L. Rhodes


The Critic

Originally published at http://cultureramp.com/?p=829

There probably is no single writer capable of representing the current state of video game journalism. Point of view is an asset in the field of criticism, and while it may not be the only way to develop a compelling point of view, living your own life is certainly the tried-and-true method.

In that regard, though she may not be precisely representative, Jenn Frank is certainly emblematic. Her byline has appeared on some of the biggest online gaming sites of recent years, as well as on the print editions of several, usually attached to essays that connect the dots between the often geometrically abstract world of gaming and the messier stuff of daily life. Jenn was generous enough to talk to me about how she and the industry arrived at where they are today.

Culture Ramp: Where are your primary stomping grounds these days? Unwinnable? Infinite Lives?

Jenn Frank: Unwinnable is the website I put the most faith and value in, yeah.

I’ve been working professionally in games for seven years now, specifically writing about them, and I’d say there was a lull for awhile. In availability of work, I mean, or even interest. The Internet has really changed things, though. Six years ago, no, there wouldn’t have been a place for the type of writing I’m most interested in doing. So when Stu [Horvath] approached me to write for Unwinnable, his pitch was the one I took most seriously. And I put so much faith into his vision, in fact, I dropped my celebrity gossip blogging job–which is what I was actually doing by then–like a hot potato.

Time will tell if that sort of decision is remotely profitable or outright idiotic, but I think there’s increasing reader interest in long-form games essay.

CR: What was it about the pitch for Unwinnable that hooked you?

JF: Partly it had to do with other writers who already had signed on. I wanted to share a masthead with, at that time it was Gus Mastrapa and Brian Taylor, two colleagues I really admire. Gus Mastrapa is one of the hardest workers and best thinkers in games right now.

So that was a big part, and until then my style of writing had really only appeared in Kill Screen. You know: long-form, writing that “lasts” in some way.

CR: Durability seems to be one goal a lot of the best games critics are striving for at the moment.

JF: We’re all scared of death. I think I’ve cornered the market on games and “death writing” but I think that’s a thing that video games themselves are about, where your every decision becomes this life or death thing. Games are about death. Game-makers want to be outlived by something, I think, have a legacy.

CR: That seems like a very dubious prospect in a field that’s subject to such frequent shifts in technology.

JF: Right, Stu points out that the allure of Unwinnable had to do with “death week,” their first in a series of “theme weeks.” But I feel like that set some weird timbre, that’s been the prevailing theme in everything. But you see it in–man, podcasts have great names! “Infinite Lives”, “A Life Well Wasted,” “One Life Left,” “Unwinnable”… They fall on all these different philosophic points on, like, a spectrum of hope. It depends on what kind of player you are.

CR: I was planning to be roundabout in getting to the question of what’s driving the current trend in criticism. Is that it?

JF: You have writers like Tom Bissell–he really came first, didn’t he? Or Jim Rossignol?[1] So someone first said that games writing, at its best, is like travel writing. Right?

Well, with games, we have this tribe past. So there’s this universality where, yeah, where were you when you first played a 2D Mario game, where were you when you first laid eyes on GoldenEye? We’re all about the same age, give or take. So we’re all in this weird phase, the adults among us are, where we’re the first generation wrestling with something called “Odyssey Years.” Are you familiar?

CR: Odyssey like the computer?[2]

JF: No, no, “Odyssey Years.” The acknowledgement that things are different for people just now entering their 30s–that marks the shift in criticism.

You look at the popularity of books like Rejuvenile or Everything Bad Is Good for You, basically reassuring us that it’s okay to be arrested, it’s okay to struggle to recapture something we never quite had to ourselves in youth, it’s okay to collect vinyl toys and read comic books–my two other primary hobbies, by the way. Comic books and “lowbrow” art are finally being taken seriously, remarked on seriously. They aren’t low pursuits. The people doing the writing, they’re in this really strange–the word is liminality. Like a permanent state of transition. That’s where we all are now, generationally.

