John Walker's Electronic House

by on Mar.05, 2005, under The Rest

It’s that time of eternity when everyone involved in games journalism is having their say about “New Games Journalism”. Despite normally identifying myself as ‘Christian Youth Worker’ before ‘Games Journalist’ (because my social groups either consist of people who aren’t interested in my writing and take no notice of it, or people who are also writers who find it far more interesting that I’m a Christian youth worker), I still think I deserve my say.

I think titling things is frequently unhelpful. Look at the frustration people are experiencing at the hands of games’ genres. Darwinia will be out very soon, and it’s a game that merits everyone’s attention. However, it will lose painful numbers in sales because it isn’t simply slotted into a particular genre. Possible Real Time Strategy comes closest, but as soon as I type that I’ve done damage to the game. Now when someone plays it they will perceive, “Real Time Strategy – Darwinia = Stuff Left”. They’ll see the lack of pathfinding, or mouse-drag unit selection, or whatever other elements people have been trained to expect when they see the flag, “Real Time Strategy”. But Darwinia isn’t an RTS, and it’s also not a Puzzle Game, or a Third Person Action, or any other category one can recognise signifiers from. And it will suffer because of these titles.

Giving this name to a certain style of writing, one that has existed for years, will I think do more harm than anything else. People already don’t like ‘New Games Journalism’ (from now on begrudgingly called ‘NGJ’), they have decided. But when I ask people who say this what they think of particular pieces of writing put under the title, they tell me how good they thought they were. The most commonly referenced examples are Always Black’s articles, Bow Nigger, and Possessing Barbie, and who am I to buck the trend of linking to them in anything written about this subject. What stands out about these two pieces of writing is that they are exceptionally good. They are anecdotes recounted that took place within games. They are moments of humanity, superbly told. And then they are equally explorations of issues of humanity, viewed through the frame of gaming encounters. Bow Nigger looks at prejudice and hatred, Possessing Barbie looks at the fear of adults interacting with children, and the blurring of our understanding of infidelity when fantasy becomes digital.

There are many other examples of the type, going back over a decade. And through the filter of selective history, the surviving examples tend to be very interesting reading. Fantastic. And as ever we are compelled to draw lines, make connections, and most importantly, give a title. The motivation to do this was good. Kieron’s manifesto was a call to arms. It was finally writing down something that people had been talking about in the pub for ever, because this manner of writing is interesting, and it would be excellent to see more people writing in this way.

Not only that, but I believe Kieron’s intention was to point out that games writing deserves to be taken seriously. It’s often considered to be the silly younger brother of proper grown up magazine or newspaper journalism, because of people’s assumption that games are for children. That’s not a fair perception, and so naturally it’s one fought against. The NGJ manifesto cries out for people to take things seriously, to give credit to the work which they might dismiss out of prejudice.

It’s been a year. And in the past year there have been excellent articles written in this anecdotal manner of sharing experiences that took place within the context of gaming. However, this has not been the dominant result of the manifesto. What has happened since is analysis. Type in “new games journalism” into Google and you’ll see countless pages of articles by people exploring this “new movement”, frothing about how it’s changing the way we perceive games, or equally why NGJ is evil and must be destroyed, as it’s ruining the face of our planet.

And as such, NGJ becomes a burden on a writer. It is now perceived as “pretentious”. Stab.

The oft referred to pieces of writing are not pretentious. This analysis is. I’m now a part of it, writing this, analysing the analysis. I’m adding to the damage. Can’t be helped. The international dissection of what remains very few pieces of interesting writing is strangling potential, and perhaps has created a conscious pressure on all writing to live up to some sort of standard.

People grossly misunderstood the manifesto. I don’t know whose fault this is. But the result is people think of it as the beginning of a movement, the capturing of a new idea. It was neither of these things. Bow Nigger was not a result of this call, it was the precursor to it. It was a piece of journalism so interesting that it put the pressure on everyone to give it a genre. And then came the title. Now it is only viewed as “an example of NGJ”, rather than the far more relevant, “an example of some excellent writing”. The title has a stranglehold.

As online games develop, and broaden in their appeal, more people are playing them, and hence more people are finding themselves experiencing those moments of human interaction. These moments are interesting whether on a beach in Hawaii, a mobile phone conversation from a coffee shop in Luton, or in the Raptor Grounds of World of Warcraft. They are of particular interest to the gaming public when they happen in games, and they are particularly interesting when they happen in games because of the actualisation of the masks people wear when they meet each other in any circumstances. This is stuff that should be written about. But it doesn’t need to be a movement, a call to arms, a new approach to games writing… These are all throttling grips around writing’s neck. Analyse Bow Nigger as an article in a magazine, not a poster for a revolution.

