Videogame journalism and the values we hold

A couple weeks ago I gave a lecture on the history of videogame journalism, which I’ve now uploaded to YouTube for anyone interested in getting my understanding of the trajectory of the practise, mainly from an institutional or structural perspective.

The talk lays out some of the basic history of videogame journalism (in a very broad-strokes way) and attempts to explain some of the reasons why I think videogame culture is the way it is today – and how we’ve ended up with a culture that is so exclusionary. In this respect, I was touching on similar themes to what Steve Swift and Marigold Bartlett would talk about a couple weeks later at Freeplay 2013 (which should be no surprise, since they quote some of my more well known work arguing against these near-meaningless, exclusionary terms like “immersion” and “replayability”).

The first half explores many of the historic forces that shaped videogame magazines, from their roots in tech journalism to argue that videogame journalists have held an incredible amount of influence over the language and framing of how we engage with games. The second half looks at how these forces were shaken up by the internet, talks a bit about the faustian compact between the Press and the Publishers that got worse during this period, and concludes with the New Games Journalism (NGJ) movement which arrived alongside this shift to blogging and the alternative spaces and voices the internet afforded.

I didn’t get into making a really good case in the video for why NGJ is such a good approach, but in the tutorials I taught after giving the lecture, I did a really interesting exercise with my students that I think gets to the heart of why NGJ is so fantastic. I had my students attempt to explain to me what the terms “immersion”, “visceral”, “replayability” and “gameplay” meant as if I were their grandmother, or someone who has never played games before at all. In most cases, students began by trying to nail down an explanation that treated their term as some particular quality the game itself possessed. In my discussion with them, however, we almost invariable ended up concluding that each of the four terms was actually something relational – and a phenomenon created by the confluence of a player and the game.

If there is one thing that NGJ is still vastly better at than the mainstream ‘analytical’ approach (which I still take to be the dominant mode games journalism operates in, though the coordinates of acceptability around this are definitely changing) it is in the recognition that all these words are relational terms. Immersion happens for a player; Replayability is only ever calculable for a particular player; and so on and so forth.

What I didn’t get to mention in the lecture (mostly because I hadn’t quite figured it out myself) was that these terms expose the very values that hold, and establish hierarchies of “more and less replayable games” with (typically) multiplayer and twitch type games at the pinnacle of the “more replayable” (think of the corollary term: “replay value”  – it’s right there in the title). Here’s what Kieron Gillen said years ago in his chronically misread and misunderstood manifesto:

New Games Journalism rejects this, and argues that 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.

The typical reader infers from that that confected emotion and experience is the goal, rather than a clear elucidation of the relational experience between player and game. That’s how I wish I ended the talk.