Name is Charles Herold. I live in New York City. Was a game reviewer for The New York Times for about eight years and wrote for About.com, specifically about Nintendo home consoles for a few years, which was a mix of reviews and best-of lists and how-to articles and all that general crap. Anything else?
I don't think so. How long have you been doing work like this?
Well, my computer's down so I can't look at the spreadsheet where I keep track of how long I do everything. I actually have a spreadsheet of when I met my girlfriend and when I started reviewing games because I always forget everything, but gotta be about 12 to 15 years. Somewhere in there.
I'd be curious to hear a little bit about how you started on that path. Did you study English in college? Or what lead you to starting to do this type of work?
I was a film major in college. But, basically, I was working at Time Warner as a programmer and the only game reviews I was writing at that time -- I had created my own vanity game-review site devoted to adventure games, like, mainly the point-and-click variety, which was called The Desk Chair Adventurer. I was doing database work for -- I can't remember if at that time it was called Netly News or if it had been changed to Time Digital, but, anyway, it was one of those. I was working on the database and I got to know Lev Grossman, who is now famous for Magicians Trilogy but back then was working at Netly News, and he had a copy of the game I wanted, but he only had the box. So, I went into his office every few days to see if he got the game back -- Starship Titanic, which turned out to be a terrible game but I wanted to play it because Douglas Adams wrote it.
Anyway, so, I kind of accidentally wound up networking because at one time while I was in there I mentioned that I had my little game-review site and he was like, "Oh, would you like to write something for us?" So, I wrote a few game reviews for -- I think it was Time Digital by then, and that was fun. One day Lev said, "Hey, I hear The New York Times is looking for a videogame reviewer. Would you like the editor's number?" And I was like, "Yes, yes I would."
So, I called him up -- it was weird. I said, "You know, I've written reviews for timedigital.com," and he said, "Okay, well, tell you what. Write a review for us and we'll publish it. We're just having people do that."
This is the beauty of networking, which unfortunately I'm terrible about and only did accidentally. Lev had heard about the job from his boss, who was -- I'm forgetting his name now, but he'd heard about it directly from The Times who had just said to him, "Hey, do you know anyone who would be a videogame reviewer?" That's how things work, which is why I wish something as serendipitous as that would happen because I do not have the moxie necessary.
So, anyway, I wrote my review and then a bunch of other people wrote reviews and then after a while The Longest Journey came out and I called up the editor and I said, "Can I write another review 'cause this game is so cool!" He says, "Okay." So, I'd written a couple reviews.
The best of the reviews that I didn't write was Peter Olafson, who wrote this great review that began with a great paragraph that I would quote to you if I remembered it. And, so, The Times wound up hiring both of us and having us alternate weeks and later, "Circuits," which was the section we were in lost pages and they cut it to every other week. Then it was just me. So, I did that for a long time and then they started shifting me around. I was in sports. I was at one point next to the poker column. I was at one point someplace next to the restaurant review section. It was kind of strange. I was getting shifted around and then finally they dumped me and I think took someone who's onstaff. I feel like at The Times, freelancers, they're like people who are standing on an island at the edge of the water and as the water rises and the island shrinks they just kind of float out to sea. So I floated out to sea.
After that, a friend suggested looking for seeing what they had at About.com and I had a choice between writing about the Wii or the 3DS. So I said, "I'll do the Wii." I applied for that and got that and did that until recently when they did some sort of restructuring. So, now, I'm on my own.
Yeah. Well, first of all, my condolences and my sympathy, and I say that from a place where I know absolutely what that's like. I feel like -- you know, this isn't on my list of questions or things to ask about, but are we just being aged out? Is that part of what's happening? I feel like so many people I know are in a position like that, are about to be in a position like that, or they are onstaff and they want to kill themselves, or they're in their twenties and they're working for editorial gigs and they still can't support themselves. What's your sense of all that, of what seems to be happening with your colleagues and peers in the same field?
You know, I don't know that many other writers. The writer I've actually seen enough to actually know who he is is Harold Goldberg. Anyway, he writes for -- he seems to write a lot. He writes for Boys' Life, he had something in Playboy, he had something in Washington Post. So, as far as I know, everyone I know is doing well except me. I have no idea what's going on. I have the feeling that in general it's a terrible thing to be a writer because nowadays there are a million people writing blogs for free. You can read all sorts of things everywhere you want.
I don't know if it's aging out. The truth is, I avoided getting any sort of real job until I was in my thirties. I was a slacker. I played guitar in the subway for a few years. I did telephone surveys. I finally broke down and got a real job doing HTML production, which eventually led to my becoming a programmer, but then I swapped that out for writing consumer-product reviews for Time Digital at the same time I started doing The New York Times thing. Then Time Digital went out of business, but that was okay because that job was killing me, that product-review thing. It was a pretty exhausting schedule. I was writing three product reviews a week, and they all had to be positive, and I can say for certain there are not three good pieces of technology for consumers that come out every week that are worth saying something good about. So, it was funny. Basically they just closed the magazine, which, by then, everyone was so sad. I had been so close to quitting for the last several months and inside I was just dancing and so happy. I got severance and everything. It's perfect.
I couldn't say that because everyone else was so sad. I don't know about aging out. I think it's a tough time for everyone. I think writing is not the best profession to be in now. You know, I was just born in the wrong era.
I do think physically I'm kind of aging out of games. I would love to review movies or something, because I have problems with my wrists and hands from all those years of gaming. As great as it is, it's hard to keep up with regular humans.
Yeah. I mean, I think another interesting place to start and visit on is you said that you don't usually talk about this stuff that often. I think that's something at least the audience for this writing, or maybe writing in general, doesn't understand. That just because you share a byline with someone at a place doesn't mean that you actually know each other or hang out. But I sometimes get this impression that people think everyone on the internet at a certain place knows each other. Have you ever gotten that feeling?
I get that feeling about other people, and part of that is -- I know there are people who are known. There was another writer who had tried out for the job at the Times but eventually after they got rid of me I think he was doing some of the reviews, so, he just played the long game. But he was on staff, so he could do all sorts of things. You know, I got the impression from reading his stuff that he was out at the conventions. He, at one point, some new game came out and he got the high score. At one point, after I'd written a review of BioShock, I found some little forum where all these people were saying Seth -- I forget his last name, but they were saying, "Seth has been replaced by this terrible writer!" I had been reviewing games for seven years at The New York Times, but they knew Seth and they didn't know me.