There is no revolution. There is no movement. There’s just, as there always has been, some people writing some interesting stuff.

26 Comments for this entry

  • antichaos

    It’s a real tightrope. On the one hand you have engaging windows into moments of exquisite humanity, and on the other you have excruciating had-to-be-there yarns – golf stories even. Tricky.

  • John

    But that’s really not important. Certainly some people have and will write dreadful examples of this writing. That’s writing. It’s not really the point.

  • antichaos

    My point/suggestion/opinion was that NGJ is NOT just writing good golf stories, but that there’s a genre difference between the two. However, the dividing line is so sharp that people tend to mistake one for the other, hence the bad rep. I’m probably the least qualified person to comment on this, so I’ll shut up now.

  • Tom Camfield

    The problem came from the people’s endemic laziness vs Kieron’s long post and tiny two point summary = they just read the summary.

  • Tom Camfield

    I feel the need to tone down my last post. Part of the problem is that people don’t have the time or inclination to read the whole manifesto, so they read the two point summary which doesn’t cover /why/ it’s called NGJ etc. Better? I think so. Ta-ra.

  • Nick

    One cannot find “bad” writing, merely writing that some people consider aesthetically disagreeable. Writing is necessarily incomplete – indeed, necessarily empty – without reading. If there has been any revolution, perhaps there has been one in reading, and in the expectation of the reader.

  • Will

    “One cannot find ‘bad’ writing”?

    “Writing is necessarily incomplete – indeed necessarily empty – without reading.”?

    The main problem I have with this whole thing is that I’m not sure if I’ve suddenly become inestimably stupid, or if I’m the only sane man left on earth.

  • John

    No, you just haven’t considered the Death of the Author’s influence on how one cannot label writing as good or bad.

  • NickM

    If you label writing as “bad”, per se, rather than claiming that you *find* writing bad, or that you do not enjoy it, then you need to demonstrate how it inherently, incorrigibly and essentially manifests this a-prior “badness”. With graphs.

  • Tim R

    And then weigh that against Robert Pirsig’s assertion in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance that, irrespective of whether you believe or understand postmodern literary theory, you know what is good and bad, and that most people will agree with you. It will take several books worth to get to a better, more nuanced version of this paragraph, and I’m not going to write them now – but in summary, I think parading a soundbite of literary theory, albeit tongue in cheek, is quite as unhelpful as the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ labels that it seeks to undermine. Pace, Nick.

  • John

    I think there’s a subtle difference between “parading a soundbite” and using a shorthand phrase for something significant. Pirsig’s argument obsfucates – the issue isn’t whether or not you know that you find it good or bad. And relying on consensus for accuracy is lunacy.

  • Tim R

    hence the several books worth I need to clarify my position. I agree that consensus is lunacy – yet I still have a good idea of good and bad writing, and certainly those who know me would understand what I meant by good and bad. That’s clarified everything, now hasn’t it?

  • John

    I don’t understand what point you’re making. Are you implying that because others may know you well enough to recognise what you interpret as good or bad, it give the writing any inherent good-or-bad-ness?

  • John

    Then I’m not entirely clear why you raised this!

  • Tim R

    Let me see. You are a professional critic, and you work with professional critics. You are read because people want your opinion on what is good or bad. Is that goodness or badness good or bad simply because a bunch of people think it so, which is to say this ‘quality’ is, in a sense, illusory? If this is so you have no cause to be upset that so many people like the Sims, or Myst, because that is really all there is to quality. Or, it could be that goodness or badness is a real thing that is normally hidden beneath the wash of consensus subjectivity – it could (humour me) be the case that Celine Dion is the world’s greatest singer, but consensus subjective opinion (at least among everyone you know) disagrees. What I want to argue is that in spite of the subjective consensuses that normally warp all perceptions of goodness or badness, there really is such a thing, and that this is something we can reveal by a slow and painstaking process, a little analogous to the way that Newton discovered gravity, which was closer to the ‘truth’, and quite a bit later Einstein discovered relativity, which formally disagreed with Newtonian gravity, but effectively refined it. of course both are still theories, but by and large we’d be foolish to contradict them. Of course many people believe in horoscopes, or that walking under ladders brings bad luck – and I think they are wrong – I don’t consider that a subject for relativism. Now I do believe there is an artistic equivalent to this scientific discovery, albeit that I can’t prove beyond reasonable doubt that Middlemarch is a good book – you just have to trust me, or read it for yourself.

