The First Guardian: Keith Stuart on getting games into Culture
Media Special: What it's like as Games Commissioning editor at The Guardian
The Guardian's Keith Stuart is probably the best known of the games writers in the UK's national press. Working for a fairly forward-thinking editor, he's had the benefit of a more generous remit than many of the other journalists trying to work a games angle at a major newspaper, but he's also a very public proponent of the industry too.
Chances are, if you've been to a UK games event, you'll have seen him - probably on stage. He's not a part-timer, and it shows in the depth and breadth of the coverage he's brought to the Guardian's website and, when he can, the pages of its physical manifestation.
Below, in this week's fourth piece on the mainstream media's take on gaming coverage, we talk to Keith about what makes the Guardian more receptive to games writing than almost every other UK paper, and what it took to get there. For the other pieces in the series, we've spoken to Helen Lewis, Ed Wilson and the BBC's Dan Emery. Our final piece, from Rory Buckeridge and Adam Keal, comes tomorrow.
Q: You're the first person to hold your brief at the Guardian, although not the first writer there to cover games. How does the paper approach gaming coverage?
Keith Stuart: We're lucky at the Guardian because Alan Rusbridger is very interested in technology generally, technology has been part of the Guardian's remit for a very long time. Jack Schofield started up the online supplement in the very early '80s - it's always a part of the paper's brief to cover these things, even though the paper was known in the past for political and social things, it really embraced the idea of technology and the way that technology can really change culture. That's been part of the brief since the beginning.
"It was always an understanding that this was a new cultural format and means of expression, not just a series of shotgun deaths and beeps"
Obviously the Guardian has a sort of liberal agenda, so it was never going to get caught up in the sort of mass hysteria and controversy which surrounded games in the late '90s and early 2000s. It was always an understanding that this was a new cultural format and means of expression, not just a series of shotgun deaths and beeps, which is was I think papers like the Daily Mail probably thought about them and in many ways probably still does.
Q: The influence of that "liberal agenda" is interesting, actually. It does seem to predispose media outlets towards more nuanced and tolerant games writing.
Keith Stuart: I'm not sure it does. In some ways it's quite contradictory, the stereotype of the Guardian reader is this left-leaning hippie in sandals, eating mung beans. That's one of the great things about the Guardian, they're so worried. You'd think in some ways that this hand-wringing attitude would fly in the face of games, because games are such a celebration of explosive and sometimes explosive and mindless entertainment in a lot of ways. I talk a lot about games as an art form, but games are also about stimulus and instinct. There is a lot of violence in games, too. I thought that the Guardian would be worried about that, not in a ban this sick filth way, but in a hand-wringing 'what does this say about us as a society' way.
But I think really that there is a liberal openness to a new form of entertainment and I've always felt that. I think though, that even in the Guardian there's a cultural hesitation. I've met with barriers from the TV and movie departments in the newspaper who almost don't want to welcome new entertainment. A very slight snobbishness about games, they almost don't want them in the cultural fray. I think that resistance is still there at the paper, as I think it is in all papers and big media organisations. They almost see games in the way that an older generation would, like my gran would, that they're something that they feel they should know about but it confuses and scares them so they push it to the side.
"There's a willingness to embrace what games are doing but also a fear that they don't understand it or what it's for and therefore it might be better to just ignore it and hope it goes away"
There's a willingness to embrace what games are doing but also a fear that they don't understand it or what it's for and therefore it might be better to just ignore it and hope it goes away. So on one hand we've the technology section, and we have games in the cultural section. There's a tab for games in the culture section on the website, we've sort of snuck in there around the back, stealth style like Solid Snake.
Q: That's a lot more column inches, both online and off, than most papers would give you...
Keith Stuart: But there's still a slight friction. I think what it fundamentally comes down to is that games lack the glamour of other sections of the arts, we don't have film stars or rock stars or beautiful artists. That's something we lack and it's something that papers can grab on to and ensure some wider appeal. We don't have superstars and faces that people can align the products to. That's been part of the problem of games achieving wider acceptance.
Fundamentally, news is about human drama and the kernel of every news story, whether it's a tsunami or some kind of political failure or whether it's horse-meat, the kernel is human drama and emotion and the ways that humans respond. Often the only touch point that the media has with that for games is 'what effect are they having on people'. That's where we get this problem about these awful stories about research into videogame violence and twist it in new directions that the researchers never meant.
So there are myriad problems, really. In some places, especially with the Guardian and I think the Telegraph and Times as well, that they really want to embrace games but they're just not sure about how to do it. Things are changing, though - we've got writers like Helen Lewis at the New Statesman who's a real advocate and a really good writer as well. Figures like that are really going to change things - people like Tom Chatfield and Steven Poole. Charlie Brooker is another really important example - he's been the kind of Trojan horse of games journalism, a lot of his columns for the Guardian have been informed by games. Even if they're not about games he often uses the language of games journalism to confront issues which has been really interesting and valuable.
"Charlie Brooker is another really important example - he's been the kind of Trojan horse of games journalism, a lot of his columns for the Guardian have been informed by games"
Q: Can we have depth to games writing and still appeal to a wide audience? Do mainstream outlets struggle with anything that's not a straight up review?
