Back when I first started game-ism I set out to document my mild frustration with the situation that comes up when people outside of the game industry find out what you do for a living. It was the first big thing I wrote here that was linked to by people I don’t know personally, and I decided then to make it an ongoing series, if for no other reason than I like hearing other people in or about the industry talk about their personal lives. A little bit late, I’m finally making good on the promise to myself. So welcome to the first edition of What Do You Do? The Series. Today’s guest is Leigh Alexander.
First, let me take a moment to thank you Leigh for taking the time to be the first victim in what I hope is a long-running interview series, where we explore what folks in the games industry deal with on a day-to-day basis and how people in our lives outside of the industry view what we do for a living. It’s based in part on the original article here, which asks the question that always begins the awkward conversations with neighbors, friends of friends, or extended family. So let’s start with some background information on what you do for a living to bring everyone up to speed.
Spitfire: Who are you, and “What do you do?”
Leigh: My name is Leigh Alexander. I’m news director for Gamasutra, a game industry news site. I also write the Sexy Videogameland blog, I do the bi-weekly Aberrant Gamer column at GameSetWatch, I column monthly for Kotaku and I write reviews for Variety, and do occasional game-related freelancing for other outlets.
Spitfire: Is writing games journalism what you set out to do? Has this always been a passion or calling for you?
Leigh: I wouldn’t say I immediately set out to do it. I’ve loved games my whole life, but for me they stand among a variety of other hobbies and interests like art, music, literature, philosophy and theatre. I actually went to school for acting, at a conservatory in New York, but after graduation I naturally gravitated toward writing instead. I started a game blog for fun, but then learned that not only did I enjoy writing on games immensely, but I had something to contribute to the space. Before I got involved in blogging I didn’t know that there were so many people interested in sharing the same kinds of thoughts on games that I had, and it was a lot of fun to feel like I was joining a community. I enjoyed being part of it and started pursuing it professionally.
Spitfire: What do your parents or family members think of what you do for a living? I’ve seen reactions go all sorts of ways. Are they in awe? Is it the unspoken family secret? Is it just another job? Do they read your work?
Leigh: Actually, my Dad spent some time as a game journalist way back in the eighties. He was a tech writer, and back then game articles were just part of covering home entertainment hardware like VCRs, TVs and the newfangled idea of a personal computer. So we always had a lot of tech in the house, and I must have soaked up the journalism vibe from my Dad, even though I never read his articles — I just played all the free review units we got! So my parents do understand the work I do and support it, and sometimes they even read my articles, although they’re not gamers of the modern sort, so I doubt it’s very interesting to them. They’re proud of me, though, and are able to explain what I do to aunts and uncles and other folks.
I have a younger sister who was my gaming copilot when we were kids, and she thinks it’s cool that this is what I’ve ended up doing. She still plays, but likes mostly 16-bit stuff; she kept our old Genesis, although she’s gotten a Wii recently. She has many nerdy friends who do actually read my work, and so she says she likes to feel cool when she gets to reveal to people that she’s my sister.
Spitfire: You’ve written recently about how your girlfriends who play games shy away from the “hardcore boys club” titles. Do you have friends or girlfriends who don’t play games at all? If so, is gaming or the job ever seen as a point of contention? I ask because guys are pretty straightforward. Most like games, even if they’re not gamers. Are social relationships different for a female gamer with female non gamers?
Leigh: Most of my female friends don’t play games, actually. They’re nice people who try to understand and support what I do, but they avoid sharing it with me, I think because they find it intimidating or just “not for them.” I feel that they consider my job a “neat quirk” about me, but I’m not sure how seriously they take it. So yes, it is different in my social relationships. I once had a female friend advise me not to tell people right off the bat that I write about video games for a living, because “girls will think it’s weird.” And with another friend, we were writing personal ads on a social website for fun, once, and she advised me not to write down my job because it would “turn off cool people and bring in the creeps.”
It’s always something that raises the eyebrows of men, but often in a much more positive way, as you might guess. But I always want friends to know what I do, so I let them know right off the bat — if it’s a “point of contention,” as you say, then it’s probably not someone who’s a good match for me in terms of a friendship.
Spitfire: Describe your typical game store purchase interaction. Do they know who you are and what you do for a living? Or do you prefer to just be one of the crowd?
