On New Games Journalism

Edge in context

The “new games journalism” is everywhere. Hell, even the typically late to the party New York Times picked it up. But what exactly is this new take on writing about games? From looking at the examples that have come into vogue (like Ian Shanahan’s Bow N-word, which appears on the verge of becoming the sub-genre’s defining work), it looks like it’s about visceral first-person writing in videogame context. The Guradian’s definition may be best: “a highly subjective approach to videogame writing in which the player?s own experiences within the game environment are brought to the fore.” Tom Wolfe in the house.

One can’t help noticing, though, that the Guradian crew’s oft-quoted list of unmissable NGJ works, good as it is, presents a bit of a cracked mold. The cited Prince of Persia Time Extend article, for instance, isn’t in the expected immediate, stream-of-consciousness style. In fact, it’s just an exceptionally well written article. Merely exceptional.

While this could surely be an oversight on the part of the authors, it could also be that the new games journalism isn’t (or at least shouldn’t be) so rigidly defined. Take this quote for example:

This is where the game’s living landscape, its hero’s irrepressible momentum and its bewilderingly imaginative bestiary meet. Together, they create spontaneous, physical comedy that has never been bettered in games. It’s unapologetically low comedy of course, but it is unusually native to the game. Whereas other classics of videogame humour (Monkey Island, say) have jokes written in to them, the best jokes in Yoshi’s Island issue directly from the gameplay, and involve the player. The designers set them up, seeding the world with carefully-timed comic possibilities — a monkey spitting melon seeds here, a trough of slippery mud here, a balloon carrying Shy Guy with a bomb — but it’s always your fingers that deliver the punchline. That’s what makes it one of the purest, most native expressions of comedy in the videogame form.
Edge #148

Is this new gaming journalism or just exceptional writing? I think it’s both. And this is not to say that NGJ has no meaning. NGJ means a great deal — it means that it is beginning to become generally accepted that one can write about games in a way that deep, engaging, and eye-opening for non-gamers. Honestly, it’s not surprising that, after being bombarded by years of prepubescent testosterone-poisoned semi-sensical writing about games, the world would be knocked for a loop by something as intelligent as The Great Scam or Shoot Club. But to focus on those exclusively ignores the fact that clever, insightful and, yes, brilliant game journalism hasn’t just arrived.

In a sense, I agree with Sanford May that writing about videogames from a very personal perspective is as old as the industry. A glance into the pages of the neon-drenched Joystik would give you that almost instantly. What’s different now is that wicked smart gaming journalism of all kinds is seeing a renaissance and that renaissance is being taken seriously by more than just hardcore gamers.

So, it’s important to recognize elder statesmen of NGJ like the UK’s Edge magazine (providing thought-provoking, perspective-bending analysis of videogames for over 10 years, Redeye in tow). In fact, it may very well be the vacuum of high quality gaming journalism on this side of the Atlantic that has caused the NGJ term to gather a particularly strong head of steam in the US (there is nothing comparable to Edge here). Not that an explanation is really necessary; it is good that the attention has finally come.

What is necessary, though, is for us to take note that it’s not really that exceptional writing about games is particularly new but rather that this writing, by the best games journalists, is finally beginning to be given significant notice culturally. We must applaud these new voices but we must also give those who came before — those who were pouring their hearts into it when the mainstream didn’t give a shit — their due.

photo via jellisvga

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