“New Games Journalism…argues that the worth of a videogame lies not in the game, but in the gamer.” – Kieron Gillen, The New Games Journalism, 2004
When I was 10, I piloted an Apache gunship with my dad. Tomahawk for the 48K spectrum was a gunship simulator which managed to combine the technical aspects of flight simulators with the sheer, visceral glee of unleashing missiles on Bad Men. The graphics were almost non-existent, the anti-piracy security measures meant you actually got to play the game one time in three, but it was a completely immersive experience. Flying low and fast over a wire frame war zone, the game dragged me all the way into its minimalist world and put me at the top of its food chain. It was, in the words of the New Games Journalism, an imaginary place and one that I was happy to visit.
“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.”
Six years ago, Kieron Gillen wrote The New Games Journalism in response to what he saw as a failure to engage with the unique way that computer games entertain players. You interrogate a computer game, meet it in the no man’s land between user and text and in doing so craft an experience which may not be unique to you, but certainly feels like it is. Or, to put it another way, you can watch the sun set from anywhere in Vice City whereas you only ever see it from one angle in a film. In essence, he argued that the sunset doesn’t matter, but where you watch it from and how you got there, does.
“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 asks the question ‘Why game anyway?’ and then gives as many answers as there are people, as interesting as people, as precious.”
The manifesto was embraced by some elements of the online community and was even mentioned on several occasions in the U.K. newspaper The Guardian as well as the New York Times. Gillen’s manifesto also burnt out surprisingly quickly, frequently criticized for taking a needlessly academic, even pretentious approach to what is, in essence, a product review. The serious approach taken by many New Games Journalism writers also laid it open to attack, with UK: Resistance‘s Seven Point Manifesto detailing the problems with New Games Journalism, starting with “The Writer is Not The Most Important Person” being a pretty definitive deconstruction of the approach.
The New Games Journalism (NGJ) is now six years old, a geological age in a media where last year’s game is prehistoric news.
Even though so much time has passed, Gillen is still a passionate advocate for games and is fascinated by how the landscape has changed, something which became clear during our email conversation. He’s an articulate, funny interviewee, brimming with the combination of self-deprecating humor and rock star confidence that English comic writers of his generation (He was born in 1975) exhibit, many of whom cut their teeth on Warren Ellis’ legendary message board, Whitechapel. I first talked to him when we both worked on 9th Art, a comic journalism website that sprang from Ellis’ board and he’s lost none of his natural authority and savage sense of humor. “Videogames are the one pop-medium where reviewers have demonstrable actual power, if they’re willing to face the raving fanboys by giving the latest hype game less than 9/10,” Gillen told me. I don’t know if that statement is true, but it’s just the type of thing that Gillen says.
The search for a different voice for videogame journalism, for something other than a simple product review, has continued to evolve and found itself inextricably linked to the explosion in New Media.
“While the monoliths of IGN, Gamespot, et al remain, there’s now more sites with an obviously different character,” Gillen says. “Some I hate. Some I love. But the point being, I get the choice of what to hate and love. No matter who you are, no matter what you care about games, there’s probably a site mirroring your interests. That’s progress.” This is vital not only to gaming journalism but fiction, music, mainstream journalism and academia; New Media enables countless new people to talk about their perspective on the games that they are playing.
It’s not been a universal process though, as Gillen notes. ”The Americans caught up with the British-standard of personality-lead games-journalism, via their mastery of podcast culture (Frankly, the yanks do it much better than we ever have),” Gillen says. “Smart writers/commentators embraced the new technology – Yahtzee is the obvious example, but there’s a load around him.” The conversations that we have about games have become almost as common as the games themselves and, thanks to the universal nature of podcasting, it’s a conversation anyone with an mp3 player can join.
However, progress comes with a price and podcast and web-based journalism needs financial support as much as print journalism. But how do you balance the freedom of writing for your own site with the need to make enough money to keep it going? This is a problem Gillen’s had to face head on at Rock Paper Shotgun, the gaming site that he co-edits:
“We do a hybrid subscriber/ads model. And entirely believe that if you’re interested in impressions, you’d do better in the long-run engendering trust and having people hang around rather than just publishing every clearly-untrue rumor about the latest game. But the only way we get away with that is because the bosses are ourselves and we’re editorial folks. If your boss is from an ads background, they will never understand this.”
