There’s no place for you in Games Journalism. There’s no starting point, no process of career development, no yearly appraisal, no chance for a raise or a promotion. All the jobs are taken. A job may pop up occasionally. You won’t get it. The recently made redundant journalist with ten years experience – he’ll get it. So how are you going to get into an already oversubscribed field?
You are going to create your own job.
You are going to become so synonymous with your own creative style that publications will seek you out and pay you to write for them. This is how I built my career. I took my writing style and combined it with what made me unique. My first job was writing a column for Official Playstation 2 Magazine. It was about being a girl gamer and the differences and similarities between the thinking of male and female gamers. You may go ahead and snort in derision. While you’re doing that I’ll sort out my huge list of deadlines for work this week… if I can just move this big, heavy pile of cheques out of the way first. You must find your creative drive underneath the desire to play and write about games. You must look at all your experiences in life and create a distinctive style from that. It will serve you well for the entirety of your career. The secret password into the clubhouse is one of your own making.
Many highly successful journalists have built their career in gaming on being very distinctive in their style and becoming linked to certain themes and movements within the industry. Jim Rossignol is the greatest exponent of gaming ‘literature’ having written great investigative pieces like Sex, Fame and PC Baangs: How the Orient plays host to PC gaming’s strangest culture and now a book, This Gaming Life: Travels in Three Cities. Creativity in the industry is a passion for Kieron Gillen. His New Games Journalism Manifesto has become a phenomenon, bringing to light a whole new way of thinking about games writing; a bugle sounding the call to diversify. Through Gillen’s manifesto, the article Bow Nigger became the paradigm of NGJ and still stands as a great example of how Games Journalism is intrinsically different to any other creative journey. Kieron has written for a wide variety of publications including Amiga Power, PC Gamer, Eurogamer, Wired, Rock, Paper, Shotgun and The Guardian and helps me out this lesson with his insights into the industry and the creative process.
RU Kirsten: How did you get your break? In other words who gave you actual cash money first for writing about games and how did you convince them to let you?
Kieron: A DJ walked up to me in a club and asked if I wanted to write a review. The DJ was the sadly departed Paul Mellerick, then Staff Writer on Amiga Power. The club was the Swamp in Bath, but that’s irrelevant. Alas, it wasn’t some kind of now-extinct custom of grooming club-urchins into hacks.
Amiga Power circa 1995 had probably the last genuinely great letters page in existence. The Net was only starting to make its presence felt. No-one had any e-mail addresses. So masses and masses of people just wrote letter upon letter to AP, spending all that energy which would now be spent on forums or whatever. I never did more than a couple per month, but some people went totally mental (God bless Izzy Rees). Editor Cam Winstanley took a fancy to my writing, wanted someone new to do bits and pieces, and got Paul to ask me after we crossed paths clubbing. I ended up doing the occasional review and running their tips pages for the last dozen or so issues of the mag’s Byzantine period. With page rates then being actually higher than page rates now, this paid for my second year at university. And, more importantly, allowed me to write for one of my favourite magazines. As I always say, I was never really AP in a meaningful way, and always just a fanboy got lucky. In a real way, I was just playing triangle in the Beatles. On the other hand, I was playing triangle in the Beatles.
RU Kirsten: You’re someone who’s very clued in not just to what’s going on in gaming but also what’s going on in the world of journalism. Have you always had a fascination for the games press and its workings?
Kieron: Less clued in, more crazed obsessional. But yeah – since going in, it interested me. Amiga Power was probably the major guide there, because it wore so much of what it did on its sleeves. When a developer refused to send them games, they’d mention it. They, in the manner of maths classes everywhere, showed their working. It’s telling that after AP closed, Stuart Campbell and Jonathan Nash did a behind-the-scenes site, which completely devouring is still probably the best way anyone who wants an inside look at how a games mag works, can get. Outside of that, I suspect I’ve paid more attention to the actual techniques of writing about games than most. I mean, I didn’t just read Amiga Power and Your Sinclair; I picked them apart. I saw how things worked. I worked out how they engendered affection or hate. And I consciously compared games writing to other forms – I was obsessing over the Melody Maker at the same time as AP, and imported a mass of the conventions of their Music Journalism into my games writing. As much as I’m fascinated by the games press as an industry, I suspect most of my thinking is more on pure issues of craft.
Ah – all that thinking, and my grammar and spelling is still laughably remedial.
RU Kirsten: How do you feel about working in traditional games journalism, following the publication’s format and writing comprehensive criticism of a product for customers?
Kieron: Well, I like it. You’d have to hope so considering I’ve been doing it for 12 years full time, y’know? As I said earlier, my interest is mainly in talking to an audience of gamers about stuff they care about. While I’ve done bits of it, I’m not an evangelist writer who wants the world to understand this thing which drives us. At my core, if you don’t care, fundamentally, I don’t care. In terms of the specifics – as in, writing to format… well, that’s the job. As will surprise no-one, I’ve an enormous ego, but I’ve always grasped the idea that you’re being paid to fulfill a job. If the commission demands writing in a certain style, format or whatever, I write to the format. To do otherwise is unprofessional. I mean, I’ve gravitated towards certain sorts of venues – the long-form essay review which takes a primarily holistic rather than reductionist approach – but I’ve done pretty much everything. Mixing things up keeps it interesting. I get bored easily.
RU Kirsten: You’ve become synonymous with New Games Journalism having coined the term for the writing style of telling a subjective story about playing a particular game. Tells us what appealed to you about this kind of writing when you first brought it to the attention of the industry and gamers?
