Interview: Jim Rossignol, author of This Gaming Life

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This Gaming Life is a new book by Jim Rossignol, freelance games writer, editor and regular contributor to PC Gamer UK and Eurogamer.net. Subtitled “Travels in Three Cities”, the book chronicles Jim’s experiences in online gaming over the course of several years, from the Quake scene in London through Seoul and Korea’s televised gaming obsessions to Reyjkavik, the home of Eve Online. On a damp Saturday I sat down to a Skype chat with Jim to talk about his book, gaming in general and (somewhat inevitably) Eve. He was lovely, I was very, very sick, but we muddled through anyway.

The Irish Gamers: So Jim, right now the book is sold out on Amazon.co.uk. Congratulations, you must be pleased with that.

Jim Rossignol: Well, I think that’s more of a distribution thing than a massive success thing. It’s only actually got US distribution at the moment because it’s published by the University of Michigan.

Have you gotten much of a reaction to it personally?

Critically it’s gone down fairly well I think. I’ve seen a few puzzled comments here and there but most of the reviews seem quite chipper and my colleagues who’ve read the book seem pleased with it and glad I’ve raised the issues I have and so on. I’m pretty pleased with how it’s been received so far.

To paraphrase part of the blurb on Amazon, you say you were fired from your first proper job because of a videogame and that it was the best thing that ever happened to you. Presumably that’s not an exaggeration?

Yeah I think so. It’s nice because it’s sort of a defining moment that I’m able to point to and say “This is where things turned around for me” and it was just a great way to start writing the book. I don’t actually regret at all the job that I had at that time. It taught me a lot about professionalism and I think I’ve matured quite quickly having to face grown up, wearing a suit-type work scenarios.

On the otherhand, getting pushed out of that and basically forced to go and find something else to do… I think I’d sort of trundled along until that point. I think a lot of people do that – you don’t really know what you want to do so you end up stumbling into things and they kind of work or they don’t and that really didn’t work and that was such a good kick up the arse that I had to go and do something else. And realising that it had to be to do with games was quite powerful for me at the time.

Did you ever imagine that you’d end up doing what you’re doing now?

No not at all. I had pretensions to be a writer, did Philosophy at university, essentially because I didn’t want to do any kind of job or vocational thing that was pushed in my direction. I’d focused on just trying to be a writer, writing awful novels and so on. It never occured to me that I could work in the games industry or even that I knew that much about games.

The change came when one of my friends said “You know a lot about games, why don’t you apply for this job on a games magazine?”. And I assumed that I didn’t know very much about games at all. I mean I’ve been playing them obsessively my whole life but that was just how I lived. That was the ambient backdrop to being in my age group and being a boy at that time. But it turns out I did in fact know an enormous amount about games and that seems to have saved me and the career that was to follow.

You’ve said that book grew out of a magazine article you wrote for PC Gamer several years ago after a trip to Korea. What made you finally decide to have a go at writing This Gaming Life?

Well initially it was picked up by the publishers because the University of Michigan are quite interested in talking about technology generally and the have an imprint called Digital Culture Books which focuses on producing or re-producing material that’s written about technology. They have an anthology called The Best of Technology Writing each year and I was in the 2006 edition of that with the Korea feature.

I knew that it was a good piece of writing, probably the best thing I’ve ever written, but I didn’t expect anything more from it. It was great to see it in the anthology and I thought that would be it. But then the publishers came back and asked “Do you have more material like this, can you write a book worth of this stuff?”. I didn’t know but I was going to have a crack anyway.

If there was one theme present in the book that I’ve picked up from reading the press and various reviews it’s games having the power to change, being a force for change. Would you say that’s the main point you were trying to convey?

Yeah, I’d say that’s the fundamental thing. Games are a force for change. Games kind of embody change for me, they’re so different now from when I was six years old and first encountered them. I think they do change – they change people and they’re sort of a changing entity in themselves. I think that’s one of the reasons they’re so controversial and so difficult to understand.

They’re very hard to pigeon-hole I find, as entertainment.

Yeah, and that whole thing about them essentially being difficult to describe – one of the things I’ve discovered in games journalism is that there’s an enormous amount of bad games writing, not just because there’s bad writers working in it but because the useful, interesting descriptions of games are actually really difficult to write. It’s that kind of thing where you see someone like Sid Meier or Will Wright talking about a game and suddenly have this moment of clarity where you go “Wow, he really sounds like he knows what he’s talking about.” And it’s because these guys have come up with really good ways of talking about games, they come up with excellent descriptions of games, and that’s actually really hard to do.

The book is subtitled “Travels in Three Cities”, specifically London, Seoul and Rekjyavik. Because of your Eve Online obsession, would the trip to Iceland be the stand out moment for you?

That sort of defined quite a lot of what I was interested in. A few people have said to me “Oh god, more Eve stuff from you and now a book of it!”, but I can only write interestingly about the things I’m interested in. There’s so much about that game that is interesting and the trip to Iceland was eye-opening. It always is when you start encountering the people who are involved with games and behind games. The whole book is thematic of that across the years of me meeting people who are involved with games because games developers tend to be smart people. And as much as the games themselves are incredibly interesting systems and so on, it’s only when you meet people as I did in Rekjyavik that you start having conversations with people and seeing where they’re coming from and really understanding what games mean for them.

