Electron Dance
19Nov/14Off

Careful What You Wish For

A presentation Maddy Myers gave in September at AlterConf 2014 went up on YouTube just a week ago. It's titled "The Objectivity Myth" and Myers talks about the need for gonzo videogame journalism which accepts that the writer is part of the story. I discovered this rather than this is what happened.

Below, you'll find the video and a brief response of my own.

As regulars will know, I steer clear of most meta discussion but I put out a knee-jerk response on Twitter that I thought might benefit from a wider dissection and rebuttal.

Obviously one facet of Myers' talk is a takedown of the GamerGate pursuit of "journalistic objectivity" which she acknowledges. I'm not going to comment on that. I'm not even here to knock putting the personal on the page; I've got plenty of it on this site and, although I'm proud of those pieces that try to stand back and look at things from a cold distance, some of my most successful writing has been all about me. Even now I'm writing up a conversation with Dan Stubbs which is not just some Q & A piece, but about the ebb and flow of dialogue between us.

Myers says Kieron Gillen's "New Games Journalism" is a decade old but remains contentious. If you're not familiar with the term, NGJ "argues that the worth of a videogame lies not in the game, but in the gamer" and Gillen asserted that it makes writers "Travel Journalists to Imaginary places". He selects "Bow, Nigger" as an excellent example of what he'd like to see more of. I'm reading a copy of "Bow, Nigger" now, for the very first time, and it is excellent.

Myers proposes we need more gonzo journalism in videogames. And my knee-jerk reaction was this: gonzo already won. But it never happened the way writers wanted because technology is quite the Pandora's box.

I don't think writers were that perturbed by the rise of these "Real Gonzo Journalists" until some of them started making obscene amounts of cash. They didn't even need to bare their soul, just have the right personality at the right time. Hell, some of these guys barely edited their streams of consciousness and ended up with stories with no beginning, middle or end.

Who needs a review when you can just sift through a Let's Play?

Why spend the time painstakingly crafting into shape a considered response like Chris Franklin's Errant Signal when viewers can instead watch your Twitched experience?

Some caveats. Obviously we're talking about the review side of things here and not every kid jumping on the LP bandwagon is going to break into financially-supporting stardom: it's a graveyard of video jockeys out there. Gregg and I recently launched our own little project, Side by Side, and I am under no illusions about the chances of success. The LP gold rush is over.

Now the average LP is "here I am playing this thing". Take PewDiePie, for instance. This can either serve as a demonstration of a game or as entertainment: let's hear someone scream.

But it's not all screaming into the mic. At the other end of the spectrum you've got TotalBiscuit who reflects on his experience with a game and assembles a review during play. No doubt there is an urge to denigrate LP as a form of criticism but there is range in the market - I found the following piece on Cube & Star: An Arbitrary Love useful in articulating the game's shortcomings. For some niche titles, LP is the only place I get to find out what other people think of them.

Some developers are actively courting LP as a marketing channel - for example, Galactic Cafe sent custom versions of The Stanley Parable to prominent YouTubers. It makes you wonder whether LP is cutting into the traditional word market, which brings us to Myers' broader concern, that institutional shelter for writers is collapsing and Patreon is no replacement for the safety of a regular paycheck. This is no disputing this. It is happening across the board, not just in videogames. Perhaps LP is eating away at the game journalism core which pulled the most attention - the review - leaving behind all the bits that were "peripheral" and funded by the core.

Perhaps what I have learned is that if my children want to be writers when they grow up, they will need to find a day job first.

Appendix

  • Yes, this is not the first time I've visited the topic of personal writing. A while back I wrote The Ethics of Selling Children which, if I recall, Myers vehemently disagreed with. I was not concerened with the value of personal writing - that's an entirely separate debate - but that clickbait culture seemed to be pushing writers to sell more and more of their private life for traffic. I made a misstep with categorising it with the implied pejorative of "confessional writing"; I probably should have thrown in the far more insulting and clickbaiting phrase of "victim porn", which is closer to what I was genuinely worried about although still wildly inaccurate. As an aside, Mattie Brice recently wrote about how writing exclusively about "pain" may be harmful: "I feel like the community WANTS the social drama, you WANT the reality TV." And that's as much as I intend to revisit Ethics because I'm looking at the meta-meter right now and the needle is quivering in the red zone.
  • If anyone has any doubt, I fucking love watching YouTubers play Five Nights at Freddy's.
  • The theme of getting paid in an era of zero price technology is something I'll explore in the book whenever it gets done. Although it's about videogames it does look at the challenges of funding writing.
  • Thanks to Jed Pressgrove and Amanda Lange for bringing this to my attention

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  1. I’ve never really felt that regular game reviews banish the idea of subjectivity. I mean, the poor writers seem to pretend that they’re handing out free truth, but more veteran writers always seem to excuse themselves for gushing momentarily (well, that’s not to say that there *are* many veteran writers, which is more the problem).

    It’s more like… standard games reviews, rather than about being objective, are about forcing the reviewer to consider the aspects that they do not consider important *but other people do*. The sound design, the art style, the weapon types, the interface; stuff that could be entirely besides the main point of the game, but -for certain players- will drag down the experience.

    Besides that, it simply forces both reviewer and reader to look at the game in terms of mechanics. This means more widespread gaming literacy, and a basis for comparing similar video games, but with the added bonus of making review scores relevant: given two games of the same sub-genre, *review scores are a direct, abstract, comparison*. Line up all the games of the Call of Duty series, assign them their metacritic scores, and you instantly have a useful (if bribed) metric for analyzing the franchise.

    Well, not that game reviews and criticism can’t be improved. ‘Cuz, yeah, no, they totally can.

  2. An interesting thing about PewDiePie.

    I was talking to some kids in middle school yesterday. I do a sort of informal survey at schools – what do you like, what do you play, etc. It helps me keep track of what kids know and don’t know about the topic I’m about to discuss (game creation, indie games, etc).

    I asked “PewDiePie, do you guys know him, do you watch him?” I’d say more than half the class – about 25/40 hands or more, went up.

    The kids are about 12 median age. Girls, and boys. Can you imagine them settling down to read one of these high-minded new games journalism sort of screeds? Probably not, but I bet they make comments on the web, as I did when I was that age. And, in my unofficial survey, they’re ALL playing Grand Theft Auto (or else claiming to to look cool to their friends…) and they’re more than half watching PewDiePie.

  3. @mwm: I always assumed reviews were subjective, too, regardless of how they were written. You usually look for reviewers who agree with games/films/TV you like, so they effectively become your own personal curator. I totally hate review scores because they almost say to the reader “don’t read this, look at the number” and you know readers are doing that.

    Although Maddy Myers makes a reference to reviews, she’s really talking about writing external to that: criticism, culture, Cara Ellison Embed With style interviews. But I’m struck that so much of today’s videogame coverage is experiential and perhaps writing about it at all is “outdated”. Just as videogames become something the mainstream, writing is so yesterday. This was the last Electron Dance post. (joke)

    @Amanda: Yeah, I’ve tried not to play PewDiePie off against gonzo longform – because these are really different silos of content. But it’s interesting that he’s a true internet celebrity, that your average kid in school is aware of.

  4. Well, picking the only useful thing to argue… The snobbery and narrow experience of most gamers is a defining fault of everything video games. Bros who can enjoy Ghost Recon as much as Mario Party get much respect.

  5. Uh-oh, I haven’t tried either Ghost Recon or Mario Party.


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