John Walker's Electronic House

Er, I Don’t Know, Some Introspective Blather About My Job

by on May.12, 2012, under The Rest

I’m feeling biographical. Perhaps that happens to you in your mid-30s, I’m not sure. This is indulgence. Indulgence is acceptable. I’m conscious of a couple of things. Firstly, that I want to process being creative, and secondly that I want to ponder what it is I’m actually doing. And it seems to be the case that I do my best processing in the backend of a WordPress site. I mean, this is essentially the ‘room’ I go to every day to do my work, and my work is, I would argue, to be creative.

I think people reach games journalism (and let’s ignore the semantics of ‘journalism’ – I’m aware that I’m not in warzones or uncovering governmental corruption, but “games writing” suggests I’m writing the games themselves, and I’ve yet to find a better term) from a lot of different paths, with a lot of different motivations. For some, it’s because it’s their absolute dream, to be writing about video games. For others, it’s because they love playing video games, and want to find a way to make money from that. (I always advise those latter people away from the career, because, well, I’m an idealist. I used to because it meant they stood no chance of getting anywhere, but I think that notion is somewhat outdated now, and instead I just find the approach personally offensive.) For me, it’s because I want to write. Why I want to write is a much more convoluted question. But why I write about video games is simple: I think video games are incredible, and they provide me an opportunity to write. (I imagine to some that’s equally offensive.)

I’m passionate about games. I’ve loved them since we had our first Atari 2600, and as much as I revel in great film, literature and television, gaming is the medium that most connects with me. It’s the medium that lets not only the story engage with me, but me engage with that story, and through interaction I receive a connection that’s unique. And because I am wired the way I’m wired, my desire is to express that which I experience, and I am blessed and fortunate enough to be able to do that in the job I have.

I think that some see the task of writing articles for a gaming site (a peculiarly common job these days) as something functional. I think there’s a lot of merit to that. There’s an industry, and there’s an audience for that industry, and the games journalist is able to report on the industry to that audience. That makes a lot of sense, and while it’s argued frequently that it causes the writer to become an un/witting part of the PR machine, it’s a pragmatic and useful role. For me, that role is a by-product of the job I want to be doing. So, Rock, Paper, Shotgun (RPS) serves this function, posting most of the significant news about games that we hope readers want to read. And yes, that’s very often in the form of promotional material released by publishers. Like it or not, people want to see the trailer for the game they’re looking forward to playing, and a trailer is a good way to get a feel for what the game is going to be like, and so on. While I’m as guilty as many of being incredibly busy with other articles and just throwing up a trailer with a quick comment (although in light of a trend on some other sites, adding a quick comment is a gesture of generosity to your audience), I tend to see such things as an opportunity to make some dumb jokes, write something short and silly that will hopefully entertain someone, even if they weren’t interested in the trailer below it. That’s the motivation for me – not the function, but in fact to distract from the function, to use the trailer, etc, as a reason to do something else. Even if that something else is a single sentence of nonsense. Like, the most recent trailer I put up was on Thursday (Friday is my day off) about Assassin’s Creed III – the first in-game footage of a very big game, which perhaps should have been a time for analysis of its content and discussion of what it means for the series… But I was working pretty hard on some other stuff, and after threatening to tell readers’ parents on them, wrote of the War Of Independence-set game, “As you can see, it’s set during the American Civil War, when Canada fought Mexico over the right to Orlando.” A masterpiece of modern writing, I’m sure you’ll agree. But the point is, it’s some nonsense that’s hopefully a half-second grin if you couldn’t care less about Assassin’s Creed III. (And for some, a reason to point out the mistake in the comments.)

I distracted myself. My point is, I love to write, and I love to write about my experience, and I love to write nonsense, and gaming affords me a great opportunity to do that.

I guess I feel more and more like I’m rebelling against the industry I’m in. I’ve not changed, but gosh, the industry has. And let’s be clear: I do appoint myself an obligation to be somewhat useful to readers. People come to RPS for all sorts of reasons I’m sure, but a great many will want to know about a game. If I write a review (They’re not reviews! – People In Denial) of a game that in no way lets the reader know whether it’s the sort of thing they’ll be interested in, nor whether it’s worth spending their money on, then I’ve written a crappy review. But this is an industry that is taking itself increasingly seriously, believing itself to be comparable with the most highly regarded investigative journalism of the most respectable newspapers, all the while posting their exclusive screenshots of a game a publisher wants them to promote. It’s a nonsensical situation of pomposity in denial, a confusion because sometimes we’re a mouthpiece for publicity, and other times we’re critical of those same publishers. For me, I see my job as entertainment (nonsense, trailers, screenshots, etc) and consumer advocacy (reviews, criticism, investigative articles), and I’m comfortable with its being both, and not pretending it’s neither. I’m able to post a trailer and say, “Coo, this looks exciting!” and then review the game and say, “It’s stinky poo-plops, no matter how exciting it looked – don’t spend your money on this!” Perhaps this is naive in an industry increasingly focused on pre-orders and motivated to get the former “Exciting!” coverage to drive that. Perhaps I should finish every article I write with, “Don’t pre-order games, you idiots.” I mean – what an extraordinarily stupid thing to do. Paying £40 for something that isn’t finished, and may be a piece of crap – huh?

