It’s worth remembering that Jamin Warren didn’t have to settle on video games. He’s written about culture for one of the top daily newspapers in the country, and about music for the venerable web magazine, Pitchfork. It is, then, one index of the state of contemporary gaming journalism that his next move was to found Kill Screen, one of a new breed of journals framing the public discussion on the culture of gaming. We spoke to Warren about making the jump.
CR: Kill Screen is both a bellwether and driver of what some are calling New Games Journalism. How did we get to this particular place and time in gaming journalism?
JW: It’s a matter of maturity. Game journalism started as an offshoot of fandom. The gatekeepers that normally ushered a new medium into maturity — newspapers, television, radio — thought of games as pure adolescent fantasy. As a result, the people who took games seriously — fans — were the vanguard for writing about games.
Unfortunately, it’s a lot easier to love games than to love the mechanics of writing, so as a result, writing about games was driven by well-meaning folks who were interested in perpetuating a certain type of fan culture. What you’re seeing now is a maturation with folks with more traditional journalistic pedigree evaluating games as they would any other subject. Our new editor hails from Popular Science, has a feature in the queue for Harper’s, and interned at the New Yorker. He’s also a lifelong gamer and has a Manny Calavera from Grim Fandango tattoo. These are the people who are interested in writing about games now and we’re happy to be ushering in some of the best writing on the topic found anywhere.
CR: Presumably, that means that they’re striving to adopt a more objective perspective, looking at gaming as a phenomenon and not just something to consume. Are there other ways in which experience as a traditional journalist changes the way a critic approaches the subject of gaming?
Well, um, picking up the phone! This seems like a really simple one, but you’d be surprised (or not) how much a story improves if you just call the subject in question.
CR: Previously, you worked as a culture reporter for the Wall Street Journal. Was Kill Screen a natural outgrowth of your work there?
JW: Perhaps! I was a culture reporter so I was tasked with all things relevant for “kids” under the age of 40. That wasn’t just games — that was comics, television, literature. Games were something I had done my entire life, but I didn’t start thinking about them critically until I started at the Journal.
CR: How did you decide to take it from being one subject out of many that you wrote about in your capacity as a culture writer, to making gaming the focal point of its own magazine?
I wanted a space I could own and games seemed like one topic at the paper that could be mine. As a former music critic, I can say it’s hard to find something new to say. There are decades and decades of music criticism to work from. Games? Not so much. So it seemed like a much wider, open space to explore.
CR: From an editorial point of view, what do you look for in criticism? How do you see it evolving?
JW: We’ve always like to think of our approach as “Games and…” The central idea being that games can be a lens into the outside world, but also that non-game culture can have a lot to say about the way we play. With that in mind, I’d like to think we have a multi-disciplinary approach and I look for folks who can make the connections between games and the rest of life.
CR: I recently spoke with Kris Ligman of Critical Distance, and she talked about academia’s role in the growth of New Games Journalism. Is it possible to bridge the gap between the academic side and the more general audience of people who just want to know what games are worth their time and money?
JW: Absolutely. In fact, this is staple of a lot of popular magazine writing. I have a fondness for academics, but it’s important to remember that academics’ primary audience is other academics. The reward system for academics is tenure-driven publishing cycle and those values are not always commensurate with what the public is interested in reading. I’m not saying this is good or bad, but most of what academics write is mostly incomprehensible to general audiences.
That can be a real concern for game academia. Even though the subject is popular, the approach isn’t. But games research can be a great place to find nuggets of ideas and then translate them to the wider world.
CR: At the same time, it seems like one key to maturing games journalism is to make it (and its principle subject matter) accessible to an even broader audience. Just as academics have a tendency to write for other academics, gamers have a tendency to write for other gamers. How do you open the topic up to audiences that may not be as invested in gaming?
My mother loves King of Kong. She likes games fine, but KoK opened up the subject to her because it was driven by narrative. I love Radiolab and one thing they do well is take complicated topics and storify them for a wider audience. That takes many forms – but one of the most common is using metaphor to explain complex concepts.
The problem with a lot of game writing is many writers presume that the value is self-evident. That can be effective on a very superficial level — i.e. I like Call of Duty so anything written about CoD will interest me. But most people haven’t played most games. Honestly, the only people with the time to have the same type of breadth as game journalists is frankly other game journalists! One could argue that’s expertise but I find that can be unhelpful for people that are new to the space or aren’t as well-played.
Do an honest assessment the next time you open up a game website. Would this really be comprehensible to someone who hasn’t been reading all 90 posts each day? Probably not. And it’s that exception that we’re looking to cultivate. There are lots of folks that love games but don’t get a lot of the current crop of game websites (with some exceptions of course).
CR: What sort of impact would you like to see Kill Screen (and criticism in general) have on gaming and game production?
JW: I’d like to be what Rolling Stone was for rock n’ roll and Wired was for the Internet.
 A 2007 documentary following competitive gamer Steve Wiebe’s bid to secure the world’s record for highest score in Donkey Kong.