Robert Florence is someone I have time for both inside and outside the realms of video games: his work on Consolevania, Videogaiden or Burnistoun is equally likely to bring a smile to my face – there is a certain way about droll, typically Scottish humour combined with a keen sense of the absurd that will always result in a dry laugh from me. Particularly responsible for these dry laughs over the run of Consolevania and Videogaiden was Florence’s portrayal of Kevin Leddins, a self-professed “New School Journalist”, who the BBC would see fit to give a talk show to in the alternate universe presented by Florence in Videogaiden. The parallels between Leddins’s “NSJ” and the trend identified by Kieron Gillen in 2004 of what he called “New Games Journalism” are painfully obvious, and through the somewhat absurdly reductionist portrayal of Leddins’s sense of priority in his work, Florence is making it clear (aided by him making his views on games journalism incredibly clear – and yes, I do realise the impropriety of me stating this on one of those “bloody gaming websites”) that mainstream games journalism conducted in this way ceases to be about the games, and just becomes some navel-gazing exercise for privileged media types to use as an excuse for the egoism of travel journalism, manifested under the guise of product analysis. As academic as this may be for a concept that is almost reaching double digits in age, the concept of “New Games Journalism” (NGJ) will be analysed here, with reference to the canon of Leddins in a bid to show that NGJ does have its place, but does suffer from its fair share of bandwagon-jumping types of the travel journalist kind that Florence feared.
A little definition is in order: NGJ is picked upon by Gillen as being the answer to the pushing of “money-men” within games magazines towards reducing costs, rather than the editorial dream of being “better” in order to retain profits. For Gillen, this “better” is a shift away from the clinical tradition of the analytic approach to video game writing towards a more personalised account of the experiences one has while playing games, such as that found in an account of in-MMORPG racism in Bow, Nigger. Where the analytic approach does occur, it should be more stringently checked than it was at the time, thus driving up quality. A shift in focus from game-product to game-experience, however, is necessary due to the value of games being not in the gamequa game, but in the experience that the game enables the player to have beyond those which they would usually have. Having established this, Gillen concludes that it is this that makes games journalists little more, in their perfect form, than “travel journalists to imaginary worlds.” With this being the case, it follows that the review culture of video game writing should situate the game worlds in their appropriate context within our own world: our experiences within these worlds would have no value if completely divorced from our “real” existences, just as travel journalism means nothing if not written from the point of view of someone with a concrete origin informing their views of their travels – a set of values that establishes a shared currency of communication between the author and their readers that makes pliable their realisations through travel. Stated in a less circuitous manner, the same tools of literary criticism used across literature, film and music should also be applied to games journalism.
Above is the first appearance of Kevin Leddins: a fly-on-the-wall look at the writing and thought processes of an invented New Games Journalist. Florence manages to touch on pretty much all of the tenets of NGJ as described above, most prominently the desired shift to more contemporary critical theory: the description of the game as a “text” and Leddins’s intention to “cross-reference” the game with the works of Jean-Paul Sartre definitely point towards this. The game-as-experience angle is worked by Leddins taking to the wild to best explain the game (the dire Maze Action on the PS2) and coming to the conclusion that the act of reviewing the game is a worthier undertaking than playing the game itself.
The most important thing that is picked up on in this instance is the potential for writing about experience to do with games potentially leading to things being written within the sphere of games journalism that only have the most tangential relationship with games: “I ate a Fray Bentos pie while listening to the Metal Gear Solid original soundtrack and ruminating over the utter pointless of it all” becomes just as valid a lede as “xgame has some incredibly innovative mechanics, and all without a ridiculous hardware investment in a magic wand for your six year old console.” With this, games journalism becomes just another avenue for the self-obsessed to write about their experiences with poor relation to the niche for which they are supposedly writing. With this, the “shit filter” that the games journalism defined by Gillen as “traditional” provided, along with sundry other consumer information provided, fails, and with it goes the reason that most people consume video game media – to save themselves from triple-A potential dross.
The tack taken by Leddins on the potential use of Sartre to make sense of a game is not necessarily fair: admittedly, in the case of a game like Maze Action, there is much sense in being so dismissive – fighting someone in a maze is hardly the most existentially concerning of problems – but there are other titles which would benefit from a grounding in philosophy, no matter how passing a glace it may be. The relation in tone and rhetoric between Bioshock and Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, for example, it too close for it to be deemed an accidental feature irrelevant to the enjoyment of the game. An understanding of the egoism inherent in Randian Objectivism serves to deepen the level of immersion offered by Bioshock’s city of Rapture fantastically – and helps to explain why it is in the sorry state that it is.
Another instance of Leddins’s trademark media poncery occurs in the second series of Videogaiden, by which point he has been commissioned a BBC talk show, The Eternal Pixel. Again, Leddins works through the NGJ handbook, referencing that the reviews of games inside the book Game On! should tell us about the authors’ childhoods, and that the books misses out “neolithic” titles such as Theme Hospital, citing its commentary on the “NHS under Conservative rule” are a reason for it to be considered a class.
While every effort is made, as this is intended as satire, to make Leddins sound ridiculous, one cannot help but feel that he does have a certain point about the import of the political situation on how our cultural artefacts turn out – Theme Hospital was a game written during a time of great growth for UK video games, with Bullfrog and DMA Design having a particularly good time. The economic and social situation of the time, however, was not so sunny. Is it really beyond the realms of reason to think that a game developer may choose to include little jibes about the political situation in their game? After all, the matter of healthcare is a passionately fought one in the UK, and much of what the player has to deal with in the game could have come straight out of a Daily Mail report on the state of the nation’s hospitals. Just with the Randian influence on Bioshock, the understanding of the game is bolstered by considering outside factors, and may help to explain certain choices in game play mechanics that would otherwise seem obtuse in a more narrowly analytic review. To take another example, ignorance of Hideo Kojima’s deep-seated objection to nuclear weapons and violence in general may make comprehension of certain parts of the Metal Gear Solid franchise difficult – perhaps even the core game play mechanic of avoiding being caught.
There is much to mock about NGJ: some of what can be written in its name is very little to do with games, or merely manifestation of pretense about the potential of being a “traveler in imaginary worlds.” In the right hands, though, it can serve to increase our understanding of such imaginary worlds by contextualising them in certain aspects of our own world, perhaps even helping us to see that world in new ways.