Responses to my last Games Industry International column

26 Jul

Hey there! It’s been years since I’ve posted anything here – let’s not go into why that is, okay? – and I have no idea how regularly I’ll be posting anything in the future. But I had something to say and this seemed like the place to say it.

See, over the last few months, the fine folks over at gamesindustry.biz have given me some of their website to sound off about pretty much anything game-related that happens to get my shorts in a knot. And, as if that weren’t enough, they’ve even given me some space to respond to comments about all that ranting and raving.

But recently I gave them two columns in a row covering different aspects of games criticism (see “sorry state of”) and rightly suggested that, rather than respond to comments – making it FOUR times I’d written about the topic – ahem… It might be time to move on to other things. When you put it that way, it’s hard to disagree!

So I’m  working on a new column… having nothing to do with games criticism (promise!). But I’m like a dog with a bone and couldn’t leave readers of my last column with the last word. So I asked the GI folks if I could post my responses somewhere, they said yes, and here they are – responses to responses. Enjoy. Feel free to rerespond. If I get enough reresponses, I may chime in again. Who knows? We’ll see how it goes.

Before I get to the meat of things, I want to remind people of something I said when I started writing for GI in the first place – I said I wasn’t interested in pontificating or telling anyone The Truth about tough issues. That’s still true. The column was – and is – supposed to be about issues I don’t feel I fully understand and about questions for which I have ideas but not answers. (Not that this means I won’t pontificate at all – I like pontificating!)

Anyway, looking at the responses to my first three columns, I suspect some readers are viewing these things as lectures rather than the dialogue I intend them to be. That’s clearly my problem, as the guy writing these things, not something I can lay on readers, but, still, it’s something worth restating, I think.

(You know, now that I think about it, dialogue between writer and audience isn’t far removed from the virtual dialogue between developer and player in all the games I’ve worked on. That’s actually kind of cool…)

Okay, that out of the way, on to the column comments and my responses:

Many of you said that our medium has no need of a Roger Ebert or anyone of his ilk.
First, let me explain one thing – I do not believe games criticism literally needs a “Roger Ebert.” Where did anyone get that idea? I wasn’t trying to say we need “celebrity critics” or “big names,” as one magazine editor opined in a response to my thoughts. I do think we need a cadre of people whose work bridges the gap between reviews and academic writing. That’s all. Plain and simple – at least I thought so.

So why mention Ebert at all (and why will I almost certainly continue to do so)?

That’s simple, too. It’s because I thought I needed at least one example of a media critic whose work went beyond simple “It’s great/It sucks” thinking, someone whose name and work might be recognizable and worth caring about, whether you agreed with his pronouncements or not. I figure most people aren’t familiar with the current New York Times critics or the New Yorker folks or pretty much anyone who writes for some of the more serious film magazines out there. And I suspect most of you (not all, but most) don’t know who Pauline Kael was, or Judith Crist or Andrew Sarris, let alone Manny Farber or, going back even further, Hugo Munsterberg, Vachel Lindsay and Harry Alan Potamkin. Ebert is an example or the sort of thing we need, not specifically and literally what we need.

Even though I didn’t always agree with Ebert when I was living in Chicago, his base of operations… Okay, cards on the table, I rarely agreed with him. But even when I thought he was nuts, I always respected the fact that he had a point of view, against which I could measure my own ideas about film and, in that way, predict with some accuracy which films I might like. Ditto for Pauline Kael and Judith Christ, two writers whose work didn’t make me a fan, but whose work clearly demanded respect.

FWIW, I was always more of a Sarris/Farber fan with strong positive feelings about Thompsen and a guy named Robert Warshow. If you don’t know who these people are, check them out – I bet their work is somewhere online. (And, yes, I’m aware of the irony of sending you to the Internet when I’m arguing for more print exposure…)

Anyway, I wasn’t trying to say we need Roger Ebert, or that you should like the same people I like. I was just trying to say you should seek out critics whose work you do like, and from whom you can learn about the games medium. Oh… wait… Those people don’t exist. Not in sufficient numbers and not in the right places with the right placement.

(Oh, yeah. One more thing: I’m stunned no one pointed out the irony of citing Roger Ebert as an example of what games criticism needs when he, along with his TV partner, Gene Siskel, pioneered the thumbs up/thumbs down thinking I hate so much. You can thank me later for giving you another way to discount my entire argument!)

