For Our Consideration

Chasing The Dragon

Chasing The Dragon

There will never be a “Roger Ebert of video games.” That’s a good thing.

By John Teti • July 15, 2013

If you play enough video games, you end up going on some pretty silly quests. I’ve scaled buildings to find useless eagle feathers in Assassin’s Creed II, and I’ve endeavored to avoid covering myself with feces in Don’t Shit Your Pants. Still, there are limits to the inanity I’ll tolerate, and the eternal quest to earn legitimacy for games and games criticism is one quest that lies beyond the pale. Too pointless.

The Great Journey Toward Cultural Acceptance became a topic of discussion in industry circles again last week when Warren Spector, a veteran game creator, wrote an op-ed for GamesIndustry International with the headline, “Where’s Gaming’s Roger Ebert?” In the piece, Spector pleaded for more game critics in the mold of Ebert—critics who, like the lions of film commentary, write in mainstream print outlets for an audience broader than just game enthusiasts. Spector says this will hasten the process of—cue the angels on high—“achieving cultural acceptance.”

I have bad news for Spector: Gaming’s Roger Ebert is never going to show up. I have good news, too: It doesn’t matter.

Signs Of The Times
Warren Spector

Warren Spector, the lead creative mind behind the iconic cyberpunk game Deus Ex, Epic Mickey, and others

Essays in the vein of “Where’s Gaming’s Roger Ebert?” rarely bother to make much of a case for the importance of “cultural acceptance.” Instead, the concept is dangled out there like a carrot, and it’s assumed as a given that the columnist’s audience of slavering horses will desire it.

Take a recent column, “Playing Outside,” by the games commentator Leigh Alexander. In the column, Alexander makes a solid argument for a more diverse range of voices and artistic intentions in game-making. I agree strongly with the overall thrust of her piece, but she does frame it by dangling that carrot: “If video games want cultural legitimacy, designers will have to concede it’s not all about fun,” reads the headline. (I picture a beleaguered dad sweating in the driver’s seat of his minivan: “You kids better quiet down back there or there won’t be cultural legitimacy for anyone!”) Alexander doesn’t explicitly define her idea of legitimacy, but we can get an idea of it from the evidence she presents:

Interactive entertainment hasn’t just been succeeding financially; it has begun attracting a new cultural legitimacy as well. The soundtrack to Journey, one of 2012’s most celebrated games, got a Grammy nomination, and the game itself crushed the annual awards cycle, an impressive feat for an indie game based on Joseph Campbell’s monomyth and the sentimental concept of unvoiced collaboration with strangers. Just last week, the Tribeca Film Festival hosted a panel on Beyond: Two Souls, a game heavy with the vaunted promise of mature storytelling—and featuring the voice- and facial-mapped performance of actress Ellen Page.

So these are the coins of Alexander’s legitimacy realm (and they’re familiar ones): acknowledgement by a nationally televised music awards show, success at industry awards shows, presence at a New York film festival, and partnership with a famous film actress. In other words, the path to legitimacy runs through established, high-status institutions in the entertainment industry.

That Tribeca panel, by the way, consisted of an extended 35-minute demo of Beyond: Two Souls projected on the theater’s screen, followed by the premiere of a new trailer and a Q&A session. At no point did anyone in the audience play the game, either before or during the event. That’s too one-sided and empty to be considered a fruitful artistic discussion. The video game was such an awkward fit for a traditional film-festival panel that it turned into a mere promotional event. It was an erudite promotional event, but still. If this is the price we pay for legitimacy—shoehorning discussion of new art forms into old institutions that don’t really fit—is it worth it? Or, before we even confront that question, can we at least acknowledge that there’s a trade-off here, and that “legitimacy” is not an unalloyed good?

