Why I Write About Games When I Write About Games

So here’s a piece that’ll hopefully generate a little discussion.

A few months back gaming news blog Joystiq were hiring for a few online staff positions. Naturally I (along with what is known in the business as a “shittonne” of others) applied, a web-based writing job being exactly what I’m after right now. I wasn’t successful, but that isn’t what I really took away from the whole process. During it conversations spread among various journalists on twitter about the sameyness of a lot of the applications that had been received and how, according to hiring-man Justin McElroy, this was due to too many wannabes spending too much time focusing on gaming news rather than reading books, listening to music, watching films and so forth. This proved a popular point. Many popped up to say how they wanted to see more non-gaming witticisms, references and cultural knowledge in the upcoming generation of writers and that capturing this was a surefire way to impress.

These weren’t statements isolated to this incident and, frankly, the standpoint they come from is not wrong. A person who’s only cultural reference point is video games has a limited outlook on life and will be missing out on some of the more important works of the last year, decade, century or whatever time frame you wish to mention. Obviously the more knowledge one has, the better one’s writing becomes as ideas, influence and inspiration come from more directions. Moreover, absorbing more mediums of entertainment simply makes you a more varied and interesting person.

However, something grated with me about the idea of saying to people “stop talking about games so much in your games writing.” It isn’t necessarily an awful thing, but 100% reduction isn’t a good idea either. Obviously, the call isn’t for a total removal, but the enthusiasm and totality with which it was delivered worried me. Surely it is the logical thing to do to talk about games when writing about games? Surely the more knowledge I have on games (and am expressing through my writing) the better that writing is? Surely the sameyness comes not from unoriginality but simply because it is the most logical route to take for the many, many aspiring writers out there? I hope to show a few of the reasons why I, and presumedly others, use gaming knowledge first and foremost in our writing and why this still has some value.

First let’s talk about the most important part of writing: the reader. An obscenely large percentage of the people reading any gaming-related article, be it the front page of your favourite website or some no-namer’s blog, are going to be gamers themselves. This only increases if you ignore the mainstream press (newspapers, the BBC), whom most gaming journalists do not write for in any regular capacity. What do these reader-gamers know about? Games. What appeals to them? Games. If I know what they like, I want to have as much of that in my writing as possible so they keep reading. This gives an enormity of depth. As I progress with a piece I can use my assumption that the people reading my work are gamers and further conclude that they are interested in the genre, series or even developer I am discussing if they have kept reading past the opening paragraph or so, thus allowing me to talk about related items with ease and little fear of misunderstanding.

This isn’t rocket science. However, it simply isn’t true of any other cultural reference you might make. What kind of music does a Call of Duty player like? Which of Shakespeare’s works are StarCraft gamers particularly familiar with? Is there a certain kind of TV show that really just clicks with fans of Paradox Interactive? Nothing is more infuriating in a piece of writing than some joke or point that goes over your head because it’s out of your sphere of interest. Moreover, finding out that part of your audience simply didn’t understand what you thought to be a particularly funny or brilliant line is disheartening.

When you consider the demographics of gamers, ensuring understanding becomes only more vital. Many will be teenagers or lower, and won’t get your obscure early 00s pop band humour, but will have played Deus Ex. In addition, at least in my experience, younger people are much more likely to close your tab or put your magazine down than they are to find out what the hell “Red Dwarf” or “Scrapheap Challenge” are. Even the 20-25 age bracket is now filled with folk such as myself who’ve never had a lot of interest in late 80s television but have played The Secret of Monkey Island and Doom, games as old and older than them. Even beyond age, consider the massive reach of the internet. How many American readers are likely to know of the two shows I just mentioned? How many of your British viewers are guaranteed to know what a corn dog is? Are any eastern europeans going to be aware of the current state of English Parliament?

This can be expanded in a slightly different direction: using gaming examples in my work shows that I have a knowledge on games to a certain degree. This is vastly important for two key groups. Firstly, readers are going to have a lot more respect for someone who clearly knows what he’s talking about when it comes to games. I like to know what Richard Cobbett or John Walker think of an adventure game because they’ve shown time and again to be ridiculously knowledgable on the subject. Equally I’m aware Tom Francis will know a good Deus Ex mod (or game, natch) when he sees one because he’s spent a lot of time writing about and playing the original. I want my readers to look at my stuff and go “this bloke knows what he’s talking about, he’s clearly played these other titles, I can trust him when he says the lacklustre gameplay of Duke Nukem Forever is a downside and I would be better off playing Bulletstorm for similar thrills and humour”

The second and arguably more important group is potential employers. It’s not as simple as me wanting them to understand I’m knowledgable about games, I need them to. They’re not going to mind if I’ve never gotten around to seeing The Godfather or reading Hamlet, but they might have an objection if I can’t think of an FPS to compare my example review of Bulletstorm to, or if I’ve never played a Blizzard title. Certainly, that is what I would most want to know from an application: can I trust this guy to speak fairly on a wide variety of gaming topics thanks to multiple reference points in his experiences? Has he played enough different genres that whatever I give him to review he’ll understand the concept of and not spend half his time complaining about the over-complexity and user-unfriendliness of a flight sim?

