I was there when it all changed.
Permit me to explain. Back around October 2000, in the wake of the upcoming publication of my very first book (an e-book titled Diablo: Demonsbane), I pitched a radical idea to one of the people running the fansite DiabloII.net: a regular column running every two weeks covering video game issues. Not reviews or strategy guides, but issues. The column would be named Garwulf’s Corner, after one of my Battle.net characters.
At the time, this concept was revolutionary. Consider the video game media today. It has its scandals, but it also has a lot of breadth and depth in the types of writing you’ll encounter. There’s industry news, analysis, criticism, op-ed pieces, reviews, previews, and the occasional strategy guide. There are more and more videos with commentary and analysis. But, back then, it was a different world.
There were two main printed magazines for fans of non-console gaming in January 2000 — Computer Gaming World and PC Gamer. Computer Gaming World took it as a point of pride that they required reviewers to actually finish the game before writing a review, and declared that made their reviews better, although in many ways the coverage by both magazines was so similar it made them almost interchangeable. Online, there were fan sites, forums, and a couple of new video game sites that had recently emerged — IGN was on the scene, as was GameSpot and the GameSpy‘s Planet Network. But, with all of these websites and publications, there were really only three kinds of articles published – reviews, previews, and strategy guides.
That’s not to say there weren’t outliers. Jessica Mulligan had spent years running an industry insider column titled Biting the Hand, but it dealt with issues on the developer side rather than the game content itself. To do a regular column ignoring the usual review-preview-strategy guide trifecta of game articles and take a more in-depth look at computer game content … that was something new.
Pitching Garwulf’s Corner was easy — Diabloii.net had interviewed me during the publicity stage of Demonsbane, and the site owners had been quite friendly. I told them I wanted to do a regular column and asked if they’d be interested, and they said “Yes.” As for why I pitched the column, it was a project that was a long time coming. I had spent month after month reading the gaming magazines at Digital Gamer — a LAN gaming place in Kingston my friends and I frequented — and being frustrated with the shallowness of the coverage. In 1998 I had sent an article about where the computer game fit into the modern mythology to Computer Gaming World, and while Johnny Wilson (CGW‘s editor) wasn’t interested in it, he had liked my style and offered me the chance to review Myth II, kicking off my professional writing career. But, I wanted to do more – I wanted to write about computer games as an art form, and engage with what their content actually meant. I didn’t care about reviews, or strategy guides, or how well a new graphics engine would be able to render a trenchcoat. With nobody writing the sort of things about computer games that I wanted to read, it seemed logical to just write a column saying them myself.
The way I wrote the column was heavily inspired by Harlan Ellison’s An Edge in My Voice, which had been reprinted in Edgeworks Volume I when I was an undergraduate. From Ellison I learned that the important thing for a columnist was to raise the question – being right was useful, being informed was essential, but being able to provoke an intelligent discussion was the victory condition.
The topics were inspired by whatever had struck my fancy — most of them used Diablo as a starting point, but then drifted to other games. The style was conversational, using an irreverent humor with copious fruit references that allowed me to broach occasionally more difficult topics without becoming too preachy.
The first installment — an introduction drawing from my first experiences with Diablo at a comic shop in Richmond Hill back in the mid-1990s — went up on October 31, 2000. The second — a column about video game hacks defeating the purpose of playing the game, inspired by a Battle.net game I had recently played — appeared two weeks later. With the sixth installment, a Sixth Sense-inspired look at why we play games in the first place and the difference between doing things by rote vs. because you want to, the column had come into its own – the readership had climbed to tens of thousands, many of whom would continue to visit the site to read the column long after they had stopped playing Diablo.
In the beginning, it felt like being a voice in the wilderness. Even though I occasionally did a web search to find others, I never did. Happily, though, from the very beginning the column was a two-way communication. Unlike today, where articles are published with a comment section, Garwulf’s Corner was structured far more like a traditional magazine column. My email address was published at the bottom of every installment, and most installments resulted in a flood of email. By the third installment, the reader letters were already coming in. Installment #6 would prove to be so popular that years after the column had ended, I was still receiving email about it – its message about living life and doing things because you want to, instead of habit, had resonated on a massive scale. Across the letters, some readers agreed with me, and some disagreed (and over thousands of emails across two years, I can count on one hand the number of readers who became in any way abusive). The best ones got published in feedback installments, sharing the discussion with everybody.
But, as the next two years unfolded, the world of games writing on the internet became a very different place..
I remember those years as being a golden age in computer gaming. It was a time of wild creativity, with game studios often seeming to put out titles based on what would be cool to try out. It was the age of Neverwinter Nights, of Medal of Honor, Alpha Centauri, Civilization III, Warcraft III, Blade Runner, Dungeon Keeper, Counter-Strike, Team Fortress Quake, and Diablo II. Sometimes, it worked wonderfully, and other times, not quite so well — one that proved to be a bit of a misfire was Battlezone II, a combination of a flight simulator and a real-time strategy game.
