John Walker's Electronic House

“I” Versus “We”

by on Nov.09, 2009, under The Rest

I’m pondering the approach I will take for a story for Rock, Paper, Shotgun – the small spin-off blog from this site that I allow others to hang around on – about the role sleep plays in gaming. This may sound preposterous, but there are at least two interesting stories to tell, and the subject of game-related dreams is one all gamers can relate to. But I feel an overwhelming urge to write the post as a personal account of my own fears of sleep, making it all about me with slivers of science and theory occasionally sliding in. However, this would raise the ire of those for whom the Important Matter Of Gaming Discussion should not be sullied by personal account.

Clearly RPS is a site where such rules can be dismissed, and the oafs who make comments including the word “objective” are to be ignored. I adore the idiocy of the idea that a review could ever be objective, but am dismayed by the results of those who believe this is how it should be, producing abortive confusions of impersonal descriptive writing and score categories including gibberish words like “gameplay”. There is, of course, a large audience for this, people reading through opinion and critique only thinking, “but how good is the sound out of ten?” But I’m very lucky to write for no such publications, and extremely fortunate that those places that do employ me allow me to use the word “me” as I write. Because I am telling the story of my experiences playing a game, and the idea of leaving me out of that tale seems folly. Not that I think I’m particularly interesting, nor that I think my story is more important than expressing the nature of the game. But simply because the reader, much like me, is a person, and when they play the game the experience will be as a person playing a game.

I understand people’s impatience with “I” reviews. When I buy a new novel my heart always sinks if I see it is written in the first person. It bobs back to the surface again soon after if the book is well written, but it does mean sacrificing the narrator, that detached voice who can provide me not only with extra details and information the characters might not know, but also provide me another perspective, and perhaps let me understand a situation more – dare I say it – objectively? Without the third person voice I am never sure if what I am being told is true, or simply the narrator’s skewed understanding. Having a third-person author is like having God with you as you read, able to assure you of solid facts, and inform you when someone’s lying. And it’s always nice to have God alongside.

But a review isn’t an impartial account of some events. (Although I’m tempted to write one that is, now I think about it. A review with a detached third person author describing the events of the reviewer’s reviewing. ) A review, apart from my parenthetical fantasy review, is one person’s report. They are, by their nature, the novel told by the character. To leave out the “me” and the “I” I think is an act of dishonesty.

It has to be done well. A review that begins, “When I first sat down to play the game I had reservations, having had a bad experience with a similar game only months before,” would likely be terrible. The reader didn’t have that bad experience, and will not be approaching the game with such preconditioning. And who cares – tell me about this game. But if, when playing, you felt disappointment, or elation, that’s surely vital to report? Sure, someone else may not have similar emotional experiences, but saying, “The game is capable of eliciting an emotional response in those predicated toward such matters,” isn’t very helpful. Saying, “It made me laugh until snot came out of my nose,” I contend, is.

There’s also no room for the compromise: “We”. It’s ridiculous. Unless it is genuinely a consensus opinion held by the staff of a magazine or website, which is unlikely in a review written by one person, there is no place for “we” in games writing. It’s not something you see outside, either. A newspaper doesn’t have a reviewer write, “We went to see the latest production of Becket’s…” It would be ludicrous. You end up with phrases like, “It made us laugh until snot came out of our nose.” This muddle of singular and plural voice makes it impossible for me to follow. Your collective nose? And you all reacted the same way? Are you a staff of cloned robots?

Clearly there are two audiences for game reviews. There are those who wish to have the game described to them by a game describing machine, which then rates strange made up categories like “gameplay”, whatever on Earth that might be, out of 10. And thankfully there are those who wish to read one person’s reaction to the game, written in such a way that allows them to discern what their own reaction might be, via the remarkable human abilities to empathise and sympathise.

So is it appropriate for me to write a news story for RPS as a personal account of my own neuroses? This discussion hasn’t helped, nor indeed even addressed, this subject. I’m quite sure it’s not. I’m sure it’s indulgent and distracting. I think it’s very likely what I’ll do.


15 Comments for this entry

  • chesh

    I will henceforth only read reviews written by exiled royalty, who of course will refer to themselves in the second person.

    I suppose it’s a good thing that I didn’t pay much attention to reviews in the first place, given the lack of displaced nobility in games journalism.

  • Mark Wallace

    Never forget the NGJ manifesto! (though I’m sure Keiron would prefer we did…)

  • The_B

    The thing with news stories for me is that by nature, they are cold hard pieces of information. I know as much as I like to keep abreast of information, I feel giving any news story a more personal angle gives the story far more depth and makes for more interesting reading, personally.

  • ImperialCreed

    Don’t couch it as a news story, just call it a feature and go nuts. Your work is usually a pleasure to read in any case. It’s one of RPS’s strengths that you lot can write pretty much whatever you wish and you shouldn’t be afraid to leverage that.

    I’ve never understood that group of people who desire the “objective”, machine-like approach to reviews. That sort of thing seems neither interesting or useful to me. For example, with reviews; I’ve always thought that numerical scores are meaningless without the accompanying text, but the opposite doesn’t apply, so we should simply do away with the scores and keep the useful and important part of the review.

  • Octaeder

    The problem with an author writing in first person is that it isn’t a personal account from the writer but from the character, something that can often go horribly wrong.

