Say what you will about IGN, they’re one of if not the biggest video game websites in the industry. That’s why they get a week-long run of exclusive GTA V preview stories, because IGN matters. They get the word out. They set trends and put asses in the seats.
Always having my ear to the ground when it comes to inside video game journalism baseball as I do, I’m hearing that a lot of outlets that matter, big outlets, do not have their review copies of Grand Theft Auto V yet. It’s been a very interesting conversation to listen in on. If Rockstar can approach huge swathes of the professional video game journalism industry and ask them to wait for review copies to be mailed out on Monday, September 16th, a day before the game is released, it mostly tells you that Rockstar is not worried about review scores at all. I can’t imagine, unless GTA V turns out to be some colossal clusterfuck of a game, that Rockstar ought to worry about review scores.
I usually don’t hear as much frustration being expressed over the lack of early review copies as I’m hearing for Grand Theft Auto V. This makes sense, as GTA V would be a huge release whenever but at the end of a console cycle, when developers are getting the most out of the current-gen hardware, and when a developer decides to thumb its nose at the upcoming next generation consoles and not release GTA V on the Xbox One or PlayStation 4 because they figure what we have is good enough and they don’t think more processing power means a better game? That’s a game you can’t wait to get your hands on as a reviewer. Video game journalists live for this shit.
Review copy distribution is an excellent measure of the economic pecking order. A painful measure of which outlets control the largest share of the marketing aspect of video game journalism. I cannot imagine being an editor for a video game outlet that I know is important in the grand scheme of things, that has the respect of my peers and of a sizeable audience, which breaks important stories, deals with important issues, helps set trends or host cultural discussions, and basically being told to wait for my review copy long enough that I am unable to publish a review that’s probably going to mean much in the grand scheme of things other than tabulations into a Metascore, and that I’d have to think about all the web traffic I otherwise could have had if the review had published the morning of Tuesday, September 17th.
It’s not as though editors don’t already know what this economic pecking order is, and where they stand in the larger scheme of things regarding influence over the sum total of the audience, but having a reminder like this cannot be fun.
I think there’s an opportunity here, however. I was talking a week or so ago on Twitter about how I would like to see an experiment in which all video game reviewers turn down free review copies and instead purchase their own copies to review. I mused that if reviewers had to drop their own, hard-earned $60, even if only temporarily before a reimbursement was distributed, to purchase a game for review that they might be harsher than otherwise, because the job of a reviewer is to gauge the worthiness of a game for their audience, and the economic question of “How much is this worth?” is very real, and very important, for members of the audience who aren’t flush with cash.
What a unique opportunity Rockstar Games has provided to conduct this exercise!
I realize the implication one could read into my idea, namely that video game publishers buy some measure of good will from reviewers by providing free copies of games. This is stupid on three counts.
1) The audience can smell a genuine rat. No professional outlet would actually get away with glaringly positive reviews being granted upon one publisher or another over time, when everyone else realizes that the games in question are not universally good.
2) The video game journalism industry is very small. If anyone actually allowed themselves to be on the take, everyone else would know about it very quickly, and that writer’s career wouldn’t be worth spit.
3) If there is a professional obligation behind the video game review other than the need for honesty, it is the responsibility to help arm readers with knowledge to guide their purchasing decisions. An outlet cannot fulfill that responsibility to the greatest degree unless they can provide a review the day a game is released.
The “they get free games so they must be on the take” argument is so stupid that anyone who makes it publicly ought to be relentlessly ridiculed into silence. With all of that said, I do wonder sometimes whether or not the lack of a personal outlay of funds might, however subconsciously, help a reviewer forgive flaws which otherwise might go noticed.
Here’s a thought experiment for you. If you spent $30 on a game, are you as likely to be upset about any of the game’s deficiencies as you would have been if you’d spent $60 on it? How about if you spent $10 on it? You’d probably be very tolerant of potential awfulness. This sort of reaction to the potential results of the risk/reward scenario are predictable, natural, and above all, very human.
To put it another way, a colleague and friend of mine says that reviewing games is, in part, a matter of deciding how much bullshit you are willing to put up with. A game might have all sorts of issues but if you like what remains enough, you might not care about the issues very much, or even at all. That game could still get a high score from you, even as you recognize all the bullshit exists.
I would hazard a guess that the higher a personal, monetary price you paid for a video game, the less bullshit you’d be willing to put up before it affected your overall impression of the game.
No matter how self-aware a reviewer might be of this phenomena, no matter how professionally they may tackle the issue, they’re only human, and some degree of this kind of thinking is certainly subconscious. Therefore, if reviewers were freed of the obligation to publish reviews on release day — which might be a very positive development considering how quickly reviewers sometimes otherwise have to finish a game, which inevitably means having to skip what might only be side content but meaningful side content worthy of inclusion in an analysis of a complete work — they might be more willing to indulge in criticism which is more emotional in nature, and less analytic. Personal responses versus mechanistic appraisals might become more the norm.
