Will Smith: Hardcore gamer, writer, not the actor

John Lovretta/Special to C&M

Guest commentary pieces are always welcome here relating to the entrepreneur, startup, technology or arts communities.

Susan Gentz regularly talks policy at the Iowa legislature where Tej Dhawan has addressed diversity,  Paul Singh misses Iowa and Susan Watts reminded us to not forget the arts.

I’m excited to introduce our newest voice: Will Smith, talking technology and video games.

Smith, 37, is a general assignment reporter for Iowa’s Oldest Newspaper The Hawk Eye, in Burlington, Iowa. I first met him in July of 2015 when I started as the education and health beat reporter. As a general assignment reporter Smith covers crime and most recently, kayaking to help fellow veterans, car shows and art by chalk.

He’s a machine.

And when I remembered he writes a weekly column focusing on video games and technology I thought it would add another element to our site. Will is as connected to the technology and gaming communities as anybody and gladly agreed to become a commentator.

Also, a big shoutout to the new owners of The Hawk Eye – Gatehouse Media Inc. – for letting us borrow some of what Will does.

His Q&A is below.

13738218_10209243683081801_402315267124416170_o
(Back left) Will Smith sat next to me for over two years inside The Hawk Eye newsroom. He worked, I putted. Julia Shumway/Special to C&M

& Have you ever let somebody down because they see Will Smith on a reservation of some sort but it’s not the actor?

WS I am indeed the real Will Smith — just not the famous one. While I’ve never disappointed anyone by being the lesser known Will Smith, the name coincidence does make a nice ice breaker. Seeing me in person eliminates any confusion.

& Where are you from?

WS McMinnville, Tenn., though I’ve spent most of my life in Middletown, Iowa. I moved there when I was 10.

& How did you get into writing?

WS I’ve had a knack for writing since childhood, and had a tendency to go overboard with creative writing assignments in elementary and high school. But as I got older, I realized my talents were better suited for journalism rather than fiction. Turns out the pay is a lot steadier, too.

& Can you tell us about your professional experience?

WS After graduating from the University of Iowa with a journalism degree, I ended up clerking for the Burlington Hawk Eye newspaper — my current employer. After a couple of years of writing obituaries and precede articles, I was finally promoted to general assignment reporter. I’ve held that position for the past 10 years, working every Saturday except those that fall on my vacations. I’ve been offered other beats and jobs within the company, but general assignment reporting is mostly writing about people. I consider that my forte, and it keeps me away from boring board meetings.

& What’s one memory you have about working as a newspaper reporter?

WS After 10 years and thousands of interviewers, it’s hard to settle on just one. But I’ll never forget the night the ground underneath my feet physically shook — the result of a planned explosion gone wrong by the nearby railroad bridge. Thankfully, no one was injured, but for a few seconds, I feared the world might have ended.

I’ve interviewed people at the worst times in their lives, and it always leaves a mark on my memory banks. To be honest, I prefer to remember the awkward conversations I have with random strangers at town festivals. You never know what people will say.

& When did you start writing a column?

WS I actually started freelancing my gaming column to the Hawk Eye around the same time I became a clerk for them — around 12 years ago. Until then, the Gamer’s Corner column consisted only of Associated Press video game reviews.

& Why did you start?

WS I’ve been a hardcore gamer as long as I’ve been a writer, and always dreamed of writing video game reviews — even if it was only once a week. I also reviewed video games for my college paper “The Daily Iowan” on a weekly basis, and jumped at the chance to do the same in Burlington. Reviewing video games lends a concrete purpose to my favorite pastime, which ultimately leads to more hours behind the controller.

& Do you have a goal with each column? Are you trying to inform? Persuade?

WS My goal is to give my honest opinion, and that often involves alerting readers of my own biases and weaknesses in gaming — often in a humorous manner. I don’t care for online multiplayer games (though I I do respect them), and when it comes to skill, I’m an average player, at best. Narrative, single player games are where I feel most at home.

I figure my lack of skill makes me an appropriate “every man” kind of critic. Since gaming can get pretty technical, I strive to get past the boring numbers and tech specs so I can appeal to non-gamers as well. Reading about video games doesn’t have to be boring, and I’ve always strived to create the kind of column my mom can enjoy. She doesn’t know the first thing about games.

& Who would be your dream interview?

WS Japanese game designer Hideo Kojima — the man behind the “Metal Gear” series. He also wrote and produced my favorite game of all time, “Snatcher,” back in the late 1980s. Kojima’s influences are obvious, but the man’s ability to twist familiar themes into deliciously overwrought melodrama is unmatched. He makes soap operas that just happen to be great video games.

& What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever gotten?

WS As trite as it sounds, “Be yourself” has always worked for me. I spent a lot of my younger years trying to emulate other journalists and writers I respect, but their ambitions turned out to be far different than mine. It took about a decade of professional experience to figure out that being myself and pursuing my own goals is the best way to stay happy.

& If you had to offer your younger self some advice, what would it be?

WS Don’t try to be like somebody else, no matter how much you respect them. Emulate the core aspects of everyone who inspires you, but don’t be afraid to look past them to discover your own values.

& When you aren’t writing, what are you doing?

WS Geeky stuff, mostly. When I’m not hanging out with my wife and our two cats, I spend hours watching anime and pro wrestling. I was obsessed with both as a teenager, and rediscovered those passions a few years ago. My wife’s infatuation with Disney movies has only reinforced my love for anime, and we do almost everything together. That includes going to live wrestling events and streaming subtitled episodes of “Attack on Titan.”

I also enjoy televised fighting such as boxing and mixed martial arts, though I don’t watch nearly as much as I used to. And I never miss a new Stephen King book.

& How has the technology you’ve used evolved over the course of your life?

WS When it comes to video games, it’s surprising how little has changed. Sure, the graphics are prettier and the game mechanics are deeper, but I’m still inserting cartridges or CDs to get my gaming fix. Digital downloads have really revolutionized the gaming industry over the past decade, though, and I spend as much time downloading games as I do playing them.

It wasn’t until I bought a PlayStation VR headset last year that I felt as if I had stepped beyond the future. Despite my sensitivity to motion sickness, virtual reality is still a hell of a ride.

& What’s your favorite all time piece of technology and why?

WS Though it’s a technical dinosaur, there’s no doubt the Sega CD (released in 1992) is my favorite gaming machine of all time. CD-Rom-based games allowed game designers to invest in the kind of production values normally associated with feature films, and some of my favorite games came out for that doomed machine — including “Snatcher.” Though the Sega CD is considered a failure, it changed the future of gaming.

Outside of gaming, my favorite piece of tech has to be the iPod shuffle. I listen to a lot of audiobooks.