Word Play: The Evolution of Game Journalism
Like them or hate them, game journalists have helped shape the interactive entertainment industry for nearly as long as videogames have existed.
Some game journalists have better writing skills than player abilities. Some game journalists play better than they write. Unlike film and music critics, some of whom have formal educations in the arts that they critique, few if any game journalists have attended game colleges such as DigiPen or Full Sail. Most game journalists are game enthusiasts with nothing more than strong opinions and a lot of time playing games under their belts.
Yet, by virtue of their access to the gaming community, many journalists have a loyal readership.
The following is not a discussion about the power of game journalism, but rather its evolution. In fact, this limited little article doesn't cover the evolution of international game journalism, just the rise and history of game journalism in the United States. If you are looking for the roots of Edge, The Official Belgian PlayStation Magazine, or Famitsu, you will not find them here.
If you are curious about the beginnings of American videogame reporting, however, read on. Game journalism has come a long way since its meager beginning.
Starting with Coin-Op
Like the birth of videogames themselves, the roots of videogame journalism can be found in the coin-operated amusement industry.
"The first videogame that ever hit the market was this thing called Computer Space somewhere around the end of 1971 if memory serves," says Eddie Adlum, publisher or RePlay Magazine. "It was built by this guy named Bill Nutting up in the San Jose region, and it was more or less 'designed' by the iconic Nolan Bushnell."
The San Jose Mercury News did not cover Computer Space when Nutting Associates released the game. None of the local papers covered the appearance of the revolutionary new computer game when it appeared in the Dutch Goose, the Menlo Park pub in which Computer Space first debuted. And, of course, there were no videogame magazines at the time.
But at least one journalist wrote about the game when it appeared at an Amusement Industry trade show.
"I was working at Cashbox Magazine," says Adlum. "What was unique about Computer Space was that it had a television screen in it. Otherwise it was an average game in which you shot stuff, no big thing."
Except for Adlum's small write-up in Cashbox, Computer Space did not receive much attention. It might have been forgotten entirely except for what came next.
"The big thing was the following March when a new company that was formed by this guy Bushnell came out with a ping pong game on a television tube, a thing that they called Pong."
Videogames did not exactly take off after that. Arcade companies liked the games because they were less expensive to make and maintain than mechanical amusement devices such as pinball machines, but the early days of videogaming were clogged with Pong rip-offs and racing games.
Not long after American amusement industry writers began covering television games, their counterparts in other countries picked up on the story. Masumi Akagi, the dean of game journalism in Japan, began covering his country's coin-operated amusement industry before Rosen Enterprises and Service Games merged into a company called SEGA Enterprises. While Computer Space did not migrate to Japan, Pong and many subsequent television games did.
Back in America, Adlum watched the videogame portion of the amusement business slide into a period of doldrums. "I covered videogames through Pong and then through a rather lackluster period until 1978 when a Japanese invention called Space Invaders began showing up."
In October of 1975, Adlum started his own magazine, RePlay. Well established by 1978, he was there to observe as the golden age of videogames redefined the world of arcades.
"Somewhere in the neighborhood of '78-'79, the videogame portion of our industry took off like gangbusters. It was a period that lasted only three or four years and it was followed by the videogame bust," says Adlum.
Putting things into perspective, there were no home games the year that Nutting Associates released Computer Space. The following year saw both the release of Pong, the first successful "television game" in arcades, and the short-lived Magnavox Odyssey, the television game system sold in stores.
The Atari 2600 epitomized the first wave of "programmable" game consoles. (Photo courtesy of Wikipedia)
In 1975, Atari began work on a home version of Pong. By 1976, Pong sales were huge and companies like the Connecticut Leather Company (a.k.a. Coleco) and RCA began releasing Pong-like games of their own. While much was written about Home Pong, however, it never warranted a magazine of its own.
With the release of Space Invaders and the beginning of the golden age of arcade, things changed. According to an article published in Time Magazine, Americans spent 75,000 man-years playing videogames in arcades in 1980. Movie studios released films like "Tron" and "Joysticks" to try and cash in on the craze. The character Pac-Man appeared on the covers of Mad Magazine and Time, and the amusement industry saw the creation of the first dedicated videogame publications in the form of trade magazines published for arcade operators.
