This may turn a little manifesto, but forgive me. It’s a juvenile form, but such posturing can occasionally serve a purpose. And sometimes, as Kate Bush’s Cloudbusting is currently informing me, just saying it could even make it happen.
I return from Delfter Krug and an evening with comrades. After the traditional lusting after barmaids and discussing the various challenges facing the geek nation, we turn to one of the conversations that I, as a devotee of the gaming press, prayed that was happening somewhere in the universe at any particularly moment.
It was, simply, Games Journalism: Where now?
The money men are worried – and have been worried forever – about the encroaching nature of the internet on mags. They’ve got a point. Games magazines are, primarily, buying guides, offering either information about forthcoming games or definitive reviews of said shiny consumer items. What to get excited about and what to put money down on, basically. Web coverage does both, and usually quicker.
Secondly, they operate as a shit filter. You buy a mag so you don’t have to spend all your life doing the necessary research to find everything out youself: A digest of what’s knowing in gaming. While keeping track of what’s actually worthwhile with forthcoming stuff is a little trickier , sites like Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic handily gather every web review in existence together and average the score. Assuming equality of judgements — which is a big assumption, but outside of the current piece’s mandate — this is perhaps the finest shit filter ever invented. Anything genuinely good will be picked up. Abstractly, anyway.
So why buy mags?
Mag’s offline abilities and toilet-based browsability are one thing, clearly. The second traditional reason is that they’re mostly — and there’s exceptions, clearly — hugely better written. If you want a little entertainment with your information, mags are where to turn.
Ironically enough, you’d be hard pressed to find a money man who actually believes this point. While none have quite dared say it to my face yet, an increasing number are opining in smoky boardrooms that the quality of writers simply doesn’t affect a games magazine sales so they might as well turn to recruiting armies of kids who don’t know better straight from college, burning them out in a year, and then getting another set. There’s been companies who have worked on this assumption ever since the dawn of videogame journalism, and it’s an attitude that appears to be spreading.
The reason why the money-men’s line has been gaining credence is that things are pretty tight in publishing. Sales of this generation of magazines have been nowhere near what they’d expecting. The biggest selling British games mag circa this period in the games console cycle was 450,000 or so. The current best-selling title has managed 200,000. This doesn’t look good on spreadsheets, so they’re tightening their belts and looking for places lose a few pounds. Creating a culture where Editorial is basically disposable is one, certainly.
However, it’s in these periods of a magazine’s industry’s life that comes the chance for radical change. When things are bad, it’s a war between money-men who want to keep profits by reducing costs and the editorial who want to keep profits by being better. The idea of “being better” is somewhat alien to the money-people, who’ve pretty much forgotten any idea of what creative impulses actually are — or, more relevantly, the ability to have faith in anyone else’s.
So, to choose a parallel, at the turn of the millennium the money men came to prominence in the music mags, and pretty much destroyed them all. In a similar situation in the seventies, the music’s press slump was reversed by discovering a new underground to write about and new writers to express their love of in increasingly imaginative ways. Ideally, since I selfishly enjoy writing about games while still wanting to be able to meet my gaze in the bathroom mirror, I’d prefer the latter.
In other words, it’s war for the future of games journalism. The default win position is for money-men — they hold all the power, after all. It’s up to editorial to just prove them wrong through an act of magic, since that’s what all creation actually is. The good news is that there’s a fair few editors who realise this, and are conjuring up their master-plans to create a space to express this sort of thinking. I won’t name them, because it’ll just embarrass the fellows. Hopefully, there’s more I don’t know about.
There’s also all sorts of games writers who don’t give a toss about the craft of what they’re doing, either having completely forgotten why they were doing it in the first place after being stomped by their superiors or never really had a clue in the first place. In many ways, it’s these people rather than the money-men who are the enemies. The money-men — as their name suggests — are only interested in money. That’s fine. It’s like objecting that a Tyrannosaurus Rex doesn’t chomp down on tofu. The mediocre hacks filling positions that could be taken by people wanting to write brilliantly are what will kill the British games magazine. Not that they’re bad people, you understand — many are utterly lovely. It’s just that they’re wasting the potential of the form with their total lack of commitment and/or talent.
If Games Journalism is just a job to you, you really shouldn’t be doing it. The word should be “vocation”.
