I was very excited for Brink to be released in May of 2011. I love first person shooters and am almost always disappointed in the lack of team coherency when I play multiplayer FPS games without my friends. I prefer objective-based modes to deathmatch and when no one on the team is speaking on chat or otherwise coordinating there's no teamwork, and that's no fun. The AI Squad Commander in Brink was a way to keep teams on task without requiring any direct communication between them. My Brink feature for Gamasutra was about the narrative design I found interesting as a writer, but the Squad Commander is what I really looked forward to as a player.
I talked up the game to friends and convinced a bunch of them to jump into Brink on day one. We arranged to meet in an Xbox Live party chat, spun the discs up...and the game didn't work. Getting into a server together was sometimes impossible, and when we did get into a match together we often found ourselves fighting bots on the other team rather than human players. Incensed after a few days of this most of my friends turned the game in to GameStop and that was the end of Brink as far as playing with my friends was concerned.
Luckily the Squad Commander worked as advertised, because I stuck with the game for a while and once the server issues settled down Brink was a hell of a lot of fun to play. The game itself was solid. It wasn't bad design that chased my friends away, it was the horrible server issues at the beginning. And this is the lens through which I am looking at Polygon's reviews policy. I think I understand what they're trying to do here. Russ Pitts gave the game a 9.5 based on its design, and maybe that's a fair score. I haven't played SimCity (and now am not likely to as I'll probably be knee-deep in a half dozen other games before SimCity is fixed) but a game is more than design as Joystiq's Alexander Sliwinski so brilliantly argued in this editorial.
Games are increasingly becoming services and inasmuch as reviews are used by the audience to inform purchases it's difficult in my mind to justify separating the game from the service, though I remember Brink and wishing my friends could have done just that. Game reviewers aren't our gaming buddies, however.
When it was revealed that Vice President Biden was meeting with representatives of the video game industry along with other parties like representatives of the film industry and the National Rifle Association about what America can do to curb gun violence, Gamasutra Editor-in-Chief Kris Graft penned an editorial about why the video game industry should not have met with Biden, and IGN Editor-in-Chief Casey Lynch penned a rebuttal which argued why the video game industry should have met with Biden. Graft's position can be boiled down to the idea that responding to an illegitimate charge - that video games have anything whatsoever to do with inspiring real life violence such the school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut which prompted Biden's meetings - lends legitimacy to those charges, and Lynch's argument comes down to the argument that if Biden wanted input from the video game industry it was important for the video game industry to represent itself versus allowing someone else to have that conversation with Biden.
I fall on Graft's side of the debate not because I think attending that meeting lent credence to the charge that video games have anything to do with these sorts of school shootings - and if you want to read about what I think these school shootings are about you can read my editorial published on Kotaku today - but because I debate the value of trying to explain what video games are nowadays to Vice President Biden, or anyone else who doesn't actually play them.
Today is World Mental Health Day. I wouldn't know this if not for a tweet I saw from a game journalist linking to a blog post they wrote last year about suffering from depression. World Mental Health Day is about spreading awareness of mental illness. I ought to know when this day falls every year because I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 1999 and had been suffering from it for almost a decade before finally seeking help.
There were two reasons why I never sought help. First I didn't understand what was going on, and later when I had an idea that something was wrong I was afraid to do anything about it.
Over a few pieces at Unwinnable I've slowly been working into writing about this, stating that I had a mood disorder, having been severely ill in the past, and citing my issues with drug addiction that arose around trying to self-medicate my condition - a common enough state of affairs that there's actually a formal, medical diagnosis for it - but other than these few references to the past I've avoided ever talking about having a mood disorder, or being bipolar. The precise, medical definition of my condition changes with each new edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM, but I've been afraid to mention my mental illness by whatever name because I've been afraid that doing so would come back to haunt me. The reason we need World Mental Health Day, and why people like me who are capable of effectively communicating the experience of being mentally ill need to speak up, is because these illnesses are still stigmatized.
I remember the first time I ever told anyone I was going to therapy. I was in seventh grade and mentioned it to a friend of mine while we were walking with three other people to class. He looked at me like I was an alien and am pretty sure he told me to get away from him. That was the last time I ever tried talking about going to therapy to anyone other than the closest of friends until, well, until right now, actually. It wasn't until 1999, after a failed year of graduate school that I could lay on being high pretty much every day, and a year of working at a brokerage house in-between transferring to another graduate school rather than sucking up to mistakes and thus wasting an insane amount of federal student loan money as only three credits transferred over from an entire year's worth of work, that I finally decided to deal with this issue because quite frankly I was tired of feeling like I wanted to kill myself on a regular basis because I was so depressed, so distraught, and so utterly devoid of hope.
