Clive Thompson is burly and about six-two. He’s wearing a full set of chain mail and Soldier’s Wrist Guards of the Eagle and has a large mace-a Giant Mace-strapped to his back like a parade baton. He’s 40, a Canadian expat living in New York, former editor of This Magazine, a journalist and father of two who writes a monthly games column for Wired and has been published in The New York Times Magazine, New York and The Walrus. He’s also a paladin.
I meet Thompson in the dirt courtyard of a stone abbey. A medieval storybook forest of beech and oak surrounds us, veined with babbling brooks and dirt footpaths. Downy rabbits hop through the underbrush. It looks nice, but the area has a bit of a wolf problem.
“I got into this game,” he says, “partly because I was reviewing it-when it first came out, this is almost five years ago-for Slate,” he says. Then, “Oh, hold it.” He stops. “Come up here-I’ve got my mining [radar] on and there’s some ore I’ve got to mine.” He laughs, runs off the path we’ve been following and disappears into the woods.
Up until this brief geological break (copper ore, nothing too thrilling), we’d been talking shop. Shop for Thompson, at least in part, is video games journalism. We’re on our way back to the road when a wolf jumps out from behind a squarish tree and bites me savagely on the stomach. I back away, waving my arms uselessly, but it’s faster than I am.
“I got him, I got him,” says Thompson. He brains the wolf with his Giant Mace. It collapses.
“There we go. I’ll keep you safe from these dudes. You’ll just get-do you even have a weapon?”
We’re playing World of Warcraft. WoW, as it’s known to its more than 11.5 million subscribers, is the most popular title to emerge from the awkwardly named massively multiplayer online role playing game (MMORPG) genre. Players from Saskatoon to Seoul pay a monthly fee to vanquish fiends, seek magical artifacts, mine copper and gold, forge weapons and shriek creative insults at each other in Blizzard Entertainment Inc.’s fantasy world. There is no real “end” to the game. Playing it is somewhat like paying to push Sisyphus’s boulder up a hill. It’s fun!
WoW is the most popular massively multiplayer game, but the field is glutted with other options-many of them Tolkienesque WoW rip-offs, of course, but also some originals. EVE Online is the most interesting, conceptually: a science-fiction world with a player-created economy and 260,000 inhabitants. EVE has an in-house economist, publishes an 80-page quarterly magazine called EON and regularly flies its user-elected government to Iceland to meet with the developers.
For people uninterested in counting “strength” and “agility” stats or comparing copper and mithril helmets (or lasering space pirates), there are non-game virtual worlds like Second Life, a loosely knit collection of player-created islands. Players buy and sell real estate, create art and functional objects, and launch businesses (including virtual outposts of recognizable brands). Linden dollars, the coin of the realm, have an established exchange rate with U.S. dollars (generally 260 to 270 Linden dollars to one greenback), and last year saw the equivalent of U.S. $100 million move through the LindeX, Second Life’s trading index. Reuters thought Second Life important enough to establish a bureau there in 2006, making Second Life officially more interesting than Somalia, either of the Congos or Tibet. Media interest in Second Life crested a year later, and the bureau was folded in 2008.
If online gaming is a collection of countries, then home consoles are duelling worlds. Nintendo, home of cherubic Dadaist plumber Super Mario, posted 2008 profits of U.S. $2.6 billion. In the past year, Nintendo has sold 10.5 million casual-gamer-focused Wii consoles in the United States alone. From its 2005 release to 2007, the Guitar Hero series-the Apple Jacks of rhythmic guitar simulation, creating an experience less like guitar performance and more like weaving through oncoming traffic while playing an ocarina-made over a billion dollars for its publisher, Activision. When it was released in late June last year, Guitar Hero: Aerosmith boosted sales of Aerosmith’s back catalogue by 40 percent. If games can make people, often young people, spend their money on Aerosmith albums, then truly they must be the most powerful force on earth.
According to The New York Times, video games made $32 billion U.S. worldwide in 2008, $6 billion more than Afghanistan’s GDP for that year.
Conventional wisdom says that all this gold comes from where gold usually comes from-under the ground. Specifically, basements, proffered from under couches by the waving arms of mushroom men. Hard-core gamers, as the mushroom men like to be called, are still an important slice of the games market. But the market is changing. In 2008, 53 percent of American adults (including half of all women) played games-and the percentage rises among people with higher incomes and post-secondary educations. The majority of gamers are now urban people with varied interests, spending money, lives. People who look, incidentally,a lot like the kind of people the old-guard media need to attract to survive. Ninety-seven percent of American teens-the future audience of the press-are gamers.
Are the media listening? Not really, argues Blaine Kyllo, a game reviewer for Vancouver’s Georgia Straightand Calgary’s Fast Forward Weekly. “Video games have become-not a cultural ‘phenomenon,’ because it’s been building for years. It’s to the point now where games can’t be ignored,” he says. “Media, and especially traditional media outlets, really need to recognize that gaming is a part of culture and society, and they are doing themselves and their audience a disservice by not covering it.”
