More on Games Criticism

I hate to use this blog just to update on earlier posts but the debate about games criticism continues to rage across the blogosphere and there's lots of pretty smart things being said on the subject. And of course, being only human, I wanted to offer my ten cents worth on them. For anyone who missed my original post, you can find it here, complete with links to the Esquire article that kicked off this particular round of debate. Today, I am taking up the issue of games criticism. I will be back on friday with some more thoughts about games as art.

The Joy Stick Nation

Clive Thompson over at Wired is one of the smartest people writing about games and digital culture. He's offered his perspective on the state of game criticism. First, he says, there are no great games critics because their editors aren't allowing them to write about games in the same way that one might write about any other medium:

Today's mainstream editors mostly neither play games nor think about them much. When they do, they regard games either as juvenile fluff, or dangerous mind-control technology that is programming a kill-crazed generation of moral zombies. (Or, in a lovely bit of doublethink, both.) Nine times out of 10 their favorite angle is the bromidic "do games make ya violent?" crap; the reviews they commission are 400-word pellets. Worse, they force their critics to write as if games were some bizarre new fad that their shut-in readers have literally never heard of. This kills criticism.... What if the New Yorker had told Pauline Kael to write her columns under the assumption that the magazine's readers never actually watch movies?

At the same time, Thompson argues -- and I would agree -- that the most engaged, passionate, and knowledgeable writing about games comes not from professional critics writing in print publications but from grassroots writers using the web -- that is people who have to write about a particular game because it has changed their lives. This is a point which gets made again and again throughout this discussion: the best games criticism is going to come from people who grew up with this medium, who know it inside and out, who know hundreds if not thousands of games and can tell you what makes each of them interesting or innovative.

I see those kinds of students in my classrooms. I don't see them writing yet for major publications.

I have written and commented a fair amount about games through the years and I always feel vaguely inadequate in doing so because I know there's a 16 year old out there who can tell me why level 35 of this particular game was more interesting than level 12 and can offer a pretty good explanation why. And sooner or later, writers like me are going to be displaced by kids who were born with a joystick in their hands and who think games are not only art but are the highest form of art on the planet. And I will be a very happy man.

John Scalzi makes a very similar point in his discussion of the issue of games criticism:

If we grant that Kael and Bangs typify mature (or, given Bang's style, at least fully engaged) examples of criticism of their media, the reason there is currently no Kael or Bangs for video games is clear: It's awfully damn early for someone like them to arrive for the video game medium. Possibly the "Kael of video games" is the age of my daughter right now, and like her banging out rhythms on Dance Dance Revolution or getting immersed in some Mario World. Like Kael or Bangs, she'll never have known a time in which games were not fully narrative in their way, so like them she won't have to rely on metaphor or perspective that inherently views video games as a disruption (or the supplanter) of other artistic media...The hermeneutics of video games require a whole lot of button-mashing. How many critics are both able to get through a boss level and tell you what it means as a social construct? In the future, probably a lot. At the moment: Not so many.

Again, like Thompson, I am convinced that such games critics are already out there -- taking games studies classes at universities, posting their thoughts in blogs and webzines, doing their own podcasts, and probably working on a game mod or machinema project on the side.The participatory nature of this medium insures that the first wave of great games critics will be more like Sergei Eisenstein than Pauline Kael. This is one reason why I admire Eric Zimmerman so much -- because he works as a game designer to develop a critical vocabulary of game design and then he puts those insights into books (Rules of Play) so that it can be discussed and debated by others who care about this medium.

Entering the Penny Arcade

A number of the posts I've read on this topic arrived at the same conclusion: that the most powerful force for games criticism today comes not through prose writing but in the form of a comic strip, Penny Arcade. Penny Arcade consistently comments on the trends within the medium while also factoring in gamer culture, games industry practices, and social policy debates. That they do so with such wit and economy is a real tribute to these guys as critics/artists and to the richness of game culture. What Penny Arcade does is game criticism of the richest kind -- this has always been true of the strip itself and is even more true of the discussion which surrounds the strip.

I might also point you towards the work of the so-called New Games Journalists, which is perhaps best exemplified by the now famous/infamous "Bow Nigger" essay. These guys take you inside the game, describe what the player experiences from a subjective point of view, takes us through the steps of their mental process in playing the game which includes both things that emerge organically through their interactions with other players and through programmed features of the game itself. Again, it isn't quite criticism in the sense we are talking about but it is work that illuminates the aesthetics and sociology of games.

