Tag Archives: videogames

2015 Writing Year in Review

 

Happy New Year!

*Throws champagne, drinks confetti*

The last few hours of a year always seem to bring on reflection, and this year’s no different. The last 365 presented many changes for me–I left the Escapist,  had a book chapter published, landed some new outlets, and went to work at a writing tutor. Added to that, I started doing podcasts and video scripts for the first time.

So before the clock turns, here are some of my writing highlights from 2015:

Favorite Piece: “H.P. Lovecraft, Master of Environmental Horror” (Slate)

My primary writing goal this year was to branch out, and nothing exemplifies that better than this piece about Lovecraft’s increasing relevance in the age of environmental destruction. No video games here–just literature.

Biggest Achievement: Shooter

Shooter was a big point of pride for many reasons. It’s my first book publication, first off, but it also scored a couple of nice reviews and has some gorgeous art.

Largest Growth Area: Podcasting

When I began 2015, I’d never taped a podcast. As of today, I’ve appeared on the ChattyCastThe Freelance Game, and Covert Contact from Blogs of War. I’ve come to really enjoy it and hope to do more in the future.

Favorite Interview: “Military Expert P.W. Singer Predicts the Video Game Wars of the Future” (Playboy)

P.W. Singer’s a fascinating guy, and his book Ghost Fleet provides a scary look at a future where games and military tech are increasingly merging. It’s a topic I’ve followed for years, and I’m glad public consciousness has finally turned to this crucial, and sometimes worrying, development.

Favorite New Outlet: Extra Credits

I’d admired Extra Credits long before I began writing about games, and I couldn’t be prouder that I’ve leant my hand to two episodes this year. The first was on how games can re-approach WWII, while the second was the crucial question of where our consoles come from.

Weird and Wild

I also had a couple odd ducks this year, both at Playboy. The first was an article about visiting the Resident Evil haunted house at Universal Studios Japan–and all the weird Japan-ness that ensued–while the second tracked the real history behind Assassin’s Creed Syndicate‘s ghost stories.

So that’s it for 2015! I’ll have some more news on the way early next year, so watch this space…


People Doing Cool Stuff With Critical Intel

Every few weeks I run a Google search to see what people have been saying about Critical Intel.  Well, I do usually, but I’ve fallen off a bit in the past few months while I’ve been getting married and moving to another country.

So imagine my surprise this morning when I ran my usual search and found not one, but three great pieces that use CritIntel or Borders Bigotry as a launching point to discuss topics in-depth.

First of all, Wisconsin-based cartographer/graphic designer Martin Elmer made this fascinating infographic inspired by my panel Beyond Borders: Global Game Controversies.  I wish we were doing that panel again, since I would’ve loved to have had this for a visual aid.

Next, back in May the guys at EXP Podcast did an episode called Conjuring Videogame Magic that took my column I Hate Magic as a starting point to explore magic in games, and how we could come up with something more interesting than magic missiles.  They hit on some really interesting points and I enjoyed the discussion – it certainly got my attention and I’ll be listening in the future.

Last but not least, The Oracle Turret has an absolutely fantastic post called Merchants, Whores and Swineherds, that talks about racism in Dishonored, an issue I broached in Corvo is Not An Honorable Man.  I’m so happy to see this, since the I wanted to write more about Dunwall’s racist undertones but didn’t want to go off on a tangent in an already long column.  I’m glad molotovcockroach took up the banner, and I’m especially glad that the piece introduced me to his writing.  Go, click the link, read.  If this guy nice lady isn’t getting paid, she should be.

Seeing all this work inspired by or referencing Critical Intel really inspires me.  The point of the column has always been to foster discussion about how videogames can enrich our understanding of the real world, and vice-versa, and it makes me so happy to see it fulfilling that role.


One Month of Critical Intel

As you probably know, I’ve been hard at work recently on Critical Intel, my new weekly column at The Escapist.  It’s been a great month packed end-to-end with work that makes me really proud.  Frankly, having a dedicated space each week has made me understand what it’s like when dogs go to a leash-free park.  First they stand there staring at their owners, blinking, as if to say: “What?  I can go anywhere I want now?”  Then they’re off like a shot, tearing over the scenery as quickly as possible, making giant leaps and running circles.

I’ve always had enough ideas about games to write an article every week, the two things I didn’t have were the time and the dedicated venue.  Of the two, the venue was the most difficult part (I can make time) and I can’t thank the good people at Escapist enough for giving me my own little corner of the web.

