John Walker's Electronic House

Polygon And The Documentary That Cured Cancer

by on Aug.23, 2012, under The Rest

If you don’t care about videogame websites, move along at this point. I don’t want to bore you. Really, this is mostly aimed at the Polygon team, in the hope that they’ll understand why their trailer for their documentary is not being well received. The entire team seems utterly bemused as to why not just readers but the wider games press is having such an adverse reaction to the two trailers that have been put out so far, and I want to explain it. Here are the two trailers:

Let me stress something from the start. I’ve met a few of the Polygon team, and they seemed lovely. I also happen to be a big fan of the McElroy brothers’ podcast, and as such have a lot of respect for how funny they are. I have nothing personal against any of them, and I want Polygon to be a site that produces fantastic content that I want to read, and becomes a huge success because of it. I’m writing this because I feel like reality has broken down a little, and I want to put the bricks back in place.

It begins with one rather large issue:

They created a documentary about starting their website.

Documentaries are traditionally filmed by documentary makers, interested in a particular subject and asking if they can film somewhere/someone and create a study of it/them. When the subjects themselves are the ones who decide the documentary should exist, well, that’s slightly different. And when it’s paid for (alongside some extremely uncomfortable Internet Explorer sponsorship) from the same massive pool of money that’s allowing a gaming website to take the best part of a year to build itself and hire a huge team of highly paid editorial staff, it starts to look like an act of vanity. Because – and I have to be extremely clear here – it IS an act of vanity.

Edit: According to a report on Ad Age, the suggestion from the documentary came from Vox’s business side, rather than editorial. But, you know, saying “yes” and doing it pretty much qualifies for the above.

It really doesn’t matter how great the documentary is, nor how worthy it might one day be deemed to be – just that this group of people who write about videogames thought that their project was of such worth and interest to the world that every detail should be documented in high definition can only be seen as just enormously egotistical. Being egotistical isn’t necessarily wrong, but you have to – HAVE TO – accept that other people don’t take kindly to egotism, and tend to want to at least question it.

They are taking themselves so incredibly seriously.

I’ve, along with three other colleagues, created a successful gaming website from scratch. I know how hard it can be, and I know what risks have to be taken. RPS has never had a penny of investment, and we’ve never had a penny of debt – we began the site by working in our spare time for a long time, working and fighting extremely hard to get established, get a reputation, and eventually become a profitable business. I don’t mention this because I think it’s more noble than having investment – not at all – but purely to point out that getting RPS going was a very serious business for us. But at no point did we ever become so enamoured with the process that we acted as though we were doing something so ultimately significant. RPS is, no matter how proud of it we are, and how enormously hard we work at it, a site writing about toys and the culture surrounding them. We think we’re one of the best sites out there about games, and we are extremely happy that we do not do a lot of what we don’t like about the gaming press. We know that games cost a lot of money, and our readers take the business of how they spend their money very seriously. But in the end, are we rescuing orphans from Syria? No we are not. Are we saving lives? It’s pretty unlikely. We’re writing about games.

We love games, and we love writing about games. We take it seriously, to an extent. But we also keep it within the boundaries of reality. Apart from when we’re actually shouting at each other, our meetings are never sombre-faced. We don’t sit at tables and ponder the existential nature of our project. We muck around and insult each other’s mothers and make up words. Yes, we get on with planning stuff, but if we were to (go insane and) present a documentary of such events, we’d not look like we’re just back from a funeral. And it’s that presentation of Polygon that is adding to the problems here. It doesn’t matter how much money they’ve got on the line here – to the rest of the world they’re making a website about games, and they need to get to grips with that not being a big deal for everyone else. This po-faced attitude, and the utterly ridiculous statements of the severity and Earth-changing significance of what they’re doing, makes them just look silly. The rest of the world has some perspective on what they’re doing, but they apparently do not. Most people who get into that situation with their personal project only wind up the people they meet – these guys have chosen to film it and show it to the world.

They have blown things entirely out of proportion.

Someone relocating for a new job isn’t a very big deal. I’m sure it’s a big deal for the person involved, and their family. But the idea that it’s of such extraordinary import that it not only merits filming for a documentary, but is cut into a three minute trailer, just underlines what’s gone so very wrong here. They appear to have confused what’s important to them with what’s important. They appear to have confused what matters to them and their lives with what matters. The whole production demonstrates such enormous inward-looking and insularity that it comes across as narcissism. So of COURSE people are going to react badly to that. When their teaser contains statements about how this site going wrong could “muck up entire lives”, it’s unavoidable just how loose from reality they appear to have become. Or are at least presenting themselves as having become.

