Spot On: The man who cried Wolfe

The ghost of Hunter Thompson is one that's being called upon by a wave of journalists anxious to take coverage of the game beat to the edge...and beyond.

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Over the past year a new term has surfaced that has drawn the attention of those who write and read about video games. In a March, 2004 post to his blog, British writer Kieron Gillen championed a so-called "New Games Journalism." Highlighting a number of articles that stray from the standard preview-review style of games coverage, Gillen pointed to the legacy of 1970s New Journalism legends Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson (shown at left) and put out the call for more creative video game-based writing.

A year, some controversy, and a New York Times article later, an exact definition for New Games Journalism remains elusive. What is clear is that the issue has spurred significant discussion regarding the value of elevating games writing to a new level.

Perhaps the most frequently cited example of NGJ is the September 2003 article "Bow, Ni**er" by Always_Black (aka British freelance writer Ian Shanahan).

The story describes how an online lightsaber duel in LucasArts' Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast becomes a contest with real-life stakes when the author, using a dark-skinned avatar, becomes the target of an opponent's racial epithets.

As the tale progresses, the reader gets a vivid sense of Shanahan's justified outrage and ensuing resolve to defeat his bigoted opponent. By no means a review of the game itself, Shanahan's article is more a real-life human interest story set against a digital backdrop. Shanahan has continued writing in the same vein. Another article, "Possessing Barbie" (regarding an instance of pseudo-infidelity in the online world There) ran in a 2004 issue of PC Gamer UK.

Despite the fact that his work receives continued attention as a premier example of New Games Journalism, Shanahan himself maintains that he writes to no specific code.

"It ["Bow, Ni**er"] was never intended to be any great revolutionary new method of anything," Shanahan wrote to us. "The ultimate 'defense' and justification is that this was to be a true account of something that happened, a reportage." The issue is complicated, though by Shanahan's aversion to the idea that one can ever write a completely objective story. "There will always be a slant this way or that in the order of a few words or by the choice or omission of a particular vocabulary or any number of other slight colorations until they all add up to just the view of one writer. The only way I could see to write this report truthfully was to do it as subjectively as I could, write out every feeling, hide nothing, try and take the reader to the place in my head that I had been to during that game. In effect, tell 'my' truth without pretense that it was anything other than my own view on things."

Shanahan's effort made an impression. Mark Donald, editor of the magazine PC Gamer UK, saw "Bow, Ni**er" in its original home on the Webzine State and offered to buy it and reprint it. Although he is reluctant to lean on the term New Games Journalism, Donald's PC Gamer UK has since printed more articles by Shanahan and others that don't fit the standard mold of consumer product journalism. We asked Donald about the origin of his magazine's enthusiasm for a different style of writing.

"Before the label NGJ started being bandied around, we'd had several discussions where we tried to work out what was 'missing' from games magazines. We wrote news and previews and reviews, but the standard games mag formula meant we stopped talking about a game at the very moment it was released... There was nothing in the magazine about the 'experience' of playing. Yet all the conversations we had as gamers were about the emotions we felt, the things we did and the sights we saw when gaming... We wanted to put that right."

Despite the endorsement by an established gaming publication, the New Games Journalism movement has its detractors. Gary "Commander Zorg" Cutlack, author of a widely circulated article for the Web site UK: Resistance entitled "New Games Journalism--Our seven-point manifesto on why it's s***." has been one of the more vocal critics. We asked Cutlack to expand on his take on the NGJ movement: "It's people saying 'Look at me. See how deep I am. See how I think about things at a deeper level than everyone else' by writing loads and loads of long and extremely serious words about a hobby for children that's supposed to be FUN. Sadly this results in phenomenally mediocre observations and attempts at reaching for meaning where there is none."

While it's perhaps not unexpected that the dedicated gaming press would have an opinion or two, the idea of New Games Journalism has also gained mainstream attention. The New York Times covered it in an article on April 5, 2005.

CNN/Money's Game Over columnist Chris Morris is also familiar with the movement. "While people like Tom [Chick, proprietor of NGJ gaming site Quarter to Three] and Ian have written some very interesting pieces I'm not real impressed with [New Games Journalism] at present," says Morris in response to our e-mail. "Generally, I've found the stories don't go anywhere. And too often they give writers license to ramble on endlessly, when they could have made their point (and told an entertaining story) in a much shorter space."

As for the comparison to the legendary New Journalists of the 1960s and 70s, it appears any similarity is in name only. One of the hallmarks of New Journalism, especially as practiced by Hunter Thompson, was a crusading combativeness. It was obvious that Thompson hated Richard Nixon when he covered the 1972 presidential campaign, but that hatred was Thompson's stated purpose for covering the campaign in the first place. Despite outrage from many at the implied gall of comparing themselves to Thompson or other New Journalism legends, none of the NGJ writers we spoke with claimed any such vanity.

And the movement certainly hasn't found its President Nixon. GameSpot made repeated inquiries to Electronic Arts, Midway Games, Lionhead Studios, and other publishers and developers, and not one was familiar enough with NGJ to make a comment.

Even LucasArts, whose Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast has been featured the most prominently via "Bow, Ni**er" had no idea what we were talking about when we asked them about it (it also seemed its PR staff had difficulty even considering the issue given the title of the article). So while New Games Journalism has made an impact online and in print, it has yet to gain the attention of the games industry-at-large.

As the person who coined the term, Kieron Gillen has become New Games Journalism's de facto spokesman. At the end of March 2005 he checked back in on the movement's development with a post to his blog entitled "The New Games Journalism: Year One. Or How Not to Herd Cats. In it he winkingly acknowledges the critics while also making it clear that he's more interested in getting people to read than he is establishing a doctrine. It's a sentiment he echoes in our e-mail exchange: "I know the definition has altered in the public debate, but a dichotomy where we have things grouped together on mere quality doesn't really serve anyone. In fact, I think a tendency to legitimize one form of 'interesting' writing on games would actually REDUCE the amount of interesting writing. If everyone's copying any one thing, by definition there's less."

Whatever the merit of charges about pretentiousness or lack of discipline, it's hard to find fault with the New Games Journalists' desire to encourage different, more interesting writing about games. The current practitioners are certainly not the first to stray from typical games review style. The Village Voice's 1993 "A Rape in Cyberspace" by Julian Dibble, Chet Faliszek's, and GameSpot's own Erik Wolpaw's long-abandoned Old Man Murray Web site are frequently referenced progenitors.

It's also noteworthy that in both of his lengthy blog posts on the topic, Gillen doesn't establish a specific list of guidelines for writing in the style of New Games Journalism. "At the core, what I was writing about is the idea of anecdotal games journalism. You telling your mate down at the pub something funny that happened? That's as NGJ as it gets."

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