By request: How my time in the gaming press has changed my perspective

By request of mage2

I moved out to San Francisco to join the gaming press in 2003. I moved away from SF a year ago but, like a naughty cowboy, I can’t quit you. “You” being the gaming press. Even if it would be much healthier for my body and mind if I did.

This seems like an appropriate request to field after yesterday’s, since as I told someone on Tumblr (yes, even old people like me use Tumblr), I couldn’t have written yesterday’s post a decade ago. Like a lot of people who get into the press, I started out as kind of a jackass. For that, I apologize to everyone who knew me back then. I got better, or at least I feel like I did.

I suppose when you get into publishing —which is to say, when suddenly you’re given a soapbox from which to address tens of thousands of people in a single shot — you can go one of two ways: You can listen to the handful of people who praise you for your approach and double down on the way you do things; or you can can listen to the handful of people who talk about how terrible you are, then wonder why they hate you. I’m the sort of person for whom the negative comments ring the loudest. The one complaint in a thread of praise is the only comment that sticks with me. So for the longest time, I wondered why people hated me when all I was doing was writing about things I love.

Eventually I realized it was because I was writing about the things they love, too, and unfortunately I was often being a jerk about it. Yes, there are some people out there who just inherently hate the press and assume the worst about anyone who makes a living writing about games, but the reality is that in a lot of ways we’ve driven them to that attitude. When the topic of the games press comes up, certain people always wax rhapsodic about ’90s magazines like GameFan and EGM — not because those publications necessarily had great writing (sometimes they did; sometimes they were downright dreadful), but rather because they were positive and enthusiastic. They didn’t make a business of telling people their opinions were wrong. They were generally good-natured about games, even as they stumbled over basic grammar.

Why do people hate me for writing about games, I wondered? Well, that’s because — like a lot of writers — I had a bad habit of writing about them in a way that belittled the opinion and tastes of others. I didn’t mean to; it just kind of happened, because I wasn’t smart enough or mature enough to step outside of my own head for a while and see things from the other side. If you’re looking for a bit of information about an upcoming game or new release and instead find some jerk on the Internet talking about how stupid you are for your choice of time-killing hobby… well, that’s pretty crappy. If you go looking to hear a retrospective on your favorite game or console and end up with 90 minutes of someone vomiting condescension into your ears… yeah, that’s pretty dreadful. No wonder people hate games journalists. It’s all my fault.

But really, this more than anything has been my takeaway over the past decade. There’s no value in being negative, or hateful. There’s no sense in being spiteful. We’re talking about video games here, OK? This is the very definition of frivolity. Time-wasting escapism for people with enough money to buy a computer or a TV and console. First-world stuff. This should be fun.

And that’s the thing that’s so easy to forget. No one gets into making video games because they hate video games or want to make lousy video games. People who make games do so because they grew up loving games, or a friend turned them on to games. Because they have a fond childhood memory, or because their favorite times in college didn’t come from playing beer pong and vomiting on coeds but rather hanging out with their buddies and playing Smash Bros. Because at some point video games let them escape to a fantastic world full of mushroom people or smiling slimes or pig-faced alien cops as they took on the persona of a sneaker-clad hedgehog or tough-as-nails lady space commando or any of a thousand other possible roles. They experienced those wonderful imaginary universes and said, “I want to create something like this.”

And the people who play the games they create want to be transported in kind, too. To cross beyond the next exciting threshold of virtual personhood, whether that’s as a Japanese high school student summoning demons or as some block-headed dude who can create cube fortresses by smacking his surroundings with a pickaxe and gathering whatever pops out. Sometimes games turn out very badly, but that’s not really the fault of the people who labor away at the small details. Nor is it the fault of those who buy the game — especially if they manage to find something they enjoy in it despite the flaws.

In other words, no one wants to be crapped on for having an opinion.

But the flip side is, that also applies to the press. Aside from people who build a persona around a negative schtick, I’ve never known anyone who gets into the press in order to tell people they’re dumb. We’re all pretty much into this because we like games and, for whatever reason, the stars lined up to conspire to allow us to make a living writing about them. I think, though, there’s a tendency with such an “unprofessional” profession to blur the lines between writing for an audience and casual banter with friends. Heck, that was a big part of 1UP’s appeal; podcasts and The 1UP Show and even many of our articles broke down those boundaries and made it clear that the people proclaiming their 8.5/10 scores were pretty much just normal people who like video games as much as their audience does.

It’s too easy to lose sight of all that in the day-to-day grind, the drive to say Something Important, to stand out from a hundred other jackasses just like you who are writing about the same game on the same embargo. But it’s important to keep it in mind.

I remember back when I was living in Michigan trying to find a professional track, someone told me I should write for a game magazine. This was circa 2002. I thought of EGM’s seeming obsessive compulsion to rip apart the GameCube — a system I really liked! — at every opportunity. I thought of the barely literate writing in certain magazines. I thought of how publications like Next Gen were so eager to throw away history and sneer at anything that didn’t push the graphical boundaries of the time. And I remember saying, “Thanks, but that would be awful. I wouldn’t fit in.” And yet, a year later, there I was helping to launch 1UP and fitting in… reasonably well. (A strong work ethic goes a long way to overcome being a social misfit, as it happens.) And I quickly found myself making the same dumb mistakes that annoyed me about magazines of the time.

