The Good, the Bad and the Angry

[The Escapist rejected. Upset. Cried into pillow all night. Silver lining: woke up with wet head. No need to shower. Wrote article anyway. May make habit of this. Ignoring rejections - not showers. Article follows...]

It wasn’t until I’d lapped round the inside of my house twenty or thirty times that I realised I was a pacer. One of those immeasurably restless rubes that keep walking up and down past the television, obscuring your view of Morrigan’s cleavage. You shouldn’t even be looking at Morrigan. You should be at work or university or looking at your girlfriend’s torso ONLY.

So I was a pacer. I was a-pacing because I was trying to think up a wee story that would fit perfectly on the world-wild-web that you are now trotting through. Saddled up on your mouse squinting like Clint Eastwood, trying to get the glare out of your eyes. Anyway, you’ve started so you may as well finish. Spit out yer tarbac and settle down Clint.

That day, late in May, I was pacing along nicely and I soon arrived at the point of my article. I was discussing the state of video games journalism in my head with an imaginary antagonist – my Private self – after having read an article posted by Chris Lepine (admittedly, over a year ago) on blog The Artful Gamer.

Lepine laments the decline of New Games Journalism – that writing concept popularised by Kieron Gillen, now of Rock, Paper, Shotgun, in 2005. Sorry. ‘Decline’ isn’t the word. Mutation. New Games Journalism had mutated, according to Lepine, into a horrible stagnant pit of opinion pieces and inane babbling. He doesn’t word it this strongly, of course, but I’m about to attack his position, so I thought I’d make him sound like a real unreasonable fella. He isn’t.

(He is though).

Anyone who has followed the New Games Journalism ‘movement’ probably wants to feed me to feral children for even mentioning the blasted premise. I’ll let it die. No, really I will. Just one more thing…

Kieron Gillen himself expressed an odd kind of quasi-remorse for even giving the movement its big ol’ push down the hill. It’s easy to think people went tumbling down that hill after the concept like so many basketcase cheese-chasers. Lepine’s thoughts are pretty much this, claiming that there were many casualties. Writers who strut and shout and fall over and have to queue up for the ambulance instead of capturing that much sought after cheese-wheel of good games writing.

But wait. Stay your hand, Judge Well-Read. There were also many brilliantly written articles. Art in themselves? I reckon (and this is just my opinion, you understand) that any ‘opinion’ pieces or inane babbling masquerading as New Games Journalism – even badly written ones – are a necessary by-product of the world of games writing.

Once you ask writers to record their subjective experiences you will always get a few pretentious wankers who will start an article by telling you something completely irrelevant and uninteresting. Like how they were pacing around their house, in deep thought, referencing theatre and being unconsciously misogynistic. Cinema, television, literature, art. They all have journalists like this. And the web is infested with Joe Blogs telling us how many slices of malt loaf they had in the morning. [Ha!] Did anyone actually think games would be any different? The sad fact is that you can’t say “let’s all record our experiences of videogames subjectively, that’ll be great craic, and oh so very arty!” and then say “waaait, hold on now, I didn’t mean you could talk only about yourself for five hundred words, and in such a non-arty way too!”

So the quality of writing appears to be the thing. Not the subjectivity. Whether it interests the reader is the big, shiny key. Not whether it fulfils some intellectual demand for a new kind of writing.

When it first surfaced, there were those who disputed whether the category of New Games Journalism should even exist and would probably still dispute it to this day. There’s something to be said for this view but for the meantime I’m happy to acknowledge ‘NGJ’ because it makes it easier to categorise, to separate from standard review copy. And let’s get this straight: these kinds of articles are not – nor do I think they are intended to be – reviews. They aren’t meant to be overtly informative. But they are meant to be entertaining.

Alex Kierkegaard, a very intelligent, very angry man, rightly critiques any piece of New Games Journalism that calls itself a ‘review’ on the grounds that it is a colossal misnomer. Game mechanics, graphics, sound and other aspects of the game which are important to people looking for a standard review are glossed over in favour of personal experience. While this is interesting and valid when given another title as a long-form feature, it isn’t what anyone considers a ‘review.’