"There were quite a few magazines that came out to cover videogames," says Adlum. "I remember going to a convention in New Orleans during the boom where they had quite a few tables set up for the distribution of journals that were either dedicated to videogames or had a section within the magazine about videogames. I think we counted like 25 different periodicals during the heyday of the videogame business.
"We at RePlay, as well as the other mainstream magazines -- Play Meter and Vending Times -- took exhibit booths on the regular trade show floor. We were the establishment. Every one of those other magazines disappeared real quick."
When today's gamers use the word "arcade," they may mean it as a noun referring to a place with videogames, or they may use it as an adjective to describe a fast style of gameplay. In the world of coin-operated amusement, however, the word "arcade" has a very specific meaning.
"People outside the industry use the word 'arcade' as an adjective. People in the industry use the word as a noun referring to a place that is solely dedicated to amusement machines.
"Videogames originally went into street locations like bars, some restaurants and some game rooms. The point is that the original videogames were just one more kind of amusement device in an industry that had coin-operated pool tables, pinball machines, target rifles and a variety of other stuff that came and went, like helicopter machines and so on."
To people like Adlum, videogames represent a major turn in the evolution of amusement machines rather than a phenomenon onto itself. When the phase was red-hot, Adlum gave it more space in the pages of his magazine. As the trend died down, so did the space he dedicated to it.
The American arcade business began its long fall in 1982.
"I would have to say that during the period of 1980 to 1990, that decade, 40 to 50 percent of the magazine had to do with video. After that, I would have to say that it took its more rightful place at 20 to 25 percent at the very max. Other than that, it's jukeboxes, pinball machines, pool tables? redemption equipment has become a very important product in the industry."
With very few exceptions, modern arcades have large sections of machines that pay out tickets -- redemption machines. Players "redeem" those tickets for plush animals, toys and other prizes. In the continuing evolution of the arcade business, videogames have fallen from the top of the arc and they are unlikely to regain the dominant place they held between 1979 and 1981.
Dedicated to Games
With the advent of home game systems like the Atari 2600 and the explosion in popularity of arcade games, a few pioneers began to explore writing about videogames for consumers.
By this time videogames had caught the eye of the mainstream media. The home version of Pong became the best-selling item in the history of the Sears Catalog catching the attention of toy makers, consumer electronics companies, and retailers alike. When Exidy released a game called Death Race in which players drove cars over human-shaped stick figures, the CBS news magazine "60 Minutes" produced a segment about that game.
Roger Sharpe, editor of Video Games Magazine, came to the industry via pinball.
"When I was a managing editor at GQ, we were the first mass-market publication to feature the game machines/computers," says Roger Sharpe, who started working at GQ in 1975. "We were the first publication to recognize these new technologies. I started a column called Visual Effects about the new world of videogames and all that."
By all accounts, the pioneers who blazed the way in videogame journalism were a trio of writers from New York. Their names were Arnie Katz, Bill "The Game Doctor" Kunkel and Joyce Worley (who is married to Katz). Collectively, they were known as KKW, short for Katz, Kunkel, Worley.
"I started writing professionally about videogames in 1978," says Katz. "I had been playing them in arcades and at home, but the introduction of the Atari 2600 and the Odyssey 2 galvanized me into action. What I did was pitch a column to Video Magazine which was edited by Bruce Apar at the time. He hired me to do both a general television column and a column of videogame reviews."
Katz co-authored the column with long-time friend and fellow writer Bill Kunkel.
"We wrote the reviews regularly at first," says Katz. "At first, the problem was having enough videogames to review. The only company in the field was Atari, and they weren't exactly blowing those new titles out.
"A little bit later, when Activision came into the field long with IMAGIC and a few others, it became clear that this was going to become a major new hobby."
In the summer of 1981, Katz and company approached a magazine publisher named Jay Rosenthal with the idea of starting a magazine dedicated to videogames. The result was Electronic Games.
"We tried a one-up called Electronic Games Magazine. It did so well when it came out that they bumped it up to quarterly. By the third issue, it was bi-monthly. By the fourth issue, it was monthly," says Katz.
"I was associate editor and editor-in-chief, Bill was executive editor, and Joyce was the managing editor."
Other magazines such as Joystick and Video Games soon moved in to compete.