A lot of you took me to task for suggesting that games criticism needed to be on store shelves because everyone who might be interested is living online.
I certainly can’t argue that things are trending this way – just look at the trouble print publications and television are having these days.

But I think it’s premature to say “The net has won and anyone who says different is an old fogey. “

I’ll cop to being a bit of an old fogey, but old fogey-dom not withstanding, there are a lot of fogey-ish people like me. Sure, maybe “everyone” plays social games or mobile games. But very (very!) few of them are reading gaming websites. To reach them you have to go where they are, at least for now. And where they are is on the old media end of the spectrum. We can either wait until they all die or we can go after them now.

I prefer not to wait. Your mileage may vary.

Frankly, I don’t think this has to be an either/or proposition – you young whippersnappers can elevate the level of criticism online and other less snappy whippers can elevate the level in traditional media. Done. Everyone wins.

If you want to argue that gamers are the only ones who matter, sure. They… we… are online. But in saying that, acknowledge that you just don’t care about people out there who don’t care about games or who have what we might consider an inaccurate or limited view of our medium.

Personally, I think gamers could benefit from an education in critical thinking about the medium. But even if you disagree with me, telling non-gamers to take a hike – saying they simply don’t matter – is shortsighted, at best. We need and want them on our side. And that means finding them where they live, not expecting them to come visit us where we are.

Lots of you – even some who agreed with me, for the most part, suggested that critics of the sort I talked about were lucky to have forums like the Chicago Sun-Times or The New Yorker. Games lack such forums so it’s unfair of me to expect such criticism.
This is true enough, as far as it goes. But it doesn’t go nearly far enough. Think about it. It wasn’t ALWAYS the case that film critics (or television critics or even book critics) had easy access to an audience eager to lap up every bon mot dripping from their ruby-red lips.

Critics of new media have always had to fight for column inches, airtime or shelf space. It takes time to develop an audience for serious criticism. It takes people willing to fight for those column inches, for that airtime and for that shelf space. It takes people who think the effort is worthwhile when the cultural establishment and even media consumers think they’re nuts. Go back fifty years and you’d hear the same kind of nonsense about movies that you hear today about games: It’s just movies, right? Who cares about the movies as art form or cultural force? Well, now, nearly everyone does. Go back fifty years and almost no one did.

Only by ignoring or being ignorant of history can we say the movie guys had it easy, had ready outlets for their work. They didn’t. But they didn’t give up. Games, it seems to me, are at their own fifty-year tipping point. Time to start taking ourselves seriously, I think. Time to start fighting for a soapbox from which we can be heard.

A lot of you took my thoughts as a misguided plea for mainstream attention, or jealousy of other media, or medium-insecurity. Call it the “Mommy, Daddy, please love me” problem – something better addressed in therapy than in a GI column.
If I felt in any way that we need mainstream attention out of insecurity or something, I’d agree completely. However, I harbor no doubts about gaming’s position among the more traditional art forms. No insecurity here…well, not about that, at any rate!

What I was trying to say is that, to mature and grow as a medium, we need to stop talking only to each other. We need to draw people into our sphere from outside. We need people, gamers and non-gamers (well, mostly gamers!) who can help us understand how what we do instinctively can be done more consciously and, yes, better than we can do it ourselves.

We need to reach outside our sphere to continue to grow our audience by explaining to the unwashed masses how wondrous games can be. Heck, if nothing else this might get politicians, pundits and preachers (to say nothing of the courts) off our back!

One familiar refrain from readers of my last column was “How can you say all games criticism sucks? Don’t you know about website X, magazine Y or book Z?”
Misunderstandings like this are always the fault of the writer not the reader. I’ll own that. But, to clarify, I was not saying that all games criticism sucked. Not at all. I even tried to name some folks I thought were doing a pretty good job. What I wanted – and still want – is more, more, more. I’m greedy! And I think there’s room to stir a new kind of criticism into the mix.

By way of example, let me go back to my days as a young and ever so serious movie buff. I had strong opinions about movies… personal preferences about the films I loved and hated… But reading the work of people like William K. Everson and Kevin Brownlow fired an appreciation for silent films… Reading John Grierson and Jack Ellis made me look at documentaries in new ways. Reading Ed Lowry and, yes, Roger Ebert, forced me to look at exploitation films and B-movies as if a veil had been lifted from my eyes.

