Friday, 13 April 2012

The Abbott Sessions

To anyone from my side of the pond the name John Peel really needs very little introduction, he was a near universally loved fixture on BBC Radio, honest, intelligent, warm to audience and bands equally. For forty year he played a eclectic mix of whatever took his fancy, championing new and obscure artist and showing a rare genius for putting into words what everyone felt*.

There has long been a preoccupation in games criticism about finding a master critic to call its own, a Robert Ebert to bring a authoritatively voice to a highly contentious medium. I don't think the Brainy Gamer podcast's Michael Abbott is ever going to be that sort of figure, however he has showed signs that he shares some of the qualities that made Peel so important to the development British music.

Topics: Video Gaming Culture/Community, Gaming Criticism, and Game Design/Development
Number of Episodes: 36
Ran: 27th August 2007 -9h April 2012
Average Episode length: 1hr mins
Format: One on one interviews,and group debates
Cast : Michael Abott
Classic Episodes: Episode 10 March 7 2008, & Episode 24 July 20 2009.
There's plenty of classic episodes especially amongst the “gamer Confabs” my two favorites however are probably these two. Episode 10 & 24 are both great examples of the sort of open, intelligent, and thoughtful conversation Abbott seems to have a habit of bringing out in others.
Episodes Available at:

How I originally imagined the Brainy Gamer
First impression are rarely accurate, and so it proved when I first stumbled upon Brainy Gamer podcast. My university years had left me with a healthy suspicion of self labelled artist's and intellectuals, so part of me immediately recoiled from the name Michael Abbott had chosen.
Still Apple in their infinite wisdom had decided to group gaming podcast with “hobbies” and apart from Gardeners Question time there didn't seem to be a wealth of alternatives.

Thus walking through the snow on a chilly January morning somewhat grudgingly, with no small amount of cynicism and a large chip upon my shoulder I listened to my first few episodes and came to the conclusion that rarely have a been so wrong about what someone was about.

I wanted to listen to someone who was serious about games but didn't take themselves seriously, and Abbott and his guest provided just that. Really I should have clued in far earlier or all the different varieties of pretentiousness I had encountered, few of them would think of using 'brainy' where intellectual would do or pick a happy looking little alien as their symbol.

What he's actually like
Revisiting the early shows I'm still amazed at the sheer amount of enthusiasm Abbott seems to be able to pack into them, the sheer unashamed delight which greets every new landmark.
250 podcast downloads, he couldn't be happier. 5000 page views, He wants to thank everyone! His first GDC a huge, overwhelming, extraordinary, transformative event!

As a host Abbott's amiable and unreserved qualities seem to have been key to building a rapport with both his audience and with his guests. He may be a seasoned professional working in a respected and intellectual job but when it comes to videogames he is always keen to assert that he is a just 'enthusiastic amateur'.
On his first trip to GDC talks about the size of the conference and how different it is from the ones he attends (which he characterises as esoteric,arcane, social gatherings). GDC seems full of pioneers, game development is new, everyone is learning, everyone is equally uncertain, and most importantly everyone is part of where the conversation goes next. As part of a audience it feels good to listen to a fellow amateur talking intelligently about games with both fellow amateurs, and professionals. That you don't have to posses a list of AAA games on your CV, a string of letters behind your name, or a job with a major publication to, evangelise for or care about where the medium is going.

It feels some of this may come as part of a deliberate choice made by Abbott about how he frames himself in relation to his guests. His background makes people feel comfortable talking about intellectual themes and philosophical ideas, but he also encourages his interviewees to see him primarily as a 'fan'. He isn't threatening to them, not someone who might have a vested in opposing their views or in misinterpreting them(a game critic/academic, or fellow design professional), and it seems to give people the license to open up.

People want to communicate, but the ability to talk freely without fear of judgement in a free yet secure climate is rare. Indeed people are willing to pay huge sums of cash to therapists just for the opportunity to feel that someone is really listening. As Abbott himself says “it's great to know that there's somebody out there, who's interested in what I'm talking about”. For me perhaps the most impressive result of this attitude was the way that the Brainy Gamer throughout its run often sought to promote and evangelise for the growth a gaming community where respect for others, and ability to speak without fear of judgement is the norm and not the exception.

Just what it means to be part the gaming community, and what does it mean to be a 'gamer' are topics that throughout its 49 episodes Brainy Gamer has frequently returned to but it all starts with him talking about Halo. At a time where a lot of games criticism was pre-occupied indie darlings and complex RPG, picking Halo as a subject was Abbott's first step towards in a deliberate attempt to find a middle ground where discussion can take place. By focusing on how Time magazines almost comically ignorant /uninformed talk about the release of a new halo game he sets a precedented that he'd follow throughout the shows history, of talking to the audience not at them.

Historically this focus on community has meant Brainy Gamer was as much a podcast about video game criticism as it was video games. When talking about the future of the podcast recently a lot of its listeners seemed to want Abbott to move towards becoming a more traditional interviewer in the style of 'Charlie Rose'. The problem is I really don't think that's playing to his strengths, he doesn't have it in him to ask hard questions or press for a answer. What he has consistently been best at is bringing people together who I would have otherwise never have heard of and then shaping the resultant conversation.

I would never have read Mitch Krpata's excellent piece on 80's actionmovies, Kirk Hamiltons Portal 2 review, Leigh Alexander raging atthe concept of “Fake Geek Girls” if it hadn't been for the Brainy Gamer podcast. Perhaps more importantly I wouldn't have come across things that sit outside the sphere of professional journalism like Justin Keverne Groping the Map series, or even thought to look for a site like Living Epic that combined classical storytelling and Halo.

What I hope not to see from Abbott's future work is yet another show where 'notable people' come on and talk up their new project. Conversation between equals and without agenda's is what Brainy Gamer has always done well and I hope he will keep doing it, because even if he isn't gaming's John Peel, Roger Ebbert, or Lester Bangs he might just be just the sort of person who will help discover the new talent I would never have heard of. 

Because sooner or later somewhere out there someone I've never heard of going to produce gamings equivalent of this:

and I don't wan't to miss it

Addendum: I finished writing this back at the end of march before Brainy Gamer resumed transmission with episode 36. It was certainly a interesting listen and I was glad to find we got as much info about his guest's personality and motivations as we did about his work. Still I prefer it more when Abbott engages more with his guests but in the end, if this is where the show is headed there's certainly worse destinations

*none of this really does John Peel justice, all I can say I no one has come close since. 

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