    Reviews that acknowledge the existance of the writer still have that level of detachment from the game as they are writing about their experiences not their characters.

    Personally I prefer that method, but that’s really just a function of how I consume reviews, having built up a shortlist of reviewers that I know which elements of a game I would tend to agree or disagree with. Essentially I know if reviewer X likes a game for a certain reason then I probably will to. Conversely if reviewer Y dislikes a particular element of a game I’d know that his issue probably wouldn’t bother me as much.

    Articles written with the facade of objectivity don’t allow this. I don’t know if a criticism is the personal opinion of the reviewer or whether it’s the sort of thing he feels would bother a lot of the audience. Therefore they’re pretty unhelpful.

    None of this really helps though because it’s not a review you’re contemplating.

  • Gassalasca

    Well, I hope we can agree there are good games and bad games. That is, objectively good, and objectively bad. And everything in between.
    And the purpose of a review, I think, is to try to determine how good or bad a game is, and what makes it so, why is it good or, as the case might be, bad.

    Now, I personally see no reason why one should shirk from using the pronoun ‘I’ in writing reviews. I mean we know a human being wrote it, an individual whose personal opinion we are interested in. But here’s the thing – I don’t want any individual’s opinion. I couldn’t care less what some thirteen year old in Oklahoma thinks about Dragon Age. What I’m interested in is an opinion of a professional. Someone who’s spent an awful lot of time playing games (reading books, watching films, etc.) and thinking about that experince. It is only natural that the account will include some mention of emotions the reviewer experienced while playing the game.
    And as for the scores – I’m used to them, I like them, but without the text, they’re worse than useless.

  • Andy Krouwel

    If we don’t celebrate the ‘I’, then Amiga Power taught us nothing.

    Dammit, I’ve just we-d all over my reply.

  • Juliet

    I’ll look forward to reading about your neuroses!

    I see the ‘we’ narrative thing like videos from boybands; apparently they are all in love/ breaking up with the exact same person, and have reached a consensus in feeling about it.

    I find myself having to do the ‘we’ for my blog posts on behalf of the company I work for. Trying to work out whether it would be appropriate to suddenly grow an individual voice.

  • P7uen

    You can read the first page of a book before you buy it, which should help, it’s a bit like a demo of the book.

  • SuperNashwan

    The reason I read RPS is because you guys are free to write what you want. I’d hate for the site to start second guessing itself as the audience grows.

  • Lewis

    “As well as rounding up or down nuanced scores and adding in peculiar new grammatical mistakes.”

    Or, in the case of Tom’s Modern Warfare review, just outright bloody changing the score and removing bits of the text that didn’t fit with the new number, I take it?

  • hausplant

    i dont really know how you guys envision RPS, or what you want to achieve with it;

    but intellectually stimulating articles like “to sleep, perchance….” make my visit worthwhile.

    i can read zillions of articles about modern warfare 2 anywhere..

    it’s nice to give people stuff to think about once in a while.

  • techmachine

    If we’re talking product reviews of any kind, rather than some kind of product-related op ed, the use of the first person should generally be abhorred. That’s not to say the alternative use of “we” doesn’t present problems. But the whole “collective snot” thing is a rather contrived distraction. Only the talentless, lazy hack would fall into such a trap. Broadly speaking, the skilled scribbler will minimise the use of personal pronouns in reviews, period. There’s usually no need for them and they generally cheapen the feel of the piece.

    Of course, games journalists like to imagine they are involved in some form of higher art, bringing ego into the equation and in turn making a liberal sprinkling of ‘I’ inevitable.

    A game review can still be very good despite the use of ‘I’. But as a general rule, it would be even better without it.

  • David McBride

    Your discussion of novels written in the first-person triggered a memory: a (particularly fine) novel written in the /second/ person called Halting State:

    The author wrote a fascinating post on the subject, too:

  • John Walker

    Orrrrr, what I argued above, where reviewing anything without personal pronouns is dishonest and inappropriate. Claiming that it requires some extra degree of difficulty or skill to leave them out is ludicrously wrong. Any half-talented writer can write without personal pronouns. Using them well is a fine skill.

    And you might want to read some game reviews if you think the “we” problem isn’t common.

2 Trackbacks / Pingbacks for this entry

  • To Sleep, Perchance To Game | Rock, Paper, Shotgun

    […] This post on my own blog provides an almost entirely irrelevant companion piece to this post. __________________Related […]

  • This (Gaming) Week 01: November 18 2009 « Benny's Bumper Blog

    […] “I” versus “We” – In a more specific equivalent to the above link, RPS man John Walker talks about whether it’s acceptable to use personal accounts in review text, using ‘I’ and ‘We’, and there are some interesting points raised.  Over the years I’ve generally found myself drifting away from the big sites like the IGNs and GameSpots of this world in favour of those places where the writer’s personality shines through (places like RPS, VG247 and Eurogamer are good examples), and in these internet-heavy days of blogs and Twitter feeds and the like there’s clearly a lot of interest in personal opinions. Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)Podcast Episode #3: LadyJ….. Is here#307Fashion Police: Week of November 2 Categories: Gaming Link Dump, Linkage Tags: 2009, de-makes, games journalism, Left 4 Dead, LucasArts, Tim Schafer Comments (0) Trackbacks (0) Leave a comment Trackback […]