CR: The idea being, I take it, that they’re elevated in part because they’re such a formative part of our generation’s search for our own identities.

JF: Certainly. This is part of a bigger conversation, I’m saying, having to do with our protracted childhoods. Just ongoing childhood–here in the U.S. people my age are just very arrested now. We aren’t homeowners, we delay marriage, all the traditional markers of adulthood are pretty worthless now.

The only thing I can really be an adult about is, yeah, games. I can be a grown-up about this.

So the idea of “odyssey years”–and this is a pretty new idea, with a new name–kind of coincided in this splendid way with games “travel writing” that was already coming out of, and I don’t know Rossignol or Bissell personally, but I will guess that they are lovely overgrown children And I’m not purporting to be an adult–our idea of “work” has changed, too, so that a “career” actually means plate-spinning nine or ten different odd jobs at once

CR: Do you feel arrested? I’ll admit that I sometimes have a hard time thinking of myself as a grown-up, but is that just a change in what it means to be a grown-up?

JF: Definitely the black sheep of the family, the weird arrested one, the unmarried thirty-year old who hasn’t “gotten it together.” So I’m busy, but to a nice traditional adult relative, I’m unemployed, unemployable. It’s a very palpable, cultural shift, where the basement-dwellers and bachelors now have this name, this umbrella. And a lot of that is just the climate, where for the first time everyone is educated, and we’re all barging into the workplace overqualified, underemployed. It’s very tricky.

CR: Mind if we take a step back? You started at Electronic Gaming Monthly, right?

JF: I did, thank you! A member of its illustrious “Review Crew.”

CR: Were you writing for print at the time?

JF: That’s right, EGM is–was a print joint. All print at the beginning.

Well–their interest in me was piqued thanks to some odd-blogging I was doing. 1UP.com was the online umbrella for EGM, OPM, CGW. I saw an ad for 1UP in Official Playstation Magazine, which I was a reader of. And as gaming was at that time–2004, 2005, I mean–a very lonely hobby, 1UP seemed like a good spot to park.

So I’ve always been very social-network-savvy–I started hanging out in chat rooms and on bulletin boards when I was 11, I joined Hotwired when I was 13, which was Wired’s early attempt at a social network community in the way we mean it now, with “profiles” and all that.

CR: So you’re a gamer in your twenties, you’re doing some blogging here and there, and you’re trying to find a way to connect with other people who are gamers.

JF: Exactly. And this eventually, straight out of college nearly, turns into a part-time print gig.

Initially, I was horrified. I worked really hard to become a “Jenn Frank,” not a “Jenny Frank,” and I blogged as “Jenn X.” The first time I realized my chosen name, Jenn Frank, was attached to games reviews, I was horrified.

Back then I knew a professor who blogged about games she enjoyed under a pseudonym, because what a knock to her credibility, if people knew this academic was gaming. I maintained Infinite Lives anonymously, but sometime in mid-2008, maybe even 2009, I retroactively put my name on it. I didn’t like what came up when you googled my name, and instead of shrinking away, I wanted to take more ownership of the kind of writing I do. To take back my byline, basically. And unhappy with the cereal-box reviews I’d somehow gotten roped into doing, I tried to make my reviews more critical, or I wanted to experiment more with creative nonfiction. I was a fiction writing major at Northwestern, so that’s my real background.

CR: Did you have ambitions to write something else before you got into gaming journalism?

JF: Sure, I think every nerd kid who commits herself to writing has ambitions to being a great novelist or the next Roberta Williams, maybe. And when I was 12, 13, I wanted to be the next Jane Jensen.[3] I received a really touching letter when I was a kid, in response to a fan letter I’d sent to Roberta Williams in care of Sierra’s InterAction Magazine from a young writer at Sierra named Christa Charter. That’s a hilarious way to know someone!

Now, when I had the opportunity to play video games for money, I took it, because my adoptive mother did not permit the playing of “TV games” in her home. So I also really wanted to irritate her.