I’d like to say there was a single moment of epiphany for me that changed everything, but that would be a lie. It was a slow and painful process. Why do they hate me?, I’d wonder as I noticed the two negative remarks in a thread full of positivity about the latest Retronauts. It took a while to get over my stupid knee-jerk reaction that involved making dismissive remarks about The Internet or hive minds or whatever; for that matter, it took a while to get over the fallacious belief that a few people on the Internet represented some vast collective who shared some unanimous point of view. It can feel that way, but no — it’s always individuals. And once I started to respect the individuality of the negative voices, I began to understand where their opinions came from.

I guess this post would have been a lot shorter if I’d just said, “Being in the games press has taught me that other opinions matter, too.” Oh well.

I have learned a few other things in my time here, though. Like the fact that there are no grand conspiracies or evil collusions in the press, or at least none that I’ve been privy to. As my comrade-in-arms Mike Williams has pointed out, people need to look back to 2007 and “Gerstmanngate” in order to find naked examples of advertising affecting game editorial, because it just doesn’t happen. People like to sneer about how IGN is just paid marketing, but when Ziff-Davis shut down 1UP and shuffled me over to IGN, I was placed in a role in which I specifically served as a buffer between editorial and advertising in order to maintain a Chinese wall between the two. (That’s also why I left about two months later, because I prefer to write rather than play politics. I’d rather attend the prom than be the chaperone, is what I’m saying.)

Video games are made by hard-working schlubs, and they’re written about by hard-working schlubs, and both categories of schlub do so in service of the hard-working schlubs who do their schlubbing so they can afford to buy video games. We’re not so different, you and I.

Wait, that’s what the bad guy always says to the protagonist, isn’t it? Ah well, the games press makes for natural villains. So it goes.

18 thoughts on “By request: How my time in the gaming press has changed my perspective

  1. Good piece. I think there’s probably something to be said about this kind of growth in general, not just as a member of the gaming press — I’m in my early thirties and slowly trying to pull myself up out of the feedback loop of sarcastic one-liners and give a shot at honesty and sincerity, online and in general.

    Off-topic: I notice it’s hard to tell the links from the non-link text in the calendar in the sidebar. I’d recommend ditching the text-shadow attribute and maybe dialing up the contrast between the two colors.

    • Yeah, I agree. Basically I wrote a piece about growing the hell up. It just so happens that I personally undertook that process while in the employ of the gaming press….

      • The hell of it is that, as bad as online communication has ALWAYS been (and I was on Prodigy in 1989), over the past few years we’ve seen much of it taken over by actual scoring systems that, in practice, award people POINTS for sarcastic one-liners.

        On the one hand, your comments about focusing on a few negative comments over a lot of positive ones sounds slightly unhealthy and like you’re being too hard on yourself. On the other, getting praise on the Internet can often be as easy as saying something a little clever and a little mean, and while that might come with a sense of satisfaction, it tends to be a pretty fleeting one.

        I still like the stuff you did around the turn of the century, and there’s definitely a place for that kind of thing. But I’ve really been impressed by your work over the last few years, both in terms of craft (Anatomy of Games and the like) and the sheer enthusiasm you bring when you’re talking about something you really like.

  2. Nice article, Jeremy. In all the years I have been making games, I never felt like the press was some obstacle or force to try and win over when our games were reviewed. It was nice to hear critique on something that our team had lost objectivity on after years of staring at a dev kit.

    I agree the old magazines did have a certain optimism to their writing styles, although I never realized it until you said it here. Maybe it was the fact that I was less jaded then when I read it? That would at least explain why I feel like some of what I read now feels negative.

    Anyway, glad you are continuing to write and create. You make things that I enjoy. :)

    • Mmmmm… no. Pete and I are coming from very different places. Bob’s FFF review didn’t bust anyone’s chops or make any judgments about people; it just said, “This is not a good game, and the company that makes it generally does not make good games,” and he made a solid case for his argument. It’s a good, solid review. As for judgmentalism, the entire point of a game review is to pass judgment — on the game. Which Bob’s review did. Sadly, Pete appears to have taken that review very personally, which is unfortunate.

      I really don’t want to get into it, because disagreements should be settled in private rather than aired publicly, but there is a deep and fundamental difference between what I wrote here and what Pete a few days ago.

      • I understand it can be touchy and although I really can’t agree, I appreciate your reply and respect your wish to keep those debates private.

      • Great piece, Jeremy. I just wanted to chip in and agree with what you said about the FFF review. As just a reader, I get the impression that Bob really wants to like these games (with the time commitment of an RPG, who wouldn’t), but he has high expectations. Where a game doesn’t meet them, he says why. In my opinion, that makes him a better reviewer – we should all have high expectations, they’re the best way to improve media. I definitely think it’s possible to criticize a piece of media because you care about it, consider it important, and want it to thrive. Not everyone criticizes constructively, but I think some people who do get unnecessary flak for it.

