Writing Games Criticism for a Mainstream Audience

Hi everyone, my name’s Kirk. I exist mostly on the internet and I have lots of opinions about video games. I’m features editor at Kotaku.com, where I’ve been for almost three years now, which sounds crazy when I say it out loud. Before that I was games editor at Paste, and I’ve also written things for the New York Times, Edge magazine, The Border House, Kill Screen, and a bunch of other places.

Today, like everyone else here, I want to talk about how we talk about games. Specifically, how to write games criticism for a mainstream audience. How, indeed. Well. What does that term, mainstream audience, mean, and what does it mean to write for them?

To my mind, a mainstream audience member is someone who is smart, curious, and interested in video games. They might play a lot of games, they might play only a few. Maybe they used to play games but haven’t had time for them lately, or they’ve cut video games out of their life and sometimes regret it. Maybe they can’t afford to buy tons of new video games, but they remain interested in them and like to watch them and read about them online.

My boss Stephen Totilo often describes our ideal audience as a hypothetical acquaintance that you meet at a bar, someone who says, “Hey, I’ve heard a lot about this game… BioShock Infinite? What’s the story with that? My friend said it’s amazing.”

As you set down your drink and prepare to launch into one diatribe or another, you also pause and think about what kind of language you’ll use with this person. What would they understand most easily, and what would they be interested in hearing?

That person is your mainstream audience.

Maybe they periodically check the New York Times or Slate or The Atlantic, maybe they just rely on their Facebook feeds for cool stories. If their web browser winds up on a gaming site, it’s because a friend posted something interesting-looking on Facebook, not because they have those sites in their RSS feed. They probably don’t even have an RSS feed. These are not people who read Critical Distance every week, and they’re not the people who consistently track Kotaku and Gamasutra, let alone r/games and NeoGAF.

The mainstream audience can be difficult to conceptualize, because they’re not actually all that vocal or visible. They’re readers, they are not commenters. They’re smart, they’re open to new ideas, but they’re largely uninitiated.

For a long time, I was the mainstream audience. I had played video games for most of my life, but beyond reading the odd game review, I’d never really specifically applied that much critical thought to them. And then one day in 2008, I happened upon Mitch Krpata’s blog Insult Swordfighting. Through him, I was introduced to the work of Michael Abbott, Leigh Alexander, Kirk Battle, Dennis Farr, Chris Dahlen, Tim Rogers, Matthew Burns, and all the rest.

“Wow,” I said to myself. “I never even realized that you could talk about video games this way.”

You may be thinking, “Well, this is all well and good, but I don’t write for a ‘mainstream audience.'” Then ask yourself: Who do you write for? It may well be that you don’t want to write for a wide, mainstream audience. But it’s important to identify that, and then to identify who you do want to write for.

Because of course, the mainstream audience isn’t the target of some games criticism. And I’m certainly not saying that it should be. Some of my favorite games criticism is incredibly focused and specific, and unabashedly non-mainstream-friendly.

But if you’ve been thinking about expanding your reach and audience, if you want to get more people to read and share your stuff, and in particular if you want to get someone to pay you to write criticism of video games, you’re going to have to tailor at least some of your work to a mainstream audience. So, hopefully some of this advice will help.

First up, jargonitis.

There is a disease plaguing game criticism. I call it Jargonitis, or at least, that’s the word I made up for this talk. Too many games critics have adopted the language of game developers without pausing to evaluate whether or not that language actually helps us to accurately describe the thing we’re talking about. In doing so, we’re making our work echo-y and impenetrable, and robbing ourselves of opportunities for self-expression and creativity.

Here’s an example that I wrote about Titanfall, since hey, Titanfall is pretty fun and everyone in the mainstream press has been writing about it a lot lately. Here we go.

Titanfall’s mechanics have been polished to a mirror shine. It’s great to see EA embracing a new IP, similarly to how they gave us Dead Space and Mirror’s Edge back in 2008. New moves like Double-jumping and wall-running make traversal a blast, giving the traditional Call of Duty-style iron sights gameplay—which developer Respawn helped invent—a welcome jolt. The game smartly iterates on other tried-and-true shooter systems as well, feeling at once familiar and new. XP unlocks and killstreaks have been tweaked to welcome new players, resulting in a remarkably accessible AAA FPS. When compared to previous similar titles, EA’s new release feels titanic, indeed.

That may read like caricature, but if you check out majority of games writing going on on the internet these days, it’s actually not that far from reality. Terms like:

IP, Mechanics, “The Design,” Systems, FPS, UI, iteration, “release,” killstreaks, unlocks, AAA, indie, steam, devs, shooter,  platformer, roguelike, roguelike-like, roguelike-like-like… those terms can be perfectly fine when writing for an audience on the inside, for an audience that understands the language, but they’re immediately off-putting to a mainstream reader.

Now, I know that most of the people in this room are better writers than the woeful hack who wrote that stuff about titanfall. (me) All the same, there isn’t a single one of us—present company included—who doesn’t occasionally or even frequently indulge in an outbreak of jargonitis.

