Entertainment Weekly always had an on-again, off-again relationship with gaming. It’s like Derek Shepard and Meredith Grey or Chuck and Blair on Gossip Girl — hot in the broom closet one moment, icily distant the next.
For brief periods over the last decade, EW included regular game reviews in its pop-culture pages, only to drop them unexpectedly. They’d pop up intermittently — a Rock Band versus Guitar Hero article here, a very special guest appearance on the Must List — but never anything sustained.
In the last month or so, the mag has been on an unexpected relationship binge, recruiting its resident geek scribe, Jeff Jensen, to write roundup essays on movie tie-in games (Wall-E, Lego Indiana Jones) and sports games (Madden 09 Wii, NASCAR 09) and games with ambiguously moral protagonists (Grand Theft Auto IV, Mercenaries 2).
My beef certainly isn’t about Jeff Jensen, a man whose writing I’ve admired and respected. No, it’s that turning to him means gaming is the only section in which the magazine isn’t employing an expert to talk about a pop-culture subject. For god’s sake — the man just now got around to discovering Grand Theft Auto IV.
This isn’t just a sign of disrespect. It reveals how a top-flight mainstream magazine really views gaming. The overt message is this: We’re like you, dear readers. We sorta understand this game thing all the youngsters are into, but it sure is confusing. But, hey, it’s all cool — we’ll stumble through it together.
On the surface, the magazine is doing what it’s supposed to: writing to its audience, which seems more and more to consist of Zeitgeist-sipping boomers who’d still like to sound hip when they converse by the watercooler. If you’d like evidence of that point, look no further than the mag’s offering of a regular pop-culture column gig to none other than the “King of Geezers,” Stephen King, who routinely rewards them by showing just how behind the pop-culture wave he’s languishing.
This audience is full of people who, like Jensen, have probably avoided playing sports video games and Grand Theft Auto IV because they don’t want to get shown up by their 10-year old sons and daughters.
It’s certainly not full of hardcore gamers, who obviously aren’t turning to EW see if Madden 09 is any good this year or whether Spore’s DRM issues are a deal-breaker. Those folks are frantically clicking on IGN, Joystiq, Gamespot, and Metacritic to see which direction to blast their online bile next.
And that’s fine, I guess. The hardcore have their gaming news sources. Including their perspective in EW might send readers screaming into the arms of People and Highlights, because too often, what passes for gaming journalism is poisoned with snark or drowning in jargon, stuff only the converted appreciate.
But here’s what gets missed when a magazine turns to writers at the other end of the spectrum, dabblers who, like their readers, are exploring new territory: A sense of continuity and perspective.
That a major magazine is willing to devote any ink to gaming represents another chance to show the Wii-loving casual masses that our passion is as beautiful, complex, and vital as the passion for a new disc by TV on the Radio. But sans perspective, what we end up with is hosannah-laden stories like the preview of Star Wars: The Force Unleashed Vanity Fair ran in March, which praised the game for ushering in a new and glorious age of immersive entertainment. The Force Unleashed is both beautiful and a blast to play, but it doesn’t raise the bar in terms of immersion or graphical genius any more than a dozen other games this year.
There is a middle ground. It’s possible to communicate gaming expertise without making your readers feel like clueless noobs — and it’s a damn sight better than sacrificing credibility by admitting, like your audience, you only sorta know what you’re talking about. •
Hey there, gaming geeks and tech freaks. In an effort to provide more in-depth, timely coverage for Generation YouTube, we’re moving our technology section exclusively to the web at sacurrent.com. Beginning this week, you’ll find regularly updated video game coverage with all the quality you’ve come to expect but free of the space and deadline constraints of the printed page.