Blimey, I didn’t intend to write about games at all really.

The point I’d meant to make is that I am feeling, I think, a sense of frustration in my creative side at the temporality of what I do. If someone makes a game, that game is around forever, possibly played years later. When I write an article, no matter how much effort goes into it, by the end of that day it’s disappeared off the bottom of the front page of the site, and is likely never thought about again. Certainly a couple of things I’ve written have had a more lasting memory. That sodding review from 13 years ago, certainly. And then more positively, my Wizard article for The Escapist, a review I wrote of Leisure Suit Larry: Magna Cum Laude, and some of the stuff I’ve done for RPS looking into addiction, violence and EA’s naughty ways.

But of course that’s how it should be. These are works of literature, or results of years of effort. I think I need to start looking at RPS as a whole as my long-term achievement. We just had the splendid opportunity to boast that we’d had our audience numbers independently audited, and came out with over 2.1 million unique monthly readers, and well over 110,000 individuals reading the site every day. And we know that was in one of our weakest months in a long time – our own numbers showed March as being a real, fortunately temporary, dip. We’re doing incredibly well. And as I said in the press release we issued for it, we did that without resorting to the tricks and cheats that very many sites use. We don’t employ SEO (search engine optimisation) chicanery that our rivals put remarkable effort and money into, we don’t make deals for giant exclusives that prevent other sites from covering a game and force readers to us, and we don’t link-bait with cheap posts about the 10 Best Tits In 2012 or whatever. Were we to, I’m sure we’d be reporting vastly higher audience numbers, but we’d all feel dirty and hate ourselves. We created RPS to escape that sort of practice, and to prove that it’s not necessary to succeed. You succeed more slowly, and less impressively, but it’s success I argue is far more worth having. Oh, and you make less money. And the reason we have the luxury of being able to do things how we do is because we’re entirely independent, owned by ourselves, and not beholden to shareholders or greedy, tedious bosses who can drain the creativity from even the most passionate of writers. I want to say we’re pretty lucky to be in this position, but we’re in this position because we all worked incredibly hard and incredibly defiantly. Turning down big-money offers to work for others under their rules was always odd when the next day we’d carry on working for almost nothing. But it’s paid off. RPS pays my salary now.

So I suppose I didn’t quite ponder being creative. I think what I want to do is create a portfolio of sorts, a collection of links to the pieces of which I’m most proud, and put them somewhere. Try to give them a greater sense of permanence, and somewhere I can point to and say, “Look, I don’t just post trailers and then talk rubbish.” Maybe we need a section on RPS called “The Very Best Of RPS”, and then link to each of our finest pieces. Perhaps I should make a link called that on the front page, and then have it just link to the front page, and then laugh at how smug I am.

I know what this is really all about, all this ponderous wibble. I want to create something else. Which means write. I want to write something else. I just don’t have any idea what it is.

:,

20 Comments for this entry

  • Matt

    Thank you for this. I’ve spent the last few years writing and working in the entertainment journalism field (as you say, journalism may not be the best word but whatever), and I continuously find myself at odds with the grinding PR machinery that runs the thing. I recently left my job because, among other reasons, the catering and all those 10 Best Tits lists had worn me down. Boy, did those tits wear me down.

    As I’ve cast around for a new gig, I don’t see many likely landing spots that offer refuge from what I left behind. RPS is one of the few bright spots that gives me hope. It proves to me that creative, thoughtful writing can reach a deeper chord with readers than the thousands of publications that are all too happy to swim in the most shallow of waters.

    And so as I embark on my own project (it’s not quite ready for prime time), I wanted to say thank you for doing the work that you’re doing. It helps to know that I’m not alone.

  • Nick

    It may be ponderous wibble, but it’s ponderous wibble I enjoy reading. Are you considering writing a book?