I wasn't on forums. I wasn't going to events. So I feel there are people who are more known quantities. I'm a loner. At The New York Times, I worked at home. I only met my editors there a handful of times. Same thing with About.com. You work at home.
I've been to E3 once in my life, and even though there is a New York Videogame [Critics] Circle that meets now and again, I've gone to that once because it's usually in a bar and I hate bars.
So, I'm just such a good introvert. Practically speaking, I think writers who are extroverts and can connect -- I remember years ago I was at a press thing. Some PR person had a pool party at her house. I was talking to this guy and he was saying, "You need to network because when you lose your job -- and you will," and when he said that I was like, "This is bullshit. I'm going to be with The Times until I'm, like, 83." But he was smarter than I was, or more experienced.
I feel this is what every writer should be told: "When you lose your job -- and you will." That should just be the first thing -- you take a writing course, that should be the first thing they tell you.
[Laughs.] I mean, that's one of the things I was wondering about. So, I don't know with the years you mention. Did that stretch until the late '90s and 2000 when you started?
Okay, well, let's see. The first game I reviewed was Gabriel Knight 3, whenever that came out. The last game I reviewed was -- because my editor forced me to -- was Wii Fit, which was such a terrible note to go out on. So, that pretty much stakes my New York Times thing. If my computer were working, because it died, but if it were working I would just look up those two dates. But, you just go by that, you can see when I started and when I left The Times. My first review for The Times was Half-Life: Opposing Force, or whatever it was called.
I'm just curious, because my freelance career started five or six years ago, but my journalism career started a little over a decade ago. I'm curious: What was it like being freelance in the late '90s, before the internet is what it is now? What was that like and how have you seen it change because of the internet?
I don't know. For me, The New York Times was on the internet back then so I was getting published online. At that point, there were no comments and I always felt sad about that 'cause I would've liked to have seen someone say something bad or good about my reviews. I've always wanted to write for something that had comments, but I never actually -- the only time I got comments was that one that time when an entire forum trashed my review of BioShock because, basically, I had one negative review in which I called it episodic and for that I had a group of 20 people calling me the, basically, shit under their shoe. Then I tried to join the forums or apply and they wouldn't let me join, those bastards.
In spite of that experience, I would have liked to interact with people. I would have liked to have seen what people had to say. So, that wasn't happening back then. Then, at About.com that just never really happens. I never had many comments, even when they allowed them, and they never had a good system for it. Finally they just said, "All right, we're scrapping the comments section. Get people to talk about your stuff on Facebook, which is in itself not as easy as one would hope."
The main thing I'd seen, personally, is I seem to make less and less money but I don't know if that's -- I suspect there's a certain standard thing to that, that it is harder to make a decent wage writing because of the internet, because the news things are going down.
On the other hand, I think -- I would assume there's more openness to game reviews. Although there are still major periodicals that don't do that. So, it's never reached the point of movies or TV where it's considered proper for all aspects of society.
What were your interactions like with your bosses at that time? You mentioned your editor at New York Times being like, "Oh, why don't you just write a review and we'll run it?" But I think a lot of people think back on that time and their memory is largely that the purpose of games writing was to feed hype. Was there deeper evaluation going on 20 years ago? Do you remember editors at places being curious about more beyond that?
You know, when I started out, I kind of felt like my editors didn't have a lot of interest in games. They thought it was an important topic to cover, but I don't know that they were gamers. If they were, it was only in a mild way. They certainly weren't keeping up with things. They left it up to me, which I really liked. So, I could review whatever I wanted. That changed some as time -- there was definitely, I could feel there was pressure. I think this is what the internet caused. There was pressure for page views. So, there were times where I was pushed into doing something.
Like, when they made a game out of The Matrix, which is something I had no real interest in. My editor said, "You know, we need a review of this. The movie is about to come out and we got an advance copy. You have to review this and get it." Then I didn't like it at all. It was a terrible game. Unfortunately, after I sent it in the PR person asked me what I thought and I told her it was terrible and she said, "You write it was terrible? I'm gonna get fired!" She started crying. So that taught me a valuable lesson: Never tell PR people if you're gonna write a negative review of their game. That turned out to be a surprise.
But anyway, that was a case where they were like, "Oh, we need to get a tie-in on this game because The Matrix is a big deal." I mean, my editor basically had been persuaded by a PR person that the game was a big deal, which, I'd say it really wasn't.
At first, they weren't that worried about how timely my reviews are. 'Cause, you know, you often get games -- a lot of companies won't send you games until the day they come out. So, I would review games and my reviews would come out a week or two after the game was released. At first, that was fine. Then there was a point after maybe five years people started worrying about that: "We need it out the day. Get the advance copies." Then I was always haranguing PR people to give me advance stuff, which some would and some just wouldn't. So, you do the best you can, you don't review the games if you can't get 'em out early enough. So, there was more pressure on -- The Times was trying to figure out how to get more eyes on the articles. I don't know if they ever really figured that out. I got pressure from that, and I do think that comes from the internet.
Before the internet, you put out a newspaper and there was a bunch of stuff in it. If a lot of people are buying your newspaper, you can pretty much decide, "I will put in what's important. I will put in what's well-read." But suddenly, with the internet, everything is, "This is how many people are interested in this. This is how many people are interested in this." And The Times was kind of tricky for reviews because people don't go to publications like The New York Times for reviews. At least, not gamers. Gamers, they go to Metacritic and they look at the score and maybe they read a review by GameSpot or IGN or something. The New York Times is where parents might go to see what games their kids should get or people who just don't play games but might find an interesting topic will read it. I mean, I've met people who read my column and didn't play games. For me, that was great. I -- you know, one of my favorite critics of all time is Dorothy Parker, and if you read her theater reviews, they're great to read. Now, I'm not going back in time to see those plays, but I still read the reviews.
And so, my goal was always to have a review that you didn't need to care about the game to read the review. I don't know how well I succeeded. That was my goal. But the truth is, since I'm not as famous as Dorothy Parker was back then, and since you're looking for clicks, you're looking for what draws people in, suddenly it no longer becomes "let's have a good quality review about an interesting subject." It's, "let's write about something everyone will be interested in. That's why my last review for The Times was Wii Fit because the editor, and the last editor did not care for me that much. I think that's why there was no one to fight for me when they decided to shift me out. I wished I'd had one of my previous editors but, you know, it was a long process down that drain. But, you know, Wii Fit, it's a big deal and it's something casuals reading The New York Times are more likely to read. So, it made perfect sense from their point of view.
