A subjective response to the style of new games journalism

by

ngj

On Wednesday 26 March 2014,  Jake and I went to a panel discussion about the new games journalism – the idea that games writing should be about the player’s experience, not the game’s mechanics. Here are some things it made me think about.

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The new games journalism, says Kieron Gillen’s original blog post introducing the term, is about the gamer not the game.

This is appealing to me, because I get to talk about myself rather than something else, which is easier to do.  Not easy — both are difficult to do well – but certainly easier.

It is also appealing to me because I am not really a gamer. Rather, I am somebody who senses a tremendous artistic and philosophical value in some games, and finds that easy to write about, at least compared with other things. Usually, a piece I’ve written on a game is more about a concept than the game; useful, because I can masquerade as a games writer and hopefully say something interesting.

It’s the popularity of the new games journalism that makes it possible for me to do this. I can take a more nuanced knowledge of sport, for example, and look at how FIFA simulates real-life football problems and how Championship Manager lets me live out unreal ones, in the real world.

The new games journalism, as Gillen put it, admits that writing is “intensely personal”. It is experiential. My experience is not often in games but being a football fan; or reading a lot of books, which is why my article on Kentucky Route Zero argued for a poetic reading.

There have been exceptions to this, like when I wrote about the material effect that controls can have on the playing experience, looking at Amnesia: The Dark Descent.

That approached something more formal; a look at the underlying structures in the medium. But it was still written in the first person and it was still about me: would I be more scared by a game because I was less competent than somebody else?

I’d like to do a bit more of that, and get further away from the ‘I’. If it is to be considered games writing, my writing needs it.

There was a lot of talk at the new games journalism panel about “cutting through the bullshit of pretending to be objective.” It’s true that writing is, by nature, subjective; but I worry that for all the new games journalism has bought to the discipline (it has bought much), it makes it a little too easy to get out of trying to be objective all together.

Put simply: writing can’t be purely objective but it shouldn’t be totally subjective, either.

At last night’s new games journalism panel, I introduced myself as a lapsed gamer; I played loads of games as a kid, and some now. But I don’t know the industry, journalistically or as a fan, in the way that I know music, which is the closest I have to a journalistic home.

I feel that my still limited, but comparably more impressive knowledge of the music industry gives me greater licence to speak, and with a greater degree objectivity. I can draw comparisons between genres, say; or chart the emergence of a particular trend historically. When writing a piece about a game I tend to call on two things: my sense of subjectivity and my wider feelings about culture.

Kieron Gillen’s new games journalism blog post endorsed this at a time when there was a dearth of subjectivity. He says:

… the worth of a videogame lies not in the game, but in the gamer. What a gamer feels and thinks as this alien construct takes over all their sensory inputs is what’s interesting here, not just the mechanics of how it got there.

I agree, not just the mechanics of how the game got to where it did; but that’s important too, and maybe it’s been lost. Until I feel I can discuss the formal elements of the medium, I’m really a writer writing about games, rather than a games writer.

There’s nothing wrong with that – but there’s an awful lot of us. The journal Game Studies has a mission to:

Be jargon-free [and] attempt to shed new light on games, rather than simply use games as metaphor or illustration of some other theory or phenomenon.

Kirk Hamilton, features editor at Kotaku, recently spoke brilliantly about the need to be jargon-free.

I’m probably good at that, not knowing the jargon. But I worry that I can’t do what Game Studies is asking for – and, more worryingly, that the people who can are sometimes choosing not to.

While I’d prefer to read something in the vein of the new games journalism than the structural analyses done by the authors in Game Studies, it’s easy for me to say that, thanks to the new games journalism.

Subjectivity begets subjectivity – and then there’s the worry that, above all, I’m speaking to myself, or people very like me, whilst looking in the mirror and pretending  to speak to somebody else.

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