Wednesday, March 31, 2010

PAX: Play

Above: The console freeplay room at PAX.

During the "Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Game Journalism" panel, Sean Beanland asked via Twitter: "Has working in games journalism adversely impacted your love of games? Are you sometimes tired of games?"

For me, the answer to both questions is a qualified yes. It's not that I love games any less after several years of reviewing them. It's that losing control of what I want to play, and when I want to play it, has changed something fundamental in my approach to games as recreation. When I'm not playing a game for work, I'm less likely to be playing games at all.

That's why one of things I found most refreshing about PAX was how squarely it emphasized just playing games. The panels were great. Meeting people was awesome. Encountering two guys whose work I deeply admire, and telling one of them so, was something that was long overdue. At heart, though, PAX was a celebration of playing games, and much of the convention space was dedicated to that.

You had the PC freeplay lounge, where some buddies and I made yet another ill-fated attempt at Left 4 Dead 2. I am not totally convinced that I have ever gotten past the part in the "Swamp Fever" campaign where you lower the bridge from one hut to the next, and the PAX playthrough was no exception. It's been so long since I played a first-person shooter on the computer that doing so felt unfamiliar. (
And probably felt even more unfamiliar to the next poor bastard who played L4D2 on my machine, since I'd inverted the Y-axis and remapped jump to mouse2. Old habits.)

It also felt great. LAN parties were a big part of the gaming experience for me in high school and even through college, but I couldn't tell you the last time I attended one, much less one with dozens and dozens of players. I had thought that the current console generation had erased the PC's hardware advantage, but the graphics were noticeably better than on the Xbox. Some people were even playing Battlefield: Bad Company 2 in 3D. I walked out of that room thinking seriously about buying a new gaming computer. I've been missing so much!*

Much space was dedicated to console freeplay, too, of all kinds. One room had all the current-gen consoles, and a huge library of titles you could check out for 45 minutes at a time. A side room was dedicated to party games like Rock Band, DJ Hero, Puzzle Fighter, and lots more. Across the hall from there was a room dedicated to -- I kid you not -- 5-vs-5 matches of Steel Battalion. I was afraid even to peek into that room.

Walking around the classic console freeplay area felt the most like coming home. Here you had a group of guys huddled around a Dreamcast to play Power Stone, there a four-player Perfect Dark deathmatch on the N64. People played Atari 2600, Colecovision, Vectrex. I was gobsmacked to see a group of three people attempting a cooperative playthrough of Contra for the NES. I lingered in their vicinity, hoping they'd get frustrated so I could swoop in and shepherd them the rest of the way. Sadly, it didn't happen -- which is crazy, because playing that game with another person is the definition of masochism.

Here I am writing about all this now, so maybe I'm undercutting my own point, but what I loved about all of this was that I wasn't playing these games to write about them. So many of these titles occupy an exalted space in my memory, and when I watched those people play Contra I wasn't thinking about the game's roots in Reagan-era machismo, or the laughable continuity error between the end of stage 7 and the beginning of stage 8. I was remembering the first time I beat it, and was so excited that I ran to the phone so I could tell my best friend.

I can barely recall a time that I wasn't writing about games on some level. I've been doing it professionally for almost six years, but I started writing reviews for my personal website in the mid-90s. Hell, my second-grade writing project was a prose adaptation of The Legend of Zelda. Even so, there's no doubt that deadlines and paychecks have changed how I play games. PAX reminded me why I play them.

*Now that the glow has faded, I will continue to chug along on this dinosaur Dell.


Mr Durand Pierre said...

It's funny, but writing about games has actually made me more likely to play them in my free time since I have so little of it. If I manage to find a day or two between assignments I'll likely be devoting that time to muscling my way through a game I've been itching to play for awhile.

I miss being able to play games for fun off and on, balancing it as a hobby among other things. But now I find that I even have to rush through games that aren't related to work and that added pressure definitely influences the way I play and think about games- and not in a good way. I guess that's the price one pays when they turn their hobby into a job.

