Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Singling-Out, Simplifying, and Why They're Both Stupid

Note: I wrote this back in October for a potential e-book by another games journalist, Nathan Hardisty. The e-book no longer requires my segment, so I'm no longer withholding it.

"Bishop G, they told me I should come down cousin, but I flatly refuse I ain't dumb down nothing."
- Lupe Fiasco, (Dumb it Down)

I'm not the kind of person to define games as art. I am however, an ardent believer of video-games as an incredible entertainment medium – one that will one day soon outstrip other media in unadulterated joy and satisfaction deliverance. And yet, there is a clear and ever-present divide between people who play and enjoy games, and those who don't (or maybe have never even considered them). This kind of salient split doesn't occur for music or films and there are people who profess to not being readers; but I don't think that's an issue of books not being advertised as valid entertainment.

A possible explanation as to why public interest in games is fragmented would be how they're discussed. This shouldn't be especially surprising, but for niche interests and hobbies - in a mixture of creating an easy shorthand for discussion and to create an identifiable group of individuals 'in the know' - terminology is invented.

This is incredibly prevalent when considering video-games, and doubly-prevalent when discussing nerd culture as an entity. To people who regularly play and discuss video-games (and I'm going to assume here that you, the reader is one of them), "RPG", "Kill:Death Ratio", "DPS", and "Metroidvania" all have an easily understood meaning and context, which appear in all forms of writing about video-games; from blog posts, to Instant Messages, to published reviews. But consider, for a moment, individuals who are not part of a community that understand such terminology.

It's not as if other entertainment mediums don't have their own jargon – my understanding of musical theory is limited, along with my knowledge of the technical side to music production. While I am entirely capable of discussing why I enjoy Portishead or what I thought of an Erykah Badu concert, if I was to read about legatos or impedance in an enthusiasts' magazine or was talked at by someone who did have that knowledge; I know I'd be utterly lost and somewhat turned off - especially if the terminology went unexplained.

Games journalism already has an audience (a large and lucrative one, at that), but I feel it could do better at appealing to those who don't already know how much fun video-games can be. Ignoring, or worse, ostracising that group is something that will keep the public opinion of games as entertainment (or more than entertainment) stunted even if the industry itself keeps growing.

While the gaming/non-gaming audiences are separated to a degree (in practice, people obviously don't fall into such stark dichotomies), methods for catering to these audiences - and why it's important – is a lengthy topic and not one I can claim actual authority over. This piece is essentially a summary of the effect of jargon in games writing, how a few existing publications have handled the topic, and a few of my own experiences.

The prevalence of jargon when talking about video-games serves a potentially necessary use of shorthand. Like abbreviations in general, they're used to get a point across to save time and effort. When actually playing video-games, speedy communication is vital – when playing a game like World of Warcraft, spending the time to type out “I've run out of mana” is frivolous when “OOM” will get the point across. But in literature, such time constraints aren't present, in neither writing nor reading. What jargon does instead is re-enforce what is called in linguistics as a Community of Practice.

Communities of Practice (CoPs) are groups of people who are connected by a common interest, regardless of where the individuals are socially or geographically. If this made you think of message boards, Facebook 'Like' pages, and university societies, you're on the right track. Naturally, these CoPs have a structure and a rough hierarchy – the society chairperson, the message board founder, or even long-standing members will hold 'Core' positions within a CoP; and that gives them power – linguistic power.

People at the Core of a community can have their ways of speaking (essentially their use of slang and jargon) filter outwards to the less involved - Peripheral – members, because it re-enforces a sense of belonging. The individuals know they're part of a community because they can use and understand language in a similar fashion. Apply that to video-game jargon, and the result is exactly that, and on multiple levels. The terms gamers know identify them as:
  • A gamer.
  • A fan of a specific genre (If you know what 'OTG' means*, you're a serious Fighting game fan, etc.).
  • Even not a fan of a specific gaming group.
The concept that I'm getting at here is that jargon has the effect of saying “I'm talking to people of a specific group – if you're not part of that group, then too bad”; something that can be consciously or subconsciously enforced. The power of that in writing is like putting a barbed wire fence around your work. Not everyone has the means to process what's discussed – not because they're stupid, but because it's being obfuscated - it's not as if they don't understand video-games, or don't want to be entertained and I feel that's a misconception a lot of people subscribe to.

In addition, games journalism is something pretty close to being part of the Core for gaming's Community of Practice. Games writing is filled with (mostly) talented, (mostly) knowledgeable writers, and their opinion is valued by the gaming community. There are issues with review scores and 'churnalism' (disguising advertisement as journalism) marring that but I won't divulge into that here. How journalists talk about games and try to appeal to an audience is taken on by the readership, and consequently reflected in how they talk about games themselves. If part of that method is using jargon to isolate an audience then there's a problem.