But then Kierkegaard reveals his real problem with articles and blogs that style themselves as New Games Journalism:

“So talking about videogames is a way for a diary author to attract readers. The diary author of course mainly wants to talk about himself (his thoughts, his experiences, his travels, his friends — his boring, banal little life)…

“In short, the diary author/NGJ writer couldn’t care less about the rules of criticism or about delivering a worthwhile critique — he is simply taking advantage of the fact that a lot of people are anxiously on the lookout for information on some hot new game, grabs the chance to attract this audience, ascends on his pitiful soapboax, and proceeds to wax lyrically on any subject under the sun that interests him — above all about himself — and as a secondary consideration also on the general subject of ‘videogames.'”

Here’s a problem that is not exclusive to journalism: ego. When we read articles by a person with an enormous ego we generally have one of two natural responses.

i) We are impressed. We are influenced. We praise them. We defend them. We consider them charismatic.
ii) We are repulsed. We are resistant. We dislike them. We attack them. We consider them arrogant.

Kierkegaard appears to take the latter response to NGJ, since he states that it is invariably egotistical. But note two writers and thinkers he often quotes. One is Friedrich Nietzsche and another is George Orwell.

Nietzsche wrote an essay all about himself titled “Why I am So Wise” while Orwell begins a list of reasons for a career in writing:

“1. Sheer egoism. Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on grown-ups who snubbed you in your childhood, etc etc. It is humbug to pretend that this is not a motive, and a strong one.”

Perhaps Kierkegaard considers only prestigious and intelligent writers forgivable in indulging their ego, adopting a Kid Rockian philosophy of “It ain’t cocky motherfucker if you back it up.” A fair point. But Orwell does not keep this motive exclusively to himself – he extends it to every writer and subsequently every article (like the great article you’re reading right now, for instance) – Oh my days, I did it myself. But then again, I am very intelligent. Oh blimey, I did it again.

There were others who loathed the NGJ concept as much as if Gillen had come up to them and taken a big steamy one in their Earl Grey. Now, I love a good rant. Rants make the world go round. You can’t beat ‘em with a big stick. But sometimes ranters need to take a big blue chill suppository. You don’t have to read this New Journo stuff if you don’t want to.

In a whole bunch of ways, Lepine, Kierkegaard and the ranters were right. Nobody really wants to listen to the banal details of somebody’s life when it is gaming that is supposed to be getting the run-over. But don’t point the finger at the manifesto, comrades. By all means, take issue with the artfulness (or lack thereof) of what the individual writer produces. But in defence of Gillen’s guidelines, if they are followed well they are perfectly adequate for resulting in quality writing about games. And I’m sorry, but if you don’t like egotistical writers who get the formula wrong then you’re going to have to get the fuck off the planet. Because frankly, they’re gonna happen. For all the diverse articles written about the Vietnam War there was Nicholas Tomalin’s The General Goes Zapping Charlie Cong and Michael Herr’s Khesanh. Both amazing pieces of writing. But doubtless there were innumerable opinion pieces, both good and bad, floating around as well – forgotten maybe – but still serving their own purpose at the time.

I know it seems like that is comparing world news to what is essentially a medium of entertainment. Which is mad. But it does seem that videogame journalists lie in an odd limbo between being a passive movie critic and being a virtual travel writer. You can get your gaming news reporter. And the features writer, the interviewer. But generally speaking all roles fall together and there’s a bit of everything to be done. It makes sense that games critics follow the trends of those in other entertainment industries. The only reason that games have produced their own form of New Journalism where criticism of books, movies or music have generally not (the exception being interviews with authors, actors, singers, etc otherwise regarded as features) is that games are an experience. You actively play a part in the story. It’s why New Games Journalism articles always seem to work better in multiplayer games – because more humans (generally) equals a more unpredictable experience. Ultimately, NGJ is the result of interactivity in the entertainment. And interactivity is a whole other shitstorm I’m not prepared to enter because, frankly, neither of us have our waders on today, cowboy.

We’ve all sauntered across highly-charged articles that make our screens froth with all their righteous anger (I be lookin’ at you Yahtzee Croshaw). And whether we agree with their verdict is beside the point. But their self-aggrandising indignation doesn’t mean they’ve failed the New Games Journalism standard. In fact, most never even said that New Games Journalism was what they were trying in the first place. Most are just writing opinion. And fair play. The fairest of all plays in the land to them. Hamlet to them.