  • Xercies

    A novel might be a good route, or maybe some nice informative book about something done in a funny way.

  • Zorganist

    Perhaps something in the fashion of Jim’s ‘This Gaming Life’- part autobiographical, part journalistic in nature- would be a good way to go. I’d buy/Kickstart etc. a Walker-penned book.

  • Joe

    Y’know, I think about the “games that made me”, but more important than all of those, it was a mag: PCG, and a large part of that your writing. More than any band, author or developer, writers like you and Jim helped make me the person – let alone the gamer – that I am today.

    To put it another way: I genuinely had a lump in my throat when I realised you were leaving They’re Back. Not sure if this is what you’re after, but if that isn’t permanence then *shrug*

  • Dinger

    Games Journalism is in a situation not unlike Sport(s) Journalism. There’s a dangerous balance between the Journalist as part of the Marketing/Fan Machine and as a Consumer advocate. Privileged access often comes with allowing overt and subtle influence on what is and what is not covered. In general, I find that RPS handles the tension quite well: make it clear under what conditions the journalists have been exposed to the product, without glamorizing them (“Jetted me off to a swank hotel with unlimited room service!”, as if playing a AAA game till your eyes bleed in some indistinct corporate hotel makes you the Johnny Mnemonic of the games world). The lack of scores helps immensely, especially in an industry where wrong-headed executives insert dealbreaking controls into otherwise decent games.

    But I get it’s very ephemeral writing. Professionally, I’m at the other extreme: I often enter into dialogue on a subject that was last discussed in, say, 1956, and that was a person replying to someone in 1890. What I write is not read by millions, and in many cases, the books that contain them will be virgin martyrs, unread and burned in some future conflagration. So sometimes I wouldn’t mind writing something that has a million readers, even if they forgot about it the next day.

    The story that hasn’t been told yet is the one where RPS stands as a witness and a catalyst. At least from my uninformed observer position, it looked like this. Back in 2005, the debate in the games media was on whether the winner of the next-generation console war was going to be Sony or Playstation. The Escapist launched with a promise of exploring the relevance of games as cultural and artistic experiences. Two years later, they’d largely regressed to a standard games website, and RPS launched, around the time of the Orange Box.
    We’ve seen a revolution: casual games, browser games, free games, “freemium” nonsense, social-media games, and the move from a model of “large studios” and “small studios”, to “mainstream producer”, “specialist studio” and “indie”. University programs on video games have exploded, and with it the reflection at all levels of what constitutes a game, and its mechanics. Nintendo didn’t win the “Next-Gen Console War”, the PC did, and the notion that games have aesthetic value, in addition to their techinical and commercial merits.
    The best seat to watch this revolution (at least as it relates to the PC) has been RPS. There’s a direct line from Portal to Minecraft, and I can follow it in the archives of that there gaming blog.

  • Lemony Weasel

    I don’t know what to say, except “Nice article.”

    You get pretty damn good responses to the longer, more serious posts you write about on RPS.

    Write more.

    Maybe you shouldn’t go with the ‘Very Best of RPS’ part of the site. Maybe, instead, you should go with some sort of ‘RPS Theory’ or ‘RPS Thoughts’ for your posts on game violence, etc.

    These are the kind of topics that people write essays about to get a degree at university.

    I’ll be starting a Game Theory/Design degree later this year and writing pieces that’ll (hopefully) last more than a day for their relevance (probably more like one year).

    I don’t know either.

    Write those long-lasting pieces.

  • James Campbell

    Weren’t you writing a book for children?

    [Enjoyable wibble blather!]

  • Kieron Gillen

    Just add a side-bar to this site called “Portfolio” or “Journalism” or something, and link to a small sample of your best shit.

  • Fede

    You could add another table on the right, like those containing the latest tagged as “feature”, “interview”, “free”, or you caould have a collect-them-all article like http://www.rockpapershotgun.com/2007/07/01/and-you-may-have-missed/ (which has some of the best articles of the first year or RPS).

    One page containing all the diaries would be awesome, I have saved a link to all the ones I remembered, but I have probably missed some (http://dl.dropbox.com/u/30480787/rps.html).

  • James Campbell

    I’d call it “Best Shit”.

  • devlocke

    Kieron’s idea was the first thing to come to mind when I read this piece as well. Honestly, I’d love it if all of the RPS writers had a similar thing – I am pretty sure I’ve read all the long-form pieces on RPS as they were posted, but you guys had careers long before RPS, and have continued to write for other sites, and I’d love to read your stuff from other publications/that predates RPS.

