Over the last couple of years, I’ve noticed my preferences for online video game coverage shift. I’ve been following the traditional news/reviews-oriented web sites for years (over a decade in some cases), and IGN is still one of the first places I visit in my nightly web surfing. (I never dipped into the forums for those sites, though, for what that’s worth.) So, when IGN started podcasting, I subscribed.

There were things I liked about their podcasts, and things I didn’t like about them. Their podcasts are more informal, more discursive, compared to the articles on their site; listening to people chat who have spent years immersed in video games is, in general, all to the good. But there were aspects I didn’t like so much: the staff is almost entirely male, there’s occasional casual sexism and general young man chest-thumping that I don’t really have much patience for. Which is part of the reason why I stay away from video-game forums, since the problems are apparently much much worse there; that’s also the reason why I haven’t been eager to start seriously using Xbox Live.

When I started reading blogs, I subscribed to some of the larger news video game blogs. But I’ve been moving my blog reading away from them and to sources with a different flavor more recently: the news is pretty much the same on all these sites, while other sources are giving me perspectives that I’m not seeing in the big sites.

One example that I’ve been avidly reading recently is Michael Abbot’s Brainy Gamer blog. (And listening to his podcast!) He has a very pleasant style, interesting things to say, and he’ll not infrequently spend time talking about games that are years old instead of games that were published yesterday. As somebody who doesn’t have the bandwidth to play all interesting new games as soon as they come out but who has played a good number of games over the years, I very much appreciate this broader historical perspective. (And I’m apparently not the only one: on a podcast episode, he mentioned that many other older games like his site.)

Other people that come to mind: Leigh Alexander, N’Gai Croal, Stephen Totilo. Those last two were a bit of a surprise for me: I’ve basically dismissed video game coverage in mainstream sources until now, thinking that, at its best, it’s casual coverage for parents to figure out what to buy their kids and, at its (all-too-frequent) worst, it’s actively offensive. But there are some people writing in mainstream sources who love and respect the genre and have some very interesting things to say.

And I think gender issues are probably relevant to the four people I just mentioned. Only one of them is female, but the other three spend time in places (academia in one example, non-video-game-specific media in the other cases) where I imagine they work closely with women on a regular basis, unlike the gaming-only sites. Perhaps because of that, perhaps because of other reasons, their style is different from what I see in the more personal side of gaming-only sites: none of the young man posturing, none of the casual sexism (don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of places that are a lot more sexist than IGN podcasts, but it’s there and annoying), an environment where I’d much rather spend time.

(Incidentally, I have sexism more on my mind than normal right now, because a mailing list that I care about just self-destructed this weekend because it couldn’t deal healthily with discussions of sexism. Not sure I want to blog too much about that, but I wish it hadn’t happened. But I’d been thinking about this blog post for a few weeks now, so it’s not really a reaction to those events.)

So: what do I want out of a video game community? Or perhaps: what do I want out of a video game web site, what would cause me to be more of a community participant in it and less of a disengaged reader?

Here’s one way I’ve been thinking about game coverage recently: video game web sites, by and large, spend time on three different sorts of things. We can label those three things temporally:

  • Coverage of forthcoming games.
  • Coverage of games as they are released.
  • Coverage of games that were released some time ago.

That sounds simple enough, but it turns out that these forms of coverage have a quite different nature from each other.

To start with the middle one, this basically translates into reviews of games as (sometimes slightly before) they are released. And it’s the main reason why I plan to keep on subscribing to IGN indefinitely: I like knowing something about basically every console video game that comes out, which means at least skimming the majority of their reviews, and reading the reviews for games that seem at all noteworthy, even if I’m unlikely to buy them.

The former category is the one that bothers me more and more. It must contain a good 95% of the material on most video game web sites; and I’m increasingly wondering how it does me the slightest good at all. I suppose it’s not a bad idea to be aware of important forthcoming games a little while before their release, or to have more context for them than a review can provide; but what we actually have is coverage of games that starts years before the games will actually be released (if indeed they ever get released), with the effect of building up excitement about games up until the point where they’re actually released. At that point, people may or may not play the game (most people obviously won’t play the vast majority of games), and the focus switches immediately to other upcoming games.

The result is that people (including myself) spend significantly more time learning about upcoming games than we do actually playing the games, and that we’re basically immersing ourselves in coverage that has a similar (but much much stronger) effect to advertising. I’m starting to wish that video game sites would simply stop doing advance coverage of games: just don’t talk about games until, say, a month before they’re released, or a week before they’re released, or the day that they’re released. Yes, I want to learn about games, but why wouldn’t it be better for me to learn about the actual published games themselves, instead of some fantasy of what future games might be like a year from now?

To get back to the themes from earlier in the post, I also suspect that this focus on early hype of games reinforces some of the most unpleasant aspects of video game communities. The stereotypical forum is filled with 14-year-old boys; these are people who are in the unpleasant situations of constantly having to deal with (group) identity formation and of not having a lot of spending money. Both of those have the effect that they are pushed towards picking a few games (and one console), and supporting them/it to wildly irrational and unpleasant extents; the focus on advanced hype for games just gives more grist to the mills of irrational video game loyalty.

And then there’s the third temporal category, coverage of games that were released some time ago. There’s very little of this on most sites; I have to see that as largely a consequence of the extreme focus on future potential games. And that’s another reason why I’m getting mad at the latter: I like reading people talk about games at leisure, in a reflective fashion. You get almost none of that from advance coverage, by its very nature (or rather, to the extent that there is leisure in the advance coverage, it consists of obsessively dissecting every scene of a trailer for a forthcoming game you’re excited about, because you won’t have any more information about it for months); good video game sites will provide thoughtful reviews, but the reviews are done under pressure, and don’t have the benefit of looking back on the game from the broader perspective of a few months or years (or decades).

And reviews at release time also don’t allow me to be a part of the conversation: I buy very few games at launch, and even if I do, I won’t be able to finish playing them until, at best, a month or so later. By that point, the broader discussion on the main sites has long since moved on to other things. And, to the extent that those sites do coverage of past games, it’s so often in terms of game-of-the-year discussions and the like, which is the most shallow sort of reflection. And which leaves me out in the cold, because I don’t have time to play the 10 serious GotY contenders that the industry will release in the last three month of the years.

So, to recast the three categories, what they really mean are:

  • Hype building. This is by far the dominant category, it basically has the effect of being free advertising for video game manufacturers, its influence is almost entirely negative.
  • Reviews of games as they are released. A useful category, present in an entirely appropriate proportion. (But unduly influenced by video game publishers, though not currently to an unacceptable extent as far as I can tell.)
  • Reflection, discussion, discursion on past games; depressingly lacking in most web sites.

I’m on the lookout for web sites in which the proportion of those three categories are reversed, where the reflection happens from as many different viewpoints as possible.

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