The Human Element: An Interview With Colin Campbell

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For Colin Campbell, coastal California is preferable to England in nearly every way. From the weather to the beach town lifestyle, Santa Cruz offers him everything he could want in a place to live. “I live a mile from the beach,” he says. “I go to the beach all the time.”

Campbell visits his hometown – a small town about thirty miles north of London – every couple of years, but has no plans to leave California any time soon. There’s too much for him here: a family, and a writing career that spans three decades as a technology and video games journalist.

The Path to Polygon

Even before coming to America, Campbell found himself writing for American audiences. After years of covering companies like EA and Activision, it only made sense to move to the place many of these publishing and development houses call home.

“These companies, they’re all in California, or they’ve got huge offices in California,” he says. “Although there are offices in England, and there are some really good developers in England, There’s more if it here. I really like being around the industry here.”

Campbell is a Senior Reporter at Polygon, a relative newcomer in the games journalism arena. Founded in 2012 under the umbrella of Vox Media, Polygon covers games with an emphasis on the people who make, consume, and enjoy them.

This human element is what drew Campbell to Polygon, who says that there’s more to games than simply playing them. “[Games] have this extraordinary effect on people. They can change people’s lives, and I find that really interesting.”

Campbell’s path to Polygon was a long, but perhaps inevitable one. He was introduced to games at an early age, but was not immediately engrossed by them. “When the Atari first came out with Pong and all that, I thought it was kind of cool, but I didn’t really care about it that much,” he says.

This lukewarm reaction is at odds with many industry professionals who found themselves enamored with the emerging technology of home computer games. Instead, Campbell was more interested in playing games in an arcade space; he spent a lot of time playing Space Invaders and Defender. Recalling his final year of school, Campbell says that he spent most of the year playing Frogger at a local laundromat.

Rather than peruse a higher education, Campbell chose to look for work out of school. He found a job at a weekly newspaper that was circulated to a number of small shops that sold computers and computer games. “I think they gave me the job because I knew a little bit about the arcade machines,” he says. “I came in really knowing nothing about home computer games” He is quick to note that this was during a time when journalists could find work without a proper college degree.

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Next, Campbell found himself employed by Future PLC, a rapidly-growing media company based out of Somerton, England. Founded in 1985 by Chris Anderson, Future is now regarded as one of the largest media corporations in the United Kingdom. In 2001, Anderson left Future to curate TED, the series of conferences centered on technology and culture.

Future found success, not only by delivering quality technology content, but also by employing some smart business tactics. During Future’s early days, Campbell says, the publisher would often attach a tape or other form of media to the cover of its magazines. The tape wouldn’t contain anything substantial; just some shareware or publisher demos, but it did allow Future to essentially double the price of the magazines. This tactic was effective, and Future went on to become a titan in the technology publishing field.

During his time at Future, Campbell, still in his mid-20s oversaw the publication of roughly half a dozen magazines, and a lack of competition allowed the company to grow unabated. This experience/pedigree combination lent Campbell’s résumé substantial clout, which he then leveraged in order to relocate to America and find work writing for outlets like IGN in its early days. He did return to England for a short time in order to launch the Future-published Official Xbox Magazine, but eventually he returned stateside.

When he came back to California, Campbell worked for IGN for a time, but he soon became unhappy with how the site was being managed. Without going into detail on the rift between him and IGN, Campbell simply says that he was not pleased there, and that “the relationship ended very badly.”

Enter Polygon.

polygon“I needed a job, so I called Polygon up really early on and people were more critical of it,” Campbell says. “I wasn’t. I thought it was wonderful. I emailed the editor, and said ‘I really like what you’re doing. If you’re ever in the market for someone like me, give me a shout.’ When he heard I was on the market, he gave me shout. And honestly, it’s the best job I’ve ever had.”

“An Explosion of Creativity”

I wrote earlier that Campbell’s path to Polygon was inevitable. As I read that back, it sounds a bit trite, but it makes sense that Polygon and Campbell found each other. More than any other element concerning games, he appreciates the human one, and Polygon offers the ideal outlet for his fascination.