Colour me pretentious, I’ve only gone and mentioned theatre again.

One problem is that we assume that there is – or should be – some line between the games journalism written by opinion columnists like the wonderful, intellectual, panda-saving (and modest) people at the Escapist and the writing of this ‘ideal New Games Journalism.’ The writing of defining articles like Bow, Nigger. We assume that it is a clear line between the quality of writing in each, I mean. If there is a line then it is not the white line of Pong. It’s a wide, fuzzy, winding, invisible, multi-dimensional haze of a line, one that is completely ineffective at stopping people from moving from one territory to the other. It is the Maginot line of videogame journalism. We’ve probably all read self-centred opinion pieces that we thought were amazing. And maybe we’ve read something long-form which we thought was amazing too.

Opinion pieces can easily co-exist with New Games Journalism or ‘long-form journalism about video games’, if you really want to call it that. Turns out there is enough room in this town for the both of us, Blondie. And room for every other form of games journalism, capitalised or not. I don’t think anyone ever suggested we kill off one form of writing in favour of another. Madness. The only one who needs to go is the Bad.

Journos need to stop hating and live and let live, write and let write. I know there’s an irony in that sentence, seeing as I am acting as a critic of critics of critics, but hopefully this is constructive criticism of criticism of criticism and not the raving, hating kind. I genuinely enjoy the writing of Chris Lepine and Alex Kierkegaard, there is immeasurable room for their writing in this town too. I just don’t agree with them if they are implying that there is something categorically wrong with New Games Journalism.

As has been argued on the Escapist ages ago – there is nothing (very, absolutely) wrong with games journalism. It’s not ill. It hasn’t contracted an Ebola of Words. It isn’t about to be over-run by Africanised killer-egos. And it isn’t unexciting or flat either. Anyone waiting for some New New Games Journalism to come along needs to get stuck into some Ritalin cake or something because I’m telling you, things are GRAND. Nature will run its course. Good writing will come crawling out of the sea, grow wings and survive. Bad writing will be shaped like a penis and lounge about, unnoticed on the shore.

6 Comments

Filed under Rejection

6 responses to “The Good, the Bad and the Angry

  1. (Warning – this comes off as a bit serious/ranty, but I had a great time writing my response).

    First off, I completely agree with you that ‘bad writing’ (period) is more the problem than people not living up to some magickal NGJ standard. There is no shortage of awful, ego-driven, shallow and pretentious writing out there. Hell, I’m accused of that all the time!

    As an aside – I don’t think, however, that my point was that NGC is somehow inherently broken as a concept or a style. (In fact, the entire article was written to celebrate the original idea of Gillen’s NGJ, hence the title, “long live New New Games Journalism”.) But that’s beside the point now.

    Thing is, and I do mean this earnestly, I don’t see how putting on rosey glasses and cuing up Fred Astaire’s “Dancing Cheek to Cheek” vid convinces me that everything is just fine, and “nature will run its course”. People have recently started calling the game writing scene an “ecology” – evoking the image that there are natural predators, prey, and a complex web of mechanics between them that ensure the ‘best outcome’ for life. A kind of Darwinian fantasy. That is a false analogy, not only because it confuses biology with social practice, but because it masks over the real effort (and lack of it) that writers put into their work. (Not that you’re saying this btw – but “nature” evoked the same image as “ecology” for me.)

    The nature/ecology language conceals over hierarchies of power too – Kotaku, Destructoid and Joystiq get *millions* of visitors. Those sites set a standard for the vast majority of gamers of what “good writing” is, and we see that reflected in many blogs we read. They’re either news posts (that aren’t really news, because they’re just ripped from the headlines) or opinions untempered by reference to a sphere of other opinions.

    That is to say: I agree with you. There are some great pieces out there. “A Rape in Cyberspace” – great article. Written in Nineteen-Ninety-Freakin’-Three. Game bloggers and news services are posting tens of thousands of articles per day, mostly of the same quality and style. Dibbell’s article gets buried in the chaff precisely because we cannot articulate any standards for what would count as “good” or “interesting” or “fascinating” or “beautiful” to us. Bad writing has never lounged about and sat on the shore. It is posted on every gaming news service’s front page, and linked to tens of thousands of times on Reddit, Digg, and Twitter. Good writing gets buried in favour of game trailers and screenshots.