So how do publications talk about games? As entertainment mediums grow more popular and accessible, more people become interested in discussing them, both in publications and to each other. Whether the publication (or speaker) is specifically devoted to that type of entertainment is mattering less. At the time of writing, recent news about a high-definition re-release of PS2 titles Ico and Shadow of the Colossus appeared not only on dedicated gaming blogs and magazines, but also in widely-read newspapers like the Guardian, and lifestyle magazines that have only a fraction of technological interest, such as GT.

While these pieces all cover the same topic; the approach is obviously different - when not aimed at gaming enthusiasts, the amount of information imparted can be a hell of a lot lighter, and simplified. This in turn makes the enthusiasts scoff, as if they are discussing video-games incorrectly. This has varying levels of truth. Going back to the examples of the Guardian and GT writing about Ico & Shadow of the Colossus Collection, the Guardian does a good job in focusing on talking about the game's stylistic merit – something the readership can appreciate:

"Two videogame legends arrive in new HD versions on the same disc. Ico tells the story of an outcast boy and the lost girl he befriends in a vast castle. Almost without words and featuring nothing as crude as scores or on-screen instructions, you're left with the interplay of light and shade and the lugubrious howl of the wind as you tackle its beautifully designed puzzles and intruding smoke monsters. Shadow Of The Colossus, meanwhile, has you stalking, clambering on to and killing a series of giant, silent colossi in order to win back the soul of your dead girlfriend; their eventual deaths providing bittersweet moments of victory tinged with sadness. Both are remarkable and singular experiences." [1]

Do note that this is the review published within the newspaper, limited in length, and forced to share space with other releases of the week. The Guardian website itself has a far more in-depth look at the game – they're fortunate enough to have the scope to be able to appeal to both types of reader needs. The GT article is different in its approach:

"Two of the best games ever made (and among the few to be deservedly regarded as art) these Playstation 2 classics have been spruced up with silky smooth HD graphics (yay!) a 3D mode (woo!) and trophy support (meh). Released back in 2001, ICO is an ethereally beautiful puzzler in which you lead a ghostly girl through an endless castle. ICO's 2005 sequel Shadow of the Colossus, ups the action – you must battle a series of roaming giants – but the bleak landscape and haunting score gives it a unique, melancholy feel. If you haven't played 'em, you're in for a treat." [2]

The length and information given of the two are similar, but GT's attempt has that creeping feeling of pandering and dumbing down. Unlike the previous quote, this one isn't part of a set of games articles, but a cornered footnote in a round-up of general media. There's no in-depth version online either.

It could be argued that comparing a globally recognised broadsheet to a monthly magazine aimed specifically at LGBT Londoners is incredibly unfair; but neither of them are solely dedicated to media/entertainment. They both have longer and more detailed sections for other media and if anyone claims that gay people would be categorically less interested in video-games (or need to have discussion about games and technology simplified), I will be more than happy to punch them in the face.

If games are to grow (and to be taken more seriously), these attempts at writing for outside the gaming community are very much important – even if the level of detail isn't as in-depth as some (or at least I) would like. There is, however, a problem in how much space in publications that video-games get compared to other entertainment media. It's all too common to have the entertainment section in a newspaper have a double-spread on the latest album releases, and only a fifth of a page about what video-games were released that week; which goes some way to explain the lack of detail.

It's a very telling reflection on what the UK press (I can't really speak for the world at large) thinks of video-games as something that may draw public interest. Maybe they're fully aware that there are dedicated gaming magazines out there and think it's a market not worth giving much notice - but the best way to get people interested and excited about something new is to make sure it's within their notice and is presented as something they can easily participate in. Dedicated magazines don’t fill the gap as such because it conflicts with their target market - EDGE's in-depth (and sometimes pretentious) discussions about the state of the industry and the finer points of game design would make a layman run for the hills - or fall asleep. As said before, I wouldn't blame them.

Conversely, in the simplified games reviews of the newspaper; you're not going to see discussion about the kind of quality of animation, music, or voice acting used; nor are you as likely to read about how the game made the reviewer feel, the raw emotions that a reader could relate to (again, I'm glad that the Guardian can be an exception to this) and I find that incredibly backwards in terms of getting people interested. Those who might not know much will perceive the games as basic or childish, and others will feel like they're being talked down to. This kind of scenario is total bullshit and while keeping two different audiences pleased is not immediately straightforward, it's a far cry from being impossible.

