Don’t be fooled by his official title: While Mr. Morris is the “Director of Content Development” for CNN/Money, he also writes a weekly news/commentary column for the site called “Game Over,” making him one of the most-read video game journalists on the ‘net. This particular interview was actually for a project in my Oral Communications course — we had to speak with someone in our future profession — but with any luck, “The GameCola Interview” will become a regular feature in our webazine, so watch for it over the next few months!
GameCola: What areas of study other than journalism do you think could help prepare someone to be a video game journalist?
Chris Morris: English! English English English English! An English degree is great for any job, just because if you’re able to write well, you can do anything. In any sort of journalism you have to know how to write well, and journalism programs are very good for that, but English programs are as well because you learn how to form your craft. As an English major you are forced to read some of the great works that are out there. And it’s not just the Jane Aires and the Moby Dicks and that sort of stuff; most colleges have some more contemporary literature programs. When I went to school at Emory University, I took a course on Arthurian literature, all about the myth of King Arthur, and one on the hard-boiled deceive, all about detective fiction. You read modern authors as well, so you kind of get a feel for writing both in the classic style and the modern style. Any writer pretty much takes what they are from pieces of other writers I think, so English is great for that.
GC: Great, thank you! Do you feel that your education at Emory University has prepared you to be a video game journalist?
CM: No. I mean, I graduated from Emory in ’89, and the gaming world was.. there weren’t a lot of game journalists. I don’t think there were ANY game journalists at that point, except for maybe Stephen Kent, and even then I don’t think he was making a living at it. What I did at Emory, I was an English major, and I was the editor of the school paper, and a writer for the school paper since even before I enrolled as a freshman. The summer before my freshman year I started doing movie reviews for them. I was also the entertainment editor before I moved up to editor in chief, so that sort of gave me a background in learning how to write reviews. In that sense, yeah, I guess that Emory did help me, but that was not part of my formal education there. The English degree, you know, I’ve been over that and how that’s helpful. But at that time there was no way to prepare for writing in this field.
GC: Understandable! There wasn’t a whole long going on then.
CM: No, there there really wasn’t! I mean, I skipped plenty of classes to play games in the arcade…
GC: That sounds familiar…
CM: Yeah, you know, Gauntlet got a lot of my money back then!
GC: How do you feel about the newer Gauntlet games that have come out over the last few years?
CM: Oh, they’re okayyyyyy. I’m still of the “Red Dwarf needs food badly” school, you know; that’s nostalgia for me. That and A.P.B, and Gyros, and those sort of games. That’s what I think of when I think about games I played in college. Whereas now people have Xbox and PS2… my roommate and I had a little black-and-white TV and a disc player, which was kind of like pre-VCR, and it was an awful system. But it was what we could find and what we could afford, and even that was distracting enough!
GC: If you were developing a college course on video game journalism, what would you include in its curriculum?
CM: Well, I’d certainly talk about reviews, because that’s sort of a mainstay in this industry. If you don’t review or if you don’t have reviews in a publication, it’s generally not going to get a lot of readership because ultimately, it’s all about the games. But what I’d also teach is learning to go beyond the press release. A lot of the news sites today get a press release from a company and just regurgitate it, sometimes word-for-word, as a news story. Sometimes you make a phone call, and you ask one or two questions, and it’s like “oh, there’s actually a lot more here they’re not saying!” So I would just teach basic journalism skills: how to follow up what you’re told, how to follow up on tips, and how to network with people, because that’s real important in this industry. I mean, I wouldn’t I wouldn’t be doing this today if I hadn’t gone to my first E3 back in the day when it was a little easier to get into, and just started walking around handing out business cards and talking with people. That was the best thing that I ever did. Some of those people I still talk to today! In fact just a few months ago I was digging through old e-mails, and I found these first follow-up notes that I wrote to people like Julie Roether, who’s is one of the PR people for Nintendo, and at that time worked for Interplay I think, and I was like “can you believe we’ve been talking to each other for this long?” A lot of people don’t follow up on just meeting someone; they don’t stay in touch with them. You don’t always have to call them just to say “give me your latest news; what’s happening with this?”; sometimes you should just call these people and say “what’s going on?”