But you're saying that kind of finessing and triangulating and honing of your voice, that came about primarily from your own introspection? It didn't come about through, say, conversations with your editor or editors?
When I wrote my first column for The New York Times, I wrote it, I turned it in, and then they sent me the edited version. Basically it was about 70 percent rewritten. It was barely recognizable as mine. I was like, "Holy fuck." I learned what they wanted from that.
And so, the next review I wrote, there was very little rewriting. I think that was the only one where they did a lot of rewriting. So, I got to the point where I could write pretty much what they wanted. There would always be changes. Some, just grammatical things or New York Times things and some things they would cut out because The Times is very picky. You know, you can predict it. When I wrote my review of Max Payne, I wanted to include a quote and I actually gave them three quotes: the one I wanted, my second choice, and my third choice. My first choice was, "Life is a hooker and I'm all out of cash," and while I love that quote I knew they would not put that in. So, I knew what The Times wanted and I could pretty much supply it.
So, I learned how to do it. And then, you know, until they started worrying about timeliness and a little bit more about the hot games, there was also some point they were very concerned about one of the Grand Theft Auto games, but for the most part they let me do what I wanted. Editors didn't have any particular feelings about how I should approach this topic. You know, The Times, I think they let people kind of approach things their own way. The woman who did reviews before me, I read some of her reviews, and she looked at things kind of as a games as a social phenomenon. She was interested in what games said about us and said about society. I think the last thing she wrote was The Sims 2 and she was talking about consumerist culture. That's not a normal game review, but it was actually a very interesting review. That worked. So, The Times was nice because they do let their writers say what's on their mind. The problem is now they need to actually get people to come to the website. So, I don't know how much that is true. But I think it's still generally true. If you read their stuff, I think they're still -- it's still The Times. It hasn't turned into BuzzFeed or anything.
[Laughs.] Not yet.
[Laughs.] Not yet.
It's interesting that you mention someone back then was writing about The Sims 2 in that way. That's very much a popular thing in games writing now, is realizing they are cultural artifacts and what do they say about us?
That's a thing people in games are talking about now: Where is this going as a medium? Do you remember predictions back then or hopes you had or things you imagined where games might be today that they are not?
You know, as in most things, I'm a little of an outlier in that what I like about games is games as interactive storytelling. A lot of game critics, they want that to go away. There are some people who say, "Games are not a fit medium to tell a story." Although I've heard there are people who said that about film, too. You know, there are avant-garde filmmakers who are like, "Film should be a purely visual, aural medium not tied down to stories and plots and all that." There are always people who want different things.
So, for me, the world has moved to things like online games, which tend to have less in the way of stories for the most part.
Everything is very loose. I don't know what people were predicting, though, at the time. At one time, I think people were predicting kind of an increase in games as a movie experience, but I don't think that ever happened. It's hard to predict things because things change. It's like, 20 years ago adventure games were hot. By the time I started my little vanity game-review site, they were already dying. They still turn up occasionally, but it's no longer a thing anyone cares about.
So, what the future is in part depends on what people want to play, and people change themselves. I remember some guy wrote to me when I wrote for The Times and he was like, "You know, I think storytelling is dead in games. I think the whole single-player thing is dying and it will all be online games." And then about three months later he wrote and said, "You know, I think this online gaming thing is a dead end. I really think the single-player experience is where it's at."
You know, he was really excited about something for three months and then he got bored about it. That's part of the nature of games. It's like, everyone sees something: "Okay, this is the thing. Everyone jumps on it." So, I would not deign to predict the future. I can say what future I would like to see and based on the fact that I tend to be an outlier, I can safely predict that future won't come to pass. But as for what the society as a whole will decide games should be, I don't know. Will they all be 3D in the future? I'm skeptical, but that's the hot thing at the moment. Will they all be online? Will they all be free-to-play with lots of in-game purchases? That's the sort of stuff the business analysts like to think about. All I know is they will look prettier and prettier, even though I don't think that's really necessary.
It's hard to say. The truth is right now we're in a thing where more and more games are kind of free-form, open-exploration and that seems like what games will always be. But it may be that someday linear games will become very popular or things like maybe at some point people will get sick of the whole "games with a purpose," and everything will be like The Sims games where it's more of an activity than a game. Or you'll have things like Gone Home, where you're just gonna funnel through something with no real gameplay.
I think the thing is that there's no agreement because you are dealing with too many elements. Movies are kind of simple in that, basically, you make a comedy, you make a drama, you make a horror movie. It's something specific that will appeal to a certain sort of person. In games, you've got both what is the feel of it? It's a horror game, but then you've got the mechanics of it. 'Cause you can make a first-person shooter that's a horror game. You can make a first-person shooter that's a war game. You can make -- Nintendo made a third-person shooter that was a paintball game. And so, there's this weird mix of elements where people are like, "Do you want a story? Don't you want a story? Do you want a shooter? Do you want an RPG? Do you want this? Do you want that?" And all these things come together to some weird formulation, and then people are like, "Oh, that's a good formulation! That did well. Let's do 3,000 more of that."
I feel it's an unstable chemistry where things can always change, and that's one of the things that makes it interesting. Things can change. Now we have a lot of the indie games coming in, which are both getting kind of retro, getting into a gaming formalism without story, but then you have games like Thomas Was Alone, that are both very retro and then trying to approach narrative in an interesting way and make you feel for little blocks.
So, you can always predict the future. You will 99 percent of the time be wrong when you do it.
[Laughs.] Something I had wanted to ask you about was what you feel the audience or whoever doesn't understand about the work that goes into what you do, as it fits into games. You had written about skill level for writing. I'm just going to quote back your sentence to you, which is that "you're supposed to have a level of skill as opposed to most other fields, where you're just expected to have breadth and depth of knowledge."
"Music critics don't have to be able to play instruments, book critics aren't required to be speed readers, but a lot of gamers really feel game critics should be able to get those high scores and many can."
Can you talk a little bit about that? It's an interesting thing to articulate because it's true, but I also feel like it's seldom acknowledged.
