typewriter.jpg[Regular GSW column 'The Game Anthropologist' is all about gaming communities. So, last week, Michael Walbridge interviewed a number of game writers and summarized their thoughts on why so many game writers spend their spare time writing even more on their personal spaces. In the coming weeks, Walbridge will be detailing some of the key points from the individual interviews conducted for the piece. This week describes the first interview with Newsweek writer N'Gai Croal.]

N'gai was the first writer I interviewed, but not the first person I contacted. On the first day I started asking, which was June 6th, N'gai responds with "Can you do a phone interview at 4pm EST...i.e. in 20 minutes?"

Um.

I realize that it's Friday. He's a busy man, he happened to be in his office, and he has about an hour left before his work week, if it has any semblance of normal standards, is over. In short, I get lucky, and I also don't have my questions because I assumed that I'd have the weekend to write them. Guess not.

So I don't have a way of recording phone calls. I still wonder how a good way to do this would be--not everyone will agree to Skype. They may have better things to do, and they may not be interested in using a headset.

I called him in what seemed an instant later--the last time I felt like this was when I called up a girl to go on a date, a feeling I thought would never resurface in my lifetime. Who the hell do I think I am? I could talk to some of these other people, sure, but an editor at Newsweek? As my very first interview that I'm doing in video games land? When I just have one commentless little first article on a column at GameSetWatch?

"Hi," I say. My first question is incredibly stupid, yet I don't realize how laughably bad it is until weeks later; I'm still embarrassed every time I remember. "So uh, how do you pronounce your name?"
"Guy," he says. Stupid Sprint service blind spot in my stupid apartment! "Excuse me, what?" I say politely.

"Guy," I hear again.

Crap. Well, I'd better get on with it--I can find out how to pronounce it from someone else. I can do that thing where I never use his name in the conversation, and he'll never know. He's an extremely polite fellow; in what little time I had for imagination I thought that he would sound like a New Yorker, with all the speed that implies that every word being said is worth money; and your money, too, so let's get this thing the hell over with.

But that's not what he sounds like--he sounds like he could be from the Midwest, or maybe California (he went to Stanford, I learn); I don't know where he's from, but he sounds very relaxed, and this relaxes me, despite what happens next.

“What is Level Up for, exactly? Why do you write?”

He was gentle with me. “Well, I’m curious to know what you think it’s for.” He sounded almost like a preacher who was trying to convert me--I'm not really sure where he's going with this. My interview skills are already being tested; I have to learn to talk with this Gai, not just interview him. Thankfully, I'm good at talking and bullshitting, or at least think I am, so I answer with some semblance of confidence.

“Uh…I would guess it’s a blog to discuss games and the game industry from different perspectives,” I gulped. Something like that--non-committal and without possibly conflicting with whatever he would surprise me with. Yeah, that'll work.

“Sure,” he said. “The short answer for why I made it is: to write about what interests me.” I was disappointed with this answer at first, but he elaborated: “I write about the art and craft of games. I’m aiming to writing intelligently about the games business with the knowledge and feel that what happens at game companies is affecting what we get to play.” He also spoke of trying to add more variety to his blog, “mixing in some essays about people, problems, trends, and a little bit of culture and art.”

Looking for a story, I said “What about these other blogs I’ve mentioned? Is there a common purpose or mission or method? Can the writing you’re all doing be labeled?” He mentions something about indie film and New Black Cinema and I have no idea what he's talking about, because I know don't know about those things.

I had to remember that more than almost any of these other writers with a heavy Internet presence, N’Gai has traditional, “regular” experience, and that hit home very hard by the time I was done. “It’s a lofty ambition to change coverage of games,” he told me. “I don’t think my writing could affect that. I’m just trying to fill it with interest.”

Oh! I get it. He's a journalist, after the old sort. He mentions one of the few things I already know--he has been writing since 1995. Level Up is an extension, a piece of his vast and superior multifaceted career (my words, not his). I remember something Leigh Alexander said to him on her own blog: that she views his position as the ideal place for her to end up, but that she doesn't begrudge him--he's earned it.

