Notes on Halo

A short piece on gonzo gamers of the “New Games Journalism,” for the Sunday arts section of The New York Times.
New York Times Sunday Arts & Leisure, April 3, 2005

Most reviews of computer games cover only the bells and whistles: how quick was the action, how cool the villains, how original the story line. Over the last year, however, a handful of gaming writers have been bringing a more personal touch to their work, using a narrative, experiential approach that acknowledges the effect of the game on the player. Their young genre even has a name: New Games Journalism, after the New Journalism of the 1960’s and 70’s.

The seminal tract was an article by the 33-year-old Ian Shanahan, using his screen name, Always Black, in the February 2004 issue of the British magazine PC Gamer (which has been the house organ of New Games Journalism). “Bow, Nigger,” described the mechanics of the online game “Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast” (pictured at right), and also recounted how the epithet of the title, typed by an opponent many miles away, altered the course and meaning of a simple light-saber duel. That article inspired Kieron Gillen of Bristol, England, to write – after a long night at the pub with a few game-scribe friends – a blog post that has become known as the manifesto of New Games Journalism. While the genre takes games as its subject, Mr. Gillen wrote, “what it’s really talking about is the human condition.”

It manages to do that quite well. “Possessing Barbie,” also by Mr. Shanahan, describes a sexually charged encounter in the virtual world known as There, in which the author grapples with questions of virtual transgression and desire – and how they might affect his relationship with this real-life girlfriend, who’s on her way up with the afternoon tea.

According to Mr. Gillen, 29, who has been a games journalist since he was 19, articles by writers like Mr. Shanahan, Jim Rossignol and Tom Chick (who writes for and is one of the field’s rare American practitioners), reflect how people experience games more accurately than the “previews” that are the meat and potatoes of the gaming press. “If you’re telling your friends about getting blown away in a game, you don’t say, ‘My character died.’ You say, ‘I died,’ ” he said. “That’s the weird magic of games. You do feel involved in something that’s actually happening to you.”