Alt-Weekly Video Game Coverage Still in Incipient Stages

Fewer than a dozen regular columns focused on video games

Inside an EB Games outlet on a busy city corner, Scott Collier’s first customer is a boy whose forehead barely crests the counter.

“When’s ‘True Crime’ coming out?” the kid says.

“November 4th,” Collier answers without hesitation. It’s obviously a question he’s heard before.

“True Crime” is a Microsoft Xbox reply to Sony PlayStation 2’s “Grand Theft Auto-Vice City,” which had the highest-grossing video game release weekend of all time. For months, “Vice City” has dominated the kill-you-and-steal-your-car game genre, but here comes a competitor that lets players use Los Angeles’ 240 square miles for new and, its designers hope, better crime “missions.”

“Is ‘True Crime’ A New Hope for GTA-style games or merely an ‘Attack of the Clones’?” asks a headline in the Sept. issue of Electronic Gaming magazine. Well, no, the reviewer advises: “… nail the camera during the game’s fighting sections, tighten the vehicle control a bit, and perfect the manual targeting …” and this game will challenge its rival.

At the counter of this EB Games — the chain’s only Pittsburgh outlet, apart from suburban malls — the boy pulls a crumpled five-dollar bill out of his pocket to reserve “True Crime.” Collier asks for a phone number. Ah, good, he discovers: the kid’s mother’s consent is already on file. He’s a repeat customer, probably without yet ever owning a wallet.

Collier won’t say how many pre-order copies of “True Crime” he’s been bugged about so far — just “a lot.” What drives these sales? A check of game boxes throughout the store shows that manufacturers seem to assume everyone who wants to read the pre-release reviews has already read them. Only a “Sims” collection featured review blurbs (from mainstream publications, since this is now a “classic” game all ages might be interested in). “Vice City,” oddly enough, was nearly alone in plugging for itself this way, quoting Game Informer magazine.

Collier knows how his customers stay on top of new games and exact release dates. Web sites, of course.

The video game industry grew up with Collier, 27, now the store manager. He’s been gaming since he was 4 or 5, playing “Asteroids” and other arcade games. He reads the local AAN paper religiously, he says — for the music news, of course, since he’s a member of a local grind core band. But apart from the fashionably slim horn rims beneath his bangs, he’s more clerk here than prime audience. He’s already two years older than his main customer, he says.

“Of course, it’s all types” who buy the games, he adds, “The female gaming society is getting bigger, with more games geared toward females. But the biggest age group at this point is going to be males between 18 and 25.”

On Aug. 26, game industry trade group the Entertainment Software Association was busy trying to prove Collier wrong. They touted a poll they commissioned from Peter D. Hart Research Associates showing that 17 percent of gamers were over 50, and that women 18 and older made up more than a quarter of game users. Boys 6-17 accounted for only 21 percent of gamers, they noted proudly. Men 18 and older were still the largest single gaming group, ESA allowed. But the average age of all game players is now 29, it said.

An earlier survey from the NDP Group said half of all Americans play video games, with men only slightly dominating video game sales (53 percent to 47 percent) and women actually topping men in computer game sales, 57 percent to 43 percent. Video games skew younger than computer games, NDP found. Still, 40 percent of video gamers were 18-35; 41 percent of PC game players, NDP said, were over 35.

As the demographics broaden, the dollars begin to pile up. According to widely-reported figures, the game industry has topped both music and film in total receipts, at $10.2 billion.

With the video game industry moving into Hollywood’s territory, and the video vernacular slowly seeping into the collective quip, video games might seem ripe for regular review by AAN papers. At the very least, they’re a medium AAN readers likely spend their time and money on; at their most influential, they are arguably a cultural phenomenon worthy of critique. But an AAN-wide survey showed fewer than a dozen regular columns even halfway focused on such reviews, and more editors and publishers with reasons not to attempt it.

Even Metro in Silicon Valley, says Editor and Publisher Dan Pulcrano, has not considered a game review column and won’t be attempting one in the near future.

It’s “far down on the list,” says another AAN editor.

