Column: The Game Anthropologist: 'A Community That Writes About Games'
[The Game Anthropologist chronicles Michael Walbridge's ventures into gaming communities as he reports on their inhabitants and culture. This column is a summary of Michael's interviews with six prominent and prolific game writers and one professor who all have one thing in common: they spend a lot of time blogging, too.]
A Changing Industry
It’s no secret that game journalism and writing about games is dramatically changing, but what’s not so simple is describing or naming those changes. Even more difficult is determining whether personal, alternative writing spaces can be considered communities, and how they function.
Chris Dahlen’s Save the Robot and Leigh Alexander’s now retired The Aberrant Gamer are two of my favorite GameSetWatch columns. I have since followed these writers to their blogs, Save the Robot and Sexy Videogameland. I noted that in the blog chain they are a part of, sites such as Dubious Quality and Giant Bomb kept reappearing, as if there are common ties. I couldn’t see any explicit mention of these ties, however.
As a newcomer with a puny blog and very few paying game writing assignments to call my own, I thought it fascinating that so many overworked, 50+ hours a week journalists were, for no pay and not necessarily as part of their work, keeping frequently updated blogs. At work they write and when they’re taking a break they’re…still writing. “Why, when they’re taking a break, are they still writing? Why aren’t they, I don’t know, playing video games? They certainly don’t get to do that as much as they’d like….”
The Blogging of Champions
I’ve participated in these sites by reading, commenting, reading comments, and commenting on commenters and their comments. Still, these journalists (and one professor) must know their readers better than I do, so I interviewed some of the ones that have a stronger presence.
In order, I talked to N’Gai Croal of Newsweek’s Level Up; Kieron Gillen from Rock, Paper, Shotgun; Leigh Alexander of Sexy Videogameland; Shawn Elliott, an editor at 1Up; Chris Dahlen of Save The Robot; Michael Abbott at The Brainy Gamer; and Mitch Krpata of Insult Swordfighting.
They had a lot to say: I talked to them for about 45 minutes each (though one was for only 20 and another was for about 75). They said so much that I don’t have enough space here to cover each person in totality.
To my advantage, however, is the fact that they have a variety of backgrounds despite having so much in common, and the fact that I have seven people’s opinions instead of just one or two. I discovered what they did and didn’t share.
We discussed the nature of current games writing in the games press, why they put so much work into their blogs when they already write plenty at their gigs, whether they consider their blogs as communities, and where they hope the industry heads next.
There Are Things You Don’t Talk About In Public
Things they have in common:
-- Dissatisfaction with the traditional way games have been covered and analyzed. From N’gai Croal: “The traditional models of games journalism are broken. People who have a curiosity about games don't want to be shackled by rules that are found in the enthusiast press and sometimes found in the mainstream press. The monologues and dialogues on blogs, forums, and now websites have generally become more interesting.”
-- A desire for their own personal space for writing and discussion - despite writing plenty for their workweek. Leigh Alexander on Sexy Videogameland: “I wasn't sure what it was for at first--it was simply a repository for my thoughts and a place to practice my voice."
“Well, you certainly have a lot of practice now,” I said. “Why do you have it now?” For the same reasons, but now that she’s become more successful, she also writes because: “It's still important for me to be able to say things I want when there is nowhere to publish them."
Kieron Gillen is also successful, having written at many mainstream publications. “I've been a games journalist for a decade at least. 13 years. RPS (Rock, Paper, Shotgun) is an outlet for our PC stuff because we're not seeing people write about the format the way we want to.”
“It's just part time. Games journalism doesn't tend to emphasize the PC. But I do. So commercially and intellectually, making and working on RPS makes the most sense because it's not something anyone else does. It's especially an approach that American readers don't often see, in terms of tone.”
-- The way they wish to write and discuss games. Mitch Krpata noted: "Much of what is being written is 'How fun is it to hop on this multiplayer?', but not 'How are the people really interacting with this game?' or anything else reflecting on the people who play it. That should be the real basis for what we're covering instead of the way they're being reviewed now."
--The roughly common wish for the way they hope games writing will be covered in the future. Shawn Elliott is experimenting with this new style on his member blog on 1UP.com. Of change, he says that “The notion of a non-enthusiast style of writing is new, but it was inevitable that it would come.”
Mitch Krpata, who writes for the alternative weekly the Boston Phoenix, said “The more games are accepted by the mainstream, the more games writing can change. The New York Times, the Phoenix, and other mainstream publications aren't relying on video game advertising dollars--that's why they read differently.”