    Was that any clearer?

  • Rossignol

    Oh dear.

  • John

    My reply is slightly shorter than Nick’s, and slightly longer than Jim’s:

    By what means or rules can you judge the inherent “goodness” of a book, game or rainbow? Which measure of inherent “correctness” do you use? I normally find that when one swings the argument around to say that consensus opinion is wrong, but there is still inherent good/badness of things, they are usually doing so because they think everyone else is wrong, and they are right.

    Of course Myst has no inherent badness. It only becomes bad as soon as I interpret it as such. I then report my interpretation and experience to others. It would not be “bad” when lying on a rock in the middle of a lake, untouched by mankind. It would merely be.

  • Col Cobb

    I would posit that putting all the existing copies of myst on a rock in the middle of a lake untouched by mankind would, in fact, be “Good”.

  • Tim R

    I know it’s about time to let it all just lie, but I’d like to admit a degree of argumentative drift. My first posting was simply an expression of my irritation at what I felt was an unnecessary injection of lit theory into the proceedings. I thought everyone understood each other already without it: when talking about good golf stories or whatever I already know that Fred’s idea of a good golf story is often the same as mine, for example. Mentioning Pirsig was a mistake. There was certainly no profound thought involved.

    Before I knew it, in response to John’s questions I had moved from this rather simple place onto the absolutes that provoked Nick’s essay etc.

    At no point have I disagreed especially with John or Nick, but I was trying to acknowledge that our lives are awash with value judgements – I know my favourite music, books, Tweenie, whatever, and I’ll often be able to express my reasons for these choices – I like Mahler 9 for its passion, its complexity, the ingenuity of the counterpoint, its teasing failure to really develop themes in the first movement. I think that these elements are often in the music I like, so I wonder if there is a pattern forming? I haven’t yet appealed to any absolutes, but I am provoked to wonder why, if someone were to say he or she liked music and that music did not contain any of those things I liked (passion, counterpoint, variety of orchestration for example), he or she thought his or her music was good? Equally, another might pose similar sorts of questions about games.

    This is what we do, this is how we think, we go to the cinema and say ‘that was a good film’ and then we say the lead actor acted well, the plot was ‘good’ or ‘exciting’, the cinematography was sublime, darling… And our friends know what we mean, without asking us ‘what did you mean when you said the plot was “good”?’

  • antichaos

    I can’t believe that someone as philosophically sophisticated as Nick is still trotting out Popper’s ideas about the scientific method, which have long been completely refuted by philosophers of science (Lakatos and Kuhn in particular). Indeed the only people who still believe the stuff are scientists who cling to it because it is the only thing that gives them any reason to believe that they are doing something special.

    If, as many philosophers now argue, that ‘scientific truth’ is constructed through historical accident, social conditioning and undefinable aesthetic judgements, then it has the same epistemological status any other ‘aesthetic opinion’ we might hold.

    In the absence of genuinely objective truth, we may as well make use of the socially constructed truth (or collection of opinions) we already have, which works for most people most of the time. For situations in which people don’t question the accepted opinions, it is human nature to elevate these to an absolute level (I’m not sure why, though it’s an interesting question.) Granted this happens rather more in science than it does for art.

    A long time ago I had a point about a possible fine line in NGJ between entertaining journalism and boring golf stories. If we aren’t allowed to lablel Bow Nigger as good, and can only say that an individual may or may not find it good, then what is it about that article that so many people found good, particularly given that people have been telling these kind of stories at the 19th hole for years? Or are they different things?

    Dave Burleigh

  • Nick

    I’m not a disciple of Popper, I merely use him as an example of someone who usefully circumscribed the scientific method. To describe science’s domain of discourse is not to give it any profound validity. But one can, usefully, examine science as a precisely and replicatively descriptive art. There’s still more to science than Social Arts. Science, after all, makes aeroplanes, and Social Arts makes wankers like us.

  • John

    Tim, you construct a good reason for why it’s reasonable for you to have opinions about things, and their consistency. But I don’t see the connection to other people. Were I to loathe Mahler for all that hateful counterpoint and passion that ruins my day so, would I be wrong? Does your liking it make the counterpoint inherently “good”? Have I missed its high goodnessosity factor? Or are you still transposing the opinions you feel you have the most weight behind onto the object?

    “I know itÂ’s about time to let it all just lie”

    Good heavens, if that time were to ever come, we may as well shut down the universe. No such time exists.

