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Does gaming need celebrities?
Edge #168, November 2006
It's an issue that has been debated for years, not least in a recent article by gaming celebrity Dave 'The One With The Bandana' Perry. In the article, Perry argued that the games industry is in desperate need of a new generation of gaming celebrities. Heck, he was even kind enough to name-check yours truly as a last-gen gaming celebrity ('washed-up hack' by all means... but celebrity? I think not).
Nevertheless, during the '90s gaming boom the we-need-celebrities thing wasn't even an issue. Helped by the TV industry's bandwagon-jumping there really were genuine gaming celebrities; Violet Berlin, Dominik Diamond, and - shudder my nuts off - Ben 'the' Boffin. Then on the next rung we had Sega champ Danny Curley, and Big Boy Barry, and - whether you agree with journalists cultivating a celebrity persona by having photo bylines or not - Julian 'Jaz' Rignall and Radion Automatic.
You can argue until your lungs turn blue whether a journalist really can become a celebrity, but now that I'm a little bit older I can sort of understand it. My daughter clearly reveres the editorial team on the Official Nintendo Magazine as gods, and often quotes from the magazine as if it were a religious text.
Heck, if I'm honest I once saw Julian Rignall in a games shop on Oxford Street, and was so star-struck that I followed him to a cashpoint - at that time the closest I ever came to mugging, and debagging, someone famous. One time I even got excited, in a purely heterosexual sense, when I saw Neil 'Who?' West's old chap when I went to the toilet next to him. So, I can understand why games journalists can be raised to the level of celebrity. I just don't think it's necessary for the health of the industry.
You might enjoy a games review, but it seems a little absurd to celebrate someone just because they're capable of doing the job they were employed to do. The ridiculous less-said-about-it-the-better wankery of New Games Journalism aside or not.
There may not be the media hysteria of the early to mid-'90s, but there's more money floating around than there ever was. Why do we need celebrities when Sony and Microsoft are quite capable of marketing the heck out of their systems? I'd argue that the industry desperately needs some stronger, more iconic characters - along the lines of Sonic or Lara - but that's an entirely different debate.
I always remember hearing a possibly apocryphal story about how Andrew Ridgeley - in his post-Wham! days - would stumble out of clubs and kick up a big stink about having his privacy invaded by the paparazzi, despite clearly expecting and wanting - needing - to be photographed. On one occasion the assembled snappers were so sick of his behaviour that they agreed among themselves to down tools when Ridgeley emerged, and when they duly did the faded star was crushed. He apparently disappeared from public view shortly after.
At the end of the day celebrity is entirely self-serving. People may feel the need to become celebrities - and in the '90s you could become a gaming celebrity with the minimum of effort (all you needed was to be grossly overweight, a girl, wear a funny hat or give yourself a stupid name...) but the games industry doesn't need people to become celebrities. I simply don't see the benefit.
It's not like film, TV or music where the product is often linked to star talent. Games, generally, are committee-led affairs - these days perhaps more than is entirely healthy - but the product should always be the game, not the people who made it.
So where are the gaming celebrities now? There are certain games journos who are better known than others - Kieron Gillen springs immediately to mind - but they're not celebrities in the way they were a decade ago. Rightly, Shigeru Miyamoto remains an idol to millions, and Peter Molyneux is probably the UK's highest profile gaming figure (though hardly famous in the way, say, Jordan is - even following his recent breast enhancement). My fellow columnist Jeff Minter is a cult figure with a devoted following, but I'd be surprised if he thought of himself as a celebrity.
Of the old guard, the Games Animal is still hanging in there - his website is a shrine to his glory days presenting Games World (whereas my own website - that's www.mrbiffo.com, if you're interested - avoids mention of my gaming past, in the same way Jonathan King tries to downplay certain events in his life).
'Jaz' Rignall moved to America, Violet Berlin became a mummy (in the maternal sense, rather than the brains-pulled-out-of-her-nose-and-walled-up-inside-a-pyramid sense), Matthew Smith pops at retro gaming events, Big Boy Barry moved into PR, and Ben the Boffin sold more than 50 million albums worldiwde before developing a debilitating heroin addiction, marrying Courtney Love and blowing his head off in a room above the garage at his Seattle home.
It's not really plausible, is it?
Mr Biffo co-founded Digitiser, Channel 4's Teletext-based videogames section, and now writes mainly for television
Do you know of any important moments from the annals of Digi history that have been omitted? If so, then mail me (firstname.lastname@example.org) right now, man. Credit will be duly given for anything that gets put up.