Monday, July 21, 2008

The mega interview journey, part 4: Leigh

My wife and I went on a disaster of a vacation for over a week after I had talked to Kieron. My wife had a work party thing at the worst theme park of all time on the day of our return. I originally had thought I could interview Leigh inside of this park, but decided that no, I really couldn't, even if background noise was minimized. We went home and I rushed inside and called Leigh immediately because a car wreck on I-15 had made late (five minutes) to calling her.

Just as with the other New Yorker I interviewed, I talked to Leigh on Friday as the weekend dawned. I think I looked forward to talking to her more than anyone else because her blog was the first or second one I discovered and I had really based my own doctrine, if you will, on the content and style of what is written there and at the Aberrant Gamer. She stressed that we not say anything about Kotaku, and I stressed that SVGL was the thing I wanted to know about.

Instead of immediately asking about the whole label or community thing, I simply asked why she had SVGL. Kotaku must take a heavy toll--that's a lot of writing and a lot of work and yet she still writes on her personal, non-ad-supplemented blog.

Why did she start it?

"I wasn't really sure what I wanted to say yet, so it was simply a repository for my thoughts and a place to practice my voice," she told me.

"Well, don't you get a hell of a lot of practice now without it? There must be another reason, a reason you still keep it."

"It's still important for me to be able to say things I want when there is nowhere to publish them," she told me. "I mean, it'd be a misconception to say that we are getting paid for our opinions all day and write thoughtful stuff--that's not what our jobs are." She did stress that thoughtfulness and opinions are still part of journalism as a whole; it's just that "think-pieces and editorials" are not the bulk of what she is getting paid to do.

Then I shifted, and asked if there's a commonality, a common, unacknowledged sort of creed all those blogs kept. "Game journalists are constantly having an identity crisis," she told me. "Fans have so few places to go," she told me. "Lots of people don't know about this kind of discussion, and many still don't. If more people knew this discussion was taking place I think we'd have more people who are interested."

"I didn't even know about this kind of discussion myself," I said. "I'd have gotten into a long time ago had I known about it. Gamasutra and GameSetWatch introduced me to it and from there I found the Aberrant Gamer and from there I found your blog and eventually decided to write this piece. Would you say there is a name for this? What do you all do?"

Unlike the last two people I talked to, there was no caution or hesitance with Leigh, at least not on this question. I'd never seen it written anywhere, but she'd obviously been thinking about it longer than I had. "Oh, I'd call it game criticism," she said.

Game criticism? Well then! "It's kind of like the difference between simply being a film review or a critical commentary on film. We have both of those in film, we see people being reviewers or truly being critics. We have plenty of game reviews--now we have critical game commentary."

"Only there isn't very much of it," I complained. "Why does it have to mostly be in little corners, blogs, all these writers' side-projects that provide no money?"

"Well, I don't think there's any game that's really justified it yet," she explained. What about Metal Gear Solid 4? Or others? Plenty of talk about that on SVGL "Well, I mean, to the world, to everyone else. I think we kind of consider ourselves ambassadors, really." I had felt that way before even meeting her. Fans of games, she told me, are "very insular" and "not open to change."

"We only discuss games in context of other games, not other life experiences. I recently wrote about a friend of mine who had a friend that died in Iraq. He played Call of Duty 4 to learn about it and deal with it. That's how someone is really playing it and viewing it. But we don't see much room for that kind of conversation."

"It's not going to get bigger until there's a mainstream need," she said.

"At least it's changing," I said. "SVGL has been around a while."

She laughed. "You think so? Do you know how long it's been around?"

"Uh..about a year, isn't it?"

"Well yeah. But why is it considered a veteran blog? It's only a year! And we're not ending up satisfied, are we?"

How long will it take, I asked? What's going to happen?

"Perhaps in 5-10 years it will change as people see that video games have cultural relevance."

"Really?" I said, thinking of N'gai's "young fogeys."

"I keep [doing SVGL] because I have hope. I have to. And anyway, the responses I get on it mean a lot to me."

She then launched into rapid fire comments--she just got done telling me she's not a veteran, but for all the opinion, experience, and stress in her voice, I certainly wasn't feeling like I was talking to someone who isn't a veteran. She started talking about burnout and how in all parts of the game industry, including games journalism, one is exhausted quickly. "One frustrating thing is games journalists have to play a lot of crap for their jobs, and so they write about crap, and the game-makers never wanted to make crap in the first place and are now stressed to learn that their games are crap in our eyes; crap begets crap and misery begets misery." Sometimes, I thought, crap begets crappy writing. I thought she thought so too.

