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How Possibly To Do Good Games Journalism, Maybe – Part 1: On Fandom

I’m just some deplorable fankid who somehow got lucky enough to end up writing for some of his favourite publications, as well as running one that people seem to like.

Games journalist?  Ha.  “Journalist” makes me sound important, as if I have something to communicate that’s necessary for the greater good.  Which, of course, every inch of my brain screams that I do.  I’m having to work bloody hard to supress that with the knowledge that it’s all completely irrelevant.

The Labour Party Conference is currently going on at the Brighton Metropole.  That’s where Develop’s held every year.  When you think about it, it’s completely bizarre that I was sitting in the same place, at the same sort of event, as this enormous group of people who have the most important job in the country.  But that’s the case with everyone that attended.  Me?  I’m at the lowest of that. I’m pretty sure I was the youngest there, except for maybe a few of the kids in the yellow helper T-shirts.  I spent most of the conference wandering around and recognising everyone from the pages of magazines, from the telly, or from wherever.  Literally no one will have recognised me.

Because I’m that little fanboy, that kid who read PC Gamer religiously from age 13 and thought, yeah, these people are actually communicating ideas about computer games for a living, and that’s exactly what I wanna be doing.  And, somehow, I’ve ended up doing it a bit.  I’ve yet to have anything published in print (actually, that’s a lie, I’ve had plenty of music-related stuff in print, just not games stuff), but my credits do, somehow, include Eurogamer and Gamasutra, among others.  But I’m not deluding myself.  I’m no journalist.  I’m a lad who loves games, and writing, and writing about games.

The question is: How many games journalists is that the case for?

Other questions include: Is it a bad thing or a good thing?  and What can the professionals learn from the fanzines, the bloggers and the angry young men on forums?

Swiftly darting back to Develop, I recall a conversation with excellent-actual-games-journalist Mat Kumar, in which he referred to his job as “being given free money.”  He loves games and writing so much, he said, that he’d be doing it as a hobby however his career had turned out – so to be in a position where people are paying him to do that is basically no job at all.  Which is totally how I feel whenever I get a cheque through for this.  But then, I am still in a position where it’s novel.  He’s not.  Kumar’s about as journalistic as games journalists get.  He’s written for basically everywhere worth writing for, reporting on all manner of industry facets and producing deep, investigative studies.  He’s a journalist.  Yet he still has that streak of fandom that runs through everything he does.

Let’s back up.  What is journalism?

“Journalism is the craft of conveying news, descriptive material and comment via a widening spectrum of media.”  That’s from Wikipedia, so it’s probably wrong, but it’ll serve as a nice description here.  News, description and commentary. How well does that fit in with games writing? Stop for a moment and ponder that.

How about this?  “A fanzine is a nonprofessional and nonofficial publication produced by fans of a particular cultural phenomenon (such as a literary or musical genre) for the pleasure of others who share their interest.”

So the key difference to me seems to be the notion of professionalism or officiality.  There’s also the implied idea that fanzines are just about communicating something for fun, rather than out of necessity.  But, as we realised earlier, there’s very little necessary to communicate about games.  I mean, really.  Just stop for a moment and think about how ludicrous games journalism is, as a job.  My girlfriend works for the NHS, currently in a multi-disciplinary team working with consultants to organise effective treatment for cancer patients.  Soon, she’ll be starting a new job in a mental health unit.  That’s a job.  A real one.  A sensible, valuable, important one.  Me?  I sit in our bedroom all day and vomit thoughts about videogames all over the internet.  I’d say it’s pretty essential to get that into your mind straight away as a budding games critic: this is a fucking stupid job.  You need to love it, be in absolute adoration for your craft and content, but make no mistake, you’d be making more of a difference as a refuse collector.  Significantly more, if the current state of Leeds is anything to go by.  And even with the imminent pay cuts you’d probably earn more money.

So what drives us to it?  A desire to be professional and report on matters of cultural importance, or the sheer joy of A) playing computer games and B) stringing words together in a unique and creative manner?  Really?

So maybe we’re all just fanboys.  Does that mean games journalism is inherently flawed?  Many have suggested so, especially since the rise of ‘Web 2.0’ – whatever the hell that means – and the sheer abundance of new, volunteer-run sites and blogs that crop up on a daily basis, promising “games reviews by gamers for gamers” and other such buzzphrases.  They’re cheapening the craft, many have said.  I said that, actually, not too long ago.  A PR had told me, when I asked about press access for Resolution, that they didn’t provide it for fanzines.  Fanzines?  Bloody fanzines.  There are so many of them that everyone assumes each new games website is merely a fanzine.

