All in a Day's Play
Keeping it virtually real at Richmond's Computer Games magazine
Steve Bauman gets to play God for a living -- sort of. He's free to spend hours, even days, inventing the wheel, discovering gunpowder and creating the alphabet. Eventu- ally, he'll get around to inventing higher mathematics, discovering nuclear fission and, if he's feeling particularly benevolent, ending slavery and promoting democracy.
Bauman doesn't suffer from a Messiah complex, though many teenaged boys -- and probably a few adult men -- might dream about being him. Bauman is editor-in-chief of Computer Games, a monthly national magazine based in Richmond, Vermont, that caters to computer-games enthusiasts. His job, when he's not raising virtual armies and conquering fantasy cities, is previewing new computer games and hardware, reviewing existing products, and writing about other issues of interest to the gaming community.
His latest distraction is Civilization IV, the soon-to-be-released update of the 1991 classic that became one of the most successful "god games" of all time. Think a pre-industrial SimCity that spans 6000 years of human development, complete with nascent religions, real historical figures and dazzling 3-D graphics.
Computer Games magazine occupies an expansive suite in the Goodwin Baker Building in Richmond. The hallways are lined with colorful blowups of old magazine covers featuring mace-wielding knights, rifle-toting soldiers and green-eyed vixens with elven ears and seductive body armor. Scattered around the floor are boxes of software, shrink-wrapped bundles of glossy mags, birds' nests of cables and other computer clutter.
Bauman, 37, greets his visitor with a firm handshake and a friendly smile. He's about 6-foot-3 and built like a nose tackle, but his round face and Red Sox cap give him a boyish, unthreatening appearance. A partially assembled computer dance pad -- one of the many new accessories manufacturers send the staff to try out and review -- blocks the hall that leads to an empty room where Bauman goes to talk.
The magazine has lots of unused office space, since only about five employees work on-site. That's not surprising. The computer-games industry is well suited for telecommuting, and Bauman's writers, salespeople and distributors are scattered throughout the country. He admits the magazine could benefit from being closer to the computer-gaming industry in Los Angeles or San Francisco, where his staff could attend regular press events and new-product rollouts. Still, Vermont's digital infrastructure serves their needs well, he says, and the much more affordable rents and salaries here have allowed the magazine to weather some lean economic times.
Bauman has been with Computer Games for 12 years. Originally, it was called Strategy Plus and focused on the small niche market of board games, particularly war-strategy games that were popular in the 1970s. When those pastimes were eclipsed by computer games, the magazine was sold and took the ungainly moniker, Computer Games Strategy Plus. The Strategy Plus was eventually dropped.
Computer Games magazine still serves a niche market, but it's a much larger one: the multibillion-dollar computer-gaming industry. Unlike console games, which are played on platforms such as Xbox and PlayStation, computer games run on higher-end PCs equipped with video cards and faster processors. Whereas console machines only cost a couple hundred dollars, gaming computers start at around $1000.
As a result, says Bauman, computer gamers tend to be slightly older -- and thus, so are the readers of Computer Games. In fact, the magazine's average reader is a 30-year-old male who is college-educated and fairly affluent. The independently owned magazine has a circulation of about 200,000, making it third among the big computer-games magazines in the country, behind PC Gamer and Computer Gaming World.
Computer Games also has a decidedly more adult look and feel than its competitors. Whereas other gaming magazines tend to be more juvenile, male-oriented and "almost Maxxim-like," as Bauman puts it, "We try to make the magazine more accommodating to women, because women do play games, too."
Admittedly, Computer Games' readershipis still only 15 to 20 percent female, but Bauman believes it may be growing. Last month, for example, the magazine published a big feature on MMOs, or "massively multiplayer online" games, which involve thousands of players competing simultaneously via the Internet. Women seem to prefer MMOs, Bauman says, because typically they're role-playing games in which players create their own characters.
"Most computer games are rooted in a fairly adolescent [world] of comic-book people and big-breasted women, and that puts a lot of women off," Bauman says. "MMOs, typically, are a little more sensitive to those issues and let you create more realistic characters -- or at least ones that better match your own perception of a hero -- since you're going to stare at this person for hours and hours."
