Twenty years on, we’re still learning what game journalism is all about

Edge 20th leigh alexander

Twenty years of Edge, eh? When I was a young teen, the idea that I might grow up to be a videogame journalist was barely a quickening on the edge of my consciousness – I was just a normal fan, really, writing romantic Final Fantasy fan fiction with strangers on America Online, and listening to Chrono Cross soundtracks in my office job. Friday nights were for Klax marathons on my Sega Genesis. Normal stuff, really. I almost didn’t notice I’d become an obsessive. I thought I’d grow up to be an actress or something. But here we are.

Recently the journalist and author Kieron Gillen, who I consider one of my most important progenitors, posted an image of an old Edge house ad. I’m not sure how old, but I must have been in proverbial diapers at the time it ran, a sterling whisper from across the sea. In a few lines of stark copy it outlines the magazine’s mandate to be different than the others – “Some have posters, or stickers. Some review every game good, bad or average. Edge isn’t like that.”

Notably, it includes the line, “To be honest, Edge isn’t for everyone.” To me, this is a perfectly reasonable statement: how can content serve without specificity? What circumspection can come from the desire to please everyone? In the ’90s, the whispers of an elite publication from across the sea was the stuff of legend. We were all desperate to get our hands on a copy, and the unapologetic scarcity outlined in the advert only heightened our desire.

Now that I’ve spent some time living in London, I better understand the uniquely British allergy to elitism – or to bold declarations of any kind lest they suggest elitism. And why Edge’s decision to be alternative was much braver and much more abrasive then it would have been in America, where the ability to state individualist, even domineering, rhetoric confidently – as if you believe it – is trained into us as a ‘business skill’.

In my time living here, I’ve found British adverts fascinating – the way superlatives are used in taglines hesitantly if at all, like they taste bad. I understand how hard it must have been to state the controversial goal of different-better-more, and I admire that step all the more.

These days I still feel no sea changes can come about without confidence and contention, and 20 years has still not been enough time for videogame journalism and the culture surrounding it to have shaken off the yoke of product culture. The idea that our jobs can go beyond placing objects on a ‘good, bad or average’ scale – that we may be wholly obligated to go beyond that – is still regarded in some circles as revolutionary at best, superfluous or self-important at worst.

Certainly plenty of things have changed: the flourishing of personal perspective has normalised the idea that games can be a transformative power in one’s life, and not just a software item to be compartmentalised and checkmarked. The shift in the market that has allowed indies and small companies to forge their own, successful paths has also made it possible for us to understand the human work of game development, to do thought-provoking dialogue on intentions, influences and private struggles.

Writers on games more broadly build a culture and a vocabulary, decreasing the team sports approach to hardware and corporations that once diminished our experience of the medium in favour of lathering brand loyalties and mediating childish Internet arguments.

We’re getting there, even if not consciously, course-correcting gently over time as we understand that our work can be so much more than putting a ‘buy it or not’ score on something and saying, “Job done”; or publishing the profile that the marketing executive intends us to write when he dazzles us with the great honour of access to the industry we’re supposed to interrogate.

We’re learning what the word journalism means for games, and that will continue to happen, not by comparing it to work done in other media and not by comparing ourselves to other critics – the who is the so-and-so of games, and where is the this-and-that of games, are tired and insulting questions. We will answer those questions in our own in time, or history will answer them for us.

Even if it was controversial, Edge’s declaration that crowd-pleasing as a primary objective doesn’t result in transformative work is an excellent message for all of us doing games writing, even now. I want more for games journalism. I want my readership to want more from us. From me.

Nonetheless, what would a games magazine for everyone look like, I wonder? Now that videogames stand to address a massive general audience, now that niche fans are just a sliver on an uncharted and fascinating spectrum, what would ‘for everyone’ even mean?

Could we do more work – intelligent, dialogue-leading, curious, creative and informative work – that’s not for fans or people who play videogames, but simply for people, even if that would now be controversial? That, I think, is the most interesting question for a new generation of games critics, journalists, essayists and writers of all kinds – as we look to the next 20 years.

Illustration: Marsh Davies