I first met Gerard Williams in April of this year, the Thursday before PAX East began. I was attending the PlayStation Move event at the Colonnade Hotel in Boston and wanted to get some opinions from the crowd. I had no idea who this person was next to me with the wrestling belt and the sideways baseball cap. I assumed he was just one of the many eccentrics/lunatics I was bound to run into during the weekend’s celebration of “all things geek.” Williams was excited, exuberant, and a lot of fun to talk to, both then and when we met later during the Expo.
I bumped into him again at E3 in June. He instantly remembered me, offering a sincere handshake and a back-pound. Later, I spotted him in the Sony pavilion, up on the raised area where Sony reps were holding press appointments. I had just seen Invizimals for the PSP and recommended that he go check it out. The last thing I saw as I descended the stairs was Williams and his crew standing around the Invizimals demo, talking to the Sony rep with big smiles on their faces and gesticulating excitedly.
Williams’s enthusiasm is extremely catchy if you’re open to it. I spoke with Gamasutra’s news editor, Leigh Alexander, about Williams as she is one of his most vocal supporters in the industry. “I always look forward to seeing Gerard at events,” Alexander said, “bringing his big personality, constant enthusiasm and warm attitude; it always helps remind me of how much I really love this business.”
Not everyone shares those sentiments. I also spoke with Matthew Hawkins, a semi-regular contributor to EGM, Gamasutra, and GameSetWatch. "When it comes to professionalism, and not just as it relates to the world of video-game journalism, nothing says 'I'm here to gather information on upcoming games and interact with those in [the] gaming industry, to either ask questions or provide commentary' to me than running around a press event screaming from the top of your lungs and while wearing a wrestling belt," Wagner told me sarcastically. "Though it's often said that everyone needs a gimmick, so be it."
Williams is a lifelong New Yorker, born and raised in Brooklyn and currently residing in Queens. His mother left him at age 2, and Williams grew up with his father, brother, sister, and grandmother. He graduated from Thomas Jefferson High School in 2000 and enrolled in computer science classes at New York Technical College, hoping to become a game designer. He says he carried a 4.0 GPA for a year but had to leave school in order to get a job and bring in funds for the household. A temp agency placed him in the offices of Universal Music Group/Island Def Jam, where he currently works as a mailroom supervisor in their Times Square offices.
“HipHopGamer was really supposed to be two people, HipHopGamers, me and my friend Julio,” Williams said. “When he came to the house, we just had the PlayStation Eye camera. I set it up, we had our little table, I pushed play, and we started talking about games. This was December 2007. On that video I got about 560 hits.”
Williams could be considered the point man for the democratization of video-game media. He says that his website HipHopGamerShow currently receives between six to eight million hits a month. “When you look at Joystiq or Destructoid and their numbers, it’s huge; but just because you got numbers doesn’t make something correct, or right,” Williams said. “Their site is bigger than [indie sites] – but their thoughts and opinions isn’t.”
Videogame journalists have some…interesting…tales to tell about Williams' antics at press and industry events. I asked Williams about a story I heard regarding his shouting someone down at Sony's E3 conference this year..
“We getting’ a 3D demonstration on this big-ass screen of Killzone 3," he told me. "I lose my mind, right? Everybody’s loud, everybody’s clapping, we having a good time. This Russian dude leans back, and he says ‘My God, would you shut the fuck up?’ He told me that. So, when he told me that, in my mind, I was like, ‘He said that to me?’ I was like, ‘Look you bitch ass nigger, say that shit again. I will fuck you up.' ”
“Have you ever been asked politely to keep it down and then kept it down?” I asked him.
“If you ask me politely to keep it down, hell yeah I’ll keep it down, because you showed me respect,” he said.
I’ve heard professional journalists say that they want PR reps to make sure their interview times don’t butt up against Williams’ because he’s “loud and disruptive.” Williams eagerly talked to me about exuberantly greeting industry figures he knows at trade events, but couldn't remember ever interrupting a professional interview.
