Fear and Loading in Game Journalism

You read about games. Maybe you go to one of the major sites for the latest news. Maybe you head over to the major game blogs. Maybe you skirt around the edges of the Rllmrk or NeoGAF forums to get your fix. If you’re smart, or particularly attractive and wise, you come here to The Escapist. Perhaps you’re a writer yourself, and you see game culture as a particularly democratic patch of dirt where anybody can make a mark.

One of the most exciting things about being a gamer is it instills in us a passionate need to communicate our ideas to each other. Ever since the first BBS began to cluster in the dark recesses of the early internet, gamers were there, trading stories and ideas about what was working and what wasn’t. The epoch of early game magazines was marked by passion drawn from the common well of geekdom. And so it was we looked at game journalists and saw fit to say they could do a better job.

Chris Buffa’s first volley across the bow, simply called “Why Videogame Journalism Sucks,” puts the blame squarely on a lack of writing talent, and all four of his assaults on game writing circulate around one simple problem: Games don’t attract the best writers – yet. Alan Dang had a go at listing the five big problems with game journalism over at FiringSquad. The Guardian‘s Keith Stuart ran a horribly over-analyzed list of articles written in the New Games Journalism format. Our dear friend Kieron Gillen figures heavily in this discussion, too, mostly because he started it.


For nearly five years we’ve been in a cycle of manifesto-building, where disgruntled writers theorize an end or a beginning to this or that. Every game conference, from E3 to GDC to the smaller indie events, has had some form of panel where three or four bemused writers sit and field angry questions from people who feel something rotten in the state of Denmark. So I’m here to tell you game journalism is fine. There is no crisis. Return to your homes and places of business. Please do not stop and stare at the bloody carcass in the middle of the road.

What’s Wrong with “What’s Wrong with Game Journalism?”
Figuring out what’s wrong with pretty much everything is one of the driving preoccupations of game culture. The popular fantasy is we are endlessly approaching a plateau of hardware/software utopia. You can find dozens, if not hundreds of manifestos for change in the game industry itself, of which Alice Taylor’s account of the GDC 2006 “Burn The House Down” sessions is a great starting point, as is Greg Costikyan’s ever-popular one-two punch, “Death to The Games Industry” and “The Scratchware Manifesto.”

Chuck Klosterman’s notorious piece for Esquire wants to know where gaming’s Lester Bangs is hiding, and many people have cited the piece for its assertion that most game writing is stuck describing technology. In response, some other manifestos and declarations bemoan the New Games Journalists for not describing technology enough. However, it is right at the end of Klosterman’s piece that he hits the nail on the head: “If nobody ever thinks about these games in a manner that’s human and metaphorical and contextual, they’ll all become strictly commodities, and then they’ll all become boring. They’ll only be games. … This generation’s single most meaningful artistic idiom will be – ultimately – meaningless.”

In Search of Lester
Rather than ask why gaming doesn’t have its own Lester Bangs, why can’t we ask who might fit the mold anywhere? Are there writers of such stunning authority that we find ourselves retelling their best metaphors at a party, as Klosterman suggests? Of course there are, but there’s a generational gap at work. Martin Amis wrote a book about arcade games back in the day, but good game writing comes from good writers who happen to play games, not gamers who happen to write.

When game writing is at its best, it puts play before the game. Gaming doesn’t need a Lester Bangs. It doesn’t need a Hunter S. Thompson. It needs anybody who has the inclination to make simple, human connections between technology and human truth.

Christian McCrea is a game writer, academic and curator based in Melbourne, Australia. He submitted this article with the threat to “drive his editors before him and hear the lamentations of their spell-checkers.”

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