A couple of weeks ago I had the pleasure to hold a virtual round table via conference call with four of the most intelligent, responsible journalists working in the field of games.
N’Gai Craol is an editor at Newsweek and writes for the blog LevelUp. Julian Dibbell has been writing about games longer than any of us, and is currently a freelancer working for The New York Times Magazine, among other places. He’s also the author of the book Play Money. Kieron Gillen is a career freelance game journalist who writes for The Escapist, Edge and other magazines in the U.K. and the U.S. And N. Evan Van Zelfden is also a career freelancer, and has also published in The Escapist as well as The Economist, Kotaku and others.
All four were kind enough to take an hour out of their day to share their thoughts with me on game journalism as a whole, the art of crafting an interesting story about games and how they made into one of the sweetest gigs on the planet.
The following is a partial transcript of the highlights of the discussion that followed. For the full-length audio download, skip to the last page.
Julian Dibbell: Writing about games is not the same thing as writing about other cultural forms, it’s really more travel writing. … I think it goes to the fact that understanding, particularly as games move online, what a game is about and how it works isn’t matter of simply playing it. It’s a matter of immersing yourself in a culture or working it as a beat for a while, so that these kinds of stories become the obvious ones.
Kieron Gillen: It’s like being an embedded reporter, isn’t it? I think about Jim Rossignol, writing about Korea, and he went there for a couple of weeks and got stuff you really don’t get from the surface level. There’s some real similarities to travel writing.
Russ Pitts: It’s important to note that Kieron was (for better or worse) the man who coined the phrase New Games Journalism.
KG: I did tell Jim if NGJ gets mentioned I’m hanging up.
RP: I know you’re sick of hearing that, and I bring it up only because that’s a comparison I’ve made myself between game writing and travel writing, and it feels like the meat of what you and Ian and Jim were after. Is that how you think of it? If you could go back in time and erase the bad parts of being the guy who coined NGJ, is that really the essence of what you guys were saying?
KG: It’s clearly something that a lot of people think about games in that way. It’s one of the fruitful ways you can write about games. It’s not the only way to think about games, but it’s quite fruitful.
RP: I want to talk to Evan about this, because I haven’t been to every game convention in the past year – I’ve been to a lot of them – but every one I’ve been to, Evan has been to as well. Evan, do you think of games journalism as travel journalism?
N. Evan Van Zelfden: Definitely. I mean, I was always more interested in developer culture than writing about the games themselves, so one of the things I would do is go to different cities. I toured Dallas, Chicago, Montreal and found that each city has a unique developer culture. It’s because whenever there’s a large company – here Austin had Origin, and Origin closed and everyone went off to start a different company. It’s fascinating. You’ve got these little city states of game developers across the world.
RP: How’s that translate into the work? Going back to the travel journalist metaphor … with game journalism, how do you sell for example, The Economist or The New York Times Magazine an article about games, particularly about a game niche that most people don’t even know exists?
JD: That’s a song and dance we’re all used to by now. You have to convince them that the people who inhabit this place are wacky enough to merit some attention. Or that this is a part of a trend that may not be the world they live in, but it’s the world their kids will live in … crap like that.
It all has some merit, but what it comes down to is you know as a journalist that there’s something vital and interesting in this space, and you sell it to them however you can.
I would be careful to not get too hung up on the travel writing metaphor as a literal one. … It’s not that game culture represents foreign culture, but the experience of playing a game is more an experience than the reading of a novel or watching a film, and is more likely to generate randomly interesting experiences in the way travel does. And a lot of the meaning of games resides in those random encounters.
RP: That taps into a key difference … with travel journalism you’re writing about [places] for people who will never go there. But with games, that’s not necessarily the case. Anybody could play a game, so does that inform the difference in how the material is handled?
KG: I partially think travel is a lot easier now anyway. … Now there’s a degree of travel that people can do even on not particularly incredibly economically advantaged backgrounds. Travel journalism has changed in that way. But games … I’ve never played EVE, I’ll never play EVE, but I like reading what Jim has to say about it. I’m more likely to go to Madagascar than play it. … It’s not analogous in many ways, but in that particular way I think it is. There’s something to reading about games you won’t play, and if it makes you want to go there, that’s great.
EVZ: It also depends on who you’re writing for. If it’s a more mainstream audience, people aren’t likely to visit that world. If you’re writing for a consumer gaming magazine where everybody’s going to go out and buy a game, it’s more like a backpacking guide than a travelogue.
RP: You guys are all (I assume) making your living as journalists.
JD: Barely, but yeah.
RP: How do you wake up one day and decide this is something you want to do?
KG: I mainly work for professional games magazines. In my case, it’s just kind of horrific … literally a bloke approached me in a pub and asked if I wanted to write for a magazine. Club rather, when I was like 19 at university. … And I kind of started freelance writing for small British magazines. And in my case, I got enough contacts and I know enough people in the industry, so for me it was quite simple. Or natural, if that makes any sense. I didn’t’ actually hunt it down.
EVZ: There was a very smart editor who told me once that a goal of a freelancer is to get a staff position. And he was absolutely correct. When you’re a freelancer, you spend more time pitching, more time trying to keep track of your schedule than you ever do actually writing. But it does give you the advantage of writing all the stories you think are interesting for all the publications you think are interesting.
JD: In the context of games journalism per se, I think my career is probably so idiosyncratic as to not be of any use to someone trying to shape a career for themselves. Except in so far as it’s a warning that you never know what’s going to happen.
