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MN Geek Mecca: Andy McNamara and Game Informer Magazine

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Ask any mass-media junkie to name some of the titans of the publishing biz and you're bound to hear people like Anna Wintour, Larry Flynt, and Oprah Winfrey (bet you never thought you'd see those three names in the same sentence). Yet tucked away in a nondescript building in the Warehouse District of downtown Minneapolis, in an office littered with action figures and other geeky tchotchkes, framed pop-culture art, and a video game set-up that would make even a casual button masher drool with envy, sits Game Informer editor-in-chief Andy McNamara, our own local titan of the print and digital magazine industry.

Sure, many reading this may get a chuckle out of the comparisons between the editor of a magazine that covers video games to those who call the shots at some of the biggest rags on the newsstand, but the numbers don't lie. In first six months of this year, Game Informer moved about six-million issues, and boasts a subscriber base of three million, making it not only the most popular video-game magazine, but one of the most popular magazines, period. It has outpaced such established periodicals as People, Time, Cosmopolitan, and Sports Illustrated.

Needless to say, McNamara is a busy guy.

[jump] "When I tell people what I do, there's always this romanticized version. 'Oh, you get to play games all day?' That is totally not what I do," he laughs. "It's a big part of it, and I wish that's what I did all day, but that's not what I do."

Based on appearances alone, you'd never guess an unassuming dude like McNamara would be at the heart of such an operation. Not surprisingly, he looks the part of a typical gamer: a just-rolled-outta-bed hairstyle, glasses, and, if this writer had to guess, one helluva T-shirt collection. One may expect to be greeted by a "Comic Book Guy" with an air of superiority, or a mumbling dude with a clammy-palmed handshake. Nope. He's a Minnesota guy through-and-through, welcoming you with a beaming smile as though you've known him for years (given how he mixes it up with over 8,000 Twitter followers on a daily basis, most folks who are familiar with @GI_AndyMc probably feel like they do).

That said, when it's time to get down to the business of video games, it quickly becomes clear why McNamara's the genuine article, and has been the best fit in as editor of the magazine for the past 17 years. Like most of us, he's been playing video games his entire life, only he can boast that he was there for the industry's genesis.

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"My father was an electrical engineer, and had access to mainframes in the '70s. So when I was just a wee lad I played a number of games on a terminal," recalls McNamara. "It wasn't actually a computer, just a 2400-baud modem, and I could play games that way. We also got a Mac in the early days, and an Atari 2600. I also had friends who either had ColecoVision or IntelliVision, so I pretty much grew up on all those early video-game systems."

It wasn't just playing video games that McNamara can say he was a part of from its humble beginnings, but writing about them as well. He proudly--and accurately--proclaims himself to be "one of the original game journalists" on his staff bio at GameInformer.com.

"In the old days, every video-game event that I went to had the same 12 dudes, because there were only 12 of us--EGM, GamePro, Game Players, and so forth--and that small group was it," says McNamara. "Now you go to events like E3, and it's global. People from all over the world show up, and there are hundreds of journalists at these press events. It's gotten pretty crazy."

McNamara grew up in a small town just outside of Austin, Texas called San Marcos, and moved to Minnetonka just before his freshman year of high school. In 1990, he landed a job as a sales associate at former video-game chain FuncoLand (which is now a GameStop) in Eden Prairie. Soon thereafter, he saw an opportunity to transform his passion for video games into a legitimate career.

"I was selling games and it was great because I learned a lot about gamers and what different kinds of gamers there were," recalls McNamara. "Then one day in '91, the owners walked in, said they were thinking about starting a video-game magazine, and asked if I wanted to review games. So I was like, 'Hells yeah!' I signed on to write reviews for free, basically.

"It started out bi-monthly, and I was really into it. I wanted it to be successful because to me this was a gig I could totally do. My parents at that point had just moved back to Texas, so I was kinda left alone in Minnesota and stayed specifically for the magazine."

McNamara recalls the early days of the publication, an in-store giveaway that operated on a "kinda bi-monthly, quarterly--basically when it got out, it got out" production schedule, with bemused nostalgia. He still remembers the first two games he ever reviewed as a professional: NHL Hockey and Sonic the Hedgehog for the Sega Genesis.

"I got paid in beans," he says with a laugh. "I was still a sales associate at FuncoLand and writing stuff for the magazine on the side, but I just really wanted to see what we could do. So in the years that followed, I threw together some general business plans of, 'Hey we spend this much money on this. If we brought some people on, we could go from bi-monthly to monthly.' That was something I really wanted to have happen, and I think I helped a lot to get that going because by '94 I was editor-in-chief."

After a few years of growing pains and a series of buyouts, Game Informer found themselves under corporate ownership (Barnes & Noble, who purchased GameStop Corp. which owned the magazine). Not long after, the magazine saw a huge influx of capital and attention, and was even offered the chance to relocate its offices to San Francisco or any of the video gaming hotspots around the country. McNamara was never interested.

"Oh, we get mocked to this day about our choice of location," he says. "I mean, there's some things we miss out on, but there are advantages to it, too. Like, no one can show up at our doorstep to complain about a bad review that we gave. We know when they're coming because they have to fly here!" He laughs. "Also, there's always events going on in San Francisco, and that's great, but we'd rather have the time to spend playing as many games that we can and concentrate on our product as opposed to going to a different bar every night to keep up with the industry.

"We just think Minneapolis has the right vibe. It's beautiful here, and with our winters, it's a great place to sit and play video games for six months out of the year," he says.

Above all else, McNamara chooses to keep offices in the Twin Cities area because he'd love to see people not only follow his lead as an established video-game journalist, but also in the hopes of making it a career that's not met with scoffs or confused looks from the non-geek set.

"I want people to be able to be a video-game reviewer as a career," he explains. "I know it sounds really silly, but at the time, when it was a 'new' job, I really wanted someone to be able to do this and be able to have a home, raise a family--do whatever they wanted to do--and make this career be just as important as any other job a person would have."

"There are just a lot of things about Minneapolis that are very attractive to making that career a reality, whereas in a city like San Francisco it's expensive, and I think you're never going to be able to live that kind of classic 'American Dream' as a game reviewer. I do think that's possible here," he says.

Despite all of his successes and his high ranking within the video-game community, McNamara remains fully in touch with his roots, all while keeping his eyes firmly on the horizon of what's next. 

"When you ask someone what they want to be when they grow up, I think my list was either play games for a living or be a rock star, in no particular order," he says with a grin. "I got lucky and got to be one of them. I get to live that dream, and while it's not a romanticized version of playing games all the time, it is a great industry to be a part of, and a lot of fun."

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