The Case for Games Journalism

August 2014 was a bad month for planet earth.

I’m not sure where you really begin in regards to the slog of wave after wave of horrific happenings. Perhaps we start with the saddest vision of all, that of Robin Williams, the great entertainer sat alone in his house fully committed to taking his own life because he saw no other way out. Meanwhile, In Ferguson Missouri, the recurring trait of police brutality against the African American underclass only emphasised how far race relations have actually progressed in the US. Far off in the arid desert land, an American war journalist is beheaded live on camera by a English speaking member of ISIS, one of many public displays of violence in the never ending war against terror. Then there is the alarming prospect of reviving cold war tensions between the US and Russia, the back and forth bombing between Gazza and Israel and only last week news broke of a sickening child abuse scandal at Rotherham Council. They say the only news is bad news, but last month was a dark time for humanity.

At least Guardians of the Galaxy came out. That was pretty cool.

The guardians of the galaxy, a bunch of losers from of different ilk, coming together to do something amazing.
We should all be more like the Guardians of the Galaxy in the third act of the movie. A bunch of losers, putting their creed and colour to one side to do something amazing.

At least when things get depressing I can always turn to video games as a form of escapism. But August had plans for that too.

I don’t really want to recap on everything that has happened, because we’ll be here all day. So to summarise:

  • Zoe Quinn’s Depression Quest is finally released on Steam, after months of controversy with a minority condemning the project for not being a game. The game is released in the wake of the news of Robin Williams death, as a result the game is released for free as a mark of respect for all those suffering from depression. The game being a tool to better understand the nature of the mental illness. The game is availiable for free now… I want to write more about this so stay tuned…
  • Zoe Quinn’s ex-boyfriend makes private details public, allegedly the developer cheated on him with other partners, one working for Kotaku who proceeded to write about Depression Quest. The validity of criticism surrounding the game is supposedly called into question by an angry mob of people who refuse to accept the Depression Game as a game or a thing.
  • Phil Fish developer of Fez defends Zoe Quinn on twitter, chastising gamers as a toxic community. In typical Phil Fish fashion he is blunt and maybe a bit over the top in his rhetoric. Phil Fish is hacked, with his company Polytron allegedly put up for sale.
  • Anita Sarskeesian releases the next video in her series investigating the portrayal of women in video games. People get angry, especially the male rights activist crowd. Sarskeesian has been the subject of controversy for all of her videos looking into the portrayal of women in games and the potentially damaging effects this could have on gamers, particularly young males.
  • A movement born out of 4chan creates a list of Social Justice Warriors, journalists who are seen to be promoting their own politically progressive agendas. This movement has created a bunch of abbreviations to classify people with, as I guess, they think they’ve been negatively classified themselves. Developers and jounralists are being verbally threatened with rape and death threats. Even though many of the assailants probably couldn’t mount a thing if they tried, let alone find that little waif of a member to do the raping with. I’m joking now, and shouldn’t be because at the same time, things have escalated so quickly and passions are running so high, that I seriously feel one of these idiots is going to do something they are going to regret.

Suffice it to say, situations have developed where game journalists have declared the gamer dead, and gamers have declared the game journalist dead. Some people have lashed out at other people for no good reason, and there is generally a lack of compassion between people who like to play video games. This in the month when all that other stuff happened. Oh video games.

All I really want to do is make the case for game journalism, or the right kinds of gaming journalism that explore the medium, it’s people, it’s eccentricities, it’s gross injustices and the fundamental element at the heart of all good games writing – how these virtual worlds colour our understanding of reality and ourselves.

Is that too much to ask?

Before I begin, you should listen to this, if you haven’t done so already.

So if you haven’t already played Dwarf Fortress, do you want to go and play Dwarf Fortress now? Or do you still need a mark out of 10?

One of the great things about being based in Nottingham is that I get to attend and participate with the GameCity festival, which happens every October. I’ve been going since I was a student and I’ll be going again this year. The event isn’t a commercial venture like E3 or PAX, it is a festival in every sense of the word, a celebration and exploration of digital interactivity and the simple act playing as a form of creation are in full swing. You will usually have a couple of game developers in attendance, giving lectures or demos of their latest projects, you also have a lot of game journalists doing panels. There is never any talk about release dates, or day one DLC preorder bonuses, there is only frank and friendly discussion of games, interactivity and invention.

