Elden Ring just exposed a huge problem in games journalism — here's how to fix it
We are not amused.
Most legacy news outlets don’t know how to cover video games. That isn’t exactly breaking news, but it became all too apparent on April 13, when The New York Times published a head-scratching article attributing the success of FromSoftware’s smash-hit Elden Ring to “the hardship and disappointment of the pandemic.” That prompted a deluge of derision, spit-takes, and capital-D Discourse among gaming journalists and enthusiasts on social media.
There’s a variety of reasons for the backlash. First, the Times describes FromSoftware’s Dark Souls series as a “modest success,” seemingly oblivious to the fact that it’s probably the single most influential and imitated video game franchise of the last decade. It’s spawned an entire subgenre of action games — the Soulslike. And as of May 2020, the series had sold more than 27 million copies. This is quite a lot, though admittedly not as many as Grand Theft Auto V (160 million) or the Pokémon series (380 million). But everyone defines success differently, I guess.
Other elements of the Times article don’t lend themselves quite as well to Obi-Wan Kenobi’s “certain point of view” logic. Specifically, I’m talking about this part: “It’s difficult to imagine Elden Ring having this sort of cultural cachet in any other era.”
Where to begin? Elden Ring was the most anticipated game in the known universe for roughly two years. That’s partly because of the formidable reputation of Dark Souls and also due to the much-ballyhooed — if totally vague — creative contributions of George R.R. Martin, whose Song of Ice and Fire novels inspired HBO’s Game of Thrones.
This was never a niche endeavor or happy accident. Elden Ring could have gotten middling reviews and still sold a bazillion copies. (Cyberpunk 2077, the industry’s most spectacular bomb in recent memory, has sold more than 17 million copies since late 2020.) Instead, Elden Ring exceeded sky-high critical expectations and sold more than 12 million copies in just 17 days after its February launch.
What’s more, Elden Ring has accomplished a very rare feat that only a few games (usually ones made by Nintendo) ever manage. It crossed over — appealing to “normal people” in “mainstream culture.” Everyone’s talking about it! The people can’t get enough!
This is why The New York Times found itself reluctantly obliged to cover 2022’s biggest game, six whole weeks after it came out. And yet, The Gray Lady (as the Times is sometimes called) has a palpable distaste for this shit. This is evident in the article’s elderly compulsion to define what a “boss” is, even though the term has been widely used throughout popular culture since Mario first started bopping turtles with his butt in the mid-1980s. But don’t blame the writer — this is poor editorial judgement and utter obliviousness to how this story was inevitably going to land.
The hand of a squeamish editor, stripping paragraphs of unsightly nerd jargon to ensure the piece stays tastefully On Brand, is all too obvious here. But it’s no secret that The Gray Lady has been under quite a lot of pressure lately to expand beyond an aging subscriber base, so she holds her nose and tosses the pigs their Elden Ring-flavored slop.
Even if they’re the biggest punching bags at the moment, the Times isn’t alone in its hokey approach to gaming coverage. Axios’ Megan Farokhmanesh gave a comprehensive rundown of why this happens in so-called traditional newsrooms on April 11. All of it is worth reading, but this bit is especially relevant:
Legacy outlets and media heads who are unfamiliar with the field often have stereotypical ideas about who plays games, and therefore why they matter. Mainstream publications like to mention how much money the game industry makes because there’s a persistent idea you need to prove games are important, and big numbers are the easiest way to do that.
This is, unfortunately, spot-on. I used to work at a legacy outlet (generously defined) where senior management persistently complained that gaming coverage “wasn’t a good look for the brand.” And even after the gaming boom of 2020, this is a beat that’s still relegated to the kids' table in many newsrooms.
So what’s the solution for The Gray Lady? It’s not rocket science. Acknowledge the value of subject matter expertise in gaming, just as you would for other beats. Hire editors and writers who have it — in full-time positions, with benefits. It really is that easy.