(Note that I rattled off a whole new list of names there – the world of film criticism is full of serious mainstream critics. Give me time and I can name a bunch more. Try that with games and you’ll run out of critics in a real hurry…)

As a consumer, increased knowledge led me insist on different kinds of work. As a creator, I was inspired, maybe even forced, to create different sorts of things than I would have otherwise. These writers taught me things I might never have learned on my own – things that changed the way I thought about movies. They’ve even affected the way I think about my work as a game developer.

Finally, some of you – not many, but enough to bring it up here – think things are just fine as they are.
Obviously, I disagree with this or I wouldn’t have taken up so much of your time and GI’s web space!

Look, by all means, continue to write reviews, all you reviewers out there (with upgraded standards, please!).

By all means continue to explore the semiology of games, all you academics reading this.

But most of all, I urge those of you who want to grow as individuals, as consumers of the popular arts (not just games) to start seeking and demanding more. There are critical models we can borrow from other media until we create some new models of our own. Let’s take some lessons and change ourselves, our medium and, yes, even the wider world outside our little corner of the world in which we live.

Hyperbole? Maybe. But I don’t think so…

Oh, and to the guy who said something along the lines of “Before you write about something learn something about it,” I’ll just say this – talk to me in 30 years, kid. No. Seriously. I really hope I’m around in 30 years to be talked to. Look me up and tell me if you still feel the same way you do now…

11 Responses to “Responses to my last Games Industry International column”

  1. wspector July 26, 2013 at 9:15 pm #

    Interestingly, shortly after posting the comments above, I stumbled on an article in the Guardian that talks about the value of criticism. You can find it here:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2013/jul/19/nicholas-lezard-case-for-professional-critics

    I particularly liked this: “Critics these days feel they’re the canaries in the cultural coal-mine (although I think the first canaries started littering the floors of their cages when it became common practice to award stars out of five; the words beneath this little row became reduced to little more than the justification for the number given. Publications that resist this trend should be given some kind of award, really).”

    Having said that, the entire article is worth reading if you’re into this whole critique of criticism thing.

  2. Dewi Morgan July 27, 2013 at 5:00 am #

    I think part of the reason that games don’t get as much good reviewing as movies, is time.

    How long would it take me to know a two hour movie? I mean, REALLY know it, inside out. I’d have to watch it, what, five or six times. First, watch it, write down my impressions after watching it. Then, watch it again, taking notes. Then read the liner notes, watch the making of, and then watch it again, with the director’s commentary turned on, and make more notes. Then download the script, and read it through. Then watch it again, once more, straight through, with my new understanding of the movie. Then I could truly say I understood the movie, and could write a damn good review.

    That would take hours. Maybe even TWO WHOLE DAYS!

    But, okay, I could just watch it the once, and write a review once I’d finished it. Two hours, plus review-writing time.

    How long would it take to play Skyrim just the once? I don’t know. I’ve put over seven hundred hours into it so far, and not come close to “finishing” it. That’s a heck of a lot more than two days, but without experiencing it in full, how can I give a decent review? Without reading the whole of the wiki on it, I’m bound to have missed some of the deeper points; points that, in a movie, I could trivially have read up on, because there’s so much less in a movie.

    Only the smallest of indie games ever gets finished by a reviewer. Almost no reviewers can tell you whether the endgame was worth it.

    Partly because as a reviewer with a quota, you need to review at least two other games this week; and partly because, as a magazine which needs to sell product, your boss wants your review tomorrow, not in three months’ time.

    So what you get in the games industry is “unboxing” reviews: descriptions of the character creation process, and a couple of hours wandering through the game.

    This is the equivalent to a foodie reviewer giving his review of a restaurant after one meal. Nice ambience; music was a little quiet; stuff moved a bit too slowly for my tastes, but then, they had just opened yesterday; my selections from the initial menu made me wish I’d gone for something a little less gamey; and so forth.

    That’s not a review. That’s a BLOG.

  3. Andy Hodgetts (@CaptainBinky) July 27, 2013 at 9:16 am #

    I’d disagree with Dewi that it’s not possible to do a decent review of the game without having put hundreds of hours into it. The comparison to film reviews is not entirely fair – it’s not essential, in my opinion, to know absolutely everything about the game in order to write a useful review.

    Films and games are two distinct things. In a film, the whole thing needs to be fulfilling – if the third act is unsatisfying, the experience is broken. If the first two acts are slow but the third act is incredible, then the whole thing can be worth watching. Games are not like this – if the first 40 hours are an unsatisfying slog, then it doesn’t really matter how incredible the last few hours are, the game has failed.