Right — everyone up to speed and are now either thinking I’m an arrogant wanker for calling other people hacks after some of the rubbish I’ve written or — in the case of my peers — wondering if I’m talking about them. Oh, shush. Stop worrying. As if it matters what I think about you. The question is, am I right and what are you going to do to prove me wrong.
What do I suggest doing about it?
Well, I’m not suggesting we do a Pol-Pot and year-zero everything we’ve ever done. The main body of games journalism will remain the same. Reviews that don’t serve their basic consumer-informing purpose are worse than useless. Previews — one of the most despicable words in the lexicon, randomly — are still going to appear. What I’m suggesting is in addition to rather than replacing the old order – though I’d suggest a greater stringency when producing work that’s in these more established traditions. Just be good, y’know.
In the early seventies Tom Wolfe edited a collection of writings from the previous few years entitled “The New Journalism”, which provided exactly that. This journalism was intensely personal, throwing away the rules of standard journalistic discourse like the pretence of objectivity and an embracing of the “I”. We’re talking about people like Capote, Mailer and Hunter S. Thompson. While Games journalism — having nabbed a lot of its tricks from the people who nabbed a lot of tricks from the New Journalism people — uses a sizeable chunk of those already, it hasn’t really thought about how the core of that philosophy really applies to videogames.
In the last year or so we’ve started. In a nod to Wolfe, I’m going to call it the New Games Journalism, just because it needs a name if this essay’s going to be decipherable to the human mind.
Embarrassingly for myself and my professional peers, the first real signs of this form didn’t appear in the pages of game magazines, but on the net. Early-period State was painfully close to a new paradigm for games writing, but was hamstrung and eventually foiled by its elitism, its faux-intellectualism and insecurity. They’re all forgivable faults, since the writers were the gaming equivalent of zine-kids, trying to find a voice which didn’t sound too shrill. But still: depressing.
However, once I thought the initial burst of energy was well spent and a fair chunk of the better writers absorbed into the gaming press in one form or another, State produced something that managed to embody everything I’d want the New Games Journalism to be. It’s by a gentleman who works under the name of Always Black, and is entitled “Bow, Nigger”.
It’s a memorable piece of writing in at least a dozen ways, but is firstly notable for reading like games journalism without being anything like a piece of any games writing you’ve ever read. It’s going to lead to a lot of copyist features, the huge majority will vary between average and utterly rubbish. Which is fine. Innovation tends to do that. How many uninspired Hunter S. Thompson riffs have we had to sit and shudder through? What, hopefully, we’ll also get are the pieces that Hunter’s verve and vision inspired without being simple plagiarism.
“Bow, Nigger” lies outside the main thrust of “serious” games journalism: that is, the analytic tradition. A bad games journalist would write in imprecise generalities, talking about something’s “gameplay” and urging you to “try before you buy” or similar page-filling rubbish. A good one would look at the game, take it apart, try and understand how it works and inform the reader of their findings. Some people did it in a reductionist manner, taking a game to its smallest dynamics and components. Others — like Owain Bennallack’s memorable description of the Sims as an “Apologia for Consumerism” — managed to take a more holistic approach. The apex of the tradition, if only because it’s the only example where someone got the entire length of a book to talk about the mechanics of the form in a sustained and intelligent fashion, was Steven Poole’s “Trigger Happy”.
No matter what the precise form this tradition takes, it works of a single assumption; that the worth of a videogame lies in the videogame, and by examining it like a twitching insect fixed on a slide, we can understand it.
New Games Journalism rejects this, and argues that the worth of a videogame lies not in the game, but in the gamer. What a gamer feels and thinks as this alien construct takes over all their sensory inputs is what’s interesting here, not just the mechanics of how it got there. Games have always been digital hallucinogens — but games journalism has been like chemistry, discussing the binding reactions to brain sites. What I’m suggesting says what it feels like as the chemical kicks in and reality is remixed around you.
While drug-poetry is certainly one approach to the subject matter –and one the earlier State experiments turned to — it’s not the strongest. “Bow, Nigger”, while being clearly totally subjective, austerely embraces Hemmingway’s cleanness. The tone has to be confessional — what happened to you and how it made you feel — or people simply won’t believe it, or be interested. Pub anecdotes with delusions of grandeur, essentially.