It's seldom acknowledged because no one wants to admit -- if you're not great at games, you really don't want to admit it because gamers like to de-legitimize everyone who disagrees with them to begin with, and often like to portray themselves as better. You know, it's like, "That critic said it took him 15 hours to play through that game. I played through it in half an hour!" on ultra-hard!" A lot of this stuff I'm real skeptical about, but the people who are most into games are very good at it, and the people who design them are great at it because, you know, they do it a lot. It creates a weird situation. It's like, when games are very hard -- especially when there's a game with a story, but it's a really, really hard game, it's as though you were a movie reviewer but you were required periodically to go back in and change the film at the projector yourself and every time you went back, it was a new projector with more complex controls. It's like, no one else asked me to do that. It's one of the arguments about making games easier or allowing people to customize the difficulty. If you're telling a story, do you want to create a point where people never finish your story? Unfortunately, most games that have a story don't care enough about it to really be concerned. Some people do. Warren Spector was someone who really wanted people to be able to finish his games. He would say, "You know, there are three different ways to get past this obstacle. You just choose whichever one you're most comfortable with." I really liked that approach.
Max Payne, the worse you played the game, the more painkillers it would give to boost your health. Some people are like, "I'm telling a story. I want to drag you through the story even if you can't get it." Other people are, like, hardcore gamers. They're like -- they're designed so the worse you play, the harder it is to complete the game. It's like the early Resident Evil games, which would have very limited ammo. It would be, if you were really good at the game and you could walk around, you just used the revolver or the knife, kill every zombie. You'd do great. If you're not that good, you get out the machine gun, you're out of ammunition. I've had to stop Resident Evil games because I had no ammunition left and that was it. The game was over. That drives me crazy. People have varying feelings about it. Some people -- I'm a great believer in cheating, honestly. It's like, if I can't get through a game, I will go to a walk-through, but some people feel that is wrong. I knew someone who years ago said he played Myst and he got stuck on a puzzle so he said, "I will never finish that game 'cause I can't get past that puzzle."
For me, a game is a form of enjoyment. It's not a form of proving yourself as a man. It's entertainment. I want to enjoy the experience. If there's a part of the experience I don't enjoy, but I'm enjoying the overall experience, I want to skip the part I don't enjoy. To me, that seems reasonable. For a lot of really hardcore games, it is infuriating to even have an easy mode. It's like they feel somehow it makes the game worse that the developers are not devoting all their energy to make the best game for the hardcore games.
And, you know, I remember with the Halo games, which I played on, like, middle mode, and people were like, "Oh no, you can't play that. You have to play the game on its hardest mode or you're not really getting the experience." And I think for a lot of gamers, there is the experience and then there are all other experiences that don't count because they're not the experience. If you don't play a game on the hardest mode, you're not really playing the game. You're playing a fake version. You're playing the sex-doll version instead of the real-woman version of the game. But for me, as I say, I want to have fun. I play games to have fun. If I have fun playing a game on "easy" mode and don't have fun fun playing on the "hard" mode, I'll play it on "easy" mode. I know there are other people out there like that because they have "easy" mode. They have "easy" mode because there must be a sizable constituency that want easy mode, but those people aren't on gaming forums. The people on gaming forums, even if they played on "easy" mode, they're not gonna admit it because gamers are, like, the meanest kids in grammar-school playgrounds. They'll go after you for anything.
You mentioned some of this in your email, "crazed anger" being a huge problem in videogame culture. I think this overlaps a little with what you're talking about. When did you start to notice this crystallize within the broader videogame community, those kinds of attitudes and sentiments? Has it just always been there?
The anger? Well, I mean, there's always been anger in any sort of online thing. It's something I saw before I was on gaming forums. You go on movie forums and people get in huge arguments about whether Jodie Foster is gay. People get really angry because they're like, "She's not gay! She's gonna be my girlfriend someday!" There's a certain number of crazy people on forums. I realize that a lot of the problem is everyone gets a megaphone that way.
I do swing dancing. I was on some swing-dance forum and I asked a question and I got hammered for asking a question about bands that play at a moderate tempo because I found it hard to dance fast.
There were people saying, "How dare you! You should appreciate the music! If you can't dance fast enough, sit there and listen to the music!" I thought like, "Oh my God! I'm being attacked from all sides." Later -- years later, I went back and looked at that thread. It was two people who had attacked me. Most people didn't care. Most people weren't even on the thread. Two people were outraged and were fighting me. I know both those of people and they're perfectly friendly to me in person.
If you're an asshole at a club among 50 people, no matter how much of an asshole you are, it's gonna be hard for you to drive people out of the club because you're one person. But on the internet, in a forum, one person who is really hostile can scare newbies away. They can just, like, slam people the moment they come in. You see that. You see people that are so toxic, who take great joy in crushing things. And you have people who are just angry and can get away with being angry. In the real world -- if someone says, "I didn't enjoy Halo," you can't go up and say, "I hope you're raped in the ass and then you die!" because that just won't go over well. But you can say anything you want online.
I love the story of some woman who was getting all these rape threats and what she did was she tracked down who these people were and she spoke to their parents, because so many of the people who make these threats are, like, 12. She just spoke to their parents and said, "I want you to know what your kid tweeted at me." I feel that should happen to everything. I think everyone should have their parents -- my mom, she would tell me if I did something wrong if she heard about it.
So, do you think there's really any difference between someone being an asshole over videogames and someone being an asshole over swing dance online?
Well, I think the swing-dance thing is a little different because there really are not gonna be people threatening to kill you because you prefer triad jazz to classic swing. It's a small community of enthusiasts. I think whenever you have a large group, whenever you have, like, millions and millions of people, you have this thing where people feel like -- I don't know what it is people feel, 'cause I don't want to do it. I think part of it is just attention-seeking, part of it is not having have a life. I really think so much of the toxicity is people who are very young. I remember once playing Halo and there was some kid who sounded like he was about 12 who was swearing at everyone and threatening people and demanding people be banned. You know, the problem with videogames started out as a thing for a kids and yet kids tend to be the thing that are most harmful to videogames. Only the bad ones. Lots of good kids in the world, but you can just make such a horrible experience just because you're an immature little twerp who has nothing going in your life but videogames. What was the game that was just delayed? No Man's Sky and the guy was getting death threats because he delayed a game by a few months? It's like, these people clearly have nothing going on in their life. It's kind of sad. If they weren't such horrible people, you would think, "That is so sad that you have so little happening in your life that this causes huge rage in you.” It's unimaginable. It's one of these things that is hard to get your head around, the amount of hostility.
