A lot of us that write about games end up here kind of by mistake. I did—when I left college I had very different career goals. But we aren’t unhappy. We love games, and clearly we like writing. However, it’s still curious to me to hear that my peers are making more intentional inroads into the industry. It’s notoriously unfair and, well John Oliver had that whole bit about how journalism is dying, and this is an extremely niche entertainment press and at even great danger of losing money and shriveling up.
So when I had a chance, I sat wrote some letters to friends Dante Douglas and Amr Alaaser, editors of the new games blog Deorbital, to try to get some answers out of them. The short answer is what I said above: we love games, and we love writing. But if you want the details, read below.
Dear Dante, Amr,
When I heard that the two of you were going to be heading up Deorbital I could not have been more happy. I’ve been friends with you both for a while - in the physical and online sense - and I just knew that it was going to fill a real hole. You are both writers that care about writing and I know that it’s pretentious to say this but that does matter to me.
In particular I am always impressed by Dante’s background in poetry. I still write poems sometimes. Bad ones, but they do exist. Amr, I really admire your sensitivity and care—there’s a nuance to your work that gets flattened when you try to explain it.
But I have to ask: why videogames?
Games always kind of occupied a place in my life. My brothers and I would play whatever we could get to run on the family laptop. Either from cheap CDs at the office stores, or via the AOL Kids download section. When we weren’t doing that we were making our plushies fight or inventing new ways to play with Pokemon cards, since nobody wanted to bother learning the actual rules. At some point I even started making board games, and constructing shoddy programs on early versions of Game Maker.
Despite all that I never really gave a lot of critical thought to games. It never occurred to me to. My family couldn’t afford new consoles either, so keeping up with everything new was impossible. Somewhere around 2008, however, I stumbled upon the indie games scene just as it was beginning to take off. I landed on TIGSource, and played things like Jason Rohrer’s Gravitation, and all the weird stuff Cactus was putting out basically every week. At the same time I ended up reading a lot of Rock, Paper, Shotgun and The Gamer’s Quarter, a small online magazine.
When people ask me about why I write about games I always inevitably bring up The Gamer’s Quarter. Before it I never considered that you could write about games like that. It was personal, and intimate. Games weren’t entertainment, but events in the lives of these people. They were containers for memories of trips through cavernous Soviet subways, nights in love hotels spent ignoring your partner for Mario 3, time spent working out personal issues alongside a tiny cleaning robot. Games, I realized, were about relationships. Relationships to people, spaces, and moments. At least, for me.
Eventually college pushed me back into writing. Short stories, poems, short thoughts. I started a little Wordpress. I thought about those people, spaces, and moments. I thought about childhood, about the games I played with my brother. About armies of digital gladiators, cotton littered landscapes, and the growing distrust that kept us from returning to them together. Then at some point, I realized I could connect them all together. Why not write about it? Why not share these moments with someone new?
That magazine that inspired me, The Gamer’s Quarter, it doesn’t exist anymore. But I do think about it still when I read things like Cara Ellison’s Embed with Games, or the story of your brother and Counter-Strike that showed up in SHOOTER. That’s the kind of stuff that made me realize that games were important to me, and why, and the kind of writing I want to put into the world.
P.S. Sorry if I got a bit long winded and melancholy, writing tends to bring that out in me.
Hey Gita & Amr!
Honestly, I write about games because they interest me. Similar to Amr, I spent a lot of my early life being a kid who primarily defined himself through videogames (for better and for worse) and as I got older that self-definition matured from simply playing them a lot, to becoming more and more interested in the ways that games were designed and how that design both reflected society and was influenced by it in return.
In particular—and I’m sure this isn’t uncommon—my interest in more ‘deep’ games criticism was sparked by games podcasts, mostly those that I started listening to in high school or so. Idle Thumbs, the Giant Bombcast, even a few deprecated ones like Talkradar and the Gamespy Debriefings were pretty much my introduction to a way of thinking about games that I hadn’t thought of before. The people who ran those podcasts, and the writers, developers and personalities mentioned regularly were my introduction to what we call now the first wave of “New Games Criticism.” And, to put it simply, I was hooked.
Another avenue for me was development. Getting involved in a local games development scene meant that I had a lot more exposure to the ins-and-outs of the material labor of creating games. In addition, growing up without an up-to-date game console meant that most of my young life’s gaming experience was on PC and- as many others who’ve grown up with PCs will tell you, working to get games running on an older computer requires a bit of getting your hands messy. As I got older, those skills become useful when designing games of my own.
While I don’t consider myself a game dev first and foremost, I think that learning how games are developed (independently and within studios) is a great introduction to how design shapes games. And, as it turns out, game design is something I find incredibly fascinating, and grew to be one of my favorite subjects to write about. Design was more than level layout or character traits, but the way that those aspects of a game would shape the world that was created.
In late high school and early college, I started following more games blogs and games writers, and would take note of those whose articles and reviews were from more of a holistic, less technical angle. Cara Ellison’s work at Rock, Paper, Shotgun, Austin Walker’s articles on his own blog (before he was writing for more outlets regularly), Patrick Klepek’s pieces on Giant Bomb, and your work, Gita, became fundamental to the way that I wanted to write. Games weren’t just a consumer object in these articles, but could be examined the way that one would examine a film or painting. That was what interested me, and what continues to keep me writing about games. Starting Deorbital just felt natural—especially when I could work alongside Amr.
