The Magazines That Were Video Gaming's Original Clickbait

The Magazines That Were Video Gaming's Original Clickbait

Screaming headlines, outrageous proclamations, and many exclamation marks were part and parcel of 90s British gaming magazines.

Oh good! You clicked on this article and are now reading it. Hopefully it wasn't accidental, and you were actually lured in by the headline, which was created specifically to attract the attention of someone like you. I'm also hoping that the title of this feature isn't misleading, and that reading it won't be a waste of your time. In other words, I don't want this article about oldschool clickbait to feel like a piece of modern clickbait.

That's because I believe clickbait is the scourge of the Internet. We've all seen it – pieces of content that make outrageous claims, or feature sensational or salacious headlines that are just too temptingly juicy to ignore. They can be seen pretty much everywhere, and we even have a selection of clickbait articles on USgamer. Just scroll down the page, and you'll be presented with a selection of "From the Web" pieces postulating all manner of incredible, amazing, and unbelievable things that you just won't believe, must be seen, or may surprise you. Like most, you'll ignore them, but every once in a while, you might see something that you just can’t resist clicking on – and then swiftly realize as you peruse the vacuous article that you've been had.

While the term "clickbait" is relatively new, the concept of using tempting headlines to persuade people to read something is older than print itself. In his book A History of News, Mitchell Stephens notes that sensationalism was used in ancient Roman Actua Diurna – the official notices and announcements that were presented daily on public message boards – as far back as 130 BC. Books teaching moral lessons in the 16th and 17th century often featured sensationalist covers, and during the Victorian era, "penny dreadful" periodicals and certain newspapers of ill repute leveraged exceptionally lurid headlines to attract the attention of potential readers.

This practice continued to evolve during the 20th century, with pulp books, magazines, and tabloid newspapers in particular leading the way when it came to the use of loaded headlines, exaggerations, and startling, often eye-catching imagery. And as we've entered the digital age, these methods have essentially transitioned into the clickbait we see strewn across the web today. Indeed, these days clickbait has become a fine art, and there have even been psychological studies dedicated to why clickbait works – which is explored in this rather interesting Wired article.

But what has all this got to do with video games magazines? Well, that's the story that I'd like to regale you with today – a very personal tale of how I managed to get mixed up in producing some of the most clickbait-y headlines ever seen on the front of games magazines. It's not something I'm particularly proud of, but I nevertheless look back on it with some measure of fondness and amusement.

As some of you might already know, I first started working on computer games magazines in February 1985, when I was still living in Britain. At that point, it was early days for gaming periodicals. The very first one had been launched a little over three years earlier in the form of Computer and Video Games. Over subsequent years, several other gaming magazines followed in its footsteps, and by the time I joined ZZAP! 64 – a new publication dedicated to the Commodore 64 – there was a small, but fervent market for enthusiast gaming periodicals.

Back then, with computer games looking as primitive as they did, magazine covers tended to feature illustrated renditions of games. These often eye-catching images were prominently featured as the primary selling point of that particular issue, and were coupled with fairly minimal headlines that articulated the key games being featured in the magazine that month. Oftentimes, these main headlines were supported by additional lines of text that outlined what you could win in that issue's contests, or perhaps revealed some of the more interesting articles featured in that issue.

To be blunt, it was fairly mundane stuff. While the cover images themselves could sometimes be a little controversial for their depiction of violence, none of the coverlines were particularly sensational or outrageous. They were mostly factual in content, and were written under the assumption that potential readers would be excited enough about those particular games to be persuaded to pick up and hopefully purchase the magazine.

This kind of cover format philosophy continued throughout the mid-80's, but as we began to move into the latter part of the decade, headlines slowly began to escalate as more and more gaming periodicals entered the market, and competition between them began to heat up. I remember in 1988 being asked by the co-owner of ZZAP! 64 magazine to juice up the coverlines to make them more interesting. The featured game was a port of the Sega coin-op, Alien Syndrome, and so I penned the words "Sick and Horrific SF Violence" to articulate what the game was all about. It's hardly a clickbait-quality headline, but it was my first step down that path.

A year later, I'd moved on from ZZAP! 64 and was at the helm of Computer and Video Games magazine, and it was here that the volume of the coverline sell began to be dialed up. The thing that's important to consider is that in the US, most gamers subscribed to their favorite publications. Not so in the UK. Strangely, subscribing to a British magazine was really expensive, and it was actually cheaper to go out and buy it from your local newsagent. As a consequence, it was all about selling off the newsstands, and with the magazine market exploding – Computer and Video Games had 55 different competitors at this point – we really began to escalate the headline rhetoric.

We still continued to use an attractive illustration as the main focus of the cover, but the sheer number of coverlines that accompanied it began to exponentially increase. Not only that, but they started to become exceptionally sensational, and packed with hyperbole. Everything was incredible! Amazing! The best game ever! We used exclamation marks everywhere, and generally did everything we could to make our magazine as irresistible as possible. I mean, look at the following examples of covers from this period, and read the ridiculous proclamations.

This issue of Computer and Video games from August 1989 highlights exactly what I'm talking about. Look at some of these ridiculous headlines. The Lynx beats the Commodore Amiga? Sure it does. Power Drift the Xmas number one? A bold claim from a magazine that actually went on sale in July. Was Stunt Car really the best race game ever? It was definitely very good, but it was a question whose answer was ultimately "no". Two other commonly-used words of the period that helped dial up the hype were "mega" and "exclusive", with three of the former, and a rather ridiculous seven examples of the latter littered around this particular cover.