GC: How important do you think it is for an aspiring video game journalist to pursue internships while still in school?
CM: It’s very important! Any sort of journalism internships are a great help, because you can learn more in the field than you can anywhere else in this industry. You get a chance to have a professional by-line and build a clip file that’s more than school papers, and that’s always gonna raise a few more eyebrows in job interviews. The difficulty factor in video game journalism is that there are not as many outlets for writing about video games. There are the trade magazines, the fan magazines, enthusiast magazines like PC Gamer and PlayStation magazine and stuff like that, and those for the most part all based on the west coast. But any sort of internship is going to be helpful, and the trick is finding an internship where you can write about video games.
GC: That was actually going to be my next question! Where do you think somebody could find an internship writing about video games?
CM: The west coast really is the answer. If you have a connection out there, then that’s great, because you certainly can’t afford to live on the west coast on an intern’s salary. But I know PC Gamer has an intern. I know that.. most of the main enthusiast publications probably welcome an intern or two at some point. But the other alternative would be to go to some of the major gaming websites, like GameSpot, GameSpy, again also based out west. Those sites are as important and arguably more important than the magazines, and so I’m sure they have internship opportunities as well.
GC: What would your advice be for high school students aspiring to become video game journalists?
CM: Well, play the games, know what you’re talking about, and have some background, and even go back and play the classic Nintendo, etc. Because the industry right now is in a cycle where it’s sort of harkening back to its earlier days; there are so many older games that are being remade for the new audience that it’s good to be able to compare them to what they used to be. I’d also suggest to start writing reviews! Or news stories, or feature stories, or anything like that; even if they don’t get published, you’re still crafting your style and finding your voice, and it takes a while to do that with any sort of writing. If you go back and look at your early clips after you’d been writing for a year…
GC: Haha yeah, they’re pretty awful!
CM: Right! But at the time you’re reading and thinking “man, this is great!”
GC: And now you look at them and have no idea what you were thinking.
CM: For me, there was this.. I hate to use the term, but a moment of clarity. There was this one time, this one story that I wrote, and it wasn’t about video games or anything, it was just when I still writing for the college paper. It was maybe three, four years in that I’d been writing and I’d finally written a story I knew t would hold up over time, you know? It wasn’t just me doing a movie review or something like that; I read it, and I was like “this is actually gonna be a story that I’ll be proud of a few years from now.” I’m not sure if it’s like that for every writer, but with me there was just one click and it was like “yeah, okay, now I know what I’m doing, I know how to do it, I know the tone I want to take with articles.”
GC: I hope that comes soon for me! What are some specific attributes or talents that would help someone be a good video game journalist?
CM: You have to be able to write in a fresh tone. This is not a field where you can just do pyramid-style journalism; you have to have a little snap in what you’re writing. The trick is not to act too much. There are a lot of magazines and websites that I read on a regular basis where they try SO hard to be hip, and it just comes across as like.. “you’re just trying WAY too hard here guys, if you dialed it down a few notches you’d probably have something that’s worth reading, but as it is it’s just painful”. And that’s probably the biggest thing in video game journalism.
GC: Do you think that experience in game development is important or would help in being a good video game journalist?
CM: I don’t think it necessarily will help you. It certainly won’t hurt you, but developers and writers are very often two separate breeds, because developers are very technically oriented, and writers are more artistic. It would certainly give you a good background on the industry. You would know more about certain areas than other people in the field. But that said, a lot of that you can learn just by talking with developers. Now, I will never know how to code a game. I’m fine with that; it’s probably a good thing that I don’t, because I would never know how to come up with one. But I know enough people who are very good with it that if I have a question about the development side I can call them up and say “hey, what’s going on right here?” I’m fortunate, I have a very good relationship the people at id Software. So I can call up Tim Willits up and say “Tim, what the hell? Help me out here!” and he’ll walk me through it and put it into English for me, or at least help me translate it into English.