In 2012, I attended ‘Reads like a Seven’ one of the events at the festival, where a number of high profile gaming journalists gathered to read some of their best work. At that time, games journalism was facing another calamity after Robert Florence’s Table of Doritos article, which questioned the link between games journalists and the PR and marketing teams on the publisher side. At the time, everything in games, seemed like shit, but after attending ‘Read likes a Seven’ I was affirmed that everything was going to be okay and reminded of why I play games in the first place. The Queen from Ste Curran, embedded above, was just one of the evenings highlights, which saw the likes of Keiron Gillen, Simon Parkin and Leigh Alexander in attendance. Other highlights included Keith Stuart’s moving entry about being a 40 year old games journalist, or Cara Ellison’s reminisce of her time playing DOTA with a group of friends at university, a piece which seemed to capture the essence of how multiplayer games can strengthen friendships even if it is just a moment in time.

Of course, to some, this will be elitist, pretentious, ‘look at me’ style writing. Some are just more content with reading a review and seeing the review score. Which is understandable You want to know whether you buy the latest games or not. You always have a choice over what games you play and likewise what ever writing you want to read. However, I’d argue if you are truly into games, you surely have to appreciate the kind of content that goes above and beyond the shallow marketing purposes.

I can only imagine that the same minority of gamers who refuse to accept Depression Quest as a ‘game’ are the same kind of people who put together the list displayed below, as if somehow they don’t have a choice in the types of content they engage with.

I think everybody on this list should've at least been given a cool bandit name. Also maybe a fancy border or something around the edges... Just a thought.
I think everybody on this list should at least have been given a cool bandit name. Also maybe a fancy border or something around the edges… Just a thought.

 

Giant Bomb is up there. Jim Sterling is up there. I know it’s laughable.

The more I dwell on this list of sexy cool gaming journalists, the more I’m convinced it was created as some kind of wonderfully subversive reverse marketing piece created by some Professor Snape like person. They took all these great photogenic profile pics, filed them under some of the more popular websites out there and told people not to endorse these people. I mean why would you not want to endorse these people? In addition, this kind of list only goes to prove that things are progressing, and things are generally changing for the better. These are the kinds of writers who are going beyond the preview/review mentality. I would like to see the SEO metrics of some of these websites and journalists after the publishing of this list. I’m thinking links to their work and domain authorities increased overnight! You could literally write an essay or case study on effective reverse marketing and playing online communities against one another. It would be a perverse thrilling read. I’m getting goosebumps just thinking about it!

The only thing that pisses me off about this list, is that they’ve put Adam Sessler there. Who doesn’t even work in the industry anymore. Which is a colossal bummer.

We can all agree that the majority of media surrounding the video game industry is merely marketing for yet to be released titles and updates. Before Titanfall was being released, there were daily articles written on the game, and it wasn’t necessarily good things, it was speculation into the 360 version or the lack of an actual campaign for a £40 game. It was about Xbox One performance not being as ‘next gen’ as people hoped, it was level 50 player caps… I’m not exactly sure how marketing works from a publisher’s perspective, but I bet there is a running quota of how many brand mentions to get in a given date heading towards release. I bet there’s a sweet spot that somebody has calculated that forecasts a strong first day release and margaritas all round for the marketing department.

A couple of years ago, I aspired to be a video gaming journalist. I started my old blog on blogspot and started writing for a string of hobbyist websites. There was one called Mash the Pad, another indie PC focused site called Crude Pixel and then Piki Geek, which was born out of Reddit. I never made any money doing it but the hope was, that I would put in the hours, generate some interesting content, get my name out there and perhaps actually kick start a career in games journalism. A life spent playing and talking about games, the emergent medium of the 21st century! Is there any sweeter life? I might even get to go to E3!

I was still at university at the time, I was young and naive… and a terrible writer.