So what, exactly, is Critical Intel?  Broadly, it’s a column that examines the overlap between videogames and the real world.  That covers a lot of territory – one week I might be talking about an historical event or legend featured in a game, another week I might be discussing military or medical uses of game technology, while I finish up the month with an in-depth look at the trouble games get into overseas.  It will be always intelligent, always well-researched, and often international.  My goal is to take you a level deeper.

Just to give you a sampler, of the three articles that have come out so far, the first was about game censorship in China, the second discussed how games misrepresent the Mexican Cartel War, and the third addressed whether Assassin’s Creed III‘s DLC pack passes muster historically.  The fourth, out this Thursday, is about something entirely different.

Writing an article every week – while holding a full-time job – has been a real challenge, but the warm response all of you have given Critical Intel makes all the long nights and sacrificed weekends worthwhile.  Thanks to everyone for sharing this new journey with me, and I’m looking forward to showing you interesting new stuff every week – bringing need-to-know information to the people who need to know everything.


Beyond Borders: Global Game Controversies (Video)

At PAX Prime 2012, James Portnow, Steve Watts, Elisa Melendez and I hosted a panel on the many issues games run into by portraying real events – especially in an age where games are played around the world.

Have a look:


Beyond Borders Reading List

We are in the midst of a sea change in the way games are made, marketed, and consumed.  Previously a product that was made only by Western and Japanese studios, and consumed primarily in Japan and the West, videogames are now a worldwide form of media with a presence on every continent.

One of the results of game globalization has been a backlash against the countries and groups of people regularly depicted as “enemies,” as well as a greater — sometimes disturbingly greater — partnership between game development, the military, and arms manufacturers.

At this year’s PAX Prime, we’ll be exploring this in our panel Beyond Borders: Global Game Controversies.  Come see us on Saturday, September 1st, at 5:00 PM in the Unicorn Theater.

After our previous PAX East panel, Borders, Bigotry, and Body Dumps: International Videogame Controversies, enough people requested extra resources that I put together a supplemental reading list on this blog.  Now that Beyond Borders is going live, I’ve updated the list to reflect new developments such as the Oliver North/Black Ops controversy as well as the links between EA and arms companies.

If you have any questions, I will gladly answer them in the comments.

Increasing Crossover Between Games and Real Life

The Trouble with Call of Duty‘s Scary New War of the Future — An exploration of the problematic nature of Activision’s Call of Duty: Black Ops II advertising.  It is especially critical of Oliver North’s role in the campaign.

Partners In Arms — The editorial which first pointed out that EA’s Medal of Honor: Warfighter is not only partnering with arms companies, but actively advertising their products on its website.

Hotel Oasis in Modern Warfare 3 — featured as Makarov’s hideout in the mission “Ashes to Ashes” — displays a striking resemblance to the Burj Al Arab hotel in Dubai:

 

Representing Foreign Conflicts in Games

Ghosts of Juarez — My own article exploring the Mexican government’s reaction to Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter 2 and anticipating the fallout from Call of Juarez: The Cartel.

Extra Credits: Call of Juarez: The Cartel — The Extra Credits episode I essentially wheedled/nagged/coerced James Portnow into making on the subject.  A well-done video on what’s wrong with the game, filled with quiet rage.

Guardian Article on The Castro Assassination Mission in CoD: Black Ops — Contains quotes from the Cuban government, including the best quote in the history of videogame controversies: “What the United States government did not achieve in more than 50 years, it now tries to do virtually.”

Red Cross Report on War Crimes in Videogames

You’re a War Criminal — This article by Steve Watts not only won him a spot on “Borders, Bigotry and Body Dumps,” but is the most clear-eyed discussion of the topic I’ve found anywhere.

Representation of Foreign People in Games

Muslims in My Monitor — Writer Saladin Ahmed discusses representation of Muslims in games.  Saladin is also the author of Throne of the Crescent Moon, which is an example of someone taking active part in re-framing a problematic representation of a group of people (in this case, Middle Eastern people in Fantasy).

Dangerous games people play — an opinion piece from the UAE about Middle Eastern stereotypes in games and media.

The Ugly Paulistano — a Brazilian writer living in São Paulo feels that Max Payne 3 is a fair representation of the crime in his city.

(Also see the EC episodes on Race in Games and Call of Juarez, linked above and below.)

Game Development Outside of North America, Europe, and Japan

Is the Arab World the next hot spot for gaming? — Excellent article about gaming in Yemen, and references the development of Unearthed: The Trail of Ibn Battuta.  The Reuters article it was sourced from is worth a read, and can be found here.