(One thing Sony got entirely right was their “I have conquered worlds” adverts. That’s exactly it — in fact, says more about the games playing experience than a year’s subscription to most games magazines)
While sections of this approach can be useful in traditional reviews — in fact, in my most celebrated review of the first Deus Ex I used a repeated motif of scenarios to show the game’s freeform action nature — the required objectivity of also providing worthwhile purchasing advice limits its freedom of expression. Ideally, such segments will either be the entire piece or used in a punctuated manner to illustrate points by metaphor.
As an aside, in my first deliberate attempt in writing New Games Journalism, it’s this latter approach I took. I hope it worked. In fact, “Hoping it worked” should be a real centre point here. I haven’t “Hoped it worked” in a piece of games journalism for around four years now, because I knew exactly what I was doing. This is about doing something where you /don’t/ know exactly what you’re doing.
While rewarding in itself, this form is interesting in that it fills a space in a traditional games magazine set-up. A game will be covered hugely in advance of its release, with an array of previews, first-plays, interviews before the orgasm of the review. where after the game may never, ever be mentioned again. No other pop-form disregards its subject with such alacrity. Films are re-reviewed and covered forever. Whole music magazines such as Mojo will pore over albums that have been around for decades. Even the more recent music press will review live gigs of bands between releases.
It’s somewhat ironic — or rather, impressively dumb – that in my particular corner of publishing that the second the readers have a chance to play a game is the exact point where a games magazine has stopped talking about them in anything but the most cursory manner. New Games Journalism in the above form is one way of doing exactly that, in an interesting way. From how it feels to be at ground-zero in a Planetside bomber attack to your own personal relationship with SHODAN from System Shock 2, a piece properly constructed and written with proper attention to the human condition will be entertaining. That is, it’s not enough just to say what happened — you have to make people understand what it felt like to be there when it happened.
The phrasing in the last line brings me to the second half of New Games Journalism’s dogma. “What it felt like to be there when it happened”. In videogames there is no “there”. You’re either sitting in front of your PC or slumped in your front-room, controller in your hand. It’s all happening inside your head, induced by how the sound and light you’re bombarded with alters depending upon your whim and inclination. You’re experiencing something that simply doesn’t exist. This is the games-form’s own peculiar magic, and what we have to explain.
This makes us Travel Journalists to Imaginary places. Our job is to describe what it’s like to visit a place that doesn’t exist outside of the gamer’s head — the gamer, not the game, remember. Go to a place, report on its cultures, foibles, distractions and bring it back to entertain your readers.
The thing with travel journalism or reportage is that it’s interesting even if you have absolutely no inclination of going there. “Bow, Nigger” — and, hopefully, similar future pieces dealing with other game-created social structures — excels in this area, describing in detail the social mores a warring culture created, all on their lonesome. Since every online begets their unique world, this should be particularly fruitful: an anthropologist would think he’d died and gone to undiscovered native heaven to have so many unreported cultures to investigate.
Now, I guarantee I will never play Jedi Knight II multiplayer in my life, but to hear about this strange world these people have created. well, it’s as fascinating as the courtship rituals of whatever Amazonian tribe is being exploited in this weekend’s broadsheets. In fact, it’s this quality that makes “Bow, Nigger” stand out from most games writing — that it felt like a newspaper article rather than anything in the specialist press. That is, you’ll be interested in it even if you didn’t give a fuck about videogames. While it’s using videogames as its subject, what it’s really talking about is the human condition.
And that, I think, is the key to the whole thing. New Games Journalism exists to try and explain and transfer the sensations allowed by videogaming to anyone who’s willing to sit and take time to read it. It paradoxically manages find a way to be more accessible to the average human being by actually concentrating on the real reasons why people devote huge chunks of their waking hours to games rather than obsessing in tedious detail over the ephemera that surrounds it (How many levels? how many guns? Can I be Goro?). It asks the question “Why game anyway” and then gives as many answers as they are people, as interesting as people, as precious.
So that’s what our old-new way of thinking about games boils down to. A new dogma to drive around the intellectual motorway.
1) The worth of gaming lies in the gamer not the game.
2) Write travel journalism to Imaginary Places.
Let’s see how fast it can go.
Kieron Gillen, Bath, England.
23rd March 2004, 2:04 am
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