Spector doesn’t want to have that conversation. He instead crafts a narrative in which an idealized “acceptance” leads to a beautiful community where “normal people” get to talk about games, and not just “gamers.” (I understand where Spector is coming from with this false gamers/normals binary—game enthusiast communities can be off-puttingly insular to novices—but it’s telling that a prominent game creator would use trollish language that characterizes his own ardent fans as abnormal.) Spector’s vision seems like a populist one at first, until he gets into the details:

[Game critics who draw a broad cultural context for their criticism] need a home. Not only on the internet (though we need them there, too), not just for sale at GDC, but on newsstands and bookstore shelves—our own Film Comment, Sight [&] Sound, Cahiers Du Cinema. Magazines you could buy on the newsstand. Why? Because currently, criticism of this [nature]—what little we have of it—reaches only the already converted. To reach the parents, the teachers, the politicians, we need to be where they shop. Even if you never pick up a film magazine, the fact that there are obviously serious magazines devoted to the topic makes a difference in the minds of the uninitiated.

The notion of the newsstand as a public-opinion tastemaker was outdated 10 years ago. The image of Jane Q. Schoolteacher perusing Cahiers Du Cinema at her local newsstand would be bizarre in any era. Of course, in Spector’s imagination, the hoi polloi don’t actually read these upstanding periodicals; they merely espy the magazines at the local five-and-dime, and the spirit of quality criticism somehow rubs off on them. Like a perfume-sample fold-in, I guess.

Such condescension would be hard to figure if Spector were primarily concerned with people, but he’s not. His foremost concern is institutions, specifically the grand edifices of the print industry. The New York Times alone gets name-checked more than half a dozen times in Spector’s column, while the internet—the entire internet—gets only four mentions. And every time, it’s an afterthought:

[T]hey need a home. Not only on the internet (though we need them there, too) […]

Check out the June 23rd issue of the NY Times Arts & Leisure section. There you’ll find articles of the sort that appear in the Times (and other print and online publications) day after day […]

Let’s inundate the bookshelves, magazine sections and the web with work that isn’t above (or below) the heads of readers.

And there are some websites beginning to publish interesting work (but I’m still digging into those so I won’t name names).

Still digging! That one is my favorite. Warren Spector has seen the internet, but his conclusions thus far are inconclusive.

Spector comes off as out of touch, which is amusing but hardly a sin. The pernicious element of Spector’s argument—and of many arguments for the holy grail of “legitimacy” and “acceptance”—is his insistence that the only way for games to get their due is to assimilate into an aging establishment. We must replicate the work of previous trailblazers, Spector writes. “What we need…is our own Andrew Sarris, Leonard Maltin, Pauline Kael, Judith Crist, Manny Farber, David Thomson, or Roger Ebert.” And we need their work published in books, newspapers, magazines—anything that kills trees.

There’s a complacency to Spector’s belief that the old ways are best. Instead of shifting the way we talk about art, Spector wants to let it ride. Are we really content to let award shows, The New York Times, and the book-publishing industry act as the gatekeepers of culture? Sure, there’s plenty to admire in these institutions—except award shows, those are awful—but it’s folly to be satisfied with them, unless you believe that the world is both perfect and static.

It makes more sense for the shape of the discourse to shift over time, regardless of the supposed authorities in a given moment. As art evolves, criticism changes as well, not just in its content but also in its form. Criticism ought to be (and inevitably is) more responsive than any one-size-fits-all maturation process could accommodate. When Spector maps the course of film criticism onto that of games, he ignores this reality—and he ignores one critical community that recently ignored his advice and flourished as a result: TV reviews.

The Vast Wasteland Makes Good
Mad Men cast members

Mad Men cast members (Photo: Frank Ockenfels, AMC)

The nut of Spector’s argument is that if you write quality criticism in respectable institutions, more people will take interest, you’ll attract more diverse viewpoints into the artistic community, which leads to better art, which leads to new understandings. That’s the roadmap, and it’s mostly right. Spector is wrong, though, in his belief that you need the sheen of respectability to grab people’s attention.

TV criticism followed Spector’s prescriptions for a long time. In the second half of the 20th century, many major newspapers employed TV critics, and TV Guide was the best-selling magazine on the newsstand—a far cry from Sight & Sound, to be sure, but the magazine did engage in wide-ranging cultural commentary centered on television. (In fact, after Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. took over TV Guide, Murdoch told the editors that TV Guide was “too cerebral.” Then again, consider the source.)

Yet while television had an enormous influence on the world in the 20th century, TV and its criticism didn’t consistently acquire the “cultural acceptance” that Spector’s talking about. Only rarely did the public look to TV as a source of new artistic ideas.