"I'm actually not entirely sold of his idea that he is unaware of how polarizing and distracting his behavior is, and that perhaps it might be part of some ruse," Matthew Hawkins said. "I'm certainly not the only one who has been tempted to tell the guy to pipe down at press events but didn't want to be suckered into some stupid battle of the egos for the grand stage of the Internet. HipHopGamer vs. [insert name of your outlet]. The fact that he's attempted to 'call out' other outlets is further proof of such nonsense that most of us just don't have time for."
Threats of violence in the face of rudeness clearly isn’t acceptable, and interrupting interviews is also extremely disrespectful to anyone working a show if it's true, but Leigh Alexander finds some of these complaints about Williams problematic. “I hear a lot about how people want him to behave 'more professionally',” she said. “But I think a lot of opinions on Gerard's work fail to embrace the fact that we work in an entertainment business in which we're fortunate to have a rich cast of characters. If you go to, say, the Oscars, you're equally likely to find a business news reporter there as you are to find a gossip columnist or rogue blogger asking offbeat questions of the red carpeters, and neither one necessarily has any less right to be there than the other.”
Williams loves to boast about his relationships in the video-game industry. “I know a lot of people,” he told me. “Shit, I could call [developer] David Jaffe on my phone right now! I could call him whenever I want. And they pick up. We talk. [GameTrailers host] Geoff Keighley, that’s my dude. I spoke to him yesterday. [Analyst] Michael Pachter, that’s my boy right there. We did a killer Pach Attack at PAX.”
Perhaps Williams’ access arouses the ire of some journalists because he’s an unwelcome reminder that we’re part of an enthusiast press whose primary job at expos and press events, for better or worse, is to get the information out to the consumers. Williams does this for an audience that otherwise would go without attention. “His personal brand is quite a bit different than the games press might be used to, but I think it's important to remember that there's no arbitrary ideal to which we all need to constantly adhere,” Alexander said. “Gerard's not a news reporter, he's a culturalist and an entertainer. Further, he serves a largely different audience than we do and acts as an important ambassador for his fans.”
Dennis Scimeca is a freelance writer from Boston, MA. He has written for The Escapist and @Gamer magazine, is currently penning a feature for Gamasutra, and maintains a blog at punchingsnakes.com. Follow him on Twitter: @DennisScimeca. First Person is his weekly column on Bitmob concerned with meta questions around the video-game industry and the journalism that covers it.
Williams considers himself as a journalist, even though he openly plagiarizes news articles. “If I see an article online, and I think it’s interesting, I’ma take it, and I’ma link it, and that’s it,” Williams said. He also relished telling me about the free trips, with accommodations, that he accepts from publishers to cover industry events in Los Angeles. What seemed to be a final straw for some journalists was Williams recently accusing IGN’s Greg Miller of being a “liar” in response to Miller’s Mafia 2 review. Questioning Miller’s integrity as a journalist while Williams shows up in the video decked out in a Call of Duty: Black Ops sweatshirt delivered to him by Treyarch is delicious irony.
What may be particularly galling to professional video-game journalists in light of Williams’ open refusal to adhere to standard journalistic ethics is the harsh criticism Williams throws in their direction. “You got a lot of journalists that come there, and only do their job, and that’s it,” Williams said. “To me, I feel like that’s fucked up. You want so much from the developers and the publishers, you want this, you want that, you complain about this, complain about that, but yet when it comes to doing the interview, you ask the same questions that everybody else asks, same routine bullshit, and you just call it a day.” Williams told me that he likes his interviews to “be an event,” citing as an example a recent interview about Kinect where he began the interview walking on his hands. It’s eye-rolling stuff from a traditional journalist’s perspective.
“Why is it that when you become a journalist, you’re required…not to express the love you have for games to consider yourself [legitimate]?” Williams asked me. I mentioned AJ Glasser’s recent article on GamePro, No Cheering from the Press Box, and told him, “It’s because you love games that you’re willing to take that perspective. Those are the people who sacrifice their enthusiasm in order to be the person setting the record because they want the record to be right because they love games. That’s how I define a games journalist. The reason why they’re doing it is because someone has to tell that story, and it has to be told right.” It’s a shame that not many professional video-game journalists seem willing to engage with Williams about these concerns, because his response to me was sincere: “I appreciate that. Real talk.”
