For a while now, some commentators have been following a thread of time. Leigh Alexander wrote of a Compulsion Loop, while Michael Abbott’s most recent post urges us to Chew Our Food. These are reflections on an industry used to (or perhaps becoming ever more accustomed to) a fast cycle of pre-release hype/release/postmortem/ad finitum. This occurs across all segments of the gaming populace, from your average gamer to blogs to the press. I’ll leave it to others to argue the problems of this kind of cycle; suffice to say, I agree with them.
I’m a newcomer to the blog world, but I’m working my way through gaming academia and have been doing some mainstream writing for a while now. As a newcomer, or outsider, however you want to put it, it seems to me that blogs represent a great chance – perhaps the greatest chance – for changing such a cycle.
There was a lot of rubbish thrown around about blogs in the early years of the internet, and there still is. They are not the most revolutionary media practice since the invention of paper, and while in isolated bursts they have caused major change, most will still turn to a good old fashioned printed newspaper for news and opinion first.
The power of blogging therefore rests largely in agenda setting, and this is where the gaming blogs come in. Blogs have a trickle-down effect on mainstream media, and therefore on what is discussed. Many popular ‘thoughtful’ gaming blogs, like The Brainy Gamer and Man Bytes Blog sometimes get linked at larger blogging sites like Kotaku. This, in turn, influences not only a wide variety of gaming-types who depend on Kotaku and Joystiq for news, but it impacts on the kinds of discussions that the mainstream press have – not necessarily in the pages of magazines, but at the water cooler, over lunch, and on forums. Eventually, people end up sharing opinions that probably began as analysis in a blog they’ve never even heard of.
Take BioShock for example. There now seems to be a feeling that while it was a great game, it’s probably now best consigned to the not-quite-perfect box of 2007. This opinion was not one shared by the mainstream press at release: it’s currently on a metacritic score of 96, with over 30 perfect scores. Yet somewhere along the line, many of us decided that, no, BioShock actually has its fair share of imperfections. When did this happen?
I’m going to go out on a limb and say that if he wasn’t the first, Clint Hocking’s Ludonarrative Dissonance in BioShock was one of the first widely-linked criticisms of the game. I know it influenced my opinion of the game, and at that stage I was only writing ‘hard’ news. A year later and I still agree with him. Admittedly, Hocking is also a major content producer as well as a blogger, so his voice certainly had extra clout. Nonetheless, it’s worth casting your mind back: was it around this period that the first substantial problems of the game became widely analysed and discussed? It’s a chicken-and-egg question as to whether it happened because of blog-style analysis, or whether blogs were merely a reflection of a growing feeling many were experiencing. But it’s almost irrelevant as to who came first: the fact is that blogs remain the loudest voices in such scenarios. What mainstream media outlet or enthusiast press editor is going to sign off on a feature article critiquing a videogame that was reviewed only one or two months earlier? If not necessarily first to the subject, blogs were the first location that many found criticisms of BioShock through.
I’m not saying that blogs are at the top of this gaming media pile. Certainly, bloggers are enormously influenced by mainstream media and PR types; cultural influence is always a sphere with different power relations, rather than any top-down or bottom-up flowchart. But there are two important points in favour of blogs that really allow agenda setting:
1. You only have yourself to answer to. Sure, the laws of defamation probably play a part as well, but I could write a blog post on any topic and not have to put it past even a copy editor first. I can critique a game on the day of release or two decades after the fact.
2. Blogs unite a hugely disjointed audience. Here in Australia, Marcus Westbury (quick plug: I interviewed him back in August) has been running his second series of Not Quite Art on ABC TV. You can’t legally watch it if you’re outside of Australia, but I heard there might be other ways of getting hold of the show, which is well worth it for those with an interest in ‘new media’. Anyway, in the first episode of the second series, Marcus tracks down a variety of online artists like Yahtzee and Jodi Rose. His basic point is also applicable to gaming blogs: the internet has allowed widely and thinly spread audiences to turn into massive ones. Only a small percentage of people around the globe would be interested in intelligent thoughts on videogames, for example. If The Brainy Gamer, or any number of the blogs along my sidebar were publishing in a local paper they might only get a small but very enthusiastic response. On the internet, however, those smaller numbers of people from each town turn into a massively global readership. And, through the trickle-down effect, it becomes even larger.
With this and the thoughts from Leigh Alexander and Michael Abbott at the start of this post in mind, I want to propose something. Let’s kick the blogosphere into reverse gear. If you have a blog, try and write an entry about a game that came out a year or so ago. Write about a game not old enough to be retro, but not new enough to be cutting edge. Write about Mass Effect‘s traditional Sci-Fi references. Write about Metroid Prime: Corruption‘s sense of social disconnection/connection. Write about Call of Duty 4‘s sentiment towards modern combat.
And please, if you, like me, have joined the conversation a little late, don’t hesitate to start from the beginning or the middle, and not just the end.