Not the 9 O'clock News: The BBC's Dan Emery on games coverage
Media Special: How do you get a gaming story onto the nation's televisions?
In this third instalment of our week-long media special, GamesIndustry International talks to Dan Emery, an ex-games journalist who now works for the BBC. In the course of our interview, Emery covers what constitutes a valid news piece for the BBC's TV and online teams and how he has seen the attitude towards gaming stories change during the course of his career.
For more insight into the evolving position of gaming on the screens and pages of mainstream media coverage, see our first interview with Helen Lewis, deputy editor of the New Statesman and yesterday's interview with the Mail's Ed Wilson. Also, look out for two more pieces of insight from leading media figures still to come this week.
Q: You've moved from a specialist to an incredibly broadly mainstream media outlet, so you've seen both sides of the coin. How has coverage of gaming in the non-specialist media evolved and why?
Dan Emery: Let's backtrack a bit to the good old days of PC Zone and the early 1990s. So really the start of what you would call the golden era of gaming, both in terms of the stuff that was coming out and the people that consumed it.
Firstly you've got to look at the people who consumed it. The people who consumed it by and large have been children - I say the world children but at that particular time it was kind of ten year olds and up, maybe 9, up to about blokes in their 30s, basically. This was kind of a new thing, because prior to that there had been consoles, but it never had been really quite the cultural thing - really since the 80s, and that was a different sort of gaming, if you kind of get my gist. So that all started off, everyone got kind of really into it, but then Sony came along with the PlayStation 1, and suddenly started making it trendy. So for the first time, ever, people that played video games were not perceived as geeky losers in ski jackets, they were the people that played Wipeout and the people that went to the clubs, and so it suddenly started permeating into almost the underground if you were, games were quite cool. But parents didn't understand it, and anyone who didn't play games didn't understand it.
"Fast forward 20 odd years, the people that started off playing the games and thinking it was cool are having kids themselves and have moved up through all kind of levels of society."
Fast forward 20 odd years, the people that started off playing the games and thinking it was cool are having kids themselves and have moved up through all kind of levels of society and so it's not seen as being beardy weirdy, nerdy werdy stuff, it's just being seen now as entertainment.
So that's kind of what's driven the very gradual change, generally. I mean that doesn't mean the Daily Mail won't keep doing stories about how a videogame like Manhunt resulted in death of a child even though both the police, the prosecution and everyone else said it was absolutely not relevant at all to the guy's death, he was just psycho. But that's because it sells papers.
But by and large it's really because the people that are in the media are now getting to the age and level where they've grown up with games rather than being something that's thrust upon them. However you've also got to bear in mind that one of the reasons that you don't see a huge glut of technology stories and science stories in the mainstream media generally is because most people that work in the mainstream media tend to be humanities, arts and all that kind of stuff, and it used to be, until about four or five years ago that if the editor or whoever didn't understand the story it quite often wouldn't get run - because they didn't want to say 'actually I don't understand it', because they'd look stupid. That has changed, even the BBC is actually pretty damn good now, if you've got a science story or a technology story it gets listened to and gets considered.
Obviously it's competing against a range of other stories as well, but nevertheless there is a market for it. The problem you have with games outside of the specialist press is that there needs to be a peg or a topline or something to hang the story off. With something like Call Of Duty, obviously it's a huge massive selling game and makes lots of money, you need to have some kind of reason for doing the story other than: here's a game.
The film industry still lives in this sort of lucky little world of ultimately getting what I would describe as puff piece coverage everywhere. New film comes out, we all fall over ourselves to interview bloody Bond and everything else and go 'oh it's great!' That's not journalism actually, that's just PR, but it's very clever PR, and the whole industry is rigged up to that and people want to read about it and so when it comes to films, the media - and I'm talking about the media generally - it's wag the dog.
"The film industry still lives in this sort of lucky little world of ultimately getting what I would describe as puff piece coverage everywhere."
Video games and everything else doesn't fall into that category, so there has to be a reason for doing a story other than it's a nice game. So finding a peg, or something you can hang the story off, especially for video games, is kind of tricky and hard. Look at the new Aliens game from SEGA, what peg would you hang off that to do it on network? To do it on the main media? It's tricky.
I think now we're at the stage where the problem of getting a technology story on the mainstream media isn't that people don't want to do it and don't understand it, as it was maybe 10 years ago or a bit more, it's now that there has to be a reason for doing it other than it's a nice game and it's come out. So that is really the difficulty that faces people like myself and everyone else when we think 'oh, that's good,- is that how do you do it?' And obviously with the PlayStation 4 there's quite a good peg on that because, not only from the technology point of view as a new console, but actually Sony financially have not been in fantastic times to say the least. The video games industry is, to put it mildly, going through the doldrums, game sales are down, so there's lots of reasons for doing the story so the piece wouldn't be like 'hey look at Sony's great new console,' it's 'Sony's launching it what can only described as a difficult time for the industry as a whole da da da da.'