Unknown said...

In retrospect I think I would have gotten a more interesting response if I had asked "How has working in games journalism adversely impacted your love of games?" instead of my original question. The response I got didn't really have anything I didn't already know (

Like many people, I had wanted to throw my hat into the games journalism ring. Once I started realizing that it would affect how I feel about games in some way, possibly adversely, I changed my mind. Even Leigh Alexander's latest blog post ( touches on this idea. I remember seeing an advertisement on IGN or Gamespot for an open game reviewer position and they wanted the person to review something like 5 games a week. That can't be healthy for the reviewer or useful for the readers.

Dennis Scimeca said...

As someone making their attempt to jump into games journalism, I find this question of immense value as a thought experiment.

I recently hooked up with a GameFly account specifically so that I could try games which I would not purchase for myself. My tastes are pretty specified at this point, mostly FPS games, RPG's with a sci-fi flair (Mass Effect 2, Fallout 3), and sci-fi themes in general (Star Trek Online, Gears of War, etc.).

These are not the *only* games I would enjoy, but at $50/$60 a pop depending on format, one has to be picky...

I rented Dante's Inferno specifically to force myself to play through it and get some practice writing reviews. Oy vey. It was a struggle to get through.

My reviewing one game is no comparison to your reviewing however many you've done over six years, but it made me want to play my other games more, not less. I kept thinking "Man, I could be playing Mass Effect 2 instead of this piece of shit."
Mr. Pierre seems to echo those sorts of sentiments...

I guess I am curious - is there really enough games writing in Boston such that one can have so many assignments that finding time to play games for pleasure can be a challenge?

Mr Durand Pierre said...

Dennis, I don't know Mitch's situation, but I'm pretty sure just writing game reviews for one non-gaming publication can't be his main source of income. He probably writes elsewhere, or about other things, or has some mysterious day job we know nothing about. But I can almost guarantee that if you do this professionally it will be hard to find time to play whatever games you want.

Personally, I'm kind of in limbo; half professional game journalist, half working a less glamorous part-time day job. As such, I can have very heavy weeks where I'm reviewing four games in two weeks plus writing another article or two. Then I'll have really slow breaks where I'm not doing much of anything for a couple weeks. But I'm sure if I were making a living at it, it would be nothing but busy weeks. I've got friends supporting themselves at this and they're very busy almost all the time.

I remember listening to 1up's end-of-the-year podcasts where they'd be discussing their fave games of the year and so many professional game journos hadn't played some of the year's biggest releases that your average Joe had. You definitely have to get pickier about what you choose to play and sometimes great games fall through the cracks.

I'm not saying this to discourage you from trying. Heck, I'm still at it. There's lots of great things about game journalism like going to E3/PAX, meeting developers, and getting paid to write about games is inherently awesome (free games are at the bottom of that list honestly, as unless it's something you were going to buy anyway, you'll be putting a lot of hours into it with little money). Just be aware that this power comes at a price.

Mitch Krpata said...

I definitely have the same feeling when I'm playing a bad game, that I could be playing something better. But of course, that's the job -- to muddle through a lousy game even after you'd rather stop. Reviewing any game takes up just about all of my bandwidth for the time it takes, so when it's over, I'd usually just rather do something else entirely if I have the time. Gotta have some balance.

Dennis Scimeca said...

One of the many questions I have about games journalism is the degree to which reviews must be the bread and butter of what we do. My writing background is mostly in academia - media theory, philosophy, and political science. Editorials and opinion pieces are what I do best, but I don't see much of a market for them outside of The Escapist right now.

I feel that, with video games rapidly approaching a tipping point in terms of public perception and acceptance, that more substantive discussion of gaming in media is not only warranted but absolutely necessary if we don't want to see gaming fall into the same morass as the film industry, i.e. a lack of popularized, critical thought leading to undiscerning audiences and a corresponding decrease in the quality of our games.