CR: So there’s a sense in which your entrance into the world of game reviews was the realization of childhood ambitions that had receded into the background during those odyssey years.

JF: Certainly! Right. Writing about games is not a “fallback.” This isn’t me settling for something “less than” a novel.

CR: No, no; I didn’t mean to suggest that. But it seems like part of the story here is that, because of the association of gaming with childhood, there was a tremendous amount of pressure on you (and our generation generally) to “put away childish things.” Part of the discovery of the last several years is that there are ways of addressing games that violate the notion that they’re necessarily childish. Or that might even make them less childish.

JF: Yes, exactly. I want to stress that, though. I pour a lot of faith into video games and how they change us. We’re an odd bunch, for now. Like, to commit your life’s work to making games, playing them, talking about them–that’s weird. That’s a really skewed sense of priorities.

And I think that’s also a gendered proposition. Women, especially, are really made to keep their proclivities for computer games under wraps, and I remember feeling that pressure in high school. I became more open about gaming in college–I was very “one of the boys” and played a lot of Halo, badly.

So yes, there’s tremendous pressure to just “grow up,” have your cubicle and be happy in it, buy a house, have health insurance, reproduce. And these priorities–these are all things that my parents wanted to live to see me do, and won’t, they just won’t–are increasingly impossible now. Just in this socioeconomic climate.

It’s telling that I completely forgot “get married,” my mother’s number-one priority for me and something I, in life, completely forgot to do. I just forgot to do that! And at my age, yes, there’s tremendous pressure for me to do that, why haven’t I already done that?

CR: That said, given the socio-economic state of things, maybe it’s a little fortuitous that you’ve kept things so fluid, even if it happened without much premeditation. It might end up being a survival trait to keep those plates spinning.

JF: Well, thank you! That’s the best compliment you can give. It was happenstance, though. I settled on types of work, you know, when my mother’s health began to fail, and my father was dying of Alzheimer’s. This has all really been compounded into the last four years. Most people my age won’t have to worry about or care for their parents until, hopefully, much later.

So I became very flexible very quickly because I would not have survived this so far. And I’m in a position where, no, I can’t viably support elderly parents or pay medical bills–Alzheimer’s, sorry, that’s actually “non-medical” care and as such is not covered by health insurance–so I found myself pouring myself into both my parents and my work.

It’s made me irresponsibly happy-go-lucky and frivolous with just about everything else I do. Impractical decisions, financial and otherwise. So games are very important, see? Otherwise we’d all be corpses.

I think it’s easy to roll our eyes at a thinker like Jane McGonigal, but I really believe that she really believes video games, in a not-metaphorical way, have saved her life.

CR: You said that’s stepped up in the last several years. Have medical costs always been a factor?

JF: They’ve been a factor since 2008. My maintaining a certain geographic proximity to my parents has been a factor. If the phone rings, right now I’m deciding how we intervene medically. I’m the decider. This is tremendous weight and responsibility for a self-perceived 12-year old.

CR: Okay, so getting back to chronology for a moment. EGM picks you up, and you write for them for a while. Then you said there was a lull. Job opportunities dropped off, but your interest was also waning. Was that the state of games and gaming journalism at the time, or life intervening?

JF: It can be both. The PS3 didn’t have the allure the PS2 had, for instance, or the Wii wasn’t as innovative as it promised… I was at a very cynical place personally, but “all that glitters…” and so on.

More to the point, that all coincided with a very dark time in print. There are a lot of writers who lost their jobs who just immediately shelved writing and went directly into PR because, you know, they have spouses and kids. That’s very dark, that must be a very painful decision. As a perpetual 12-year old I have no spouse, no assets to defend–excepting my parents I’m the very definition of a free agent.

I think freelance writing then wasn’t what it is now. But 2008, that’s where it started, for me, for a lot of people. Print is ending, people are being uprooted. Are you going to keep writing? Is this important to you? Everyone in 2008, all my former coworkers, this is a question they suddenly had to ask themselves.

