Really, I had no idea.
A year ago today, I arrived home from a Bath bar, having spent the entire evening running through well-worn theories with some colleagues, hammer out a few thousand words and release them onto the web thinking that all it’d do is cause a little mocking from my peers in the Garricks for a week and possibly garner the displeasure some of the suits. In fact, it caused a little mocking from my peers in the Garricks for about a year, a splash of displeasure from the suits and accidentally created and named a faux-movement.
It’s all got entirely out of control. To choose an example of how perceptions and opinions have altered as it mutated in the public eye, Stuart Campbell went from saying the manifesto was the single best thing I’ve ever written the day after, to memorably describing it as “an excuse for a bunch of over-educated geeks with no communication skills to wank themselves and each other off for hours and hours and hours and hours without ever actually getting to the point”. /Despite/ the fact that Stuart actually likes a fair chunk of the writing.
I was aware I was playing with fire. I didn’t think things could catch fire as much as they have, but I tried my best to create firebreaks to contain the blaze.
The piece was peppered with caveats and exceptions. It’s probably one of the least definitive of any relatively widely discussed manifesto. Hell, it never even /describes/ itself as a manifesto, and makes apologies in case it turns into one. It explicitly states that it’s just one interesting approach to games writing which you should consider playing with, and not meant as a replacement for any previously existing form. It states that while pretentious writing and poetry is certainly one approach, it’s probably not the best and then proceeds to use the perfectly-accessible normal-language Bow Nigger as its exemplar. It says that it’s something lots of people are thinking about and doing anyway, so trying to reduce the sense that I’m saying I’m some kind of genius for making this shit up.
But it didn’t stop people immediately calling it the NGJ Manifesto, saying that it demanded an end to all reviews in favour of indeterminable open-diary emo-speak and in one particularly amusing case, somehow reading it as me claiming to be the New Tom Wolfe.
Still. I wrote the piece, and should have made it clearer to reduce such misunderstandings. Not starting with a rambling talk about the pub, what records I was listening to and a lengthy analysis of the British Games press would have probably helped, but that would have involved me not writing it in the early hours, on a whim and then lobbing it online. I get the feeling if Marx didn’t collapse in from the pub then wake up in the morning to somehow find he’d written the Communist Manifesto before turning in. If he did that stirring stuff about a spectre sweeping Europe would have been replaced by about how much he liked the Barmaid.
Similarly, if I knew it would be as widely propagated as it was, I’d have taken more time and got a production editor to proof it. For some people, it’s easy to dismiss something discussing writing if it’s got any grammatical or spelling errors, let alone the array of incompetence you’ll see on my average blog post. I shouldn’t have given them the chance.
So sorry for that.
While I’m pleased — or at least amused — with much of what’s happened, there’s a selection of regrets about which I’d like a final word before hopefully never posting about the theory ever again. I’m especially sad that there ended up being more New Games Journalism Journalism than New Games Journalism. Yes, magazines like PC GAMER have been doing something that fits under the NGJ flag of convenience every issue and there’s been plenty of stuff online, the discussion of the concept has sort of taken over. While I don’t object to writing about writing, the point of doing so should be to /do/ something with your earned insight.
Which is one reason why the “Stop Writing About Writing” position fails. Writing doesn’t appear out of the ether. It’s a product of concious thought and application of techniques, and you have to analyse how something works before actually doing it. Any writer worth anything has had “writing about writing” conversations inside their head. All making them public does is share whatever insights or mistakes you’ve made. Similarly, while readers can throw the “Only sort of writing that matters is Good Writing” position with justification — after all, why should they care how something is made? – if a writer tries to do similar it rings hollow. It’s a true statement, but a totally banal one. Good writing isn’t a genre or an approach, and to /create/ good writing — no matter what sort of good writing it is — requires understanding and application of its techniques. For a writer to shun discussion of those techniques at best seems disingenuous.
Linking off that, probably the most unintended side-effect of coining the phrase was how its definition has been warped to something it was never originally intended. Among those who like the concept it’s that any piece of “good” games writing is New Games Journalism through simple matter of quality, rather than limiting it to NGJ’s stated group of techniques. Among those who dislike the concept, it’s that all New Games Journalism is prissy, insufferable English-Lit kids masturbating in public, when there’s nothing at all which suggests that the techniques have to be used to create anything pretentious, deep or even meaningful. It’s anecdotal games journalism, so is meant to be as personal as each person doing it. A funny story about something that happened in a game is as NGJ as it gets.
Worse, these bent definitions have even warped my own view. Christ: I call the piece the New Games Journalism Manifesto despite never titling it so. When compiling the Top 10 list at the Guardian I ended up suggesting some material which is about looking at recent games with a critical eye, which while tangentially referenced in the piece was never near its central thrust. I only realised how much the debate had twisted even /my/ conceptions of the piece when I re-read it for writing this.
Broadening the phrase to include more and more material, while tempting, is counter-productive. It isn’t the only approach to games writing I’d be interested in seeing, just one which caught my attention. When many of the piece’s critics argue they’d prefer to see some investigative journalism or similar, sympathise entirely. It’d be amazing to see that. PC Zone writer, Rhianna Pratchett, half way through the year, was doing a lecture about Games Journalism and in her preparation idly asked me which way I could see the form going. While I think she expected me to trot out some of the usual NGJ-styled nonsense, I was actually struck dumb. The question was far too big, since there are so many directions that games writing could and should go, picking just one seemed obscene.
