This week, I will discuss the possibility that videogame journalism is or could ever be gonzo journalism, similarly to Dr Hunter S Thompson's Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas.
So recently I had a scrape-in with gonzo journalism, if you can call it that. This wasn't anything planned really, as the best forms of gonzo I find tend not to be. After my Q&A session with ArenaNet, I knew I would have to dedicate an entire article to it as it would cheapen the opportunity I had gotten if I had just slapped it with the rest of the “games I had tried” articles. So once I got back to my house, I got the recording and threw it to someone who also writes for the website I work at. A few days later, after much frustration of the poor quality of the recording (including one part where the speaker was especially quiet amongst a noisy background), he throws it back to me along with the transcription.
Three days later, there is nothing. I'm still staring at the transcript, trying to bring myself to dismantle it into key points so I could assemble something resembling an article from it. I had played Payday 2 enough to find it stale, Bravely Default was testing my patience and the idea of picking a dry game like Analogue: A Hate Story to finally play through at this moment was a poor idea akin to rubbing my face on my desk while begging “why?”.
Really, as much as I like the idea of Analogue: A Hate Story, a game where you just read a rather lengthy tale involving Korean history while manipulating a computer database is not the game to play when your patience with everything is completely fried.
So, during the darkest hours of the morning, two or three pints of beer in, I figured “okay, maybe if I write the introduction, that'll get me into the swing of things”. So I slam on the keyboard for an hour or three, I don't know how long it took. I figured “okay, maybe if I write it as a narrative, getting my experiences of doing my first ever Q&A and slowly meld it into the information-filled aspect of what the interview actually contained, maybe it'd be good enough”. However, nearly half a page later, I knew I'd have to consult if I should stripe it down for parts so I could salvage a much shorter intro still or if a page long intro wouldn't get me stabbed in the throat by the editor The writer who did the transcript had idea number 3: Complete the piece, hand it in.
At the time I thought it was insane, I mean, it lacked absolutely any information at all. It was just me talking about how I am incredibly anxious. However, I completed it. The co-writer loved it, despite me still feeling like it was a glorified blog post, and later the editor loved it too. Using such phrases like “I totally felt emotions and stuff with it” (actual wording) felt like poor plasters on that itch that perhaps it was simply awful, although in the end it got published anyway.
If your editor uses the phrase "I totally felt emotions and stuff with it", either they are being sarcastic or a robot. If the latter, you should seek help. If the former, you've come across a real human editor.
So, four paragraphs later, I haven't even touched any form of factual information. Which, as I've been pondering upon what to write about for this analysis, struck me as something somewhat common in the audience-favoured reporting styles of videogame journalism. This type of lack of pure factuality is something acknowledged when it comes to things such as reviews (which has been satirised by Jim Sterling, using Final Fantasy 13 to show what a purely objective review would look like), but as we also favour an injection of character in even our videogame news stories it may mean that videogame journalism may be one of the, if not the, only forms of journalism to favour a (perhaps watered down) gonzo style.
So first I will discuss what is gonzo journalism, and then argue for and against the possibility that either we currently do embrace it or that we may in the future use it. Finally, I will try to conclude on if we are gonzo, if we could ever be gonzo and, if we're not already, discuss the reasons why.
Well, I should perhaps start with an all important question: “What is gonzo journalism?”. Which this is a bit of a trickier question than it suggests. Due to the chaotic fashion of perhaps the father (probably the wrong word, “diabolical alchemist” may be better?) of gonzo journalism, Dr Hunter S Thompson, the real specifics of what makes it so has a few firm details and a lot of vague possibilities. So let us lay out onto the table the two core fundamental details that Dr Thompson would always stress: Subjectivity and the narrator as the main protagonist in the tale.
The concept of subjectivity as a journalistic style reaches beyond a simple preference, into a full on philosophical statement on the nature of reporting on events. The idea there is no objective way to report on a story was something that Dr Thompson held true, going as far as to say that attempted objectivity and giving a balanced view had corrupted politics (in an interview, he went as far as to state “you can't be objective about Nixon”).
