)

The Kunkels are now in their third year, and nominations close Friday. (Unlike other contests, the Kunkels are free to enter, and anyone can nominate a story or video. Go ahead, nominate something.)

Kotaku has won more Kunkels than anyone else. While that’s a certainly small sample size, I can easily argue Kotaku is the most journalistic of the websites covering the video game industry.

Kotaku is a template – and a target.

Other media outlets are bigger (like IGN), older (like GameSpot), and better known to a casual audience (like PC Gamer). Some have produced excellent journalism regularly (like Polygon) and sporadically (like The Escapist).

But Kotaku isn’t satisfied with playing, lauding, and shredding new games. The site has been blacklisted by game developers for coverage they didn’t like, and there’s a subreddit that hates Kotaku so much, it’s called KotakuInAction.

When I was a young reporter, I once had an editor who told me, “If everyone likes you, you’re doing it wrong. And if everyone hates you, you’re doing it wrong.”

Kotaku mostly does it right, although Totilo and I have our differences. I agree with him when he says…

Games journalism is a term often used synonymously in my field with games criticism, which makes as much sense as mistaking Siskel & Ebert for the guys who broke Watergate.

But I disagree when he says…

The fact is that many games journalists do indeed wear the hats of critic and reporter. The blurring of those roles has had its benefits. It has produced some excellent games criticism that’s been informed by actually interviewing the people who make the games the writer reviews. It’s also led to some strong reporting by journalists who’ve had to articulate, as the best critics do, how a particular piece of artwork was good or interesting or bad.

There’s a problem with wearing many hats: Sometimes you forget which one you have on. That confuses both writer and reader. Totilo concedes some of that…

Unfortunately, that blurring has also distracted too many aspiring games journalists from the opportunity – and, one might argue, the obligation – to pick up the phone, send the e-mail, and ask the questions. The zeal to be a critic has numbed the instinct to do do the fact-finding that results in more than essay-writing and gets to telling people true things that they don’t know but should know. Too many aspiring “games journalists” pursue criticism at the expense of doing reporting. The happy upshot of this? There’s no better or easier way to get noticed and get into this field than to break some news. You can stand out in a hurry.

I don’t share Totilo’s optimism about this “happy upshot.” As a college media adviser for the past two decades, I’ve seen too many students shun hard news for the lazy lure of snarky criticism. It’s easier and funner than real reporting.

Even on Kotaku, it’s not always clear what’s news or opinion until you start reading the story. When Kotaku gets attacked by its enemies, it’s usually over this blending of feelings and facts. Sometimes I agree with those enemies, but I’ve spent many hours on social media defending Kotaku’s pure journalism, which has been worthy of the Kunkel Awards it’s won.

Totilo will talk about all this in Times Square.

I volunteer for an annual college media convention in Manhattan, and I booked Totilo as a keynote speaker. That was a lot easier than I thought – the convention director was totally into it. I can’t imagine this happening a few years ago.

Totilo will speak at the Marriott Marquis in Times Square on March 9. Well, actually, he won’t speak. He’ll answer questions. Three college journalists attending the convention will sit onstage and grill him. Who are they? Don’t know yet. They need to apply. Deadline is February 9.

If I were one of those students, I’d ask Totilo: When do you think a video game journalist will win a Pulitzer Prize? Hell, when will one be nominated?

According to the venerable Poynter Institute, four sports writers have won Pulitzers. Many more have been nominated. If – when – a video game journalist wins a Pulitzer, I won’t be surprised if they worked for Totilo’s Kotaku.

I imagine if Totilo could address the Pulitzer Committee, he’d tell them what he told me recently…

Video game journalism is journalism, simple as that. Some of it’s good. Some of it’s bad. All of it is about a fascinating medium that is constantly in flux.