I agree, and E3 is next week and I feel like I see -- we'll see what it's like next week, but I feel like every year I watch as people who I know are adults, people who are either currently game-industry critics or writers, they don't engage in it to a level of what you're talking about making death threats, but there's a lot of dejected scoffing or aggressive dismissiveness or this attitude that they know better, similarly, than game companies about what it is they should be doing. Do you feel like you observe that behavior among game critics as well?
As I say, I don't really know game critics. I feel -- so, I only go by what I read.
I tend to read the game critics who -- the periodicals where I feel the reviews are well-written by people who actually are somewhat thoughtful. Like, Eurogamer has some good reviews. So, I tend to avoid -- most of the really obnoxious stuff I won't see in game reviews. I'll just see it on forums.
I think the nature of being a reviewer, though, means that you think you know better. It's like, if you look at anything -- if you look in movies, you'll see entire movie sites saying, "You know, this comedy starring Adam Sandler would have been so much better if it was a drama starring Robert De Niro." And it's like, "Why are you reviewing the movie in your head instead of the movie that got made?"
Critics are bored. Critics have a unique perspective because they have been in their field long enough to be bored of all the stuff that everyone else likes. It's like, you know, critics are very excited when something new comes along. They're like, "This is new and fresh!" Sometimes people like it and sometimes they don't.
But, you know, there are always new people coming in for whom the new Call of Duty game is actually really fresh and new and interesting because they haven't played anything like that yet.That's why critics will tend to like more avant-garde things. A lot of critics like indie games because they're something a little different. Critics are just bored.
[Laughs.] You put that well, but they've stuck around long enough to get bored with the things most people find --
Yeah, and you can also say your tastes get more refined. It's like, you appreciate different things. I don't drink but I assume if you drink wine and then you spend all your time drinking wine and trying out wines that you have a different perspective on wine. It's not that it's really a better perspective or a worse perspective. It's a perspective that comes from more experience, and it means that you will speak very well to people who have as much experience as you do and a lot of what you say will be totally stupid to people who don't, which is why I always liked the idea that I might be a reviewer for the people who are a little more normal. Not the casuals, but not the obsessives. Just the people who like playing games and having fun.
Yeah. So, we've talked about a lot of different toxic pockets. I guess, I'm curious, not to fixate on Gamergate but just to touch on it very briefly -- I don't know what your memories of it are or were, but do you get the sense that the games media sort of bungled that as it was happening? Like, is there a game they could have done a better job?
You know, that was something when it first started out, I was just kind of seeing the phrase mentioned and I wasn't clear on what it is. I had to do some research. Unless you were someone who was just following the news daily, Gamergate was suddenly this thing that came up. I think most of the journalists weren't really sure how to approach it at first. I think if you look at the early stuff, some people took the Gamergate thing seriously instead of immediately saying, "This kind of sounds like a bullshit argument.”
I think part of that -- you know, there is this inherent sexism in gaming, which comes from it being so male-dominated in journalism and game design and all that. It's very easy to fall into the same traps everyone else did. Of course, journalists like a scandal, too. So you'd say, "Hey there's a scandal!" They'll be like, "Oh! We must report on this scandal."
So, there was this initial period where people seemed to take Gamergate seriously, and then, you know, after a while there was kind of a backlash to that and people were like, "You know, this is stupid. Why is everyone ragging on this woman who didn't really do anything? Why is she getting death threats?" But then you always had people who insisted this was a legitimate argument, even though -- kind of like Donald Trump will say, "Well, it's a legitimate argument whether someone who had Mexican parents can judge me." It's not a legitimate argument. But there are people who will insist it is, and you can't argue them out of that. To this day, you'll have some people who really support the idea that there's some sort of chicanery going on and it seems to all center around women because apparently it's only chicanery if women do it. I don't know.
Gamergate is the sort of thing that needs to be fixed. There does seem to be a consciousness of this now. There are -- I think it's a lot harder to fuck with women and not get banned from things than it used to be. I feel like people are becoming very concerned about the toxicity on forums and online games. There's clearly a movement to try and do something about it. It's a tough field. Technology can do all sorts of things if people can just find the right formula. I'm hoping that a mix of technology and increase in peer pressure -- I think is one of these draconian things like they'll do in a military school where if one person does something bad you just punish everyone, but you let everyone know who the actual culprit is so that they will beat the shit out of them. But it's hard. I mean, technology is fighting against something that technology makes easy to do, which is to be an anonymous troll.
Yeah. This is an intersection of a couple things you mentioned, which is you said "the ability that angry teenagers have to have an oversized effect." Do you think game companies, should they have been more responsive? Should they have gotten more actively involved? I've gotten the perception that maybe the game industry is afraid of the audience it's created, because they're damned if they do and damned if they don't if they respond one way or another. That's been my impression.
What's your feeling on that?
Absolutely. The thing is this toxicity has been around for years and hasn't been being addressed in any serious way. From the game companies' point of view, it's not: Is this inherently bad or inherently good? It's: Is this affecting the bottom line? So, if there's toxicity but it's not really driving people away and there's not a lot of pressure on them to do anything about it and they're selling games and if they crack down on it too much, they could lose money. They could sell less games. I understand that. Capitalist world. There's increasing pressure from the outside to the point where now, if they don't do something about it, they know they can get singled out by people who are concerned about the subject. There's more -- I think there's more of a possibility that it really is keeping people away. A lot of the reasons maybe there are more men in games than women in games isn't because gaming is naturally male so much as that being insulted and threatened with things, males tend to shrug that off more. They're like, "Oh yeah, that's just guys. That guy on the internet just told me was gonna cut my head off. Whatever." Whereas women tend to be more concerned about these things because, you know, women know how crazy guys can be.
You had said, too, that none of these are necessarily new topics. I mean, you mentioned before, your colleague who had written about The Sims in a social way and how that was unusual at that time. But you said you're sure someone wrote about sexism in games 20 years ago and it was probably ignored.
You said it's probably a bigger topic now, but the media probably didn't do that.
Yeah. I don't know how much control the media has over what people consider important. I think, also, it's a massive thing. When a lot of women gamers starting complaining about toxicity, as things came up. What's it called? Feminist Frequency?
