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.