Freeplay 2012: Legitimacy

I’m so incredibly grateful I got to be so involved in this year’s Freeplay Independent Games Festival, which concluded barely a fortnight ago. I was a speaker in the conversation session Games and Words, exchanging thoughts on the written word’s relevance to video games. On the panel Levels of Discourse, I contributed to a discussion of various aspects of games criticism. I was on the judging committee for the Freeplay awards, playing through dozens of excellent indie games from all over the world. I somehow even convinced director Paul Callaghan that it’d be a great idea to let me present an award at the Freeplay awards ceremony. (I hope he’s not too mortified I took the opportunity to slip the word “throbbing” into the script.)

I have a history with Freeplay, actually, and I’d say it’d played a pretty critical role in what I do now. At last year’s Freeplay I met a whole bunch of people I’d only admired from afar till then; now I consider many of them to be great friends, mentors, and alcohol suppliers of mine. The year before, at Freeplay 2010, I’d just begun writing about games, and it was all the cultural discussion at the festival that really guided the path my writing would take, each panel I attended and game I played at Experimedia shaping my path like wire on a bonsai tree – so being an actual part of the festival my third time around means an immense amount to me.

And this year, as in previous years, a lot of discussion was generated that has me thinking still, even two weeks later. Though the official theme was “Chaos and Grace”, I think several unspoken sub-themes also emerged in conversation, and there’s one I’d like to expand on today…

The question of legitimacy was something that permeated a few of the sessions I saw, and it was certainly, in two highly differing manifestations, a part in both of the sessions I spoke in.

On Levels of Discourse, both Jessica Citizen (who writes primarily news on her own gaming website) and James Dominguez (who writes daily for a national paper’s online gaming blog) shied away from applying the term “journalist” to themselves. I took issue with this, but I also knew their reasons for doing so well – gaming is not a serious, “real” enough area of coverage, arguments about the usefulness of journalists in the field could be avoided, they didn’t even have journalism degrees, et cetera, et cetera…

And that irritated me, if I’m being honest. It irritated me because I’ve long grappled with the idea of games being a legitimate area of focus myself. For the first year and a half of my career I’d dodge the word, instead ambiguously calling myself a “writer”. Never mind that my friends and teachers outside of the games industry 100% considered me a journalist; never mind that my dad, himself a journalist of over forty years, considered me a journalist, too. A part of me feared that others might think games weren’t a good enough area to cover, and I wanted to avoid confrontation. I wanted to avoid being challenged. In not defending their importance and value in culture, I legitimised the uneducated idea that games were not a “real” medium.

It was going to GDC this year that finally changed my thinking. “I’m a writer,” I would say when meeting developers and other games journalists, and they would say, “What the fuck is a writer? Call yourself a journalist, dammit, because you are a journalist, because what you cover is legitimate and needs to be read, and its prominence shouldn’t be eclipsed by this idea that not even you believe in the legitimacy of what you’re writing.”

**

After each of the two sessions I spoke on, I’d take a break to scroll through the #freeplay12 Twitter hashtag to see what people had been saying while I’d been speaking. And apparently, not a whole lot of people agreed with my view of journalism being a necessary part of the advancement of video games in greater culture. It upset me – not really in an oh god why did I read the comments way, but because it contradicted what people had tweeted during the Games and Words session the day before.

Games and Words, see, was one of a series of “conversations” designed around the idea of having two people – one familiar with video games, the other from a different discipline of work or study – coming together to speak about one aspect of games through a wider, less self-examinatory cultural lens. In my case, I got to speak at length with excellent Melbournian poet Katie Keys.

The nature of the speakers’ backgrounds was the most important thing about the conversation sessions, and the greatest generator of a unique kind of discussion still largely unspoken within the games industry. Bringing in the expertise of an “outsider” really helps us approach the medium in new ways; according to a recent interview I had with Peter Molyneux, it was a part of his hiring strategy for his new studio 22 Cans. How do you expect innovation, he said, if you’re asking the same people to do what they’ve already done a million times before?

Katie Keys, as a poet and only a casual player of games, had some frankly brilliant insight into the medium, and it was a conversation I was immensely proud to have been a part of. That’s why it bothered me, looking back over the tweets, to see people pinpoint use of words such as “real” and “legitimate” to distinguish a divide between mainstream writing and writing found in games.

I understand the criticism, but I also wish some consideration had been given to why that distinction might have been made. Why might someone unfamiliar with the medium say such a thing so flippantly, not realising that it’s something we in the industry facepalm at on a daily basis? Is it perhaps because not even our journalists, our mediators between games and the mainstream media, are willing to consider themselves “real” journalists? How do we get so indignant about the Herald Sun’s unfair portrayal of games when our own journalists don’t feel they can legitimise their own career choice?

