Games

The New Games Journalism

From Oblivion, Bethesda Softworks

The most useful moments for New Games Journalists are ones that occur in multiplayer, describing experiences that could never occur during just a general session of play.

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.

Kieron Gillen from Wikipedia.
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.

From Jedi Knight II, LucasArts.

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.

From Planetside, Sony Online Entertainment.

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.

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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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