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Games and Acceptance in the Mainstream Media

Media Special: Helen Lewis of the New Statesman kicks off a week of media focus

This week on GamesIndustry International, we're going to be talking to representatives from some very diverse areas of the UK's mainstream media - discussing their views on how games are covered by non-specialist press outlets and how that picture is changing.

Every day this week we'll be running an interview with somebody from a major media organisation, giving an insight into how they view games as a subject matter and gamers as an audience. Over the course of the week we'll be talking to the Guardian's Keith Stuart, the BBC's Dan Emery, the Daily Mail's Ed Wilson and Nuts Magazine's Rory Buckeridge, with additional comment from Adam Keal, an analyst at Fishburn Hedges.

Today we're starting with Helen Lewis, deputy editor at The New Statesman. A keen life-long gamer and a vocal proponent of the medium, as well as a fierce critic of its failings, Lewis has written several high-profile pieces on subjects across the industry and their cultural ramifications. Read on for her views on what makes compelling games coverage and why she writes and commissions it.

What made you decide that the New Statesman needed more games coverage?
Helen Lewis

Even before I started at The New Statesmen the magazine ran game reviews, Ian Simons used to write them, who's very good. He's the guy who founded GameCity. So there was already a bit of that - when I joined I sort of took over, being somebody who had always played games, it seemed natural to do it in-house.

But what really lured me into doing it was actually, funnily enough, the feminism angle. So writing about some of the ridiculous things that got said, as a response to the kind of boiling over of frustration at that fact that constantly as a woman I was being told that there was some group of real gamers - of which you were by your gender definition just excluded from.

And so I ended up writing about things like the online campaign against Anita Sarkeesian, weird comments about the Tomb Raider reboot, things like the Hitman trailer - you know all those kind of things that became talking points over the course of the last year. And that's kind of how I got into it.

"Constantly as a woman I was being told that there was some group of real gamers - of which you were by your gender definition just excluded from"

I mean now as it turns out, I commission stuff for the website that's on all kinds of subjects related to games. We just had a couple of pieces last week, one about the ethics of shooters and kind of making enemies and another one about how you feel about killing in games. And those kind of pieces actually, even though we're not known for our games coverage, they get read. Not necessarily by the same audience, but by similar numbers who would read a really good piece about books or a really good piece about a film. There's a semi-highbrow cultural audience for this stuff that is not being very well served but is definitely out there.

It's the same situation I'm sure other media how found themselves in as they've kind of grown up is that you shift from a kind of review where it's “is it a 6 out of 10 or a 9 out of 10?, What's the game play like? How well is it made?” into about what games mean culturally, what they mean to you as a person, memoir and life writing. Sam Leith has just written a  book about his life in computer games , it's a piece of memoir writing but told through computer games. And that's the kind of thing that I'm really pleased to see because it is treating games in the same way that you would treat film or literature.

Is it generally perceived that games writing is cultural coverage or technology coverage?
Helen Lewis

We tend to look at it more from the cultural side. The magazine has always had a very strong culture section and we're good at reaching those kind of audiences. So actually there's probably two distinct audiences for our games, there are ones who approach it from the cultural side, they want to talk about the meaning of place in games, or what it means to be a hero, those kind of big concepts applied to it, and then there are people who also want to read about the social aspect of it.

The sexism things are a real case in point about that. And there haven't been until recently so many great female games writers, now that's changing thankfully and there are some really good ones, but the perception has been that no one wanted to read about that stuff, the audience for games online was blokes and I think that's what's really changed. I think maybe five years ago those pieces wouldn't have found an audience.

Anita Sarkeesian's Kickstarter and the reactions to it exposed just how antiquated the outlooks of a lot of gamers are, but it's had a positive outcome in the end, thanks to her persistence. Have audiences changed?

"I find I read now fewer pieces that assume you're not just a bloke, but a 15 year old bloke"

Helen Lewis

I find I read now fewer pieces that assume you're not just a bloke, but a 15 year old bloke. And actually that's really good, because what the problem was before that they weren't actually talking to the audience that existed, they were talking to an imaginary audience. There's still lots of pieces out there if you're a 15 year old boy and you want to read about games, then that's fine, but actually all the people who are 35 year old men are now also being better served.

Have you experienced any snobbery in terms of people saying games aren't something that should be covered in The New Statesman?
Helen Lewis

I think in the magazine, and we don't tend to do longer pieces about games in there, I think it would be considered to be kind of slightly weird. But online I don't think so because we're quite strong at talking about geek culture in all its forms, and I think that's a reflection of the people who work on the website, in that we're all geeks. And actually, there's a big crossover between people who play politics and people who play competitive games.

I say play politics, you know what I mean, David Cameron is a big Angry Birds fan and Fruit Ninja and you hear stories about other people in the cabinet playing things like Rome: Total War and Age Of Empires, which makes a lot of sense. And I think there are probably quite a lot of people in high pressure jobs who either use games as a distraction or they really like those interrogate a database type of games. I imagine there's quite a lot of politicians who are a natural audience for something like Football Manager.

Absorbing a lot of information quickly and then working out how to take advantage of it...
Helen Lewis

Exactly. Tinkering with a system to get the best possible result.

There's been a lot of high profile proponents of games, almost sort of coming out over the last few years - people like Tom Watson. Not very long ago at all it would have been career suicide for a politician to do that. Have you seen a change in attitude?