And that changes what games mean for me aswell, I think. The whole dialogue gets lost quite easily in the way that games are products caught up in a product and marketing cycle, and I don’t think that’s helpful. The Rekjyavik thing was part of that but it seemed to also step outside of it, it was very much by the community and for the community. I think companies like CCP are interesting in that sense in that what they’ve created is sort of symbiotic with the fans. That MMO couldn’t have been created without the input of the players and in fact can’t work unless there are thousands of players in it working and playing all the time.

As MMO’s go it’s a thoroughly unique example of the genre. There is literally nothing else like it.

One of the things I talk about in the book is how much that annoys me, because I don’t really want to play Eve anymore. I’ve worked out that my main character is five years old next week, which means I will have been playing Eve for a sixth of my life. That’s kind of a problem for me. I know there’s this whole thing about gamers feeling that they’re somehow owed entertainment by the games companies – in this case I do feel a bit like that sense of entitlement is almost okay, because MMO developers haven’t taken up the ideas that CCP have put out there. No one else has tried to make a game that even rips off some of the ideas in Eve, and I think that’s an incredible problem.

It’s dropping the ball in a big way.

Yeah. I mean, almost everyone working in the MMO space at the moment is so heavily constrained by expectations about what MMO’s are that are defined by World of Warcraft. And I think it’s because people haven’t played Eve and don’t understand how it works – even people who’ve played it briefly don’t understand the mass dynamics of thousands of players and so on, and that’s something that I wanted to get across in the book. That’s why that last third is so important. Even if you’re never going to play Eve, for god’s sake at least read something by someone who does understand what’s going on in the game and try and take some of those ideas and principles and put them back to work in gaming.

Would you say writing the book has had an effect on you? Did you ever find yourself being bowled over a bit by the kinds of things you ended up finding out?

It just happens all the time really. I regularly meet people who are just so smart or who have such great ideas about gaming or whose lives have been so radically changed by gaming. The journey’s been ongoing but the highlights in the book are things like Paul Wedgewood from Splash Damage, the Quake Wars guys…

Former mod team of course.

…yeah, and I’ve known them since that time and it’s quite strange seeing them now. I’m actually working with them to do a biography of the studio at the moment because I think it’s such an interesting journey for them. Going from fans that I knew from playing Quake through to some of the most senior developers in the UK – they’re even developing stuff with Bethesda now. Serious, high-end, AAA game developers who were once down there at the base level of the community.

That’s been thematic of everything I’ve done over the last few years – meeting people like Paul, meeting the guys in Korea. Some of the stuff that was most interesting out there were the gamers I met going to the live Starcraft sessions, and then meeting some of the people who were kind of pissed off by that, the sort of Korean gaming underclass who were annoyed that they didn’t get as much access to Western games. Throughout gaming there’s lots of surprises and digging them up has been an enormous pleasure and I hope I’ve managed to convey some of those in the book.

Do you see a This Gaming Life 2 at some point down the road? Anything you wanted to put in the book that you had to pass on for space?

Well obviously now when I read the book I can see every problem and horrible, gaping hole in my arguments… I don’t think there will be a sequel to that book specifically. I’m doing something that isn’t related to games but which is similar in a travelogue way with a friend of mine but that’s in the embryonic stages. The other thing I’ve done a little bit on is creating something that is a little bit more academic, talking about what games are and how they work. It’s a bit more analytical, going back to the basic concepts of gaming, but whether that will ever reach the publishable stage I don’t know.

Your other side project (together with Kieron Gillen, Alec Meer and John Walker) is of course Rock, Paper, Shotgun. As online publications go it’s a bit of an oddity, how did it come to be?

Someone suggested to me that we freelancers should get together and do a PC games site. The four of us had more material than we could sell so we needed somewhere to put it. There’s an extent to which we’re too busy some of the time working for the likes of Eurogamer, but as freelancers there’s a lot of down time and a lot of things that we play and see that don’t end up in magazines, and that was where RPS began. It’s started evolving beyond that – people are starting to come directly to us for coverage now.

Do you see it becoming more down the line?

At the moment it’s still very much done in our free time. We are hoping that the popularity of it will grow to a point where advertising will support us and we’ll be able to do some more with it. A few people have donated some money as well and the support of the readers has been absolutely overwhelming. It’s astonished me just how much good will people have had towards what we’re doing.

Thank you very much Jim.

This Gaming Life is still available to order from Amazon.co.uk

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6 Responses to “Interview: Jim Rossignol, author of This Gaming Life”

  1. Garreett Says:

    Epic interview; well thought out questions, with lots of content ^^

  2. Davik Says:

    I’m impressed, Creed. Great interview, especially the stuff about RPS. Keep it up. =D

  3. WelshWizard Says:

    Clearly Creed is the king of kinkiness (no alliteration intended). Seriously though, I’m impressed at the calibre of game industry professionals you’ve managed to set up interviews with. As I am sure they have been impressed with your well prepared and intelligent questions. The Irish Gamers seems to be gaining momentum, perhaps because it’s not hampered by Cork accents and Cork drinking habits.

  4. The Sunday Papers | Rock, Paper, Shotgun Says:

    […] about examining gaming lives… Irish Gamers talk to Jim about his book. You know: This Gaming […]

  5. paddytehpyro Says:

    Very nice. Keep up the good work Creed. Man Flu is no barrier to your superb interview

  6. The Super Brief E3 Round Up « The Irish Gamers Says:

    […] Rock, Paper, Shotgun’s own Jim Rossignol (whom we interviewed here) has been speculating that Bungie’s next big thing might in fact be a Halo MMO in the style […]

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