That has changed in recent years as the episodic review format has taken hold online. Newspaper and magazine critics tended to check in on programs sporadically—typically during premieres—and then the conversation would end. The space constraints of print made any more intensive converage impractical. On the web, though, writers like Alan Sepinwall and Stephanie Zacharek—not to mention the staff of Television Without Pity—discovered that they could comment on TV with a frequency and depth that did justice to the episodic form. Not coincidentally, this came at a time when cable networks, foremost among them HBO, were commissioning shows that exploited the weekly format to build long, intricate narrative arcs.

Now, within hours of a new Mad Men episode hitting the air, you have a huge community online debating the themes and subtexts of that episode. I don’t know if this necessarily makes TV criticism legitimate or culturally accepted. More to the point, who cares? What matters is that TV critics developed new forms that resonated with the works they were critiquing, and a vibrant exchange of ideas ensued as a result. Smart people are attracted to smart ideas, regardless of the forum’s supposed respectability. To make people show interest in your criticism, give them ideas that enliven them.

I wonder, if Spector had been advising TV critics in the early 2000s, would he have counseled them to focus their energies on highbrow books and magazines that would grace the world’s newsstands—because that’s what film did?

There Will Never Be A ______ Of Games
Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert

Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert

I don’t know what games criticism ought to look like, nor do I think there’s one right answer. The Gameological Society represents my best guess at one approach, and it’s an ongoing experiment that changes over time. That journey is inevitably going to be a difficult one, because game critics, like every other type of critic, are constantly pushing into uncharted territory (at least if they’re any good). You won’t find a shortcut in this process. There is no ready-made template from the past that we can cut-and-paste to the media and cultural context of today.

At this site, we aspire to produce humane, honest, playful, culturally relevant criticism that does justice to the complexities of video games. I feel that from time to time, we succeed. The work we try to do sounds a lot like what Spector is asking for, in fact:

We need people in mainstream media who are willing to fight with each other (not literally, of course) about how games work, how they reflect and affect culture, how we judge them as art as well as entertainment. We need people who want to explain games, individually and generically, as much as they want to judge them.

I might change a word here or there, but for the most part, I agree with Spector on this front. It’s important to separate Spector’s arguments about the nature of powerful criticism, which are compelling, from his arguments about the institutions and hero worship that produce influential criticism, which are baseless.

Since we’re not going to stop having conversations about games’ place in the larger society, let me close by making a couple of requests.

First, let’s acknowledge that cultural legitimacy is a mirage that offers a mixed blessing. The music of the ’60s counterculture was the voice of an angry, idealistic youth when it was “unacceptable”; now that it has been recognized as a cultural touchstone by the establishment, it provides the soundtrack for insurance commercials. A real energy was lost there. That’s inevitable, but there’s no need to speed it along, as maturity and assimilation don’t have to go hand in hand. Let’s stop pining for legitimacy and, in the meantime, recognize that outsider status can be its own opportunity to incite change—but only if we seize it as such. Instead of recreating institutions, let’s rethink them.

On that note, enough with the “When are we going to have the _______ of games?” horseshit. It’s embarrassing. Warren Spector wants the Kael/Thomson/Ebert of games. For a while, we were searching for the Lester Bangs of games. I remember one publication briefly touting itself as the Rolling Stone of games. So many people have engaged in the stultifying search for “the Citizen Kane of games” that the phrase has its own Tumblr. And so it goes, on and on.

When an opium user ups their dosage in a hopeless attempt to recreate an earlier high, it’s called “chasing the dragon.” Every time a pundit declares the need for another [insert towering cultural icon] of games, a new dragon is unleashed. Resist the urge to chase. The icons of our society become icons by exercising a unique personal brilliance in their own cultural moment. You cannot recreate Citizen Kane any more than you can make Hollywood 1941 happen again, because the context of greatness is part of the greatness.