I’m not counting myself among them; I was already in Texas when a lot of people lost their jobs in really quick succession. I was at home with my parents, I remember. We were eating Vietnamese food when Ziff Davis Media sold its properties to Hearst.

CR: Which put you sort of in the position of someone seeing on the news that a disaster had struck her old hometown.

JF: Right, that’s exactly how it went. In 2008, sitting in a restaurant in my small town in Texas, here I am absolutely tethered to my phone, keeping tabs on the outside world while wheeling my mother everywhere, and I get a deluge of IMs. So that’s a very “where were you when” moment.

Sam Kennedy really had a jump on things. Friendster barely existed, and here comes some kid in his twenties inventing 1UP, which was brilliant and necessary, and uncovered, even at that early time, a lot of new and valuable voices in games. He really predicted what the rest of the Internet was about to do.

Of the old guard, Jeremy Parish is there. This isn’t really here or there, but I used to wonder when Jeremy would quit–there were people walking out every day–and now, in 2012, I think the real answer is obviously “never.”

CR: How long was it before you came back to freelancing?

JF: Oh, hmm. So in 2009 I returned to my old job–happily selling lowbrow art and vinyl toys. And it was fast, it was Simon Carless who threw me some work. He’d been reading Infinite Lives and he thought I’d make a good guest editor at GameSetWatch. Infinite Lives enjoyed some popularity. I did it on my own in my spare time, not a very profitable hobby, and something happened where Infinite Lives, TIGSource, and then Offworld, which is Brandon Boyer, all were happening concurrently.[4]

In 2009 I announced an end to my hobby, I guess kind of histrionically, but I was absolutely panicked about losing my adoptive father, and I remember Simon Carless saw that article and remarked on it. And I wasn’t very good at quitting, and next thing you know, Carless is pitching me some freelance work. So, okay. I write this thing about Portal. I don’t know, I’d had it in mind awhile, and I’m drunk on my floor in Chicago, I’ve just left the man I dated six years. Really dark, I’m physically on the floor typing.

So a lot of people see this. Which is crazy to me, and the blog was just a tiny fart, really, and not very innovative in its thinking, let’s say. Kill Screen sees it. So I dress it up a little, fix it, send a better version to Kill Screen. I’m thinking about Kill Screen’s “Intimacy Issue”–by now I’m driving back and forth every night between Corpus Christi and San Antonio to my mother’s room in the ICU–and I work up this bizarre pitch for [Kill Screen co-founder] Chris Dahlen, like, in my car in the middle of the night, sleepless and grief-stricken.

That article changed everything for me. Something like 10,000 words, and Kill Screen kept rearranging the page just to fit the whole thing in. Incredibly. Because Kill Screen is print, it gave me the opportunity to write something I’d absolutely never put online. Absolutely never.

So this is a bizarre reversal: I start out in print, I don’t want my byline on anything, I find it very lowbrow, I’m deeply embarrassed. Just incredibly ungrateful, ungracious. By the next time I’m in print, I’m just–I’m sitting down to write the most important thing I’ve ever written, and it’s about fucking Second Life. I’m panicked and grief-stricken and terrified of my father’s impending death–which does come, six months after I write the thing–and what I pour myself into is this 10,000-word opus about fucking Second Life.

What I was doing was, okay, there are a certain number of hoops here. That was the most important and personal thing I’d written, and I know it’s good, it is good, I’m certain it’s a very good article because I labored over it really meticulously and objectively, if there is such a thing. It’s good. It’s a good piece. But it’s personal, and so I wanted people to buy a magazine, get it in the mail, stare at the length and go, “oh, I’ll never read this,” which gives me the opportunity, incredibly, to say anything I want.

So I tear my skin off for this article and talk about losing Nik, what it feels like to watch your father deteriorate, confess that my mother is in the ICU. And I’m very safe because it’s long and it’s in print and it’s shrouded in all this Malcolm Gladwell bullshit pseudoscience and talk about Second Life and haptic technology, when that isn’t what the article is about at all.