“It’s all we can do in this advertising climate to get our mainstays in our pages,” says a third.

“Once a month we sit down with our managers and look at where we are, and always on the table comes up, ‘Covering tech,'” reports Bingo Barnes, editor-in- chief of Boise Weekly. “It’s always been shelved in favor of more news or more sports — outdoor recreation or something like that.”

In the last year Boise has added 10 pages, including book reviews and expanded music and news sections. “But a video game review column never makes it,” Barnes says.

Why not? “To really get it going we would need to add a whole [tech] section and really promote it. We’d want to go after it with gusto, go after advertisers to support it …”

It’s not a matter of ancient AAN editors ignoring a medium they have no interest in themselves, he says. “I’ll put the kids in bed and go in to play games and next thing I know it’s 2 a.m. I think there is a desire to play it and to [review] things. But if you’re a player, there are [review] sources out there, magazines, and even off the Web, so to some, maybe it’s a duplication of effort.” Plus, he adds, “it takes time to build that community of readers” for video game reviews.

“If we’re to do a thing like that, would we see [advertising] support from local computer stores?” Barnes asks. “We don’t think that could happen. We’re still trying to get some of the dollar movie theaters” to advertise.

The bigger-market Creative Loafing in Atlanta began a TV/DVD review column about two months ago. They discussed adding video game reviews to the mix but thought it might confuse the column’s nascent readership, says Suzanne Van Atten, associate editor for arts and entertainment.

“I was always concerned [about finding] a writer who really knows video games, who could speak about it with a certain amount of sophistication to people who really knew video games. I didn’t think we had that” on staff.

With Creative Loafing’s 143,000 circulation in a city of 4.5 million, getting sample games is not exactly difficult.

“Are you kidding? They’re dying to send us copies,” says Van Atten. “They sent us a system a couple of weeks ago — what was it? Game Cube. We sent it back.” The paper has a policy against accepting large gifts, she says. Game reviews won’t be appearing soon.

“If I had additional space it would be a fine use of that space, but to cut into my film space — I didn’t want that to happen. I’m already really pressed to cover the film community.”

In the past couple of years, however, some AAN papers have deemed such coverage a necessity: from the columns “Pixel Nation” in the Hartford Advocate, “Pulp Culture” at NUVO in Indianapolis, “Technophilia” at Portland Phoenix, “Arcadia” at Philadelphia City Paper and a regularly labeled “Games” spot at Ithaca Times to the weekly “Pop Schmear” at Alive in Columbus and “Joysticks” at The Village Voice, plus a column begun just last month at the Cleveland Free Times, part of a larger new section called “Tech.Times.”

In some of these same cities, of course, the local daily has long been printing game reviews, albeit often via syndicated column.

“I don’t think we’ve missed the boat,” says Philadelphia City Paper Publisher Paul Curci. “I think we’re perfectly positioned to take advantage of an industry that’s growing at an exponential rate. The time is now to discover the potential here. Not only does the [game] industry put out more product than Hollywood, they’re also becoming a new distribution outlet for music. The revenue the alternative papers are losing due to changes in the music industry may be able to be recovered by changes in the computer-/video game industry.”

The year-old “Arcadia” column appears about every three weeks, tied to new game releases. It was instituted more on staff interest than on direct reader request, but Curci says “we feel it connecting with our core audience. I think we give it as much validity as we do the movies and music, in that people are really spending enormous amounts of time and disposable income on these games and these units — so it is definitely a lifestyle thing.

“I don’t know what it says about our society,” he adds, laughing. “I was in denial for a while” about the need for such coverage, he says. Today, his plans are different. “I think we can develop a section that rivals our movie section in two or three years.”

City Paper has gotten “the occasional buy from Nintendo” and is pursuing other ad sources. Curci attended the game industry’s E3 conference in Los Angeles this year to check out the possibilities. “The amount of money this industry spends is staggering,” he marvels. He saw game manufacturers there with what seemed to be million-dollar displays, he says.

But he didn’t see any other AAN types there, save for a Village Voice Media sales manager from LA Weekly whom Curci invited along.