"There's a recognition that our future is digital, and actually games are a part of that and aren't necessarily just something that parents hate."

Helen Lewis

I hope so. I think there's still a lot of resistance because of the make up, particularly when you're talking about MPs because of the age - I think still a lot of MPs are still outside of the age range who would have natively grown up playing games at home. I couldn't name too many of them. You can still think of people like Keith Vaz, who is convinced that Call Of Duty is going to turn you into a killer, so like you say, you mentioned Tom Watson, I think he's been an enormous influence, and actually one of the other things that has been nice is a very rare note of praise for Michael Gove, because the DFE have worked with Ian Livingstone on getting more programming and ICT into the curriculum.

So there's a recognition that our future is digital, and actually games are a part of that and aren't necessarily just something that parents hate, kids are learning things from them, there are useful games, and also just fundamentally that they're a pastime, that isn't something that's different from everything that's gone before but are just a new iteration of it.

Where I find it's annoying, and I don't know if you know but I wrote a piece about how the trouble with finding really good games criticism is that it's so scattered. I've been judging the Games Journalism Prize and I've been so thrilled and astonished by some of the amazing stuff that's there, but it's not all in the same place, and even places that you think are just run of the mill review sites do run really good stuff, which is nice. But there's no kind of London Review Of Books of games, it's much more fragmented...

A lot of good coverage tends to be on blogs...
Helen Lewis

Yeah, I still find it very odd that no national newspaper has really got to grips with it... I mean The Guardian's game coverage online I think is really good, but not a lot of it makes it into the paper. The Mail has one games review, The Telegraph actually does a fair few reviews online but you can never imagine them commissioning a long piece on it really.

Newsnight Review I always wonder about - they played Call Of Duty once and they all just sort of went “I don't know why all these people want to run around shooting people in the face when they could be reading Brecht” and I thought that was an incredibly snobby attitude to take. Just because they didn't understand, they wouldn't ever go to the opera and say “why are all these people banging on in German all the time?” But there was that feeling because they didn't know anything about it therefore it had to be bad and shallow.

There's no middle ground for a lot of people, games are either pointless entertainment for kids or have to be world-changing - they can't just be accepted as decent entertainment worth talking about.

"Newsnight Review I always wonder about - they played Call Of Duty once and they all just sort of went 'I don't know why all these people want to run around shooting people in the face when they could be reading Brecht.'"

Helen Lewis

But there's also the temptation to judge games and how good they are too much by how much they're like films. I think that was and continues to be a real problem, that the idea for a game is that it should be a slightly interactive film. Actually, no, some of the most pleasurable games are ones in which the gameplay isn't narrative lead - the ones in which I find myself coming back to again and again. Story you only kind of get one shot with, but great game play... And actually ones where it's about the story, about the game that you play with other people, Rock Band and stuff like that are great in a different way, in a way that's no way comparable to literature.

There seems to be a correlation between game coverage and political leanings - left leaning media appears to give games more coverage. Do you see that? Is there a causal link there?
Helen Lewis

It is funny isn't it? Because actually things like Brain Training and stuff like that, some of those PC games are exactly the sort of thing, those kind of PC point and click adventures, would be massive with Mail readers.

Is the left more open to new media forms? Or is it just that it's a little less conservative generally?
Helen Lewis

I think it's the fact that it so happens that the left wing newspapers and the magazines have got the online presence that they want to do this kind of stuff, I think that's the thing. If you look at the Guardian newspaper's coverage it's not necessarily any better than the Telegraph newspaper's coverage, it's online where the difference is.

So I think that the problem is that papers generally are read by people, average age in their late 40s, 50s maybe, depending on which paper it is, and with editors of probably a similar age, whereas the online versions will be run by younger people probably. I would have thought that most of the editors on the Guardian news website are probably in their 30s and they probably have quite a lot of people in their 20s working there.

And I think there's probably a slight more feeling on the left that maybe young people when they say new things are exciting are right, rather than it being symptomatic of something that's going to end the world. I always quote Douglas Adams, “anything that's developed before your 30s is amazing and wonderful and new and after that it's going to destroy the world as we know it” so I think that is the conservative view. That anything that young people like is probably really worrying, and I think that probably does filter into games coverage.

"I always quote Douglas Adams, 'anything that's developed before your 30s is amazing and wonderful and new and after that it's going to destroy the world as we know it'"

How closely is coverage tied to the availability of advertising spend? Most male targeted television will feature game adverts, there are double page ads in broadsheets, sport has games advertising, the power of the budgets is being felt...
Helen Lewis

Yeah, and in relation to specialist sites I find that... I mean I'm not worrying but I think it's something you need to keep an eye on. Because if your site is entirely reliant on games advertising is that going to make you censor yourself about how you cover it. If your biggest advertiser has got a game out that's a bit of a stinker, do you pull your punches in a way which if you're a general site and you've got lots of different sources of income you don't have to have that worry.

That always has been my concern, that if you're reliant on the industry that you're reporting on, will that compromise your coverage? So I'd be really pleased to see specialist sites doing it alongside more mainstream sites and feeding into a bigger conversation.

It is tricky for a review of a game to appear alongside an advert for the same game, because people are just going to instantly think how did that happen? It must be a challenge for honest brokers to separate themselves out.

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Dan Pearson