The Latest Arts Beat: Video Games

By: Brian Orloff If the phrase "grand theft auto" makes you think of larceny and not entertainment, it's a safe bet you're not a video-game fan. But as newspapers continue to add video-game reviews and columns to their arts coverage -- some even employ staff columnists -- you'll have more opportunities to master the lingo.

There's even an International Game Journalists Association.

"When we launched in 1990 with Tribune Media Services, any newspaper with anybody on staff dealing with video games was a rarity," says Chip Carter, a columnist who, for the last 15 years, has co-written Inside the Video Games with his son, Jonathan. "At that time, video gaming was perceived as kiddy stuff, and it was outside the realm of the mainstream press."

Carter says a lot has changed over the years in terms of newspaper coverage -- which started sporadically and has grown now to include regular columns in entertainment sections -- and the video-gaming industry itself. Newspapers, he says, have been forced to recognize the popularity of video games, which have become a more profitable form of entertainment than music and movie sales.

"The industry as a whole is shockingly undercovered," Carter says. "You're talking about what has emerged as the leading entertainment industry and you see nowhere near the coverage [of other arts]."

If you thought video games were just a casual pastime, here's another surprising fact: gamers are not just children.

"The median age for video gamers now is 29 years old," says J.C. Schisler, 35, who manages the photography department for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and also pens a weekly video game review column. Schisler, who's an avid video game fan, said getting the column meant convincing his editor, not a big video game fan.

"I said, 'I hate musicals, but we cover those,'" Schisler says with a laugh. And after explaining the industry's financial success and large audience, Schisler says the editor conceded.

But writing video-game reviews for a newspaper -- as opposed to a specialty magazine -- means fewer readers are avid video gamers. "I'm writing for a general audience, but it leans towards more of a mature audience -- mature in the sense of seniors in high school to 30- or 40-somethings," Schisler says. "I review the way I would want to read one. I get into the story but more so into the technical aspect of it."

Schisler's reviews read almost like film reviews. In a recent look at "Neo Contra," a 3-D action game, he delivers a Cliffs Notes-version of the plot, offering a conversational and engaging approach to the game that, even for non-gamers, makes sense. The piece is descriptive and relatively jargon-free. And, for those readers -- parents, probably, and young video-game consumers -- Schisler assigns a letter grade, consumer guide-style.

Other video-game writers, such as the Carters, also prefer the consumer-guide style. Carter's "Inside the Video Games" column offers a concise review studded with staccato, conversational commentary. It closes with Chip and Jonathan's individual takes.

As video-game reviews proliferate, some writers hope to elevate the form to a level of prestige and attention lavished on other arts coverage. David Thomas, 39, a writer for The Denver Post and The Grand Rapids (Mich.) Press, also teaches courses on digital media and video games at the University of Colorado at Denver. Thomas also founded the International Game Journalists Association, which even offers a style book for journalists covering video games. He feels the public will be interested in video games because they are issue-oriented and artful.

"Most of the people you're writing for don't care about what control schemes [a game has] or does it have a good camera," he says. "What they're really interested in is: What does this really mean?"

In his writing, Thomas attempts to translate the arcane subject of video games into something meaningful for newspaper readers. Thomas advises that good video-game criticism is the same as good film or theater criticism: It penetrates deeper than "did I like it or not?" to "what does it mean?"

Carter expects that with technological improvements, the video game industry will soon meet the needs of writers, and players, who crave a more creative gaming experience. He says new programming and expanded press coverage will give more credibility and exposure to the gaming industry.

"Honestly," he says, "gaming has to reach a deeper level of artistic integrity before it's going to get the real respect that it deserves."


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