Where is the Roger Ebert’s commissioning editor of games?

warren spectorWarren Spector’s latest GI column asks: where is the Roger Ebert of gaming? He bemoans the lack of accessible, consistent writing about games in mainstream media, aimed at broad rather than specialist audiences. The key passages are a call to action:

I’m not saying reaching an audience that doesn’t know enough to take games seriously will be easy. I’m for sure not finding fault with people currently trying to accomplish this difficult goal. I’m just saying we need to continue working and harder to bring more writers and thinkers into the area between Reviewers and Academia. We can’t be complacent and say, “Aw, what we got is good enough.”

Let’s inundate the bookshelves, magazine sections and the web with work that isn’t above (or below) the heads of readers. Only in that way will we achieve the level of respect I believe we deserve. Only in that way will we create an audience more demanding of the medium, which will inevitably lead to different and, I’d argue, better games.

This kind of treatment – as exemplified by the Times articles mentioned above – would do games a world of good. Establishing games in the public mind as something good and worthy and serious, and not just “fun for kids, but not for me” seems important to me. It’s important to developers, publishers, players and maybe even to – for want of a better word – enemies who might come to a more nuanced understanding of our medium.

Frankly, if games are not up to this sort of critical analysis then maybe they are just a way to provide some thrills and chills or some time away from real world problems, as our critics (in still another sense of the word) contend.

I agree, broadly, with the sentiment of the piece – that there is not enough mainstream game criticism of explanation, rather than of evaluation – but the issue is not that we do not have one or many Roger Eberts. It’s that we don’t have Roger Ebert’s editors. In the English speaking world, we don’t have a mainstream press that commissions these pieces consistently from the many talented critics who are already doing this work. We have a mainstream press, for the most part, that commissions very short reviews with evaluative ratings on only the very biggest, most blockbusting titles, or that syndicates specialist content written for gamer audiences rather than for the general public. We have a mainstream media that doesn’t want to – or can’t – pay excellent writers properly to produce excellent work, or promote it appropriately when it does. (That’s a sweeping generalisation, of course. There are many exceptions and many outlets where this is changing. But there aren’t enough.)

Outside the specialist press, the enthusiast press and the academic press, accessible games criticism is not reaching the audience it deserves because it’s not being widely commissioned or published in mainstream publications. It’s not that there’s no demand from audiences – the proliferation of intelligent and accessible work on Tumblr, on personal blogs, and elsewhere is testament to the voracity of that demand. It’s not that there are no writers capable of such accessibility, insight and excellence; there are dozens.

It is, however, about the business and budgetary crises in mainstream media. It’s about the gradual shift away from gamer-as-identity to gaming-as-mainstream-pastime, as more people play games and fewer think of game-playing as a fundamental element of their personality. It’s about the youth of video games and video game writing alike as creative media, and their dual resistance to external critique. And it’s about the shift in thinking involved in situating video games as culture and entertainment when historically mainstream media has covered them as technology. These are all issues that time will solve, one way or the other.

This month’s Blogs of the Round Table topic over on Critical Distance asks what the future of video game blogging is, and this can serve as my response: the future of video game blogging is mainstream. At the moment – like it or not – the best, most accessible, most interesting games writers are freelancers, working for niche outlets and writing for themselves. The future for video games blogging is a mass audience. And hopefully better pay along with it.

[I can’t make the iframe link list to the other BoRT blogs work here – but you should go here and read the others too.]

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Mary Hamilton

I'm an operations specialist, analytics nerd, recovering journalist, consultant, writer, game designer, company founder, and highly efficient pedant.

7 thoughts on “Where is the Roger Ebert’s commissioning editor of games?”

  1. Thanks for weighing in! I knew there was some sort of serendipity going on when Spector’s column came out in the exact month when BoRT is turning all reflective.

    I agree that time is a big factor; of course we (as ‘game people’) are hungry for a situation where games are acknowledged as the cultural artefacts they are, but such things take a lot of time, and I’m not sure there is anything we can do to speed up the process, other than keep making games and keep writing meaningful criticism.