    To be clear. Let’s look at how The Escapist has changed in the last 5 years. It used to be a mecca for (intellectual) game writers who put real effort into journalistic research. It took risks with its articles. It had a layout that rivalled any contemporary magazine. The photography was top-notch, and it featured the kinds of articles you could not find anywhere else. Now? E3 coverage on the front page. Lazy, pseudo-intellectualistic reviews that cull language from other reviewers. The front page looks like it was ripped from 1UP.com. It has become the poster-child for the kinds of gaming sites that it critiqued years ago. Why was your (*excellent*) article rejected? Because The Escapist is no longer an institution that cares about good/great writing. It is driven by the same economic and prestige considerations as you find anywhere else on the web.

    Where are we seeing great writing? In little places. A turn of phrase that catches me in the right way. A blogger that writes a 6000 word review of a game nobody else cared about, and shows us how to care about it. An article that gets rejected by all of the mainstream sites because they think (a) it is too long, (b) it does not ‘speak’ to their kind of audience, or (c) does not neatly fit into their issue of the week.

    The question I have is: if institutions can no longer set the standards for good writing, and we ourselves have a very nebulous (or as you say a “wide, fuzzy, winding, invisible, multi-dimensional haze of a line” between good and bad) idea of our own standards for writing, what the heck do we do next? The solution, to me, is not to bury our heads in the sand and hope for the best. People whose writing goes unread, uncontested, or (constructively) uncriticized never gets better. If writing is a practice of reflection, thoughtfulness, and social sensitivity, then writers need fellow reader-writer-commentors to bounce ideas off of. Without that, we are stuck exactly where we were 5 years ago.

    Damn, sorry for the ridiculously long comment. Great article, and it sure inspired me to think more about this. Will link to your article from within mine.

    • Cheers Chris,

      I don’t think the Escapist has got that bad. I still find pretty lucid arguments on there every now and again. Rowan Kaiser’s piece on Hardcore Maleness a couple of weeks ago for instance. Perhaps I should have specified that they rejected my /pitch/, not the finished article. So it’s not as bad as you might think.

      You’re right about the ecology angle though. I deliberately took a Darwinian attitude because I genuinely believe that good writing will make its way through and make itself known. The very fact that people still remember A Rape in Cyberspace seventeen years after it was published is testament to that. (Although ultimately neither of us will be able to prove it if great stuff does go unnoticed – precisely because it, er, goes unnoticed).

      I purposely put this very article up to see if it would get read and promoted because I think it is good (wargh, ego!) Hopefully it won’t go unnoticed on The Shore because then I’m proven wrong on either count – it is either shite, or there is no ecology of writing. We’ll have to wait and see (but I don’t know what measure of “noticedness” constitutes success).

      God. This has all got a bit airy. Pants.

  2. Pingback: The Artful Gamer · New Games Journalism is Dead. Long live New New Games Journalism.

  3. For some reason I always type “NGC” when I mean “NGJ”. One too many astronomy courses.

  4. Brendan, I found your article very intriguing as a wannabe games journalist, even though the opening paragraphs gave me pause. I also found Chris’ stance, as expressed in his comment, to be very valid…and I, too, am longing for the old days of the Escapist.

    In any case, I agree with you that style and quality of articles are different characteristics and should not be mixed. NGJ can be as good or as bad as any OGJ piece of text. I also agree with Chris that Internet Crap has the mass and presence to overshadow even excellent writing- but that is not unique in any way to gaming journalism or to game reviews.

    I would very much like to see a discussion develop regarding how to improve the state of things. While good writing CAN bubble up to the surface of the churning, writhing, link-heavy internet, it is definitely not something I’d put my money on.

    • Thanks man, I guess it just comes down to whether you’re optimistic or pessimistic about the nature of journalism and writing in general. I guess it’s true that good writing won’t neccesarily be found. But it does seem to go that way generally speaking.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s