GC: That’s so cool. Since this is for a communication class, how important do you think good communication skills are for being a good video game journalist?
CM: Pretty darn important! The thing with what I do at CNN is I’m not only writing to a gaming audience, I’m writing to mainstream audience as well, who often just couldn’t care less about games. I picked up the ability to do this as a reporter for the Atlanta Business Chronicle, where the first thing I ever wrote was a story about single family high-density housing, and I said “oh God, what have I done? Am I that desperate for a job?” I had to write that for the people in the real estate industry who would want to read it, and at the same time I wrote it so I would want to read it. And also if you do this long enough and you start to make some ripples, eventually you’re probably gonna be asked to moderate a conference or speak somewhere, and certainly communication skills are pretty handy there as well.
GC: Do you feel it’s better to write for a dedicated video game magazine, or a more mainstream publication?
CM: I kind of prefer the mainstream, because of the challenge. I’m writing about an industry that is still real new. Games have been around for a while, but only in the last few years have they really started to become a cultural force that’s on par with Holly wood and the music industry. It’s exciting for me to try and help bring this field into the mainstream, to help educate the mainstream audience that this is not Pac-Man and Duck Hunt anymore, that these are actually very complicated involved games that aren’t just for children; they’re for a widespread audience, you know? Most people playing this are in their 20’s. So we need to get past the age barrier. I think to a certain degree I’ve been successful in doing that, though there’s certainly a long way to go.
With an enthusiast press, with the gaming magazine, you’re writing to one audience, and that audience is already.. you’re preaching to the choir there. You can have a lot of fun with it, but mainly the feedback you’re gonna get there is a lot of nick-picking. It’s like writing for a Star Wars magazine, someone’s gonna say “well the language was not actually Borillian…” Who cares about that? You missed the point of the article! Because it’s CNN writing about this, a lot of people instantly assume it’s a big network that doesn’t know anything about gaming, and I’ve never played a game before in my life, and I think most people assume that I don’t read the mail that comes in, but I answer every e-mail that I can. I figure if someone’s gonna take the time to write me, they deserve the courtesy of reply, even the ones who write in saying “I hate you I hate you, die die die!”
GC: That’s great; I wish more people felt that way!
CM: Well, I appreciate anyone who reads the column… you know, love me, hate me — if you’re reading me, fantastic! If they’re gonna take the time to read it, that’s great, and if they’re gonna take the further time to send me a note, and let me know what they think on the issue, then they deserve to hear back from me in one way or another.
GC. What is your preferred ratings scale for video game reviews? You know, like star rating, letter grade, numerical…
CM: I’m not a big fan of any sort of numerical or star rating system. And that goes not only with video games, but movies and everything else, because any form of entertainment like this usually cannot be boiled down to three stars, you know, because what does three stars mean? It means “fair”, and four stars maybe means “good”, but a lot of people say “well if it’s not a five star game, I’m not going to bother with it.” One of my favorite examples of this is PC Gamer, which has a rating system that’s percentage based, and if something gets like a 78% rating, most people assume “oh the game sucks then, I’m not going to bother with that”. But if you look at their rating scale, that’s not a bad game!
GC: That’s the same exact problem I always have with my newsletter! We use an out-of-ten scale with five as average, so people see like a “6” and they think “six? That’s horrible!”, but it’s actually above average..
CM: Yeah, its like “it’s an okay game. Wait for a little bit , let it come down in price, and get it; it’s worth your time.”
GC: Exactly, exactly.
CM: It’s also sort of the ego in the writer in me — “my God, if I’m going to write this, someone better read it, and not just look at the score and then duck out of there.” But the reality of today’s world is those are here to say, and you’ve gotta live with it.