Retracing the Evolution of Film Criticism

Bill McClain offers a more detailed comparison between how film criticism evolved and the likely path towards a fuller and richer criticism of games:

After all, the earliest film criticism was internal industrial summaries of film products, what we might now call plot summaries, intended to help distributors and exhibitors chose and market their product ("users' guides" in any sense you chose to take it). Then, looking back to the earliest forms of academic/elite critical discourse to the Soviet Avant-Garde and even going as far forward as Andre Bazin we see an attempt to determine a) is film art, or merely entertainment, or perhaps even a social problem and/or tool? b) if it is art, how does it relate to other arts, what makes it unique and what makes it similar to existing forms of art and artistic discourses? c) if it is art, by what standards do we judge it, how do we describe it, how do we interpret it? d) and yes, of course, it's going to totally change the whole fucking world. Sound familiar? My concern is, as video game criticism develops, that it become, as film criticism did before it, so wrapped up in trying to figure out what the hell video games are and what essential properties (usually dependent on whether the medium in question is the savior or the Satan) they exhibit that it ignores the world that creates and uses video games. It would be nice to believe that we can learn from the mistakes of critics past, or at least that this is a sort of necessary phase in the development of a new critical enterprise that we can, with the aid of hindsight, dispense with all the sooner...but plus ca change...

Like Thompson and Scalzi, then, the argument is that the medium is too new and there hasn't been enough time for good critical practices to emerge. (This is different, by the way, from another claim about the history of the medium: that games themselves have not yet evolved to the point that they are worthy of serious criticism, that they are still learning their basic vocabulary. As far as I am concerned, while the medium still has plenty of room for growth, a game designer like Miyamoto proved games could be art a long long time ago.) First, let me suggest that the history of film criticism is more complicated than what we most often learn in film studies classes. I would note, for example, that someone like Epes Winthrop Sargent over at Moving Picture World might superficially be described as a trade press reporter offering "industrial summaries" of films for exhibitors but he also was carefully monitoring the step by step progress being made in the aesthetics of film, tracing the emergence of the close-up across a number of films, speculating on how this device might be used more effectively, articulating the rationale and standards of classical film style, etc. And the early writers who were bogged down writing about whether film were art -- Gilbert Seldes for one -- often managed to make some compelling observations about specific films and filmmakers. And there were great film critics well before Pauline Kael -- folks like Graham Green and James Agee and..., many of whom were writing by the early 1930s. It is precisely because such critics wrote with such great specificity about individual films that they are often not included in your average Introduction to Film class anymore.

What you tend to read are the generalists who mapped the field and not the specialists who applied those aesthetic standards to emerging work. But that doesn't mean that early film critics were "simply reviewers" and didn't play a very important role in shaping the evolution of film as a medium. Much as we suggested about the gamer critics above, though, the best of these writers grew up with film -- read James Agee's thinly veiled autobiographical account of going to see a Chaplin movie with his father in the opening of A Death in the Family for a wonderful account of what it was like to be a child at the moment cinema was being born. And you can see how those early childhood influences took shape into a landmark essay like "Comedy's Greatest Era." You didn't get those insights from Maxim Gorky, a literary figure who dained to write about cinema from time to time.

Technical Vs. Expressive Language

Scalzi seems to imagine that games will require a more technical vocabulary before they can generate solid criticism of the kind we are seeking:

Video games do have their auteurs -- Will Wright, John Carmack, Sid Meyer and Shigeru Miyamoto are examples -- but what they do and how they do it is frightfully opaque. Does a long discussion about Carmack's work on specular lighting or his latest game engine have the same critical accessibility as a discussion about, say, Orson Welles' directorial choices, or the making of Phil Spector's "Wall of Sound" technique? Personally, I think it doesn't, save for a small, technically adept tribe.

Maybe -- I certainly have found it hard to explain to non-gamers why the technical advices represented by Grand Theft Auto enhances the art of the medium, even if its content can sometimes feel hard to justify to someone who hasn't played the game. Yet, if you go back and read someone like Kael, she certainly had access to a pretty sophisticated vocabulary of film techniques but she tends to avoid technical terms as much as possible. She isn't a formalist trying to analyze the specific techniques deployed: she left that for academics in the emerging field of film studies. She wrote in a more evocative language, trying to record her own passionate engagement, her own subjective experience of a particular film, trying to help us understand why the filmmaker was doing something fresh and original within the medium.