Leigh: I live in a small urban neighborhood in New York City where we have one game store and I know the employees by name. I usually go in there to trade stuff in and pick up stuff I’ve missed, and they can usually guess what I’m there to get based on what’s new. They ask me for recommendations on upcoming titles, or sometimes whether to play a certain multiplatform title on Xbox 360 or PS3. I usually hang out in there for a while and shoot the shit. It’s fun. They know what I do, but this is the ghetto, really, so it’s not common to see a culture of really active internet nerds. People around here love games, but that doesn’t mean they go online and read message boards or articles or join web communities and things like that.
Spitfire: Have you ever been recognized in public outside of an industry peer atmosphere?
Leigh: When I went to Toys ‘R’ Us to download Manaphy during a Pokemon event, the store employee did recognize me. But besides that, outside of industry events, nobody knows who I am on sight. I should get long dreadlocks like N’Gai or something, because I hear he gets recognized a lot!
My sister recently told me, though, that she was playing with friends at an arcade in Massachusetts, and was talking to a friend about me and someone who worked at the arcade overheard and ran up and was all like, “You’re Leigh Alexander’s sister?! Oh my god, tell her I love her!” We had a good laugh over that one. But other than stuff like that, where people tell me that someone to whom they mentioned me had read my articles, I don’t get recognized really, no.
Spitfire: I live in suburbia where I don’t even think anyone around me who doesn’t have kids owns even so much as a Wii. I’m wondering if anyone else feels like a fish out of water when they’re out mowing the lawn or getting the mail. There’s plenty of things I can talk to my neighbors about, but I just think it’s odd that nobody’s a gamer around me. What’s your day-to-day human interaction quotient look like? Do you have neighbors who know what you do for a living? Are they gamers? Does the job come up in smalltalk?
Leigh: In my little urban neighborhood I don’t talk to too many people; in a big city, it’s fairly common for everyone to keep to themselves, and because it’s all apartments, neighbors tend to rotate frequently. I had a downstairs neighbor for a while who knew about my job and supported me and asked polite questions about how work was going, but wasn’t very interested in the work itself. I’m friendly with these elderly Italian mothers on the block, and I have a hard time even getting them to understand that my job involves writing on a computer and publishing on the internet from home. I really think they all believe I am a “kept woman” who just sits around all day up here.
When I ride the subway, though, I often see people of all ages and backgrounds playing DS and PSP, so I don’t feel so odd. And whenever I play on my DS or PSP, I notice everyone sitting or standing near me on the train peeks over to look at my screen, and smile at me when they catch my eye. I think a lot of people around me are interested in games, but it’s not their culture. If I do end up talking about it with someone sitting beside me, or something, they say they don’t have time to keep up with games or that they just don’t understand it and wouldn’t know where to begin.
My UPS delivery guy actually talks to me about my job more than anyone else. I almost always have games coming to my door, whether that’s packages I bought on Amazon or mailings from publishers of titles I’m reviewing, so he ended up asking why I get so many, and I told him. Since then, he always asks what I’m getting when he makes a delivery, or solicits my advice on his next game purchases. It’s kinda funny — he even asks me to verify rumors of hardware redesigns or impending price cuts and things I don’t necessarily know the answer to!
Spitfire: Does gaming come up a lot in casual discussion with friends or group gatherings (say with friends of friends, at parties, bars)? Do you sit back and watch the show? Or do you weigh in as a pundit?
Leigh: Actually, I sort of find it annoying to talk about games at parties or in bars. Usually there’s some middle-aged drunk guy, or some fratboy trying to act cool, and they end up asking me about games in a way they think is flirting with me, but it’s something like, “So which should I get? The Xbox or the Wii?” And when I try to tell them that they’re very different experiences, they’re not actually listening! Or they namedrop something like Guitar Hero or Halo because they’ve heard of it on TV, without really knowing what either of those really are.
I don’t weigh in, usually, because so many people have really only the most shallow perception of the industry, and when I try to actually talk about it in any kind of depth, I’m putting people in way over their heads. No one wants to be the nerd at the party who totally over-complicates the conversation, right? If people want to talk about games I sort of let them know that I know a lot about them and answer questions when asked, but especially in a party environment where the point is to socialize, I find myself giving the “for Dummies” version so that we can move onto the next casual conversation topic.