    A narrative-driven games typically do not have anything like the length of your seven hundred hour Skyrim example. The main quest of Skyrim can be easily played through in a matter of hours, it doesn’t really matter whether or not the reviewer has seen *everything* – if it’s necessary to see everything in order for the whole experience to be worth £50, then again, that would be a bit of a failure of design.

  4. Dewi Morgan July 27, 2013 at 7:53 pm #

    Not impossible – just many orders of magnitude harder. Hence why there are many orders of magnitude fewer good game reviews.

  5. briankoontz July 31, 2013 at 6:18 am #

    Games aren’t worthy of serious criticism, since developers aren’t taking the medium seriously. Games are toys, games are drugs, games are martial arts for hand-eye coordination, games are only rarely art. Developers don’t put their hearts into their games, so why should critics put their hearts into criticism? 80% of mainstream games feature killing as the primary form of gameplay – developers themselves are immature. Once they grow up, critics will follow suit.

    When games ARE art, they are treated as such. Dark Souls creates an amazing, terrifying, and awe-inspiring world, perhaps the most beautiful world ever constructed in a video game and builds enjoyable gameplay mechanics for the player to progress through the game. Deus Ex is a great dystopian vision of the future that unfortunately is all too prescient. Thomas Was Alone is an excellent study of psychology and sociology.

    Most games are power fantasies. Get a big fucking gun and blow away thousands of enemy soldiers, or monsters. Command and control a city, or a household, or save the world. Run around like a Marauding Berserker without ever having to stop for breath, or take a shit, or eat or drink. Even the gameplay of Deus Ex is a simple James Bond meets the Terminator power fantasy.

    Do comic books have a Roger Ebert? Compared to games comic books are high art.

    If you build it, they will come. Start making artistic games and you’ll have your Roger Ebert.

  6. Sunny Kalsi (@thesunnyk) August 5, 2013 at 1:06 pm #

    Two of the best games reviewers I’ve seen so far are: DasBoschitt https://www.youtube.com/user/DasBoSchitt who can’t afford to review games because despite having an internet following, can’t find a way to make ends meet, and Junglist http://www.gamearena.com.au/videos/browse.php/5-inch-floppy/ who was kicked off an earlier show for wanting to do more in-depth reviews.

    I think Dewi is absolutely right. People don’t value that sort of reviewer, and doing those reviews is really hard. The gaming community needs to center themselves on excellent reviewers like this and actually value their work over that of other reviewers.

    We’re getting closer, though. I remember the first issue of the Escapist magazine which almost had a manifesto of talking about gaming culture instead of reviewing specific games, and this has lifted the level of discourse. Today, Kill Screen is also an excellent place to find better than average reviews that talk about this stuff in context.

  7. briankoontz August 5, 2013 at 6:31 pm #

    Matthew Matosis’s https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VdNhwb7iuI4&feature=c4-overview-vl&list=PLE205CA59C798C525 Bioshock: Infinite critique is excellent.

    Extra Credits http://www.youtube.com/user/ExtraCreditz does high-level analysis of gaming.

    The fact that Kickstarter has improved gaming so much proves that the problem with the industry wasn’t lack of high level reviewers – it was the lack of high-level developers and more importantly, the destructive influence of publishers on game development.

    Gaming improved greatly when indie and casual games became popular.. Distribution explosion by means of Steam and Good Old Games and the concurrent drop in price of games has done wonders. Youtube Let’s Plays/Walkthroughs and live streaming of games is a big modern factor in popularizing games.

    But even in 2013 the state of gaming is sad relative to the potential of the medium.

  8. ET3D (@ET3D) August 13, 2013 at 9:42 am #

    briankoontz, review style is unrelated to what you see as art. Can you show me reviews of Deus Ex, Thomas Was Alone or other games you consider art where the reviewer contrasts the plot with other games or discusses previous works of the script writer?

    I’m not a big comic book reader, but I’ve been trying to get into some DC and Marvel lately, and the reviews I’ve read often discuss similar works, and Comixology has sales of a writer’s comics. Comic readers know who the writer is and who does the art.

    Many games centre around story, and yet few people could tell you who wrote these stories. Reviews just tell readers about the game, they don’t talk about what’s behind. If the game is part of a series, it might get compared to previous games, but mainly to say how various gameplay elements have changes.

    I think that if reviewers started to discuss games in a different way, then games could change, gamers’ understanding of them could change, and the opinion of the public at large could change.

