Archive for July, 2013

Responses to my last Games Industry International column

July 26, 2013

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 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…