GC: Do you think that graphic and audio quality should weigh heavily into people’s perception of how good a video game is?
CM: I don’t know necessarily that it should, but it’s always going to. Everyone’s attracted to the sizzle. The most anticipated game out there right now for the GameCube is the new Zelda game, and the fact of the matter is all that we have seen of Zelda is a video shot of Link riding a horse in a field, and some people chasing him. It was up at a 30 second spot that was shown almost a year ago at E3, but if you go out there onto the message boards or the fansites, people are going insane over this, thinking “oh I want it NOW, I cannot WAIT”…. you don’t even know what the game’s about!
GC: Oh my favorite’s all these message board posts about how much better the PSP is than the Dual Screen.. no one talking about this has actually played a single game for the PSP; they just keep going on about how much better it is.
CM: Those I can forgive a little bit because at least there are previews out there, and the PSP has been out in Japan for a while, so there actually is some real world experience in that, but NO ONE has seen Zelda. Maybe some of the leading magazines have at this point, because they’re gearing up for their E3 issues, but that’s about it. The PSP… I’ve got a DS – I’ve got two actually — and it’s is a lot of fun, but Nintendo sort of dropped the ball on it, I think.
GC: You think so?
CM: Yeah. After December, they haven’t had any really.. anything come out.
GC: I have kinda noticed that, there haven’t been a whole lot of games for it. I’ve played WarioWare..
CM: WarioWare is out, I like that.. I prefer the one on GBA actually, just because that there’s a little more skill involved; with the DS it’s just touch touch touch and slash, and…
GC: The GameCube one’s pretty cool, the multiplayer one…
CM: You know what, I liked that one, but it came out so close to the GBA one that I never really played it that much…
GC: Well plus all the games are the same exact minigames, that kind of bothered me a little bit.
CM: Exactly, exactly. By that point I had finished and unlocked everything on the GBA, so I had my fill of them. But that said, I’ve got the DS in my bag there, and I carry it on the train with me so if I don’t feel like reading my book that day, I’ll pull it out and play around. It works out great until it says like “yell” and “blow” and “scream”… I’ve found other ways to win those levels. So wait, did we answer that question, I’m not sure if we did…
GC: Oooh yeah, graphic and audio quality. Is it important?
CM: Ah okay, yeah. Those ARE important. I mean, they’re the easiest way to see how the genre and how the industry is progressing. But what it all comes down to is gameplay, and that’s what you should be graded on. But I think expectations are a little lower these days than they were five, ten years ago.
GC. Have any publishers ever gotten angry at you for saying anything negative about their games?
CM: Oh yeah! It’s bound to happen. I was in a fight with one of the publishers this week about a story that I ended up not writing. They were trying to give me an advance on a game that’s gonna be announced, and I wrote them and said “well okay, I can fit this into a story that’s a little bit wider-reaching,”… “Oh no, screw it, if you’re not gonna write just about us, we don’t even wanna talk to you,”… “Well, that’s the way you feel fine, you’ve read my stuff, I know we’ve talked many times in the past.”
Last year I wrote an article about all the Lord of the Rings games that were coming out. If you remember there were like five or six in the pipeline at that time, so I wrote a column taking the point of Sauron…
GC: Hahaha that’s amazing!
CM: It was a fun column to write; it was “as written by Sauron,” and I just had a big glowing eye in the headshot box. But it was basically saying you “look… I’m running out of Nazgul here people. Okay? I’ve only got so many, and there are ALL these places the ring might be now!” And one of the publishers, Vivendi Universal, which was putting out three or four games at the time… one of their PR people wrote me this blistering letter, and it’s like “all right, well… sorry you feel that way, but it doesn’t take away from the fact that you DO have four games coming out this year for this one title…”
Microsoft was not too happy with me when I wrote about them testing plans for three different types of Xbox.. I’ve written various critical articles about Nintendo and Sony.. one of my leads once for an article about Sony was “Clue phone’s ringing, Sony – It’s for you!” I got a call about that… but at the same time, I also hear from people from these companies who say “yeah, you’re on track here. We’re screwing up, and we need to do something about it.” That makes it a little more worthwhile. Generally, if someone’s calling to yell at me, it’s because someone higher up has told them to, or they just wanna vent a little bit. But when I try and pin them down and say “look, tell me specifically what was wrong with this, or something that you felt was unfair,” and if they have issues, then I’ll address them. But you can’t do this job without pissing someone off half the time.
