Icons: Rawson Stovall is the original video game critic0 Comments
Welcome to Icons, a new semi-regular series here at G4@Syfygames that features those in the history of the video game industry and culture who have made an impact that is still felt today.
Today, video game reviews are a way of life in the gaming world. With every new video game release hundreds of columns and videos spring forth across the internet, each of them reviewing the latest releases for every platform known to the human race.
But it wasn't always like that. In fact, in 1982 video game reviews were a rarity. Despite the ongoing video game craze of the time, reviews of new and upcoming titles were relegated to a handful of monthly magazines that often went to print well after the game had hit store shelves.
One young man named Rawson Stovall aimed to change that. At the tender age of 11-years-old, Stovall became the first syndicated video game reviewer in history, starting a column that spanned across video game generations and brought him to his own levels of fame.
It all started for him in the years prior to the first-ever video game industry boom.
"When I was about five or six years old, I was so sick with asthma that I spent about 3 months at National Jewish Hospital, a research hospital in Denver," Stovall recalled. "This hospital had many kids there that they had an on-site kindergarten and we even had field trips. One of these field trips was to an arcade. I had never even heard of video games, home or arcade, and I plopped into the driver’s seat of Atari's Night Driver. Sitting in that car-like cabinet as a little kid, in a strange city 700 miles or so from home and family, was just a magical, transformative experience, even though the game itself was a super simplistic black and white game."
Stovall's new found love for video games expanded in the coming years, including fun with a Super Breakout arcade game at a local pizza parlor. It was then that he became among the millions of young kids who wanted to bring the fun home with one of the early home video game consoles, but with his desire came a challenge.
"My parents wouldn't get me a home game system," Stovall added. "my father said that they were a waste of time and money, so I remained dependent on Santa Claus, who, despite my pleading, failed to bring me one. Ultimately, the next year, I felt like I couldn’t trust Santa Claus so I had to take matters into my own hands. I picked up pecans from the pecan trees in our backyard and shelled them, halved them, packaged them, and sold them door to door to make enough money to buy an Atari 2600 by myself. My first games for it were Superman, Space Invaders, and Surround."
Eager to try every home console game he could, Stovall would rent as many games as he could from a local store but found that there was no way for fans such as himself to know which games were good and which were bad.
"I still had to buy most of my games, and $30-$35 a pop in 1982 money was prohibitively expensive, especially for a nine-year-old," he said. "Right around then then I realized that the local paper was filled with movie reviews for movies that cost less than $5 to see. Yet games were much more expensive and often didn't even have screenshots on the back of their box and there were absolutely NO reviews of games available. Each purchase really was a gamble."
Seeing opportunity, Stovall rented some games and wrote sample reviews of them. He then took them along with letters of recommendation from hsi teachers to a man named Dick Tarpley, the editor of his local paper The Abilene Reporter-News.
"They tested me out with a review of the movie Tron," he recalled. "They took me to see it and then I had to go back to the newsroom and write a review on deadline with them watching me. I guess I passed the test. They took on my weekly column for a six-week trial and I wound up writing every week for ten years."
Now in uncharted territory, Stovall quickly began to notice a bonus to his newfound job that he hadn't anticipated.
"I was hoping that I could rent games, write reviews, and then use the money to actually buy the games I liked," Stovall noted. "What I didn't anticipate was that the side effect of having a newspaper column about video games was that I wound up getting all of the games from the companies for free as review copies and I usually got them before they were released. I still remember the first games ever sent to me, prototypes of Pitfall! and MegaMania by Activision. As a kid, getting those in the mail was liked finding buried treasure in the backyard."
With his column finding success in his hometown, Stovall began to use his breaks from school to travel with his father on business trips. While doing so, young Stovall would dress in a suit and tie and bring samples of his columns to the local newspapers in a briefcase, selling the column to more and more papers before signing on with Universal Press Syndicate. Despite an industry-wide crash of the video game market, Stovall's column and notoriety would continue to grow.
"I published a review every week. Yes, there was the crash but it was on a macroeconomic scale for the industry; people were still buying games," Stovall added. "The main reason for the crash was the end result of the boom. There were too many terrible games and consumers were starting to feel burned by their choices. That was the environment that I was trying to mitigate and it affected my editorial direction. I typically only reviewed games that I liked. There were so many games, and so many good ones, that I felt like I could come up with 52 games a year that deserved a positive review. There were some exceptions, however. Atari's Pac-Man for the Atari 2600 is one such game that comes to mind. I felt like it was so heavily anticipated, and the 2600 version missed the mark so much that I needed to review it in order to warn people to adjust their expectations."