I certainly have my role models. We ought to study icons like Roger Ebert and see what we can learn from them. Let them inspire us. Just don’t seek to replicate them, or else you miss their lesson entirely. (I think of Steve Jobs’ parting advice to his successor, Tim Cook: “Never ask what I would do.”) When you treat Ebert as a phenomenon that can be reproduced, you demean the singularity of his vision. Likewise, you strip modern critics of their own individuality. Following a trailblazer as closely as you can is the surest way to stay in their shadow.

So with respect, Mr. Spector, I don’t think I will aspire to be the Roger Ebert of games, and it’s not fair to ask anyone else to chase that dragon, either. I’m not the anything “of games.” I’m John Teti, this is The Gameological Society, and in the end, I have to hope that’s enough.

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  • Duck Pirate

    First off, Gameological IS what I think we need in game’s criticism today, so thank you.
    I think that the desire for cultural acceptance of video games isn’t necessarily stupid though.  It is hard to be in conversations with people and see something that you care about being treated as a flimsy distraction, but that being said, I was convinced by what you said about the needlessness for this cultural legitimacy and the point you made about seizing videogame criticism as an outsider and the benefits that provides was insightful, I haven’t thought of that till now.
    Also, that last sentence made me want to do a really cheezy 80s fist pump.
    I’ll stop grovelling now.

    • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

      I think the kind of nebulously defined acceptance – basically a vaguely-defined cure-all that’s mainly articulating an externalized, unexamined desire on the part of the writer – is problematic and/or useless as a concept.

      In a more concrete way, though, it would be nice if my saying I spent the weekend playing The Walking Dead in mixed company wasn’t automatically seen as a more infantile and pathetic than someone saying they’s watched The Walking Dead all weekend.

      • The_Misanthrope

         I think that acceptance is at the base of this desire for cultural legitimacy.  At the very least, we just want Fox News to stop scapegoating video games.

        The funny thing is that *everyone* is a gamer.  Even the most stoic of stoics has surely looked to games as a way to both while away the tedious hours and connect with people.  There is just such a large spectrum of gamers that traditionalists–those that strictly play the same games they likely learned growing up–can’t see video games as being part of the same tradition.

        As Teti alludes to, the most bothersome part of these desperate grabs for legitimacy is how they go for the ponderous, weighty pieces to showcase (this is not to slag Beyond:  Two Souls is going to be bad, just that it is fulfilling the sort of “prestige picture” role in this instance) while there are plenty of exciting, less-extravagantly-funded games of merit  on the fringes.  Why is it necessary to raise the profile of a AAA game?  Granted, the fringe scene has always struggled with visibility and acceptance outside of art-circles, only to get their due decades hence when their influence filters into mainstream work. 

        It is possible something like this already exists, but why couldn’t someone curate an exhibit of playable video games?  Although now that I think of it, that might not be the ideal format either, since it smacks of “playing dress-up”, trying to wear the trapping of the established arts even though they might not quite fit.

        • Rick Joyce

          Actually, the Smithsonian Institute did just that last year: http://www.americanart.si.edu/exhibitions/archive/2012/games/ Granted, it was more about the visuals, but you were able to play some of the games.

        • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

          Both MOMA and the Smithsonian have done exhibits of playable games, though there was a slightly patronizing air of “Look! Video games! In a museum! Like real art!” to some of the proceedings, and the selection was kind of a generic sampler plate of significant games in both cases (the Smithsonian exhibit seemed especially cursory, and only a small fraction of the games were actually playable).

          Babycastles in New York (and probably other similar groups elsewhere) put on arcade-style exhibits of games developed by independents and artists, and their shows have more of a contemporary “gallery show” vibe than the “museum” vibe of the MOMA and Smithsonian shows.

    • TaumpyTearrs

      Huzzah Gameological!
      The thing that struck me as silly about Spector’s piece is that film has been respected, discussed and criticized for decades, but it still only means something to the relative minority of people that are film critics or seriously think about film criticism. Most people don’t give a shit what critics think, they don’t want to seriously analyze what they watch, they just want to watch something easy that everybody else is watching. If I try and talk to someone about the artistic merit of a film, I’m usually going to get the same blank look as I would discussing comics or videogames.