Although the coverlines on this issue of Computer and Video Games are a little more restrained than usual – they're nevertheless still quite sensational – I'm using this August 1990 magazine to highlight the editorial team's seemingly endless love for exclamation marks. There's an utterly ludicrous fourteen of them dotted around this cover. To be honest, I think this cover pretty much sucks though. I never really liked the illustration, and the use of color is just really bland. Still, the magazine's content was fairly strong during the traditionally quiet summer period, and while Thunderforce III on Genesis mightn't have been the best shoot 'em up ever, it was still really damn good.

A year later – this issue of Computer and Video Games dates from September 1991 – and the words "mega" and "exclusive" are still being used to help create excitement about the magazine's content. I particularly like the cheeky question about whether the Atari 7800 is the next super console. Sure, it's a pertinent question to ask, but the answer was never going to be anything other than a resounding "no". While we essentially rinse and repeat ourselves asking whether the classic Amiga shooter Xenon II is the most amazing shoot 'em up ever, I do like how we hype up Dynamite Dux with the kind of clickbait-y headline that is commonly used today.

Computer and Video Games wasn't the only periodical that leveraged screaming headlines and emotive questions to persuade potential readers to pick it up. I also produced the consoles-focused Mean Machines during the same period, and it featured cover promotions that were of similar bombast. The April 1991 issue of the self-proclaimed "Best Consoles Magazine in the Universe" packs a trio of highly-charged headlines designed to attract the eye, some of which are just plain BS. Sure, Actraiser's graphics and sound are excellent, but the finest ever seen? Gimme a break! And Dick Tracy being the best Megadrive (Genesis) film tie-in of all time? Well, there's probably an element of truth about that, but that's only because most games-of-the-movie were pretty hopeless.

I thought I'd highlight this one final British example to show that it wasn't necessarily ALL about hype-loaded headlines during the very early 90s. This cover of the May 1991 edition of Mean Machines actually holds back, and uses a striking image of Sonic to sell itself. Yeah, we couldn't resist asking whether it was the best game ever, but other than that, this cover is very clean and surprisingly devoid of the usual raft of screamers. Even though this is one of my favorite magazine covers, the publisher of Mean Machines – who really pushed us to promote the magazines as hard as we did – absolutely hated it. I remember arguing with him to keep the cover fairly clean, but he wanted more headlines. Fortunately, I managed to persuade him to go with it as is, and it ended up selling really well. Just goes to show that a great image can do just as good a job as over-the-top text.

I thought it might be interesting to compare and contrast the above UK-produced magazines with their American counterparts to show how different their approaches to coverlines were. To that end I've highlighted a couple of issues of EGM and Gamepro below. Hopefully they'll induce some pangs of nostalgia to readers of a certain age.

This is about as clickbait-y as Electronic Gaming Monthly got. This issue from September 1997 edges a little towards salaciousness with, "Lara Croft gets wet and wild" and includes a teaser that states, "What everybody else didn't tell you about E3." But other than that, the cover is visually crisp and makes good use of its image, even if Lara Croft's legs look like there's something seriously wrong with them. Maybe it's an optical illusion, but it appears that her left thigh is actually coming out of her stomach.

Published seven years prior to the above issue, this November 1990 cover of Electronic Gaming Monthly almost buries its central image of a Super Mario World screenshot under an absolute mountain of coverlines. Plenty of exclamation marks are used to promote its content, but the overall tone of the text is quite restrained, largely relying on the use of game names to help attract readers to the cover. Though good luck picking them out from the paragraphs of dense text.

Good grief. This cover of Gamepro from July 1996 is such a mess. While it does follow the traditional magazine format of having a main central image, it bombards the reader with a veritable smorgasbord of promotions. All are fairly innocuously written, with a main focus on the number of reviews and previews, coupled with the most compelling games from the issue being used to sell the magazine off the cover. The trouble is, the sheer number of different fonts, random screenshots littered everywhere, and three different angles of text result in a cover upon which your eyes just don't know where to rest. It does make for an issue that feels exciting and packed full of stuff, but it's not particularly aesthetically pleasing.

This second example of a visually over-stimulating cover comes from February 1997. Again, it's a bit of a mess, with headlines and screenshots littered liberally around the main cover image depicting Killer Instinct Gold. As was the case with almost all Gamepro covers of the period, the number of "hot games" covered in the issue is highlighted as a main selling point, along with a selection of the most interesting game names. What strikes me as a contrast to the British magazines is that the coverlines are so matter-of-fact. There really isn't anything in the way of hype – it's all quite understated in some respects. Yes, it's very promotional, but it avoids the kind of outrageous questions and statements that dominated the covers of the magazine's transatlantic counterparts.

I hope you've enjoyed this little insight to the hype and craziness that drove certain British magazines during the late 80s and early 90s. If you grew up in the US during the period, I very much doubt you'd have been exposed to the kind of over-the-top gaming rhetoric that graced their covers. American video games magazines were ultimately a lot more conservative in the way that they sold themselves. I looked at old issues of Nintendo Power hoping to see something sensational, but – perhaps rather unsurprisingly – I couldn’t find anything that pushed the promotional envelope. The same goes for other market-leading magazines of the period such as Diehard Game Fan, Game Informer, and CGW. All followed EGM and Gamepro's philosophies of heavy coverline usage combined with largely factual articulations.

I don't think that makes them any better or worse than British magazines – they simply represent a different kind of editorial gaming culture. One that was a little more restrained and measured than comparative British periodicals, which were generally far more enthusiastic and hyperbolic in their tone and style, and used pretty much every trick in the book to sell themselves to their readers. Yes, in many respects they were "clickbait", but they must have been doing something right – Mean Machines and Computer and Video Games were both best-sellers in their respective markets, and I'm sure that wasn't all down to their crazy coverlines.

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