From game industry reps, he says, the pair heard “some enthusiasm about our papers and how they fit with their audience. We’re dealing with decision- makers who are often younger than the average person in our industry, so we’re dealing with people who understand alternative newspapers.”

While The Village Voice has the most regular video game review column — the 6-month-old weekly “Joysticks” — author Nick Catucci says parent company Village Voice Media hasn’t made a move to distribute the column to its other publications. In the paper’s recent redesign, Catucci, a freelancer, was asked to cut out the trend- and issues-oriented intro to his column and just concentrate on reviews; he was also asked to add capsules of his half-dozen previous critiques.

Catucci’s a game player, he says, but “I’m not a die- hard fan like some people are. You go to college these days and you end up playing video games. A college base is an important base for the Voice. As these readers age it’s a good way to get them to start reading the Voice.”

When the Voice tracks page counts on its Web site, it finds that “Joysticks” so far is reaching an average number of readers, Catucci says.

Alive, via “Pop Schmear,” has been “easing into” regular video game coverage, says Culture Editor Caleb Mozzocco.

“We had a call for writers who might be interested — and obviously playing video games for money [had an] appeal to a lot of young men.” Despite industry demographics, Mozzocco says Alive’s 30 hopefuls included only one woman.

“The thing with video games is how quickly they go out of date,” Mozzocco warns. “If the game is released and we review it three weeks later, everyone who wants to buy it will have it or will have read 10 reviews online.” Alive is trying to work with PR firms to get games in advance. With a circulation of 42,000, “apparently it’s not enough to get games early.” Their freelance reviewer rents games the day they are released — or buys them out of personal interest. But the effort is worthwhile, Mozzocco says:

“As an alternative paper we wanted to cover alternative media. We wanted to make some converts among younger readers instead of preaching to the audience we already have.”

Explains Cleveland Free Times Editor David Eden, who had been planning Tech.Times even before the paper’s temporary demise: “Although alternative papers like to think they’re on the leading edge, they are not.” He blames lack of game coverage elsewhere on “tradition, staffing, the cost of doing it.” But, he adds, it’s already paying off in some advertising support in Cleveland, “which pleases the publisher.”

Although Portland’s “Technophilia” is sometimes the first to be dropped for space, says author Jess Kilby, it may be reaching its audience. When a new Alternative Reality Game — which feature alternate, rather unreal worlds — was about to debut, Kilby was watching for its release via Web sites, where she was also chatting. In passing, she mentioned her own Portland Phoenix piece on a previous ARG.

“Someone out of the blue said ‘Hi, Jess.'” Turns out her column had made its way to the Web site and gained readers unwittingly.

Wider acknowledgment of games’ influence may take longer. “Games still need to be accepted by the culture at large, and by the critical culture, because right now they are the ultimate low-brow medium,” says the Voice’s Catucci. The “review culture” of games may be on the Internet, but “it tends to be sort of technical descriptions of games. Criticism just hasn’t been taken to the next level.”

Since he mainly writes for the music sections of magazines such as Spin and Blender, Catucci is still trying to translate his cultural acumen for music to games. “I don’t think that’s been done, generally speaking,” he says. He expects even younger writers coming up through the ranks to accomplish that more frequently, and they’ll be looking for better pay at better publications, he says.

“Games,” he concludes, “have yet to seep into the cultural consciousness and become part of the daily language as movies have. But that’s changing.” Games are becoming more “the universal touchstones — and that will motivate people to have more game reviews as well.”

Matt Peterson, managing editor of Ithaca Times, is almost the same age as EB Games store manager Scott Collier, and describes the same game-playing history. Game coverage, which he authors at the Times, is thus a passion — and right for Ithaca’s large college readership. He’s gotten “pretty good feedback” on their “Games” review feature, he says, “mostly from younger readers. Some of the older readers and the older members of our staff wonder why we’re doing it.

“People my age who grew up with those games, they never put them down,” he concludes. And that, very soon, will be the way of the world.

“They’ve been in every house since the 1980s,” Peterson says. “I don’t think they’re going anywhere.”

Marty Levine is news editor for Pittsburgh City Paper.