(Excuse this entire article. I wrote this a few weeks ago when I needed to do so. This ended up as my version of stream of consciousness writing and given how I normally write that’s saying something. But, at this point, it’s merely an exercise in style and testing a new feature on the site. I have no idea if there is anything worthwhile to be gleaned in this post. If there is, great. If not, you were warned.)
I generally like to give credit to what inspired me to think along certain lines with an essay. Usually I work it in as part of the argument, but I’m going to link it here instead, because it has little to do with anything I’m going to say. This piece on the game industry and subsequently the ethics of games journalism spawned the kernel that lead to a line of thinking, but I’m not going to address any of The Escapist’s practices.
In all of the bullshit during the past three weeks that was happening to everyone else, I’ve been having my own little, now annual, August mental meltdown. It’s lasting longer and hitting me harder than any navel gazing, soul destroying misadventures of previous years so I haven’t been actually able to put pen to paper nor fingers to keyboard for about a full month now. So I haven’t weighed in on the giant clusterfuck that spawned and what eventually became #gamergate. I’m not going to discuss #gamergate directly either. There are at least 2 to 3 dozen better articles I could point you to off the top of my head for that. Sufficed to say, if my tone hadn’t already made it clear what I think about it: it is in no unequivocal terms backed with evidence-proven bullshit. A hate campaign designed to abuse, gaslight and trick others into doing the same for an end goal that the more gets unveiled can only be described as a chaotic evil overlord’s Christmas wishlist.
I also didn’t feel qualified to weigh in to any of it more than the occasional retweet of someone saying it better and the more occasional exclamation of shock and amazement at whatever new development had transpired. I am not someone you want in a debate like this, I have an unfortunate history of being so bad at it I lend credence and support for the other side. Part of how to conduct in an argument is knowing what to say and when to say, but often more important is knowing when you specifically should just shut up.
All of that is not what I came to discuss. Instead, I want to talk about that kernel that Escapist pieced spawned in me. I should note I haven’t actually finished reading the piece at time of writing this. The author brings up, at the end of an interesting, but by no means comprehensive, analogy of the present state of the game industry that the site was made to serve the gamers, the enthusiasts of the hobby.
Something that has been percolating the last few days around twitter — the main frontal force of the unending waves of hate broke against the released evidence showing it to be an elaborate orchestrated campaign specifically designed to drive out women and in some cases force certain women to come to harm and laughed at the implication that it might have been about ethics at all — as some began to focus on dismantling the misconceptions of what corruption looks like now that time had been freed up by proof of conspiracy was now on the other foot, one truth, ill-expanded upon, stuck in the back of my head: publication are not beholden to publishers, but their audience.
The audience for most game journalist publications are self-identified gamers. Or at least the popular and thus marketer’s conception of one. A gamer is a white, straight male in their teenage years to early thirties with an abundance of free time, disposable income and penchant for getting investing in their interests. I feel kind of insulted for being pigeonholed into this. Of course, many publications try to expand beyond that or at least consciously remind themselves that there are more varied people out there to differing degrees of success. But it still comes down to this image of a person is their audience and therefore their interests are what needs to be addressed. I don’t begrudge them for it either. All writers have audiences and once a writer is aware of who their audience is, either specifically or broadly as the case is here, then it is going to change how you write.1 Doubly so in a field where the writing is specifically meant to address the concerns and inform potential customers. However, when you make an audience the center of the universe (hell when you make anybody the center of the universe) it tends to fuck with their expectations and consequently the output of the creator.
A few times now, over the years, I’ve addressed the constant problem of critics and their skewed view of their own artform. I did it with reviews back in 2010 and in comparison to comics culture in 2012. (Another insular enthusiast press closely comparable to our own.) In both of those pieces I put a rather large onus on the publications and in particular the writers as failing in their basic duties as critics. This was before I started writing reviews myself. There is a pressure to conform to what is expected. Hell when I have no idea how to format something I think of how to parody a style and go with that. No one can ever tell the difference because I am horrendous at parody. The same is true for reviews. There is a pressure there based first upon expectation and secondly, well my third ever video game review was on Borderlands 2. You can see the results of that for yourself. I won’t deny, because honestly no one ever can deny, that such a reaction wouldn’t cow them.