I published something on Stu Horvath's gaming and geek culture blog Unwinnable last week. They do themed weeks over there and the themes have been resonating with me, and I really like Stu and his crew so I participate whenever I can. I don't get paid for any of it, but I think the stuff I've been contributing to Unwinnable is some of the better content I've been writing lately. And I think there's a connection between the lack of remuneration and the nature of the work. My reasons for writing on Unwinnable are different than when I take professional assignments elsewhere.
Part of it has to do with how I perceive Unwinnable. It's a place where I can take some risks I can't take elsewhere. Unwinnable is much more a potpourri of different perspectives and lenses, whereas when I write for commercial sites they have established voices at the outlet level and part of a freelancer's job is to learn how to write to that voice. The fact that I'm writing for free does seem to matter, though. I'm writing this stuff purely because I want to share something with an audience, not to try and further my career or make new inroads at a new outlet, and I suppose that's why anyone ought to be writing.
If one wants to make a living at this, though, they're going to have to take gigs that have nothing to do with self-expression or the craft of the writing, or have less to do with either due to the nature of the assignment, and those pieces are inevitably, I think, going to be of lesser quality. I've seen this in my own writing, I've heard my wife saying as much as she moved from blogging to full-time writing and editing, and I've seen it happen to numerous people who have moved into paid positions on game journalism outlets. That isn't offered as a revelation or anything, but it isn't something I really thought about until recently, and realized how often I've seen it happen.
There are days when in order to maintain my sanity I have to remind myself of the division between video game journalism and the actual world of video games. Otherwise I can get so wrapped up in my desire to make it in this business that I completely lose perspective. I was given a healthy reminder of this on Tuesday when I had lunch with a buddy of mine who I play games with on Xbox Live most days of the week, a friend I used to work with but who, since he moved to New Hampshire many years ago, I hadn’t seen in the flesh since.
I was telling him about the “Screw Your Criticism, I Want A Review!” panel I’m moderating at PAX Prime this year. The panelist list has changed somewhat – Jim Sterling can no longer make it, but Arthur Gies of Polygon and Jeff Gerstmann of Giant Bomb will be joining us. I’m pretty stoked about it because I think it’s going to be good fun with Kyle Orland and Kirk Hamilton still on the panel as well.
My friend had no idea who the fuck any of those people are. I was shocked that he didn’t even recognize the name of Jeff Gerstmann after the Kane & Lynch firing, an event so widely discussed online that it solidified Gerstmann as one of the most recognizable names in this industry. Yeah, no, my friend had no idea who he was. I don’t think my friend had ever heard of Polygon, either. He knows what Kotaku is but after a few reads decided he fucking hated it and I don't think he's ever gone back, and if he knows Ars Technica it’s probably because I’ve linked him to stuff I’ve written over there.
My friends and all of their friends on Xbox Live are the grown-up portion of the core video game audience. They're almost all married with kids, in their mid-30's, and precisely the kind of audience that the new, grown up video game journalism outlets are aiming for. And most every member of the grown-up core video game audience I know has no fucking idea who anyone in the video game journalism industry is and hardly recognizes the name of any video game journalism outlets save the giants like IGN and GameSpot.
Hell, most of them don’t know who Cliff Bleszinksi is. If you’re reading my blog you’re probably a member of my small audience or were otherwise directed here by someone else who reads video game journalism and the idea of not recognizing Bleszinksi's name is probably insane, right? How the fuck do you not know who Cliff Bleszinksi is? Or Ken Levine? I don’t mean to put those two on a pedestal but as far as recognizable names in game development go I think those two are at the top of the list for all their willingness to speak to the press and being real characters.
My friend from New Hampshire and all our friends from Xbox Live don’t know who Bleszinksi and Levine are and furthermore they don’t give a flying fuck when I try to tell them. And that goes for my friends at the tabletop wargaming club, many of whom are video game addicts as well. They don’t know and they don’t care. And that goes for friends of mine at work who are hardcore gamers ready to talk the endless minutiae of games all day. They don’t know Newell and Molyneux, Miyamoto and Kojima, Wright and Spector or any of the myriad names I would personally consider it insane not to know as someone who plays video games…but then I remember that my knowing these names has absolutely nothing to do with being one of the most devoted people to video games in almost any circle I’m a part of.
It has everything to do with the fact that I’m a video game journalist, which has fuck-all to do with being a gamer, and realizing that makes it a little easier to deal with the stress of trying to break further into the industry and the inevitable drama one has to bear witness to along the way.