Games don’t see much coverage in the mainstream press. Most newspapers and magazines have at least one writer who covers videogames – either in an occasional review, or maybe in a blog – but for the most part, they don’t treat videogames with the same consistency, pleasure, or heft that they give to popular music, movies, etc. etc. etc.
This is a common gripe among gamers. But the mainstream press has also produced some of the best stories on games that you’ll ever read. When you get a serious magazine writer to take the subject seriously, you get stories like John Seabrook’s profile of Will Wright, or Elizabeth Kolbert on Ultima Online, or Tom Bissell profiling Jennifer Hale. Jonah Weiner started with just about the most inaccessible game in the world and told a compelling and sympathetic story about the guys who created it. Ian Bogost ran a terrific critique of Journey in The Atlantic. Radiolab had that incredible episode on games (nondigital but still, check it out!). And so on.
But when the folks who love games knock the mainstream media, it’s usually because of articles like Sam Anderson’s cover story in the New York Times Magazine, which talks about the latest wave of casual and mobile games in a way that’s shallow and disrespectful. Anderson makes up a new label for the genre – “stupid games” – and he slaps it on a wide swath of titles, from Angry Birds to Farmville to Tetris to chess. He makes fun of his interviewees, including the NYU Game Center’s Frank Lantz, whose job he belittles early on: “Game-studies scholars (there are such things) … “. And after spending time with game designer Zach Gage, he still lumps Gage’s work into the “stupid games” category. He also compares Gage to a character in an Ayn Rand novel for (maybe?) sounding grandiose about interface design.
Set all that aside, and it’s not a bad article. Anderson leans on personal experience instead of talking to more game designers – if Angry Birds is such a big game in the story, why not give Rovio a call? – but I understand why he keeps the focus on himself: he’s making an article that’s relatable to his audience, who find themselves spending an unexpected amount of time playing little games on their phone, and who want someone to tell them to stop. I like to think of casual $1 iOS games as the gateway to bigger and better games; someone who never thought of themselves as a gamer might start playing Angry Birds on the subway, and then they’ll move on to something better. I’m guessing Anderson feels the opposite: these things are a bad habit, and it sounds like we should break it.
When mainstream pubs criticize games, they usually argue that they’re a waste of time. Because outside of maybe killing someone, what’s worse than wasting your time on unproductive activity? I’ve never liked that argument, because when you start making fun of how people spend their leisure time, you’re on a slippery slope. How many hours in a year does a serious baseball fan spend watching games? You don’t even get to pick up a bat and play!
Still, Anderson has every right to criticize games. My big gripe about the article is that he insulted the people who shared their time with him, more or less to their faces, and that he found it easy to do because after all, this is just a story about stupid videogames. It came off as mean-spirited, discrediting, and maybe self-conscious – and it blinded me to went well in the piece. For what it’s worth, Tom Bissell, who has also played the role of “mainstream journo who explains this stuff to non-gamers,” has a much better approach: he may make fun of how much time he spends with videogames, but he’s always making fun of himself more than anyone else. He’ll laugh at himself for spending hundreds of hours on Oblivion, but I’ve never seen him make fun of Bethesda for making the game.
Anderson’s story is also the opposite of what the mainstream press can do very well: talk to the people who make games, and find out what makes them tick. In all of the stories I linked to above – from Seabrook, Bissell, etc. – a serious journalist spends time with a game creator to learn why and how they do their work. We learn about their creative process, the way they live, the tools they use, the context in which their work belongs. They tell us stories about people first, and games along the way. And they’re inquisitive, sympathetic, and in the most basic way, respectful. And this is where the press could improve and advance the games biz, instead of having a laugh and moving on.