In its widened state, New Games Journalism has become a slightly meaningless label. I’ve seen music sub-genres like Trip-hop, post-rock and Emo referenced, normally in a “No-one seems to know what it means” manner. It’s a fairly accurate, even more so than most of the people who make the comparisons know. All three labels actually have a very specific, accurate definitions, and the confusion has only come through people applying them on a whim and not really knowing what they’re talking about. It’s also accurate because, as words, they get a shuddering reaction from anyone with half a brain.
All of the above was accidental fall out. Even if I can justify some of it, I’m still especially regretful about coining a horrible description which has been applied to people who aren’t actually doing anything approaching what I was talking about. It really wasn’t deliberate. That goes double for anyone aggrieved at being put with in any group with Tim Rogers.
In actual fact, the manifesto was written for two reasons.
Firstly, to get people up to speed.
This function was for a very small group: that is, people who wanted to write about games. Since most people don’t live in a place where they can sit in a pub and talk this nonsense with their peers, I wanted to get isolated individuals who are only exposed to more mainstream games a chance to think about this stuff. Writers, to begin with, learn by imitation. If all their role models are doing the traditional games journalism, they just create more traditional games journalism. Most writers on games of note usually have at least a couple of other strong influences, which they fuse to create a synthesis (For me, it’s mainly music journalism). However, for someone who exists primarily inside games, the standard review may be all they have. So the manifesto existed to tell these people — and just because you don’t come from a more liberal background, doesn’t mean you’re dumb — “why bother wasting their time doing a trad thing when they could do something else instead?” Especially, in the case of GAMER, the magazine would be actively pursuing this work from new writers. “Let’s see how fast it can go” was the inclusive challenge. Let’s have some fun.
Yes, that paragraph comes across as arrogant, but honestly is coming from the opposite pole. It’s because I know how *I* learnt and what pushes I needed to get me writing, I know that there’s people like me who /do/ need permission to do something like this. And a little more on this point later.
Secondly, it existed as gaming’s most glorified referral post, specifically for AB’s stuff. Put simply, I wanted as many people to read it as possible. While liking that, some of my friends have noted that Bow Nigger had already been printed in a games mag before the whole manifesto thing, and appreciated and loved. Why hype it again? That’s true. It had been printed in Gamer already (But only because Rossignol and I brought it to Donald’s attention). However, its audience post-NGJ is by several factors larger than pre-NGJ, even including Gamer’s 50K+ readers. A grotesque number of people have been exposed to what I still think is a phenomenal piece of game writing, purely because I tied it to an over-arching theory and gave it a name.
Ah. The name.
The name was my biggest, deliberate sin. While it’ll still have caused some confusion, if I was transparently honest I should have called the piece “Games’ New Journalism”, to stress that I was talking about a specific approach and how it applied to games, not New in its Year-zero revolutionary sense or that it was a new approach to writing about games full stop. Because of that, some people can’t get past the idea that some New Games Journalism is over a decade old.
I didn’t because “Games’ New Journalism” simply isn’t particularly exciting. While it’d have caused far less annoyance among those who just responded to the title, it wouldn’t have reached even a fraction of people. In short, I swapped intellectual stringency for soap-box politics in a Faustian deal. I’m sorry for that, but still think it was necessary. The cost was muddying the debate, but without that I don’t think we’d have even had the debate — or the publicity for a lot of interesting work – in the first place.
Labels and names are powerful things, and you should only use them with care. They have clear benefits and costs. The benefit is that it allows people to get a handle on a larger collection of concepts in a simple manner. It swaps complexity for directness, and journalists have always reached for them for that reason. Selling something with a name is hugely easier than selling something without one.
The cost is that the name — the label, the definition, whatever — eventually becomes a cage. It stops being about the work it describes and starts being about the description of the work. People fail to realise it was only ever a map, and mistake it for the terrain itself.
Let’s choose an example thousands of times more important than what we’ve been up to. In the mid-seventies an arty-anarchist-dada-rock scene in London imports the name “punk”. A group of complicated ideas gets brought into focus, and mass popularity. However this very action kills the scene, making it miscarriage onto the surgery floor of pop culture. Revolution is turned into money, with copyist bands who miss the point completely. Punk became a laughable blur of spiked hair and spitting.
But that same rush of explosive energy exposed the philosophy to millions who’d otherwise had lived their life entirely without this onrush of ideas. Punk’s influence echoed through pop-culture ever since, with every band of note owing something to its primal scream. And not just bands either. I wouldn’t be writing this if it wasn’t for Savage’s “England’s Dreaming” selling the Fanzine-ethos to me and reaffirming that, yes, it was okay for someone with no training or cool or culture to write, just to let the A-bombs in their head out.
So, for punk, the cost was worth it. It got the ideas out there to the right people — that is, people. It killed the scene, but it was worth it.
That’s what labels allow. It’s a gamble. It could work. Or it could not.
I’m not stupid. I was aware of what I was playing with. I didn’t think, for a second, that it’d have worked as well as it has, but I knew this would be the potential fall out. So, yes, perhaps I’ve inadvertently sacrificed a small part of the form’s future for some easy publicity for friends, peers and talented strangers. For that, I really am sorry.
But you know what? For the number of people who’ve read pieces they’ll have never had otherwise and the small possibility that there’s someone out there who’s been inspired by all this noise, I’d do it all over again.
So it doesn’t appear that I’m /actually/ that sorry at all.