When I started writing for Piki Geek, I found myself logging into a spreadsheet each morning, to see a list of stories that had to be written up. These stories nearly always came from VG24/7, Eurogamer, Rock Paper Shotgun and NeoGaf and were nearly always one of the following:

  • Video content – trailers, interviews and narrated walkthroughs showing the game in action.
  • Official press releases – information directly from the publisher about recently announced games or ingame features.
  • News out of interview snippets – Whenever an interview was conducted with a designer or studio big wig, this would provide endless opportunities to for news bait.
  • Leaked details – Neogaf was usually a repository for all leaked details – “Crytek UK is working on the next Homefront” or “New GTA has wallabies and returning characters from GTAIV”. This would mainly be frantic fan speculation, but hey, you could always ask your audience what they want to see.

Though I did get to write the odd feature and review, I very quickly became disillusioned with the daily practice. Who cares if Uncharted 3 is being sponsored by Subway. I wasn’t generating interesting content, just daily updates with brand mentions designed to hype particular titles. I remember sitting down to write up one news story surrounding Michael Ancel of Ubisoft on the eve of release of Rayman Origins. Essentially the narrative involved the reputable game designer finally getting down to making Beyond Good and Evil 2, but it would all depend on the sales of the soon to be released Rayman game. The story was most likely gleamed from an off the hand statement from an interview with Ancel in which he was talking about Rayman Origins. Beyond Good and Evil 2 was probably mentioned towards the end of the interview, as this is one of the more highly anticipated games that is supposedly in development after all these years.

I believe I ended up writing a limerick, going on a vicious tirade about how we gamers were willingly consuming all this vacant information. Gamers were at the mercy of this gigantic marketing feed making us fat and conditioning us to buy all the games it was talking about. I may have gone on some Tale of Two Cities styled rant on how we had to do our part in the commercial process if we wanted the sequel to our beloved Beyond Good and Evil. That awesome brilliant game with elements of Pokemon Snap and Zelda, in which the final boss inverts all the controls on you. Remember that boss! Euh…

The piece never went live unfortunately, and I was asked to tone it down. I asked whether instead I could write a feature, but my request was declined. From that moment I got despondent and I eventually gave it up to get a ‘real’ job. Some people who continued to write for Piki Geek did actually go on and work for more prestigious websites in what I imagine are paid roles. Or as well paid as games journalism gets… Had I put in the graft who knows where I could have ended? Maybe working for IGN or Rock Paper Shotgun. Then again, maybe I’d just be another member of the enthusiast gaming press, just like everybody else that turns up to Rezzed or EGX with a SLR and press pass. I’d have been just another voice. But real journalism realises that something is always happening behind everything, and real journalists will go to the lengths to tell that story that brings greater understanding to society.

I made the decision that it if I wanted to write about games my way, I could so so via a blog. So off I went. Ironically the best performing pieces on my old blog include the River Monsters drinking game and a rewrite of the Aliens screenplay to express my own opinions of the new Alien Isolation game. I did a bit of freelance reporting for my local paper before getting a role in tender writing for a web design agency here in Nottingham. I now work in SEO and digital marketing, which has given me greater insight into the way in which the internet works and how companies use content. I will still write about games in my own way, get press passes to places and seek out interesting interview opportunities.

At the end of the month, I will be attending the Eurogamer Expo for the fourth year running. I both love and hate the convention with equal measure. On one hand, it’s a cool way of spending the day with friends playing demos of soon to be released games. Every so often you get to meet some of the game makers or personalities within the industry, and you get all gushy with that sense of ‘I belong’. In my first year I met Nolan North and Richard Lemarchand just before the release of Uncharted 3. I waved to Mr Pointy Head at the Nintendo booth. I played the Doom piano. I saw Hideo Kojima walk into the side door of Earls Court! All the while, I belong! I belong! But of course I belong, the event is tailor made for me and my white male preordering consumer ilk.

The majority of the time spent at the convention is spent queuing. In one instance I queued to play Rayman Origins and lo and behold what do I hear from the two gamers behind me?

Gamer 1: Hey did you hear? if this game sells well, they’ll make Beyond Good & Evil 2?