CR: Nik is your ex?

JF: Yeah, I got Nik’s permission before sending it in. I had a back-up plan if Nik said not to put him in, but it was going to take a lot of hacking and cutting. So he’s very brave to be willing to be that person in my little invented life narrative, I think. By the time I was writing it, he’d fallen in love with somebody else, right, and here I come with my tremendous magazine article about having virtual Second Life sex with him. “Is this okay?”

He is a champ. So Kill Screen, when you’re printed, will send your copy to you or wherever, and I had them send that copy to Nik, absolutely. I hope he took it well. No, the article was no surprise, he knew it was coming.

CR: He didn’t tell you his response?

JF: Oh, he loved it. No, he has always really supported me doing this. And he thought that was remarkable, so I kept going.

So as my parents’ health was failing, I took on celebrity gossip blogging. I went directly from the gallery to freelance-writing that way. I could do that job from home, keep an eye on my parents, handle things that way. (I love the misconception that freelance means “free time.”)

So I work really hard to get that job. Evil Beet Gossip, I used to read it in my cube at 1UP. The day before my job starts, my dad dies. And I am just like,what?!What is it all for?! I’ve been anticipating it, it’s why I nailed down this fun job for me, and the guy dies of an untreated concussion. And for the next nine months I cry every day and write about Lindsay Lohan.

Stu at Unwinnable, meanwhile, is on the prowl for fresh writing blood. Coincidentally, what is now known as Polygon has just asked the Internet who its favorite female games writer is. They’ve since deleted that thread, but I really owe them, because that’s where my name kept popping up. “Jenn Frank if she still wrote about games,” that was my favorite one. What?! I am right here! Still writing about them!Jesus Nelly.

So Stu sees my name that way, gives me free reign to talk about games and be just as hilariously dark as I want. And I know from the get-go. I don’t know when I finally got bold and asked him, “You really wanted a girl, didn’t you? You really picked over that Polygon thread and that’s how you found my name, right,” and oh, how embarrassing for the guy.

But anyway, that’s how, and Polygon took a lot of flack for basically doing an open-call for lady-writers, but that was another shift, where suddenly Kotaku is hiring on all these girls, and Polygon lands Tracey [Lien], and I march over to Unwinnable to continue doing my totally unmarketable style of personal essay. And since late February I think that’s really caught on, and a lot of writers, women especially, have worked just in the last year to change the landscape.

It’s strange that “personal essay games criticism” would turn into such a lady thing because, again, that’s a really weird niche that I think of as Bissell’s or Rossignol’s. But I emotionally really want to support that style of writing and I am grabbing every lady and gent I can and dragging them all with me into this really weird unmarketable niche. I keep wondering when I’ll run out of deaths to talk about, whether in the context of games or not, but not soon.

CR: Do you think, in part, it’s about justifying your interest? Like saying, these aren’t just games, they tie back to the important moments of our lives? And here I mean “your” in the general – “us,” really.

JF: Right. If you look over Infinite Lives – the first time in the ICU what I was playing was Castle of Illusion. During a panic attack on a plane, I played Orbital. When Phil Fish and other IGF attendees were at my last apartment party in San Francisco, we played bit.trip Beat and Splatterhouse Wanpaku Graffiti. I once got all these dudes from Bethesda to play that WarioWare Wii game, so I had all these burly, hairy men hopping around.

CR: So part of it is the association – like always thinking of a particular song because it was popular at an important time in your life – but did the games also shape the moments?

JF: Right, games provide a framework or vocabulary for thinking about things. Like, ah, math, religion, feng shui. Feng shui works, and it isn’t because there’s such a thing as chi, necessarily, but it’s helpful to borrow that language and use it to understand where a couch goes. That’s a very clinical way of putting it, sorry. Yes, games shape the moments, always.

