Five Lessons in Games Journalism: Lesson One – Worship the Pen(n)

To understand one’s place in the world of Games Journalism, one must know a bit of its history. Consumer games journalism is almost 30 years old yet fans of the games press and those aspiring to make a career in it are often only aware of a few magazines and websites they read regularly. It’s important to have heroes, to be inspired by the greats, to have someone to look up to and say “If I could be half as good and a quarter as successful as this person I’d be happy”. Rock, Paper, Shotgun’s Gary Penn was my Lester Bangs article expounds the theory that rather than looking to the future for some revolution in games journalism, where someone will come along to show us the way forward to becoming a great literary art form, we need only look to our industry’s roots to find inspiration.

This is Gary Penn:


He’s the one giving you the thumbs up and accepting the Games Media Legend award. That’s what he is. He’s a legend. He was deciding how games reviews would be written before some of you were born. Writer and eventually Editor for magazines like Zzap!64, The One, Amiga Power and PC Format he helped paved the way for the games press. After leaving journalism he’s gone on to work for Konami, Rockstar and Denki. He worked on the Grand Theft Auto series and Crackdown. 25 years on he may no longer be bashing away at reviews but he still has the passion and vision he started out with. Tear down your posters of Megan Fox or Kings of Leon, sweep aside your Kasumi and Marcus Phoenix figurines, this guy is your new poster boy. Make a small altar to him on your bedside table, light incense and remember his wise words. He’s generously given his time and words of wisdom to our writers and readers at Ready Up, about whom he said “It’s encouraging and refreshing to see this focussed mix of experience, raw energy and different voices.”

RU Kirsten: These days a budding games journalist is expected to have plenty of writing experience under their belt before getting paid work. How did you get your first job writing about games?

Gary: I got my first job writing about games by being in the right place at the right time, with the right attitude and the right skills.

I was 18 and playing so, so many games – sometimes making my own games – but never writing about them, not even slightly. It hadn’t ever crossed my mind. But all the playing – my ability to play and the insane knowledge gained through so much play – that paid off.

I ended up runner-up in a competition to find Britain’s Best Gamer. From that I got noticed by Chris Anderson – who went on to found Future Publishing – and, after he’d put my writing to the test, I ended up as part of the pivotal launch team on a radically different games magazine called “Zzap!64.”

Chris was looking for gamers rather than writers – people who could play games and who had played games, people who knew about games – what games existed and who’d made them. But he also needed people with the means to express their knowledge and opinions.

RU Kirsten: The specialist games press is a well established industry now. What was it like back at the start? What were the aspirations of yourself and the other journalists then?

Gary: The industry in its formative years was so small, so casual, so familial. There was such a village atmosphere. Everyone seemed to know everything about everyone and everything. There’s still a sense of that but in more fragmented pockets. Now there are more and larger cliques.

All I wanted to do at the time was play games – good ones, bad ones – anything other than banal ones – and to communicate with like-minded people, to discuss, debate, deliberate, disagree; to share opinions and information. And that’s pretty much all we did. And drink and smoke.

These days I feel like I’m operating in geological time, seeing the same patterns and opinions and arguments repeat over and over. But now feels more like then more than ever before: that sense that anyone can do anything is back. More games are more like snacks or pop singles with the authors more like bands than studios, which is how it used to feel to me. Certainly that’s how I used to treat it and enjoy it. People are experimenting more than ever. There’s more scope to be different and be seen. Small is back to punch a hole in the established bloat and hopefully deflate it a little.

RU Kirsten: I don’t mean to be cynical but learning how to write reviews now for games magazines and websites is largely about following the format. You helped to create the format. How did you develop a style without the influences we have now?

Gary: I’ve only ever written what I want to read. I was certainly integral to teams pivotal in setting some influential standards – mainly with”Zzap!64″ but also less obviously but no less effectively with “The One.” But there are other standards in use and plenty of scope for more, even if they are derivative of other media.

One of many publications I’d love to read – in print or virtual – would experiment with the critical assessment of games. No two reviews would ever be the same – with and without ratings, different rating systems, different means of comparison, different perspectives, different writing styles, different presentation styles…


RU Kirsten: You moved on to become an Editor. How difficult was it to run a games magazine? How did your priorities change?

Gary: I like making things, preferably the way I want them, so in some ways the shift from writer to editor was entirely natural. I never did it that well though. My biggest mistake was trying to do everything. I didn’t realise that until I’d stopped editing and started consulting and saw other people making similar mistakes.

As an editor you need to maintain a distance and trust the people you work with – let them do what they need to do well. That means working with people you can trust – not necessarily people who think like you do because the energy created from friction can be potent – but people who complement each other and work with the same core ethics and work well as an entity. Someone needs to oversee the bigger editorial picture, just as someone needs to oversee the bigger financial picture. The two are best kept separate.

The more I edited, the more I missed the directness of writing – the immediacy of making something. There’s great satisfaction to be had making a tangible entirety, like a print magazine you can hold in your hands and feel and manipulate and smell. The drag is it can take a month to make one. The lack of sensory engagement with the Internet is a pity but there’s so much more immediacy with the use of a more organic, evolving, rolling style: always on, always active, always feeding, always being fed.