Gamer 2: Oh man, I so want that game. I guess we better buy it then!”

I suppose the best thing about this instance was that Rayman Origins did turn out to be a pretty decent game…

425737_10100545649477868_1347093771_n

Regardless, I found myself looking at the attendees of the conference in a new light. Their minds full of this kind of meaningless inceptioned marketing spiel, passing it all off as their own thoughts like mindless zombies. Each game fresh in their mind, and a potential purchase. As I head to the Eurogamer Expo at the end of the month, I will most likely be queuing up just like the rest of them, suffering the horrible smell of gamers on mass, overhearing all the bullshit talk about the games drip fed by the great feed. I will feel the flare of self loathing, as marketing PR people hand me T-shirts and exclusive DLC thinking I am that stereotypical gamer. I’ll lament like a emo teenager, “I’M ONE OF YOU, BUT I’M NOT YOU”. So fuck ‘games journalism’ or at least this phoney pretence masquerading as games journalism.

The best games writing involves two stories, one is the narrative of the game itself, but the second is what the writer brings to it, via their own experience and stream of consciousness. Yes, it is basic New Games Journalism 101, games writing as travel writing, but this is exactly what it should be. From here you can extract humour and all those profound thoughts that provide a thorough understanding of the human condition. The more different kinds of people we have providing their own fresh interpretations, the richer we will all be.

I do not dispute the fact that I am a gamer, someone who games on a regular basis, which I would acknowledge as the proper definition. I like to read about games, I like to discuss games, I made this website to do so properly, I like to think about all the exciting possibilities the medium is poised to realise in the future. Gamers do get a bad rep, especially when they are stereotyped as angry white middle class 20 somethings with undeveloped social skills, bad acne and even worse dietary habits. These stereotypes do exist but they don’t apply to everybody. I think the large problem with us gamers, and this applies to both warring parties, is that we have simply spent so much time engaged within our own bubble. Don’t forget the horrors of August 2014 that were occurring during the bullshit #GamerGate. We are all entitled to our opinion, even though we may not be as articulate or broad minded to truly see the larger picture. We sit in our rooms playing games having some kind of experience to write home about and yet largely unaware that there are others of different race and gender all over the world doing the same thing. This should make gaming a more healthier and fertile ground for discussion.

When I think of the death of games journalism, I don’t buy it. Mainly because the definition of games journalism is awfully misconstrued. When I think games journalism, I think of Simon Parkin’s many articles investigating the worrying relationship between Call of Duty and firearm licensing. So far, the number one reason not to play another Call of Duty game ever again, aside from the fact they are formulaic year after year. I think of Chris Donlan’s travels through LA Noire with his grandfather who worked in the LAPD during the 50s. I think of Jim Sterling, the Malcolm X of video games, a person who used to be the personification of everything unpleasant about the game, but has gradually grown to become one of the most authoritative voices in the industry. Indeed, thank God for Jim Sterling. I think of Cara Ellison’s embed with games series, providing an intimate look at the personalities making games today. I think of Leigh Alexander’s ability to cut through the marketing mechanisations and making me feel like a mewling little man boy. It’s good to feel like that every so often, to be criticised to have that knowledge of how others may perceive you! It’s the only real way we’ll grow and evolve. I also think of Geoff Keighley, the patron saint of Doritos and Mountain Dew who was also behind the final hours of Portal 2.

At the end of it all, I think of Ryan Davis talking about how his wife allowed him to destroy a cake.

I’m of the opinion that all human beings exist increasingly within many different virtual worlds. For gamers, it may be Skyrim this week, or Dranglaic next week, alternatively it may be the randomly generated biomes of Minecraft. Equally so, it may be the virtual worlds of Facebook and twitter, projecting the image of your ideal self to your friends and acquaintances.It may even be the world in which we read about and understand through popular media and the speeches of politicians, the world full of terror that seems so far away yet so close at the same time, there’s a virtual element in everything we do. You don’t have to be a gamer to engage with that.

The real challenge is that we should always be ready to take from these virtual worlds so they may colour our collected perception of reality.

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *