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11:50am on Sunday, 15th September, 2013:

Observer Observation


The Observer has brought out a new monthly supplement, TechMonthly, about "technology, science and ideas".

I'm always hopeful when I see these things, yet am invariably disappointed. What happens is that some of the journalists who write for them are tech-savvy and some aren't. The ones that just don't get science undermine the others. Their presence may be there for the benefit of non-tech readers who thumb through it looking for things they can related to, but that's not how these things work elsewhere. I would be wasting my time thumbing through the monthly cookery supplement looking for articles about science under the cover of molecular gastronomy.

This first issue, for example, there's an article by playwright Lucy Prebble in what's called "the gaming column". In it, she talks about how games are finding new and clever ways to tell stories. She handles it quite well — not condescendingly or anything. She's a playwright, though, so her idea of story is dictated by that; it's not a regular gamer's idea of a story. For gamers, the story is what you tell your friends happened after you've played; it's not a predefined narrative arc that is revealed through play (which is more of the playwright's perspective). This is an article for the "can games ever be art?" crowd, rather than the "how can games not be art?" crowd that makes up much of the gaming audience (or at least, the audience of the non-casual games that she's writing about).

This would be a fine article for the New Review section of The Observer. It's out of place in a tech supplement, though. As an analogy, suppose a game designer were asked to review a play for the New Review. The designer watches the play and, very politely, says it's finding new and interesting ways to do interaction with the audience. That's how the designer sees and feels their own medium, so that's how they gauge the features of other media. OK, so actually a designer would probably be reasonably aware of what plays can say and how they can say it, because designers are pretty well-read. Nevertheless, their perspective would still be different to that of someone whose job it was to write plays, and their review would be more useful to someone who was a gamer looking at plays than to a regular theatre-goer.

There's nothing wrong with that, of course, any more than there's anything wrong with a playwright writing about games from the perspective of a storyteller. It's just that if you have a tech section, that's where the tech goes; if you have an arts section, that's where the art goes. Art doesn't go in tech unless it's the art of tech. The editors of these newspaper supplements don't seem to get the distinction (or their bosses don't), with the result that the actual tech and science is eventually drowned out as the magazines revert to type. After a while, they end up as tech-for-non-techy-people sections.

Oh well. There's always the Internet.

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Copyright © 2013 Richard Bartle (richard@mud.co.uk).