Kieron: Well, I was probably a little mental. It was… well, writing that essay, I had a pretty specific purpose in mind. Post Bow Nigger, I knew that certain magazines wanted to publish more of this anecdote sort of material. I wanted to encourage people to write it. I mean, this stuff wasn’t new and was talked about intensely in games journalist gatherings… but most people aren’t in those gatherings. I wanted people up to speed. I mean – Christ! – there’s a mass who assume the only two things you can write about games are a review and a preview. Oh – and maybe a snarky Top 10 list feature. I wanted to highlight another, underutilised and possibly fruitful approach. I mentioned craft earlier. It was me saying “Here’s another tool in the box. You can use it. People want to pay you for it. Get to it”.
I mean, I talked earlier about thinking of craft. I’m not unique there. Where I differ from most is that I try and be a little more transparent, get it out there and try and provoke other people to think about it – because fuck knows, I don’t have all the answers. It’s all a work in progress.
RU Kirsten: Do you think New Games Journalism has evolved since you originally published your NGJ Manifesto in 2004? Has the rise of community sites like Ready Up affected how this anecdotal form of writing has developed?
Kieron: It became a rampant golem, running out of control and stomping anyone who came near it into a bloody smear.
It really moved in two ways. The name – and I stress, it wasn’t me who called it a manifesto – became applied to any form of non-traditional games writing. NGJ was meant to be about experiences of the game, not personal experiences generally, but it didn’t stop anyone who wrote about how Princess Peach’s Diabetic Death reminded them of an Ex being labeled NGJ.
But NGJ – in terms of what I actually talked about – percolated quietly. As you note, community sites embrace the techniques – the after-action reports, the let’s-play threads, sharing anecdotes in games – without knowing the theory (which is absolutely as it should be). Websites do the articles. A good chunk of Rock, Paper Shotgun’s most popular pieces – both in terms of hits and audience reaction – are NGJ, but we’d never mention that three-letter acronym (“Don’t mention the war”, as we like to say). Which really is exactly how it should be. Audiences shouldn’t judge techniques in theory. They should just read pieces they like.
That was the thing. I wrote the NGJ essay to peers and would-be peers. That it got as big as it did totally wasn’t my intent.
RU Kirsten: New Games Journalism has many fans amongst gamers and up and coming journalists but there’s a lot of more traditional journalists, like myself, who get rankled by it sometimes, seeing it as unprofessional or pretentious. As someone who works across both schools of writing is it a comfortable position to be in or do you find it difficult to reconcile the disciplines?
Kieron: It’s just a case of different tools for different jobs. An anecdote is good for certain things and a terrible waste of words for others. I was quite explicit that a mass of shit will be written by people trying to do it. To do as an article rather than just casual anecdote is a little trickier than it looks. I mean, if you don’t keep proper rigour – only write about actual things which either you felt or the game actually did – you’re just writing fanfic, y’know? (“My sweaty fingers slipped another magazine into my automatic” would be the latter. “I re-loaded” would be the former.)
It’s only unprofessional if you’re writing it in a place you’re not meant to. And pretentious is one of the most hateful, poisonous, small-minded, class-system-dripping words in the English language. I mean, I’m from a family of builders. Even thinking I could be a writer is intrinsically pretentious. Speaking generally, if you actually want to write anything really worthwhile, get used to being called pretentious by someone. Sometimes it’s because you fucked up. Sometimes it’s because they’re a fuck-up. You learn to relax.
RU Kirsten: What do you think the future of gaming holds for us? Do you think the games press will grow and diversify or become more uniform with time? What would you like to see happen in games journalism that we haven’t achieved as a medium so far?
Kieron: Diversify. Many of the problems in perception are to do with a single, monolithic idea of what games writing is. In fact, journalistic writing works best when it serves a specific readership. Let’s take an extreme example: Tim Rogers is divisive, to say the least. 99% of gamers loathe him. It doesn’t matter. The remaining 1% love him. 1% of all gamers is an audience. By all these separate sites exploring their own terrain, it allows more options for more gamers to find a site with writers who reflect their beliefs, self-image and interests.
In terms of where now… I think we should start have people actually doing more things with actual spines. That I think Rossignol’s the first real book by a full-time games journalist is both inspiring – that he did it – and depressing – that it took this long. Where’s the history of the British games industry? Where’s the Corner/Homicide-esque One-year-with-a-developer book? Where’s a passionate personal history of games akin to Gary Mullholand’s lovely THIS IS UNCOOL best-singles-since-punk?
The secret thing no-one mentions between all the complaining and panic: games journalism is better now than it’s ever been. There’s something for everyone, assuming they want to read – and if they don’t want to read, games journalism was never for them anyway. Even the discussions of problems is progress, because the problems have always been there. The golden age people conjure up is a lie. It’s a total lie. I wouldn’t have stayed a games journalist as long as I have if I thought we were paddling in the shallow end of history. The best is ahead. And we probably won’t realise it was the best until we’re past it.
Rejoice. Things are getting fun and you’re just in time to get on for the ride.
RU Kirsten: What are the most important things you’ve learned as a games journalist? What advice would you give wannabe journos?
Kieron: Get good. Nothing else matters.
God, I got increasingly wanky through this interview. Sorry chaps. As a note to that posturing nonsense, always remember that there’s a million ways to be “good”. It’s about finding the one that’s you. Which takes time, so get on with it. Worth stressing: if you’re good enough, you’ll be hired pretty much immediately. When I was on PCG, I hired every genuinely first-class writer who crossed my desk. Just be good. I like people making me feel obsolete.
Thank you to Kieron for his time and insights there. That’s the end of Lesson 2. In the next lesson we shall have a show and tell… of your conscience, so make sure it is clear on the day. Those who forget their conscience will have to do the lesson in their pants.