Video gaming is almost half a century old, and it’s come a long way since the 1970s. We now have the technology to render individual pores, beads of sweat and other insanely minute objects, all in a relentless pursuit of realism. Games star Hollywood actors and rake in Hollywood dollars. Huge companies release thunderous blockbusters after decade-long development cycles. Show someone living in the ‘70s a game from today and their head would probably explode.
How did we get here?
Games journalist Jordan Minor (Medill ‘14) explores that question in Video Game of The Year. His new book chronicles video game history since 1977, one game at a time, and I got a chance to speak with him about gaming, journalism and his time at Northwestern.
“I wanted to do something comprehensive,” Minor said on our Zoom call. “And then also just kind of make a book that was sort of like games criticism, but in a sort of approachable way.”
Beginning with Pong, Minor traces gaming’s ups and downs, from the rise of arcade games and beloved Nintendo franchises like Mario and Zelda to the infamous Atari collapse heralded by the arrival of E.T. and the 2010s Gamergate controversy. Minor’s critical essays showcase a true love of gaming, with all the passion and tragedy that entails. He doesn’t shy away from shedding light on some of gaming’s most dire controversies and historically fraught business practices. At the same time, he expertly uses individual games to show off gaming’s greatest successes and its potential to reach audiences beyond surface-level interactions and into the collective consciousness of pop culture.
“You can write richer, fuller takes on games when you’ve had all this time to see how far they've come and what they’ve accomplished as opposed to just trying to hit an embargo after two weeks of playing a game that’s not out yet,” Minor said.
The book also features shorter pieces by many figures in and out of the industry, including fellow games journalists, developers and online personalities. These contributions broaden the scope and reach of Minor’s book immensely, showcasing the true breadth of experiences gaming has to offer.
“[The contributions] ended up being a way to sort of counterbalance my opinions. I don't like Souls games at all, but the rebuttal essays about those I think are some of the most beautifully written essays in the whole book.”
“Souls” games or “Soulslikes” are games renowned and reviled for their extreme difficulty, with some calling them masterpieces and others, like Minor, labelling them as frustrating, masochistic experiences.
The book features illustrations from New York-based cartoonist Wren McDonald, showing off scenes both in and out of the games, reminding readers that gaming isn’t an activity just about the games themselves, but also the technology that allows them to play the games and maneuver their environment.
While I don’t agree with many of Minor’s preferences (though we both share a love of Burnout Paradise, I learned), his picks are all carefully curated and meticulously discussed. He moves deftly from stories about the industry to those of gaming culture and even stories from his childhood and beyond. All of his and the other contributors’ pieces weave together to tell an entertaining and informative story about humanity’s biggest virtual pastime.
“Games are very much about your experience with them. The game doesn’t exist without you playing it … To talk about games and writing about them is furthering that idea,” Minor said.
Besides the book, I also talked to Minor about games journalism, his time at Northwestern and his stint as a writer for NBN (he is confirmed to be “Anti-Daily”). In undergrad, Minor wrote a column called NBNTendo, featuring stories about the launch of Nintendo’s ill-received Wii U console and Chicago-based game development company Young Horses, known for Octodad, for example. Minor said his time at Medill prepared him for his professional career through relationships with other students and networking opportunities – Minor’s current place of employment, PCMag, originally had him on as an intern for his Journalism Residency.
It’s a rough time to be a games journalist; The Washington Post closed down its gaming section, Launcher, earlier this year and Vice’s Waypoint section is also getting shuttered this summer. Layoffs are hitting other publications as well, in and outside the gaming sphere. Minor said he doesn’t know where games journalism goes from here, but it's unlikely to die completely.
“Video games aren't going anywhere and then people will want to know about video games one way or another. I think it’s better that we foster trustworthy sources to provide the information to the people,” he said.
Minor’s current pick for 2023’s Game of the Year is The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom, currently circulating throughout the internet as a platform for constructing contraptions like automated drones, mecha and torture devices. Honestly, it’s probably a lock at this point.