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The Videogame Style Guide

June 5th, 2007 by Troy Goodfellow · 9 Comments · Media

The Videogame Style Guide is now available for aspiring game writers. I still think videogame should be two words. Like board game. Or card game.

But aside from that quibble (and a few others) the guide is an excellent tool for new writers. Experienced writers will find little here that is surprising or distinct from what you would find in a good general style guide. (e.g., only use abbreviations after the first mention of term) But if you are under the delusion that video game writing is really different from other types of writing, or think you need a little more help, buy this book.

The glossary of terms makes up most of the book. It is intended to encourage standard usage across ludology, mainstream coverage and the enthusiast press. Most of the terms are straightforward in and of themselves, and I’m not quite sure that we need an entry defining and delineating “death” or “score”. And it’s not always clear why certain usages are preferred over others. (What’s wrong with Wiimote? It’s natural, mnemonic and cute.) But any guide that says to avoid using the term “fun factor” is A-OK with me.

I applaud the efforts to standardize the descriptive language of gaming, though this sort of thing is more useful for those outside the enthusiast press than within it. Most gaming journalists know the difference between griefing and grinding, campaigns and cut scenes. Academics who dabble in gaming as media studies or entertainment journalists trying to pick up a few bucks here and there will find the definitions and usages most useful. The style problems with professional gaming journalism are largely not usage related.

And some of the examples are a little funny. For example, on the usage of “campaign”:

Although the combat in Rise of Nations: Rise of Legends remains enjoyable, the core fun of this game comes from completing the twisting and turning plotline presented by its engaging campaign mode.

Sure, it’s just an example to show how the word fits in a sentence, but clearly someone has never played the Rise of Legends campaign.

The glossary still has some very valuable information tucked in it. The ESRB rating system is explained in detail with a brief nod to the European equivalents. The definition of “casual games” is a good first crack at the term, though the authors do admit that the line between casual games and others is rather blurry at the moment.

Even though the glossary takes up most of the book, the guide is more than that. It has a simple timeline of the hobby (which, curiously, spends a lot of ink on financials, especially in recent history), sales figures for console systems and identifies important companies and figures in the history of gaming.

NITPICK MODE: I have no idea why Dan Bunten/Danielle Berry is left off the list. S/he was probably one of the most influential game designers of all time – Will Wright to the nth power, in my opinion. And where’s Chris Crawford? David Jaffe makes the list with God of War and being an “outspoken critic”. Crawford invented “cranky game designer” and pioneered the discussion of game design as a serious study. It’s not that the list privileges the present (lots of old adventure game names are here). Could it be that these people are already forgotten?

Many new writers will be drawn to the book because it promises to define what a good game review is. And it says what experienced writers have been saying for years. Avoid using words like “fun” or “fun factor”. Don’t emphasize how many hours you spent, since people play at different speeds. Be clever, but not too clever. Don’t emulate Gamespot in all things.

Unless specified by your assigning editor or formal publication policy, don’t separate your review into distinct sections. (Paragraph one covers graphics, paragraph two deals with gameplay, etc.) Instead, weave all these elements into a single, compelling critical narrative.

I would have liked to have seen some words on how long a game must be played before it can be properly reviewed and maybe even strong warnings on not reviewing preview or beta code. And the reference to “C” being average encourages the idea that 60% is an average score no matter what scoring system is being used. But the review guide comes down strongly in favor of rigor and efficiency, and I’m all for that.

David Thomas’ essay on criticism goes further, implying the best reviews have some element of criticism in them, even if they are mostly consumer advice. He identifies a four-level “iceberg” of criticism with “What is it?” at the top and “What does it mean?” at the bottom. If I never read the names Pauline Kael or Lester Bangs in an article on games journalism again it will be too soon, but the call for true gaming criticism is valid and important.

