Family and Gaming: Interview with 1UP’s John Davison
Ok, so it’s FORMERLY 1Up’s John Davison, but some things shouldn’t die. The first time I was ever really active in a website – listening to podcasts and commenting on threads – was when a former 1UP employee started a website called What The Play. What They Play was dedicated to providing parents with all the information they would need to be educated in the world of video games.
While the site was fairly popular, it inevitably was sold to IGN and subsequently shut down soon after. However, the opinions of John Davison – during his time on the 1Up Podcasts and with his work on What They Play – stuck with me for years, and ultimately lead me to have a desire to write about video games and to educate those who needed it. This week’s Family and Gaming article features an interview I did with John. It was a highlight personally for me to do this interview, and he did not disappoint with his answers. Without further ado: an interview with a former employee of 1UP, EGM, Gamespot, Metacritic and many other sites and magazines, John Davison. You can find John on twitter, @jwhdavison.
I grew up in the UK, and began my career working in games magazines there. This was back in the early 90s, so it’s all stuff that’s long since gone. My first full-time gig was as a staff writer for a long-since-forgotten weekly called Games-X, but prior to that I’d been freelancing for an Atari magazine called Page 6. I started doing that when I was around 14, and to pay me they would just let me keep the games I was writing about. Eventually, I ended up as the publisher of PC Zone when it was still at Dennis Publishing. This was back at the height of mid-90s PC gaming boom, so I was there for awesome stuff like System Shock 2, Quake, Command & Conquer, X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter. The real heyday.
In 1998 I left the UK and moved to the States where I took over at Electronic Gaming Monthly at Ziff Davis. I worked at Ziff for around 10 years, and in that time I ran both EGM and the Official PlayStation Magazine before ending up overseeing the whole print and online content group. In that time we launched 1UP.com, and with that the 1UP Show and the 1UP Yours podcast, both of which people still remember very fondly. In hindsight, I think we were a little ahead of our time with that stuff.
My boys were born during this period, and this was when the idea for What They Play happened. Anyone with young kids will tell you that when your kids are toddlers your entire social life exclusively revolves around other parents with kids of a similar age. You’re stuck with these people for years, so you have to make the most of it. I was quickly singled out by the other parents as “the guy that knows about video games,” and it soon became clear based on the questions that they asked that there really weren’t any resources for parents to turn to that would give them the information that was important to them. Reviews and qualitative coverage wasn’t really what they wanted, they needed something much more specific about the content – so that’s how the idea was formed.
After kicking around a pitch, my business partner Ira and I were able to put together a plan that allowed us to raise a good amount of investment so we could go set up the new company and build the site.
Very quickly it became clear that there was some demand for this kind of thing. I think the real key to our early success, and the reason why we got so much media attention from places like the Today Show, CNN, Newsweek, and the LA Times, was that our focus was on educating people about content, not judging it. We always wanted to respect the fact that every parent has different sensitivities for what their kids are exposed to, so it would never be our job to say if something was good, bad, right, or wrong. Our coverage would expand on what the ESRB ratings would tell you, and give much more detail about the language used in the dialog, or the nature of the violence. Ultimately though, we always left the judgment to the parents.
We were able to keep the site going for two years, but ultimately it proved difficult to generate the kind of revenue that we (and, notably, our investors) had hoped. The difference between a site like What They Play and a “normal” games site is that gamers will check out news, reviews, and other coverage every day because they’re interested in the whole culture. Parents on the other hand tend to be task-based – so they’d come to our site when they needed something specific, but it wasn’t necessarily a place for them to hang out every day.
In late 2009, early 2010 we were looking to raise more money to expand into other areas with additional sites focused on movies, TV, and books, but that was around the time that the market was really tanking, and investment resources just dried up. Eventually we sold the business to IGN, and stepped away for a while.
After sulking for a few months, I hooked up with the folks at IDG who wanted me to help them reboot GamePro both in print, and online. I worked there for a while before heading to CBS where I was offered the job of VP of Programming for their game group. There I oversaw GameSpot and Metacritic, and later Giant Bomb and Comic Vine.
For the past couple of years I’ve been involved in building community platforms for gamers on mobile.
There’s nothing more important. They’re the driving force behind everything I strive for. My boys both love video games, and it’s been something we’ve always been able to bond over. My wife has…let’s call it an appreciation for games. She’s not particularly interested in console or PC games, but she has a healthy respect for them. That said, she’s super-competitive when it comes to mobile games like Words with Friends or Trivia Crack.
When the boys were a bit younger we logged literally hundreds of hours in stuff like the Lego Star Wars games, but more recently I’d say it’s probably Minecraft that’s the great unifier. My youngest son is really into the parkour and adventure maps, but we all very often jump into a creative game together and just build stuff. Whenever they have friends over, they invariably end up playing split-screen Minecraft together on Xbox.
During the week we don’t usually let them play console or PC games, unless we’re feeling really nice. We’ll let them play word and trivia games briefly on their iPads during the week, but the majority of their game time is at the weekend. Usually we try to limit it to a couple of hours each day, but sometimes it ends up being a bit longer.