  9. briankoontz August 19, 2013 at 7:42 pm #

    Look, there are a lot of issues here in play which stand against what Mr. Spector wants. One is that many gamers don’t want games as art, they want them as toys, drugs, or martial art. So how about asking the question of how many gamers want games as art at all, and then the follow up question of how many of those gamers want games primarily as art instead of primarily as one of the other functions. Gamers ultimately decide what games will be produced.

    Another key issue – as we are all becoming painfully aware, the world is not in good shape. In fact, it’s dying. One outcome of this is that culture becomes un-important, which means art becomes un-important. It’s no accident that the popularization of knowledge of the upcoming apocalypse coincided with the rise of un-artistic mediums such as comic books and video games, part of the “fall of high culture” which really means knowledge of the end of the world.

    Personally, I believe that as long as humans are alive and have time to spend beyond fulfilling basic needs that art should be produced, but that’s merely my personal belief and many other people, including many post-cultural gamers don’t share it.

    I agree with you about the *possibility* of reviewers focusing on games as art in their reviews – I’m merely telling you why I don’t think that’s going to happen in a serious way.

    One thing that could happen is reviewers starting a review with the basic intent of the game. What’s the game’s basic function? If the basic function is art then the reviewer could analyze the game in that context which would be a scenario that Warren favors.

    What Warren really wants is a deep games journalism, not game reviewing. How many game reviewers are capable of deep artistic analysis of games? Some have mentioned Tom Chick and I agree, he could do so.

    But because games are such a personal medium it really takes a fan of the game to do great analysis, and no game journalist or reviewer is a fan of all games. This is why fan sites for a game have always been the best place to go for great analysis of the game, not to “Roger Eberts”.

    The quality of Roger Ebert’s reviews varies, partially depending on how deeply he understands the movie he watches, and it seems to me that games require an even greater level of understanding.

    One more issue of yours to address – it’s difficult to know who is responsible for what in a game – fans of Deus Ex for example have to spend time interviewing Deus Ex developers to gain specific knowledge of what individuals did what within the game, and even then as developers know game development is a very collaborative and integrative process. Films have very defined artistic roles – director, cinematographer, writer, actor while games usually lack much of any clarity, often even within the development team itself.

    And isn’t this a good thing? What’s wrong with a collaborative medium where a team produces a work of art, where it’s difficult to extract individual contribution? Video games are the first collaborative artistic medium in human history and now we have to cater to Mr. Spector’s personal whims which puts this collaboration in jeopardy?

    Games are not films and in the final analysis might not even be much in the way of art. Why don’t we let games dance? Why don’t we let games find their own way? Films are a modern, cultural artform while games are a post-modern, post-cultural artform. Isn’t this ok?

    Video games are unlike anything else. They have a beauty unlike anything else and a place in human history more intimate to we humans living today than any other artform. Often I worry that our actions as doting parents may well do more harm than good.

  10. briankoontz August 20, 2013 at 6:05 pm #

    One more thing here – 80% of mainstream games feature killing as the primary mode of gameplay, and the reason gamers like to kill in games is spiritual cleansing – deriving from puritanical culture. This is why “monsters”, which can be defined as creatures which should be exterminated in order to preserve the purity of the master race, err the “civilized people”, play such a prominent role in gaming.

    Perhaps this was more the influence of Harvey Smith, but one of the really exciting things about Deus Ex was that there were no monsters, and although some in the game were villainized noone was demonized. This changed the psychological underpinning of the game for the gamer, from cleansing to doing what’s right and building a better world.

    I agree with you that not enough on this was said when the game came out – a few years later I talked a fair amount about the artistic aspects of Deus Ex and didn’t get any support from the discussion board called Quarter to Three at the time – I was made fun of for “taking the game too seriously”.

    It’s this cleansing that gaming needs to get away from, since it’s psychologically identical to, let’s say, the ethnic/religious cleansing of the Palestinians by the Israeli state or of course the classic example of the cleansing of the disabled/gypsies/Jews by the Nazi state. In other words, cleansing, which 80% of mainstream games primarily feature, is fascist.

    Also, as far as I know I’m the only person talking about video games as cleansing, and have been doing so for years. Most people write video game killing off as “fun” without any deeper analysis of why killing is so much fun, with any deeper analysis being written off as “too serious”.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. A response to Warren Spector’s call for a “Roger Ebert of Gaming”. | ruinedchapel - July 30, 2013

    […] apparently couldn’t think of one either, or he would have used that person’s name.  He pretty much said on his blog that Ebert was the most famous movie critic he could think of for an […]

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