GC: All right, this is one from my communication professor: What would you say are the top three benefits of being a video game journalist?
CM: Well, there are two answers to that. The fun answer is you get free games, you get to go to these developer parties, and I’ve been to the Playboy Mansion twice. My Christmas card a few years ago was me and Hugh Hefner, said “Ho ho ho” on the inside… but the actual answer, I guess, is.. well the games is really it. It’s a great perk — you get these games and you play these games, and there’s a legitimate reason to do it. The other ones are.. I’m writing about a field that’s beginning to expand into different areas, and I’m able to educate the public about an industry that, as large as it is, they’re still unaware of. And the third… anyone who’s a journalist is nosey. This is a job where you’re licensed to snoop around and sniff where people tell you not to, and you always wanna see things first and you always wanna do things before everyone else so you can tell people about them. And the specific joy in being a video game journalist is you see and play all of these games that are hotly anticipated well before they came out. I was one of the first six people outside of id to play Doom multiplayer; I played Half-Life 2 a month and a half before it came out, not all the way through but for a little while; Halo 2, I went across the street to an event and sat there for three hours and played the game about three or four weeks before it came out.
GC: I bet a lot of people were jealous about that one. Do you have any specific methods for making contacts in the video game industry?
CM: Mainly, for me, it was going to E3 that first time, and I’ve been every year since. The trick is to just get out in the community and meet people. There are game developer groups in most major cities, so those are good places to start; they’re not all out in California, even though most publishers are. Also, if you can make it to an industry event where there are a lot of these people in one place, just go, shake hands, hand out cards, talk to people, listen to them, and ask their advice.
GC: Do you think that video game journalism is expanding as a field?
CM: Oh I think it definitely is, yeah. Just in the last year alone I’ve noticed so many different national media organizations finally paying attention to the industry. CBS has just started a column recently, Variety and Hollywood Reporter have added positions for it; you’re see more magazines giving it coverage. That certainly makes my job more difficult, you know, I’m competing with these people for exclusives, but at the same time it makes things a little bit more exciting. You’re coming in at a time when a lot of people are looking to expand into this, and you can combine that with other duties at a newspaper or a magazine or a TV station or whatnot, and sort of build that niche. I mean.. the way I started covering gaming here..
GC: That’s one of my next questions, actually!
CM: Jump ahead then!
GC: How did you convince CNN to let you cover video games?
CM: I am a persistent son of a bitch. I’ve been at CNN now for seven years, and I was freelancing for a number of years before that, doing game reviews, running my own website. When I was hired here, I was hired as a personal finance editor, so I would occasionally find an excuse to write a story about investing in video game stocks and these sort of things. We got a new editor a number of years ago who said “well, what are you interested in doing?” “Well, I’d really love to write about the gaming industry more”, and they went “no, we don’t want that, there’s no ties to money there.” When the Xbox launched I wrote a news story about that — any time there was any sort of news event related to the gaming industry, I would grab onto it and just ride it and turn it in, and force them to run it. But when Xbox came out, that story got over a half-million page views in no time flat, and my editor went “hmm, there might be something here!” I went back to them then and said “look, I’ve been telling you there’s a big audience out there for this stuff; let me just try the column for a month or two and if it doesn’t work, oh well, we tried.” He said “okay, we’ll give it a shot”, and it took off. It’s the most popular commentary column we’ve got on our site, and it’s taken off from there.
GC: How do you come up with topics to write about in your column?