However, I write for PopMatters. I have no fucking clue what our audience looks like, nor do I even know if anything I write is ever read there. I have been given free reign to write whatever the hell I want. As for reviews, completely up to me. I admit, on a few games where a score didn’t immediately flash in my head to give a game, I rolled a die. My editor knows. He thinks it’s kind of funny. My environment is so alien to the normality of the entirety of the enthusiast press. I cannot imagine getting the response my Borderlands 2 review gets day in and day out only a hundred fold. To say nothing of the altered content and intensity should my being in anyway have deviated from the aforementioned ideal of gamer.
That audience. That virulent, vociferously vocal audience is what publications are in fear of. They are the real threat to honesty, integrity and culpability. I’m sure any member of the particular class of person that finds themselves on the wrong end of a certain hashtag would be thrilled to hear. They are the real power behind these sites. They can make a difference. They look upon their works and smile. I look upon them and their snow globe and sigh. There is nothing a person who believes themselves to be at the center of the universe wants more than to be lied to.
There is a real value in considering one’s audience. That is true for all writers and creators. Asking ‘who is going to view this? Who will be on the receiving end of what I want to say?’ is invaluable for numerous reasons. Not the least of which is being able to know or at least guess what you can expect your audience to already know and understand. Things need to be explained and understood before they can be built upon by an author. What needs to be explained? What can I expect an audience to understand? Ever writer asks and answers these question every time they sit down to put pen to paper, fingers to keyboard, whether they consciously realize this or not. It not only true for the big ideas, but for how each step of the process is in turn explained.
If I use the latest blockbuster movie hit as a reference in some metaphor to explain a concept, any author can reasonably expect much of their audience of the day to get it whether it be first hand or by cultural osmosis. Specifics will vary by location and culture. But that changes with terms of medium and viability of the reference or other material needed to understand the point at hand. It can lead to tangents whose purpose is to explain the explanation of the explanation. You are in the middle of one right now.
Cars, as a subject brought up by The Escapist, are a ubiquitous subject in American culture. Pretty much everyone drives and everyone is aware of the concept and cultural cache of driving. Everyone is engaged with car culture to some degree, but not everyone is an enthusiast. Not everyone makes it their hobby like the gearhead does. The argument being that games are reaching that larger cultural cache, despite games being slightly more complicated by the fact they are more than mere product. The argument being that the audience of car culture has no expectation of being catered to by Volvo and Ford and Chevorlett exclusively and in perpetuity simply because they are the most invested. The comparison is made to highlight the ridiculousness of the whole situation video games now find themselves in. I explain this because I have no expectation of my audience, whomever they may be, to have clicked through and read the inciting Escapist article.
The car culture magazines, to which The Escapist has now educated me to exist in far larger number than I thought possible or sustainable, are also beholden to their audience. they advertise the newest cars, but if magazines have taught me anything, plenty of unrelated products get advertised as well. Car enthusiasts are also human and have needs and wants that expand beyond cars, cars and car related by products. I would guess there is a reasonable assumption that any piece in a car magazine can make reference to a recent movie, popular TV show, famous landmark or contemporary politician (hell even historically famous politicians) and be well within their right for their audience to get the reference and comparison.
What then are we to think of when we look at the expectations of the wider game audience as filtered through the popular publications of our own hobby? A person can speak all they want about what they think and what they say, but it is all just talk. Actions will always speak louder than words. Actions have the impetuous of unconscious thought and unregulated belief behind them. I don’t care about any policy or what any action supposedly sends the message of. What does the day to day say about what they think their audience is and how do any of us as the audience think in turn of their perception of us?
I don’t feel as insulted I used to. Partially out of improved material2 and quite a lot out of not really being the audience of these places. I really can’t be offended by what represents what I’m thought of through by a publication treatment of their audience, if I myself don’t see myself as the audience. It’s why so many yell ‘Not All Men’ because of the ego centric thought that any statement about men, must be about them regardless of context. The internet is not known for its context and purposefully designed in the understanding of its absence. It’s a bizarre dichotomy of swirling contradictions. Every post, thinkpiece3 and report on the whole hashtag debacle has noted the history of events that lead us to this place and spawned the thoughts one is now going to read. I’ve taken to skimming the first two paragraphs or so of every piece on the subject making sure the highlights are touched on. While on the other hand, we have the ever relentless stream of uncontextualized flood of information ranking from the banal and personal to the devastating and personal to the abstract and political to public tragedy and humanize to world changing and distant all within the span of a single mouse wheel scroll. I speak of Twitter4 but really the whole internet is like this. The world may move just as fast, but our awareness of the whole mess is exponentially greater. Our brains are not built for this. They are engines of pattern recognition. Give them random data points and the brain will construct a narrative. All sports writing is based on this phenomena. Art of any kind could not function as we know it without this ability. Our ability to play the games themselves would be curtailed without it. But overload the brain with irrelevant data, unconnected data, jumbled data and what will the brain put out. Think not just of twitter in this machinations of nature, but of Reddit and 4Chan, of any forum anywhere, of Facebook even as edited as it is, of Wikipedia as ordered the procedure might be, of the very behavior of surfing from site to site that the primary engine of the Internet itself. Can the brain function as intended towards the messaged results of the publications? Or is the audience not lost to us, not from malfeasance or failure, but of the corrosion through overuse and a behavioral evolution our minds are not made for?