The longer trailer’s content takes this to a new level, as the site they’ve not yet made public is described as being some sort of valhalla for the internet, a new-found promised land that will change everything, change the way we view the universe. It’s literally described as having been thought “impossible”, until they came along, until this group of maverick geniuses managed to solve the Internet’s Last Theorem and allow us to ascend as a people. It’s so ludicrously overblown, so unbelievable pompous, and it’s being presented with an utterly straight face and not even a glimmer of modesty or humour, let alone irony. And people are going to react to that.

They don’t appear self-aware.

The reaction to the negativity has, sadly, mostly been met by incredulity and disgust, rather than any demonstration of introspection. The tweets that have appeared in response to criticism, or entirely deserved pomposity-pricking, have been complete denial. Rather than taking stock, asking whether there’s a reason for this reaction, and questioning the direction, there’s instead been a wall of anger or self-pity. There’s no sense of their saying, “Woah, yeah, we did take this a bit too seriously, eh?” Instead there’s the sense that the idea that a documentary of this nature should be criticised is utterly unacceptable – how dare we?! And that only makes it worse. They’re a talented bunch, and they’re attempting something they believe will be special. That’s great. But oh boy, you need to think about how you present yourself to others. And when it’s to tell people that you are incredible, that what you’re doing is unsurpassed, in a documentary about yourself that you’re making yourself – people are going to take the piss. Because that’s when taking the piss is needed.

These documentary trailers are ridiculous. They are pompous, they are self-aggrandising, and they are utterly without perspective. That’s not reflective of the writers themselves (well, it might be, I barely know them – but I’m not making that accusation), but rather an explanation of why they are being so poorly received. And the trailers are also pretentious. And let me be clear about that:

I believe that the word “pretentious” has become warped by misuse on the internet. Mostly it’s now used to mean “confidently stating something someone else disagrees with”. That’s not it at all. It means to be pretending to be something you’re not. And that’s what these trailers portray – the pretence of saving orphans from Syria, when in fact they’re writing about console games on a website. And that loss of perspective, and the stupidly serious way it’s all presented, and the awkward fact that it’s presented at all, is riling people. And that should have been expected. And it now should be taken on board.

I’m going to watch it, because as someone who’s created a website, I’m interested to watch others doing the same. And maybe these daft trailers aren’t representative – maybe it will be great. I’m not making a judgement on that at all. But I do want to just bring back reality.

:,

17 Comments for this entry

  • iainl

    The other problem, and I understand it’s not easy for you to say as an RPS man is that one reason they claim their site will be groundbreaking and wonderful is because -nobody- out there is doing journalism the way it should be done.

    Which even if they’re right would get the back up of everyone who has a site they already like. And I’d like to think RPS shows they’re kind of wrong. If they had merely claimed there’s not enough, I think everyone would be a lot more calm, but instead they’ve called every self-respecting games journo in the world to the mat.

  • Emily

    Thank you for summing up exactly how the trailers honestly come across without unnecessarily insulting anyone at Polygon. I had to stop and check what I was actually watching during the second video, the presentation of this whole idea feels so grossly miscalculated, like a big, public ego massage – and I’m not sure what for. I’ve not seen the site yet. I admit I don’t know who any of them are (I’m not good with games’ journalists names anyway). So I have absolutely no idea why this web site is so significant. But the trailers insist that it is, and I am lost as to why.

  • Nick

    Welp. Yeah, I don’t like this. Especially working for a small site. We email everyday and joke and laugh and talk about how our younger selves would be crippled with jealousy… but, we never have deep, stormcloud conversations about the immense gravity of our situation. The obvious reason is because there is very little, if any, gravity to begin with. People will see this and laugh not just at them, but all of us.

  • Jason

    I’m guessing this “documentary series” is little more than a bunch of behind-the-scenes videos of making the website. And that’s totally fine. That’s great in fact. I think the reaction would have been entirely different if they framed this as “a bunch of behind-the-scenes videos that will lead up to the launch of the site”, instead of “a ‘documentary series’ called Press Reset about the Story of Polygon.” It’s all in the messaging.

    I think that’s why the guys at Polygon are so confused about the reaction, because they’ve seen the videos and don’t see anything pretentious or ego-stroking about them. They just didn’t predict what the reaction to the *trailers* would be like to people who haven’t seen the videos at all.

  • Lee Bradley

    There was another Polygon video knocking about a while ago. It had largely the same pompous tone. The difference was that in one scene McElroy explained why he enjoyed games by saying something like “And then I drove over a ramp and the ramp exploded. VIDEOGAMES!”

    These trailers need more moments like that.