Argentina’s video gamers take on the world — CNN article about game development in Argentina which quotes our own panelist, James Portnow.

Hezbollah video game: War with Israel — A good example of an unhelpful response to these issues, this CNN article is about the Hezbollah propaganda game Special Force 2: The Truthful Pledge.

Solutions

Extra Credits: Race in Games — The EC team tackles the difficult subject of how better to represent people in games.

A Renaissance Scholar Helps Build Virtual Rome — A profile of Italian historian Marcello Simonetta, who consulted on Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood.

Extra Credits: Spec Ops: The LineSPOILERS, OH SO MANY SPOILERS… The EC team discusses a game that is itself a criticism of how games depict warfare.


Game Journalism U: Research Tools

Sitting on the How Not To Succeed As a Freelance Game Journalist panel was the first time I had to stop and think about how I pitch, research, and write articles.

You’d think I’d know my own process, wouldn’t you?  I didn’t, though.  After riding the Find Story-Pitch-Research-Write carousel around and around for over a year the exercise had become second nature.  I asked myself why I had succeeded when so many others hadn’t, and mainly it boiled down to this: I accidentally developed the necessary skill set by pursuing things other than game journalism.  Occasionally, I’ll be talking about these skills here on RobWritesPulp under the heading “Game Journalism U.”

“Say what?” you say.  “You’re barely in the industry yourself, and here you are trying to teach?”  That’s a fair assessment.  If you think you know more than me, you probably do.  Go, I release you, run free to other blogs!

WHY FOCUS ON RESEARCH? 

Research skills were one of the main things that separated me from the sad little box of adopt-a-kittens that is the aspiring freelancer population.  Oh sure, when the editors looked at Kitten-Rob they thought, Well, he seems well-trained, he won’t scratch the drapes and pee the carpet, but it was also obvious that I was a good mouser — that I knew how to stalk, catch, and disembowel stories to leave at the Escapist’s doorstep.  Basically, I wasn’t just well-behaved and professional, I was useful.  Being a good researcher will get you further in journalism than being a good writer.  Editors can smooth out and gloss over shoddy writing, but there’s not enough gloss in the world to hide poor research.

Research is the skeleton of every article you write.  They are the facts you can’t get wrong and should add up to a truth you’re trying to express.  Long-form journalism is case-building.  As a journalist, you’re a prosecutor laying evidence out before a jury of readers, and your goal is to bring them around to your point of view.  Sure, you can make pretty courtroom speeches, but if your facts don’t hold up the case will fall apart, the jury will turn on you, and the story will get away scot-free.  You don’t want a dangerous story roaming the streets: collect your evidence, verify your sources, build your case, plug the logic holes, Book ‘em Danno!

THE RIGHT TOOLS FOR THE JOB

Part of researching well is getting yourself the right tools.  Carpenters have their hammers, chefs have their knives, assassins have their piano wire, and researchers have these.  Do you need an accordion file?  Technically no, but it helps.  Organizing your information is just as important as finding it in the first place — that amazing quote or statistic doesn’t do you any good if you can’t find it in the heat of writing and rewriting.

Printer Ink

Why printer ink?  Do we not live in the days of the Internet?  Ink is an expensive ointment made of gold dust and mummified pharaohs.  We don’t want to waste it by printing stuff out, do we?  Yes, yes you do.  If you find a source, print it out.  Having your resources in hard copy is important.  What if your computer crashes?  What if someone alters or removes the information?  Also, research shows that people may not do their best critical thinking looking at a screen, partially because the light does weird things to your brainwaves, but also because links can be distracting when you’re pulling quotes and reviewing sources while writing.  Many writing hours have been lost to the blue, come-hither coyness of an interesting-but-unrelated hyperlink on an article.

Files and Organizational Containers

So now you’ve got all those lovely articles, corporate earnings reports, academic studies, and crime scene photos that prove Hideo Kojima masterminded the Watergate burglary.  You’re going to need a way to organize them and keep them separate so they don’t breed when you’re not looking (paper breeds when it’s not corralled, this is a fact of nature).  Start off with some clearly labeled manila folders kept in an accordion file or bucket file, separating your research by article.  Also consider keeping the business cards and contact information of any interviewees in the files.  (And when the article is published, keep a copy in the file too.  If an online publication goes out of business, your work my disappear.)  When you fill that file up, upgrade to a plastic file box.  When you fill that, it’s time to level up and get a file cabinet baby!  At that point, you’re a success by pretty much anyone’s rubric.  Congratulations, have a scotch.

Pro Tip: Scotch is not a business expense. The IRS gets mad.

