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A Magazine Whose Lineup Is Always in Play

Game Informer Plugs In and Powers On

By Jose Antonio Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 18, 2005; Page C01

One of the lesser-known magazine editors in the country can't help but chuckle whenever he says, "We're almost as big as Oprah."

Let's clarify. Oprah Winfrey's O: The Oprah Magazine -- with Winfrey, as usual, on this month's cover -- has a circulation of more than 2.6 million. In contrast, Game Informer, with a digital Sean Connery as 007 on the April cover, has a circulation of more than 2.04 million.

Game Informer Executive Editor Andy Reiner, second from left, checks out WWE Wrestlemania 21. (Ben Garvin For The Washington Post)

Edited by Andy McNamara, whose face you'll never find on the cover, GI is the largest video game magazine in the United States. Advertising Age, which ranks magazines by circulation, puts GI only five spots behind O. "She's 21," says McNamara. "We're 26." GI is ahead of Rolling Stone and Vogue (Nos. 66 and 67), Entertainment Weekly (No. 35), and Martha Stewart Living (No. 32). Those hipsters at AARP Magazine still take the No. 1 spot, with 22 million copies.

Of course, McNamara wants his magazine to hit No. 1.

"Because if we get to Number 1, it's not only good for Game Informer," the 33-year-old explains, on the phone from his Minneapolis office, "it's good for the rest of the world. Because that would mean everyone is playing video games."

There are dozens of video game magazines published each month. Tips & Tricks magazine gives you exactly what it suggests, with codes that will read like hieroglyphics to the untrained eye. The Official PlayStation 2 Magazine is not to be mistaken for the Unofficial PlayStation 2 Magazine. PC Gamer, which claims to be "the world's best-selling PC games magazine," is not at all related to Computer Gaming World, which boasts of being "the PC gaming authority."

Still, those more specialized magazines can't touch GI, which covers the full spectrum of gaming news. Only Electronic Gaming Monthly (No. 154) and the Official Xbox Magazine (199) are also on Ad Age's Top 200 ranking. There's a reason behind GI's success, and that reason is GameStop.

GI is the in-house magazine of GameStop, a retailer with 1,900 stores in the United States, including some 30 stores in the Washington area, and sales of $1.8 billion last year. Inside the GameStop at Westfield Shoppingtown Wheaton, the current issue of GI is prominently displayed, right on the front counter where it can't be missed. The $14.99 yearly subscription, a sales associate explains, comes with the GameStop MoreCard, which means 10 percent off the price of a used game, like last year's MVP Baseball 2004.

This is exactly why Ahmad Abdallah subscribes to GI -- in fact, it's the only magazine he subscribes to. Abdallah is leaning on the front counter at GameStop at Wheaton, in the middle of buying Twisted Metal, a new $40 game for his new PlayStation Portable. He lives with his parents in Petworth, works full time at a Georgetown shop called Fit to a Tee, and spends all his money on games for his Xbox and PSP.

"There's nothing else I need to read but Game Informer," says the 19-year-old, shrugging.

Dan Hsu, editor of the competing Electronic Gaming Monthly, credits GI's success with readers such as Abdallah. "Anyone who walks into a GameStop is a possible GI reader," says Hsu. "Just because GI has the highest circulation doesn't necessarily mean it's the best."

Game Informer's readership, according to a study conducted by Readex Research, is attractive. The average age is 24, the average household income is $63,100.

"There are no socioeconomic boundaries in video games," says Dan DeMatteo, GameStop's chief operating officer. "People play video games whether they live in the upper-income suburban market or in the lower-income inner-city market."

Clearly GI is no New Yorker or Scientific American. It's got lots of screen shots, and most of the content is previews and reviews of games. But editing is still editing and editing is a lot of work. How a guy who hated English class -- "hated it, just hated it," McNamara says -- wound up editing a 156-page magazine is not entirely clear even to him.

"I never would have guessed in a million years that this is what I'd be doing," says the man who lived the cliche -- he was that 15-year-old kid, locked in the basement, addicted to the joystick. The joke among his friends was that he went to college for three weeks. "That's not true," he says. "But it's pretty close."

When forced to choose between playing drums for a rock band or going to school or playing video games, "I picked video games," he says. "This is not a good example for kids."

GI was born in the fall of 1991, the same year McNamara started working for it. He's been its editor since he was 23. Back in 1994, he led a staff of two people in an office so small, he says, that they sat shoulder to shoulder. Now he leads a staff of eight editors who, as the magazine puts it, are "people who actually get paid to play video games." They sit in what McNamara calls a bullpen with five PSPs, six Xboxes, seven PlayStation 2s, four GameCubes and some Japanese machines not commercially available in this country. In the middle of the room are two old-school arcade machines -- NBA Showdown and Primal Age.

There's one woman on the editing staff, Lisa Mason. Only Matthew Kato, who is a fourth-generation Japanese American, is not white.

"Everyone who works here has an opinion and has no problem sharing them," says Kato, 30, "and Andy is the kind of guy who takes into account all opinions."

It's the kind of office where the boss calls a day off when the movie "Sin City" comes out.

"It's the greatest job in the world," says McNamara, and you can't help but believe him. "But people kinda romanticize what I do, thinking I play video games every hour, every day. I don't. I can't. I run a magazine. It happens to be about video games."

He does play video games at home. Amy, his wife, who's going to the University of Minnesota to become a dental hygienist, is okay with it. He travels at least one week a month, typically to San Francisco and Los Angeles, atypically to London, Tokyo and New York. That's where most game developers are.

"When we do stories, we want to get out there and see the product and meet the guys who are the passion behind the product. No one can tell you it's a good idea better than a guy who came up with it."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company