It’s reasonable to suggest that Williams’ existence as a hip-hop artist and participation in that culture isn’t considered carefully enough by his detractors. “You got a lot of people who don’t like me being a journalist because of who I am and where I come from and the fact that I get more recognition than they do, and they went to school for this, and they went the standard route, and I just utilized my passion and got further. You got a lot of people that’s envious of that.”
Boasting about one’s skills is an inextricable part of hip-hop culture, where new artists make their names by battling one another in the underground scene and proving their skills. Exuberant public displays are about making a name for oneself and standing out from the crowd of thousands of wannabe hip-hop artists looking to cut a record. Williams applies this mentality to how he covers the video-game industry, even if other journalists don’t want to play his game.
I wanted to know what Williams meant by “getting further” than other journalists. He doesn’t get any industry access that seasoned professionals don’t also have, and where he covers the gaming media as more of a serious hobby, the professionals do so full-time. Williams suggested an answer to my thoughts recently in a follow-up conversation. “I'm now a partner with Sony, and my material is inside PlayStation Home,” he said, “but I have other deals currently pending that will net me some good money, real good money.” He isn’t announcing those deals until 2011, but he says it’s going to be enough to quit his day job.
When I made plans to write this piece, I wasn’t interested in the brand and alter-ego that Williams had ostensibly developed for himself. I wanted to know who the person was behind them, but my assumption that his public persona was just an act turned out to be utterly false. He may wrap himself in hip-hop culture’s affectations while recording his “vidicles” (video articles) or conducting interviews, but there’s no guise being donned. The Gerard Williams we see on his website or out at events is the genuine article, and there is, admittedly, something refreshing about that. It reminds me of what Susan Arendt, the senior editor of The Escapist, has said about focusing not on snark and one-upmanship, but rather on our communal love of games.
“Personally, I don't feel like Gerard doing what he does is any affront to what I do nor interferes with me doing it,” Alexander said. “If games writers have some massive concern that Gerard's presence somehow disrupts the sanctity of games journalism or confuses their audience as to what constitutes real reportage, then that's a problem of our relationship to our audience and has nothing to do with him.”
While we were making our final arrangements to meet, Williams told me several times how excited he was to sit down with me and how much it meant to him. After listening to him regale me with tales of Keighley, Pachter, Jaffe, journalist Stephen Totilo, and consultant N'Gai Croal, I had to ask why my particular interview was so important to him. I’m the tiniest of potatoes compared to some of the heavyweight company in which Williams circulates.
“Yeah, it means a hell of a lot to me, man! It lets me know that someone cares about what I do, they’re interested in what I do, but they’re also interested in who I am, and what makes this possible.” Perhaps, more than he’d be willing to admit, the lion’s share of Williams’ ire towards the video-game journalism establishment is a lack of simple respect for what he’s been able to accomplish in so little time, with nothing more than earnest effort and passion behind him.
Maybe Williams traded off a professional career covering video games, and his potential credibility as a journalist, in order to get the access and visibility that he currently enjoys, but if he truly has a deal coming in 2011 that will get him out of the mail room and covering the video-game industry full time, questions of his credibility will become academic.
Or maybe Williams just doesn’t care about the career and merely wants to be a part of the scene, to live the dream of meeting the developers and publishers, attending the industry events, and enjoying the VIP status when he does. If that’s the case, then Williams is a success, and no one can take that away from him. Like he says, “The industry didn’t make me, so the industry can’t break me.”
Dennis Scimeca is a freelance writer from Boston, MA. He has written for The Escapist and @Gamer magazine, is currently penning a feature for Gamasutra, and maintains a blog at punchingsnakes.com. First Person is his weekly column on Bitmob concerned with meta questions around the video-game industry and the journalism that covers it.