        This essay reminded me of something I read a few years ago (I think on this site? Sadly I don’t remember any more) about the end of Pixar’s Ratatouille. The restaurant critic says something to the effect that almost everyone likes a scathing takedown; they’re fun to read, and fun to write. But the higher calling of a critic is to shed light on “the new” – to bring attention to good, worthy things that may not be noticed otherwise. That’s a positive attitude to aspire to, and I think you’ve been doing a great job of it.

    • I just read through that linked blog post, and while I didn’t click through to the Polygon review, I gotta say I’m tickled pink by the idea of *Pete* describing someone else’s writing as “uniquely pretentious.”

  3. This is a really thoughtful piece; more journalists (gaming or not) ought to meditate on these issues. Puts me in mind of Jon Stewart’s infamous jeremiad against Crossfire, but delivered much more cheerfully.

    The tragic part is that snarky condescension really does make for great entertainment when you agree with it. So while I really admire your personal effort to elevate the discourse, there’s probably an unending amount of market pressure for content that titillates. And while I think it is possible to be funny, incisive and judgmental without mocking your subject, many won’t bother.

    (For the record: as a reader since longer than I care to admit, I’ve never found your work snarky!)

  4. This is kind of interesting to read. As a personal fan of your writing for not as many years as some, only since maybe 2009, I’ve definetly seen the change you were talking about. I’m not gonna lie, I used to think you were some kind of Nintendo fanboy and occasionally it would piss me off. But I always came back for the good writing about games that I love so much. But I’ve definetly seen a shift to appreciate others views and at least explain where your coming from over the years. As someone who I used to think was anti Sega, you’ve written some of the best historical pieces on the Mega Drive and Dreamcast I’ve read recently for example. I think we all at some point get caught up in pointless arguments about the merits of one game or company or another. But when we start to appreciate others view points and maybe come to realize that it’s much more interesting to talk about why something worked or didn’t , or why historically something bad is still interesting and significant, it’s a lot more fun and interesting to read and listen to.

    I don’t know. I would have a hard time categorizing any games writers as villains. Maybe nobody really does like a critic. But I definetly gravitate towards ones that respect their audience rather than the ones who dismiss and criticize them. Even if you are a really great writer, nobody wants to follow a negative or abusive writer who addresses all complaints with a screw you attitude. (I don’t want to call out people but an example would be like for me Leigh Alexander who I’ve found to be a great writer but a really negative person who insults and dismisses any dissenting opinion. I don’t have time for her negativity.)


  5. I’ve grown up with the games press and every year I become less tolerant of snarky, single-minded attitudes, masquerading as “strong opinion”. Sometimes I follow a person on Twitter because I like their writing, only to find that they’re super snarky 24/7 because that’s what gets them retweets. Disappointing.

    My favourite types of articles are investigative pieces, behind-the-scenes, developer interviews, postmortems, retrospectives. I enjoy anecdotes and personal stories that tie into video games.

    What I don’t like are “state of the industry” type opinion pieces written from the perspective of no consumer I’ve ever met, and clearly penned to enrage fanboys. That ridiculous Polygon article about how Tomb Raider’s exclusivity “likely means more sales, higher profits” springs to mind, and all manner of “Nintendoomed” articles.

    USG is one of my go-to places right now because it avoids that type of thing.

  6. I respect and admire the development towards positivity your writing has taken over the years. That said…

    Surely I can’t be the only one who, at least in part, misses the more (ahem) spiteful writing of the past? I mean, don’t sell yourself short; it wasn’t all just spite for spite’s sake. I recall a review on your personal website from a ways back, a complete deconstruction of how terrible a game Xenosaga Episode 1 was. There was vitriol, to be sure, but it was entertaining and, most importantly, astute.

    It’s a great feeling to read a piece like that, something that eloquently picks apart a game you don’t like, but aren’t quite sure why, especially for tongue-tied philistines like myself. Even better is when you picked apart a game I actually enjoy – it’s a challenge to my opinion, not me personally. Anyone who thinks otherwise, who gets their self-worth and validation from an arbitrary number on a video game review, would do well to avoid the internet altogether.

    • Oh sure, some of those ranty old game diatribes were smart and incisive. I’m pretty happy with a few of them, still. But it’s tough to draw the line between “pointed” and “mean,” and I haven’t always done a good job of it. Plus, now that I’ve seen more of how things work behind the curtain, it’s harder to be vitriolic.

  7. “Like a lot of people who get into the press, I started out as kind of a jackass.”

    Well, at least you can take consolation in never calling Shigeru Miyamoto “Shiggy.”

    I mean, at least I hope you can.

  8. This was a great article and perspective on the matter. Especially since I’ve been a fan of your writing and podcast since 2009. I can’t say you were that much of a jackass back then, but maybe you had already started to improve since 2003?

    Oh wait, this comment won’t stick with you unless it’s negative. Games journalism and metroidvania are all your fault.

  9. I can sympathize since I used to be a lot snarkier about games, and I think a lot of it was shaped by what I was reading at the time. I am glad that I found 1up and your writing in specific since over the years it’s got me to think about games in ways I’ve never thought of before.

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