Off the Grid with Walker Spaight: A Bow to the New Games Journalism

by Alphaville Herald on 13/03/05 at 9:28 pm

The New Games Journalism takes a swipe at the Resistance
Image stolen from LucasArts

Of course it’s the pot that calls the virtual kettle black. Or should I say, calls it “nigger”?

In this case, it’s the small chorus of voices emerging from the blogosphere to denigrate what’s come to be known as New Games Journalism, of which the seminal example is Ian always_black Shanahan’s “Bow, Nigger,” an account of a disturbing few moments in Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast.

“Bow, Nigger” relates not just the gameplay details and shared culture of a brief lightsabre duel between two Jedi knights, it also gives us a glimpse into the person behind always_black’s screen name, as he is told by his opponent to “bow, nigger” — an imperative that should give pause to gamers everywhere, regardless of their ethnicity (and Shanahan’s is unknown to me).

After giving us some of JKII’s ins and outs in the early stages of the battle (including his discomfort at the rude form of address), always_black pinpoints the moment on which the encounter turns:

We spun around each other, bouncing off the furniture of the map. My concentration was absolutely intense and never before have I tried so hard to 'be the mouse'. . . . You see what this has become? It's not just a trivial game to be played in an idle moment, this is a genuine battle of good versus evil. It has nothing to do with Star Wars or Jedi Knights or any of the fluff that surrounds the game's mechanics. . . . This is real, in the sense that there's no telling who's going to win out here. There's no script or plot to determine the eventual triumph of the good guy (that's me, five health), there's no 'natural order' of a fictional universe or any question of an apocryphal ultimate 'balance'. There's just me and him, light and dark, in a genuine contest between the two.

And we know, of course, which side wins in the end.

By giving us more than just cheats, hacks, favorite features and level secrets, “Bow, Nigger” demonstrates something that most of us already know but rarely acknowledge: that games are more than just diversion; that, like the best movies, what the best games do is not just entertain us but give us a glimpse into the nature of our selves.

Apparently, that’s too much for some people.

Though Kieron Gillen’s New Games Journalism manifesto appeared just under a year ago now, it’s only more recently, with the posting of the Guardian’s list of unmissable NGJ pieces, that dissenting voices have emerged.

Primary among these has been UK Resistance, which managed to come up with their own seven-point manifesto (though I only really count three) on New Games Journalism and “why it’s shit.” Video Game Ombudsman Kyle Orland doesn’t really agree, but hardly rises to the form’s defense. (The UK Resistance piece is pretty funny, as Orland points out.) Surprisingly, Clickable Culture’s Tony Walsh (aka Second Life’s Zero Grace), of whom we at the Herald are big fans, tips his hat to the Resistance as well for “deflating self-importance” and “debunking” the NGJ “concept.”

But what’s more self-important: Handing out your opinion as pixelated gospel in the form of a blog, or crafting a well wrought narrative that leaves readers to judge for themselves? Shared experience is what connects people; blind devotion to opinion is what divides.

And let’s be clear: It’s people we’re talking about here. It’s people who play these games, after all. When always_black gets lured unsuspecting into the clutches of a Thereian seductress in his piece “Possessing Barbie” (originally published in the UK edition of PC Gamer, which has been at the forefront of actually publishing and paying for NGJ), there’s a human being on the other end of those seating hacks and naughty poses. Shanahan doesn’t miss this fact:

In the hallowed halls of my Inner Court of Morals all fucking hell broke loose. My perception cracked neatly into three separate and mutually exclusive shards. In one, I was engaged in a consensual act of intimacy with a woman I'd only just met and hardly knew. I was alone with this woman in her bedroom while she stripped for seduction. The verdict was announced with the hollow boom of a giant gavel. Guilty!

In the second, my advocate jumped to his feet bawling 'Objection!’ frantically quoting legal technicalities. "It's not real!" he yelled, "It's only a game!”

In the third, in the real world, my ears pricked straight into raw, primitive survival mode, straining for the ominous tread of my girlfriend’s foot on the stairs.

Playing a game like There or Second Life is more than just learning the right combination of mouse moves and keyboard clicks. The same goes for games like Counter-Strike or JKII. We wouldn’t play them if that’s all they were. Sure, you may look like a muscle-bound stud cruising the clubs in Second Life, but at home in front of your keyboard, you’re a person -- even if you are a muscle-bound stud -- subject to all the whims and insecurities and over-confident moments and instances of true brilliance the rest of us experience, and you’re affected by what you get up to in these virtual places. Though you may prefer to think otherwise, what you do in the corridors of Halo 2 -- even the fact that you’re there at all -- is part of who you are.

This is not a piece about whether violence and prejudice in games begets violence and prejudice in RL. It’s a piece about what it’s like to be a gamer or even just to play a game, and about those who write about what that’s like. There’s nothing wrong with a little entertaining diversion. But a game is more than just the sum of its software; there’s a human being on the other end. At their best, computer games are a form of experiential art, and like the best of other forms of art -- movies, novels, paintings, even television shows -- they can touch our souls. They do this rarely, it’s true. But when they do, I, for one, want to hear about it.

I want to hear about it as much as I can. I want everyone to hear about it, because I want to see the feedback loop happen that could help boost more games toward the level of soul-touching art. Sure, there are the 15,000-word thumb-suckers that not even I would dare to touch. But that comes with the terroritory of any new form. If all we’re writing about is the relative merits of bells and whistles, well then, bells and whistles is all we’re ever gonna get.

But if we’re also writing about the way even JKII can get into your head, well, that’s a different story. The New Games Journalism can help drive games to do what the best books and movies and “art” already do: stimulate our thinking about ourselves and who we are. So don’t knock the NGJ. Read it. Think about it. Practice it yourself. And in so doing, help connect what’s on and Off the Grid.

One Response to “Off the Grid with Walker Spaight: A Bow to the New Games Journalism”

  1. Tony Walsh

    Mar 17th, 2005

    Hey Walker, great article. I am not unilaterally against NGJ, and am in fact an appreciator of always_black’s writing. In my brief Clickable Culture post, I suggested that high-falutin’ wankers be deposed. I stand by this, but I don’t see all NGJ as wankish. I am mindful of its potential to foster wankerism, however.

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