But… actually, “merely” isn’t the right word at all.

There’s a reason people flock to these sites.  There’s a reason people read a review on a popular website and say “sounds good, but I’ll wait for the user reviews.”  People assume games journalists are not on the same wavelength as themselves because that’s what games journalism is so desperate to present itself as.  Some sort of elitest club in which only the most deeply thoughtful, analytical and critical reporters can be a true member.  And, don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of room for that, depending on your audience.  If you’re writing for the industry, or academia, or people with a huge interest in the specific nuances of game design and reception, then sure, that’s pretty much what you need to be aiming for.  But that’s such a niche.  Games themselves are a niche, but a hell of a lot bigger than that.  Is games journalism doing its readership a disservice by pretending to be anything other than fanboys who got lucky?

Consider why you play games in the first place.  When was the moment that you realised, wow, I absolutely love playing games?  Perhaps it was as a kid, way back when gaming first emerged.  Perhaps it was later, as they matured; or only recently, as they become a solid and established artform.  Either way, what did you feel?  Did you sit back, stroke your beard and say “I believe there is an important message to communicate here, one the world simply must hear this instant”?  Maybe.  But, more probably, you thought “Wow… this is awesome.”

Whether games are about escapism, entertainment, channeling aggression or appreciating the beauty of human craft, there’s one thing that ties most of us together, and that’s the reason we play them.  And that reason is a childlike, wide-eyed fascination with what the medium is doing.  Games are brilliant.  They’re mesmerising, and clever, and beautiful, and joyous, and devious, and brilliant.  So it strikes me that the only sensible way to write about videogames for a mass audience is from the perspective of that little kid, that precocious idiot that got his first subscription to PC Gamer around the time of the millennium and thought, “Hell yeah, I wanna tell people how much I love games too.”

There’s a place for in-depth criticism, and I’ll continue to write it.  There’s a place for in-depth, investigative research, and barring a lawsuit threat I’ll keep digging for that too.  But what I most want to communicate with the world is that I, like all of you lot, absolutely love playing videogames.  Here’s one I love!  Here’s why I love it!  Here’s how I understand that you love it too!  Here’s one great big slurred toast to this wonderful, creative, ambitious medium that’s providing young and old alike with sheer joy!  And here’s why we all coexist as one happy family, dedicated to playing and discussing videogames, gormless grins plastered on our geeky little faces!

Fanzines aren’t ruining games journalism.  They’re representative of that wide-eyed little kid inside all of us that’s just totally mesmerised by what’s happening on that screen in front of him.  If we’re not videogame fans, complete raving gaming lunatics, then we’re barking up the wrong tree by trying to get into this games writing business.  I think we really need to accept that to make steps forwards.

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4 responses »

  1. “So what drives us to it? A desire to be professional and report on matters of cultural importance, or the sheer joy of A) playing computer games and B) stringing words together in a unique and creative manner? Really?”

    It is all three for me really, and I put that simply down to studying History and Politics at University, it made me realise that while part of me is writing about games because I love gaming and enjoy sharing my thoughts, there is another part of me which wants to write about games in a culturally relevant style. That I think is why I wrote about China in my RPS.

    Reply
  2. I think that all-important vein of fandom is what keeps many people going. But I would think that: I consider myself an outsider looking in, a faceless writer, writing about games because I love them, but forever criticising myself because I can never articulate the way gaming makes my synapses and neurons pop and fizzle with an energy that’s virtually unmatched by any other form of media.

    I write because I enjoy it, but also because I don’t feel right if I’m not. I’ve often come across the sentiment that fanzines are for writers desperate to break-in to the industry. On some instances that’s obviously true, I wouldn’t turn down full-time hours, but it’s hardly like we’re chasing some kind of elusive money trail. I write because I love playing games, and I’ll do it in whatever capacity I can for as long as I’m able.

    Even now, when I’ve done all the work that I can for today, I’m left wanting to write more. It’s fandom that drives me forward. What else could it be?

    Reply
  3. Yes, yes, yes. Games are weird because, unlike movies and music, they’re arrestingly complex. You can dismiss them as toys, you can elevate them as art, but there’s this section of the userbase that just… stares… in… wonder.

    I think computer games really are important, but only because fun is important. I think it’s right that the most respected publications are also the most hilarious. I think we are complex enough to hold simultaneously those two ideals, those two appraisals of what games are. A twelve year old with a black polo-neck and a goatee, stroking it, muttering: “I conclude that this is fucking awesome. 9/10 get.”

    Reply
  4. Great post, right now I’m trying to remember what was my first gaming experience and when I started getting more deeply into games…

    Reply

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