    As the smart editors in game writing know: “good writing wants to be paid”, and thankfully we are seeing more and more initiatives that ensure pay for good writers (Five Out of Ten, Re/Action), particularly for longer, more sophisticated criticism of the kind that other art forms have been blessed with. To be fair, next to mainstream exposure, we *also* want the kind of niche exposure you find in film, art, literature magazines that cater to a more select crowd, and for that kind of work which has a smaller audience, a decent pay model is even more crucial. It would be great to see more experiments and initiatives in this area.

    Finally, in my own BoRT piece (Sub Specie: The Future of Videogame Logging), I offer some suggestions how blogging itself could make a push forward: more diversity (linguistic, religious, national/ethnic), more communication and interaction. Do you have any thoughts on the matter?

    1. Thanks for the responses! Oskar, I agree with you that there’s not a huge amount we can do to speed up the process, other than make it clear that there is demand for games writing from umbrella publications, and keep sharing and doing the good stuff. I’m not sure that anyone has really solved the issue of how to make good writing pay online; a lot of new niche projects have fairly traditional business models, and I guess I wonder where the commercial heads are in all of this? Five out of Ten and Re/Action are the two that seem best thought out to me in commercial terms, but you’re right – it’d be great to see more experiments here.

      On pushing forward – very much think you’re right about conversation. It’s easy to think of blogging as uni-directional, and of articles as something that you can publish and then ignore, regardless of the comments or responses. There’s a culture on competitive sites – mainstream media in Australia is a great example here – of not acknowledging your influences, not linking out, to other journalists or other sites. I think blogging’s a place to get away from that, to put words out and see what words you get back in reply. The power in large part is in the conversation.

  2. I think compilations/ collaborations are much more effective and serve to attract a larger audience while at the same time making for less work for any given individual. I have seen plenty of fantastically potential Eberts which I reall just came across on a whim, theres no organising except for CritDis and a few others and even then no one specialising in reviews except for MetaCritic what a horrible thought. Its interesting that when you talk about mainstream you talk about people with money and yet Totalbiscuit is our (gamers) mainstream he is independent. Its also important to remember that gamer mainstream has to start at not-mainstream.

    Great article.

  3. Hey sorry I’m coming to this a bit late. I’m kind of struggling here to understand why we value the idea of mainstream exposure so much. If mainstream outlets have no money to pay freelancers and are reliant on unpaid interns to operate at all, then surely that’s because they are failing? To me, the mainstream media is increasingly irrelevant.

    That’s not to say that alternative outlets have much money either, but as an individual I am far more likely to get paid by a small outlet than a large one. That’s what pays my rent, and I think that’s where the thoughtful, lucid writing is to be found: the small outlets that pay the majority of writers.

    At the same time, I also still feel like the acknowledgement of the mainstream press would be somehow more valuable than getting heartfelt compliments from people who genuinely care about this stuff. So there must be something there. I just can’t put my finger on what. What is the value of the mainstream media if it has no money?

    What concerns me is that maybe I just want someone ‘important’ to say ‘your writing is valuable’, and maybe Warren Spector wants someone ‘important’ to say ‘your medium is valuable’. What concerns me is the idea that mainstream outlets somehow matter more. I don’t want to buy into that elitism, but I am aware that most of my life I’ve bought into elitism of one sort or another.

    To me, the word ‘mainstream’ sounds like a naturally flowing river that pushes material downstream purely due to gravity. Nobody asks the river to flow towards them, it just pushes things out as Nature wills it. Honestly, I don’t think that metaphor works for how we consume media nowadays. Surely it’s going to be less and less about publishers pushing content down, and more and more about readers pulling it in?

    Why are we so bothered about getting mainstream outlets to push out good games criticism when it’s already right there waiting for anybody who wants to pull it in?

    It doesn’t make sense to passively ask the mainstream to pay for games criticism when it can’t even pay its interns. If we want games criticism to thrive, we have to fund it ourselves.

    1. I think the pull of the mainstream media is more about the pull of the mass audience than anything else. That’s what the mainstream has that other publications don’t: mass reach, outside the pool of people who define themselves as gamers. Broad interest audiences. Is that part of what you’re getting at? It felt to me very much as though that was part of Spector’s complaint – that he wanted games writing to reach beyond those who already know about it, to the broader audiences that those mass publications have. (Perhaps mass is better than mainstream as a metaphor…)

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