Beyond monetary issues, there are trends in the industry which run counter to Gillen’s ideology. The rise of sites like Metacritic seem to embrace the technical review model that NGJ was so dead set against. Gillen doesn’t blast Metacritic like one would expect, however.
“It’s inevitable,” he says when I asked his opinion of the review agglomerate. “It’s also one of the ways which ‘the games press’ better serves its consumers. Some people are just interested in the mark. Metacritic is the site for them.” To Gillen, everyone’s opinion is valid, whether you want to talk about emotional engagement or collision detection. New Games Journalism is all about the individual viewpoint; Metacritic serves to present those opinions in aggregate.
The industry has certainly undergone seismic change across the last six years since NGJ, much of which has pushed it finally into the mainstream. That movement is embodied in the colossal success of the Wii and motion controlled games, something which has opened videogaming up to the holy grail of customers: people who don’t play games. But the Wii didn’t spark a similar popularity in videogame journalism.
“Why aren’t there more sites based around covering [Nintendo’s] games?” Gillen asks. “Same reason why there’s no Celine Dion-covering music mags: Because, while the audience who is into the culture is huge, the audience who wants to read about the culture is minute.”
The ongoing expansion and newfound acceptance of gaming has had several interesting side effects, not the least of which is the return to prominence of the huge tradeshow that is E3 2010, something that Gillen welcomes. “For the U.S. to not have a major, stupid trade show makes the industry smaller,” he says. “That the U.S. couldn’t support a show like that … Well, that didn’t say much for the state of the industry.”
What about the culture’s reliance on New Games Journalism? Does the manifesto still hold up? “As well as it ever does. It’s a device in the writer’s toolbox. It’s a question of whether you use it well or badly,” he says. It’s clear that people do still use it, as Gillen not only finds people crediting it with influencing their style but also sees its influence in subtler ways. “[The ideas in NGJ] are still there in the cultural soup. People who grew up seeing people do this sort of thing just take it as a natural thing that they can do it too.”
“They can do it too.” That’s the crux of the matter, the simple DIY attitude that lies at the center of NGJ, modern videogames and Gillen’s own fascination with story and narrative, something which has led him from game journalism into comic book writing (including an acclaimed run on Marvel Comics’ Thor and the glorious, but short lived, SWORD). Your opinion, your path through a story is as valid and as vital as anyone else’s. NGJ empowers both the medium and the player, which, six years on from calling on us all to be “Travel Journalists to Imaginary places,” still lies at the center of Gillen’s career.
In the end, the problem with writing about imaginary places is that no one ever experiences them the same way. Twenty three years ago, I flew a helicopter gunship over a wire frame landscape and felt like the king of the world, whereas other players would see nothing but overly complex controls and blocky graphics. The player changes and the game changes to reflect that, meaning that no one experience is ever the same, no one sunset is ever quite the same as the last and it remains easy to write about the game but very difficult to write about how the game makes you feel without sounding over indulgent.
Six years after it was written, the New Games Journalism may not be the new standard, but it’s certainly given the industry an alternate way to chart those imaginary places. As an essay, NGJ is as fascinating as it is flawed, offering us a different perspective but challenging us to do something with that difference. Here in 2010, there’s still work to be done. “The irony of games journalism in the 00s: it’s never been better, and it’s never been viewed with less respect,” Gillen says. The good news is right there in the first lines of the New Games Journalism, in a statement that combines a gleefully obtuse music reference with wide-eyed, determined optimism, “As Kate Bush’s Cloudbusting is currently informing me, just saying it could even make it happen.”
So go and play a game, and then say something about your experience. People are ready to listen.
Alasdair Stuart is the editor of Hub magazine and hosts Pseudopod, the Parsec award-winning podcast. His first gaming experience was Chuckie Egg 2 on the Spectrum and one day he will find that game again and conquer it ALL…