"I think part of it, too, is that people don't realize games are still stuck in the 'toy' mindset," I said. "They're still toys in the eye of the public, and we can safely always think that--there are entire companies who make games as toys. I have a friend who develops mostly Disney IP. I hadn't seen him in a while and asked him 'So, what have you been making?' 'Well, we just finished out last project,' he said, and started tensing up. I didn't feel he needed to tense because I really liked him, so I pushed. 'Well, what was it'? 'Don't laugh,' he said--"

"Oh, what was it, Hannah Montana?" Leigh interrupted.

"Haha! Yes! Exactly!"

"SHUT UP!" She's having more fun and learning that we see things similarly; she's starting to sound more like herself and less like someone who is forcing herself (out of necessary habit, I'm sure) to sound androgynous. Oh! That reminds me...

"Yeah, it was crazy," I explained. "He just got so defensive before he even told me, but I explained I understood. He then let himself get excited and proud about what he'd done."

I continued, "Oh! Before I forget, speaking of toys...I have a question that I'm going to ask you and I know you hate being asked questions because of this--"

"Is it about being a woman?" she said.

"Ah...yeah. But wait! It's really a question that you are best qualified to answer, because the question is about women in general. Um, okay. So N'Gai and you and I'm sure many others think the age factor is part of why gaming has the status it does. However, I was thinking that the gender gap is part of it, too. You can't deny there is a gender gap, especially in the industry's workers..."

"Nope, I never have denied that or said anything to that effect," she said.

"Right. Well, I was thinking part of it is because women just consider them toys. Only like, scary ones. Women may groan when they learn that someone who is dating them really loves sports, but at least they know what that entails. But guys who love games, not so much. So I have a theory, but I'd really like to talk to someone qualified, as no one cares what a man thinks."

"Makes sense," she said.

"Okay, so...why do women hate games? I've even seen them denounce them in public and in journals and newspapers and...well, everywhere."

"Well, I'm not entirely sure, since I don't agree with them."


"But you know, I've certainly had girl friends, and I've heard lots of them talk about them. They don't seem to bother to learn more about games because they consider them unfeminine and they worry about it because it's messing up their men."

"Messing up their men?"

"Yup. Definitely. And when I meet new women, the majority are put off by what I do for work. It makes many people, especially women, uncomfortable; they don't find it interesting. Kills conversations. I mean, once people get to know me, it doesn't bother them so much, but all the time when I'm meeting new people...I have hard time even finding people who accept that what I do is a career."

"They don't even accept your job?" I say.




So the story goes. I talked to her for a while and found her to be one of the most interesting people I'd met online or off, games journo or no. A charismatic woman who can carry her charisma online and off, is interested in games and sex in games, and has strong opinions while remaining civil and (here's the hard part) able to keep the conversation interesting if anyone disagrees. Yet, all that by itself won't net Leigh a legion of adoring male fans (the only kind available), and she knows it. Game enthusiasts are harsh critics and demanding of the other parts of life, too. No, she has to write well, too, and write she does, in spades. Thank goodness for that, because, perhaps unlike most other writers, she's aware that as a woman, she is a needed voice when the discourse between "gamer" and "fogey" emerges.

Because of the vacation, my wife and I take out my dad for Father's day that evening. "Dad," I say to him, because he's long been interested in technology and the Internet, "what would it take for women to be interested in video games, or a specific video game?"


Blogger chesh said...

Wow, that was an amazing interview. SVGL was really my introduction to games criticism/the new game journalism (sorry KG)/whatever, as well, though I found it via her writing for Destructoid back in the day, and then went to Aberrant Gamer and Gamasutra from there. She's definitely one of the best journalists we've got.

And I'm glad I'm not the only one who thinks Lagoon is a blight upon the face of the earth.

11:02 AM  
Blogger ambrosia ananas said...

They don't seem to bother to learn more about games because they consider them unfeminine and they worry about it because it's messing up their men."

Ways that video games "mess up" men:

promote "childish" behavior (it's just a game!)
promote obsessive behavior (available any time, so gamers play all the time; play same game over and over)
promote violence
seen as disreputable/irresponsible (counterculture of gaming), just plain lazy (not worthwhile hobby)
distract from quality time spent together (either don't play together or count playing as quality time when the woman doesn't)

Really, most of these are all the same issue: He's spending his time playing video games instead of doing X. So as long as gamers are also responsible adults who usually have balance in their lives and usually avoid cutting out relationship time, losing sleep, or helping around the house, it should be easy to convince SOs that video games are not the Big Evil they've been portrayed as.