RU Kirsten: What do you think of the current games mags and sites? Are you impressed at all by any particular publications or are you horrified at the monster you’ve spawned?

Gary: I love the fact that there are so many readily accessible opinions available now, but there is a high noise to signal ratio. I don’t read much or for long. I don’t read enough that resonates with me. I hunger for written inspiration – for a writer who’s right for me. That’s probably less a failing of the current state of writing and more a reflection of just how particular my palate is these days. I want something different, direct, dangerous… I’m over-exposed to the medium and at the apex of appreciation, waiting for the reality to fulfil my dreams.

RU Kirsten: What do you think about Ready Up and community games sites in general?

Gary: I do like the focussed cross-section of opinions within the community sites. They read more like controlled forums. The energy feels more channelled.

RU Kirsten: Many aspiring journalists are excited by the honesty and creativity of the style of New Games Journalism but as a traditional journo I’m uncomfortable with the self referential and derivative nature of it. What are your thoughts on it?

Gary: “New Games Journalism” works as satire, gimmick and factual inspiration. It’s certainly not new but it’s a novelty. I like the fact of anything different but in practice it fails to engage me.

It’s founded on the notion that the writer is more interesting than what they write about, which is seldom the case. Of course, that’s pretty much what we had with “Zzap!” – the cult of personality – but our style was different, perhaps no less pretentious but somehow more… honest.

RU Kirsten: What are the most important things you learned as a games journalist? Give us your pearls of wisdom, Mr. Penn.

Gary: Just do. As honest and as often as possible. Be prepared to make mistakes but be careful. There’s no such thing as fact only opinion so be careful what you believe in. Believe in what you write. Enjoy what you do – and if you don’t, find a way – find an angle. And if you can’t, do something else instead. Be interested and be sociable. Listen more than talk. Be innocent like a reader. Know your subject. Research thoroughly. Write what you want to read. Write for yourself or someone you know well. Be objective. Treat everyone the same, whether you revere or revile them, they are all just like you. Genius isn’t infallible. Look for the bad in the good and vice versa.

This concludes lesson 1. You were asked to prepare for this lesson by bringing along pen and paper and taking notes. In lesson 2 an introverted philosophical frame of mind will be required. Bring along a goatee beard or imaginary goatee to stroke.







9 responses to “Five Lessons in Games Journalism: Lesson One – Worship the Pen(n)”

  1. Darach avatar

    *is awestruck*

  2. Celeste avatar

    I love Gary’s response to your New Games Journalism question:

    “It’s founded on the notion that the writer is more interesting than what they write about, which is seldom the case. Of course, that’s pretty much what we had with “Zzap!” – the cult of personality – but our style was different, perhaps no less pretentious but somehow more… honest.”

    It is so the cult of personality. I actually find instances of NGJ interesting to read, but they are really more authored works than journalism, at least in its traditional sense, and could never survive in games journalism without the existence of the latter.

    That’s as in-depth a response as I am able to give right now I’m afraid because I have to go work on that goatee…

  3. Del Torro El Sorrow avatar

    I was always really partial to Greg Kasavin while he still worked for Gamespot.

  4. Lorna avatar

    I enjoyed the slightly irreverant style and even cocky rebellion of the early games mags. I remember Sinclair User throwing a shit-fit at some spoof Crash did and had an injunction issued against them.

    I miss those more maverick days – everything seems more clinical and corporate now, part of a large machine (at least when flicking through Edge, anyway)…bloody hell, listen to me…may as well break out the Worthers Originals now.

    Great piece Kirsten, one for the bookmark.

  5. Michael avatar

    I have the mindset for lesson 2 but not the goatee… :

    I’d love to know what he means by “Be innocent like a reader”.

  6. Kirsten avatar

    it’s ok, you’re goatee can be internal. Michael.

    As for being innocent, I think journalists can become very jaded and end up looking for the angle or looking to fit the trend of scores for a game or genre. The average games mag reader buys something like four issues a year and just wants to be told if game x will be fun to play and if it’s worth £50. You should be able to answer that honestly as a journalist without any other motive than to pass on accurate and considered information.

  7. The Rook avatar
    The Rook

    Sorry Miss, I had my pen and paper ready last time but as time went by… my dog ate them.

    And is it wrong that I don’t know Gary Penn? Read Zzap!64 back in the day and have many issues in the roof space, I wonder if I have any with Gary’s work.

    And as to the question about Ready Up and community games sites, with the response ” They read more like controlled forums” – he’s obviously not read our forums, such derailment. 😀

    The main point I take from today’s blog doesn’t come from blog itself, but the last two lines from Kirsten’s last comment .

    Don’t tell me your life story, don’t waffle about the game just for filler, tell me plain and simply is this a good game and would it be money well spent.

  8. Kirsten avatar

    Rook says: And is it wrong that I don’t know Gary Penn? Read Zzap!64 back in the day and have many issues in the roof space, I wonder if I have any with Gary’s work.

    Yes and yes, you do.

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