Why Games Writing is Important
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
This whole Lost Humanity 18 debacle of the last few days was thoroughly depressing all around. Much has been written already, and much of it I feel I have no place to comment on. But the one thing I do feel I can write about—indeed, felt compelled to write about—is the utterly disgraceful notion among some that the entire disaster, that Mr. Florence losing his job and Ms. Wainwright being hounded, was “pointless” because it’s “just games ‘journalism’” and it’s “just games”.
Let’s first talk about the anachronistic bullshit (please excuse the language, but I feel it is warranted) that it’s “just games”. I’ve frequently used this blog in the past to discuss the importance of games—heck, it seems that’s all I ever blather on about—so I’ll try to keep it brief this time.
Games are a medium, and the purpose of a medium is to transfer ideas and experiences from one person to another—to create new ones where none existed. There are few things as important as ideas and their communication—you can count them on one hand. These ideas and experiences can be trivial or momentous, but none can dispute that a powerful one is a force of lasting societal change.
The actively experiential nature of games, then, means that the ideas contained in them frequently become a part of ourselves, a part of our very conception and perception of ourselves and our sense of identity, even if we don’t fully grasp the change at the time of experiencing it.
Even a game like Hotline Miami, which “traditionalists” (that is, those who dismiss games because they attempt to evaluate content without understanding its personally experienced expression) would say has nothing to say, can change us by allowing us to overcome seemingly impossible difficulties through precise planning and execution—through learning and ourselves alone.
It reveals to us the limits of our capacities, and in doing so, causes us to obtain a better understanding of exactly who we are, to produce a more accurate self-assessment and a more present self-awareness, thus pushing us towards greater meta-cognition. And striking the exact balance between resistance and agency that allows us to transcend what we had perceived to be our own limits—that, to me, is high art of the most difficult and worthwhile order.
(And that’s not even mentioning the development of emotional control, situational awareness, teamwork skills, ability to deal with loss, ability to quickly and accurately prioritize what is and isn’t important, ability to discard and emotionally detach from the less important, etc. etc. etc. etc. that games facilitate.)
That said, let’s put aside the importance of games themselves and consider something less debatable. The last time I checked, the games industry was a multibillion dollar one, which is to say that countless lives and livelihoods are directly involved. The nature of this industry means that a developer, and the lives it represents, can be built or destroyed by a single game, and games can be built or destroyed by what is written (or not written) about them. That alone says much about the significance of games writing.
I wrote in my last post how player trust of publishers, and by extension the games they publish, has been decimated by the aggressive push towards “servicing” and monetizing all game content. I also wrote how the inability to trust the games we play leads to the inability to appreciate our experiences in them, regardless of their actual merits, by causing us to question the impact of our efforts and the usage of our time.
The same can be said about games journalism and games writing. The value and service of games writing is that it exposes us to games and experiences we might never have heard of without it. And in reading and sharing another’s experiences, we might be encouraged to form our own, and we’re all the richer for it. All one has to do is look at DayZ, or indeed Mr. Florence’s Cardboard Children column, where confessions about how a commenter would never have even touched board games were it not for his writing are a regular thing, to understand the effect of games writing.
And the related consequence is this: Mr. Florence is absolutely correct when he says that just the perception of bias is as damaging as if it actually existed. As I linked in that last post, even those opinions we vehemently oppose are more willingly received when presented by someone we trust. By the same psychology, those opinions we would otherwise probably agree with become difficult to swallow when it comes from someone we don’t trust. If we stop trusting the experiences of others because they seem fraudulent, if we stop seeking out new discoveries because they come from someone we doubt, our own depth of experiences will become all the poorer.
In a way, then, the PR machine as it appears to be operating is defeating its own purpose. The cozier monied interests seem with reportage, the less we believe that very reportage, the less relevance what is written in that reportage becomes. It’s a mug’s game of diminishing returns.
Look, the people in the PR and marketing industry are people too. They, too, are doing their jobs and earning a living. But one has to wonder whether the conventional approach of that industry is killing its own goose. I know I stopped giving any traffic to Gamespot after the Gerstmann mess, and now I am wondering the same thing about a number of publications I regularly visit—precisely as Mr. Florence wrote. And what use is a publicity arm (as indeed that is what the goal of PR seems to be with regards to games journalism) which no one pays attention to? (Of course, plenty of people still visit Gamespot, so perhaps it’s just a depressingly calculated loss.)
But that’s beside the point. The point here is that games writing enriches us. Not only does it present us with new experiences, but the mechanism of doing so is frequently a conscious and active assessment of the writer’s own thoughts during gameplay. In reading these, we come to analyze our thoughts as well—that is, games writing, too, causes thinking about thinking, or meta-cognition, which I mention repeatedly as it is arguably the most important activity the mind exercises towards psychological maturity and sapience and intelligence itself.
Are all games important? No. Is all games writing meaningful? No. But to dismiss the catastrophe of the past week because of this crap conceit that games don’t matter—I’m sorry, but that makes me genuinely upset. It mocks the people involved, the work that they do, and games in general, and it’s something that simply does not stand up to close examination.