But it was also the time when everything seemed to come together. The storage and graphics technology had reached the point where really good graphics could finally appear, but the budgets were still low enough that shareware developers could crank out commercial titles that stood a chance of becoming AAA games. And as this all arose, so did we – a generation of gamers who had grown up playing computer games, and for whom they were anything but mere toys.
It started small, but I began to see articles, posts, and weblogs that discussed issues and trends in gaming like Garwulf’s Corner did. The ones that stick in my mind as the first truly positive sign was a couple of forum posts from December 2000 and August 2001 by “Tatjana” about what it was like to be a female Counter-Strike player. She described the sexism that she and other females players faced, from people asking if she was really a girl, to speculation on her looks, to discomfort at the casual rape references made by other players. Not only did she touch on a number of hot-button issues, but the reaction to her posts was overwhelmingly positive. The comments were, as a rule, thoughtful and insightful, as well as appreciative for her thoughts. Anybody who did try to flame her or act out was brought back in line by the community — a far cry from the reaction to similar articles today.
By the next year, a column about the videotape effect as applied to Freeciv garnered an editorial by Thomas van Kooten in Apolyton disagreeing with me. It was proof that not only had I managed to raise the question, but that another writer on another website had picked up the ball and run with it. Other people were standing up and writing about the same issues that I cared about, treating the computer game as a medium no different than television or the movies. We were arriving — the rest of the professional gaming media was still slow to catch up, but that didn’t stop us online.
I’m not going to claim that those who joined me in the proverbial firing line did so because they read my column and were inspired — frankly, I don’t think most of them had ever heard of me. I had the distinction of being one of the first out of the gate — throughout 2001 and 2002, more and more of my peers joined me. It was a good thing, too, because we fledgling internet writers were about to fight our first major battle.
It was a decision that today would be unthinkable. On April 19, 2002, Judge Stephen N. Limbaugh in St. Louis handed down a court ruling wherein he stripped video games of any protection under the First Amendment, declaring that video games could not receive freedom of speech rights as they were not capable of communicating ideas.
I found myself on the front lines of a battle for the very future of video games. My installment — and war shot — covering the subject was titled “To Judge a Medium.” It was one of many across the internet, with even Penny Arcade weighing in to defend computer games. The reversal of the decision wouldn’t come until June 2003, in a ruling that restored freedom of speech rights to the video games, as well as providing perhaps the first official recognition that video games were a medium of communication with the same legitimacy as movies and television.
To this day, I shudder to think of what would have happened to video games as a whole if we had not been there to join the fight. It would not be the last battle over the games themselves that the community would face — three years after Garwulf’s Corner came to an end, Leland Yee pushed through a law attempting to control who could buy games, and another fight began. It would end in 2010 in the Supreme Court, with every single court and court of appeal agreeing the law was unconstitutional and that video games were protected under freedom of speech.
The last installment of Garwulf’s Corner was published on October 28th, 2002. By then, the world of video game media had changed.
In 2000, most of the media considered video games as a whole to be a toy. There was next to no industry commentary, or critical examination of the medium or its content. By the time the last installment of Garwulf’s Corner hit Diabloii.net, the ‘net was filled with video game commentary, from fan sites to forums to news sites. The old trifecta was still there, but it was being swiftly overcome by commentary and industry analysis. Strategy guides that had once warranted treatment as full features had become side-notes.
In 2004, Kieron Gillen speculated about the future of games journalism, arguing that to succeed future games writers would have to focus on the gamer rather than the game, and write “travel journalism to imaginary places.” Regardless of how true or accurate Gillen’s predictions have proven, the way games were covered had changed. The Escapist was founded on July 15, 2005. The first issue had no reviews, previews, or strategy guides — it talked about what it was to be a gamer, whether games were art, and the state of the industry. That tradition continues in many outlets all over the internet.
The games media of today was made possible by the ground writers like me broke. Today, it is not free of scandals or growing pains. Particularly in regards to reviews, there are still places where the struggle between independence and the need for advertising dollars from video game publishers is still being played out. But, video games today are treated as art, rather than toys. To be counted among those who helped make that happen, regardless of how big or small my contribution ended up being, I will always consider one of the greatest honors of my life.
Robert B. Marks is an author, editor, researcher, and publisher living in Kingston, Ontario. He is the author of Diablo: Demonsbane, Garwulf’s Corner, The EverQuest Companion, and co-author of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Agora. Garwulf’s Corner: An Odyssey into Diablo and the World Beyond the Video Game, is now available in print and Kindle from Legacy Books Press.