Spitfire: Have you ever had to correct someone you know, family, friend, or stranger, regarding a popular gaming myth?
Leigh: Well, if people are joking about things like gamer stereotypes to me, they’re obviously not very bright! Saying something like “gamers are nerds” is not a wise thing to say to one! The most common myth I encounter if I happen to mention games to someone is, “aren’t those really violent?” That’s the thing I most often have to explain — that yes, some games are really violent, but no more so than movies, and many of them are not at all violent. People often seem surprised or amused when I try to tell them that some games have stories, and have emotional engagement as a goal. This is usually people who are older than I am — people my own age take to the topic better.
The second most-common myth is that games are unsophisticated. People are always really surprised to learn how “intelligent” games have become, and how beautiful some of them are, and that they have quality music instead of bleeps and bloops. The thing I hear most often is someone laughs uncomfortably and goes, “Heh, well, I know Pong…”
Spitfire: The main reason I wanted to interview you for this series is because you also brought up the “what do you do?” question in an SVGL piece. I’ve actually dodged the question (at a wedding) because sometimes I don’t want to start the 20 questions game that follows. What are your thoughts on these kinds of encounters? Do you enjoy the spotlight?
Leigh: It really depends on who I’m with. My career and my interest in games is something that tends to require a fair bit of explanation, like you say, and when I’m sitting around the table at a wedding, for example, is not the time for me to dominate the conversation by talking shop; I feel it’s impolite. So I give brief answers to questions if people are interested, but I’m never tempted to launch into a whole in-depth recital about my goals as a writer, what I think games can mean to society and blah blah blah.
In general, I don’t mind answering questions about anything. It just comes down to whether I feel it’s the appropriate person, time and place for a detailed explanation, and I’ll bet that’s the case for anyone who has an unusual job. But I don’t feel it’s something I need to hide; I usually say, “I’m a journalist; I cover the video game industry both as a business and as entertainment, and I write news for websites.” That’s usually enough to help people understand, and I don’t mind talking to them more about it if the situation suits.
Spitfire: Do you feel that the general mass market/population has an accurate grasp on what it’s like to work in the game industry? Is there anything you think we could or should do to help educate the general population about what working in the games industry is like? Or is this something that will just correct itself with time? Is it even an issue?
Leigh: I don’t think they have any idea! The most common question that people ask about my job itself is to clarify that I write about games, I don’t write the games themselves. I don’t know if they think I’m like a scriptwriter, or a programmer or what! People are also really surprised to know that there’s so much to write about on a daily basis as far as news, and that it’s a major industry like any other. On any given day I write articles about financial news, business partnerships and new products just like I would in any other industry. I think many people still have the misconception that a game writer must be solely a reviewer, and that I just play games all day. For me personally, my job involves more writing about the companies that make games rather than the games themselves, although I do write about games themselves a fair bit in my columns and on SVGL.
As far as “what it’s like to work in the industry,” I don’t consider myself “in the industry.” As someone who needs to write about the industry objectively, I am somewhat outside of it and I think that’s how it should be. As far as the experience of someone inside the game industry, I have educated ideas about their experiences and have been told by many individuals about what their work is like, but I don’t advise anyone on that.
I don’t think that people necessarily need to be educated on that unless they want to be. I’m not interested in, for example, gold mines, oil wells, shipping or real estate, and I wouldn’t really want people in those industries feeling like it’s their personal goal to evolve my interest level. I do feel that more people would enjoy games if they were welcomed into the space, and I am also optimistic that games’ involvement in our larger culture will continue to increase — but at the same time, to each their own. I don’t mind if people have different interests or career goals than I do.
Spitfire: Thanks again for taking the time to do this interview, Leigh! Everyone be sure to go read Leigh’s work, which appears everywhere on the interwebs daily. If you aren’t already familiar with her work (and if so, what’s wrong with you?), just throw a stick at GameSetWatch, GamaSutra, Kotaku, or her personal blog, Sexy Videogameland (among countless other locations), and you’re bound to hit one of her brilliant think pieces.
SVGL title art above (by Van Sneed) used with permission.