The videos came out and got all the backlash, and so people started talking about the backlash. It became a big thing. There had to be a point. There had to be something to make it big enough. Something can be a festering boil and it's kind of easy to ignore, and then one day the boil explodes and it's everywhere. So, sometimes, something has to happen. The boil has to grow and grow and grow over the years. And people notice it. People are like, "God, that's an ugly boil. Something should be done about that someday." But they don't. Then one day it just explodes and someone's like, "Oh my God! How long has this been here?"
You said that the media just amplifies something when it's already getting loud.
Do you think -- has it always been that way? Do you think the media's been getting weaker? Or?
I think for the most part the media has always been a bit of a follower. I mean, you do hear cases like that William Hearst got us into war with Cuba or some other country just by printing all these inflammatory headlines. That was at a point where, of course, people had limited sources for information so it was kinda easier to say anything you like and be the only source for that.
The media wants people to read their stuff. There are always people who try to push things forward, but I feel that there's kind of a point -- it's like with civil rights. There were certainly people writing about civil rights in the '30s and the '40s and the '50s as it was slowly building up and there was so much racism that it's like -- but there were people pushing, making more noise. It slowly gets into people to the point where suddenly you can write an editorial about civil rights and people go, "Damn right!" In a way where 10 years ago they'd be like, "Oh, it doesn't seem that big a deal."
I feel like you need a lot of things to happen all at once. You need the media to speak out because they can amplify things. They can point at things. But at the same time, you need a body of people making noise so there's something to amplify. It's like, I don't think the media can just take an important issue that everyone's ignoring and turn it into an issue everyone's paying attention to. I could be wrong. There could be cases where someone's done that in the way there are DJs who, like -- I heard Beck's first song. Some DJ just played it for, like, three days straight and that's why he became a star. You have these things where someone can really just raise someone else up.
But I feel like for the most part, the media needs something there to talk about. They need it to be big enough that when they talk about, people aren't saying, "Well, why is he talking about this thing no one cares about?" Because people write about all sorts of things all the time. You see people talking about wars in certain countries and terrible famines and all that and most of it just doesn't register. People reading The New York Times are like, "That's a shame." But they don't do anything about it. It doesn't create a wider thing. I think it's because people are just never that excited about famines in foreign countries.
Now, sometimes, celebrities can do more. George Harrison does a concert for Bangladesh and people are like, "Oh my God. That's a terrible situation." Celebrities can have more power than media. Media reporting on celebrities can have a shitload of power. You need something big that media can amplify.
I don't know what The New York Times paid freelancers in the late '90s. Your comments echo things I hear in my circles and things I've observed, which is that rates have been going down. Do you feel like there's a relationship between rates going down and fewer things being examined by the media?
Hmm. [Pause.] Well, I'm inclined to think no. I feel like there are as many people writing about things now, or even more people writing about things. Media is now one of people's sources for information, but it has less power as bloggers and people posting on Facebook have greater power.
So, I think if newspapers had more people, they could cover more stories. They can bring things to someone's attention and it might cause someone to start making noise about it. So, the range of topics covered by newspapers has to shrink a little. But, you know, so many people go to blogs and stuff where they hear various things that I'm not sure that overall you got less attention put on things. It's just put on things in a different way.
You know, media can talk about less things but things are still getting talked about.
Yeah. I don't think it creates fewer -- I think it may just slow, somewhat, the types of things that get examined. It may also be just creating points of entry for younger talent to make their bones. But I think it may also cause experts who are aware of things sooner to be less inclined to write for them about that. So, they may not write about it. They may just talk about it with friends or whatever.
Or go on a podcast or whatever.
I do think there's always a mystery with the obsession with pageviews now that you have to reach a point where you are inherently so popular as a writer that there's no pressure on you to do anything except what you want to to do. It's like Frank Rich, who writes now and again for New York. You know, he's a big name. He can choose something to write about and they're not gonna say, "Oh, are you getting enough pageviews?" Because he inherently -- I love his writing, so I read what he reads. I don't care what he writes. Well, I don't read his theater reviews, but I read his political stuff. I will always read it because it's always interesting. If you can reach that point -- I never reached that point. I wish I could have reached the point where like, "Oh, I gotta see what Charles Herold has to say." It's really hard to get to that point, but when you get to that point, you have a lot more latitude. I feel like with the obsession with page views, though, is probably a lot of people who are actually pretty successful and working for major publications are still thinking about that. They're thinking, "You know, I'm pretty well-ensconced here, but if I don't get enough hits, they could let me go. They could shrink my column. They could boot me down to bi-weekly." I feel like there's less of the ability to say what you want without worrying about how it's connecting with people. And so, people aren't gonna write about something no one cares about because no one will read it. You're better off writing about something that already has attention and amplifying something that exists rather than trying to bring something forward.
I mean, I can remember a decade ago getting called into the managing editor's office at The Onion A.V. Club and getting raked over the coals stories I did either got "the wrong kind of traffic" or it got not enough Facebook "likes," which I understand are not really the metric people care about anymore.
Whatever. We could trade stories about that for forever.
But, I mean, what were the -- I guess the more positive way to spin it is what were the perks of writing about videogames for The New York Times at a time where it was kind of new territory? Were there perks?
Well, the main perk is you get all the videogames for free. I mean, that's why I got into videogame reviewing. I was like, "I can get games for free!" It's like, Lev Grossman had a whole bookshelf full of games that they just send! He said, "Oh, they send me games!" I was like, "Oh my God, that is the most amazing thing." They also used to send me other weird shit like a horseshoe kit and a little, teeny barbecue. I don't know if I stopped getting those About.com is not as impressive as The New York Times or just they don't send as much of that crap out as they used to. I haven't gotten anything except cookies for years. But I used to get some really interesting stuff. When you read, like, stuff from earlier game journalists, they had even bigger stories. They were like, "Okay, here are the incredible things they used to send me.” That was a pretty good perk.
Unfortunately, The New York Times limits your perks. Like, twice, I also had the chance to be flown to England to be on the set of a Tomb Raider movie and meet Angelina Jolie and my editor was like, "No, you can't do that." I was like, "Oh man! I wanna go to England! For God’s sake!" So, I heard someone years ago, some PR person was telling me that the Washington Post or one of them at the time, that he used to go on all these junkets and just not tell his editor. But I was chicken. I really didn't want to get fired even though I eventually did anyway. So, I shoulda taken the junkets and just not told them.