When Canadian media outlets cover gaming, they tend to jail it in the tech section or lump it in with crazes for whippersnappers, like Pogs or Cabbage Patch Kids or laser tag. Or they lamprey onto the “reality confuses nerds” evergreen, like this: “Second Life Affair Is Leading to First Real-Life Divorce After U.K. Wife Discovers
Husband Cheating on Her with Virtual Character.” Sometimes they try to work up a moral panic (“40, Married, Gaming Addict”), but their hearts aren’t in it the way they were when Columbine was still wrapped in police tape.
There is smart American games writing. Thompson does regular pieces for Wired‘s website and used to contributeto Slate; Seth Schiesel files insightful pieces for The New York Times; Tom Bissell recently tackled games in the New Yorker‘s fantastic “The Grammar of Fun.” But in-depth analysis is rare in Canada.
Thompson looks at gaming as more than amusement. In his semi-regular Wired column, he’s discussed morality (“Why We Need More Torture in Video Games”), the environment (“Flower Power Blooms in First Climate-Change Game”) and the design process itself (“Sweet Success, Fascinating Failure: 48 Sleepless Hours at Global Game Jam”). “Play is one of the oldest forms of human activity and incredibly unscrutinized,” says Thompson. “When you look at the way that people play, you learn a lot about what they care about, what they think about.” We walk under the keystone of an arch, into a tunnel and under a thick stone wall. “You have to think about what play means: why people play, what encourages them to play, why they get addicted to it, why they get turned off, what they consider ‘fair’ play, what they consider ‘unfair’ play.”
Though papers like The Globe and Mail regularly publish reviews-and the Globe does a better job than most-they don’t go much further. “I think that criticism is happening in places that people don’t expect to see, and it’s still a pretty small group of people who are interested in it,” says Kyllo. “Gaming is pretty much in its infancy. If you assume that the modern era of video gaming, which started sort of late ’80s, after the collapse [in the early ’80s], if you assume that is the de facto beginning of the video game industry as a cultural product, an entertainment product, we’re still really young.” The collapse, caused by pressure from versatile personal computers, several high-profile failures, a glutted market and a price war among manufacturers, was a devastating extinction event. The corpses of Ataris, ColecoVisions, Intellivisions, Tandyvisions, CreatiVisions, Odysseys and Arcadias were left behind to petrify and smaller, warm-blooded consoles from Japan took over. Modern game forms emerged, kingdoms of odd visual grammar and peculiar dream-logic that persist today. Kyllo continues: “How long was cinema around before Pauline Kael was writing about movies in the way that she was? Sixty years? The fact that we’re even talking about criticism within the scope of video games in 16 years is amazing.”
Why aren’t Canadian editors looking at criticism when the industry is worth roughly $10 billion more than our projected federal deficit this year? “Adolescent, prurient drivel,” says Ian Bogost, an Atlanta-based video game researcher and designer for Persuasive Games. “That’s what they see games as.”
Perhaps high-art snobbishness is the problem-and many games are indeed drivel-but the issue is more than just an aversion to nerds. In fact, talking to editors reveals an interest in new media at odds with Bogost’s generalizations.
“If newspapers, or newspaper-slash-websites, want to stay alive and stay relevant in the coming years, we have to cover stuff that new, younger readers are interested in,” says Doug Cudmore, entertainment editor at the Toronto Star. “Increasingly, among that crowd, video games, along with new media and the web, are important.” The problem, he continues, is “people get their video game news from specialized video game sites, magazines. They’re onto leaks and sneak peeks months and months beforehand. Newspapers can’t cover video game releases as though video game fans are getting their first word from us.”
“Games journalism moves at a breakneck pace,” says Scott Colbourne, a freelancer and former editor of theGlobe‘s entertainment section. “It is online based. By the time I get Gears of War finished, then there’s four or five days of production time between when I send in my piece and it gets published, and by that time people have moved on.”
Journalists complaining about the internet? Hard to believe, but Cudmore and Colbourne have a point-at least about mushroom men. The gamer enthusiast press is the last word for the hard-core. Its reviews and previews are obsessively detailed and unbeatably fast. But mushroom men don’t read papers, there’s more to real coverage than 500 words and a percentage score and the enthusiast press has problems of its own. It’s the press that’s lying. The scores of magazines and websites that form the enthusiast press depend on game advertising as their primary source of income. Publishers punish unfavourable coverage by withdrawing ads. Editorial becomes embedded reporting.
“Oh yeah, that’s an age-old thing,” explains Dan “Shoe” Hsu, San Francisco-based former editor-in-chief of the now-defunct Electronic Gaming Monthly. “You hear things from game publishers all the time. They’ll kind of let you in, like ‘yeah, you know, we were able to get this kind of coverage out of them because we threatened this or that, or they’re worried about this kind of thing.'”
Though Shoe stresses EGM‘s editorial independence during his tenure as editor, not everyone else can be expected to maintain critical distance.
