Feb 15 2010

Rock, Paper, Shotgun, And Why We Need To Make Publications Into Homes, Or Maybe Just Local Pubs

I was fascinated to read Wired UK‘s take on the Apple tablet, the rivals to the Kindle, and the race to create a digital magazine format, as featured in the latest issue of that magazine. Peter Kirwan’s article relates to the kind of topics I’ve touched on before on this blog, but it wasn’t so much the HTML vs other online design that really grasped me, but rather how a number of comments made in the article relate to the experiences I’ve had with something I haven’t talked much about on this site: the creation and success of Rock, Paper, Shotgun.

Rock, Paper, Shotgun has been my other project for the better part of three years, and I co-own it with three other writers. Our intention was to create a unique website – specifically one about PC gaming – which we’ve done fairly successfully. The site now sees roughly 400,000 visitors each month and largely pays for its own smooth running. Part of the reason for this is, I believe, the way in which we’ve identified a community and then managed it. We realised early on that the rush to create commercial blogs for the generalist gamer had left one particular format – the PC – out in the cold, despite the fact that the same format had dominated the early days of the web. PC gaming media had fragmented into community niches, or particular gaming genre sites, and there was no equivalent of, or supplement to, the kind of thing that magazines like PC Gamer were doing, which was to deliver a broad survey of what was going on in that space. We wanted to do precisely that, because it matched with our own diverse tastes. Secondly, much of the web is rude, thoughtless, or chauvinistic. That’s often true of Rock, Paper, Shotgun too, but we’ve gone much further than most other communities in actively cracking down on it. Rather than rely on a crowd-based system of voting comments and up and down, we’ve opted to curtail free speech and employ massive deletions. Create an atmosphere in which trolling and idiocy is not tolerated at all, and it starts to recede. All this left us with an excellent place for people did want to discuss the issues of PC gaming to start reading on a regular basis.

So anyway, the Wired article quotes Sara Ohrvall of Bonnier R&D, who says of web media consumption: “People become ‘rootless’ in their behaviour… They consume media in places where they happen to end up. This leaves consumers uncertain about whether they have read/listened to/viewed what’s relevant to them, or not.” She goes on saying that you “always link somewhere else, the story never ends.” It’s about curation, says the article. Magazines curate content for readers. Which is, of course, a lesser feature of news blogs and RSS feeds. They are an attempt at a different kind of curation, one that is similar to, but more fragmentary than, the kind magazines offered previously.

What has perhaps fallen by the wayside is the sense of a connected community that is built into the systems. Many of these sites aren’t engendering the kind of communities we’ve seen based around magazines, sometimes because they’re just news links that point elsewhere, and sometimes because they’re hostile environments, difficult for a newcomer to break into, or feel comfortable in. However, if they do manage to create a sense of community then that rootlessness begins to become less significant. Online readers begin to regard certain sites as bases from which to head out onto the web from. One of the most common bits of feedback I hear from RPS readers is that they’ll always have the site open in a tab, because they feel the need to check back and see what everyone is talking about, both in the editorial and the site comments. For my part, I use a number of sites I’m familiar with the explore the web from, returning to them later on. They’re my homepages in a very literal sense of the word.

Later in the Wired article the founder of The Wonderfactory, David Link, is quoted saying that new digital magazines designed for tablet-readers won’t link out much, because “they’ll want to keep the readers immersed in premium material.” They will, in effect, want to retain the “walled garden” that they’ve previously had with magazines. This seems to be me to be nonsense, and a recipe for disaster. Rock, Paper, Shotgun is a far better model for a web magazine: a stream of news punctuated by longer articles, embedded within a community which is reasonably well-policed. This new generation of digital magazines, if and when they happen, should regard themselves as home-pages, or bases from which their readers can make excursions into the web. They are somewhere to focus a particular interest, to provide relevant material, and signposts to exploration. They’re also a place to return to later on. The best example of how this works on RPS is our regular ‘The Sunday Papers’ feature, in which readers regularly return to RPS to comment on an article, rather than – or in addition to – commenting on the source site. Why do they do that? Because they’re coming back home to share their thoughts with the people who they know have a similar understanding of the world to themselves. They’re not going to do that with something that is all controlled editorial, and an unpoliced pure-news site will have similar issues. Sure, we have riotous arguments, but the common thread of the site is enough to keep things ticking over, and keep people feeling invested.

Magazines, paper magazines, can be translated into these e-reader formats, but that does not mean the transition is actually useful or that it won’t be pointless against the backdrop of what the web is already doing. Learning from how the smaller, consistently popular sites like RPS are operating is the only way print media can evolve to meet the demands of the future reader.

Feb 12 2010

Meathooks, Andy Warhol, And The End Of Spaceflight

I sat down with the intention of writing about all the things that are going on in my working life right now, and then immediately realised that half of them are Top Secret and not for publication on the internet. That’s a shame because they’re really rather interesting. What I can say a little bit about is the new book, which I’ve now started working on in earnest, thanks to the labours of a splendid literary agent.

I’m aiming to expand on a few of the more interesting themes that I touched on in This Gaming Life, particularly those related to the social and psychological uses of gaming, and the role of boredom. For a while there I thought I was going to write a book on boredom, which itself is a fascinating topic. The word first turns up in print in 1852, in Dickens’ Bleak House, and then proliferates through English. What’s interesting is that similar words appeared in a number of European languages about that time, and etymological investigation shows that it is, linguistically at least, a fairly new concept. There are words for idleness, isolation, and derivations of disliking or hating something that go right back into Latin, but the specificity of boredom seems new. It’s as if it has evolved to fill a particular need, and as if modern life demanded it. We took boredom to peculiar heights in the 20th century, with some people even making an artform out of it (Warhol) or predicting that it was the whole of our future (Ballard), while the general public used it with increasing frequency to describe their experiences, or their state of mind. Boredom, punctuated by moments of extreme horror, is the Grim Meathook Future. Interestingly, the word “interesting” has also seen a correlating increase in its use.

Anyway, as I looked into boredom I realised that it’s the reactions to the condition that really what’s worth investigating. In This Gaming Life I basically posited that videogames are part of a complex response to boredom, but it’s worth taking that a little further, since videogames represent only one of a number of ways we might deal with boredom, or avoid it altogether. I’ve realised that I’m one of those people who is seldom bored when left to my own devices, and that’s because my behaviour is always to read, research, or play with something. When I’m trapped and unable to do these things is when boredom strikes, and how horrible it can be. The next book, then, explores wider, into realms of imaginative activity other than videogames, and gets to work on the rich tapestry of entertainments and distractions that we’ve created for ourselves. This week I’ve been constructing a piece that examines how a book, a film, and a videogame might all deal with the same topic, and how the technological differences between these formats changes both the experience as well as the subject that is being explored. Beyond that I’ve got some plans to look at how books, the moving image, and the interactive experience are all connected, and how the 20th century coughed them up to give us the culture we have today.

To take some samples from the text, it seems that book two will include such topics as: hippies and computers, the dream machine developed by William Burroughs and Brion Gysin, the weather behind Frankenstein, the all-time total number of novels published, why I am jealous of the protagonist of The Truman Show, why a space programme could be replaced with an inner-space programme, and what World Of Warcraft players and cyborgs have in common. And more!

Anyway, more news on those secret projects soon, and maybe even some extracts from the book-in-progress.