Flags/Sticky Tabs

These are referred to as flags, page markers, or in my personal parlance either sticky tabs, or daddy’s little lifesavers.  I wrote two research-intensive theses back-to-back with these bad boys, on similar topics, with nary a crossed wire.  Mostly I use them to flag information so that I can find it later, but that would be like saying I use my iPhone to make phone calls.  I use them to take notes, I use them as reminders to reference another part of a text, and I use them to set goals for how much I need to read before going to sleep.  When I wrote my theses, I used an intricate system where different colors of tabs denoted what part of my thesis the information related to.  I LOVE sticky tabs.  They’re my go-to secret weapon and one of my favorite things in life.  If a girl I’m dating ever answers the door wearing only sticky tabs, I’ll probably propose on the spot.  Our wedding will be sticky-tab themed and sponsored by 3M.

Associated Press Stylebook

I’m going to take a stand and say you should absolutely buy it.  If you’re planning on actually living and working as a game journalist (or any journalist) it’s a good idea to speak the lingo.  After all, you wouldn’t move to a foreign country without picking up a local phrasebook, would you?  The Associated Press Stylebook is basically a 400 page cheat sheet that gives you the standardized spelling and grammatical structure of common words and phrases, along with a glossary of common terms.  For example, I just opened my book to a random page and found that “checkup,” without a space, is only used as a noun (as in “Janet is seeing the doctor for a routine checkup”) while the standard verb usage is “check up” (as in “I should probably check up on Janet — that’s a lot of screaming for a routine checkup”).  The Styleguide also gives you the proper capitalization rules for unfamiliar words, tables for the Heat Index, metric conversion charts, and a briefing on business reporting and media law.  Seriously, buy this book. It’s updated regularly to cover new buzzwords, but at this point if you wanted to save money and go with the 2009 guide, you’ll probably be fine.  Oh, and did I mention you can get it for around $13?  That’s the price of a movie ticket.

A Pocket Style Manual

This is optional, but it’s great to have and you can come by it cheap.  Go to a college bookstore and I almost guarantee you’ll see Diana Hacker’s little jewel somewhere.  A Pocket Style Manual is a quick-and-dirty guide to proper grammar usage, citation formats, and bibliography-building.  “What?” you say. “Bibliographies?”  Yep, bibliographies.  When you’re a journalist of any stripe you deal with information, and being able to marshal and organize that info on one sheet of paper is a huge advantage.  Sure, the reader won’t see it — in fact, your editor won’t see it — but it should be there in your file should a fact get challenged or you need to check a source.  It also gives you a lot of credibility in a pitch or article if you cite sources in a consistent, correct style.  I’m not telling you to bog your pitches and articles down with citations, understand, but if the source for a fact is something like a book or magazine article that you can’t link to online, it’s best if you lay the smackdown with a good-ol’ Chicago-style footnote.¹

Access to News and Information Publications

As a journalist, you’re the Doctor Frankenstein of information: it’s your job to scavenge disseminated pieces of knowledge and sew them together into a living, breathing whole.  You’ll have to hunt down stories and get different angles on a situation–and some of those will come from (gasp!) non-gaming publications.  Start developing a familiarity with both traditional and gaming media.  Read your local papers for news of gaming studios, set up Google alerts on Gmail for gaming-related stories, consider a digital subscription to the New York Times to know what’s going on in the world.  (Do not steal it by getting the stories through Google.  Don’t start your journalism career by screwing over your fellow journalists.)  Learn who does the best international coverage, the best tech coverage, the best domestic coverage.  If you’re really hardcore about international coverage, start subscribing to private intelligence newsletters.  Develop a similar knowledge of game publications.  Haunt Games Industry International for business coverage, GamePolitics.com for politics, Polygon, Penny Arcade Report and Escapist for compelling long-form features.  Read your gaming news and comment–you’ll learn more technique than you will passively watching a video.  One exception: listen to NPR.  You can learn a whole lot about nonfiction storytelling by listening to NPR.

A Library Card

Shhhh.  Here’s a secret: all across the country there are ancient buildings the public has forgotten.  These buildings are the home of an arcane order, and to access them, you have to be a member of their society.  Should you join their brotherhood, their temples can give you knowledge beyond your imagination.  Newspapers!  Magazines!  Microfische morgues!  Books by the thousands!  Learn to use a library and you’ll become an unstoppable research juggernaut.   Your Google-happy competitors will cower before you and you’ll slay Wikipedia-citers with a word.  The moment you read a nonfiction book for research, you become part of a very select club in game journalism and your article will vault over roughly half of your competition.