(Photo courtesy of Games.net)
The first editor of Video Games was Steve Bloom, who, like Katz, Kunkel and Worley, was a New York native.
Bloom, who went on to write one of the first books on the history of videogames ? "Video Invaders," appears to have been attracted to videogames as an extension of pop culture. The man who replaced Bloom was Roger Sharpe, the columnist who brought videogames to GQ.
A former freelancer for Katz at Electronic Games, Sharpe continued contributing to Electronic Games. Even after he took the reins at Video Games, Sharpe still penned an occasional article for Electronic Games using the pseudonym Jay Carter.
"I did not feel any rivalry. I think we all believed that the world could sustain all of us because we approached the industry differently," says Sharpe. "The only time there was a rivalry was when we began publishing 'Player's Choice Awards' to compete with the 'Editors' Choice' awards offered by Electronic Games. We ran a poll and published reader awards whereas Electronic Games had their staff making the decisions. I was idiotic enough to question how many people would send in."
These were formative times in gaming, and the journalists of the day helped. When you hear familiar gaming terms such as "side-scroller," "Easter egg" and "maze chase," these were terms coined by the journalists of the day and adopted throughout the industry.
Sharpe calls those early days the "salad days," but by 1984 the salad days ended. In 1982, Atari spent over $20 million securing the rights to the movie "E.T." The game was a disaster. At the end of 1982, Atari reported that it had not reached its earnings projections causing a crisis on the stock market.
Over the next two years, Mattel would drop out of the game industry, Coleco would give up on games and concentrate on its Cabbage Patch Doll business, and the home game business would all but disappear. Electronic Games, Joystick and Video Games all closed as well. Roger Sharpe left magazines, but not the game industry. He was hired by Bally Midway and continues to work in the industry to this day.
"I had anticipated the collapse of the industry," says Katz who recognized the rise of companies like Commodore and tried to adjust. "Unfortunately our publishing company did not want to embrace computer games software as a focal point of the magazine."
With the videogame crash and the rise of home computers, all of the early videogame magazines died and went away.
Game Journalism, the Next Generation
In 1985, Nintendo of America began test marketing its Nintendo Entertainment System in New York just in time for the holidays. The tests were an immoderate success, and by 1987, the industry had taken root all anew. In many ways, the American home game industry grew out of the ashes of what had gone before.
When Nintendo needed a distribution network, it hired Worlds of Wonder, the company that gave the world a talking teddy bear named Teddy Ruxpin and a consumer version of Laser Tag. Nintendo went to Worlds of Wonder for a very simple reason: The company was founded by Atari expatriates, men with connections in the retail world who understood the games business. After struggling for several years, Nintendo, Namco, SEGA and Konami reestablished themselves.
But the gaming world had changed. Once an American industry, it now was dominated by Japanese companies. Atari still existed, but it was diminished and divided. Activision had moved on to computer games.
Katz, Kunkel and Worley were still around as well. Sensing a comeback, they approached Lee Pappas, publisher of ANALOG, with an idea for a magazine they called Computer Entertainment and Video Games. Pappas bought into their idea and published the magazine in 1988, but he switched the name around and called his magazine Video Games and Computer Entertainment. He did, however, hire the team of Katz, Kunkel and Worley to write a large section of that new magazine.
Conceived by Katz, Kunkel and Worley, Video Games & Computer Entertainment was the first magazine run not by a journalist, but by a gamer -- two-time Battlezone record-holder Andy Eddy. (Photo credit: Games.net)
Though he did not edit the first issue of VG&CE, a hardcore game enthusiast named Andy Eddy soon took the helm.
Unlike the KKW gang, Eddy was not a journalist by trade. He worked for a television cable company in Connecticut. He knew games, however. A two-time Battlezone record-holder, Andy Eddy knew the gaming world cold.
Taking a chance that a man with a background in gaming might know what appeals to gamers better than a trained journalist, Larry Flynn Productions hired Eddy as the executive editor of VG&CE.
Other magazines soon appeared on the market. In 1989, a group of entrepreneurial gamers designed a magazine called GamePro which they distributed as a giveaway through Toys"R"Us. They hoped to attract a publisher and they got one. IDG bought them out and published the second issue.