My birth father, who died when I was 10 and he was 35, was incredible at Mountain King, for Atari 2600. He was good at everything, as dads are, but Mountain King is notoriously the hardest game on that system, and he was just not-of-this-world at it. The last time I saw my birth dad, we stood in the arcade. I know I’ve discussed this on Retronauts. We talked about Asteroids. Nine years old, talking to who is–I only realize this now–a really very young man, talking to him about Asteroids.

My birth dad, to me–and this has changed how I think of adulthood and aging–was “arrested” in the sense that he never got his act together, right, and really just enjoyed D&D and Atari and goofing off. But in this more tangible way he is, in my mind’s eye, perpetually 35 years old, and that’s strange to me, to be 30 and if I’m lucky eventually I’ll be 35 and eventually I’ll be “older” than my birth dad “is.”

Games are like that. Braid put it into very explicit terms, but there are all these moments suspended. Games are very much like comics, which very much mirror how we remember things. A strict progression of chronology, suspended frames, moments that work in this linear way, like moving from stage to stage or level to level. And then there is the wish that you could do things differently, that you could go backward and fall in love or linger one more moment at a bedside or make just a little bit more time for someone or something, and so when games give us all these lives, these cheat codes, these branching directions where we can experiment with multiple or parallel endings – it’s really a shame that real life, from this isolated vantage, doesn’t work that way, that time doesn’t work that way.

Games are about time travel, is what I’m saying. Every game is.

CR: How does what you do – criticism, I mean – fit into that?

JF: Let me think. What do I even do? Does anybody even know. Yeesh.

So I’m an old school snot. In college, and then right after, I was in a performance art troupe called the Live Action Cartoonists, and we basically taught about comics and comic book theory during stage plays. A lot of explosions, really very dangerous stage plays, actually.

CR: Explosions? Really?

JF: Yep!

CR: Basically, you were Max Fisher from Rushmore growing up.

JF: Oh, that isn’t far off. Oh, god.

So I was doing that, and then I started working in this art gallery and toy store where I also shopped a lot. And I love reading reviews, I’ve been consuming criticism since my teens. So what these have in common is, and I don’t know why this is, but it’s very, very important for me to impart the value or worth or importance of things to other people.

It’s just me defending my Internet usage to my adoptive mom, in a way. And you can be very indie hipster about it, but you’re also defending the worth of something and expressing why.

CR: Do you think that, in a way, you’re also helping to give them importance? We talked about how games can mark important times in your life, but the flip side of that is that you’re using important times in your life to mark games as well.

JF: Sure, that could be true. I’ve joked that I imbue a lot of sparse experiences–like, I project a lot of meaning, okay. My writer friends are tickled because I, in person, will go on and on about how Terry Cavanagh’s Hexagon is an important metaphor for life.

Well, I’ve written about “sense of presence” before. With games, at any given moment you embody two of you. You embody two distinct spaces at once – the artificial simulacrum in the game, with your avatar, and then you at home, or whatever. Couch-you and thought-you. So it follows, since you’re “in” two disparate spaces, that the way memory works would go both directions. The game marks the moment in time, and the moment in time is a marker on a game. “Where was I when–” Well, I was in two places. I was standing next to my birth dad, and I was piloting my ship through winding avenues of meteors.

I’m saying games aren’t an activity, they’re a place. Video games are a place you go.


[1] Bissell is a popular author who has, in recent years, turned to gaming as a focus of his writing. His work appears regularly on ESPN’s Grantland website. Rossignol started out as a finance writer, turning to gaming journalism after reportedly being fired over his obsession with a video game. He currently writes for Rock, Paper, Shotgun.

[2] Released in 1972, the Magnavox Odyssey was the first commercially available home video game console.

[3] Roberta Williams co-founded Sierra Online and created a number of popular graphic adventures in the 1980s and 90s, most notably the King’s Quest series. Jane Jensen co-designed the sixth game in the series before going on to design the popular Gabriel Knight series.

[4] TIGSource is The Independent Gaming Source, an online community for developers. Offworld was a gaming blog run by Boyer for BoingBoing between 2008 and 2009. Its successor, Venus Patrol, launched earlier this month.