CM: It’s kind of a mixed bag. Sometimes my columns are all news-related – I’ll see something that’s happened, a press-release will come out, and that will spark my thinking, whether it’ll be a commentary column from that, or kind of a themed focus story. For example, I think just today it was made official that 50 Cent has his own video game coming out. Fine, that’s a story, but a larger story would be looking at the theme of the growing influence of hip-hop in the video game industry. That could be a larger themed story that isn’t just doing PR for one company. Sometimes it’s just a flight-of-fancy. I came up with one just while I was taking a shower; I was like “oh, that’d be great for E3, I could save that for then!” And sometimes it’s an analyst’s report. Unless it’s towards the end of the year when I know I’m going to be taking a vacation, I don’t have a schedule of stories that I’m going to write. There’s just no way to do that because the industry is changing so fast and there’s always something happening.
GC: Do you prefer electronic or print media?
CM: Actually, I don’t have a preference of the two; I like them both. My background is in print but I’ve been doing electronic for seven years now, so there must be something here that I like. I like the immediacy of electronic media, I like.. getting the story, and then there really is a fight to get it out before anyone else does, and you can’t do that in print these days, especially in video game journalism.
GC: Especially in the monthly magazines, you’re not going to be breaking any stories in them.
CM: Well, you can, but it’s a lot more difficult, and that’s a challenge I would like to take on some day. But as it stands right now I enjoy what I’m doing at CNN, so I’ll keep doing it, and if someone in a magazine wants to offer me a really really big salary and let me live wherever I want, by God I’ll take it!
GC: All right, just about done. Do you have any secrets for completing games quickly in order to cover them?
CM: No! No, I suck, I am terrible!
GC: You have no idea how happy I am to hear that.
CM: I love the industry, I’m fascinated by this stuff, but I’m terrible at video games!. I have no coordination. God help me when they put me down in front of a console first-person shooter; I’d much rather do it in my own time when no one’s watching. There’s this perception among the hardcore gamers that you have to be this an elite, really good gamer in order to write about them. No. You don’t. Do you have to finish every game to write about them? No. You don’t. If you’re writing a review, yeah, you should finish the game, but if you’re writing about the industry or just doing a feature story, you don’t have to log 60 hours into Grand Theft Auto to write about it. You have to play enough to get a flavor, you need to talk with developers and find out what you missed, and then you can write it from there. One of the sad truths, at least for me, is I very rarely get to finish a game because there’s so many that’s always coming in. And you get distracted, there’s always something new, and it’s like “this is a great game, I’m really enjoying.. oooo there’s a new game I wanna try! This is fantastic, I’m having a great… oooo there’s another one!!”
Perfect example, Ratchet and Clank: Up Your Arsenal, which came out last Christmas. I played several hours of it then, loved it, put it in my buying guide for the holidays, and then got distracted by other stuff. And just recently I was talking with the guys over at Insomniac and I was like “y’know, I ought to go back and play this some more, I’ve been having a blast with it!”. It’s very rare that I will get to go back and play a game that I’ve already completed, so enjoy that luxury right now. Fortunately we’re in kind of a slow-stop in the cycle, but that’ll all be blown to hell in a week, week and a half when I get a PSP and I have to start play-testing all that there. So.. it’s okay, it’s not a bad thing.
GC: Just one last question: how do you like living in New Jersey?
CM: Oh God! Kill me! I’m a southerner; I’m from Atlanta, Georgia. I like Atlanta, Georgia. I don’t like shoveling snow. I could do without New Jersey. I live in New Jersey because I moved up here; I have a dog and I wanted him to have a backyard to run around in, and you cant really do that in the high-rises. I’m glad I did — owning a house up in the northeast hasn’t been bad thing in the last few years. But I don’t see myself up here the rest of my life. A few months, a few more years, whenever the next opportunity comes along then I’ll pay attention.
Remember, if you’d like to hear more from Chris Morris, check out his weekly “Game Over” column at CNN/Money!