You could argue that with racists picketing outside the State Library on the final day of Freeplay, there might be more pertinent issues for journalists to pick up on than, say, the problems that arise during the development of a video game. But look – there are other areas of entertainment journalism that don’t have nearly as much potential as games do. Why is it still not okay to be a games journalist?

We need journalism if we want gaming’s place in the broader cultural spectrum to be taken seriously, and we need our journalists to stand up and say, yes, we are goddamned journalists and we’re serious about the work that we do. How can we expect others to take us seriously if we can’t take ourselves seriously? The outsiders’ view of gaming isn’t going to change without a change in our own views; it’s not going to change as long as we stare at our feet and mumble, “Umm, I’m not really a journalist, I just write stuff about video games.” So let’s stop talking each other down, timidly dismissing our accomplishments and insights, and acting as if this career path we chose is just some hobby to be shrugged off. We know they’re important. It’s up to us to help others see gaming’s relevance to non-gamers, too.

7 thoughts on “Freeplay 2012: Legitimacy

  1. I think it’s important to distinguish between journalists and critics. If someone’s job is to only write reviews, I don’t feel that constitutes journalism.

  2. Here are my own thoughts on…some of this, very briefly:

    I tend to not refer to myself as a ‘journalist’, but I do refer to some of my work as ‘journalism’. For me, it’s a purely semantic thing. Sometimes, I go out and I talk to people; I research; I do a bit of digging and work up an article around that. That’s journalism, in the classical sense. Sometimes, I review a whole bunch of games, doing the work of a critic. Sometimes I just write a bunch of words off the top of my head, and I’m never quite sure what to call that, so I just call myself a writer. A writer who writes, largely, about videogames.

    For me, it’s not that writing about games isn’t worthy of being called journalism. Journalism is a problematic word as is, because people can’t seem to decide on whether or not there should be a distinction between journalism and *true* journalism, but my issue has always been that the word doesn’t fully encapsulate what it is, exactly, that I do, and what it is that I enjoy about my work. I call myself a ‘writer’, in part, because I think being a writer is *super awesome*. I don’t know that there’s much wrong with the word: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is always celebrated as being a fantastic work of writing, despite being a horrible work of journalism, isn’t it? And no one ever dismisses Roger Ebert for being a mere critic rather than an outright journalist.

    So essentially, I like to call myself a writer because I wear many hats, all of which are, um, writing hats. I love writing, in whatever form that may take. It’s not a legitimacy thing for me, because I’m proud of what I’ve done and what I’ve accomplished, I simply don’t think ‘journalism’ is the word that best describes what that is. Which, obviously, won’t be the same for everyone – a lot of people produce work that is, primarily, straight-up journalism – but I figured my opinion was perhaps worth spouting anyway.

  3. It’s as legitimate as any other type of journalism. Is it less legitimate than sports or entertainment journalism? Hardly. But I wouldn’t say it’s less legitimate than political or economic journalism either. Games are a part of life, and have been for millenia, perhaps for as long as humans existed. What is soccer, or rugby, or tennis, but a game? Chess, poker, Go?

    Like anything else, the real question is how well games journalists do their jobs. That’s where I have issues with them, as I do with other journalists. Can I trust AAA game reviews in major sites when they miss all the problems with something like Mass Effect 3, say?

    But journalism? Of course.

    And journalists can be writers, but the two words generally mean something different. Of course, I call myself a writer, so, eh… :)

  4. My view on the “am I a journalist?” question actually evolved over the
    course of that panel, as I had never really codified it for myself
    before. It comes down to the fact that, to me, journalism is about
    objective fact, or the closest we subjective creatures can get to it,
    and assembling facts into a coherent, readable narrative.

    I don’t think I am an objective writer, at least most of the time. The
    bulk of my writing work appears on Screen play, which is a blog, not a
    news outlet. My preferred mode of writing has always been to inject
    the personal into it. I am not an objective writer most of the time
    (though I can play that role when required) which shifts my style and
    role into criticism or commentary rather than journalism.

    It is not at all a question of legitimacy for me, as I do not conflate
    objectivity with legitimacy. My favourite non-fiction writers always
    include a measure of the personal into their work, which is not to say
    that there is not a factual basis to it. As for me, I do my very best
    to report the truth, but I have to admit that I like to flesh out
    those facts with my own persona reactions to them. I don’t see this as
    non-legitimate writing, by any means, but it also fails to meet my own
    definition of journalism.