  • Stank Gunk

    I think a big problem is they need a Josh Topolsky. I don’t know anyone from Polygon; maybe there IS a Josh-ish person on the team, but I didn’t get that impression from the trailers. The trailers seem to lack personality. They didn’t show a single video game and yeah, were pretty boring and overly serious. Don’t get me wrong, the team seems nice, but I guess as a random viewer, I just didn’t feel pulled into it. I think they need a Topolsky to pull people in.

  • Pilchard

    Although, like most people here, the trailers don’t appeal to me I think that’s against the point.

    I get the impression that Polygon is aiming for the vast untapped demographic of 25-40 year olds who, while they play games regularly, don’t bother themselves with gaming news sites currently. They’re trying to seduce this group with a cocktail of gaming + lifestyle and this documentary is an attempt to firmly plant their flag in this territory.

    There are plenty of game news sites out there at the moment but the vast majority are aimed at no age group in particular and their content is a constant stream of previews, reviews, trailers, screenshots and rumours. This more “grown up”, more-than-casual-but-less-than-hardcore, section of gamers simply don’t want or have the time to have to wade through the perceived mountains of content for info that might interest them. They get what little gaming news they do get from the occasional article on the next upcoming AAA title in more mainstream non-gaming sites.

    So is it even relevant that hardcore gamers are nerd-raging? No, I don’t think it is.

  • Pace

    What bizarre videos. They seem to have no sense of humor. How can you have video game journalism without a sense of humor? That’s just not right.

  • Matt

    I saw the trailer for the documentary after seeing the Jim Sterling video mocking the whole thing.

    I was speechless.

    I mean I wasn’t offended or anything like that. Working for a small website one can’t help but think “Well here we are doing the best we can with the little that we have, and here’s a game website endowed with financial backing. Yet all they have to show for it is a tease of a website and a documentary.”

    It sort of floored me but at the same time it’s as if I’m watching in slow-motion the differences in which a small website is built and works to be big and a big website is built, pretending to be small(?), yet expects to be big.

    Food for thought.

  • RevStu

    “How can you have videogame journalism without a sense of humor?”

    See the last 10-15 years of videogame journalism.

  • Jon The Bun

    Surely this must be a parody of sorts and when the site is released eveybody will go “Surprise we were just making a website, haha, you fell for it” and we get to roll our eyes while smiling awkwardly.

  • Rusty Broomhandle

    The thing that stuck out most for me was that one guy that a) seemed to have little regard for the medium (“most video games are trivial”) and b) seemed to be embarrassed to be part of the games industry.

    Anyway, my partner and I made some light comic relief in response:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Yb2wxyHXbM

    Enjoy. :)

  • Andy

    @Pilchard

    Well it’s fine for them to pick a certain demographic, but their reporting has to suit their readers. Ok they have the AAA titles including FPS such as CoD etc to write about, but lately it seems that FarmVille or Angry Birds is filling the other. There’s going to be a lot of empty time in their writing schedule unless they try to convince the Angry Birds followers to try something a little more difficult. Judging by the vid, by the way, those people are more likely to be busy bringing up kids or getting tattoos (how is that relevant?). I think that will limit their success.

  • Jambe

    These people seem like Nick’s dreaded “Art with a Capital A” goobers.

    It’s tangential, but I could appreciate more restrained, perhaps even “scholarly” evaluation of games (or a portal for such critique and discussion). I couldn’t take that sort of thing seriously if it was totally humorless, though.

    There was an apropos Idle Thumbs podcast recently. They’re silly and chatty but they had an email question about dramatic irony in games and they segued into co-host Jake Rodkin’s academic approach to writing for Telltale’s Walking Dead games. It was an interesting dialogue about how technical and artificial stylistic restraints shape stories in games, how to communicate an NPC’s perspectives and feelings in more than one way whilst remaining true to a backstory that isn’t explicitly spelled out, etc. It was all very interesting stuff, but it was listenable because they were honest with themselves and a bit silly even in the midst of a (relatively) high-brow topic.

    I think the people who put these videos together are just naive and excited — that, and they have a bunch of new equipment due to Vox’s recent round of funding. Pilchard made a good point, but Vox could easily make some earnest promo videos that are also funny (or at least self-aware). Many people would appreciate a slower, more concentrated drip feed of editorial games-related content. That crowd isn’t being served by e.g. RPS’ seemingly random grab-bag of all things PC-gaming.

  • Eric Brasure

    It’s an ad. Why is anyone treating it like it’s not an ad?

  • Az

    Think the negative reaction to the Polygon documentary is overblown. Does no-one remember The Social Network? That site changed lives.

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