It gets harder with some games, if it's not...and in fact even Call Of Duty last year we didn't do on the TV anymore because it was like we've done this, and it's more of the same. So that's kind of where we're at at the moment.
Q: I hear what you're saying about finding space for it in mainstream news. A lot of the nationals get around it by having a specific games section for reviews and other coverage.
Dan Emery: Well they do but even that's been culled. Once upon a time not that long time ago I use to do The Sunday Times stuff, along with Stuart Andrews, and that was originally in the...I mean this was an interesting sign of the times, in that it use to be in the Culture section of the magazines, arts and stuff like that, and then it got moved into the In Gear section, and I never quite understood the juxtaposition of cars and video games. Even on the BBC website, all the video games stuff traditionally has been in the technology section. Once could argue that actually it shouldn't, it should be in entertainment. It's always historically been in that section because it used to be in days of old when the first games came out and you actually needed to know how to work a computer and everything else.
"I never quite understood the juxtaposition of cars and video games. Even on the BBC website, all the video games stuff traditionally has been in the technology section."
But now actually you can have no technology whatsoever, bung it in your Xbox or bung it in your PlayStation and you're away, so really all the video games stuff should be in the same sections of websites and TV programmes and everything else as DVDs, films, movies, books. But they're not.
But we do put all our games in the tech section still, and everyone does, it's not just us, it's pretty much everyone across the world over. Which is interesting because it means always that the perception is that it's supposed to be there. And until you can actually break that, they will, and I don't think you can break that, because it's not such an ingrained habit that almost if you moved it into the arts section or wherever, people wouldn't look for it there.
Q: Talking to Helen Lewis at the New Statesman, they cover it in news, approach it from a purely cultural point of view, is there more a scope for that kind of non-direct discussion?
The trouble is, and I'm now talking from the point of view of TV, radio, both network and what we call network and global coverage, is that a) those sort of stories are competing against all the other stories, so one of the advantages you have in The New Statesman or in newspaper stuff like that is you have more space to play with stuff. Whereas in TV you don't, you've got a very limited slot. I don't quite know what the fix is, normally that kind of stuff is covered in terms of effects on society when it's bad, not when it's good.
And I think also people are a little bit sceptical. For example there was quite an interesting thing that said boys who played video games actually had better 3D spatial awareness and reaction times but then also became loners, were slightly more angry and so of course everyone focused on the 'ah, it's bad for you.' Well, yeah, but it depends what degrees of scale. You need to know a bit more than just those top lines, you need a bit more detail, but of course there's never any time for that. So of course the piece that got run was 'games are bad for you' which we've heard time and time again and like all things there's moderation and balance and you become obsessive about anything and you're going to be a bit of a weirdo.
Q: That sort of coverage does seem to run alongside the creeping cultural acceptance that we've been talking about...
"To coin a cliche, good news doesn't sell."
To coin a cliche, good news doesn't sell. I mean look at old Charlie Brooker, I use to work with Brooker back on PC Zone way way way back, and now he's quite hip to say the least, and if anything that kind of...
Q: He seems to be quite cynical about games again now...
I think that's healthy. I mean Charlie Brooker always was a cynical bastard at the best of times, he was quite cynical about games back in the day if you remember some of the earlier things. But I don't think there's anything wrong about that, and to be honest there's certainly grounds to be cynical about video games, that's one of the good things about mobile gaming in some respects, is that it's opened up the playing field again. Video games were getting so expensive to produce, millions or tens of millions, and it was high risk stuff, that frankly people were only betting on safe stuff. So you think of many of the quite off the wall titles that came out in the 90s, some of which then went on to become series, wouldn't be invested in now. Because they're a bit of an unknown quantity. I mean LittleBigPlanet is quite a good example. That actually if that had cost a little bit more, it wouldn't happen. And look how it did, it's fantastic, Media Molecule did really well out of it. But they're few and far between now.
It's now mobile gaming where you're starting to see lots of strange ideas and weird ideas because frankly taking a gamble on £10,000 is frankly no big deal, taking a gamble on £10 million it's a big deal.
Q: What's your remit for games coverage at the BBC?
My remit is all over the shop. At the moment I'm a producer, my main job is as a producer on the news channel, so actually I just deal with general news. I moonlight as freelance, [sighs] not freelance, as a technology reporter for the BBC sometimes when there's stories that Rory doesn't do or if it's video games stuff. I've worked on the website on two occasions and may well be working there again. So then iI have much more of a technology brief. I still try and sell tech stories into network, but it's hard.
Q: Is there any remit for covering something like Minecraft, that has become a cultural phenomenon?
This is the difficult thing, I mean something like Click could do it, something like Minecraft is a very good example of something that actually every single boy between 5 and 6 and 10 and 11 talks about it, plays it, although they have started to go off it now, finally, but other than being kind of 'this is interesting' there kind of has to be a news angle for it for the main thing.