What it would take for women to be interested in video games, or a specific video game:

Overcoming the ideas that
1-video games are something for guys who live in their parents' basements
2-video games aren't that fun (for women)

1--This can be taken care of simply enough. All the guys in question have to do is make sure that their gaming doesn't get in the way of their relationship or of being a responsible adult, in general.

2--Two solutions here: targeting specific women and targeting women in general.

Target a specific woman. Most of us are entirely willing to do a nonpreferred but nonodious activity to make our SOs happy. So, before you invite the woman to play, be sure that the game is something that could fit her preferences (is she averse to blood? does she prefer games with storylines or just straight matches?). And then set up a neutral learning environment, so the game can be fun (or at least not unpleasant) the very first time, instead of do-or-die competitive, as games often are in a group of experienced gamers. (Hint: If your score-obsessed buddy is screaming at everyone who gets killed, this is not a good time to convince your SO to jump in for the first time. Better to wait until it's just you and her, or her and a bunch of other newbs.) Explain the rules and the way the controllers work. Choose a level that is easy enough that a newbie can survive long enough to get some practice (but one that is difficult enough to be interesting). I expect that many non-gaming women would be willing to play with their SOs occasionally if the SOs would take the time to help them learn the games. (Which is not to say we couldn't learn just fine on our own, but if we don't prefer to, well, your chances are better if you give it a nudge.)

Targeting women in general. Currently, women who might actually love video games are being discouraged from playing them by social constructs. To get women to like video games for their own sake, rather than playing them just to make their SOs happy, what you need to do is make it so that playing video games is something normal for women to do. Right now, most girl-friendly or neutral games end around the middle-school aged audience. Around about high school, most games are treated as though they're intended only for boys (by potential gamers, by marketers, and by parents). (Although there are more general audience games now, like the Wii party games or Rock Band.) I don't think the solution is so much to produce girly girl games as to act as though the existing games are intended for boys and girls. This can be accomplished both on the marketing level and on the social level. Girls and women who like games should invite their friends to hang out and play games. Boys and men who like games should invite their female friends to join them in gaming, instead of making it a guys' deal only. (If needed, the guys should offer to teach the girls how to play at a nonthreatening time, so they don't decline just because they don't know how to play.)

In other news, after years of refusing, I'm currently learning to play Halo.* And even kind of enjoying it. (What's not to like about beating aliens over the head with a pistol?) Because Bawb has showed me how to play, instead of inviting me to play and then shooting me in the back or beating me down with a rifle when I couldn't figure out how to walk and got stuck in some corner liked my dear brothers always did.

12:40 PM  
Blogger Etelmik said...

Chesh: looks like we have a lot in common : )

Brozy: epic comment is epic. I think you're a bit unique; you're more willing to give games a chance and play it on (if you'll forgive the phrase) a man's level.

I was going to save it for another time, but my dad's answer was that they have to feel something, which I agree with, and not just because of how Musch relates to games, either.

Games being about feelings and not just tasks? P-shaw!

12:49 PM  
Blogger ambrosia ananas said...

Yeah, rather epic. Sorry.

I think you're right--men and women get different things from video games. But that largely feels artificial--results of various social constructs--to me.

1:13 PM  
Blogger ambrosia ananas said...

The more I think about this, the more I'm convinced that the overwhelming factor is guilt. And I have no idea why it attaches so strongly to video games. I can read a novel in a day and not feel too bad about it, but if I spent two hours gaming, I'd feel horrible for not being more productive.

1:19 PM  
Blogger Etelmik said...

Perhaps this is why?

1:28 PM  
Blogger chesh said...

Oh, incidentally, while my girlfriend and I rarely play games together (alas, my attempts to get her into Final Fantasy XI failed for many of the reasons Ambrosia mentioned), we spend quite a lot of time playing games, together. It's not at all uncommon to find us both in bed, lit up by our respective DSes. And we both need to get back in the habit of playing DDR more.
But I know that I'm pretty lucky to have such an awesome gamer girlfriend.

3:55 PM  
Blogger qrter said...

I think we're waiting for the shift of games no longer being all about entertainment, which is the current situation.

If you look at literature or film, the most affecting works are the ones that are less about "having fun" - we're still entertained when reading/watching, but that's only a small part of the experience.

If a game is supposed to be mostly fun, there isn't much room for anything else.

2:25 PM  

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