    Some of the stuff I said during the Freeplay panel was me thinking out
    loud, examining ideas and often discarding them. The idea of a formal
    tertiary qualification being necessary in order to be called a
    journalism, for example, was a discarded idea. I am sure there are
    great journalists who never spent a day at university.

    On to your final point, I think there actually is a shortage of
    narrowly-defined journalism in video games, but it’s there if you
    look. GamePolitics, for example, does a great job of presenting facts
    and maintaining a very neutral stance. I do think we need more of this
    objective reporting, and the balance currently leans heavily toward
    subjective criticism.

    Fact is, though, I am not a journalist, and I have no desire to be
    one. Call me a columnist, an opinion writer, a critic, or a blogger,
    but journalism, at least as I understand and define it, is a trade
    that I respect but have no desire to participate in. Maybe I’m just
    too opinionated, but the stories I am interested in telling are tied
    in with my personal experiences.

    I hope all of this makes sense. Oh, and if your definition of
    journalism differs from mine, please don’t consider this to be a
    criticism of your decision to use the term to apply to yourself. I
    have my reasons to resist that label, but if you choose to embrace it
    I have no quarrel with you on that point.

  5. On the topic of legitimacy,I think a big distinction between “legitimate games” versus “legitimate journalist” is that a person can have a job title and career identity of being a journalist, but not a job title and career identity as being a game. Because of that I don’t think it’s quite comparable.

    When it comes to career titles, many of us do look into others for reassurance. Are we hired under that title? Are we trained under that discipline? By all means I don’t think a person should be excluded from taking the career identity if they do the work without the above requirements, but it does take more self assurance than most of us possess.

    I tweeted this on the day. The only difference on using the title of “scientist” for me was whether my job title called me one, that’s all. There was the external legitimacy, despite that my actual ability at the time was abysmal. My day at work can be accurately described as picking up a plate, stare in horror, shove it to back of the pile, pick up another one, rinse and repeat; until I get a complete clean one that I could confidently call as “no growth”. It took a while before I could differentiate the various bacteria growth, even a bit longer before I could progress to go from nothing to a complete work up on all the sciency stuff; and I could internally identify as a scientist, but it was a case that the token legitimacy occurred on hire, and competence self legitimacy occurred long after that, with competence.

    I suspect that because many journalists weren’t hired with this title, they were never given the external license to feel that it’s the role to be filled even if they are doing the work of a journalist. Especially when the internal competence legitimacy isn’t there, the lack of the external title would affect how lots of people want to label what they do.

  6. There certainly can be legitimate journalism within the gaming press, but in reality there is precious little of it. One major problem is the actual funding of game news sites – the bulk of advertising funding comes from the very companies that would be the target of any game-based journalistic investigation. Mainstream media has this issue to some extent, but typically has a much wider revenue base (more and different advertisers, classifieds in newspapers) that means there is less financial incentive to look the other way or not ask the hard questions.

    Plus then there are the issue of free / comped materials given to gaming press members which are often seen as perks of the job. People don’t want to risk their source of free products by biting the hand that feeds.

    Unless video game sites can get a wider revenue base, they know that going strongly after a story that might upset a major publisher that will have a direct impact on how they earn their money.

    I’m only talking in generalities here – no doubt it varies from site to site – but it is an issue that needs to be faced if games journalism is to be taken seriously.

  7. i think that if you’re in the position of having to persuade your audience or yourself that what you’re doing is legitimate then you’re already beaten. people like to read about the things they’re interested in- if they like to read at all, but if the writing’s good enough a reader who knows nothing about tennis or healthcare or limbo becomes engaged because some light’s been shed on why the subject is interesting.

    video games are interesting as hell. it’s our most energized, innovative, and evolving artistic medium, in my completely biased opinion. gaming is this incredible nexus of technology and entertainment and art and marketing. it’s so fucking cool. even the mainstream guts and guns shooters are so fun and beautiful and, from a technological and artistic, if not thematic, perspective, represent these monumental feats of collaborative achievement. to boot, i can drink all the beers i want and blow up barrels and shoot the shit online with my buddy paul with absolutely no risk of of dwi or std by morning’s light.

    so why do i feel like such a dick trying to talk to folks about video games at a party? it’s because you jokers are busy arguing about your relative journalistic merit instead of writing so much awesomeness that the storytelling, like the games, becomes mainstream.

    tracy kidder wrote the soul of a machine and won the pulitzer 30 years ago and i haven’t read a think like it since. it made those game devs look like the guys from the right stuff and that was just a text game. i think the world’s ready for a followup, and one of you “journalists” needs to rise out of your primordial ooze writing niche and give it to us.

    sorry to come off as such a turd. i’m just bitter that that person ain’t gonna be me.

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