“Games are interesting in and of themselves, but I’m just as interested in how they affect people, how they impact on people,” he says. “They might be the people who play them, they might be the people who make them, or even the people who sell them. They have this extraordinary effect on people, they can change people’s lives, and I find that really interesting.”

Campbell’s enthusiasm for this subject is infectious, even over Skype. He points to other forms of media, such as books and film, to emphasize the importance of games in global culture. According to him, games have lagged behind those other media in terms of political and social impact, but they are beginning to catch up, and it’s not just thanks to technological improvements. “[Games] are changing on an emotional level, you know, that they’re saying things they haven’t said before,” he says. “Books and movies, they didn’t wait decades before they started having an emotional impact on people, or having something political to say. They were doing it from the beginning. Right now, we’re seeing an explosion of creativity, and for the people who are around to write about it, it’s an absolute privilege.”

tdcThe social and political impact of games can take many forms, from the anti-war stance of This War of Mine, to commentary on the nature of nationalism in Bioshock Infinite. Earlier this year, Campbell wrote a piece on That Dragon, Cancer, an interactive story that tells the real-life story of a couple whose child was diagnosed with cancer as an infant, and succumbed to the disease at age five.

That Dragon, Cancer is something new in the world,” Campbell wrote in the piece. “It is challenging, enriching and devastating. I think it might have changed me in some way I’m yet to fully understand.”

Approaching a project of that sensitivity and nature is no enviable task to be sure, but Campbell does so as best he can. When faced with such a project, he likes to give his mind time to work. “I go for a long walk and think about it. The best way to write is to think. I sort of walk circles in my garden, or I walk up to the coffee shop and I just try and think about it. Writing is mostly thinking,” he says.

Piranha Frenzy

515Cy7WokyL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_ Campbell’s people-centric approach to games journalism manifested itself in 2014 in the form of a novel, Piranha Frenzy. The book tells the story of a games journalist who finds herself under pressure from her bosses and games industry representatives to positively review a new release. Instead, she scores the game a four or five out of ten and her life is subsequently shattered. “She gives it that review because of her unique perspective on that particular game,” Campbell says.

“It’s a critique of games journalism,” says Campbell. “One of the things that annoys me about critics of games journalism is that the criticisms are wrong and boring. The idea that game companies give money to games journalists to give games high review scores is nonsense. It’s just such bullshit and so boring.”

But the book is more than just a play on games journalism: it is Campbell’s philosophy, not only games journalism, but on human nature, laid bare. “What’s interesting is that…all of us in life are corrupted in ways that are subtle. We’re corrupted by our own personality defects, our ambitions, the relationships that we choose to have, our need to be liked.”

The protagonist of the book embodies much of this philosophy. “She’s not a hero in a traditional way, because she also, in her own way, is corrupt. She’s dating somebody in the games industry, for example. She’s furiously ambitious, she’s angry at the way she’s treated by her bosses.

“To write about people who go through their lives believing that they’re incorruptible, but they are in fact corrupted, even in some small way, I think is what’s interesting.”

Campbell says he plans to release another book sometime next year.

30 Years On

There are people at the center of games. They’re not built by robots on a sterile assembly line in some bland factory. They’re written and programmed and advertised and sold and purchased by individuals with stories and backgrounds just as vivid and nuanced as yours or mine. This is something Campbell has never lost sight of, and it remains central to his philosophy as a games journalist.

“Games are always about something interesting,” he says. “They’re about sports, or war, or falling bricks, or mushroom kingdoms, and that is stimulating for a writer. Especially now, 30 years on, games have never been more interesting than they are now because they’re about more things. Not just about crazy colorful worlds, or simulations of other stuff like building cities – they’re about people and emotions and the way we fit into the world, or the way we don’t fit into the world. At my age, I find those things especially interesting.”

You can find Campbell at Polygon, as well as on Twitter.

Follow Sam on Twitter, and contact him at sdesatoff(at)gmail(dot)com.

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