Consider, for example, World of Warcraft, an enormously successful MMO. The game is purchased in a retail store and comes with a free, one-month subscription. Thereafter, a player pays a $15 monthly fee to continue playing online. Since its launch, World of Warcraft has attracted about 3 million people who are paying the monthly fee. According to Bauman, 25 to 30 percent of them are female.
A built-in clock tells players how long they've played World of Warcraft. Over a one-year period, Bauman says, he personally logged 30 days of play on that one game alone. "Which is kind of depressing, actually," he says. "My God! This has taken away a month of my life!"
Video-game addiction has been a hot topic lately -- Bauman ran an article on the subject a few months ago. But for the most part, Computer Games doesn't take politics or parenting too seriously. For example, this month's "Random Incoherence" column by Kelly Wand, "Think of the Children: 666 ways to make games more kid- and uptight-adult-friendly," lists tongue-in-cheek suggestions for child-appropriate games. A few examples: games that promote dental hygiene, offer group therapy or feature characters who apologize and shed a tear whenever they kill someone.
Bauman does recognize that as his readers age, many of them get married, have kids and even play computer games with their children. It's become the new family time, he says, the way cards, board games and even TV used to be, especially as computer games shed many of their negative connotations. That upward shift in demographic has also forced the magazine into a delicate balancing act. It has to stay attractive to newsstand buyers -- typically, males ages 16 to 25 -- Bauman says, but it can't come across as too juvenile or cartoonish, lest they put off adults who might feel ashamed to be seen reading it.
One political issue Computer Games will cover is censorship. While "a lot of gamers are either liberal or conservative," Bauman says, "they tend to become strangely libertarian when faced with all the games legislation." This was particularly true after this year's brouhaha about the "Hot Coffee" mod -- a cyber-porn mini-game discovered embedded within the popular video game Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. The mature-rated video game was already much maligned for its graphic depictions of violence, drug use, prostitution and other antisocial behavior. Throwing digital porn into the mix -- albeit very primitive digital porn, Bauman notes -- had politicians across the board, including Hillary Clinton, shrieking for new legislation that makes it illegal to sell M-rated games to minors.
Needless to say, Computer Games and its readers were quick to weigh in on that frenzy. "It was some grandmother who bought the game for her 12-year-old," Bauman recalls. "I'm sorry, but which part of M-rated -- it clearly says 'sex, drug use, and graphic violence' -- made you think this was appropriate as it was?"
On the whole, Computer Games magazine is largely about entertainment and leisure time spent camped in front of a monitor. And in that realm, the magazine excels, with bright, colorful photos, a clean, readable layout and easily digestible articles that are long on info and short on technobabble.
Games are test-driven in a windowless conference room with three computers, including one with a state-of-the-art, widescreen monitor. Bauman loads a game called Half-Life 2, a first-person shooter with an ambiguous plot. It begins with a subway ride through a vaguely oppressive, dystopian city run by a race of quasi-benign aliens.
"It's phenomenal-looking and a great game," Bauman explains, navigating virtual courtyards and sewer pipes depicted with ultra-vivid graphics. "Most people confuse quantity of story for depth or quality. This one doesn't hammer you over the head with big narrative bits."
Bauman soon quits that game and loads another, called Painkiller, a mindless shoot-'em-up action game in which you impale alien-ninja zombies with a wooden stake gun, all set to a riotous, heavy-metal soundtrack.
"This is just complete carnage. It's completely over-the-top and gloriously stupid," says Bauman, his eyes transfixed on the screen. "But there's something to be said for stupid."
Is this the dream job of all time for a computer-games junkie?
"You'd think, although the reality is, like anything else, it becomes a job," Bauman says, pausing the game. "The idea that we sit around all the time playing games is true sometimes. But most of the time we're writing and editing articles, developing stories, and doing production stuff.
"And then," he adds, "we go home and play games, just like we would if we weren't working here."