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The Game Journo Brain Drain – A Personal Retrospective

First there was Erik Wolpaw. Erik was not just the funniest person to write about videogames, he was possibly the funniest writer of all time. I’m not kidding. Back when Erik was writing about games on Old Man Murray the only reason he wasn’t the answer to the question “where is the Lester Bangs of videogame journalism?” is that his stuff was smarter, funnier, and better written than Bangs’. What’s more he was writing about an emerging form of culture during this critically important time when we were (and still are) coming to terms with what it is, what it means, and how we should be thinking about it.

I don’t think Erik ever really considered himself a “journalist” and you could say he was first and foremost a humorist and only secondarily a critic, but almost every thing he wrote had some incredibly useful insight, not only into how games worked, but also into just what it meant to be a smart grown-up who loved videogames. Erik once referred to a fictional journal called “Cahier du Virtua Cop” as a commentary on the pretentious absurdity of a sophisticated intellectual take on videogames, but the irony was that OMM was in many ways the best example of exactly that.

I guess Erik didn’t enjoy working hard for no money, because eventually game designer Tim Schafer hired him to help write Psychonauts and then Gabe Newell (who used to tell the game designers at Valve “Think about what Old Man Murray will say about this game and then make it better”) hired Erik (and his OMM buddy Chet Faliszek) to work at Valve, where he will presumably remain forever, cranking out Portal sequels and Team Fortress promo videos.

Now I love Portal, Psychonauts, and meat-based powerups as much as the next guy, but the world of games is certainly worse off without Erik’s brilliant, incisive, and hilarious criticism.

Cut to a couple of years ago, and I discover my new favorite way to consume game journalism – podcasts. Something about listening to people talk about games works for me, and I find that the conversations are often more honest and interesting than written criticism. My favorite podcast is 1Up Yours, especially because of one Luke Smith. Luke was a sharp critic with a cynical edge that worked as an excellent foil to the more “enthusiast” style of the rest of the 1UP crew. Luke quickly became my favorite game journalist, and I guess I wasn’t the only one, because shortly after I started listening, he got snapped up by Bungie to work on Halo or do PR or actually I don’t know what he’s doing.

But all was not lost, because I had a second favorite 1UP guy – Shawn Elliot. Shawn was a regular on a different podcast, GFW Radio. Like Luke, and like Erik, Shawn combined a sharp intellect with a healthy allergy to intellectualism, he would flip between art school and Boob Academy 2 like someone trying to figure out how to be a grown-up without becoming a bore, and somehow this made perfect sense as an approach to videogames, because they’re basically trying to figure out the same thing.

GFWR was anchored by veteran game journalist Jeff Green, who’s no dummy himself, and while Jeff’s particular style never connected with me the way Erik, Luke, and Shawn did, I have always admired and respected his writing.

Well, you know what’s coming next. A couple of weeks ago Jeff made the jump from journalist to developer, courtesy of a bromantic encounter with Rod Humble of EA/Maxis and indie artgame fame.

And now today I find out that Shawn Elliot is taking the same route, heading to 2K Boston, where he will be in charge of adding fart jokes to Bioshock 2.

Obviously making games is the world’s greatest job, so I’m happy for these guys. But as someone who loves reading and talking and listening and thinking about games almost as much as playing them, and sometimes more, can we call a moratorium on this? It’s getting ridiculous.

2 Comments

  1. Charles Joseph wrote:

    I thought that was actually what was so sad about what happened to Luke Smith. He didn’t go on to make games, but to become part of the PR machine that he was so good at cutting down to size.

    Frankly I’ve been depressed at the level of discourse about games recently. I remember Jenova Chen at GDC talking about how he felt like games weren’t growing up with him. Whether or not he was being fair, I understand how he feels. The more I devote myself to studying and understanding game design, the more I’m disappointed by the lack substantive, or even interesting discussion.

    I feel like I’ve grown because of all the game criticism I’ve read, but now it’s not growing with me.

    Wednesday, September 24, 2008 at 2:03 pm | Permalink
  2. Darius K. wrote:

    One journalist reminded me a year back: when journalists become developers, there is simply no way for them to go back into journalism, even if they want to.

    At least we still have the Rock Paper Shotgun crew.

    Friday, September 26, 2008 at 5:35 pm | Permalink

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