Roughly five years ago game critic and comic book author Kieron Gillen posted an essay called The New Games Journalism on his blog. It was inspired by Tom Wolfe’s essay on the same topic, which was the tradition of weaving yourself as a journalist into an event you were reporting on. Since then, the article has been blamed for producing utterly abysmal writing and creating a giant bucket of fuck-all in the gaming scene. It’s also produced some of the most interesting and fun writing about games on the web today. As the smoke finally clears and the best elements of the essay settle, it’s time to take a glance at how the ideas have aged and what they are contributing to video games.
For starters, it might be best to clear up what exactly Gillen was trying to say. In 2004 when the article was published, the dominant way of assessing a game was through the analytic tradition or the idea that “the worth of a videogame lies in the videogame.” You would talk about the game design, the graphics, and maybe the plot if it was particularly good. New Games Journalism proposes instead that the value lies in the experience that the game generates for the player. The skill comes from “make[ing] people understand what it *felt* like to be there when it happened.” Part of what inspired this idea was a story written by a blogger named Always Black, who talked about confronting a racist player in Jedi Knight II: Outcast. The duel that ensued was surprisingly epic, and by discussing how intricate and close the fight became, the story also explained the game in a way that other essays did not. It was more insightful than a purely analytical essay because just talking about the design of a game doesn’t really encompass the experiences it can produce. The article talks about the moves during the battle, the skill required to execute it, and how the game allowed Always Black to experience an amazing confrontation through these elements of gameplay.
The immediate reaction was a great deal of fascination with the kinds of material that this new style produced and a great deal of irritation at what it was potentially opening up. Gillen explains in an e-mail, “In my experience, most people actually like NGJ but get angry at the idea of NGJ. People think it’s elitist wanking, but everyone loves something like The 1%.” Quoting a phrase from Always Black, he points out that people often fail to realize that you have to earn the right to utilizing the first-person when they write NGJ. There has to be an actual experience that’s interesting enough to warrant telling and that, by telling it, you also discuss the way the game works in and of itself. The “elitest wanking” part of the equation, talking about yourself and your opinions, is just one element of New Games Journalism. Instead, Gillen is just acknowledging that mentioning yourself is inevitable. He notes, “I think any approach to writing about a game’s experience which claims total objectivity is intrinsically a lie.” You strive for objectivity so that people of varying opinions will still understand what you’re saying, not because you actually expect to achieve it. As he defines it in the original essay, it isn’t the player or the game that’s the subject, it’s the experience it generated for you.
Rock, Paper, Shotgun, whom Gillen writes for, has posted several excellent examples of the NGJ method along with their usual work. On the multiplayer end of the spectrum is a recounting of an amazing battle in Planetside. Due to a temporary bug in the game, a particular side could no longer respawn in their base and was suddenly in danger of being permanently wiped off the map. The sudden organized genocide was impressive for a game whose level of social complexity had rarely gone beyond anything more sophisticated then that of a glorified mob, but the efforts of the survivors to stay alive was downright amazing. Explaining key tactics and abilities as their struggle progressed, the story makes Planetside exciting in a way that pure analysis could never provide. Rattling off the details of your special powers in a game and claiming this is enough to describe what a game is about is just as absurd as describing the effect that a real gun will have on a live target: talking about it is not the same thing as being there. That’s something that another NGJ piece at Rock, Paper, Shotgun explores when Tim Stone recreated a flight across the Atlantic in 1919. Using Microsoft Flight Simulator to recreate the ship, he did his best to go through the same struggles as the original team. What’s impressive is how insightful and interesting the piece becomes as Stone contemplates games, boredom, and what the crew on the actual trip were experiencing at the same time. In the case of either article, there is a story to tell that would be interesting no matter who was writing it.
Appreciating NGJ as an analytical approach also means realizing when it’s appropriate to use it. “Part of the problem with games is that they contain everything. As such, what critical approach works best varies from game to game. Some games, taking primarily from film theory is pretty well justified. Others, a more music-inspired approach works,” Gillen says. The most useful moments for NGJ are ones that occur in multiplayer, describing experiences that could never occur during just a general session of play. On many levels, it’s arguably the only way you can accurately write about a multi-player game. How can you honestly rate a play session of World of Warcraft without talking about what happened to you? When you played Call of Duty 4 online did a racist player cuss you out the whole time? Did you beat them? That’s obviously going to color your perceptions. It’s also necessary for more emergent games like The Sims or Fallout 3, where the options are so massive that players can actually create unique experiences for themselves. Gillen writes in an essay on eroticism in The Sims that “Immersion happens when we enter any fictional world, to different degrees. Where it increases in games is that we also have interaction.” The more degrees of immersion and the more choices the game gives us to make, the more each game is creating a personal experience instead of a universal one. NGJ is the most useful for examining games in which you are experiencing something that is unique to you or unintended in the game’s design. Even rare moments in single-player games that we’ve all experienced may deserve a tiny dose of NGJ. Gillen points out that LucasArts adventure games will always be a co-op experience to him because he played them with his brother. A brief description of the first time a Strider stormed at you might also capture the essence of what Half-Life 2 is communicating.
The most egregious examples of misapplying NGJ come mostly from applying the label to articles that don’t qualify. When you read an article that’s mostly talking about the player instead of the experience, it becomes a discussion of social experiences outside the game. Take the Rez vibrating peripheral story, the focus is on the social experience of the girl experimenting with the vibrating feature as opposed to the synesthesia the game is creating. The other moment where it becomes inappropriate is when the writer uses it as license to write fan fiction or talk about themselves excessively. Gillen himself comments that even though objectivity is impossible, it doesn’t mean people shouldn’t strive for it. What’s important is realizing that objective analysis, along with mentioning yourself, all have an appropriate place in an essay. He comments, “I never claimed NGJ was the only approach to grasp games….What I was talking about – subjective experience recited as an anecdote – is most used impurely. As in, interjected into another larger piece to illustrate a specific point,” which is sound advice for applying any critical theory. No matter how much you support Roland Barthes’ views on art, there are simply some games that New Criticism (studying a work of art in a void) does not work on. This concept even extends beyond video games and into other forms of art. A write-up of The Dark Knight is far more illuminating if you use philosophical analysis. Heart of Darkness is much better explained when the historical trends of that era are taken into account. For an artistic medium that had been dominated by one particular method of analysis, NGJ was simply about providing an alternative form of analysis that was still founded purely on the requirements of the medium itself.
Indeed, in many ways the adoption of outside ideas, such as Tom Wolfe’s New Journalism or Stephen Greenblatt’s New Historicism, is inevitable for the medium. Almost all of the writers producing game criticism today were trained in other disciplines and all of them are figuring out new ways to apply methodologies from those disciplines to video games. What makes these analytical approaches and crossover skills become “elitist wanking” is when your writing becomes more about the theory and less about the actual game. Gillen notes about NGJ’s long title, “The cost is that the name – the label, the definition, whatever – eventually becomes a cage. It stops being about the work it describes and starts being about the description of the work. People fail to realize it was only ever a map, and mistake it for the terrain itself.” The sign of a healthy artistic medium is not that it can be easily explained by one approach, but that it takes several and sometimes even dozens to really properly explain all the amazing things that a piece of art is doing. When it comes to New Games Journalism, it’s hopefully only the first of many.