But the main perk is just you get the games and you get to write about them. I could write about whatever game I wanted. I could write about the hot, big game, but I could also write about little indie games. I loved doing that. It's not like indie people never even think of sending you their game. People make a little Flash game, they never send us a press release to The New York Times. They put it out and then I discover and I'm like, "Hey, that's really fun!" I write about it and then they quote me on their website and I suppose a few more people go out and play their game. But I like the idea that I can just talk about whatever seemed interesting. That I wasn't trapped into talking about whatever was trending.
I hope this isn't tacky to ask, but what did The New York Times pay people to write about videogames in the late '90s?
I got $1,000 per column. The columns were 800 to 1,000 words, I think. So, about a dollar a word.
Yeah. That's about in line -- so, that's old magazine rates.
Yeah. That's in line with what I've been hearing. I mean, I know you mentioned at some point you got a "real job," but were you full-time freelancing ever in your career?
To the extent -- I was a freelancer to the extent that I didn't have any job except what I was getting paid as a freelancer. It's like, basically I'd gotten a job. I was working as a programmer and then product reviews and then when -- actually, it was no longer Time Digital. On Magazine, when they closed down, I had decided to just live on what The Times paid me 'cause I'm actually very frugal and can live on very little money. So I was like, "That's all I need."
And so, I did that. I also wrote occasional pieces for USA Weekend because the editor had actually just emailed me one day and said, "I like your writing. Would you like to write some stuff for us?" Which I wish would happen again. He, unfortunately, later left that job and then I didn't have that either. So, you know, since then technically I've been freelance. About.com, that was also kind of -- I've had these regular contracted things but I've been considered an independent contractor. I was an independent contractor. I was an an independent contractor for The Times, independent contractor for About.com. So, I guess that makes me a freelance writer. But I never really learned the skills of pitching things and finding work and all that. I'm very puzzled by that because my career has been so serendipitous. It just kind of happened.
Unfortunately, I'm a little passive. The truth is my relationships with women have all been with women who asked me out as well. So, it's been a general -- and, you know, it works, but you have to be patient. It doesn't work nearly as well as going out after things, I think. But that's something I have not trained myself to do.
That was something I was going to ask about. Has the way you've approached writing, has that changed in all the time you've been doing it?
No. Not really. I just -- you know, with About.com, once again, I could write what I wanted. There was -- About.com had this weird remuneration system where you got a flat fee and then you got paid extra based on this complicated formula of pageviews, but the way the formula's set up it was almost impossible to make any money off of the pageviews unless you were one of the top 50 of their 700 sites. I never was. Most of the people I've spoken to who worked at About.com, they were just got the minimum, too. The minimum kept going down, which was very sad. So, while I could have focused on getting more pageviews, there was no way writing about the Wii in its declining years or writing about the Wii U in its perpetual decline that I ever could have got the kind of huge numbers that would have made me any real money. So, that gave me the freedom to just write whatever I wanted to write. There were some things that tend to do a little better, like, how-tos, but there are only so many things you can tell people how to do. Once you to tell them how to hook something up and get it on the internet and it's all homebrew on it, you're pretty much done.
Yeah. I've heard of that model before. I think Nate Silver's blog, FiveThirtyEight, they do a similar thing where it's this really complicated formula. I think you have to be your own hype man in addition to coming up with the idea, writing it, and then delivering it on time. [Laughs.]
There's a lot of that. Someone had -- when I posted on Facebook that I was looking for a job, someone suggested looking at Examiner.com. I've looked at them. I found a site where they ask people what they make and people were getting paid two dollars an article because there's no infrastructure. At least About.com had a whole system of SEO and most of their pages they got free Google, and they were always trying to tweak that. So, you know, they had a system for getting people to their site, whereas Examiner has no system and it's just you get the pageviews and we'll pay you based on your pageviews. So that was, you know -- of course, if you read the Examiner, most of what's written there is absolutely awful. About.com has much higher quality. So, you can create a model where anyone can write for you, but no one will make money unless they can bring people in themselves. 'Cause if you're gonna do that, you might as well just start your own blog. It's like, what do you need an Examiner for?
Obviously you're in the midst of looking for work. What are you hoping to find? Where have you been looking?
You know, so far all I've been doing is telling my friends I need to do something. I'm getting alerts from Indeed.com about whatever writing jobs have come up. There are some things I think I probably could do like technical writing. I mean, I have written tutorials and stuff. So, theoretically, all this stuff horrifies me. It's like, what I want is to do what I've always done, which is to spout off my opinions. Those are jobs that, as I say, you're most likely to get because you know someone who knows someone who knows someone rather than because they're gonna stick an ad out there. So, it becomes a tricky proposition.
There are so many writers I know who might have contacts. The truth is I haven't even contacted them yet because, honestly, I prefer the hope of thinking something will happen to actually going and finding out if it's going to happen. At some point, I'm gonna have to contact some people and see. Right now, I have some money saved up. So, I'm not in an emergency situation. Unfortunately, when I'm not in an emergency situation, I can become very lackadaisical about things. So, I haven't done as much as I should. Today's the day I'm gonna finally put my résumé together because a friend of my girlfriend said knew someplace she could post a writer's résumé.
So, that's good to get out there. I need to put it up on Indeed.com.
Really -- I always think I'm going to just write for some of the big magazines that don't review games and say, "It's time for you to have a game reviewer." But once again, I don't really have that confidence where I think, "Oh yeah, that will definitely work." So I tend to delay and say, "Oh, it's stupid to even try."
But, on the other hand, the fact that I have a writing career at all is totally unlikely and ridiculous. I totally lucked into it. So, there's no real reason to believe I can't just have other ridiculous bouts of luck.
It's probably worse throwing a bunch of Hail Marys and seeing what's happening.
I mean, I did everything I could to avoid having a writing career.
Yeah, this was before the internet came and really "disrupted" is the popular word, but really it came along and destroyed all the business models and it hasn't really helped replace them yet.
There's a lot of great experiments going on but, yeah, I "quit" writing a couple years ago and while looking for other stuff sort of wound up, even though I swore I wouldn't do it again, it's two years back doing it again. I still live in that state of, "Well, is this who I really am? Is this what I really do? Or is this just what I'm doing until something else takes off?" I think it's just indicative of where we are as a profession where you have to stay open to other things happening.
But, man, if you want to do anything other than writing, it's really difficult to be seen as employers as anything but a writer.
You know what I mean?
Yeah. That's interesting.
