Saturday, November 10, 2012

State of the Blog Address

I started this blog a year ago as an outlet for writing, a way to justify my time spent playing video games. I didn't know exactly what topics I would cover—old games, new games, game topics—or what form the writing would take. So far there have been some game “reviews” (although I use the term very loosely), some game-related “essays” (again), and even some attempts at creative nonfiction (emphasis on the “creative”). I guess I've laid out a few ideas that I'm happy about. Maybe.

Overall, I still feel very far from my goal, a bit like Socrates via Plato: “I know one thing, that I know nothing.” Games are an interesting beast, and there are so many ways to approach thinking about them that it can be difficult sometimes to know where to start.

One way to start would be to examine the unique experience of play. And when I say “unique” I don't mean different or unusual, which is not what the word means (seriously, “unique” is one of the most abused words in modern writing). I mean it in the truest sense of the word—as in literally one-of-a-kind. All games rely on a certain amount of variable input and internal randomness as part of their very design. It's part of what makes a game a game. An easy example of this would be an Elder Scrolls game, in which each individual's playing experience is going to be determined by their own meandering path through the sprawling virtual world. More importantly, different people can have different reactions to the same games, partly because of the game's own built-in variability, but also because folks are just plain wired differently and will react to virtually anything uniquely. Needless to say, there can be value in documenting one's personal experience with a game—the emotions invoked or memories recalled. It just takes a skilled writer to make it worth reading.

The second fundamental way to approach a game is through an examination of the game itself—its systems, mechanics, and overall design. How do a game's rules make for an interesting, provocative, or otherwise worthwhile playing experience? This kind of writing requires a perceptive mind, probably some familiarity with games, as well as writing skill.

Now that I've said all of that, you can probably forget everything I've just said. It's not like I really think about these things when I'm choosing something to write about. As much as I would like to be able to find my niche or area of expertise in this wide world of critical discussion, I simply don't have one. My approach is more of the shotgun variety—scattered, frantic, reactionary, imprecise.

I find it's still much easier to play games than it is to write about them. In fact, it's not so much that there is too much to write—because there is—but there is absolutely too much to play! Just offhand I can think of about 15 games I've played over the course of the last year that I haven't gotten around to posting about (a couple of those games I have tried to write about (frantically, imprecisely, etc.) but gave up on them when nothing was working). It pains me to leave them behind, because I genuinely feel that they all merit discussion. It's just a matter of finding the right angle, also a matter of finding the energy and inspiration.

This has got to be the most fascinating time to be player of games, and I'm not sure if I was aware of it a year ago. We have a multibillion dollar industry that is simultaneously dying and flourishing. Even as games make a shitload of money, that revenue is problematically concentrated in sequels and mega-popular franchises (the “blockbusters” of video games). Is there any room for risk or experimentation when, for each game, there are millions of investment dollars—not to mention jobs and livelihoods—at stake? There are untold fortunes to be made through mobile and social gaming, but has it become too saturated of a market for newcomers to make their mark, let alone an income?

Gaming platforms are changing. Games distribution methods are changing. Even the funding models for games are changing. Developers are developing on console platforms that are almost seven years old—a technological eternity!—precisely because there is so much uncertainty and so many unanswered questions. What will happen to Nintendo with the launch of this bizarre new console of theirs?

And just as the major publishers may be on the brink of implosion, more people are making video games than ever before (I don't have empirical proof of this on hand, but I suspect it to be true). The realm of independent game development is becoming just as vibrant and exciting as in the film and music industries. Go check out the Independent Games Festival website and just pore through the  titles that have been developed over the last decade. See how polished they have become. You might be amazed. People who grew up playing video games are gravitating to the medium to make their own games. Why? Because it's still fertile ground! It's become a much more accessible thing to do. There are so many different ideas that have yet to be tested, so many subtle variations of ideas that have the potential to change the entire landscape of games. Through small, independent games, developers have a better chance of making an actual authorial statement.

Unfortunately, I know more about the current games industry through gaming blogs and proverbial window shopping than through actual play. I have a stupidly hard time bringing myself to start new games. I think I take games too seriously. I don't want to go into things half-assed. I want to be sure that when I begin something I can give it my full attention.

It's my own fault, but I think it's partially a reaction I have to the way I see media being consumed in today's day and age. We live in such a hyperactive culture, in which our collective attention span has been reduced to the click of a hyperlink. Exposition has been reduced to an infinite stream of 140-character sound bytes. Games, music, media, and technology—it flows by on a high-speed, one-way conveyor belt. As soon as we pick something up new we're distracted by the next shiny thing whizzing by. I don't want to give anything up. And so it collects and builds up, all these forgotten treasures and junk. Try as I might to inventory it, I know it will never all get done.

Thus far I've really only given myself one rule for this blog, and that is to post something at least once every month. On more than one occasion, it's come down to the last day to get something out the door. It's not my favorite work, but it at least keeps things moving. Tonight I'm giving myself a deadline to post on the anniversary date of my first post, so I can look back evaluate my first year, generate new goals for the future. I can't say for sure how long I'll end up maintaining this particular blog, or whether or not I will continue my minimum monthly quota. But I'll try.


  1. Hey Flynn,

    I just wanted to drop by and say that I've really enjoyed your posts over the last year. I have about 10 blogs in my Google Reader, and yours is one of the only ones that I mentally flag as "must read" when a new post comes up. That may be partially because we're friends in Real Life, but I don't think so, not really (I have other friends' blogs I follow that I don't read with regularity). I think you do have a unique (ha!) perspective on video games, not to mention a valuable one.

    It can be HARD to keep up a blog when it feels like no one is reading. But people are reading (even if they're not commenting much; it takes an enormous readership to have a lively comments section), and I hope you continue doing this, not only for your sake, but for ours.


    1. I appreciate it, Hans. I think you've done a great job with, by the way.

    2. We Are Lost In Play . . . That should do it. Check it out, people!