In my original post, I suggested we had neither the technical vocabulary to write in specifics about games techniques nor the expressive language to communicate effectively what it is like to play a game. Of the two, the second is the more important. Academic game studies is coming of age and will eventually give us the technical language needed to really dissect a game. This can be important. I would argue that it was because film studies classes were becoming more normative in American education that we were able to develop an audience for documentary or independent films over the past two decades: more and more people were open to kinds of films which had not played at their local multiplex and had some initial language for talking about what they were getting from watching such movies.

So, academic criticism has its place. We certainly need an educated consumer. But what's needed right now, more than anything, is a public voice of games criticism.

The Functions of Criticism

Such a voice has several key roles (some within the gamer community, some beyond it): they need to educate the general public about why this medium matters and that means making the big picture case for games as a form of artistic and social expression. They need to be able to deliver consumers behind innovative and interesting products so that they do not die in the marketplace and so that they empower the best game designers to push the limits of the medium. We shouldn't be seeing world class talent spent building expansion packs for top selling games. We should see them always moving onto the next frontier.

At the same time, there has be some accountability within the games industry. One reason I think it's important to start looking at games as art is because artists have responsibilities -- to their publics and to the traditions within which they operate. I don't buy the argument that the games industry has to ship product and so it can't think about the art of game design. Top Hollywood filmmakers of the 1930s might produce as many as seven feature films a year but someone like Howard Hawks or John Ford made sure each of those films mattered, each said something, each created a distinctive experience, each contributed to the evolution of the medium. And game designers need to start thinking about their craft in the same way. A good critic will push artists hard to refine their techniques and to think more deeply about what they are expressing through their work. There are so many commercial pressures exerted on game designers -- it would be nice to have some counterpressures to encourage innovation and diversity.

Yes, I agree with Clive Thompson that some such criticism is out there on the web and that blogs now function the way zines did during the Punk Scene of the 1970s and 1980s. Nobody reads what the mainstream press says about these issues. Indeed, establishment critics are all but irrelevant to the core of the games market (though the opposite may also be true. There are plenty of games which got slammed by every games critic on the internet and went on to sell a massive number of units.) This kind of insider criticism doesn't address the larger problem of the general public's perceptions of this medium. I am outraged that all the general reader hears about games is that some people think they are too violent. Imagine that we were thirty plus years into the history of cinema -- way past Great Train Robbery which demonstrated the films could tell stories, way past Birth of a Nation which demonstrated that films could be a form of political expression, way past Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Battleship Potempkin and Sherlock Junior which proved films could be art, and the only thing that anyone had written about film was that people got pies shoved in their faces. Games are facing steady and relentless public attack to no small degree because no one has made the affirmative case for this medium: we simply get bogged down in arguing that Grand Theft Auto isn't as bad as people think it is.

For this to change, we have to push for games to be regularly covered in Entertainment Weekly, for games to be criticized and debated in the New Yorker, because most of the people who are making our lives miserable right now are not reading Computer Games magazine. So, yes, Clive, it's great to see that no one whose hip looks to Esquire to tell them what games to buy -- I get that -- but then, it's not the hip people I'm worried about.

But this only takes care of the first function of the critic. The second and third functions (promoting innovation, challenging artists) is most likely to come from within the games community. And the challenge there is that a participatory culture is inherently fragmented. For this model to work, we need not simply one great games critics but hundreds of pretty good games critics who are willing to take on the responsibilities of the critic and are willing to ask hard and big questions about the medium they are writing about. There are some such people out there now -- but if this model is going to work, you need to build an army.

What I worry about are people like the reader at Scalzi's site who posted this helpful comment:

Guys don't play videogames for artistic content anymore than they rent porn for artistic content. If I want a story, I have an apartment crammed with books.

I get what he's saying. But keep in mind that there are people out there who want to regulate games precisely because they think they are like pornography -- that is, utterly without redeeming value.

Thanks to CMS graduate student Alec Austin and CMS alum Zhan Li for calling some of these pieces to my attention.