The NYT Says Video Games Should Be Covered Like Theatre

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Jason Bailey, an editor on The New York Times’s Culture desk, remembers feeling as if The Times had missed the opportunity to cover a major moment in pop culture.

It was October 2018, and Red Dead Redemption 2, the hotly anticipated video game prequel to the 2010 frontier saga, had just come out. The Times ran an advertisement for the game, which would go on to sell more than 55 million copies, on its front page.

But in the news pages, there was no review of the game. No feature. No acknowledgment that it had even been released.

“We review every single play or musical that opens on Broadway,” Bailey said in a recent conversation. “We review hundreds of movies a year.”

“And we should be doing that,” he continued. “But that means we should also be reviewing and criticizing the biggest video game releases, at the very least.”

When Bailey, a former editor for the National desk, joined the Culture team last fall, he set out to expand The Times’s gaming coverage, enlisting journalists like Zachary Small, a culture reporter and longtime gamer, and Kellen Browning, a technology reporter on the Business desk who covers the gig economy and the video game industry.

The effort has resulted in articles like an interactive feature on how Nintendo’s beloved Legend of Zelda franchise has changed gaming by Small and Rumsey Taylor, an assistant editor at The Times, and a recent feature by Browning and Matt Stevens, a Culture reporter, on how Starfield, a new role-playing game, created an open-world space adventure. On Sunday, the Arts & Leisure fall preview issue will include a page entirely focused on video games.

“One of the benefits of creating a beat at The Times is that we can be thoughtful and experimental about how we cover these games,” Small said.

In a recent roundtable-style interview, Bailey, Browning and Small shared their vision for The Times’s coverage and the challenges of balancing coverage for gamers and nongamers alike. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

When did you first become interested in video games?

ZACHARY SMALL When I was a child, video games were more accessible to me than visiting a museum and seeing art. I always enjoyed the stories and the puzzle aspect. Now I cover both the fine art world and the world of video games, which most people see as disparate topics. But for me, writing about either subject involves a similar exploration: how people create in different artistic mediums.

JASON BAILEY I remember getting a Nintendo Entertainment System when I was 8 for Christmas. One of the first games I played was the original Legend of Zelda. My brother and I loved playing Super Mario Bros. and Duck Hunt. I played Halo in my basement every day with my friends in high school.

KELLEN BROWNING I played computer games growing up, but I’m not much of a gamer. Before I started at The Times as a fellow in 2020, I had no background in covering video games, business or technology. I was assigned those topics. But now I have a unique perspective; I have one foot in the door of the industry as someone who has covered it for the last three years, but I can also translate for a more general audience.

How do you balance writing for gamers and keeping articles accessible for readers who are less familiar?

SMALL We write stories for people who have at least a base-level knowledge of games. But there’s a balance you need. If I’m writing about Zelda, people need to know what kind of game it is.

BROWNING It’s important to have just enough explanation for the casual reader. I think about writing for my parents. They don’t know much about tech or video games, and they need to feel included. But I don’t want to over-explain something for the more hard-core reader who’s like, “Why are you treating me like I’m 10 years old?”

What are some story lines you will be watching in the coming months?

BAILEY I’m excited about both small, independent studios and Triple A studios, or major gaming publishers, that are trying new things. I think we should applaud creative risk and at the very least take a more robust view of the industry in our coverage, instead of just considering the blockbuster releases.

BROWNING I’m interested in the continued ramifications of this big merger between Activision and Microsoft and seeing how that reshapes the industry. Another story we’re continuing to cover is social issues around gender and diversity, as well as unionization in the gaming industry.

If you were stranded on a desert island and could only bring one video game, what would it be?

BROWNING Age of Empires: Definitive Edition, the remastered version from 2018.

BAILEY I’m going to pull out a deep cut: One of the most underrated games is Power Stone 2 on the Sega Dreamcast. It’s a Super Smash Bros.-style fighting game.

SMALL I would reframe the question and recommend that any person who had never played a game before should try We Love Katamari. You roll a sticky ball and accumulate clutter until you’re as big as a planet, and then you roll other planets. It shows why gaming is an artistic medium in its own right: It changes your perspective on the world, but you also have a direct stake in the action.

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