"In a nutshell, GamePro basically started in a garage," says Eddy. "The reason for all of the crazy bylines and cartoony names [that are now signature to the masthead] was was so that the three or four people working on the magazine would not have their picture on every other page."
Dr. David Walsh of the National Institute on Media and the Family
About that time, a magazine called Game Players came out of North Carolina, a publishing hub in the field of high technology. Over in Chicago, Steve Harris, who broke into journalism writing for Roger Sharpe at Video Games started a magazine called Electronic Games Monthly (EGM). His magazine was such a success that, two years later, after meeting Bill Kunkel at a Consumer Electronics Show, Harris decided to back Katz, Kunkel and Worley with the relaunch of Electronic Games.
And the field kept growing.
It was at about this time that video- and computer game coverage got their first voice on television. Though news shows had been running the occasional game story for over a decade, a few pioneers began making regular features around this time.
Steve Baxter, a cameraman working for KIRO, a Seattle-area CBS affiliate, contacted a cable program called PCTV about covering games and wound up becoming a regular part of the show.
"My PCTV work lasted about two years and then they changed their format. Entertainment software reviews no longer fit into what they were doing so they told me that they no longer had any need for my services," says Baxter, who had never left his full-time job with KIRO.
Shortly after things fell apart with PCTV, Baxter landed in an even better situation when he began reviewing games for "CNN Futurewatch" on the side.
"They already had a correspondent in Southeast Asia who would do an occasional videogame bit. I think he was stationed in Thailand.
"I would do on average two to four reviews per month. It wasn't always weekly, but it was pretty close to that."
On the magazine side, a California retailer specializing in import games started a magazine called Diehard Game Fan. Minnesota-based Funco, a company with both phone order and retail stores, began publishing a magazine called Game Informer. The first editor-in-chief of Game Informer was Elizabeth Olson, who still works in the videogames industry. When she left, she was replaced by Andy McNamara, who still edits the magazine to this day.
A spin-off of England?s Edge Magazine, Next Generation gave a new edgy voice to American game journalism. (Photo courtesy of Games.net)
Later, in 1994, English-based Edge Magazine exported its style and content to the United States in form a Rolling Stone-like publication called Next Generation. Led by a hard-driven Brit named Neil West, this ground-breaking magazine pushed designers and game company executives for direct answers during interviews, often challenging the company line. Next Generation exposed its readers the hardcore inner world of gaming. In short, Next Generation covered videogames in an "edgy" new way.
For the most part, the people writing for all of the new gaming publications got along because they all shared the same obsession for videogames. There were however, two exceptions.
If asked which publication made their lives the most miserable, most second-generation game journalists would agree that the problem child in the pack was Nintendo Power.
"Nintendo never published their circulation numbers, but I think everyone assumed that Nintendo Power was the biggest magazine out there," says Andy McNamara, editor-in-chief of Game Informer.
Nintendo Power grew out of an in-house newsletter. (Photo courtesy of Games.net)
"It wasn't a magazine, it was a catalog," complains one early journalist who preferred to speak off the record.
"There was no competing against it because it was an in-house magazine," says Eddy.
Nintendo Power was the work of Gail Tilden, an early employee of Nintendo of America. Tilden was on the Nintendo team that launched the NES in New York in 1985, a group that included many of the company's top brass. The New York merchandizing team landed at Newark Airport during a hurricane, approached to store owners cold, set up store displays all through the night, and earned their way into the highest echelons of the Nintendo elite. As a member of that team, Tilden had the ear and loyalty of Minoru Arakawa and Howard Lincoln, the top men in Nintendo's American operation.
Under Tilden, Nintendo Power was an effective, visually stimulating tool for promoting Nintendo and its products. This was one magazine where layout came first and writing came second -- literally and literarily. Writers were routinely given laid-out pages to fill instead of stories to write. The pages would be covered with text boxes. Instead of assigning writers word counts for their articles, the editors at Nintendo Power told their writers how many letters would fit in each of the text boxes.
Most journalists at the time felt that Nintendo Power was an extended advertorial, but Tilden and her staff worked hard create a high-quality publication. While its competitors struggled to raise their circulations past 300,000 or 400,000 readers, Nintendo Power's subscription base was over 1 million.