I take it in that direction, asking about coverage in the mainstream press. I treat him like a regular journalist and he gives me some juicy tidbits about journalism as a whole.

"Printed publications are shrinking and in the middle of layoffs, so the first area to go is the entertainment and arts section. And in there is video games. How high a priority are they going to place them? It's harder to convince editors that games merit coverage."

Awesome, and simple, and something I could have figured it if I'd thought about--game coverage struggles in the mainstream publications because (duh) mainstream publications as a whole are struggling. "We should be thankful we've got what we have," I think.

I still press the issue: why are games not desirable to be covered? What problems are there with game writing? He had said the traditional models are broken, after all.

Continuing with the issue of general difficulties in the publishing industry: "Less space contributes to reductivism; much space is used to compare games to other media. But it doesn't reveal enough. What we also usually see is a game's plot summary, what things the player can do, and how similar it is to other games."

There are exceptions; he dishes to me about some other publications and pieces and tells me what he likes and dislikes about them, and he talks to me about the state of the industry; as a professional he tells me it's all technically on the record; I know that he'd probably rather not see a quote about him talking about some other publication the next day, so I simply convey I'm interested in it but not for the sake of my article. This makes the interview extend to about 35 minutes.

Toward the end, and knowing he will be best qualified to answer, I introduce a new topic: "Do you think this is generational? Like, it's simply because most editors are baby boomers?"

Again, he gives me an opinion that is the most realistic and perhaps most depressing and encouraging at the same time. He says something different from what most of the other people I interview say.

"Sure, my editors are mainly boomers, so they have a harder time understanding. But it's my job to write well." He adds, "I have editors who indulge me--they did on GTA IV and MGS 4." I pause, distracted by the uninteresting fact that these games use different symbols for four.

Oh, right. But "no"?! Games aren't generally more accepted, played, talked and thought about by people between the ages of 10 and 40 compared to people between the ages of 40 and 70? Why? Why? "I agree. There's a lot of bad writing about games out there, but still, don't you think that some good writing about games is rejected due to simple differences?"

"Time won't fix it," he warns me. "There are editors you could call 'young fogeys' who don't know games. If they don't know, they don't know. It's my job as a writer to make it interesting."

I think on this. For the Xth time, he enunciates slowly and pauses so I can write. He gets that I'm not using a recorder, even if I probably should. He's a professional, he understands the older style of journalism I'm trying to do that he used to. Young fogeys? I'd have to agree, especially if that young fogey is a woman. I remind myself to ask the only woman I'm interviewing and indeed, the only other one who at this point has confirmed that she will interview, about what she thinks about the other divide. And I think for the Zth time: this guy is a professional, and definitely knows what he's talking about.

I gush as I thank him. He reminds me (okay, now he's definitely giving advice on how to write this) not to let his opinion color the whole thing as I write it, but it's too late. I've already had some conceptions shattered and I can't help but take a new approach when I talk to Kieron Gillen 5 days later. Any questions about games journalism are questions about journalism as a whole.

The original email I sent to N'Gai, with my wide eyes beaming, reflects one thing only: how I felt at the time I started this piece. By the time I was done, this was not the approach I'd taken when interviewing everyone else, even though I sent similar emails to everyone else.

"I write one of the columns at GameSetWatch. I'd like to do a piece on "intellectual" gaming websites and I'm contacting some of the people who make them. I was wondering if we could chat. If you are exceedingly busy, I'd be happy to just send a few questions along and get a few pat answers. If you're willing to talk, I'm open to Ventrilo, phone, Aim/Xfire, Gmail chat, email, etc.

Example question: what you would even call Brainy Gamer, SVGL, Level Up, and similar blogs? Do they merit a classification?

Let me know if/when/how you are available. It's not an extended interview--I'm going to talk to as many as I can and get some material from a variety of places, so it won't be putting you or Level Up on the spot. The format is casual/newsy with quotes from different figures and places.

Thank you,
Michael Walbridge"