The mega interview journey, part 4: Leigh
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."
"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?"
"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?"