When the legendary Next Generation magazine folded, it left a void for intelligent and mature mainstream media coverage of videogames that few people were willing to fill. One such brave group is The Escapist webzine. In only two years, The Escapist has garned a reputation among the gaming enthusiast community as one of the most progressive and unique web-based publications around. GameCritics.com had the opportunity to interview Executive Editor, Julianne Greer about The Escapist and how videogames and writing about videogames is perceived by the public.
For our readers who may not be familiar with The Escapist, please give us a brief history. What is The Escapist? What was the motivation for creating it and who is your target audience?
The Escapist was started just over two years ago to fill what we saw as a growing need in the gamer population. The first generation of avid video gamers was growing up, and they were starting to look for more mature game-related content, as well as the company of people like themselves. Communities of these gamers were starting to pop up all over the internet like 2old2play. And our office here at Themis Group is full of them.
Themis has been in the games space for years, starting with the WarCry Network, an MMOG community site founded in 1999. Pulling on the experience we had over those several years, and the recognition of the need in the space, we shaped and built The Escapist.
What's the story behind the name "Escapist?"
Well, we had the idea for the online magazine and what it would cover and what it would be, and then we set about thinking about a name. This is always a tough task for us, so we were worried, but it actually wasn't hard.
The Escapist fit, because games allow players to escape into another world for a while, or even just escape this one's responsibilities and harried pace. But that's not all. We were departing from the norm of game journalism up to that point. It had been very much the reviews and previews style, along with news here and there. It was massive quantities of info about the Now of gaming. We wanted to escape that norm and talk about the people behind and history of the games.
The original Next Generation magazine was the first periodical to really cover videogames in a more serious and broader context. Was it an influence and why do you think it ultimately folded? (feel free to mention other influences)
Sure, it was an influence. Several of us had read Next Generation, and especially as we got older and involved in the games space, we especially missed it.
Why did it fold? It's always hard to say, there's rarely a 100% cause of anything like that, but I'll bet it was no small part due to they were ahead of their time; sometimes that's great and you thrive, people love you and you make boatloads of cash, and other times you are just a smidge too far ahead of the curve. The people who like to read it now were still too young then.
Other influences: Rolling Stone for their style and their coverage areas. Vanity Fair for their profiles of people, not just asking what they're working on now, but trying to find what makes them tick. The New Yorker in the sense of its cachet and willingness to take on edgy topics. I could go on.
Is there anything you learned from Next Generation's demise and why do you think you can succeed where they failed?
The timing thing seems to be working out well, so there's that. Additionally, we have a little more flexibility being a website rather than a print magazine, and we don't have to deal with the actual tangible item production and delivery. Gamers are comfortable online, so it's easier to reach them here than for some other traditional magazines. Last, we have a fabulous team, from editors, to artists, to our tech people, they are creative, hard working and never cease to amaze. I'm sure Next Generation did too, but this is just one more very large feather in our cap to keep us rolling.
How are you doing financially? Can we expect The Escapist to stick around?
We are actually sold out across the entire Themis Media network for September and October. So I'd say at this point you'd have a hard time getting rid of us! We like what we do and we fight for it.
At GameCritics.com, we get a lot of resistance from even some of our most loyal readers when it comes to discussing games more seriously as an art form. Do you get a similar resistance from your readership or the general public?
Well, we've done that from the beginning—a more serious and lifestyle tone was what we founded the site upon, so our readers came to us because they like that. But, it was tough at times; we were essentially scraping together a bunch of people we knew were out there, but weren't used to having a home. So, in that sense we had resistance, in that we were a new type of site, but that's to be expected.
As far as the general public, some yes, some no. We've had people who aren't into games write to us and tell us they used an article for a paper, or they read our site to understand what their children are into. And of course there are those who snicker at talking about games as art. There are those who still snicker about movies as art, as well. It just takes time to change an image.
The tone of mainstream media coverage of videogames tends to either be snarky jokes like X-Play or spring-break party like Spike TV's G-phoria awards show. Do you agree that there is lack of value and demand for intelligent and mature coverage of games? And if so, why do you think that is and what needs to change in order for there to be greater appreciation of the more serious coverage?