If you want the UK equivilant to Nixon, here's a picture of Margaret Thatcher.
While this philosophy does lead to a greater freedom to the journalist of what, in their subjective opinion, is important about the event (or, in the case of Dr Thompson who once was tasked to cover a racing event and ended up writing Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas, if the event its self was event important to talk about at all), the lack of a guiding hand can lead to a final article that is less informative and more just entertainment. This can be fine, but if a person had hoped an article that set out to report on an event and twenty pages in they realise the event was never going to be covered, this can lead to a betrayal in expectation.
Perhaps independently, there has also been a sociological movement that has concerned its self with the possibility of if there is an objective reality to study, or just various different streams of unique personal interpretations of reality. Depending on if you feel there is an objective reality or not would help determine if it is possible to report on a firm objective and balanced truth, or if the best we can accomplish is either a balancing of many collective interpretations or to full on embrace the researcher's own unique perception on reality. The latter, taken to its extreme, could end up as a sociological form of gonzo journalism.
The second aspect, the narrator as the main protagonist, is perhaps an extension of the previous key aspect of gonzo journalism but, I feel, is also an independent part. Not only is this is a committal to subjectivity, as you are emphasising it is your personal interpretation of events, but the interactivity allows a greater manipulation of the subject at hand. It makes it more possible, if the journalist feels, to delve deeper into the main story or even take a diversion they feel is important to make. It not only grants even more freedom to discuss what they feel, even philosophical parts (e.g. as I was on the train on the way to London, I noticed a small town called Three Bridges, thinking to myself the simplistic town-naming system of what might have been ancient England, compared to the semi-complex naming system of America where the origin isn't easily apparent, what this could infer about the people at the time), but also makes it possible to discuss events as it occurred to you in your view rather than as an objective distant photograph.
"Ancient England". Also known as 1841.
However, beyond these two characteristics, there are further ones. Alayna Smith in When The Going Gets Weird briefly talks about additional possible parts others have theorised such as the participation of a male bonding figure, constantly struggling to meet deadlines and “incisive, but often not sustained or highly developed, social satire or parody” (p4). There have also been suggestions that for a piece to be gonzo it must require the reporter to commit to the gonzo lifestyle of heavy use of swearing, alcohol and some dabbling in drugs (although Dr Thompson even professed that while it worked for him, drugs isn't for everyone). However, while the above factors definitely worked for Dr Hunter S Thompson, I feel that in the videogame journalism industry they are either unimportant or even possible hindrances. While it is possible that you could replace the cutting social satire or parody with statements on videogame culture and the industry, the other aspects would be hard to imitate beyond reasons than for the sake of imitation. Due to this, for the sake of ease, I'll be using the two basic characteristics as outlined above.
Now with our rough definition of modern gonzo journalism (subjectivity and the narrator as the main protagonist) in our hands, hopefully we can now assess how this compares to videogame journalism. So lets look at why it is or could become gonzo journalism.
The first aspect that could hint at videogame journalism being gonzo already is the distinct possibility that one of the core parts of it, reviews, already mostly fit the two parts that make up gonzo. While there is always the attempt to be analytical and fair with an assessment, most reviewers acknowledge that to be objective in reviews is an impossibility. In fact, Jim Sterling at one time made a satire of the notion there ever can be an objective review with a purely objective analysis of Final Fantasy 13.
"You can't be objective about Nixon, Thatcher and Final Fantasy 13".
While there is an avoidance to cast the the reporter as the main character in their own article, there are often references to personal experiences and examples of play when making a particular point. While not offering specifics, Darren Nakamura talks partially of his personal choices in his Game Of Thrones: The Lost Lords review (http://www.destructoid.com/review-game-of-thrones-a-telltale-game-series-the-lost-lords-286943.phtml). So while the reviews fit the first criteria as a glove, it would likely require a very particular writing style to fit with the second. However, it is a very real possibility that shows up in very minor ways, especially revolving around games that brag that your choices affect the plot.
