The Year in Print
2009 will forever be known to me as “The Year that My Childhood Died.”
This is not because of some unsuccessful remake of a cherished childhood series or because of the staggering loss of celebrity life during the preceding 365 days. Not even the gradual, slinking spread of white strands among the brunette tones of my facial hair was cause enough to abandon the graces of my youth. No, the culprit was “the times,” and its crime was proving that the media of today and yesteryear must unavoidably walk down a trail of tears towards irrelevance.
I’m no stranger to the upward climb of life. I’ve discarded many a portable radio, cassette-based Walkman and portable CD player in my time. Along with them have gone numerous plastic-shelled consoles and dozens of cold PC components. But while these items may have been lost to me, I still felt that they retained a kind of silent relevance to life. They were breadcrumbs on a cultural landscape that was rich with relics and stories. Though tossed aside, these little gems held meaning.
2009 changed that. (On my birthday, no less). In January, at the start of what should have been a promising year, I heard about the death of Electronic Gaming Monthly.
The news was oddly shocking and completely unexpected. While conventional wisdom told everyone who would listen that the print model of gaming news was unsustainable, altogether archaic, and destined for a quiet, suffocated death, it seemed to me that certain brands were just too big to forget. EGM was surely one of those brands.
For most of my life, the magazine and its editors were my gatekeepers to the New. They were at the forefront of a vast network of publishers, writers, editors – all gamers – who sought to spread information about their hobby across the reaches of print media. Magazines like EGM formed a necessary ritual for my pre-internet self. I would scour my magazines, rereading articles, reviews and ads, leaving them drained of information just at the time when the next fix would drop into newsstands. On long trips, I could always be seen with dog-eared copies of my gamer magazines. The personalities that voiced approval, criticism or scorn would later help me take a critical eye to my entertainment experiences.
But just like that, it felt as if an integral part of my history was deemed inconsequential. There would be no future for EGM, no importance placed on the journalistic identity it had built for itself, no need for the brand at all.
In a sad kind of way, the judgment was correct. When I asked my peers if they had heard about the shuttering, most of them were surprised to hear that the magazine was still being published. When I asked my students, many of whom could be seen carrying around battered PSPs, if they had read the magazine, I was hard pressed to find one who even knew what I was talking about. If teenagers weren’t interested in the magazine, then who was?
Even I, who praised the medium and collected their works, hadn’t actually paid for a magazine subscription in many, many years. Thanks to the wonders of internet promotions, I was able to read Computer Gaming World, Games for Windows and EGM on a semi-dependable basis without having to shell out the cash for a subscription. It wasn’t that I devalued the magazine experience, it was that my relationship to the delivery system had changed.
Shoved unceremoniously in the corner of a closet, broken up among 4 cardboard pyxes, a glossy catalog of gamerdom lay dusty and dormant. This chaotic collection of Nintendo Power, Game Pro, Game Players, Sega VISIONS and other minor paperback players served as my window to the past. This was hardly fitting for the tomes that had illuminated my adolescent years. But their modern contemporaries weren’t faring any better. A small pile of EGMs and GFWs were stacked on my living room end-table. Skimmed once or twice, they remained as reading material for when the internet went out, or for guests to peruse. With the wonders of internet forums, fan sites and continuous RSS-liveblog feeds of industry news, there just wasn’t a good way for a printed magazine to provide tantalizing game coverage.
I spent most of the year in a pissy fugue, lamenting the loss of a format that could, at the very least, provide informative looks into the culture and habits of gamers. (If magazines couldn’t compete with the constant flood of e-news, they could certainly excel in the realm of features and opinion pieces). Moreso, I saw the closing as a further restriction on the ability of young gamers to dream about the industry. The amount of encouragement or inspiration someone can gain from watching a person passionately discuss their hobby is incalculable to the young mind. At the very least “writing about games” provided an aspiration, a hope to enter an industry whose barriers to entry were myriad and labyrinthine. The wonderful little stories these magazine entities represented were just a bit tarnished after the perceived fall of print.
But like all things, at the end of this trip around the celestial firmament, I turn once again to optimism. If the year started out with a shot to the chin, why, I’ve found a reason to poke my head out for another round or two.
It seems that print isn’t quite dead. Not yet, at least.
EGM’s founder, Steve Harris, reacquired the rights to the magazine at about mid-year. Just recently, former EGM writer/editor Dan “Shoe” Hsu revealed that he would return to the magazine . In other words, EGM is being handled by long-time contributors and supporters of the brand. That alone would be enough to improve the perception of games print media in 2010, but there’s more.
John Davison, formerly of What They Play has been tapped to enact an aggressive relaunch of the GamePro brand. Though long in the tooth, the GamePro brand never really carried the same weight as EGM did for me. The legacy of the writer avatars – whimsical nom de plumes like “Scary Larry”, “Lawrence of Arcadia”, and “Abby Normal” – made it so that GamePro seemed to be primarily a whacky review venue aimed at the younger sect. Davison’s shown a keen eye for tapping underutilized gaming niches, so his involvement with the magazine is bringing new relevance to the name.
Even healthy magazines are getting into the experimental mood. GameInformer, considered to be the most stable of today’s print offerings, recently implemented design changes which have modestly altered the magazine’s presentation and content. Writer bios and identities have been pushed to the wayside. Sections have been modified to rotate content to keep things fresh. Cover art wraps-around to the book’s back, and is placed at the forefront thanks to a minimal aesthetic. Epic images, not blurbs about exclusives or massive reviews, seem to be what GI is promoting. Their cover philosophy presents the magazine as an artpiece, something to be admired and talked about. It's a welcome change from the idea that the front page is there only to entice and tantalize though a deluge of blurbs and snippets.
I don’t know how it worked out this way, but 2010 is bringing us the rebirth of two of games media’s oldest names. There’s a lot of bright-eyed goodwill being doused upon both camps, but I’m not sure that either will find that magic formula that will keep it resonating with big audiences. Can GamePro survive when the buzzword of the day is “casual gamer”? Can EGM recapture some of the editorial magic that made CGW and GFW such solid reads? Or is this really the last hurrah for the names that I’ve grown up with?
Whatever the case, it looks like 2010 will contribute a number of great stories to my cultural cobblestone. If one of them happens to be a variation on “the death of print (for real this time!)”, then I think I’ve made my peace with it. Or, at least, I’ve made my peace with the idea that my preferred cultural signposts may fall to the wayside. The old guard had a great run, introduced me to wonderfully talented people, and even garnered minor controversy along the way. If the magazines of yesterday can inspire new growth, then I think they’ve accomplished something noble.
If there’s one good thing that I’ve taken away from 2009, it’s that change isn’t always welcome or easy, but it sure can be exciting.