Once upon a time, games journalism was all fact.
Well, actually, there’s no way games journalism could ever be all fact. In the same way that movie reviews are never "all fact", game reviews, previews, and other such articles have been subject to a journalistic bias since the dawn of of the medium. It’s just a fact of life that when somebody looks at something, they perceive something diferrent from the person next to them. What is an amazing experience to one is a catastrophe of creativity to the other.
In an act of profound reasoning, the always-crunchy Kieron Gillen of Rock, Paper, Shotgun delivered a New Games Journalism (NGJ) manifesto detailing what style he thought games journalism needs to make a shift towards. It’s a great read, especially since a lot of the points made were directly relevant to the sagging of the games journalism industry at the time. The points made boiled down to:
- Journalists need to be less analytical and more interpersonal.
- Entertainment when reading journalism is as important as the "facts".
- Games journalism should focus on the gamer, not the game.
- Games journalism should be treated almost as travel journalism, not as traditional journalism.
All of these points are important to the evolution of gaming. However, taking this dogma to heart, many journalists have perverted the lesson of this manifesto and turned journalism from "fact" to "opinion". Writers like Yahtzee of Escapist Magazine or Angry Video Game Nerd of Cinemassacre are consummate entertainers. However, they are not journalists, and in a way, have managed to bring games journalism back to a new low through the amount of influence they have upon newcomers to the industry.
Games journalism should never be about spite. It should never be about bile and venom. It should never be full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. By perpetuating this style, imitators are only dragging the perception of game hobbyists down. We are not a bunch of tantruming children. We are adults who are capable of forming sophisticated thoughts beyond "fuck this, fuck that."
Games journalism could take cues from two sources. The first is Anthony Bourdain of the Travel Channel show No Reservations. In a way, he helps personify the element of "travel journalism" that Kieron refers to in his manifesto. He places his opinion of the food he eats within the context of his travels and the culture in which he stays. He does not simply analyze the flavors, or go on pure gut instinct. He places his thoughts within a greater framework of stories.
The second source is, funnily enough, academic simulations. In the academic simulation industry, simulations are created to teach players. After the players are done with the game, the game is evaluated by what the player experienced while playing the game as well as the lessons learned. This method of teaching is known as "experiential learning" and is gradually becoming more and more championed across the business world.
While Kieron’s New Games Journalism is a step in the right direction, I think that it’s not far enough. It leaves open holes that people can misunderstand and exploit to allow opinions to cloud judgement so heavily that reviews lose all relevance. Therefore, I’d like to coin a new term.
Experiential Games Journalism is the next step that games journalism should take. We are mired in the waste of opinions while airy facts drift above our heads. We need to bring the facts down to a personal level and clean away the acidic language lapping at our feet. Experiential Games Journalism (or as I term it, Fireside Chats) is defined as the following:
- Engaging readers on a personal level within the review. Readers should feel involved, not as an observer watching somebody be analytical or vile.
- Placing the review within the context of a larger story. This is the "experiential" element. A games journalist should be willing to convey the experience of playing the game in the context of life rather than in a separate world.
- Willingness to go on a tangential discussion. If a game reminds you of a story from your childhood, tell it. This is directly related to your experience with the game. What you feel, think, or remember is all relevant.
- And, of course, all of Kieron’s excellent points in the NGJ manifesto should be incorporated into this as well.
The end result is the way that one person would talk to a friend in a casual conversation. A fireside chat. And this, more than anything, is interesting to readers. A connection between the person writing and the person reading.