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 I used to because it meant they stood no chance of getting anywhere, but I think that notion is somewhat outdated now, and instead I just find the approach personally offensive.)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.