What then is an audience to a writer? A datapoint that clicked, but did not read. A commenter with a voice, but not words. An eye that looked, but did not see. True, but unthought-of of. All are yelling into the void. Writers yell to an unreceptive, if existent audience and audience yells back to a disheartened if not husk of a writer. Each wishing in their own part for validation of their own existence in the swirling infinity of information and connection.
Previous disasters of this ilk were of common cause. One could point to a reason, as asinine and destructive as it might have been, for the effect that would be the bile, hate and attacks. Here we have what is claimed as a reason and from there certainly we can follow the unconscious logic that would lead them to attack the developer and not the journalist in the name of journalistic ethics. And for some, in the dark corners, where those who cannot be the face for the effort would not stand its ground lurk as a simple cause and effect. But for the rest. An existential crisis of not gaming, but themselves in an ever spinning world of represented chaos. I’ve been waiting for this for quite a while now. Though granted it was a personal wait as to when I myself would crack. Not an entire community I happen to tangentially be affiliated with through similar passion going all at once. The crisis isn’t realized and wont be. That’s kind of the thing about existential crisis. You have to aware enough of yourself to recognize you are having one and the cause here is the absence of filtering and the degradation of self-awareness.
One of the common lampooned arguments made by the mob is that of ‘why can’t we just go play games.’ Of all the arguments made, this is the one I’m most…ok I think it might be the only one I’m sympathetic to, for the above reason. The wish to push away from the ever ranging battle of words and of minds that strain ones own sense of self. The loss of which is perceived to be threatened. The last vestige between them and the void. I understand the wish to crawl back to its safety, to its psychic security. But like most arguments, like most art, it is not the idea it is the execution that matters. The argument’s logical conclusion is not to be found on twitter. It is in turning away from the stream and playing a game. It is to turn away from being an audience of spectacle to become the audience of art once again.
This is the audience. One who wish to be an audience of the audience rather than the audience of the art all of this is about. This is the who the big publications writer for. This is who I am so removed from.5 To be an informed customer, to be an engaged fan, to be an educated connoisseur of the arts — these are all lofty and worthy things to be and to read for. This is the ideal audience of any writer. And it may very well be the audience. But the data stream is constant and such readers are not the audience of the audience, but the audience of the art. They are the ones who turned away to go play again instead of stating it as cause. They are not speaking up in the volume, nor can they speak in the volume of the audience of audience. The audience that is not considered, open and thoughtful is not one worthy of the writer’s time or efforts and yet in our age it is the one most demanding of the writer’s patience. Why are you prioritizing the audience over the author? as Ben Abraham once exclaimed along these lines on a podcast.
I miss 2011. I really do. I long for it. I was invited to write for Nightmare Mode and it was the only time on the only site I really felt engaged with the comments on the intellectual level that was their promise oh so long ago when we were all naive and thought towards the future with our better natures. Two posts garnered a discussion the like of which I never had before and never since. The comments were lost, but later retrieved and now preserved along with the rest of that site. I want you to click through those two links. You don’t have to read any of it, just scroll and down and see what happened and tell me that could happen in any other forum. The audience at its ideal. That audience is lost.
I don’t know who my audience is, but I’d like to think it’s them. The names may change, but feel remains the same. It feels right. The audience is not a demographic. The audience is a person you wish to write for. Not what you think they are, but who they can be. I don’t know my actual audience, but I know my audience. Numbers only tell you the audience of the audience. Knowing your audience affects the author. The author writes for that audience. If your audience is just the audience of the audience, drenched in the spiral of the mental whirlpool on the verge of an existential break, how could the author not suffer themselves? How could their work not be what it wants to be when crafted not by an author, but the author of the author for an audience of the audience? Everyone keeps to their places and moves to their tune. Circling and dancing, each puppeteering their facade with the other, stepping where each knows the other should. Never thinking, never believing, each lying to the other. Each smiling at the other, but not to them. Each getting what they want, never what they need. The puppets’ shadows dance nicely against the wall. The light ever dim, ever out of reach and out of the cares of all involved.
