The Post Heard 'round the 'sphere
[i]Do I contradict myself
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.) [/i]
– Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”
With the last grains of sand slowly ebbing the year away, with the promise of a new year's worth of triumph and folly on the horizon, we inevitably turn the calendar back and attempt to wring a tidy label out of the year's events. 2008 will likely go down as a time of change: a year when a $20 independent game turned the concepts of game narrative and meaning on their heads, besting the efforts of larger, meaner entities; where the concept of continuous, worthwhile downloadable content inched closer to reality; where we, at last, honestly questioned the sustainability of print media in the digital age.
See? It's a hard impulse to resist.
Perhaps it's this melancholic need for street-grade Zeitgeist that finally drove Shawn Elliott to assemble his energies and spearhead an online Games Journalism Symposium centered around the concept of the review. Over the coming months, the video game community will be exposed to I.V.-drips of unfiltered Gamerista musings, with dialectic assertions and arguments spawning from what is, essentially, an elaborate “tell me what you feel” roundtable. Elliott's assembled pantheon is no stranger to the give-take of opinions in the era of web journalism. With Goodjer favorites like Stephen Totilo and John Davison, to former Elliott-associates Dan Hsu and Robert Ashley, I have little doubt the various forums, Twitter-feeds and blogs that compose the Meta-state of Gamerland will be buzzing with activity.
But is any of this really going to change anything?
Understand that I am in no way demeaning Elliott's Herculean undertaking, nor am I suggesting that the result of this grand experiment will be a wordy, adult's version of “SNES or Genesis?” In fact, the Elliott Symposium could very well mark the kind of watershed moment that mature gaming enthusiasts have been envisioning ever since Chuck Klosterman whined about the need for our own Lester Bangs. Among other things, it marks a moment of self-reflection where the folks who - like Elliott himself - once aspired to be a part of the games journalism industry are now experienced enough to really consider the Why of it all. We are past the point where adults in the 22 – 35 range look at games only as a source of entertainment. We are past the point where a career in the industry is a glorious Neverland retreat.
We may emerge from this longitudinal study with a greater understanding of the pitfalls of reviewership. We may birth a fledgling code of operations, or a keystone ethical framework which subsequent journalists will be able to consider. We might just be left with pages and pages of blogposts to sift through on our lunch breaks. Whether anything changes as a result of this is inconsequential. Of greater interest to me is the figure behind this undertaking.
I find it oddly appropriate that this adolescent industry - an industry which I cling to like an impressionable sibling would latch upon a Fonzish Arbiter of Cool - is being deconstruction by Shawn Elliott: no longer a journo himself, but historically one of the field's most talented, analytical, yet hopelessly adolescent, voices.
At the heart of the topics addressed by Elliot's Symposium lies the two-faced nature of the gaming industry itself. As the industry grows, and its importance as a form of mass media becomes apparent, the economics behind it all become undeniable. I have grown to accept that not every new release will be a Notes from the Underground or a Sunset Boulevard. To expect otherwise would be statistical foolishness. For every Shadow of the Colossus or Bioshock, offerings that help progress the games-as-art argument, there are at least a dozen titles that remind me that these guys have car payments to make.
This is an industry. Activision's recent “streamlining” should do much to prove that fact. It is a business, and has been a business since the day you picked up your first Atari paddle, placed your first quarter into an arcade slot, or watched The Wizard to catch a sneak peak at Super Mario Bros. 3. The reality of the situation is that reviewers, our traditional gatekeepers of opinion & wisdom, must delicately balance the commercial with the artistic. They attempt to measure out a happy medium between exceedingly analytic interpretation and stunningly bland summary.
And who is the figure excavating the “practice and politics of writing game reviews”? Who is attempting to mitigate the tectonic pull-push of the commercial and the interpretive forces behind gaming?
Elliott, who conceptualized Braid as an intertwining of “form and content”, “loss and longing” in one eloquent, awestruck breath. Elliott, who then went on to share his Crackhead Tales, reconstruct his griefing exploits, and perform a dramatic re-enactment of a World of Warcraft cybersex chatlog – all in a single podcast. Shawn Elliott -- to be overgrand -- contains multitudes.
And its exactly this range of opinion that makes his participation in this project so exciting. He's a conflicted gamer, embracing his own schizophrenic nature, while he digs into the duality of the industry. But while some would bemoan his forays into lowbrow entertainment, Elliott is the perfect person to help chart these choppy waters. He's not just an ivory tower intellectual, he's also just a kid running around the playground, terrorizing tricicyle-riding classmates, and occasionally pissing in the sandbox. He's out there having fun, and he's utterly sincere about it all.
I can think of no better representative.