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19/12/2009 Family Family Gamer Article
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It's easy to be dazzled by any new media, video games in particular, but when we let horsepower, visuals and technology rule our hobby it becomes predictable and dry. Remembering this may enable us to revisit how we review games, and discover something more fascinating than any game - the people that play them.

To avid gamers a review from IGN is very different from Joystiq's or 1Up's write up of a particular game. Each outlet has its own house style, what can and can't be said and how to put it. Maybe not written in stone, but the context and audience alone determine the acceptable discourse for a review. And then there is the much agonised over scoring system that, whether letters, numbers or symbols, tries to distil things into a singular conclusive unit.

GameCity's recent seminar playfully looked to put this all to bed, to define the perfect review that all others could conform from there on - tongue firmly in cheek. OneLifeLeft's Ste joined previous EDGE Editor in Chief Margaret Robertson, along with Simon Parker of Eurogamer fame and a slightly grumpy Owain Bennellack.

We all shuffled into the salubrious recently refurbished Nottingham Antenna venue. Bar snacks and drinks all round as we wrung our hands and got ready to deal with this central tenant of our gaming life - game reviews.

But alongside this mix of journalistic celebrity was placed our very own Rebecca Mayes. Her songs couldn't be more different from the panel's written reviewing. However, her presence in the room and strangely meaningful songs somehow validated our obsession over the minutiae of video game appreciation.

The others had pretty much all moved on, leaving lesser mortals to assess the month's releases to tight deadlines.

While Ste, Simon, Margaret and Owain Bennellack generally sent up the 'review' as something of an in-joke, Rebecca simple offered her responses to the games she played. There was a curious initial disconnect as the room took in the proper live performance from an artists and then switched back to the banter of the established panel.

The general consensus from the table was that reviews were something of a necessary evil. You had to try and connect your audience with the best of games and warn them about the worse, but this it seemed was a chore to those doing the deed each week. Parker was the only one with anything like a sparkle left in his eye as he defended the value of a well written objective piece of prose. The others had pretty much all moved on, leaving lesser mortals to assess the month's releases to tight deadlines.

And for me this is the beauty of Mayes' sung reviews. It's not their craft or quality or hum-ability I most love them for, it's that they validate a whole new way of reviewing games, and relative-ise written reviews as just one way to do things. Here, we enter the world of particular, individual responses to video games. We can embrace subjectivity rather than trying to create the definitive verdict.

Now, readers of Game People site will have no surprise at hearing this. We're spending time and giving space to individuals who want to respond to games in unusual, different and sometimes downright odd ways.

We have our Haiku reviewer, nothing new here except her poetic reviews are incorporated and represented in Origami paper-craft before being photographed in everyday situations. The pictures are the review and left to stand on their own right as an individualís response to playing a game. In our world this has as much authority as anything written and scored.

All these people have joined the Game People family because they offer something not found elsewhere.

Then there are our Hand Drawn Animation reviews, not with pencil and paper but with a mouse. These silent animated shorts take the game into everyday life in unexpected ways. They respond to the way games fit into the day of the reviewer. In some ways these are as much about the reviewer as they are about the game - for us no bad thing.

We've found this individualistic approach can work as well with our written pieces too. We have a range of people writing niche reviews that attend to very specific video game concerns. Our Returning Gamer used to play games in their youth and is now dipping their tow in again. Our Fit Gamer just wants to play games that help them in their exercise regime. Our Soulful Gamer looks to games for his weekly injection of meaning and reflection. Our Scripted Gamer even sees games through the lens of the theatre and creates reviews in the style of screen plays.

All these people have joined the Game People family because they offer something not found elsewhere. Again this is more about them than the games they play because for us people are much more interesting than games. It's a simple fact that in our service to consistency and mass media has got lost along the way.

As the seminar went on, it was fascinating to hear the dialogue between Mayes and the others. Questions like 'How long to play review games for?', or 'How influenced by PR freebies can you be?', or even 'How much reviews are constructed to be search engine friendly?' were so key to the writers, but almost off the radar for Mayes' creative approach.

By trying to be the definitive voice of a particular games outlet it seemed that you were susceptible to all these issues. Rigor and accuracy and encyclopaedic gaming knowledge were king. But as soon as move into the territory of an individualís creative response these issues simply go away.

And of course, I'm aware that this stems from what I'm looking for in game reviews. I simply want to find someone enough like me, who shares enough of my tastes, that I know what they like is probably a good barometer for me too. I'm after someone to follow. Rather than the authority of mass-media I'm much more attracted to and interested in the haphazard individual response of a few friend-like reviewers.

In a world where we are so often driven by the technology and next new thing, I hope it's not too unfashionable to say that people are more important.

It's possible, I think that here is the seed that can reinvigorate the world of reviewing - for both writer and reader. Once unshackled from the chains of speaking for everyone, or being definitive, reviewers are free to offer risky or unpopular opinions. And readers start to understand who it is that is writing the review, and understand why they would agree or disagree with what they are saying.

Obviously you need a balance, and in terms of tone and voice Game People can be identified as easily as GameSpot or IGN. It's no less rigorous or lower quality, but simply that the content takes in more of the reviewer and less of the game.

In a world where we are so often driven by the technology and next new thing, I hope it's not too unfashionable to say that people are more important - even here. What makes this all so exciting is what this technology does to us and our lives. And perhaps, these genuinely creative responses to playing will help share this passion with the other people in our lives who haven't discovered it for themselves yet.

Written by Andy Robertson

You can support Andy by buying The Importance of being People

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Andy Robertson writes the Family Gamer column.

"Videogame reviews for the whole family, not just the kids. I dig out videogame experiences to intrigue and interest grownups and children. This is post-hardcore gaming where accessibility, emotion and storytelling are as important as realism, explosions and bravado."

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With so many different perspectives it can be hard to know where to start - a little like walking into a crowded pub. Sorry about that.

But so far we've not found a way to streamline our review output - there's basically too much of it. So, rather than dilute things for newcomers we have decided to live with the hubbub while helping new readers find the columnists they will enjoy.

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