I think that would feed into a more diverse and interesting body of consumer-facing criticism. Maybe I’m wrong. But it will be interesting to watch the late reviews of Grand Theft Auto V roll in, and to see whether the reviewers in question are a little more liberal with their criticism of a Rockstar game than they otherwise might be. And that would be no criticism of the reviewers if they did. Like I said, they’re only human.
Please see the blanket disclaimer at the bottom of my About Me page.
If someone wants to talk about suffering from anxiety disorders or clinical depression, their audience has touchstones by which to understand. Most everyone cannot imagine what it’s like to experience anxiety or depression as illnesses, i.e. to experience an excess of those feelings which may or may not be attached to a rational spur, but we can count on most everyone knowing what the raw emotions of being anxious or depressed for a short amount of time feel like.
In the case of clinical depression specifically, we can imagine that most people have felt, during a time of grief, what it’s like to feel nothing at all. By sharing those raw emotions and experience, we can reasonably assume that a majority of people can at least extrapolate an idea as to what the symptoms of anxiety disorders or clinical depression feel like.
Talking about bipolar disorder, on the other hand, faces a very specific challenge because it’s not an illness defined by an excess or lack of emotion, but an excess of emotional change. And I don’t think most people have any touchstone by which to understand that.
My high school had a ski club. One night a week everyone who paid the club fee would pile into a bus with their skis and poles and goggles and head off to spend an evening on the slopes, and in my junior year I was dating a girl who was part of the ski club.
I asked my parents for the money to join the club. They didn’t have it to give me. I don’t remember how or if we discussed equipment, but that would have been another issue to tackle because I didn’t own any. I’d never skied before, and honestly my desire to join the ski club wasn’t about the skiing. It was about wanting to be with my girlfriend, and not wanting to feel left out.
One night when my girlfriend was out with the club I was despondent. I felt so sad, and so lonely. I asked my parents, yet again, for the money to join the club. I flew into a rage at my mother when she told me yet again that they didn’t have the money.
Then I started crying because I felt so left behind. Then I started screaming at my mother again because I knew she had the ability to fix this by letting me join the ski club but she wouldn’t let me, which made no sense, of course, because my parents really didn’t have the money. Then I started crying again, feeling hopeless, until I got angry again.
This went on for like an hour until, exasperated, my mother called her therapist and asked me to talk to her because my mother needed someone to calm me the fuck down.
Understanding my being sad at feeling left out or my anger at not getting what I want probably aren’t very difficult for you, even if the irrational severity of my emotions that night don’t make any sense. Understanding how privileged my thinking was, and why that was a problem, probably aren’t very difficult for you, either. Can you understand what it was like for me to be locked into that feeling of privilege and shift between those emotional extremes every five minutes or so, for an hour?
I imagine not. In fact, I imagine the idea might be pretty scary for you. And now you understand the other, particular challenge of talking openly and bluntly about bipolar disorder. It’s scary because it’s difficult to understand.
Let’s say that our potential for emotion is represented by a sine wave, with excitement at the top and lethargy at the bottom. To begin to understand what it feels like to suffer from anxiety disorders or clinical depression, one has to imagine the different levels to which someone with one of these mental illnesses feels those emotions, usually for no rational explanation.
Or, to put it another way, anxiety disorders and clinical depression are defined by or “live” where the lines are:
To begin to understand someone with bipolar disorder you not only have to understand where they go on this emotional sine wave relative to the middle, which has the same level of variety you see in different people with anxiety disorders or clinical depression, but you also have to understand how often a person with bipolar disorder is moving between those states.
Feeling awful or crippling anxiety or depression are the common bond that people with anxiety disorders or clinical depression share with one another. Feeling awful and being crippled not only by those emotional states but also by the endless shifting in-between those states is what people with bipolar disorders share with one another.
Or, to put it another way, where anxiety disorders and clinical depression are defined by or “live” on the lines that dictate the extent of the emotions, bipolar disorders are defined by or “live” in the constant flux in-between those lines.
Our ability to talk about mental illness at large comes down to our ability to understand individual mental illnesses, and I think we can thank the relatively accessible nature of understanding anxiety disorders or clinical depression for the current climate of tolerance and understanding we have towards mental illness in general. We also have many more people who are willing to publicly identify as suffering from these illnesses, which helps to break down stigmas.
I think that same climate of tolerance and understanding is responsible for why more people are speaking openly about living with bipolar disorder, but I worry that such open discussion of bipolarity is going to take much longer to break down the stigmas associated with the illness.
Media, particularly television and film, have a lot to do with making mental illness a safe subject to discuss. It is perfectly normal nowadays for us to see characters with anxiety disorders or clinical depression in media. Tony Soprano suffered from anxiety attacks so severe they made him lose consciousness, so he went to see a psychiatrist. Don Draper is depressed and tries to hide it with alcohol.
Media has to heighten the effects of these mental illnesses in order to make sure the audience gets it, and as someone who suffers from both anxiety and depression at different points in his spectrum the depictions of those disorders in media have never bothered me.
