My first serious experience with videogame journalism was a volunteer gig for a certain Macintosh-centered gaming website. The writing I did there consisted mostly of finding new and innovative ways to write under big bold headings, like Graphics and Music/Sound, and it took me about four years of faithfully sticking to The Format before an article about, well, game journalism made me realize there were other ways to write about games. Who knew there was a way to write something that didn’t sound like it belonged in Consumer Reports?
It’s been four years since I got turned on to interesting game writing, which means it has been eight years since I started in this business, and the question on everyone’s lips right now is “Are we there yet?” Well, we’re somewhere.
Regardless of what you or I think of the last eight years or so, of so-called New Games Journalism and Ludology and The Escapist, I think we could all agree we’re a ways away from the Consumer Reports days, and that’s a pretty good place to be.
No doubt there are plenty of writers out there who cut their teeth on the same mechanical kind of work I did. Plenty of our best-established gaming news outlets still rely on reviews with the big bold headings and an objective, dispassionate voice. It’s the status quo for a reason: There is a large body of people out there who read game writing because they want to know what games they should buy, and reading about how stunning the graphics are, or more likely, about ray-traced, high-polycount inverse-kinematic character models, is really enough to tell them how to spend their money. When faced with questions like whether or not games are art, the average reader will most likely wonder why anyone cares. This has its own appeal, of course; whether we think of videogames as an artistic medium or not, that doesn’t stop us from being able to think about evaluating it on some kind of objective scale.
However, as someone who has done that sort of work for far too long, I can say a little bit of me died every time I was compelled to give a game a decent review when it just wasn’t fun. Enter the reluctant New Games Journalists, writers who played fast and loose with the “rules” of game writing out of an allergic reaction to the objective product review.
I spent an evening with the (infamous/infamous blowhard) Tim Rogers once. Along with Rogers and me were: a Tim Rogers fanboy, a guitarist named Hardpuncher, a secret red-light district in Tokyo, homeless people, new running shoes and King of Fighters: Maximum Impact 2 on a pair of delicious Hori Real Arcade Pro arcade sticks.
That’s pretty much the perfect recipe for a New Games Journalism article. The writing is characterized by the author’s role in the story. According to the philosophy, to try to separate the writer from the writing is not to make an objective document; rather, it is to preserve our concept of “objectivity,” namely, reducing a videogame to its component bold headings.
The same post-modern reaction to objectivity that happened throughout science, literature, politics, philosophy and art extended into the realm of game writing. New Games Journalism turned game writing into storytelling. But telling stories is not the only way to critique the objective voice, and as fascinating as reading about the rock-star lives of game journalists can be, it’s simply not for everybody.
So the last eight years have not only brought us game writing as literature, they’ve also brought us into the academy. The generation that grew up with Nintendo has seen fit to talk about games seriously, not just in forums and blogs but also in more traditional veins of academic discourse, including the formation of a cross-disciplinary journal devoted to Game Studies and a growing bunch of Ludologists devoted to analyzing videogames sociologically. The New Games Journalists opened the door for writers to shed the “objective” voice and write about games from their standpoint; the academics used the opportunity to examine videogames through the lenses of all sorts of critical theories and produce their own knowledge, situated from their own standpoints.
The stories we tell are of the impact games have on our lives. We study the communities we build, the relationships we form, the lessons we learn from games and each other. We study advanced, occasionally esoteric, issues in games, because we can’t play a game without learning something from it. All of us are finding new and different ways of expressing the same sentiment: This medium profoundly affects our lives; that our previously disengaged, objective selves are engaged in a dialectic with the games we constantly play.
This kind of work isn’t confined to an obscure journal or collection of essays, either. Bonnie Ruberg’s “Heroine Sheik” discusses gender and sexuality in videogames; Dennis McCauley’s GamePolitics.com and the team behind GamesIndustry.biz all yield new insights into videogames from the perspectives of different academic disciplines.
So, really, are we “there” yet? If “there” is a question of significance, no, we’re not. No one’s won a Pulitzer for game writing, and despite gaming’s cultural impact, it’s still not quite vogue, much less respected, as an artistic medium. But if what we want when we ask ourselves where we are is a question of recognition, it seems unclear exactly what we get out of any answer at all. After all, writing without considering what the reaction may be is a foundation of objective writing; why ask someone else if we’re cool when we should be saying we’re awesome?
“There” is a question not of those who write; the people who live games should write about living games, and the people who simply play them write about playing them, which, is about where are right now. While I have no doubt that game journalism will continue to go into even more amazing places from here, we ought to note that the “here” we’re moving from is the “there” we asked for years ago. It’s a place where we’ve begun to play, live and learn.
Pat Miller has been doing this for way too long. Stop by his blog, Token Minorities, for more on race and videogames.