But Tilden pressed her advantages in ways that squeezed the competition. She insisted on exclusive first looks at any game coming out from Nintendo and sometimes pressed third-party publishers to give her exclusive access to their biggest games as well. During the days of the NES, when Nintendo held a 90-percent share of the market, getting the Nintendo fan base excited meant everything, and Nintendo Power offered the most direct route to Nintendo fans.
"In some ways Nintendo Power was restricted by being a marketing vehicle," says Eddy. "It had a strict way of covering things because they could not cover things way too early. If we had an opportunity to cover something that was just a germ of an idea, we certainly would."
During the NES period, when Nintendo ruled the industry unchallenged, covering NES and Game Boy worked out just fine. In 1989, however, SEGA released its Genesis game console. By 1992, as Genesis became the top console, Nintendo Power's stranglehold on game publishers became less of an issue.
The other outcast of videogame journalism was Electronic Gaming Monthly. During the early and mid-'90s, EGM's publisher, Steve Harris, and editor-in-chief, Ed Semrad, adopted an antagonistic approach to competing magazines.
"Ed and I never really got along," says Game Informer's McNamara. "I never really talked to the dude much. He said kind of nasty things about us and what we were doing more often than anything. I don't think I ever spoke a word to the guy other than, 'Hello,' maybe the first time I met him."
The team of Semrad and Harris was aggressive, combative and successful. EGM readership grew quickly as the magazine scooped its competitors on story after story, sometimes employing questionable tactics. Semrad and Harris didn't mind. They were businessmen and journalists first, and they found ways to take advantage of any situation.
PR people complained that even after they told Semrad to turn his video camera off, he would lower it and shoot from the hip. On at least on occasion, when a company came to demonstrate a game still under a long-term embargo at EGM, a VCR secretly placed between the game console and the television recorded game footage, which then appeared in the next issue of the magazine.
"There were some contentious times," says Eddy. "EGM with Steve [Harris] and Ed [Semrad] being the heavy drivers behind it? everybody picked up on their M.O. for how they got things done."
A Question of Ethics
In the early '90s, with game sales reaching the $5 billion mark, competition for editorial space became much more fierce. Nintendo of America began opening its doors to the press on a regular basis. SEGA flew reporters to its California offices for editors' days, and other companies flew journalists to their home offices in the United States and Japan.
In 1995, the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) replaced the Consumer Electronics Show as the centerpiece of game journalism, a trade show in which game companies unveiled new games and talked about plans for the future.
These trips were called "junkets." As the competition for editorial space heated up, the junkets became more and more elaborate.
For the launch of NiGHTS, SEGA staged a mystery party in one of California's most renowned haunted houses. NovaLogic flew a set of reporters to Florida, gave them an hour's worth of training, and sent them out with a qualified pilot to experience flying helicopter combat maneuvers over the Everglades to promote Comanche 3. Eidos took a couple of reporters to Egypt to talk about Tomb Raider. Nintendo, SEGA and Sony all took reporters to Japan.
Not all junkets worked out as planned. In 1993, Nintendo of America engineered a junket designed to demonstrate the addictive fun of their first Zelda game for Game Boy, The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening. The idea was to provide a crew of top journalists with Game Boys and copies of the upcoming game, then place them in an utterly boring situation to show how Zelda made time pass quickly. To do this, Nintendo booked the journalists on a first-class train trip across the continental United States beginning in Boston and ending in Seattle.
That summer, rain storms caused flooding throughout the Midwest closing many train routes. The original itinerary had the journalists traveling in cars with beds and berths across Iowa, but when floods closed that route, the plans began to fall apart. Nintendo was able to reroute the trip, but there were no first-class cars available, so the journalists ended up sitting in standard coach cars for the week-long trip.
And things got worse. When other passengers complained that the journalists were making too much noise, the journalists were asked to put away their Game Boys and stop discussing the game among themselves. There were no dining cars on the new train, and some of the journalists contracted food poisoning from the food stand onboard. By the time the train reached New York, some journalists had already had enough. More departed at future stops. In the end, only a few journalists including the father-and-son team of Chip and Jonathan Carter saw the trip through.
