In this article I confront the New Games Journalism movement, and take a look at where it went. As a wonderfully tongue-in-cheek article over at Hardcasual.net parodies, it is becoming obvious that we produced a dysfunctional and narcissistic child. While I cannot pretend to have the “answer” or “fix” for our current crisis, I do offer what I think is a credible alternative. We need to open a dialogue on this issue, I think, instead of diagnosing and treating it like an out-patient. This involves our very identity as gamers, and without a hard look at ourselves we are at risk of repeating a long, uninteresting, history.
A Bit of History
In the last three years I have witnessed a trend in game journalism and game writing. Throughout the 80s and 90s, and the first half of the new millennium, major print publishers were our primary source of game reviews. Cries of review bias and a lack of journalistic integrity were ubiquitous in the 90s… and represented a general discomfort with the idea of a publication being the arms-length advertising appendage of a major console/game publisher. Especially now, it is hard to conceive of Nintendo Power as a credible journalistic source. But, I can remember being 13 years old, dropping five bucks every month on the latest copy of GamePro magazine, knowing that its reviews were skewed at best, and all-out fabricated at worst. I bought a copy of Faceball 2000 for my GameBoy based on a raving review, only to find out it was a horrifically unplayable bastardization of Wolfenstein 3-D. But I still swallowed it, and purchased games in a frenzy.
The De-institutionalization Movement.
Fast-forward to 2005. Twenty years of cynicism mounted, and the “indie” game movement was gaining momentum. All of a sudden gamers and bloggers alike were crying for deeper, less biased, reviews of games. For the next couple of years we tossed accusations of marketing bias and journalistic poverty at the major online review networks, and saw them slowly crumble to what they are now. And I should be clear here… I think the de-institutionalization of game reviewing/writing was a major and welcome disruption of the status quo, and we are better for it. We saw smaller blogs sprout from the collective disillusionment, and the last three years have seen a gradual growth of this “new games journalism”, such that now I do not even find myself cruising the major gaming news networks for information on the latest’n'greatest.
A New Hope.
Now that the great publishing beasts have been defeated and their ashes scattered to the four corners of the Earth, we might take a brief respite to mull over where we have ended up. The “New Games Journalism” movement proposed originally in Kieron Gillen’s Manifesto gave some of us the courage to write about our “subjective” experiences of games. And there is something liberating in the idea: instead of relying upon the traditional objective review criteria (ie. on a 1-10 scale) we could turn to our experiences for inspiration. Like Tom Wolfe, we were going to embrace the “I” in game writing. We were going to build new communities of thinkers and write deeper, more insightful, ways of understanding the boxes of bits and bytes we’ve treasured for the last 30 years.
The New Dire Straits.
But something happened along the way that corrupted the heart of the NGJ ideal. Instead of becoming deeper and more insightful, we became pretentiously intellectual. Instead of writing about our personal connections to games and what they mean for the entire social collective as loving/breathing/thinking human beings, we write about our individual opinions. Instead of understanding the game-player dialectic as a holism – one implying and transforming the other – we atomize and deconstruct gameplay and player experiences as separate things. Instead of providing deep critiques of games and reflect upon what they express of our societies as they are now, the vast majority of critiques cherry-pick superficial aspects of a game – such as an NPC’s skin-colour or gender – and perpetuate the very stereotypes they wish to undermine. Journalistic objectivity has been replaced by opinion and thinned-down experiences, rather than exploring how games-publishers-societies-experiences set the stage for our opinions of them. We ignore hundreds of years of thought on the review of art and aesthetics, and instead feed off of the blogs and inane personal judgements of game developers who are themselves part of the mess.