They'll look at your résumé and they'll be like, "Ah, so you're a copywriter?" And it's like, "Well, but I've also managed a couple newsrooms and I've done this and that." They hear that and they're like, "Ah, so you're a writer, right?"
[Laughs.] Which I say not to cast a dark cloud over what you're doing.
What I'd really like to do is be a fiction writer. That was my dream. This whole writing for newspaper thing was a bit of an accident. But, you know, I've always had a lot of opinions so it worked out very well. The truth is I did write a book and then I looked at it recently and I said, "My God, this isn't a book. This is a novella." I didn't realize how short it was. But I'm like -- I keep thinking I'll publish it online on Amazon and see what happens. But I don't have a lot of confidence in it 'cause my girlfriend read it and she was like, "These are such terrible people." Also, the book was written in the '80s and was set in that period, and so now it's kinda weird. I learned a valuable lesson in not setting books in whatever time you are in a way that makes it hard to be any other time 'cause it was about an ex-hippie living in the '80s. There's no way to update that. But, you know, I should do it. I've got nothing else to do with it.
I've got ideas for another book, which I'm just endlessly planning out. I do still like the idea of writing a book on narrative and storytelling in games, but once again, the fact that one of those main things you keep reading is you have to have a plan for doing the publicity yourself, that is something I have no background in at all, so then I'm like, "Well, is there any point in pitching a book if that's the only way you can sell it?"
So, I don't know.
I just wanna be a movie director! That's what I majored in in college. Why can't I just do that?
Well, I'll ask you one more question: What do you think videogames have accomplished?
Hmm. What have videogames accomplished? I mean, they've certainly changed -- I mean, they've managed to become an entertainment form that people do. They've gone from being a very niche thing to a very mainstream thing, even if a lot of the core gamers don't consider the mainstream games like little phone games and stuff to be real games. Once upon a time, all there was was Tetris and now there are million Tetris-y games people are playing on their phones.
What's certainly been interesting is just the creation of the big industry. I also think it has created -- this is my personal interest -- an interesting way to tell stories. I regret that not many games really explore that. Some do. It's like Walking Dead when you have to choose who lives or who dies and then that affects who is alive in the next chapter. That's cool. In BioShock, when you're going through this quaint little town and then suddenly you're given a baseball and told to help people kill this interracial couple among this old-timey music and stuff, it creates this shock that would be hard to create with just a movie, where a movie you're not a part of it. You're just outside of it. The only thing outside of games that can really make you a part of it is theater pieces. I once saw a theater piece where you're Alice. The whole audience is Alice in Wonderland, and all these characters come up to you and say crazy things and threaten to cut off your head and all that. I saw Sleep No More, which is a version of Macbeth where it's in a big house and you just walk around and see all these dancers acting out scenes from -- was it Macbeth? Hamlet? One of those. That was cool. You can do that for a handful of people with time.
Games can put people in this place. It can create this whole world that you actually can enter and explore and feel a part of. I love that they do that. I think a lot about the potential for that. I think the potential's not often, really been reached. There's some games where I think, "That is so close."
There are some games that tell something very linear in the way that's pretty conventional but are still entertaining, and that also works. There are some games that actually manage to create a cheesy story. There's something that was based on a John Woo movie or something, and it was short and it was linear, but it just really felt like you were in a martial arts movie. I loved that. I love being able to enter something.
So, for me, that's one of the most interesting things games have found, is a way to make you really enter into a world and experience it and at the same time create gameplay so it's not just walking around a 3D world but actually making you an active participant. I feel there's a lot more that could be done, and some things that probably practically speaking can't be done. Like, I've often thought about trying to make things mean something. I think that's one of the things games struggle with. It's like, people die but do you care? And how would you make people care? I remember playing a game years ago called Ground Control, an RTS. Everytime someone dies, it's kind of like: "Unit 1 down, not responding!" I thought, "Well, what if instead of that you heard over the radio, 'Oh my God! We're on fire!'" But then I thought, "You know, the problem is it becomes just like the new thing you hear." The first time, "Oh that's different." After that -- I once actually thought if I knew how to make Flash games, what if you made a Flash game that was a little mini RTS in which every soldier died in a unique way. You know, trying to save a friend. One's crawling away from bullets. I realized if you did that, if everyone had a unique death, people would play the game specifically to try and get every death. Not because it's a meaningful or it brought home the horrors of war, but just because it would be cool to see every possible way someone could die.
That's kind of the trick. On the one hand, you're creating this living environment. On the other hand, it's a game where people are like, "How do I get this cool thing? How do I get this cool horrible thing? How do I make this happen?" You know? So, I'm fascinated by the possibilities and disappointed when they don't come in. I once talked to someone who's making a game based on the Law & Order series, which I used to watch 'cause my girlfriend loves it. The neat thing about that show is sometimes innocent people get convicted and sometimes guilty people get away. You're never even sure because it deals with evidence. You often don't actually know if people are necessarily guilty. I thought, "It would be great in that game if you could bring a case against someone and convict them without ever knowing if they were really guilty or not. If the game was set up so you find the right person and then you try them and you get guilty or innocent. But what if you could arrest anyone and just go through? Then it would be like the TV series." It'd be kind of a statement about how difficult the law really is.
I talked to the producer and he's like, "You know, we talked about that. But that would be super-expensive because you would have to have so many different elements. Branching storylines are great, but they're very expensive. You wind up with a game that has all the content of a 30-hour game, but you can play through it in four hours." And then you have to say, "Well, are they gonna play through it again?"
So, I'm fascinated by the various ways people -- you know, for me, that's the most interesting thing about games. But I have the horrible feeling that's not what games will ultimately be known for. That it's more likely to be maybe the socializing of MMOs. As an introvert, I find it even less interesting to talk to cartoon people in a cartoon world than I find to talk to random people in the real world. So that's never gonna work for me.
People like the open-world things, which are kind of destructive to storytelling. The Grand Theft Auto games, they had a lot of problems with storytelling because, you know, you're just randomly going over this and that and sometimes you kind of just bump into a little story. A lot of RPGs are like that, too. I played a game years ago and got caught up in side quests and by the time I got to the main quest, again, like 10 hours later I had totally forgotten what I was playing or who the characters were.
But, you know, the challenges and the possibilities are so fascinating. I wish I could actually do games. I wish I could enter that world. But, you know, everyone wants to enter that world. It'd be great to make a game, but that's a tough world to get into even if you're not some middle-aged guy who has a résumé as a game critic.