I spent the last month collecting nearly every major magazine to be found on the racks of Barnes & Noble and all newsstands in between. The list of mags included both domestic publications and those produced in the UK…
Electronic Gaming Monthly
Games for Windows the Official Magazine
For the most part, not a single one of these magazines is truly appropriate for audiences of all ages.
Unless you’ve read through the About link up at the top of this page, you may not know that I spent a long time writing for GamerDad.com, both as a contibutor and then Editor In Chief. I really liked what we were doing there, but by the time I decided to hang it up, it became pretty clear that most people only gave lip service to the utility and the usefulness of the site. It’s a great thing to have around, but no one really cares. The industry is entirely focused on the, as one messageboard poster who works for a gaming TV network recently put it, “key 18 to 34 demographic”.
This attitude toward who’s important when it comes to making video games has basically claimed every major video and computer game publication too. There isn’t a single one available anymore that’s entirely suitable for children. I know what you’re thinking, “Dave’s got Gamepro and Nintendo Power on there, he’s cracked!” All I can say is go pick them up and tell me you don’t agree. Since those two are the most likely to be disputed, here’s some examples of how they’ve changed, and Nintendo Power really only changed when Nintendo sold it to Future by the way.
For about the last two years, Gamepro has steered their editorial toward M-rated games. These games dominate their covers. Metal Gear Solid, Call of Duty (4 is M-rated… a first for the series), Ninja Gaiden, Halo 3, Dead or Alive 4… these are just some of the titles that have been featured. Sure, every magazine probably ran one Super Mario Galaxy cover this year. How could they not? It’s easily one of the biggest games of 2007. But if it wasn’t Mario, would it have gotten even one cover? Gamepro used to be one of the magazines that was built around an appeal to kids. That appeal has changed as the kids who read it (and produced it!) ten or fifteen years ago grew up to become thirty-something kids.
Nintendo Power already seems to be moving away from its kid friendly approach just three issues into its Future run. Last month’s feature story was No More Heroes with a cover that looks kid-friendly for a game that’s already been shown to be packed with mature content. The feature story fortunately sort of covered up a super-bloody screenshot, but the overall message is clear with the new Nintendo Power, it’s no longer a Nintendo house magazine and it’s no longer playing by the old rules. This month the feature story is Ninja Gaiden: Dragon Sword. That’s not the bloody Ninja Gaiden sequel coming to 360 and PS3 but it’s probably not the first game on every DS owners’ list right now either. It will be interesting to watch advertising in this magazine over the next year as well, and see how it changes. The letters section now has a snarky meanness typical of all the other publications, too.
As for the rest, they all usually contain scenes of graphic violence, gore and even dismemberment. Each one of them will usually have at least one screenshot on par with something you’d see in Fangoria. That’s despite Electronic Gaming Monthly coming from roots as a kid/teen-oriented mag, too.
So what’s the problem? I think part of it is writers like myself. We’ve been doing this for a long time now and are in our late twenties to late thirties. We may be the targets of some of the better selling games on the market today, but we’re also out of touch with what children would want to read about, namely the hot games on the Wii and before it the PlayStation 2. It may not be that guys of my age can’t write about games for children, it’s just that they don’t want to, much like many game developers no longer want to make their games so kids can play them.
What does that mean for gaming as a whole? I think it might have to change in spite of itself. The Wii’s sales show that someone out there isn’t really interested in the latest M-rated shootfest, and those someones seem to outnumber us. It’s only a matter of time before some magazine publisher wakes up and shifts their coverage to that market or creates a new magazine to serve it. The door is certainly open for someone to try since all the major mags seem to want to court that same “key 18-34 demographic”. I really hate that terminology.
Bill Harris was recently featured on N’gai Croal’s blog talking about how reviews of Wii games often don’t really work coming from the specialist press because they’re comparing them to current blockbuster titles. I agree with that assessment and posted such on forums elsewhere long before his column appeared there. I saw it from the inside to a certain extent, and it’s even more obvious now being away from the writing for awhile. I pick up the latest game mag and most of the screenshots are varying shades of brown, black and red, usually where the red = blood. Clearly the gaming press isn’t going to be able to play Mario vs. Sonic at the Olympic Games and get the same kind of enjoyment as a kid who’s just excited over getting two of his favorite characters together in the same game. So if the gameplay in that title isn’t groundbreaking, but is solid and entertaining for the entire family, does it then deserve middling to bad reviews?
It’s pretty easy to compare today’s game magazines to the phenomenon Nintendo pointed to when releasing the Wii. You have multiple groups writing text that appeals to the exact same audience, one that’s aging and so specifically focused that it creates a red ocean of sharks fighting for a smaller and smaller group of eyes. Meanwhile, kids are left with pretty much nothing to turn to, and mom or dad lets them pick up a Gamepro or EGM, they will find a lot of writing that’s really not appropriate for them.