  • antichaos

    The connection to other people is that often people like the same things for the same reasons. If you hated Mahler for the counterpoint that would not be wrong but it might be unusual.

    Counterpoint and passion are features of music that are generally agreed to be good, much like propper spelling and vivid imagery are features of writing that are generally agreed to be good.

    The fact that lots of people like something does not make it good, but it does mean that the thing is in some sense a marker for some commonality between people.

  • Tim R

    Since John objects even to my suggestion of letting it lie (:-)) I shall continue…

    I appreciate antichaos’s points, and didn’t know anything about Lakatos or Kuhn, who are news to me, so thanks for that.

    As for John’s objection that he might not like passion and counterpoint, well, here goes, I might get unpopular for this…

    The passion bit – well yes of course, I know lots of people who don’t like the sort of Mahlerian, death-obsessed sturm und drang that I do. There are many more Wagnerphobes, and such people in my acquaintance are often happier with the Bachs, Mozarts, Handels, Byrds, Tallis’s of this world. Interestingly – these people, who have heard enough Mahler or Wagner to form any kind of opinion tend not to dispute that Mahler and Wagner are “good”, even “very good” or “great geniuses”. Equally, though my preferences lean towards late romantic and twentieth century classical music, I have learnt to appreciate Bach etc, and would not dispute the excellence of these aforementioned baroque and classical composers, though certainly, when doing the typically male thing of ranking all-time great’s I tend to underweight baroque composers, and overweight early twentieth century composers (in the eyes of my baroquoholic friends). So, this seems to me really just to be a matter of personality, but one that does not wholly occlude my perceptions of musicality.

    The counterpoint thing is, I think, closer to the heart of things. If I may be allowed to skip the foundations of western music (twelve notes, standard tunings) then, music, as I see it, is about repetition of motifs, with variations. I can do all that repetition and variation with one single line (eg Bach’s cello suites), or I might immediately spread my motifs from the double basses to violins (eg – Beethoven 5). I might be better at manipulating my motifs into long lines, which we think of as long, hummable melodies (Tchaikovsky is a good example) or it might be that long melodies are less my forte, but I can be ingenious at passing shorter phrases about and doing clever things with them that way (Brahms was a typically motivic composer). I think this is a reasonable, if simplistc desciption of the way that music works. If I wrote a piece of music that consisted of twenty bars playing nothing but middle c crotchets in 4/4, you might argue that there was a lot of repetition, which is one of the fundamental requirements of a piece of music. You might also point out that it was rather facile. I would agree. Hence, and this is an extreme example, I strongly suggest that my piece ‘repetition in c’ is a lesser work than Beethoven’s 5th.

    I cannot play the piano. At best I can play the tune of the ode to joy, playing one note at a time, with mistakes. I am clearly not as good a pianist as Vladimir Ashkenazy who is a virtuoso. While you might try to argue the case for the naive simplicity of my playing, I think it would be lunacy not to admit, having compared our playing, that Ashkenazy was better. He can play more music, more difficult music; he reads music better than I do. I just don’t have the skill. Compare me as a composer with Beethoven. His skill at manipulating motifs is phenomenal – his music is dense, constantly rewards repeat listening, it is at once very ‘whole’, owing to the constant use of particular motifs throughout a piece, and yet diverse, because he takes them such a long way that frequently they are beyond my conscious recognition (though some would say that is still not lost effort – some will see what he has done, and their expertise will be rewarded, while I, unconsciously, may still somehow, aesthetically register it). Were I to try and emulate the achievements of Beethoven in one of his late string quartets or piano sonatas, I would fail. My consciousness of his ability where I would fail gives me the certainty that he was a greater composer than I could ever be, and my recognition of his formal, structural, motivic ingenuity goes a large way to my having the confidence to say “Beethoven was a genius, indeed one of the greatest musicians of all time, and I consider his position as being beyond reasonable arguement, providing you accept my gist of what music actually consists of.”

    Now, I’m going to have my tea.

  • Tim R

    post script.

    I misplaced an apostrophe somewhere. sorry.

    secondly, i have deliberately not included song writing in my thesis, as that introduces a second element to complicate matters, that of lyric writing (and a third element – appreciation of voices). These take things beyond my ability to argue (how do I compare Bob Dylan, with phenomenal skills at lyric writing, with, say, the Beatles, who certainly weren’t that bad in the lyrics department, but possibly wrote more sophisticated music? – ‘Visions of Johanna’, for example, with ‘Yesterday’?).