I think this climate is changing. I think there's always a market for snarky jokes and spring-break party stuff, but there needs a balance that's not yet found in media coverage of games. And as the demographics of the gamer population, and the types of people who are interested in games (investors, lawyers, etc.) changes, the media will follow. We like to think we're leading that charge. :P
Let's talk about Yahtzee Croshaw and his amazingly original and funny Zero Punctuation videocasts. What is his story and how did he come under The Escapist wing?
Ahh yes. Dear Yahtzee. Isn't he awesome?
How he came to under our wing ... A friend emailed us saying this guy was entertaining. I had a down moment and read through some of his site and was enjoying it. But then, I pressed play on The Darkness review and nearly snarfed my coffee. The email exchange was thus:
Me: omg, review videos are hilarious.
Russ: yes they are
Me: must have. Get.
And the rest is history.
Looking at Alexa.com, your site had a traffic spike in August. What kind of impact has Yahtzee had any impact on your readership levels?
Certainly we're seeing some new traffic. These videos have wide appeal, not just to gamers, either. My Mom nearly cried laughing at his Heavenly Sword review. And they're so replayable—they've been added to my treasury of things to listen to/watch when I'm having a bad day. And of course users who come for the videos are often sticking around for other content, participating in the forums, and so on. There's a halo effect.
I look at his reviews and after I'm done laughing, I start to cry because I wonder how my plain old text review is supposed to compete with his lively animation, entertaining writing and keen intellect. Is this the future of game criticism in the YouTube generation?
Oh, it's just one aspect of the game review. People go to several different reviews and read them before buying. As with any reviewer, you have to find a handful by whom you can gauge your own tastes and then decide. But then come watch Zero Punctuation because it's freakin' hilarious.
I'd like to close this interview discussing Manhunt 2, censorship and content ratings. What do you think about the ESRB's downgrading its rating of Manhunt 2 to "Mature" and the call for more transparency from politicians and watchdog groups as to why the rating was changed?
As far as the call for more transparency, I think that sort of thing is natural given the relative age of the industry and the ESRB. Games are still stretching and testing boundaries, of content, of technology, of interaction. It's essentially in its teenage years, learning what's fun, what's appropriate and what's taking things a bit too far. Every medium goes through this phase, sometimes multiple times.
In addition, videogames have not yet been able to fully shake the "children's toy" image. As long as that's the case, lots of people have a vested interest in making sure the ESRB does its job well, without external pressures and influence.
As to the specific case of Manhunt 2's downgrade, if Take Two has taken proper steps to meet the ESRB's requirements, for a lower rating, then good for them. They will have more opportunity to get their product out to the public—the retailers and platform owners will allow the games to be sold in their stores and ported to their hardware.
I'm not certain why there's so much hate toward the ESRB for this. As far as I understand, they have a set of criteria by which they judge, and if that criteria is met or not, they assign a rating. It's the retailers and the platform owners who have the final say as to whether of not the game will be available to the public.
That was a book. Sorry.
Do you think that videogames are being unfairly targeted compared to say unrated DVD movies or other media that contains violent content? Why do you think there's such a huge disparity in the amount of attention violence in videogames garners versus other media?
This goes back to the age of the industry and the perceived age of the consumers of videogames. A younger industry without a very strongly established policing board will naturally have multiple parties clamoring about the need for watchdogs. A self-policing board, such as the ESRB, is an even tougher sell: "You expect us to believe you'll judge your own fairly and harshly, if need be?" Add in the child-only audience perception and you have a recipe for a full-scale righteous concern brouhaha.
What needs to change for videogames to be afforded similar artistic freedoms as other art forms?
Wow. That's a tough question. What kind of similar artistic freedoms? Music and films are both policed, at least in the US. When incendiary formal art is displayed, the media pulls out the big top and the ringmaster. Even Mozart's masterpiece, The Marriage of Figaro, was based upon a play held in disfavor because of its negative attitude toward the upper crust.
Works of art have been and will continue to be held in question, and banned. I think of art as something that evokes a response; sometimes that response is "hey this is fun"; sometimes its "that's pretty"; sometimes it's upsetting. People don't like to be upset, so that's when things get banned. But upsetting art with a purpose is also sometimes the best—Schindler's List, Strange Fruit by Billie Holiday, 1984 by George Orwell. Time and experience will help the game developers walk the narrow, but important line between pushing boundaries with a purpose and pushing for pushing's sake.