The history of video game journalism only spans three decades, and so it shouldn't be as tough to write about as, say, the rise and fall of the Holy Roman Empire or the ecological impact of the Industrial Revolution, or so one would think. This piece started out dutifully enough, trying to function as a chronicle of this odd brand of entertainment media, complete with names and dates in all the right places. However, as the idea progressed, it became apparent how big and unwieldy it really is.
Taking into account not only video game journalism in the States, but that of countries around the world, it's really impossible to do justice to it in the space of a single article. It deserves something like a thesis paper, or even a whole book. Upon further examination, it also became apparent that more interesting than reading a mere laundry list of names and dates is looking at how video game journalism has evolved over the last thirty years.
Much like the games it supports, video game journalism started out as a grassroots, wild and woolly, no-holds-barred pursuit and took years to become the largely corporate-run big business we know today. It's crazy to think that such an underground pursuit could ever have become such an integral part of the mainstream entertainment machine, but such is the case. In some ways it's like imagining the Ramones somehow turning into the Backstreet Boys—bizarre and ugly.
Fortunately, the popularization of video games and the resultant co-opting of game journalism by large corporations hasn't been all bad. After all, it's led to the exponential growth of the game industry and has created a world where people openly let their freaky gamer flags fly. And if we were getting worried that game journalism was on the verge of being completely assimilated by the Big Media Borg, new types of independent journalism cropped up and began challenging the Fourth Estate's status quo.
To gain some perspective on how all this came to be, perhaps it's a good idea after all to examine the origins of game journalism, at least in highly-abbreviated, nutshell form. While 1974 saw the first issue of trade rag Play Meter Magazine aimed at coin-op owners, the first real consumer video game publication (in the States anyway) was Electronic Games Magazine, which didn't arrive until seven years later in 1981. Published by Bill "The Game Doctor" Kunkel (considered by some to be the grandfather of video game journalism) and his long time partner Arnie Katz, Electronic Games Magazine was the first entertainment publication to feature nothing but video games. That same year, journalist Russell Sipe's highly influential Computer Gaming World came on the scene and over the span of fifteen years, became a monster, with issues weighing in the hundreds of pages. These two publications were founded, run, and edited not necessarily by businessmen, but by hardcore gaming enthusiasts with a passion not only for games, but for providing their readers with quality content.
In the old days, (cue the jangly silent film music) before we all had gaming publications and websites coming out the wazoo, game journalists were fairly rare beasts. That created an ideal atmosphere for writers such as CGW's wargames specialist M. Evan Brooks and RPG expert Scorpia to make a name for themselves. Today few—if any—game journos can claim the kind of influence these writers once enjoyed. They sold magazines on the strength of their columns alone, and their audiences looked to them as peerless experts in their respective fields.
The 80s saw the rise of many other similarly game-centric publications like Famitsu in 1986 (still the most influential gaming publication in Japan), Nintendo Power in 1988, and both Electronic Gaming Monthly and GamePro in 1989. All of these magazines provided news, information, and thoughtful analysis while enjoying a considerable rapport with their audiences.
The 1990s saw a definite sea-change in game publishing with the rise of corporate-owned outlets and the Internet. Publications like EB Games' Game Informer and Future Publishing's Edge Magazine enjoyed the support of big piles of corporate cash and even the venerable Computer Gaming World was transformed in 2006 into a support rag for Microsoft called Games for Windows: The Official Magazine.
It's possible the change here resulted from the game market's 1990s expansion; simply put, more people became interested in games. With video games becoming graphically and conceptually more sophisticated, games moved out of the special interest arena and into the mainstream as new gamers realized the joy of playing PC adventures, MMO's, and RTS's, as well as the fun offered by the new generation of home consoles. This expanded audience of new gamers were hungry for gaming info and magazine publishers scrambled to fill the demand without fully realizing that a new form of popular media was quickly overtaking them—the gaming website.