On Blogs: The Ascendance of the Form
by Shannon Appelcline
At the start of this week, The Games Journal ceased publication. It's an online 'zine that many of your might not be familiar with, since it's most closely oriented toward tabletop play, but I feel like it has some affinity with the very articles that we've been running here at Skotos for five years now. It similarly tried to offer up meaningful and analytical articles describing its industry (and actually, some of the insightful articles posted there would probably be just as meaningful to computer game designers here).
The stated reason for the 'zine closing down was, "[t]he evolving nature of the web and the declining number of contributions". I think any tech-savvy person reading that phrase will understand that it's code for one thing: blogs.
I'm somewhat sensitive to this fact because I've seen a similar trend here, at the Skotos Articles Archive. The content that we're publishing is still top rate, in my opinion. Heather's Pleasures of the Flesh continue to approach online gaming from a totally different direction, offering insights that many of us, looking on from a more insular viewpoint, wouldn't be able to see. Scott's Storms on Cloud 9 have moved far from their original direction, when Scott was designing a Skotos 7 game, but more than any of our other past or present writers (except probably Jessica Mulligan), Scott keeps his feet in the water and thus is able to point out the newest innovations and problems in the wider industry. Finally, I've been very pleased with the unique expertises that we've been able to display in Guest Voices. However, the honest fact is that we're publishing fewer columns that we used to, and they're also appearing less frequently.
The problem with blogs is they're very seductive. You can just write out whatever is currently floating on your forebrain, push the "publish" button and it's done. There's no editor to get in the way and no need to wait for the "appropriate" publication date.
Of course that's another way to say that there's no one to actually rework your content, to tell you if something's particularly bad. There's no one to stop you from spewing out whatever dumb idea you happen to be thinking of at the time.
I won't claim that every site that now or in the past published edited articles was worthwhile to read. But, maybe 30% were. Maybe 50%. I'd stand by almost all the articles we've published here at Skotos. I've always maintained a very light editorial hand, but I'm quite certain that the mere fact of submitting articles to an editor for publication causes more thoughtfulness and produces more, better articles than the average blog. Likewise, I think that our sister site, RPGnet, continues to do a superb job with its columns section.
Contrariwise, I won't claim that blogs only produce bad work. Some bloggers take the same level of responsibility in their publications that I'd expect from freelancers submitting their work to demanding editors. Christopher Allen of Skotos publishes a very irregular blog on social software that is universally of the highest quality when he does publish. I even contribute a biweekly article to a blog on board games. Feel free to take a gander at my last few articles, on Empire Builder and Five Games I don't Like. They're both of sufficient quality that I would have been equally happy publishing them here at Skotos. However, the signal-to-noise ratio is much, much worse on blogs than on edited magazines. Sturgeon's Law suggests that just 10% of blogs are of any quality. Whatever the exact number is, I think it'd be hard to argue that blogs on average approach the same quality of content as edited magazines (on average).
This all leaves us with a problem. The increased ease with which people can publish on the Internet ironically offers the possibility of a reduced amount of "good" material being published on the Internet. Without schedules to encourage authorship, without editors to polish, revise, and even reject articles, and without a community of other authors to share ideas and create community discussions with, some percentage of good materials will just not be created. Beyond that the fracturing of communities and authors into hundreds or thousands of different locations likewise fractures readership and leaves the possibility that many good articles will never be discovered (though I think this problem is already at least partially on the road to recovery, with second generation aggregators which are making it easier and simpler to bring together RSS content).
I'm not entirely sure how this is all going to shake out, and I suspect it's going to take years for it to happen. An editor-vetted series of articles, like these, is essentially the same thing as an editor-approved blog where each contributor has a set day for contribution. Over at at Gone Gaming we don't have an editor, but at least the need to publish on "your" day keeps the words flowing. Usually. However, this model is also sufficiently distant from the blog core that I'm not convinced it'll catch on.
The alternate possibility is that the aggregators become the next editors, bringing together only the best content, and perhaps even revising it before republication. Of course this will then require a better buy-in to standards of open ownership of content, such as Creative Commons.
In any case for now I'll be maintaining the Skotos Article Archives as they have been. We do distribute via RSS, so that we can be a part of the blogosphere. If they catch on a bit wider than they are currently, I'm sure we'll add more features such as trackback or openid. But a high-quality, editor-controlled magazine of computer game design articles remains our mandate, even if the content moves a bit more slowly than it used to.
Fortunately there's a way that you can help in this maintenance of quality, thoughtful material on game design: send us articles. We're always happy to run new columns, or even individual articles as part of Guest Voices. Just drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org and I'll be happy to chat with you about the possibility.
I was originally planning to tie this article in more to the general topic of games, but eventually decided to leave it as it is, because the Skotos Article Archives are an important part of what we do here, and something that remains a part of our thoughts. But I'll be considering the idea of blogs and computer games, and what computer game designers need to know about blogs, for a future article.