Attempting to write for two audiences is something that I've experienced first-hand. My journalistic experience started with writing for my university paper; and naturally I was writing about games. Games was only a single page in the arts section, no competition to the 4-page spread the music section had, so space was limited. The readership being uni students across a wide range of interests, my goal wasn't to write for enthusiasts exclusively, but to draw in the interest of newcomers. The problems lay in creating pieces that people who didn't know the jargon and the references could still understand, and the people who were well-versed wouldn't feel patronised.

Issues with jargon were solved simply by explaining acronyms used, and wasn't too difficult to summarise. Obscurity was a bigger issue. Only games of the current generation gain media exposure and are stocked in ordinary supermarkets and electronics stores (as opposed to say, DVDs, where you can get a movie from any time period on one format). As a result, unless you've been interested in games for a long time, it's very likely to have some blank spots in video-game history - even if those titles would be well known within the group of enthusiasts. This means a retrospective on anything from yesteryear (whether it's as well known as SSX Tricky or as big of an unknown as Gotcha Force) has a requirement in both generating nostalgic sighs from those who have heard of it, and enticing people who haven't heard of it to find out more.

As such, choosing a title to wax nostalgic about - but is almost impossible to get a hold of - isn't a great idea. With the age of digital distribution, obtaining old titles is now a lot easier: all current consoles offer a range of retro titles to download, and for the PC, the website Good Old Games makes sure that popular classics will function on more than just Windows '95 systems. Of course, it's not only old games that are obscure - there are many recent titles that don't make it to the EU nor the US shores, and as such, you'd be hard pressed to have many Western folk hear of them.

Talking about these games can be a little tricky; considering the main aim is to raise awareness and interest in something people might enjoy, talking in-depth about a game no one can get their hands on without the tribulations of importing doesn't sound like a very sensible idea. That said, I once wrote about the grizzly DS visual novel 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors; discussing how (when comparing it to the vast majority of video-games) its storytelling was incredibly impressive [3]. I got a couple of messages asking about how they could get the game themselves and it warmed my frosty heart.

What I found the most effective in appeasing both types of reader was going for a "And If You Like This" angle. While most games today are refined essences of a genre - learning lessons from the titles before them (at least in theory) - there's a lot of fun and experience to be gained from taking a look at the classics. It's a concept that works in other media - would the movie Source Code be as well-defined without The Matrix? - and I find it pays its dues here. While I might struggle to talk to a gaming neophyte about the arcade beat-em-up Cadillacs and Dinosaurs [4], if you lead in with the Scott Pilgrim beat-em-up spin-off; then talking about the kinds of games it was inspired by suddenly seems a lot less intimidating.

If they're really hooked, they might go on to look at other games in the genre - Streets of Rage, Final Fight - or maybe even discover the treasure trove that is arcade game emulation, at which point you've successfully given someone the gift of entertainment, the same kind of satisfaction from giving someone a book recommendation or a cool waistcoat you found in a vintage store.

I wouldn't say that I have the skill for wide-audience writing down pat – I still have a lot to learn, and journalists more practised that I would most likely find my present attempts hamfisted. That said, it's an attempt that any writer can try; paying more attention into intended audiences and considering how one's writing changes when addressing both the experienced and the new is a useful thought experiment. If anyone catches me being pandering or condescending in my writing then I give them full consent to track me down and give me a good hard kick in the shins.

* 'OTG' refers to attacks in fighting games that can hit knocked over opponents On The Ground. That this is a property so important that it needs an acronym boggles my mind.


  1. I think you are right in suggesting a problem in portrayal and perception of the gaming industry. I did note that you make no reference to the 'casual' gamers. They are not quite part of the inner circle, nor are they so far removed to be considered not of the gaming sphere. Do they fall prey to these publications also? Is it simply because of the way gaming is presented that people are turned away? Whats more, do you feel that the media fear-mongering also has a big part to play, or maybe a greater one?

  2. I suppose if you take the 'non-gamers' as people who don't play games /at all/, then the games articles written in non-special interest publications would be aimed at casual gamers. I could be more explicit about that.

    I do believe that the way the press handles the discussion of video games is one of the largest ways it gets exposure, after advertising (video game advertising has a whole heap of other problems with it...). If they're not willing to give discussion of video games the same kind of dedicated space and intelligent discussion as other media, then they're not going to attract new interest particularly easily.

    Reports of politicians saying that video games are dangerous, and bad parents neglecting their kids to play games are also pretty ruinous (though I think a little less common); but I'm hesitant to blame journalists for that.