Keith Stuart: I think so, experiential game writing relies on the reader understanding the language of games and games criticism - understanding the visual language and structure of games, this idea of games writing as virtual travel writing is fine if you understand what videogame landscapes are like. The lessons that mainstream media can take from that sort of writing is the essence of the human at the centre of the experience. Features become less about 'here's a new game, what does this game do', and more about what does this game mean to you.
Often when I've written stuff for the Observer, it's been about what game designers want to communicate to people and how they're bringing across ideas rather than 'here's a preview of DMC'. There's potential there - whenever I speak to the Observer or the Saturday paper, there's interest there, they want to tell the human stories, to find a way of making universal human stories. I think what we're finding now is that there are lots of interesting stories in the videogames industry, perhaps not so much from the big players, who are well covered on the financial pages and business pages of the Guardian, there are actually bigger human stories going on - the rise of the indie scene, bedroom programmers coming back, people giving up jobs to become games designers, games being embraced by education and charities - these are really interesting areas.
It's broadening the scope of what games journalism can be and showing that games can have a wider role in society. I think that's critical to getting newspapers to think about games in new ways. You have to enthuse editors. When I talk to the news desk at the Guardian I really have to capture their imagination. Often what's going to capture their imagination isn't Bayonetta 2, it's what's Special Effect or Adam Saltsman are doing. I think the human stories, and the peripheral stories, in a weird way, are what's going to be important to newspapers, going forward.
Q: So what has been the scope of your brief? Are you given free rein?
Keith Stuart: It was really evolutionary and the format changed constantly. I've been writing for the Guardian since 2000 and I started off by writing about mobile phone games, which pretty much no-one apart from Stuart Dredge was writing about at the time. That was my way in. in 2005 the Guardian really got into the idea of blogging and social networks. They really widened their remit and realised that a games blog would be a viable thing to do.
" When I talk to the news desk at the Guardian I really have to capture their imagination. Often what's going to capture their imagination isn't Bayonetta 2, it's what's Special Effect or Adam Saltsman are doing."
The first bit step they made, apart from having game reviews in the online section, was to get me and Greg Howson and Aleks Krotoski to start blogging on a daily basis. That was really more about broadening the platform for them, rather than actually embracing games. From there, I've really just chipped away at them - talking to editors and trying to fit games in where I could.
So really they never came to me with a remit, they never said 'we want to do this or that with games', they sort of knew they should be covering games but not what to do about it.
Q: Would games coverage have evolved in the way it has without having the space afforded by online?
Keith Stuart: No, I don't think it would. Space in newspapers is at a premium, now. Circulations are falling, paper prices are rising. Papers and magazines are getting thinner and the ad revenue isn't there, that's all affecting things. The Guardian, over the last three or four years, has lost most of its daily sections, it used to have a broadsheet and a section every day. Now it has the main broadsheet, the G2 and on Mondays it has a sports section because the ad revenue is still there.
Online is also a very different readership. Not only do we have the scope and the space to experiment with our writing, we have a totally different audience. The Guardian's game playing audience are very knowledgeable about games. Often the places they'll go for news are Eurogamer, Edge and us, which puts us in a really weird position because we have this really attentive, engaged audience.
But I can also get something on to the front page of the website fairly easily, which does start to attract more of the traditional newspaper readers, who wouldn't normally come into the ghetto of games coverage. So yeah, we would never have got this much coverage if we'd have relied on the paper. There is a slight resistance from some section editors to games, they don't really know how to write about them, they rely in tentpole releases like GTA and CoD. Tomb Raider is another one.
"I can also get something on to the front page of the website fairly easily, which does start to attract more of the traditional newspaper readers"
They're on that level of mass consumption awareness that appeals to editors. So in the Guardian, the Weekend magazine, I think is the perfect place for these more longform pieces of games journalism, but they're kind of resistant to it, to be honest. A couple of years ago they ran a Stephen Paul piece on GTA and I thought maybe that was the beginning, but it was the collision of the perfect game and a writer that they trusted and knew. That's what you need, because newspaper space is at such a premium that they don't want to print something that only 30 people will read.
Q: The availability of advertising money must be a factor in the decisions of editors to cover gaming. Is there a catch 22 between that coverage proving the existence of an audience and ads providing funding for it?
Keith Stuart: I think there is a tie, I don't think you can deny a tie - and you're absolutely right, there is a catch 22 situation with coverage and ad money. Most game advertising is governed by media agencies, most publishers will farm out their ads to media agencies. These agencies do a lot of work on research, focus testing and stats. They have in their mind the exact audience that they want to reach with their ads, and often, and this could be based on data or stereotype - but they often think that a games audience is the Sun, Metro, Nuts, rather than Guardian, Telegraph, Times.
That is changing. There are certain brands where the directive is to push it as a major cultural release, things like GTA and CoD, when there's a sense that you want to capture everybody, or people who don't normally play shooters, then they come to us. Ubisoft advertise quite a lot with us, they'll do things like buy a wrap around for the Guide on Saturdays. It very much depends on the publisher and the game and what they want to say about it. Ubisoft always want to say about their games that 'these are cultural releases, these are up there with cinema'. When they want that, they often come to the broadsheets. When they want to say, here's the latest film tie-in or here's the latest shooter, they tend not to. But I think that is changing.