All kids are different, and all parents are different. The most important thing is for everyone to understand each other and communicate about the subject. If parents have hard rules about content that they want to impose, they have to be able to explain the reasoning behind them so the kids understand the rules and internalize the logic being used. Particularly as kids get to be 9 or 10, they’ll have friends that are “allowed” to play contentious stuff, like Grand Theft Auto (sometimes it’s really that the parents of those kids have no idea of the content) and they need to know why it’s not OK for them to play that yet. I’ve always looked at the ratings as a guideline to get the conversation started. There are different extremities of M-rated game, just as there are different extremities of R-rated movie. The best example I’ve often found, particularly for parents of tweens, is Halo. It’s an M-rated shooter, but it’s not exactly what you’d consider a hard M. If you let your kids play Halo, you need to have a conversation about why, and to do that you need to show some appreciation for the content. What you don’t want to have happen is for your kids to think that because they can play Halo that they are now OK to play any and all M-rated games.
A big part of the learning was how significant the generational aspect is. It’s an important consideration at all levels; for individual families, and when it comes to the media and politics. People that didn’t grow up with games, or have not had them as a significant part of their entertainment diet tend to demonize them with sweeping generalities. Assumptions are made that are wrong. As an entire field of entertainment the audience for games and the business itself has grown up together. We’re just now starting to get to a point where we don’t get as many crazy reactions to content.
When we started talking to them in 2010, their strategy was very much focused on games being something that were for everyone, not just 18-34 year-old men. They were experimenting with content for much broader audiences at the time, and What They Play fit very nicely into that vision. In large part, this was fueled by the enormous success of the Wii (which was also a big contributor to What They Play’s initial success,) but as interest began to wane in later years, it was clear that the strongest and most reliable part of the games audience was the core. Like any good business, they needed to focus on their primary strengths.
If I were going to do it all again, I think I’d probably try and do it as a non-profit. In hindsight, building the thing around an ad revenue model was probably a mistake. Launching something like that now would require a different approach. The whole space has changed, and we’d have to put the majority of our focus into mobile/tablet games, and I’d do a lot more of it as video rather than written content.
As for whether larger sites could better interact with parents? I think everyone could stand to be a little more inclusive in their approach, but ultimately parents are going to approach games content in a very different way than that demanded by gamers. It’s been good to see the whole space “grow up” along with it’s audience, but I still think there’s room for something that’s specifically targeted at families, and that doesn’t come packaged with any kind of agenda. None of us need anyone telling us what to think, we just need the information to make an intelligent, considered decision.
Sure they do. If there’s demand for it. They’re businesses, and they’ll focus where they believe they can maximize profits and grow their audience. The console business (specifically) is cyclical, and the approach for every generation so far has been “attract the core, then go after everyone else.” Right now both Sony and Microsoft are still trying to get core gamers to buy PS4s and Xbox Ones.
They’ve never been especially great at engaging directly with the audience, outside of the games themselves. In general they’ve always struck me as a little tone deaf when it comes to what the audience is actually craving. Sometimes that’s worked to their advantage, because they’ve just gone and done their own thing, and people have responded to the resulting innovation. Right now, I think it’s working against them. The audience at large has changed, and while there are still people that passionately defend the “Nintendo way” of doing things, there’s a significant majority that would rather play Trivia Crack or Clash of Clans than Mario or Zelda.
Microsoft has always been very open about wanting to educate parents and help them understand the tools that allow them to manage their kids’ content. In terms of how aggressively any of these companies message this stuff though, ultimately it’s all down to scale. Right now they’re all chasing their core audiences, so we’re not seeing as much attention put into family-focused stuff. And honestly, it’s the right approach. They need passionate evangelists right now.
For most families, I would speculate that console games just aren’t the chief concern any more. Most parents are far more concerned about mobile and tablet experiences than console or PC games.
Be engaged, be present, and don’t make blind judgment calls. Show that you understand what they’re playing, or what they want to play and pay attention to what your kids are saying. Everyone’s tastes are different, but if you can forge a bond by talking about the stuff that you really respond to in a game, it’s a powerful thing. Playing games together will create strong, fond memories that will last for years and years. I still remember playing the old Sierra and LucasArts adventures with my dad, and that was…yikes…nearly 30 years ago.
Also, just general advice that I found always went down particularly well at What They Play: Games aren’t babysitters, so don’t treat them as if they are.
This goes back to the tone deafness that I mentioned earlier. Minecraft is probably the single most important video game of the past 20 years, possibly ever. Some people will bristle at that statement, but in the grand scheme of things there is quite literally nothing that has had as much of a cultural impact. It’s not just the game itself, but the way it has changed the way a whole generation sees games and what they represent. Kids growing up with Minecraft are now conditioned to the kinds of possibilities that we only dreamed of when I was a kid. The tools that it puts into the hands of the players, and the freedom for imagination that it empowers is just staggering.
Thanks for stopping by for this weeks Gaming and Family segment. Next week I don’t have an interview lined up so we will revisit some of the things brought up in the previous three interviews. Special thanks again to John Davison for taking the time to reply to all these questions.