It’s weird—you’re both younger than me, not by much but by the amount where I’m still allowed to say “you’re both younger than me,” but it’s like we’re leading parallel lives. Did everyone in this scene have a moment where they stumbled on Cara Ellison’s Embed With Games or Kieron Gillen’s “New Games Journalism,” and realized that writing about games could even be like that? Did we all have a moment when we realized games weren’t just large expansive spaces but small, intimate ones, made my people quietly tinkering away in their bedrooms? For me what blew my mind was The Stanley Parable. I was some jackass fresh out of Oberlin playing around with artifacting digital video and here was this weirdo game with a real sense of humor and a real point of view, that was getting press from voices I recognized from my childhood (Adam Sessler, mainly), that reminded me of the way that games existed mythologically in my childhood. My strongest memory of gaming as a child is watching my brother play Metal Gear Solid 2, and that changes a person.
Deorbital as a website speaks to these influences—Shonte Daniel’s article, the first piece published on the site, connects games to culture at large, renders moments in games as a part of a larger whole. I was lamenting to a friend the other day that games writing is purely tautological, that all it is ever trying to achieve is not that games can expand our view of all things, but that games can help us understand games. Were broadening horizons part of your mission? Or is this just a happy accident of parallel timelines of influence converging?
Dear Dante and Gita,
There’s definitely something to be said about how the ideas behind New Games Journalism and Rock, Paper, Shotgun changed the way so many people view how we can approach games. Even today, as I see people annoyed with the attitude of writers like John Walker, they still remain a big influence on me. I still remember how I felt reading about him playing through The Legend of Grimrock with his dad. It occupies a place adjacent to things like Jenn Frank’s gut-wrenching story of her time with her dying mother. I aspire to write like that, not because I want everyone to come sobbing and melancholy from everything I do, but because they frame games as a part of a larger human experience. Like any great writing about art, they communicate the way a piece of art makes us feel, and where it fits into our lives.
That’s part of what drove the direction of Deorbital. To be honest, I had been thinking of building something similar for a long time. I even considered paying people out of what little money I made out of my day job. A place for personal stories, and work from people we don’t often get to hear from. When I was offered the opportunity to make it happen I’d already had half of it planned out. Having Dante on board sealed it, and I have to say he’s definitely the half of this show that keeps the joint as consistent as it is. I’ll always appreciate you for that, buddy.
To answer your question on broadening horizons, yes, that was definitely intentional. More than that, however, I wanted to hear more of those stories that I loved, that drove me to write, from people who don’t get enough chances. That’s why I ask our writers to “make me care.” Not in an antagonistic way, but by showing me exactly why they’re passionate about what they write about. Understanding that passion, and seeing something of the writer behind it always make it feel powerful, empathetic.
In a way, that’s also part of acknowledging the often voyeuristic nature of writing. Some of the best writing I’ve read has been disarmingly honest, which all at once makes me feel connected and like I’ve stumbled into a place I shouldn’t be. We just published Magazine: Firmware, by Wasim Salman, a poetic narrative about Lebanon, wartime occupation, and guns, both digital and real. In it I could see my pre-teen years as a kid in Egypt, absorbed into cyber cafes and the poor neighborhoods my father and his siblings live, and lived in. At the same time I felt how different it had been for me, the immense privileges I enjoyed, and the mundane terror that comes with the constant threat of violence, something that I could never truly understand as an outsider.
I’m not yet sure where all of this fits into our lives, into what games are and might be becoming. I know it’s important, however.
Dear Amr & Gita,
To address Gita’s first points, yeah, I think there was a sort of parallel evolution in a sense. A lot of the people who I associate nowadays in my “games scene” (whatever that is, really) were those who saw their first experiences with deeper games writing through that first wave (or subsequent waves) of “New Games Journalism.”
Speaking at least for myself, I think that games writing in general does suffer from a lack of outside knowledge and influence. I’m particularly always interested in the ways that games intersect with lived experiences, and that can come in many different ways. Hyper-tautological critique is really common in games writing, and it comes at a detriment to the the critical landscape, in my opinion. Games occupy a weird space as an art form, and while I skew away from the idea that games are wholly unique in any sense, I am a hopeless games romantic and I’m not sure that’s gonna change anytime soon. There is an empathetic quality that games can convey that for me, personally, I don’t find in many other art forms.
But I’m also an intentional art person. If your empathetic media—whatever form it may take—is promoting harmful or mainstream oppressive viewpoints, then that media isn’t something that I think is useful in the artform. Which, I understand, is kind of a more radical viewpoint, but it’s something that I think about a lot. The bar for games to be more diverse & inclusive is very low, and we still see mainstream games failing to clear it. It gets frustrating to have to hear about AAA’s latest socially stagnant gaffe or some large company saying something sexist/racist/ableist/etc. It happens often, and if you’re tuned into twitter you’ve probably heard of quite a few instances.
I, at least (and I think Amr as well), do have somewhat of an explicit goal with Deorbital (one might call it an agenda, even). We’re pushing writing that we think both fits into a more personal, subjective, critical section of games writing, and we’re pushing writing that pushes the boundaries of mainstream games writing. And we’re trying to do it with as many writers of marginalized identities as possible. Simply put, I think both me and Amr agree that the state of games writing as it currently stands is strong-and getting stronger—but as with many areas of representative media, the most common voices remain very white, very male, very straight. In whatever way it can be, Deorbital is meant to be a place where we can boost and uplift more diverse writings and writers, and I think we’re doing pretty well so far.