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On Friday I was made to feel substandard. It was awesome.
I’ve been spending a good chunk of last week in Nottingham, finally getting a chance to experience GameCity. Friday night was Reads Like A Seven, organised by of Simon Parkin. In short: a bar, a stage, a mike and seven games journalists, reading games journalism. In other words, pretentious, but tongue-in-cheekly so. I was going to wear a polo-neck.
It didn’t quite work like that. It was only six writers, as Christian Donlan had to drop out. And while there was lots of laughs, it was emotionally wider. It was a reminder of the breadth of what gaming is, what it means and why we give a toss about it – and, indirectly, how writers on games have wrestled down the immaterial.
Afterwards, I found myself wondering why I thought it had to solely be a giggle. I’ve gone to prose readings about most subjects. Why not games? That I - who spent fifteen years of my life working in games writing, arguing this shit matters, and generally being wanky - still immediately went to an ironic defence for it says a lot.
Simon introduced the event, and set the mood with a list of horrific things he had done in games – and I’m reminded of the comic prose poetry at Delightful Wife’s events. I’m next, and do my Gaming Made Me piece from RPS. It’s a little too long, it’s a little too loose, I’m under-prepared. I’ve been travelling for the last five weeks, which is my excuse… but excuses are excuses. Really, I’m fine. I get laughs, I get nods. By any reasonable measure, it’s good. But it’s not an evening for reasonable. It’s an evening for exceptional.
Cara Ellison reads her first magazine published piece, talking intensely about her years of DOTA experience and the friendships and personalities. Her performance is a 50:50 cocktail of pure honesty and excited yelps. We miss friends we’ve never met and laugh at in-jokes we don’t know. She’s exceptional.
Leigh Alexander reads her urbanely cool Thought Catalog piece What Sonic The Hedgehog is Doing Now. Leigh is drama-trained, which is a fairly gained unfair advantage. She imbues the material with sadness, drama and an almost invisible smile. She’s exceptional.
Ste Curran was the best games journalist of his generation before heading off into development. Tonight he reveals his dark secret. He still writes pieces on games, solely for himself, abandoned in a folder on a hard-drive. His piece on Dwarf Fortress is so good that I’m only smiling slightly when I describe him as games journalism’s Salinger. Not for the last time in the evening, I’m sitting next to someone crying. He’s exceptional.
As well as Guardian Blogger supreme, Keith Stuart is an old housemate of mine. He briefly left Games Writing around 2001 or so, telling me something along the lines of “That’s it – I’m off. I’ll rather starve than do any more.” Tonight makes me painfully grateful he changed his mind. He talks about playing games with his father, and now – in turn – playing games with his son. The room chokes up. I choke at this keyboard, having trouble finding any words to sum it up. The least of it would be “exceptional”.
And Simon closes the night, with his The Nightmare Before Christmas, a paranoid internal monologue about worrying about confessing his love of games to a girl. The hearts they warm, all is bright, all is exceptional. I’ve rarely felt so proud to be in the company of once peers.
It’s been a hard week for games writing, and openly strange that something so positive is juxtaposed with something so horrific. As anyone who follows my twitter knows, I’ve clearly got my side, but even so I look at it all and sigh. It’s WW1, and all I can see is bodies.
But with Reads Like A Seven, I’m reminded of something else. In 1999, in one of my first assessments at PC Gamer, I was asked about why I’m doing it, I said something along the lines of “with a new medium, it’s a chance to push the language of writing to unexplored areas. We get to find what humanity means here exactly. It’s an incredible opportunity.”
Which threw my new editor a little. He was fine with my characteristic wankiness, but noted “Kieron – you have to realise that you’re not writing for the NME.”
To state the obvious, the best games writing now is much better than the writing in the NME. It’s better than the best writing in the NME circa 1999. It’s as good as writing in the NME ever was.
A decade ago, something like this evening could only be a joke, a comedy sketch. But tonight, it’s something else entirely. We’ve come a long way.
I’m reminded that it’s not enough to fight – it’s just as important to remember what you’re fighting for.
Reads Like A Seven read like a ten.