I don’t feel write about writing anything else and since I don’t really want to say anything about the clusterfuck as a whole it leaves me in a place of despondency. What right have I to go on with the rest of my life? What right do I have in worrying or thinking on anything else? But everyone has to. I feel wrong talking about the nothings and indulging in my own personal interests. There is a measure that one just has to not care to get on with it. It being life. Still that is hurtful to those most prone to pain. Still and act of cowardice in front of those most in need of courage. But for the mob, I never cared for what they say, never cared for the game they play, never cared for what they do, never cared for what they know. And for everyone else, trust I seek and I find in you, everyday for us something new, open mind for a different view and nothing else matters.
I have no coda and I think I’m out of things to say.
- I still have no clue who my audience is, and that itself is kind of a problem. [↩]
- Though titles and URLs still suck, though I don’t begrudge anyone for a title that was thrust upon them. I myself suck at creating good or in some cases any title at all. Titles often become meaningless unto themselves and warp only to mean as signifier for the piece itself. How many people when they hear Lord of the Rings actually consider who the title is referring to within the story instead of think of the tale itself or at this point, random epic visuals from the movie? I apologize I should expect better of my audience than such low hanging simple fruit for such a throw away reference. 1984, does anyone think of a year or any string of number upon hear that title come up in conversation, or does one’s mind switch to the concept of Big Brother and a totalitarian, inescapable system of dystopian control? What did happen in the year 1984? Kind of a missing year in pop culture really. No still too easy. Catch-22 has transcended it’s own title and meaning to become a ubiquitous term for the idea expressed in the novel. The Catcher in the Rye was a metaphor explain in the novel, but is rather short hand for a story about a kid leaving school to wander NYC calling people phonies. Hipster the novel. À La Recherche Du Temps Perdu is a title, if one reads and understands French — after all they are not he quite the same thing — would recognize the title and could not without purposeful effort think of it divorced from the work and meanings inherent thereof. The same of any of these would go for Roland Barthes ‘Death of the Author’ which holds one of the most asinine titles I’ve ever read and one of the most unfortunately imitated, always to the work’s detriment. Can we cut it out with the ‘kill this’ or ‘death of/to this’ it’s not cleaver, not informative and does more to drive people away from thinking than any other kind of title outside of Buzzfeed clickbait. Presumably, given the content of such articles, that is the exact opposite of the author’s intent. Oh irony. Seriously, I think less of any work that uses such a title almost immediately. It shows a certain lack of clarity and self awareness. It’s hyperbole in search of meaning. A metaphor itself long since dead and while too often imitated, the nuance of such is lost in the effort to be shocking through hyperbole. That type of title is academic equivalent of a petulant 13 year old screaming “Look at me, look at me. I matter. I’m edgy. I’m special. Look see.” I don’t begrudge a person not in charge of their own titles, but I find it telling that sites with clickbait titles stray away from it and it is left to independent writers in control of their own content. I get it everyone wants to be the next Barthes. They would love to be the next Barthes. You are not the next Barthes and by straining for it, never will be. I can only imagine the backlash to Barthes original essay — mainly because I’m too lazy to look it up right now — but I would hazard a guess that the title probably inspired more frothing than any of the essay’s actual content. [↩]
- What differentiates a thinkpiece from a normal essay? Something nobody can seem to agree on in their use of the term. [↩]
- I’ve become notable for my seething dislike of Twitter. It started off as a useful tool and place of conglomeration, but within a few short years became a burning shitpile conveniently illusioned as gold. It started with observations of those who became more reliant on it as a means of crafting thoughts and criticism see the quality of their writing plummet. Then it became clear the nature of the format was designed to polarize, not edify. Then it became a machine of hate. And anytime someone points to a campaign where “real good” has been achieved I can point to three that have actively destroyed careers and in one case a highly publicize hashtag campaign potentially got people killed. People claim to be using it to build something. I don’t see it. Each tweet is an island and due to the nature must stand on its own or in a context alien to its meaning. And frankly it is far easier to destroy something than it is to build anything. With 140 characters, which option is taken more often? [↩]
- Seriously. 5 years. I’ve worked at Critical Distance for 5 years and you can’t find room for my name anywhere in your red stenciled conspiracy screeds. Even as just another name in a list. FFS. [↩]