You may be aware that the GWJ front page doesn’t run a lot of reviews. This has been the case since about the time I first registered an account here, and I tend to think that it’s our style and perspectives that attracted me here.
Instead, we run what we call “perspectives” (and the occasional “anti-review”). What we try to do is to talk about what we find interesting or important. What we find interesting isn't always the sort of thing that shows up in a traditional consumer-oriented game review. It's rarely about graphics, "gameplay" or how much time a game's narrative takes. What's interesting about a game may be more about how that game fits within other similar or dissimilar games. What's interesting may be the way we felt during a game, or some other thing that a game reminded us of. And unless we're talking at some meta level, what we find interesting about games is almost certainly not how many points we would give that game out of some slightly larger number of possible points.
There are many reasons we here at GWJ chose to write the way we do about the things we do. There were reasons not to go this way, too. But as the greater conversation about games has progressed, grown, mutated and spun off its countless tangents, the way we write at GWJ has kept us as an important part of that conversation.
I personally found myself in 2005 with a new degree, a couple style guides, a copy of the Norton Anthology Of Theory And Criticism (well, it was the 2001 version), and a hankering to see games treated as seriously and maturely as the literary fiction I had studied.
I spent a lot of time on blogs and websites. I may have cared more about the news posts on Penny-Arcade than the comics. I was hungry. When Google Reader launched, I filled it with voices. Anyone whose dinky blog came up in search results for “games are art” got added, at least provisionally. I surfed from link to link, opening everything in a new tab. It wasn’t always good, but it was gratifying to see it, and there was more of it every day. A vast conversation was coming together, even if the connections and responses weren’t always clear.
Somewhere in all that, I found myself at GWJ. My best guess is that it was a Major Nelson link, but I honestly can’t be certain anymore. There were a lot of links.
It turns out that around that same time, GWJ’s writers were working out what the front page would look like for years to come. They hadn’t decided on having a full-time copy-editor yet at that point (which may have been less a decision and more a way to get me to stop sending messages about typos), but all the same discussions going on with games journalists elsewhere were going on here. This was not too long after some of New Games Journalism’s first big steps, with writers ranging further outside examinations of the game itself, looking at their own experiences, pulling in things they had learned elsewhere. Students applied critical theory from film, philosophy, literature and other fields to what they saw in games. Game developers were beginning to write more publicly about the tough choices they’d made.
Journalism, the creation and publication of content on a regular basis, is a big field. Some journalism is working a beat, reporting facts. Some journalism is providing technical insight into how things work. Some journalism is just publication of entertaining guesswork, and some of it’s daydreaming for others’ enjoyment.
Any games site ultimately has to decide what kind of content it will publish. Most sites will make room for features and reflections, but regularly running news and reviews takes an act of will, and another element, be that name recognition, connections, or just plain luck. When GWJ faced the decision, folks still remembered that we broke the story when Half Life 2’s source code leaked. We’d also get occasional public recognition from bigger, funded voices in games journalism. Two roads diverged in a wood, and all that.
Let me be perfectly clear here: The two roads in that poem are both equally travelled, equally worn, and morally equal as far as the speaker could see. Same with different forms of games journalism.
A lot of GWJ writers over the years have had aspirations to join the ranks of professional games journalism. Quite a few have touched that dream. A lot of our writers join up with GWJ as an early step toward that goal, knowing how many have come this way before, and have gone on to make us proud beyond this hallowed URL. I’m not trying to say that it’s just OK for people to want that; I expressly condone that dream. Professional games journalism is a tough, tough job, and it often doesn’t pay nearly as well as it probably should, but I respect the heck out of folks who can pull it off. They’re doing what I consider to be important work, and I think my role in working with writers here is in many respects about helping new writers mature, find their voice, and learn how to use a semicolon properly.
You should not believe that we are the only ones to choose the way GWJ did. There have been numerous wonderful voices writing about games outside of news and reviews, and those voices grow stronger and more numerous by the day. It may seem like we made the easy and obvious choice, but it was neither easy nor obvious then, and it remains a complicated question without a wrong answer.
Not writing reviews changes the way a site and its writers relate to other writers, to game developers, and to all the different teams involved in publicizing and selling games. Not being part of the preview and review game means we're almost entirely uninteresting to marketers. That means we don't get as much access. We don't get showered in review codes and promotional materials. We hear about things, by and large, at the same time and in the same ways that you do.
Previews and reviews are the meat and potatoes of for-profit games journalism. Writing to inform consumers of what they should and shouldn't buy is where publications tie into the marketing system. If a reader turns to you for advice on what to buy, then it's natural for an advertiser to want to put their own message about what to buy alongside those articles. But if you're using a game as a launching point to talk about questions of inner peace and creative excellence in our hypermediated consumer society, those advertisers (and honestly, a lot of readers) aren't as interested. That doesn’t mean that marketing folks don’t respect us, just that we don’t figure into their budgets. We are a bad vehicle for marketing.
Here is where we come to a chicken/egg conundrum. Without giving review scores — without feeding into the Metacritic engine — we're largely out of the discussion when publishers, sales teams, marketers and advertisers figure out how to push a game. Without attention from advertisers, we don't have the income to pay writers to grind away on reviews that they may not be interested in. Without attention from marketers, we don't tend to get early review copies of games. We certainly aren't being flown to press junkets.
But there is another, larger conversation. There are conversations about what games mean to players and to society that we are exploring. And that larger conversation isn't just from those who don't write reviews. When any one voice speaks about a game, a series of games, or about games and gaming in general, that voice is part of a larger conversation. The folks writing news and reviews are also writing features and other longer-form work, and their experience seeing all those reviewed titles often provides their thoughts with valuable context.
We can’t be part of every conversation. Maybe that’s why we cherish the forums so much, because comments and forum posts add context and links to extend the conversation. Ultimately, discussion makes us wiser. We’re glad to be part of this conversation with you, and with all the other amazing — sometimes astounding — voices out there on the internet.