Handy Dandy Notebook

I’m always shocked when I meet game journos who don’t carry a notebook.  Notebooks are a must-have at a conference or on assignment.  I use mine to jot notes on panels, ideas for stories, and names of people I meet — along with biographical details and what subjets they know well.  That way, if I’m researching an article about a topic I’m not familiar with, I have someone who can provide a quote or recommend sources.  Notebooks are essential for keeping interview questions in order.  And no, taking notes on your iPhone or tablet is not “basically the same thing.”  See the above section on printing things: hard copies are better.  iPhones can do in a pinch, but transcribe your notes to something physical when you get home.  Writing by hand is also faster than typing on a phone and requires less mental focus.  I like Moleskine notebooks² and their knock-offs, but you can use anything you want — even index cards or slips of paper kept in your wallet.  Just have something to write on.  I’d also recommend a keychain pen in case you have an ink failure.

Digital Voice Recorder/Voice Recording App

I can’t tell you how much my interview skills improved when I switched from writing quotes to recording and writing them.  It keeps your focus on the interviewee and frees your mind to ask follow-up questions.  I use a $5 iPhone and iPad app, but you can get a perfectly good one for free.  Make sure it can record at least an hour of speech and picks up phone conversations well.  Beware of “voice memo” apps.  Some will only record 60 seconds to five minutes of speech.  It’ll put you in transcription hell for sure, but your misquotation rate will drop to near-zero.  Remember that you always need to ask for permission to tape a conversation or interview — even when it’s assumed, it’s just good manners.

NOTES:

  1. Sorry English majors, MLA sucks and Chicago style reigns supreme.  I don’t understand why English departments, who theoretically teach clear writing, insist on using a citation format so textually invasive.  Though I will admit that as a double major in History and Religion I’m unabashedly partisan when it comes to Chicago style.  We all are, every one of us.  One day, the American Historical Association will summon all History majors to their banner, and we’ll storm the Modern Language Association and put everyone to the sword.  I know I’m unreasonable on this point, but Chicago is just better and doesn’t make your writing ugly.
  2. Pro tip on Moleskine notebooks: I love them but those damn elastic bands tend to give out with extended use.  If the band starts to stretch out, cut it out and replace it with one of those Livestrong-type wristbands.  When you open the notebook to write, just put the wristband on.  Easy!  You can do the same thing with a flat-sided rubber band.

Half-Finished Games and the Puritan Choir

I have a terrible habit: I tend not to finish games.

Between my 9 to 5, my freelancing, a role at another company, writing fiction, spending time with my girlfriend, and occasional dinner parties or movie screenings with friends, I don’t really have much time to game.

This dramatically affects both the kind of type of games I buy and the possibility that I’ll finish the longer games I do purchase.  Call of Duty games, for instance, reliably clock in at the eight to ten hour mark, meaning that I can beat one in a week or two without trouble.  An Assassin’s Creed or Grand Theft Auto, however, can lie half-finished on my shelf for a year or more.  While others bristle at a game being too short, I sigh with relief that it’s not going to cut into my writing time.  I avoid RPGs and MMOs of all sorts because they’re such a time drain, but I made an exception for the magnificent Skyrim, which was my Soma-like escape from MFA applications .

The last six months have been especially bad, with grad application season, PAX East prep, and novel edits chewing my personal time to bits.  I have a six inch-wide rack of games on my shelf that I haven’t finished.  For a long time, I just couldn’t—I had so much to do that even when I was being productive, taking time off led to a feeling of guilt I couldn’t shake.  You have things to do! said the voices.  Playing games isn’t helping you get into an MFA program.  And what about that novel, eh?  Didn’t you want to have it sent to that publisher by the end of the month?  I call the voices “The Puritan Choir,” since they’re a remnant of the WASP-y work ethic that’s the gift of growing up as a liberal Protestant.  Catholicism and Judaism might have guilt complexes on lockdown, but Martin Luther and John Calvin perfected the crippling terror of laziness and familial disappointment.

If I have any hope of actually making it in games journalism, I need to play more games—that’s just the long and short of it.  Even writing about the intersection between games and the real world, which is my primary focus, I find that I’m hobbled by the fact that my base of play experience is narrower than most freelancers.  To fix this, I’m making a concerted effort to work on my backlog as well as stretch myself by playing other genres.

It’s time to realize that playing games is just as much work as writing articles about them, and not feel guilty about the time invested.

Dear Puritan Choir: Shhhh, daddy’s working.