Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Do readers want intelligent games criticism? Do writers?

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.


Etelmik said...

I liked reading this, and not just because it was about me. One quick thing: Shawn's blog that was mentioned in the article is one he put on 1Up, so it is still part of ZD. He was the only one who didn't have a space like the rest of yours, and I actually would never have talked to him had N'Gai not suggested it.

You are very right--where do you all go from here, and how? We don't know yet, but I'm sure some answers will be clearer as time passes.

The Chilly Hollow Needlepoint Adventure said...

A blog is one's personal voice, where you can speak your mind without thought of the audience, the advertisers, etc. I think game writers are tired of constraints and want to just speak directly to us readers and gamers.

signed, Chilly Hollow reader #201

Unknown said...

Mitch, I think the tentativeness you sensed in my quotes stems from the fact that I was and am reluctant to make any grand pronouncements about the kind of writing that I do about games. Or the kind of writing that you, Kieron, Leigh, Shawn, Chris and Michael do. I'm not sure that there is a movement afoot, other than our stated dissatisfaction with the ways in which games have been written about, which has a) pushed us to try to discuss games differently; and b) made us more interested in reading or listening to those who converse about games outside of the holy preview-feature-review trinity.

(Now, I can see how that could come across as contempt for the audience. After all, there's nothing wrong with previews, features or reviews. But one of the great things about the Internet is that there are audiences, plural, so I don't have to be everything to everyone. Like you said, not everyone wants to read long, involved essays about games, and I respect that. I just want to cultivate an audience that shares my interests.)

But that's just my opinion, and as one of the subjects of the story, I didn't want to dissuade Mike from pursuing that line of investigation. It's for him and others to determine whether there's a movement; to come up with a name; to discuss its effectiveness or lack thereof. I hope that he publishes some longer excerpts from the interviews that he conducted, because I suspect that there will be some valuable food for thought therein.

Glenn said...

This has all been very interesting to read, this blog post, its inspiration and the comments after.

From the outside looking in it feels like there is a demand for this movement (Like N'gai I feel reluctant to name it...or even call it a movement - but i did, dam). I like EDGE for that fact it doesn't just talk about previews and reviews but covers the world of games. My favourite part is always the opening article, looking in to current trends and what could be ahead.

I digress though, we need reviews, reviews are important, all forms of media use them and we all know games are no exception to this. It's just a shame most game reviews are not of the same calibre of those of other mediums. With in depth discussions about more than just "how good are the graphics?"

Anyway I have rambled on long enough. We live in a market economy and what is most popular often rises to the top. The beauty of the Internet is their is room for everyone.

Keep up the good work :)


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Iroquois Pliskin said...

I agree with much of your assessment of the current state of games criticism. However, I do think your view gives the mainstream game critic a very difficult task.

If you focus on putting the game in terms a layman can understand by sticking to theme and character (where possible), it makes it hard to communicate the merits of games whose chief virtues lie in the innovativeness of their gameplay. Resident Evil 4 is a fantastic game, but its difficult to communicate the experiences that make this game special without putting a controller in the reader's hand. Maybe we just lack the language for this task yet.

The other problem, it seems to me, is explaining how gameplay can reinforce the themes of the game's narrative. I think N'Gai's review of Metal Gear Solid made a valiant step in this direction, I would wonder what sort of reaction it received.

Also thanks, I found this discussion interesting. I wrote about it in a post on my blog: versusclucluland.blogspot.com

Anonymous said...

As far as readers go, I think there's a split. By and large, they just want to glance over something like "Top, Uh, 17 Games that Came Out This Week," while only a few want to discourse about gaming as an art form. For instance, I recently wrote a piece concerning racism in the gaming industry, and the comments I received weren't what I'd expected. The general response was "Who cares about how games can enlighten me? I only play games for escapism."

However, I think things are looking up. I mean, Michael's article -- which points to successful blogs that aren't afraid to tackle bigger issues -- is certainly encouraging.

Anonymous said...

Ultimately readers of game journalism vote on the quality of game journalism by posting on game review sites. At the moment at least, it is pretty darn clear that there are financial pressures on the major gaming web sites to double-think their reviews before publishing them. That's not how game journalism should work of course. So it is reasonable for game fans like myself to regard any reviews from a major website with a hefty grain of salt. Look at Eurogamer. I love that website but the quality of reviews are going down as the popularity of the site goes up. The site is trying way too hard to appeal to the "average gamer" whatever that is. That leaves me to wonder what caused that editorial direction to take place. And that leaves me wondering if Eurogamer is double-thinking its reviews and what internal pressures are occurring there.

Mitch Krpata said...

Some excellent comments here. The common thread seems to be that, at the very least, the equalizing power of the Web means that any type of game criticism is available somewhere. The difficulty is finding it. The Web -- and this "movement," which I'm not sure is the right word, either -- is making that easier for everyone.

Iroquois, you're right about the challenge of explaining something like Resident Evil 4 to a perhaps non-gaming audience, but that's what appeals to me about writing reviews. In fact, I tried very hard to explain to mainstream audiences why I love that game when I reviewed RE4 Wii Edition.

Sparky said...

The web makes finding considered criticism easier, but I wouldn't yet say it's easy. Suppose you were a casual fan who had his mind blown by No More Heroes and wanted to find out what that all meant. Where would you start? How would you even know that anyone wrote detailed critical pieces? Deeper game criticism may be a fad, or a phase, or even a trend, but it's not a movement, really. It lacks the organization or focus to be that.

Anonymous said...

But deeper game criticism can be a movement once intelligent video game writers go about making their presence felt.

In the article, you said that break down of content into easily digestable facts doesn't necessarily indicate a dumbing down of the public. I think that's precisely what it suggests, since people don't want to take the time out to sit, analyze and learn. Bits of info will get smaller and smaller, and soon nobody will even bother with articles.

I understand intelligently written game criticisms because I have been a game player for years and years. But I think, making the new readers understand the articles is just a matter of them understanding gaming terms, which a writer can attempt to put in context when (s)he writes so that the meaning is implied. Not all the time, but whenever they can.

Anonymous said...

Lol, I understand them because I myself am also intelligent, or would like to imagine so. Sorry, felt the need to correct that.

Sparky said...

How will this kind of criticism assert itself, though? To a certain extent "game criticism" seems like something you're not going to find unless you already know where it is. Maybe a sort of group feed akin to Research Blogging would help with that, so that you could at least find more if you found one instance. Or it could be as simple as an index somewhere. I'm not saying these sort of thing have to be done; I just feel like the barrier between this kind of criticism and its potential audience is higher than it could be. Breaking that barrier down would probably require some kind of organization.

Shawn Elliott said...

Hello Mitch. I'd love to talk sometime.
Shawn Elliott

ColbyCheese said...

I think another thing to consider is that, because the concept of bringing intelligent discussion to games is relatively new, it's still very much a mixed bag. Even amongst the "New Guard", there are quite a few voices that, although DIFFERENT, aren't very insightful.

It's still going to take a while for the quality work to rise to the top where it can even hope to have a measurable impact on the group at large.

Of course, engaging people on an intellectual level is better than nothing I suppose. Baby steps.

Anonymous said...

Here here, mwc. Someone set up a circa 2002 blog-ring for 'intelligent gaming criticism' and we can all join the alliance! Though if it were that easy to find all this good game writing, I might find myself doing more reading & writing about games than actually gaming.