An oral history of videogame   blogging

NB: The following is a rough outline of my talk, with no editing or proofing applied. 

Three Periods:

  • 2007-2008 (“Golden age” of output & games worth criticising -> convo between Abbott and Gaynor. Era of blogs; Era of Bioshock, the First Modern Warfare, Far Cry 2, Fallout 3, )
  • 2009-2012(ish???) the “community building” period -> the era of twitter >> crit distance had its biggest impact in this period, building most of its audience & helping build others (and being overtaken by others, I guess)
  • 2013-now (diversification period; the rise of the eBOOK & the Patreon; >>> the rise of funding models and change of TYPE of output and people MAKING games criticism; killing is harmless, boss fight books, etc.)

This is a partial account, it’s what I saw and how I saw the community develop over the past 7 years (woah that’s a long time). Obvs its incomplete, there could and should be other accounts different to mine, that are able to emphasise other things and perspectives, other stories.

So: where does my story begin? Not actually with the beginning of ‘games criticism’ actually, since I have it on good authority that plenty and communities existed before 07. Two notable examples: Old Man Murray, Insert Credit (which was re-launched a couple years ago now)

But in August (I think) of 2007 Michael Abbott went on Sabbatical, and started a blog called the brainy gamer and very quickly began attracting an audience with his regular (think, daily) posts.

The brainy gamer community really did basically kick off the blogging careers of tons of bloggers who are or were really important, particularly in the era in which the community transiationed from mainly being BLOG and COMMENT BASED to being TWITTER based. Also it was very US-CENTRIC and AUSTRALIAN. There was and is a British blog-based games crit scene, but it was more centred around the Rock Paper Shotgun comments threads. Obvs this division has massively broken down, but it was very palpable in the first 2 periods (pre-2013? I guess). I mean I could rattle off at least a dozen tiny, obscure US/Aus blogs that you have almost guaranteed never heard of (but which I subscribed to because occasionally they kicked ass) that were around in 08/09/10/11 but I could only maybe tell you about the big-ish UK based ones.

 

This is my first takeaway: there was a period where the ephemeral “conversation” that really makes up most of the interesting and productive portion of “games criticism” wasn’t done on twitter nearly as much as it was done in BLOG COMMENT THREADS. That structural change probably still hasn’t really be fully understood – the way it opened up the conversation (everyone was in ONE SHARED SPACE – the twitter stream) has probably had more of an impact, esp on creating a sense of there being a “games” community, than any one person.

Back in 07: The Brainy Gamer quickly got the attention of Kotaku – specifically weekend editor maggie greene, who probably did as much to help grow the brainy gamer community as Michael who wrote the actual posts. By directing Kotaku’s weekend traffic to his posts, a ton of people saw his stuff and began commenting. I interviewed Maggie for part of my PhD research, and she told me an interesting anecdote of being thanked by Ian Bogost for directing some traffic his way, which she says made her cognisant of the impact she was having “if even Ian Bogost appreciated the link” (this was all mostly pre-twitter, remember – before Bogost had 20K twitter followers lol)

As an example of the impact the brainygamer blog had on the community: all the initial Critical Distance volunteers/editors were from TBG originally. This was a source of some (often fairly justified) criticism, and the name the community was given – “The Brainysphere” – by Australian game critic and academic Daniel Golding was both as dorky as it was descriptive. It also stuck for a long time beyond its relevance.

One of the things that TBG did was inspire a lot of people to start their OWN blogs. I started one – SLRC – as did a ton of people who began exploring their own voice online in comment threads.

One of the other things TBG did was inspire the kinds of posts and the kinds of blogs that much of this early stuff was or aspired to be (I’m thinking still in the pre 2009-era).

New Games Journalism still had the sense of being “edgy”, “experimental” and RISKY like it could fail at any moment, rather than being a now largely legitimate approach alongside more traditional “analytical” stuff.

Blogs in the pre-2009 era almost particularly took from TBG a sense of needing to add a specialist perspective. If there’s one thing that I think it’s kind of a bummer to have lost, it’s this. i.e. my blog was about games and sound, or games and music because I was a music student. Dan Golding’s blog was about games and space/geography because that was what his undergrad thesis was about. Dan Bruno’s blog Cruise Elroy was about transcribing and analysing game music. There are a bunch of others that were similar, I won’t name them now. But this sense of needing to add one’s particular specialist perspective doesn’t kinda exist to the same degree anymore. It seems more like everyone’s a bit more of a generalist, less focussed on a particular theme. Maybe these theme blogs weren’t sustainable in the long run (hence why (almost?) none of them are around anymore…

Also: it was a very white dudes community, and this was a big criticism of Critical Distance for its first few years – that we weren’t doing enough to seek out women’s and other marginal voices to be involved in CD, even if we did link to them. A lot of this criticism was fair, and a lot of it can be chalked up to totally boring and obvious factors like me being a stupid 22yr old when I started CD and a lot of other reasons that just added up to not being particularly aware of issues around diversity at the time.

 

So what wrapped up the 2007-09 period was, I guess, Critical Distance – which emerged out of a bunch of informal community meetings on IRC which were discussions about the problem of growing the community. There was still a palpable sense that “we” needed to REACH OUT more to capture the larger audiences that might exist and be interested in “thoughtful conversation about games” but which didn’t even know this community existed. CD was meant to do something about that, and about a host of other problems, like the fact that every other week someone was posting about “Are games art?” and practically reinventing the wheel… the conversation never moved forward as such (or so it felt)…

CD also occurred right as the number of new blogs being made really began to take off. Like I’m talking it felt very much like a doubling or more in size and output over the year of 2009. At the start of the year, Golding linked to ~50 blogs that made up the brainysphere, and by the end of it I’m sure he could have linked to two or even three times as many.

This period saw a lot of cool new people join, and also saw the beginning of twitter becoming really important. Most of the original brainysphere crew joined twitter in 08 (some earlier, in 07 even). Like I mentioned, this migration to twitter also gave the sense of hugely opening up the community, and I could give another talk, twice as long as this, just on the subject of what that did.

This period, from 2009 to the end of 2012 is probably where most people at this talk joined, so I won’t got into mad detail but it was pretty great, pretty important for lots of people, saw tons of the ‘core’ games critics people we see here be established (myself included – as CD really was my only ‘claim to fame’ or anything like importance in the community)

Oh yeah this was also the period of Killscreen mag being pretty important as a print collection, designed (according to Chris Dahlen) to be a place to publish and collect a lot of the output of the brainysphere etc.

Finally the thing I consider to be the defining moment that points towards the beginning of a new “era” in games criticism, and ushering in the current era, is the release of Brendan Keogh’s killing is Harmess at the start of 2013. I don’t know specifically how much money he made, but the impact that one book had on the minds of the game criticism community cannot be underestimated. Yep, people had written long stuff about games before. People had been paid for stuff before, but very few examples of people selling games criticism DIRECTLY existed before KiH.

After KiH we had Rowan Kaiser’s Mass Effect book, we had stuff like Five out of Ten magazine, and The Arcade Review, and tons of other examples of subscriber/paid mags/zines taking off that I can’t think of right now.

And importantly Patreon also emerged as a place for ongoing support for games critics/criticism.

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