A trip to the Consumer Electronics Show in Chicago would spark more attention on Stovall himself. Receiving special permission to attend despite the 18-and-up policy of the show, Rawson attracted the attention of a New York Times reporter who opted to do a feature on the young video game reviewer.
"Within a couple hours or so of the paper going out I had a stack of messages waiting for me at my hotel in Chicago," Stovall rememberd. "Magazines, newspapers, TV shows, all of the morning shows like Good Morning America, The Today Show, the CBS Morning News. We were on our way out the door to go to the airport when our plans were changed and we were whisked away first class to New York. After that article in the New York Times, I was interviewed for lots of radio programs, TV shows, and magazine and newspaper articles and got several offers to turn my reviews into a book."
Among the media outlets featuring Stovall was The Tonight Show, then hosted by the legendary Johnny Carson, in 1984.
"I still remember the whole experience very clearly. The entire family rented a big A-Team style van and had a whole two-week Texas to California Little Miss Sunshine-esque summer vacation out of the experience," Stovall said. "They taped the show in the mid-afternoon. I was forced to have a teacher on set, even though it was summer, and Johnny Carson was incredibly nice and made me feel at ease. What made me nervous, however, was that the studio audience was just a wall of people, jammed up against the stage and, it seemed to me, almost vertical. Once I got to my chair and looked to my left at Johnny, I never looked away, for fear of seeing that audience wall. So I never really looked to my right and met Ed McMahon."
In 1985, during a time when the term 'video game' was a bad word to retailers across North America, Stovall got to review an upcoming console called the Nintendo Entertianment System. Today credited with reviving the American video game industry, Stovall was the first person to review the then-fledgling product.
"At the event in New York where I helped to introduce the NES, the main question I remember fielding wasn't if it was a good system or if it had good games but rather if it can be successful," Stovall said. "At that point the crash made many many outside observers feel vindicated in their assertions that video games were just a fad."
After trying it himself, Stovall recalled that the Nintendo sparked the same feelings that had hooked him on video games in the first place.
"I was excited for the NES, and, after playing Super Mario Bros. for the first time at the event I was hooked. It was like playing Night Driver as a kid. I just thought about it for weeks and weeks until I finally got my own copy: a prototype that I had to wedge into a prototype NES. I also had to wedge in a piece of wood just to keep the cartridge in place. After I got that NES the excitement just with my neighborhood friends spiked. To me, it was clear that Nintendo had a hit on their hands."
In 1990, Stovall left his column to attend Southern Methodist University in Dallas and eventually found himself on the other side of the video game process as a game developer, with titles such as Pitfall: The Mayan Adventure, Metal of Honor: Pacific Assault and several games in The Sims franchise on his resume. He said his experiences from developing puts the video game review process into perspective for him.
"One of the things that makes a good critic is empathy," he said. "Criticism should appreciate the motives behind a product in order to measure it by its own standards. Whereas, to me, bad criticism often comes from scenarios where the reviewer seems to have their own ruler and measures everything according to that one ruler. Kids game? Free to Play mobile game? $80 Microsoft Xbox One epic? Measure them all against this one ruler. Not that critics should be pushovers, but a critic should be generous first and then be tough because toughness without understanding comes across as whiny and abusive. I’m turned off when a reviewer thinks that games or features solely exist on an Awesome/Sucks binary scale or when they just seem angry that they aren’t the ones at the magazine or website reviewing Halo 9."
Now decades past the debut of Stovall's early game reviews comes the world of social media, something which the original game reviewer feels is a good thing if used properly.
"One thing that excites me is the democratization that platforms like the web, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Twitch, and YouTube have created. The barriers to entry have been taken down," he added. "When I started writing game reviews there was a tremendous need for game reviews and no one around doing it. And I had the personal drive, incredibly supportive and patient parents, and the luck that an editor would talk to me when I showed up at the door. Today that desperate need for video game reviews has been filled by the thousands of reviews flying around everywhere all the time. What is needed is that empathy and that understanding in the review and I feel that’s true for all media and art criticism."
When looking back, Stovall said he is happy to have stood by his way of doing things and feels flattered when he learns his early activities left a legacy.
"I've met a couple people who claim that my column, articles, and book inspired them to go into journalism and / or the video game world and it's awesome yet strange. It makes me feel like a rock or sports star," Stovall said. "I was always a proponent of the positive social aspects of video games and an advocate for the broadening of its demographic. The promise of video games lay in being the center of the living room, as an activity-glue that would help hold families together. I would often say that families that play together, stay together."
Rawson Stovall can be found on Twitter @RawsonStovall.