So while something like that lends itself enormously to a really good feature on the website, and I don't know if we've done it but that's not a bad one to do, on a news piece no, it would require what we call longform to explain it. In other words how could you explain something like that in two and half minutes? You can't really, and even if you could just there has to be a punchy reason to do it that day. So it's really hard.
What you'd have to do is sort of create a peg, so if some academic came out saying actually this game is going to make all our children see in squares then you've got a peg to hang the thing off and then you could kind of condense that to two minutes but purely on a sort of human interest story as it stands at the moment, no peg.
"If music or film had kind of come along now, it would be treated the same way as games."
Q: Do you think games will follow TV and become culturally relevant, and appear in serious news reports?
I'd like to say yes but I think the answer to that is no. If music or film had kind of come along now, it would be treated the same way as games. I think the thing was that those things came along, well obviously in the case of music, way before media was invented and obviously with films the same time as media was invented in terms of TV and radio, because we're really talking about TV and radio here. So if you look at radio and TV, well they kind of happened at the same time.
So nobody really knew quite how to do it, so that was kind of how it was done by default so for years and years and years it's always been like that and because of the power that...you know, George Clooney as an image sells, in inverted commas, so once the PR people realised the value of their product to the media and so used that value as a quid pro quo, yeah you can have George Clooney on the front of your magazine or doing an interview with your reporter but the deal is you do it before the film, he sits behind a nice placard promoting his latest movie, blah blah blah.
With video games lets take the most famous - I say the word famous in inverted commas - games person over here, Ian Livingstone or Peter Molyneux, I can guarantee you 95 per cent of the people in this building won't know who the bloody hell he is. Even though one's got an MBE this year, blah blah blah. So there is no celeb culture thing involved in that. The other problem you have with it as well, and this is kind of more inherent, let's pick a game, let's say Doom, and we both play the very first level of Doom. Although we're playing the same game, and although we're playing the same level, the experience you will have of getting to the end of it and the experience I will have to get to the end of it is slightly different. And this is a 20 year old game, you think about what a game now is like, it's completely different. Whereas if you watch a movie it's the same thing.
So consequently with the movie everyone has the same shared experience and so what you say to them effects them all in an equal game, whereas with a video game it's all different to each other. So it's more of a personal thing rather than a shared experience. I'm kind of rambling slightly here, but you kind of see where I'm coming from. Because gaming is a personal thing and because gaming generally effects the individual rather than the masses, except with a few exceptions, I'm kind of having difficulty trying to express what I'm thinking or feeling here but you know what I mean?
Although video games are mass market, mass media - they're not mass consumption, they're very personal consumption even though millions of us buy them. And because the media has matured and grown up a lot from the early days of talkies and the first record singles coming out, video games may sell well but they don't sell, with a few exceptions, sell in the sense of you want them on your show you want them on the radio and stuff like that. On websites yeah, but the websites for games are very specialist and people will flock to them in spades, but generally with a few exceptions when we do game stories, which we do, it is, like the sales in the shops, only the really big ones that get the really big traffic.
"Although video games are mass market, mass media - they're not mass consumption."
I think all the people that like and love video games cheerlead in their own way, and I think everyone depending on where they work, will have a slightly different experience on the difficulties they face. For me in main news the main problem is getting a peg, and then it's competing against murders in Lancaster and Pistorius shooting his girlfriend through the door, so even if you've got a peg the bar is incredibly high to actually get it to air.
It can be done, but if I get a game story on twice a year I'm kind of doing OK. And radio's not much lower than that, I mean you've got a bit more on the Radio 4 bulletins but again, you're up against how a Chinese guy that murders 4 people in Nottingham is now extradited or Vicky Pryce jury can't reach a verdict, so put a new video game against that, it's struggling.
Q: Johnny Minkley, who has written for both GamesIndustry International and Eurogamer before, used to present a short games section on Radio One, but it died with the Jo Wiley show and was never replaced. I was surprised by that.
I wasn't. I mean that said 5 Live do a thing with Chris Warburton and again this was a long process to get it on the air, but he does a big technology show which includes video games and stuff like that, and Adam Rosser does some stuff late at night so you can kind of do these things but if you look at the times when they're happening - Chris' thing is on a Saturday night and Adam Rosser's on what we call Up All Night, which is kind of the midnight to four or five in the morning slot, so primetime it ain't.
The fact that they've got it on there at all is through no small effort on their parts, but that's kind of where they go you can get it on. If you guys had suggested we can do music at four in the morning and not the rest of the day you'd be laughed out of court because it's back to that whole wag the dog and control and dah dah dah.
I look at the studio and everyone here understands music, and everyone here goes to the movies. But in terms of the people that play video games? I'd be lucky if there's 15 per cent.
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