On that note, even moreso than with a generic reader, the idea of something I’d written being too obscure for a commissioning editor reading my pitch to understand is a horrifying thought. Great piece, unfortunately they gave up a few lines in because it was a long day, they were on a deadline and they didn’t have time to decipher my joke comparing Bethesda voice-acting to the plot of Flash Forward (inconsistent: half-woeful, half-highly-paid-brilliance). I want that job you’re offering, I’m not going to scupper my own chances by hoping we’re both interested in mediocre sci-fi.

My next point might leave a few shaking their heads in tab-closing disgust, but that doesn’t make it any less true. Referencing games is simply easier. There, I said it. No, come back, I’m going to explain! It’s easier because (as you might have guessed, what with wanting to be a games journalist and all) I’ve played more games than I’ve done anything else. I can therefore much more quickly come up with video game based comparisons or arguments that express my point succintly. This is as important when writing a hot off the newsreel post for the front page of your website as it is trying to make that deadline in an hour when I only finished the game twenty minutes ago.

The variance in those comparisons and references will be vast – one week will see a piece of news about the latest DLC on Steam in which I need to make note of the various successes or failures of DLC in the past, while the next week I’ll be able to name entirely different examples in the follow-up post. The speed, accuracy and ease of explanation will not be matched elsewhere.

There’s also one very, very important thing to note about why so many journos-in-training make the ‘mistake’ of too much game-focus: we’re new at this. Hell, compared to you Mr. Editor Man, I’m awful at this. But, I want you to know that I’ve got potential, that I’m skilled in my writing. I’m so eager to impress you that I’m going to cram every single god damn piece of gaming knowledge I have into that woefully small (and rightfully so) word count you gave me for the application. It stands repeating: do you really need me to have seen classic movies if I can’t name some of the most influential gaming masterpieces of all time? When sending my application, am I going to emulate game writing I’ve seen in the past, knowing that it was good enough to get published, or take the risk of something more unorthodox?

It may have sounded like I am making a push to eliminate all culture from games writing, to put it into a stale, safe environment where everyone understands everything that everyone else says because they’ve all seen, heard and read it a hundred times before. Clearly, that isn’t what I’m after. I just want to express my belief that there is value in writing about what you know and what your readers know. That in the end it’s better to write passionately about a subject, even to the point of over-emphasising it, than trying to relate to mediums that simply don’t express a point as well. I agree that being able to reference outside of gaming is the sign of a good writer, but a better writer plays both extremes.

——

I’ve already received some private feedback on this and have debated a number of ways to respond.  Some parts of the piece were editted, but I also wanted to give some footnotes/afterword to make sure I’m being clear without diluting the piece itself.

  • I am not calling anyone out.  While Justin McElroy started the discussion this time, I’ve seen a number of other people talk about it over the last few years.  It was simply his that lead to me finally actually writing down what I thought.
  • I am arguing one side of “games or everything else” because there’s an incredible amount of “everything else” support.  As I said in the last paragraph, both is much, much better than either.  I didn’t want to spend the whole article going “again, I’m not saying 100% in the opposite direction” because its already got enough scene setting at the start before getting into the meat.
  • It was pointed out that the number of responses to Justin’s statement show that gamers are very interested in a “wide-ranging cultural brief” (so very well put by the individual that a quote seems appropriate).  This is true and I agree.  However, see above for why I do not mention this in the original text.
If I think anything else is worth a footnote I will place one, though I’m unlikely to edit anything out of the original piece other than spelling or grammar errors (assuming there are any, which is of course impossible).  On the note of feedback, thanks to Craig Lager, Lewie Procter and Joe Threepwood Martin for their criticisms, thoughts and feelings while the piece was in development.
  1. Pro-tip: just be more entertaining, whatever references you use. Talking about why writing isn’t interesting is quite hard and often editors will say shit that might be only a quarter true to try and get their point across.

    What they really mean is “do it better.”

  2. I agree with most of what you’re saying, but I’m of the opinion that a piece should be fun to write as well as read. I’ve just reviewed Pirates of Black Cove and it’s going under the editor’s knife now, and I had far too much fun writing it. Horrific pirate puns, and a reference to System Of A Down. Another piece I’ve written said that “The plot is…tenous. It’s best to treat it like Oblivion’s main quest, the Matrix sequels and the Star Wars prequel trilogy – You might be mistaken and think they’re real, but the sane people knows that they don’t exist”.

    I’m of the opinion you should reference games first, and then go to the outside world. Add in stupid amounts of pirate puns for the hell of it, put some mainstream references in, but if you’re finding it fun to write, it’ll probably be fun to read. Hence why I got away with the puns. I hope.

    As an aside, this comment box is horrible to write long responses in. DAMN YOU WORDPRESS.

  3. Something like Kieron Gillen’s original Deus Ex review (a copy is somewhere on his blog) is a good piece to analyse when thinking about this kind of thing. The man has a staggering, imposing knowledge of gaming that he brings to bear in his writing, but crucially he’s not /limited/ by it. The DX review is about a videogame, but he uses outside insight into, say, existentialism, to critique where the game stands and what it means in the wider cultural landscape. He couldn’t do that if he’d only played games all his life, which is I think the point about allowing other influences to infuse your writing. At least that’s what I take away.

    Hope that doesn’t sound critical of your post (it wasn’t intended to), just throwing in my ten cents (pence).

    Cheers.

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