Mike Walbridge interviewed me for his latest "Game Anthropologist" column over at GameSetWatch. I thank him for including my rambling, incoherent thoughts alongside insights from some heavy hitters, including N'Gai Croal from Newsweek, Kieron Gillen from Rock, Paper, Shotgun, and Shawn Elliott from 1up.com. The subject: The state of intelligent games criticism.
Without knowing how much was left on the cutting room floor, I get the impression that nobody is too sanguine about the state of the art. Of the writers interviewed, most contribute to fairly popular, mainstream paper-and-ink publications. Yet, to a man, it seems like we all see our blogs as the only place we can write about games the way we really want to.
N'Gai says all the interesting writing is being done online. Leigh says her blog is the outlet for her voice (which, presumably, means that Kotaku and Variety are not). Shawn says his blog is a place for him to try writing about games as it should be done (again, implying that Ziff-Davis publications aren't). I feel the same way. Although the quote wasn't used in the piece, I said as much to Mike -- that Insult Swordfighting is the place I can say what I actually want to say.
That's strange. Writing for publications as diverse as Kotaku, Newsweek, the Phoenix, and Games for Windows, and we all feel like -- what? Like we're not serving our readers as best we could? What's the implication here? Are we speaking the softest into the biggest megaphones? Do we think the larger audiences are somehow unready for the brilliance we're slinging on the side? If I didn't know better, I'd think this signaled contempt for the readership.
But that's not the case. If anything, this article makes it clear that most of us have faith that things are heading in the right direction, slowly but inexorably. For one thing, you do have to keep your audience in mind when you're writing for a magazine or a newspaper. You have to remember who you're working for. I see the typical Phoenix reader not as a career gamer, so it doesn't make sense to try to talk to them on that level. Instead, I try to talk put the game in a context they'd understand, focusing on things like story and theme when possible.
Am I sure that I've got this hypothetical reader pegged? No. It's a question of intuition more than anything else. But it's always at the forefront of my mind when I write for the Phoenix. Years from now, I think that reader will have much more of an intimate relationship with games, and the style of review will be different at the time. Still, on a blog, that question never comes up. You write what you want, and the readers either come or they don't. Usually, they don't.
You can't ignore the hard numbers. People want newsbites and they want review scores. Web users just don't want to read long, involved essays. As readers migrate from print to the Web, savvy publishers are going to continue to break their content down into easily digestable chunks of fast facts. I'm not suggesting that this indicates a dumbing down of the general population -- it may even be the opposite, as more and more people get online -- but writers and readers may be at odds as far as what they want criticism to look like. And in every case when such a conflict arises, the readers will win. (As they should!)
Of course, there is still an audience for this stuff. People do read The Brainy Gamer and Save the Robot -- just not in the numbers they read IGN or Gamespot. When 1up editors like Shawn Elliott and Jeremy Parish explore the studio space in their personal blogs, they're reaching readers, too. The level of discourse in games coverage is higher than it's ever been, even if you have to hunt for it a little bit. But even that is starting to change. Mike's article is evidence of that.
It won't happen overnight. If good writers are committed to improving the quality of all writing, then there's really no other choice but to keep at it and hope our efforts bubble up through our blogs and into the "real" publications. We have to do this. We're writers.