Summary verdict? If you want to write about video games and don’t know where to start, this is a must have book. Not the only book, to be sure. But a necessary one. Yes, there are lapses, but I’m sure many of them will be corrected as other people make suggestions about errors and omissions. This is another step forward in the professionalism of the press. It will not be a substitute for any internal editorial style guides already out there, but if your website doesn’t have one, get the Videogame Style Guide. It may not be the AP guide for the industry, but it’s a good first crack.


9 Comments so far ↓

  • Scott R. Krol

    ARGH! I just typed out a lengthy response and it vanished when submitted!

    The Cliff Notes version…

    A style guide is fine, except the problem with videogame “journalism” is that anyone with a PC and ‘Net connection can become a videogame journalist, and so the problem is not whether people spell it videogame or video game, but the folks themselves.

    And really, is there such a thing as videogame “journalism” in the first place? If the definition of journalism is “The style of writing characteristic of material in newspapers and magazines, consisting of direct presentation of facts or occurrences with little attempt at analysis or interpretation.” how many videogame pieces actually deal with facts?

    Videogame journalism is a tool of marketing (previews, “exclusive” front cover stories) and opinions (reviews, blogs, editorial columns), and in many cases the opinions end up as marketing, too. Strip it to its base it should be about educating consumers about products, products which are meant to occupy leisure time. The Kieron Gillens of the world make me laugh when they try to make it out as more.

    Ah well, let’s see if this works this time…

  • Troy

    “And really, is there such a thing as videogame “journalism” in the first place?”

    As much as there is “music” journalism or “film” journalism or “book” journalism. It’s entertainment press. At its low end, it’s Entertainment Tonight. At the high end, it’s the New York Times Arts page. We make a serious error, I think, if we assume that because it is not straight reportage or investigative pieces that it is not journalism. Op-Eds and Media reviews are, like it or not, part of the journalistic firmament.

    “how many videogame pieces actually deal with facts?”

    I would say most of them. In fact, one of the problems with videogame journalism is that it rarely aspires to be anything more than facts like “Does this game work?” and “Did I enjoy it?” The feedback loop means that readers end up expecting nothing other than that, and designers develop for little beyond that.

    “Strip it to its base it should be about educating consumers about products, products which are meant to occupy leisure time.”

    At the minimum, sure. But why should reviewers/critics stop there? Wouldn’t the political equivalent just be printing the speeches of Clinton and Bush with no commentary or context? You can have room for both and have both be journalism.

    And games journalism is more than reviews. It’s features. It’s interviews. It’s historical context stuff. It’s profiles. It’s previews. Reviews are only the most publicized aspect of the enthusiast press.

  • Lizard Dude

    I’m guessing the problem with “Wiimote” is that Nintendo always officially uses “remote”.

  • Gamegeek

    Hey now…that’s uncalled for. :)

  • Troy

    Hey, you know I love Rise of Legends. Great, great skirmish game. Excellent art design. Brilliant interface. But the campaign didn’t have a “twisting and turning” plot.

  • steve

    I was hoping the style guide would cover personal style. Like, bathe regularly before press events. Don’t wear your freebie T-shirts to a competitor’s event.

    Does it at least have a section about not thanking people at the end of an e-mail interview? And while I’m all for dumping “fun factor,” how about, “If this pulls together…” or “it’s coming along nicely” in previews?

  • Troy

    No word on either previews or cliches, since cliches are an issue of bad writing more than bad preview/review structure. We’d need a Fowler’s English Usage For Games in order to cover that. P/review cliches could be an entire chapter.

    But if you take away the cliches, what would I be left with?

    Garbled references to Dante, that’s what.

  • Alan

    A cliché-less p/review would still appeal to fans of the genre, but most readers would find the writing to be a bit of a mixed bag, a half-baked p/review trapped in journalistic purgatory.

  • Scott R. Krol

    Great example of vgj over at 1up over the *trailer* (I repeat, TRAILER) of Fallout 3:


    Choice quote: “When the camera pulls out of the bus, and you see that ruined cityscape–I want to explore that s*** in first-person.”