    I waited to post until I read your Escapist piece because I didn’t realize you’d written anything for them. And I think “Men with grey beards really don’t like to be called, “fellow wizard.” (Although, their wives are likely to find it funny.)” is now my favorite John Walker line. If there are more previously-unknown articles of awesomeness written by RPS alums, I’d love to read ‘em. Link ‘em, peoples. :)

  • Coccyx

    It’s a tad disheartening to constantly read about the harsh world of games journalism (or whatever) when it’s exactly what I’m interested in.

    As to my motivation… well, primarily I know I want to write. Would people say that’s better? Writer first, gamer second? I’m not sure – there’s no way a non-gamer could enter the field, just as a film critic needs to own a DVD player. The people that can inform you best will not only be well experienced, but, and I really hate this word, passionate.

    RPS has been my most visited news site for a long time, almost entirely because of the reasons you highlight here. You guys have a quirkiness that no one else has really captured. You’ve embraced the novelties, the constant opportunities to be silly. I suppose it’s ultimately about entertaining AND informing – while nearly every other news outlet tries to sneak the former into the latter. Long may you continue.

  • Matt Dovey

    Write a book. If Jim can do it, I’m sure you can manage.

    Most obvious subject matter would be to collate and deepen all your various excellences on gaming addiction and violence. Your best work (IMHO, of course) was spent tearing apart the casual assumptions of mainstream media – Bulletstorm and Fox News, Baroness Greenfield and her slow descent into madness, even the recent Breivik stuff. Delve into that properly – look at all the research, go into proper detail on the sensationalist stories that are always trotted out (Korean and Chinese MMO players, inevitably), talk to different people. Get a foreword written by Dr Goldacre, thereby getting it reviewed in the Guardian and result – we gamers finally have an intelligent voice of reason discussing our point of view on all that nonsense.

    Or, y’know, an illustrated children’s novel of Horace the Endless Bear. Especially if it’s a Choose Your Own Endless Ursine Adventure novel.

  • Martillo

    >> I’ve yet to find a better term

    I always thought of myself as a consumer journalist (or “consumer journalist specialising in games” if I was feeling exact) although at moments of extreme hubris would describe myself as an actual critic. I put “International Lover Of Women” on my invoices though, which probably explains why I don’t do it any more.

  • Steve Eustice

    Hey John,

    I know, particularly given the recent Rum Doings, your feelings about football. But as Dinger says above, there are definitely parallels between sports journalism and games journalism. Given that, can I point you in the direction of http://www.theblizzard.co.uk?

    Basically, it’s a quarterly “magazine” put together by a group of the most intelligent and articulate football writers and gives them a chance to write as much as they like on whatever they like, no matter how niche. There’s a heavy focus on the game off the beaten track, philosophical issues, personal experiences etc. Basically, all the stuff that the writers want to explore but would never get a magazine/newspaper to sign off on.

    It’s sold on a pay what you want basis as a digital edition and premium pricing for a superbly designed, high quality paper version. They look great on the shelf and are perfect for dipping in and out of, referring back to every now and then.

    A game focused version of The Blizzard would be amazing and I can’t think of anyone better to start it than you. I could send you over a copy of the digital edition for you to check out if you’re interested. Anything I can do to make it happen!

  • sinister agent

    John, you wally. Use your shady RPS CORRUPTION!!! links to write games. Write game scripts. Write for games. However the hell are you supposed to put that.

    It’s interesting reading your thoughts on this. I’ve been having some broadly similar thoughts myself, and I don’t know if it’ll be of any comfort, but you’ve achieved a fuckload more than I have, and I’m brilliant.

    You should be bloody proud of RPS. Yeah, it’s just games, but games are a great source of inspiration, comfort and fun to about a billion people, and fun is incredibly important, whatever any miserable, uptight people might say. RPS is a great thing, my favourite thing about games journalism since Amiga Power. Different, obviously, but the principle of “no, that’s rubbish and wrong, let’s not do that” is the same. And that’s bloody important.

  • Xercies

    I actually would love a game made by all of the RPS crew actually, John could be writer, Jim since hes got a bit of experience could be the programmer and the others could fill in roles of i don’t know. Would definitly be interesting what kind of game RPS makes.

  • Xercies

    Or maybe John could go it alone and make a point and click with Adventure Game Studio, and write about his experience of making it.

  • Euan

    “some of the stuff I’ve done for RPS looking into addiction, violence and EA’s naughty ways.”

    Little bit late to the party but I wanted to let you know that these more in-depth pieces are one of the main reasons why I donate to RPS.
    Thanks for all your hard work. :-)