There are also some news coverage that does tend towards injecting the author into the coverage. While this doesn't necessarily confirm the “subjective coverage” angle of the first requirement, although it does suggest it, the injection of the self allows accessibility to the reporter's views. One such example is Jonathan Holmes's coverage of if Playboy is a legitimate news outlet. The avoidance of a neutral tone seems to be to inject charisma into what could be dry coverage, thus making it more interesting for the reader, as well as to infer a subjectivity to the matter to allow the possibility of disagreement with mutual respect of opposing opinions. This combines together to present a more light-hearted and less-serious article that perhaps something more dry and factual would have seemed.
However, there are two aspects that could make gonzo journalism with videogames an impossible goal.
The first is the typically refined and friendly tone of videogame journalism. While there are exceptions to this rule (like Jim Sterling's Inquisition, although that could be considered more a commentary than journalism, and, possibly, John Walker's interview of Peter Molyneux (although my personal view of Walker's style in the interview is a very negative one)), there is a tendency for articles to be written in either a neutral tone or a positive outlook.
If your interviewer for a job asks you if you're pathalogical liar, perhaps it isn't the job for you.
This is in contrast to the typical gonzo style that is very raw, critical and satirical. While it doesn't fall under the characteristics I mention, the very refined aspect can run counter to the typical opportunities of rawness that pure subjectivity and being the main character in your own article offers. Especially as a neutralised version of yourself in the story could be seen as not a real representation of you in the article's tale. So while it could still be technically gonzo to be as friendly as, say, Jonathan Holmes tends to be in articles it could be argued to avoid the spirit of gonzo that Dr Hunter S Thompson laid down.
There is also the problem that videogame journalism does have a tendency to stay very close to the topic. Going back to the Jonathan Holmes coverage of if Playboy is a legitimate news source. It appears to stay very much on topic, something that runs in the face of traditional gonzo coverage where the author is given a chance to go off-topic if needed. However, this could start to define a modern form of gonzo coverage due to the tendency for roughly 500 to 1000 words to a news piece, rather than the book-sized coverage of Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas. As there isn't enough words for typical divergence, an article would either have to be dedicated (either fully or mostly) to being centred on the author in a subjective way, or on the intended subject of the piece.
Outside of gonzo journalism, usually divergence in journalism ends badly.
To conclude, I think the possibility videogames use gonzo journalism currently is obviously no. Even cutting down the requirements down to just two factors, it is rare for something to remotely come close to embracing both parts. If we could one day approach the modern form of gonzo journalism I've outlined, with a bit of determination it is a very real possibility. However, even excluding the other characteristics others suggest are required to embrace the soul of gonzo, the type of experiences or philosophical insight required to produce one article is something that would have to be somewhat rare to keep the charm that comes with something like Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas. Done too much, it could lead to just being a commentary track on the background of the subject matter or, worse, be dragged into boredom as the author delves into the monotonous dull parts of their life.
Trying to keep the release schedule somewhat rare (maybe once a month or less) would be unfeasible without the writer managing to make it last as long as a book and then releasing it in chapters, which at that point it could be argued it could be better to just publish it as a book if you have something resembling a following.
Despite this, it is okay. Gonzo journalism isn't something you have to turn on all the way constantly, but rather something you can flick on-and-off as you desire. Nor is it something you have to keep pure and whole, but rather instead something you can dissect what you desire and shuffle on writing. While the philosophy can run counter to some other mainstream journalistic philosophies, such as analytic journalism where they wrestle with a complex singular reality to try to create a public understanding of it, it doesn't mean you can't pick-and-choose what works for you without delving into double-think territory. It is really up to you, when and if you do write, to pick a style that fits your own philosophy, or even make one up. Just write until you can report in a way that reflects your understanding of what is truth and the best way to present it. That, I believe, is the only way we can write in a way that helps us comprehend and communicate the reality as we know it.
Sorry about missing last week. Doing the interview analysis ended up being a lot harder than I first figured and I wasn't able to write anything up. Once my gonzo article and interview article has been posted on GHT, I'll be sure to link it below.
Edit: So the gonzo-ish article I did is now up if you want to give it a read. Here's the link to the article.