“When Gears of War 2 was first announced nearly a year ago, Cliffy B [Gears of War lead designer Cliff Bleszinski] made the bold statement that it would be bigger, better and more badass than Gears 1,” says Nate
Thompson and I are tourists in Stormwind City, humanity’s capital in WoW. It is painstakingly rendered in a style that splits the difference between a chunky Playmobil village and a Boris Vallejo painting. I like to call it “Fantasy Bland.” Stones are grey, wood is a light caramel. Cloth flags wave, blue-the sovereign colour of the Alliance, the pact binding humans together with dwarves and gnomes and Night Elves and Draenei, a race of purple aliens. The city is nondescript because the players are the focus here-their interactions and arguments and especially their commerce. Distribution of goods and wealth within WoW’s busy internal economy happens through an eBay-style auction service, and many of the lines of chat that march from the bottom of the screen begin with “WTS”: want to sell.
“WTS Combatant Claymore.”
“WTS Helm of the Burning Soul.”
“WTS Mendicant’s Robe of Mendacity.”
“LOL what a name, Mendicant’s Robe of Mendacity.”
Gamers don’t find mendacity as funny when they think Ahearn, an editor at IGN.com (a major internet review site owned by News Corporation) in a November 2008 video review. Onscreen, we watch a Jeep-sized armoured man gore an alien with a chainsaw/assault rifle. The alien screams. The man uses the chainsaw to lift the alien off of the ground and throws it over his head. Ahearn continues breathlessly. “It was quite a daring claim at the time, given how beloved the first Gears is, but don’t worry about being disappointed, Gears fans-Cliff was right on the money.” He continues in a linked print review:
Now we’re entering the second chapter in the universe Epic Games created. The events of the first ended with Marcus and Dom delivering the Lightmass Bomb into The Hollow after killing General Raam. Sadly, the bomb had about the same effect as sticking a bull in the ass with an ice pick. The Locust only doubled their efforts and have been sinking cities on Sera ever since. Now only one remains: the city of Jacinto, whose foundation is thick enough to keep the Locust at bay. But not for long. The Locust are poised to crush just as they have every other city. Soon humanity’s struggle will be over, all hope extinguished.
But not yet.
This isn’t criticism. Criticism is done with more than one hand.
“It’s not like our industry’s made up of ex-New York Times reporters and journalism grads,” notes Shoe on his blog. “A lot of game journalists (like me) didn’t come from any sort of journalism background. We didn’t necessarily get the proper training or influences up front.”
In early May 2008, for the first previews of Command and Conquer: Red Alert 3, a Cold War-themed strategy game, the developer flew members of the North American, European and Russian games press into a decommissioned military base outside of Moscow.
How did the game look? Evan Shamoon, a San Francisco-based freelancer, crows that he and others were encouraged to fire surplus Soviet weaponry and joyride in tanks before being taken 20 storeys underground into a Cold War-era nuclear shelter,
subjected to a trumpet squad, fed gruel and finally shown the game. In an article for website 1UP.com,Shamoon weighs in: “The game looks pretty awesome. Like ‘sharks with laser beams attached to their heads’ awesome. Like ‘[World of Warcraft developer] Blizzard’s upcoming StarCraft II may actually have some competition’ awesome.”
The choice to pander is easy once the final block falls, Tetris-like, into place. Jeff Gerstmann, a reviewer and editor, was with major gaming website GameSpot for almost 11 years before his November 2007 dismissal. He made the mistake of giving Kane & Lynch: Dead Men a rating of “fair.” The following month, after the gaming press started referring to the firing as “Gerstmanngate,” GameSpot published a weakly worded FAQ denying that any external pressure had influenced Gerstmann’s dismissal. In January 2008, two of Gerstmann’s former co-workers, reviewer Frank Provo and reviews editor Alex Navarro, left the website, citing dissatisfaction with the way Gerstmann was treated.
Maybe it’s not that important that video games receive unbiased coverage from the hard-core press. There’s only so much you can expect from a shopping magazine. But CNET, GameSpot‘s parent company, was worth $1.8 billion to CBS when the company purchased it in 2008. Millions of people visit the website every month. That’s something. And Gerstmann was trying to make a living by delivering information, of a sort, to the public.
Heavy-handed game developers aren’t a factor for newspapers that don’t sell ad space to them in the first place. While there are no advertising rewards for newspapers covering games, there are also no penalties.
So, where do we go from here? Obviously, games aren’t going to “save” print media from the internet. At most they can provide a valuable tent pole, something to point to when questioned about the old guard’s continuing relevancy in a post Web 8.0/Twitbook/cranial bio-interface/whatever world. The future market is more than just players of video games. Most of them wouldn’t even self-identify as “gamers.” They’re the market that Nintendo went after with the Wii console, and they’ve pulled the company from a distant third-place position to the returned-king-of-procrastination-device manufacturers.
These people would pick up a story if they were given enough reason to, and people like Scott Colbourne are already trying the criticism angle within newspapers, with pleasing results.
A throng of mounted warlocks and warriors and rogues gallops past us on dark horses and steam-powered robot legs and mastodons. We briefly discuss Pong, the game that hooked Thompson in the first place, back in the electronic Cretaceous. Then Thompson stands up, bids me goodbye and disappears into the ether. “I should start writing my piece,” I say to myself. But I’m already steering Reportius, my WoW avatar, back to the abbey. Maybe I’ll put in a little time on the wolf problem.
“Just for 10 minutes,” I lie.