Entertainment Weekly always had an on-again, off-again relationship with gaming. It's like Derek Shepard and Meredith Grey or Chuck and Blair on Gossip Girl — hot in the broom closet one moment, icily distant the next.
For brief periods over the last decade, EW included regular game reviews in its pop culture pages, only to drop them unexpectedly. They'd pop up intermittently — a Rock Band versus Guitar Hero article here, a very special guest appearance on the Must List — but never anything sustained.
A few weeks ago, the mag went on an unexpected relationship binge, recruiting its resident geek scribe, Jeff Jensen, to write a pair of roundup essays on movie tie-in games (Wall-E, Lego Indiana Jones) and sports games (Madden 09 Wii, NASCAR 09).
My beef certainly isn't about Jeff Jensen, a man whose writing I've admired and respect. No, it's that turning to him means gaming was the only section in which the magazine didn't employ an expert.
This isn't just a sign of disrespect. It's revealing about the way in which a top-flight mainstream magazine views gaming. The overt message is this: We're like you, dear readers. We sorta understand this game thing all the youngsters are into, but it sure is confusing. But hey, it's all cool — we'll stumble through it together.
On the surface, the magazine is doing what it's supposed to: Writing to its audience, which seems more and more to consist of Zeitgeist-sipping boomers who'd still like to sound hip when they converse by the water cooler. If you'd like evidence of that point, look no further than the mag's offering of a regular pop culture column to none other than "The King of Geezers," Stephen King, who routinely rewards them by showing just how behind the pop culture wave he's languishing.
An essay on the evil forces of marketing on baseball? Seriously?
This audience is full of people, who, like Jensen, have probably avoided playing sports video games, because they didn't want to get shown up by their 10-year old sons and daughters.
It's certainly not full of hardcore gamers, who obviously aren't turning to EW see if Madden 09 is any good this year or whether Spore's DRM issues are a deal-breaker. These folks are frantically clicking on IGN, Joystiq, Gamespot, and Metacritic to see which direction to blast their online bile next.
And that's fine, I guess. The hardcore have their sources of gaming news. Including their perspective in EW might send readers screaming into the arms of People and Highlights, because too often, what passes for gaming journalism is poisoned with snark or drowning in jargon, stuff only the converted appreciate.
But here's what gets missed when a magazine turns to writers at the other end of the spectrum — dabblers who, like their readers, are exploring new territory: A sense of continuity and perspective.
A guy who's never played Madden can't really tell you if the new All-Play version for Wii is pandering to the casual gamer or an actual good alternative to the Xbox 360 version, because he hasn't played it.
That a major magazine is willing to devote any ink to gaming represents another chance to show the Wii-loving casual masses that our passion is as beautiful, complex, and vital as the new disc by Television on the Radio. But sans perspective, what we end up with is hosannah-laden stories like Vanity Fair's "review" of Star Wars: The Force Unleashed. In it, the writer said the Game Studio George Built was leading us all into a new and glorious age of immersive entertainment. The Force Unleashed was both beautiful and a blast to play, but it doesn't raise the bar in terms of immersion or graphical genius any more than a dozen other games this year.
There is a middle ground. It's possible to communicate gaming expertise without making your readers feel like clueless noobs — and it's a damn sight better than sacrificing credibility by admitting, like your audience, you only sorta know what you're talking about.
That we don't have more people writing and talking about games at that intersection is just one more reason gaming's a badly misunderstood field.