In the late 1990s, junkets became an issue as outside forces challenged the ethics of the videogame journalism corps. David Israel, a game reviewer for the San Francisco Chronicle, wrote a column about junkets and journalistic ethics. When Herb Weisbaum, a CBS News consumer reporter, complained to a friend at the Columbia Journalism Review about game reporters accepting junkets and game systems, the publication launched an investigation.
Under the increasing scrutiny, publishers like Ziff Davis, IDG and Larry Flynn Publications began to pay for travel expenses. Videogame journalism has always relied heavily on freelance reporters, however, and game companies have continued to pick up the tab when they invite freelancers on trips.
In 2002, Los Angeles Times reporter Alex Pham released a blistering attack on junkets, singling out a few specific reporters in particular and even contacting their editors to ask about possible ethics abuses.
Since that time, Sony Computer Entertainment has taken reporters to tour its game studios in Dubrovnik, Codemasters has flown reporters to Athens to watch a Rally race, and the junket wheel keeps on rolling along.
The only constant in game journalism is change. There was a time when you could accurately compare game systems by discussing bits, bytes and polygon counts. Those days are gone. There was a time when the average gamer was a boy between 10 and 14 years old. Now most gamers are in their 20s. Game magazines have had to adjust to accommodate older and more sophisticated readers. There was a time when the only words you needed to describe games were "sucks" or "awesome." Today's game reviewers have to know a few more words.
Sen. Joseph Lieberman (pictured here on the right) first came on to the videogame scene when he pushed for Senate Hearings on videogame violence in 1993. (Photo by Lloyd Schmid)
Then there is the money. Fifteen years ago, the American game industry raked in a reported $4 billion; last year it brought in over $18 billion. In the '90s, the Japanese game market was the most lucrative game market. That is no longer the case, nor do Japanese game companies dominate the best-sellers list the way they once did.
And then there is the slow death of the arcade business. As Eddie Adlum points out, the golden age of arcade games ended after four short years back in 1982. The business has been eroding ever since.
"Arcades are not the major force they were in the past," says Andy McNamara. "Look at Mortal Kombat and NBA Jam. Having [the home versions of] those two games made Acclaim Entertainment the biggest publisher in the world."
Today, the arcade business is dwindling. Midway, the company that created the arcade versions of Mortal Kombat and NBA Jam, then licensed them to Acclaim Entertainment for home use, now publishes the home versions of the Mortal Kombat games. But the fighting game market is not what it once was and Midway stock has suffered significant downturns. Acclaim Entertainment has gone out of business entirely. The NBA Jam franchise is inactive, but Electronic Arts borrowed heavily from its formula when it created NBA Street. Ironically, Midway implemented a few tricks from the Electronic Arts playbook when it released NBA Ballers, a game created by Mark Turmell who was also the lead man on NBA Jam.
But the one force that has impacted game journalism the most is the Internet. Through the mid-'90s, game magazines only had each other for competition. That is no longer the case.
"The Internet has become a powerful new competitor for game magazines," says Arnie Katz. "We saw the same thing with strategy books. They were all the rage in the mid-'90s, but today most people realize they can go online and get the same information and more for free."
Be they rumors, leaks or legitimate information, stories published on the Internet are not hamstrung by the lead times that control the printed word. There was a time when game companies dismissed online sites as unimportant. Today, online sites like Kotaku, Gamespot and IGN are among the first publications game companies invite when they hold events and press conferences.
Game Informer, now among the top 30 largest magazines in America with a circulation of over 2 million, has been the most successful magazine when it comes to adjusting to the rise of the Internet.
"We have been very tactical about arranging for stories that you cannot get on the Internet. The Internet has changed things, but it has changed things for the better. I think that the Internet does what the Internet does and the magazines do what the magazines do," says McNamara who is about to begin his 18th year with Game Informer.
But game magazines are not the only magazines threatened by the Internet. The entire print world is still learning to adjust. As more and more advertising dollars go online, even bellwether publications like U.S. News and World Report, Business Week and Time Magazine are losing pages. The newspaper business is in turmoil.
The next evolution in game journalism may well see all but the very biggest game magazines go extinct. It is not yet clear what impact Xbox Live and the Wii Network will have on games coverage in the future.
How game journalism will emerge from these new challenges remains to be seen, but the evolution continues. Because as long as there are games, there will be folks who want to hear about them.