Most disturbing in this stillborn transition to a NGJ, I think, is an insidious double-move that involves both the critique and reliance upon “AAA” publishers and the games they release. Where the major online and print publishers of yesteryear were financially dependent upon AAA developers, we have become personally dependent upon them in terms of our identities. Yes, we rant and rave that Electronic Arts and (to a lesser extent) Ubisoft refuse to “innovate” and have become creatively complacent institutions. We pick-apart their games and show that the games they release lack interesting characters, stories, novel narrative approaches, artistic details, and rely upon tired genres and franchises. But in doing that – what new insights about the relations between human beings and games have we come to? None. Or worse, this. We now consume game writing in the same way we consume games. I assure you that the AAA publishers have not suffered because of us.
This New Games Journalism – that was originally supposed to be something like travel writing – was profoundly corrupted in a consumeristic way of thinking about gaming. Instead of reading print mags, we now rely upon blogger “impressions” or “analyses” to justify our purchasing habits, just as we have already been doing for the last 20 years. In the end, journalistic coverage of new game titles consist of “previews” or “reviews” based on web-culled images and personal opinions, the modern re-incarnation of a blogger-driven GamePro. The advertising arms of Nintendo and Sony, where once were discernible in the popular “official” magazines and criticized on that basis, have now been fully integrated in blogger game writing. We now are at the edge of the most pernicious form of self-censorship possible: we have come to understand our tastes and subjective experiences in terms of the individual consumption that the AAA game economy relies upon while at the same time pretending and affirming that our tastes are trustworthy and personal in themselves. We consume games, and write many things about them, and believe that our self-created “communities” of consumption are thoughtful, social, and sufficiently critical. They are not.
The Way Out.
I recognize that this argument will receive some opposition, especially from those deeply committed to game writing and their particular game-playing habits. I recognize my own complacency here – in most articles I have written over the years there is an enticing view of the gamer as someone on a self-critical quest for meaning and self-transformation. Rather than presuming who we are as gamers (which I myself have done for too many years), it is the gamer her/him-self who needs to question his attachment to games.
A New New Games Journalism is concerned with our very being-as-gamers, in light of the specific games we play. It is concerned with how games are both the expression of our societies and selves, and how they come to shape our personal lives in how we play them. It is not based on our opinions of whether a particular game is good or bad or boring or fun, but rather whether we should be playing these games at all or doing other kinds of things. It should be concerned with how we can play games in the light of certain personal goals, or show how particular games transform us to see the world in certain ways. It will be concerned with understanding if games are actually playful or if they are steeped in some other form of activity like consumption or violence. This New New Games Journalism has to give us new opportunities for expressing ourselves in the social arenas we live in, rather than new opportunities for self-censorship and its associated self-deception.
We must write our personal narratives and think about them – just as Kieron Gillen pointed us towards – and show how they fall into a larger living world beyond mere opinion. And in doing that we have to resist the temptation to institutionalize game writing as form of rigid and lazy academic thought, a malignant tumour already beginning to metastasize in some places, and pursue it as a form of poetic self-expression. Game journalism can be just as exciting and enlightening as playing games themselves!
Yes, de-institutionalizing game writing was a step in the right direction, yes we need to become better writers (as Chris Buffa notes), and yes getting rid of objective review criteria was a good thing. Now is the time to take the ball and run with it – we have been running-in-place at the 50 yard line for far too long. There are already some writers out there trying to eke out an existence in the collective roar, but they remain at the fringes of what is read, and require more critical engagement in order to come to a fuller and less fragmented expression. We need a new community of writers willing to try something new together, rather than perpetuate the existing style.
With all the pomp and circumstance of a 15th century aristocrat, I pronounce the New Games Journalism movement dead, rotting in the ground, and in need of a successor.
Long live New New Games Journalism!
Update: Brendan Caldwell wrote an excellent response to my article (and several others on NGJ) that both critiques my position as he sees it, and brings up new, thoughtful questions about the practice of game writing. I highly recommend reading it.
Author’s note: Although this article has been worded quite strongly, I truly mean no personal disrespect to the writers and gamers and journalists implied or critiqued here. Rather, this is an opportunity to really open up a new discourse on game writing that is sorely overdue. I hope that this produces (even heated) responses, rather than quashes them.