Interview with a legend

Johnny Wilson, the former editor-in-chief of Computer Gaming World, is one of my all-time favorite people in the game industry and one of the individuals I most respect on the planet. He’s written one very good book with Rusel DeMaria on the history of the industry, and I’m hoping to get another one out of him for Castalia House.

Like a lot of the old school game industry people, Johnny is more than a one-trick pony; in addition to being a professor at DePaul University, he’s also a theologian and a pastor. The whole Gamasutra interview from 2012 is fascinating, but in light of #GamerGate, I found these two answers to be particularly prescient.

Was there any moment that made you realize game journalism had finally reached the main stream?

Considering the shoddy state of mainstream journalism today (even some once-great newspapers are pure sell-outs), I guess we reached that bottom rung level a long time ago. I know that when I was editor, I had definite ideals of serving the reader, avoiding conflict-of-interest, and getting behind the corporate facades and into the real stories. The truth is that I don’t know of any modern publications—analog or digital—that have those ideals.

Do you think game reviews with percentages and stars somehow cheapened game journalism?

No, I think the desire to get the “first” coverage cheapened game journalism. In the pen and paper world, we used to talk about “shrink-wrap” reviews. I know that some of the early pioneers in the hobby game magazines would talk about popping the shrink-wrap, looking at the components, reading the rules, and writing the review without even pushing pieces around. My feeling was that European publications, because they had a more competitive environment (and efficient distribution system), rushed reviews to press. That doesn’t really serve the reader at all.

My argument with, for example, PC Gamer’s percentage system wasn’t that they used percentages, it was that an astute reader would notice that the magazine (at least, during the Gary Witta era) always had some sacrificial lamb of a product that they rated in low percentage ratings. But, if you looked at those games, a lot of them were never released in the U.S. and certainly weren’t advertisers in that publication. At CGW, we didn’t have enough editorial space to deal with games that weren’t going to be released in the U.S. So, we wouldn’t even have touched those games. On the other hand, there were times that lousy games we might have been tempted to ignore were actually advertised in our publication. If they were advertised, I felt an obligation to review them. And I had more than one advertiser yell at me that I shouldn’t treat them that way after what they had spent. I shrugged my shoulders on one occasion and said, “Ironically, I probably wouldn’t even have assigned the review if you weren’t trying to get my readers’ attention.”

But, did our star ratings cheapen our review work? No. If anything, the stars sharpened our efforts. The reviewers suggested a number of stars and the editor covering that genre was expected to defend that star rating in the general editorial [OK, “Star Chamber”] meeting where we debated the ratings. The meeting often required a half-day or more of heated discussions before we approved those reviews to go to press. We didn’t discuss the reviews among ourselves as much before the star ratings were implemented. To be honest, I resisted the star ratings for as long as possible. I wanted the readers to READ the reviews. But, the bottom line is that I just kept getting hammered by readers that we NEVER gave bad reviews when I thought it was clear that we gave bad reviews. I eventually realized that our readership was becoming younger and more casual and, as a result, we had to spell out what we really thought.

The world wide web was the death of game journalism. There simply isn’t any reliable metric to determine which site is really reliable and which journalists are legitimately trying to do their work and which are merely “fan boys” getting their dopamine fix by slamming people and using “tabloid” style headlines. It always makes me nervous when I read reviews on the web because I don’t feel like I can trust anyone to have played the game all the way through.

Go read the reviews from the older CGW issues sometime. The difference between the level of expertise and the depth of knowledge possessed by the writers then versus the writers of today is astonishing. The dirty little secret of the SJWs in game journalism today is that they don’t actually know very much about games, which is why they always lean towards using their nominal game reviews and articles as a platform for non-gaming issues.

I wrote for both Electronic Entertainment and Computer Gaming World, and writing for the latter was always rigorous. Chris Lombardi not only sent my first review back to me for re-writing, but rejected an article on games as the realization of the Wagnerian concept of Total Art that later appeared in a BenBella SmartPop book. The most notable thing CGW had that most modern game sites lack was integrity.