The key in overcoming jargonitis, and therefore the key to writing work that appeals to a broad audience, is constantly asking yourself what you’re assuming about your reader. This goes beyond language and eventually encompasses topics, angles, and story selection, too.

There’s an old journalistic mainstay that says you’re not supposed to assume knowledge on the part of your audience. That’s good advice when reporting news, but it’s also useful when writing criticism. Does your audience necessarily know what a “shooter” is? How about a platformer? Have they ever heard the term FPS or IP, do they know what a “dev” is?

Remember: You’re at a bar, talking to a bright, curious acquaintance who likes video games but doesn’t follow them closely. Would they have any idea what you’re talking about?

If the answer is “no,” back yourself up. Do you really need to use those specific terms? Can you do without them, or swap something in for them? Is there some clever way you can actually describe what the term is shorthand for, rather than simply inserting the shorthand and moving along? If so, it’s almost always worth it to make the swap.

Because here’s the thing about finding alternatives—not only will they make your work more accessible, they serve the bonus function of making your writing better.

I’ve gone back and de-jargonized my writing more times over the last few years than I can count, and every time I do, it makes my work stronger AND increases the number of people who might read it and get something out of it. I usually wind up replacing buzzwords with new, creative phrases and metaphors that are more interesting and enjoyable purely as writing in addition to being more useful and specific to the thing I’m talking about.

For an example of that kind of writing, here’s Leigh Alexander discussing the level-layout and combat design of BioShock Infinite in an essay she wrote last year.

The game’s grasp on level design seems limited to Superbowl Sunday arenas and a repeating paradigm of twin staircases looping to some higher platform. Men yell at me from uncertain directions, sounding distant, and yet suddenly there’s someone behind me. I don’t know who he is or where he came from, but I open his skull like a reflex. Not more than two hours in I had seen the waxen inside of tens of anonymous skulls, without having had any reason to invest in them. I enter an area, the swarm begins. All sentiments but tension, tedium, dissipate in the onslaught. I am desperate for the sharp violin note that tells me it’s over. I will hear that note countless times, and feel nothing but mechanical, empty relief.

Given the technical nature of what Leigh was talking about, she could so easily have lapsed into jargonitis, using buzzwords like “lackluster AI” and “repetitive level design” and “illogical enemy spawns. “Instead, she conjures the game’s often thrown-together-feeling combat with a unique sort of clarity, and while she does assume some prior knowledge of the game on the part of her reader, her language assumes very little advance knowledge of game design terminology or jargon. Anyone with a passing familiarity with BioShock Infinite could read that excerpt and understand something essential about the game. As a result, her full essay could be published just about anywhere.

At Kotaku, we often attempt to write for the broadest audience possible. Sometimes that gets us in trouble, but more often than not it helps us relentlessly increase and diversify our scope, and keeps us perpetually pushing to be the best, most inclusive and accessible site we’ve ever been.

Lots of you probably know about our parent company Gawker Media’s fixation on traffic, but sometimes the particulars of our traffic obsession get lost in the discussion. Yes, we’re traffic-obsessed, but not all traffic is created equal for us. We’re focused on getting new readers, meaning an IP address that hasn’t clicked the site in 30 days. As a result, it’s in our best interest not to preach to our existing commenters and readers but to write articles that reach beyond them and attract fresh eyeballs to our work.

Now, I’ve been at Kotaku long enough at this point that I’ve probably drunk the Gawker Media kool-aid. So bear that in mind. But. This way we track unique visitors is, I think, actually a solid motivator that results in good, accessible work. It keeps our work broadly interesting, and lets us choose stories that a large number of people people actually care about. Because of that, it helps us drive the conversation on the most relevant and interesting topics of the moment.

One of the most crucial things I learned early in my tenure at Kotaku was that it never pays to write for other games critics, nor does it pay to write to game developers.  No one wants to read that, because when it comes down to it, game developers and games critics make up a tiny percentage of your potential readership.

And yet, well… everybody writes for other critics, at least a little bit. We write for one another, and through our writing we motivate one another to be better. And that’s great, that’s healthy. But if you want to write something that’s accessible to a broad audience, you’ve got to write for THEM, and not for other critics.

It’s crucially important that we do this because, in my opinion anyway, getting your work read by a large number of smart, curious people… that’s one of the main reasons this whole thing is worth doing.

When we write about games, there’s often an element of advocacy to it, of evangelizing. But it’s a very specific type of advocacy. When I write for a mainstream audience, I’m not advocating for video games. Video games don’t need my advocacy, they’re doing just fine without me. Rather, I’m advocating for critical thought about video games. It may seem a fine distinction, but it’s a crucial one.

The internet can provide a great stage upon which to introduce newcomers to the world of games criticism, forever adding to our thoughtful inertia, spinning the conversation up and up, helping us to better understand games, art, the world, and ourselves. It’s a place where we can make thousands, even millions of people say the same thing that I said back in 2008. “Wow, I never even realized that you could talk about video games this way.”

Thank you.

Kirk Hamilton | kirkhamilton.com | @kirkhamilton