The loudest depiction of bipolar disorder in media, however, exemplifies how difficult it is to discuss bipolar disorder because that depiction misses the point entirely.
Claire Danes plays a CIA agent with bipolar disorder in the Showtime series Homeland. Her performance has been praised as a very honest depiction of the illness. If you look at that praise closely, Danes’s performance is mostly praised for its depiction of mania and psychotic breaks, neither of which have anything intrinsically to do with bipolar disorder.
All forms of mania are not the same. Not everyone who has bipolar disorder has a psychotic break. I don’t even know what that means! But it’s much easier to depict extreme mania than it is to depict mood variability — just showing Danes’s character depressed in one episode and manic in another episode doesn’t do a very good job of digging into the heart of what defines bipolar disorder — so mania is what winds up on the screen.
I shudder at the idea of Danes’s performance being a touchstone for how people might begin to understand bipolar disorder. Understanding what mania looks like tells you nothing of what it is to live with this illness. It only shows you one, possible top of an emotional sine wave that a majority of the people with bipolar disorder probably never reach. Yet now I have to face the specter of someone learning that I’m bipolar and then thinking about Claire Danes on Homeland and wondering if that’s how I get sometimes.
I’m glad that people are finally speaking openly about bipolar disorder, but I don’t know if we’re doing an adequate job of explaining what this illness is really about. It’s not about the excess or lack of any emotion. It’s about an excess of change between them. Without treatment, those of us who live with bipolar disorder are held hostage to those cycles of change. It wasn’t until I saw those cycles begin to end in myself that I realized I’d finally taken a major step towards ending the way bipolar disorder had charted the course of my life up until that point.
All sine wave images from Wikimedia Commons under Creative Commons licenses.
I am way too stuck on how things ought to be, and while this keeps me out of trouble it also holds me back, which is the story of this blog.
When I decided that I wanted to become a video game journalist, I began with a blog about video games and the understanding that no one would probably read it. I also understood that whether or not anyone read it wasn’t the point. I needed a place to publish things because writers write all the time, says anyone and everyone you ask about being a writer, and in my case I knew that the possibility of having an audience is what would drive me to get better. It is no coincidence that writing on Bitmob, where I did have an audience, is what trampolined me into professional writing.
I named the blog Punching Snakes after a video game story about doing the same thing over and over again, and the old subtitle for this blog was “Gaming shouldn’t be a grind.” This was meant to have a double meaning, that not only video games but also the writing about video games shouldn’t be a grind. I was barely aware of the video game press at that point, so I was speaking to what would become my own writing about games and not criticizing what anyone else had to say.
I’ve tried over the past three years to measure up to that ideal, and the times when I’ve felt most successful at achieving that goal is when I wasn’t writing entirely or precisely about video games, like when I wrote about my relationship to violent video games as someone who lives with mental illness, or wrote about my relationship between marijuana abuse and video games. I felt even more successful at my goal when I wrote about the economic power of the core video game audience and their untapped potential to promote social justice, and when I wrote about how psychiatric medications helped me become the person I was meant to be.
Somewhere along the way I stopped identifying as “a video game journalist,” and started identifying myself as “a writer.” That’s not an affectation meant to put on airs. Nor is it a question of valuing any kind of writing over another. It’s a statement of intent.
Video game journalists mostly write about video games. Writers write about whatever the hell they feel like writing about, or whatever anyone will pay them to write about. The importance of the latter has become much more clear since writing became my solitary source of income this past May, but writing only about video games has, in essence, become an exercise in punching snakes.
Establishing my voice as a writer has been difficult. My professional work has hewn closer to the stuff of traditional journalism as I’ve gotten better at it, and in my mind good journalism is about getting yourself out of the way of the story. I’ve also written for a wide variety of outlets, some consumer-facing, some industry-facing, which has necessitated adapting to the voices of those outlets rather than developing my own.
The personal stories I’m best suited to tell simply aren’t about video games. They’re about growing up gifted, and living with bipolar disorder, and drug addiction, and the alienation that came as a result of all of those things. I tend not to write about any of this because, for the moment, it’s not work I can be paid for consistently.
Worrying about only writing when it’s for pay has become another exercise in punching snakes. It’s not a coincidence that when I began writing for free over at my friend Stu’s website Unwinnable that my work started to become more personal, because my motivation for writing had changed, which brings me back to this blog, and the reason I started it.
I haven’t been writing about things other than video games here because that’s not what this blog was for. That’s not the content which ought to have been here. I worry about what ought to be way too much. It keeps me out of trouble — and I do worry about sharing stories of mental illness and drug abuse when I expect competent, potential employers to Google my name — but it also holds me back. I needed to change the blog so that I could change what ought to be here.
I’ve redesigned Punching Snakes to make it cleaner, with less noise to distract from the writing.
I’ll still write about video games because that falls under “whatever the hell I might feel like writing about,” but also expect me to write about sex, drugs, bipolarity, family, toys, cats, current events, my wife, or anything else which comes to mind.
And I hope you never feel like you’re punching snakes when you come back to visit.