JD (cont’d.): I was a music writer. I started out in the late ’80s as a pop music writer with a minor specialty in Brazilian popular music, and I just got interested in the internet as a cultural medium. I was already interested in popular music as a democratic form, and the internet seemed more so. I was already in that realm and I just paid attention. So I went in to LambdaMOO and I hung out there.
I wasn’t necessarily chasing a story. It was really a matter of one day at the staff room at The Village Voice talking about this thing I had seen a night earlier at LambdaMOO … the editor said, “You should probably do a story about that.”
So that kind of space, though I’ve tried to get away from it, has been my bread and butter.
Evan’s right. Anyone with any brian in their head would not try to be a freelancer for any longer than it takes to get a staff position. But if the brains in your head keep you heading in directions that no one publication can really accommodate, then you’d better stay a freelancer. That’s what I’ve done, and it’s allowed me to be focused on not just the online gaming world, but a very peculiar niche of that and still pay the rent.
RP: Because it’s a written format, because there’s that written component to the community, people get sidetracked or star struck and think that if they can write in a forum, they can write for a website or a magazine. But the key element is not being able to put two words together, it’s knowing what’s interesting about the thing, right?
EVZ: I would say everyone can be a writer, but not everyone can get published. And being a journalist, that getting published part is helpful.
JD: It’s important that you can frame these things in a way that a non-Halo audience can relate to.
RP: N’Gai, what’s your story?
N’Gai Croal: The really interesting version is that the editor of Newsweek was a Stanford alumnus and I went to Stanford, and I wrote a column there that was critical of a Newsweek cover story on gangsta rap. And he called me and asked me what I didn’t like about it, and I explained it to him and he offered me an internship. But I actually got an job offer for the Washington Post, so I took the job, but Newsweek sort of kept track of me, and six months later I interviewed, and that’s how I ended up at Newsweek writing about technology.
How I got into writing about games was back in ’99. I was sort of curious about the PlayStation era … I was just curious as to how games had evolved since I’d been playing them in ’94. I came out studying film in college and I was saying, “Have games hit the Citizen Kane phase?”
I got Newsweek to sign off on a two and a half week tour of the game industry. So I started with Bungie in Chicago, then I went to Dallas and met with GOD and id and Ion. Then to California where I met with Sony and Sega … and then I went to Redmond and met with Microsoft and Nintendo. And I came back and my head was spinning, and I said to my editors, “I think I’ve seen the future and we need to be covering this.”
RP: How do you resist … when you go to those developer houses … how do you resist that urge to walk into Bungie and look around and see the money being thrown around and how much fun they’re having and say, “Screw this journalism crap, that’s what I want to do”?
NC: At the time, I was so uneducated about videogames that I had no idea how a game was made. … I assumed that … the model that I understood more would be the model that got Romero thrown out of id: Designer throws a design document on a table and the minions go build the game. But there’s a lot more to it than that.
Honestly I think it’s easy to resist the way the game industry’s structured now. I’m still kind of shook from the ea_spouse thing. That’s not the life I want to lead. I have a pretty good life right now.
I ask these guys: How do you stay motivated working on a game for two to three years? I don’t get it.
JD: Remember what we’re talking about: One of the key elements of the job description is being able to explain it to people outside of the industry. So I think those of us who can make a go of this are already constitutionally inclined to think of ourselves as outsiders. It’s hard for me to imagine myself as in that world.
RP: The majority of games journalism is not like those of us here who have a professional bent and a journalism background. It’s folks on blogs and on their personal sites and going to shows for the swag, and more and more of these folks are in it just to get the contacts to get into games. What do y’all think about that?
EVZ: I think absolutely everyone wants to be a designer. … There’s a very fine line between thinking “this could be done better” and thinking “I could do this better myself.”
KG: In the U.K., games development is incredibly poor. I have one friend … they told me his pay, and I couldn’t afford to eat. Everyone wants to be a designer, and somehow if you could magically become in charge of a magical world maybe you would, but the idea of being one person in a machine of a hundred people … I’m completely mentally incapable of doing that. … The autonomy of [writing] appeals to me. It would feel wrong of me to [go into development].
NC: I was going to say maybe the Luke Smiths and the Greg Kasavins are the Truffauts and Godard’s of our generation, although I don’t know if Goddard would have settled for being a community manager.
EVZ: I think there are two factors: One is that in the media it’s hard to have a good job because magazines are always closing down. … It’s hard to be a journalist. The other element is they always sort of wanted to make games anyway.
KG: Part of the problem about game journalism isn’t really about game journalism per se. It’s part of the larger cultural malaise about journalism. It’s the much larger issue about the media and the public and how people, process that stuff. So part of me thinks maybe we shouldn’t be so hard on ourselves. There’s good work being done and maybe that’s the best we can hope for.
For the full-length audio recording, skip to the next page.
If you’ve read this far and still want more, then the audio download is for you.
The recording is just over an hour long, and we were at the mercy of the conference call service for the quality, so bear with the pops and whistles. We wanted to generate the digital equivalent of a voice recorder placed on the table at a casual meeting of journalists at a bar, and I think that’s what we got – in every respect.
The first voice you’ll hear is mine, interrogating Julian Dibbell about his latest article for New York Times Magazine. His is the second voice, then N. Evan Van Zelfden joins in. The Englishman is Kieron Gillen, and joining last is N’Gai Croal, who sounds confusingly like Van Zelfden, so beware.
The Escapist’s Game Writer Round Table Download (MP3 – 64 min, 30MB)