In short: Yes! … and no. But let me expand on that a bit so that it’ll make more sense.
To put the whole thing into context first, what caused the question to come up?
It pretty much started with the publishing of a YouTube video on the VentureBeat channel that contained 26 minutes of Cuphead footage recorded at Gamescom 2017. Go watch it here.
In this video Dean Takahashi first displays that he has “a bit” of trouble in the tutorial already. After telling the player how to duck, there is a block to jump over and a higher block where you are supposed to use the dash button. Dean takes a good minute to figure out that he is supposed to jump from the top of the smaller block and use the dash to get over the higher block. And it’s not just timing issues like pressing the dash button a bit too late, it looks like he just doesn’t comprehend what he is supposed to do. What then follows is around 20-23 minutes of footage where Dean tries (and fails) to complete the first level of the game.
Naturally the video was pretty soon the target of A LOT of ridicule (as for one the Polygon Doom video was still relatively fresh in the memory of a lot of people and the VentureBeat video just had a straight title, something like “26 Minutes of Cuphead Gamescom Gameplay” or similar, I don’t have the exact wording at hand. Now the video is titled “Cuphead Gamescom Demo: Dean’s Shameful 26 Minutes Of Gameplay”). Following that ridicule, multiple articles were written to defend Games Journalists not being good at games, complaining about “elitism” in gaming, claiming that Dean was harassed etc.
DISCLAIMER: I do not condone people harassing Dean or anyone defending him. HOWEVER, I also don’t believe that this was anywhere close to the majority of what happened. I find it very much more likely that it was a minority of people that did this.
Now that we got this set up, let’s talk about the topic at hand. Should “Games Journalists” be good at playing Video Games? In my opinion, there are 2 groups of people that one can call games journalists. There are on the one hand those that write about the games themselves, preview or even review them, on the other the ones that report more generally on the gaming industry, current events, trends, etc. (there is of course overlap between the two groups, many games journalists don’t belong to just one of the groups). Those belonging to the first group should DEFINITELY have at least a basic level of competency at gaming, as they inform people about specific details on games and their quality (or lack thereof). I of course grant people to have “off days” where things just don’t work out so well, let’s say during a stressful conference where you have to hop from meeting to interview to preview etc., can’t expect top form there.
One defence (from someone at GamesBeat) was that Dean is not paid to play or criticize games, which may be true for most of the work that Dean does, but there are in fact several (18 are listed on Opencritic) reviews that he did for GamesBeat over the last few years (and very likely many more reviews he did in his 18 years of covering games). And there is also one infamous review that he did on Mass Effect, where he missed the rather important fact that you should assign Talent Points to your characters OVER A WHOLE PLAYTHROUGH. So, in Dean’s case, this defence just doesn’t really apply, I think.
To be clear: I do NOT expect anywhere near pro gaming level skill from a games journalist that also works as a reviewer. But I DO expect a basic level of skill in each genre that the journalist does game (p)reviews in. And I definitely do not require any skill from games journalists doing general reporting, though it can be a bonus depending on the topic.
It’s a shame that while some of the criticism levelled at Dean and other games journalists was likely over the top, the reaction from quite a few games journalists was similarly over the top, talking about “elitism” or even dredging up the GamerGate scapegoat AGAIN… can’t we just discuss the topic more rationally?