-- They really want you to really read and get to know them, and actually talk with them.
Regarding his blog, Chris Dahlen says that “The community side evolved on its own. There aren't many visitors, but those that do comment I know pretty well. It's more satisfying to hear from the narrow group of my own blog, not the few or zero I hear from regarding pieces I write at publications.”
Things most of them have in common:
-- A craving for approval amidst some general anxiety despite being highly confident about their ability to think and write. Many are used to criticism and flaming. Despite being highly polite and civil, they sometimes receive feedback that isn’t.
Michael Abbott told me about someone who disagreed. "I once got an email that just said 'Or you could just go read Hamlet.' I'm guessing he meant games don't have enough meaning and that they're inferior. There is resistance out there, but I think we have to plow through that."
-- They all know each other and interact on a regular basis, even if it’s not readily apparent. Phone calls, AIM, working together at different outlets, and recommending each other aren’t uncommon.
-- They are helpful and want more people to join the conversation by comments and writing. As mentioned earlier, all of the writers were generous with their time and honesty.
“Would you say there is a hunger for this [type of discussion amongst people who play games?]” I asked Michael Abbott. “I have a feeling that might be right,” he admitted. “My only evidence is from the emails I've gotten that basically say 'Oh thank God someone's talking intelligently about games', which is encouraging. And I’ve found older gamers are the hungriest….I'd say, 30s and older.”
-- With the exception of Michael, who is not a journalist, they wish there were more ways to be paid to write about games in the way they like.
Things about which they feel differently:
-- Having a name or label for the type of writing these blogs entail. N’Gai was hesitant: “I’ll let you pick a name; it’s your article.” Kieron Gillen certainly wasn’t going to; he wrote the treatise The New Games Journalism, which blew up in his face. “The way the whole thing turned was not something I foresaw," he said. “It was more of a letter, really. I was speaking to my peers, not the readers, and so it ended up seeming condescending to some people. Most people thought it said 'no reviews.’ People thought I was trying to change games journalism—I was simply trying to add to it.”
Leigh Alexander was confident with “Games Criticism”. I took that title to everyone I interviewed after her and they cautiously accepted it, though they weren’t sure what exactly constituted games criticism. “I think game criticism is a good term for us to use, but I don't think there's much being done. I'd say Ian Bogost is definitely doing it right, though,” Chris Dahlen mused.
Shawn Elliott said, “Games criticism has the potential to be a term we use. I come from a literary background, so I'd be picky about what qualifies. I'd say that some of the writing we've seen recently holds up to that term.”
-- Whether their blogs are home truly home to a community. Michael Abbott and Leigh Alexander considered their blogs communities, something I had to agree with. Not only are there plenty of loyal readers, but often the commenters hold discussions, something rarely seen outside of high-traffic sites like Slashdot or Kotaku.
Michael and Leigh’s commenters even influence content: Michael asked what RPGs he should include in a course he was going to teach and used the number of votes to influence his picks; Leigh once wrote a post giving full attention to a well-written, humorous comment on a post she wrote about EA’s attempt to buy Take Two. Others have fewer readers and commenters. N’Gai, for example, doesn’t consider his blog home a community, but simply a place for content—it has few comments and in his eyes is simply a golden opportunity (and though it’s his creation and idea, it is still the property of Newsweek).
-- What it will take to change the way games are covered and why they aren’t being covered the way they wish it were. Some believe it will change inevitably. Some are more cautious. Others think they can contribute to change, and others feel more powerless.
The two responses I received are best summarized as “I hope it changes, but I don’t see how it will or what we can do it about” and “I think it will change, but it’s an uphill climb and I don’t know what it would take to influence those changes.” They share a common goal, but the future of the games writing field is up in the air, even for these hotshots.
Ultimately, these writers and bloggers see a demand and an interest in the kind of writing they love most (which is not the writing that supplies most of their income), even if they disagree how large that demand is. Whether the field of games journalism changes the way these game critics want it to, the discussion will inevitably continue in this form.
[AUTHOR'S NOTE: all these writers said very interesting things that are beyond the scope of this article but which I think should still be printed. Also, the way my own opinions and perceptions came about were highly influenced by the order in which I interviewed them, as well as the flow of the discussion. More details and more of their opinions will be posted on my own humble blog in the coming weeks.]