      For proof of how much film criticism actually means to the general public, look at this weekend’s box office. Grown Ups 2 was the worst reviewed movie of the summer, critics LOATHED it, and audiences still lined up to eat Adam Sandler’s shit and grin. And by that standard, games HAVE achieved mainstream acceptance. It doesn’t matter what critics say about a Call of Duty game, its gonna sell a bazillion copies.

      The internet is exactly the place to expand the boundaries of videogame criticism and discussion, because it is a minority of the audience that wants to have this conversation. Having lazy 2 paragraph reviews show up in newspapers and magazines like we do for movies isn’t going to help any thing.

      • BobbyMcE

        There are reasons to want more critics like Ebert for games beyond legitimacy or having an impact on the general public.

        Part of the value of serious critics is that they create a discussion amongst people who enjoy that medium that goes beyond the mundane.

        Sure it won’t affect many people, but for those that partake in it there is great meaning and value.

    • SamPlays

      From a cultural perspective, I agree with Spector’s comments, which I took as analogous rather than literal. I cannot think of any logical reason why NOT having an “Ebert” (RIP) is a good thing. Spector is referring to Roger Ebert as a sign post for legitimate, entertaining, thoughtful, well-written criticism informing the masses. (The fact that Grown Ups 2 sells tickets is besides the point.) I think there has been a lot of thoughtful things written about video games but it is largely obscure and ultimately meaningless if a small fraction of the population bothers to read it, let alone be aware of it. 

      If there’s anything Ebert taught us, it’s not what movies are about, it’s how they’re about. THe same applies to video games. I think Gameological is on the right track with it’s approach to video games, even though it senselessly eschews technical aspects of game-making. Regardless, Spector is speaking to the power of having a voice heard by the masses. You don’t have to agree with the critic. You don’t have to understand the critic. But it makes you aware of something that forms our cultural landscape and that counts for something if you want to legitimize the video game industry.

  • Citric

    The big problem is this weird obsession with replicating movies, and their path to being a cultural institution, rather than forging ahead trying to make games and seeing what springs up organically around that. But instead we see people trying to do movies, but interactive, or TV, but interactive (ugh, Xbone) when it should start with making games, trying new things, and working on capitalizing on a different medium.

    Citizen Kane was the Citizen Kane of movies because it was trying to take advantage of the unique properties of film, rather than trying to do for films what something else did for books or theater. But in searching for the “Citizen Kane of games,” we get a lot of people who are beholden to different conventions of film. With some rare exceptions, games that try to be movies are bad games and worse movies. If, instead, the focus is on making games the best game they can be, and working to capitalize on the opportunities the medium allows that wasn’t there before, at the very least you’re going to get some great games, and maybe the whole legitimacy thing will spring up organically as it has for all the other mediums.

    • caspiancomic

      I’m trying to think of other examples of a medium affecting legitimacy by comparing itself to other mediums. It’s hard to imagine somebody arguing for the legitimacy of Sgt. Pepper’s by insisting it’s the Citizen Kane of music. Or trying to make a case for Kane itself by describing it as the Anna Karenina of film. I mean on the one hand I know what people are trying to say by using this as a shorthand. People are excited for the day when a relatively agreed-upon “best game of all time” hits shelves and changes the medium in ways we never before thought possible. There are several problems with this though, not least of all being that “best ever” status tends to be slowly earned over decades, so if gaming can be said to have its very own Kane it’s probably already out and we just haven’t decided on it yet. But it’s also backwards thinking to use the successes of one medium as a measuring stick for another- not only are the two fundamentally incomparable, but it tends to give the newer medium an inferiority complex relative to the older one.

      Plus, scrutinizing new titles in an attempt to determine which if any of them are contenders for Citizen Game is going to make it difficult to judge them according to any actual merits they might have. Nobody was trolling around Los Angeles in the early 40s scouring cinemas for the medium’s best ever film- they just bought tickets to Kane and had their minds blown. They couldn’t have been expecting it because nothing like it had ever been seen before. They couldn’t have had their criteria for selecting a “best ever” film ready with them because the conventions for determining greatness in film are derived partly from the precedents set by Kane. If we have a pre-determined sense of what we think a Kane of games would look like, it’s going to be pointless because if such a game could ever exist, we’re going to recognize it by its total refusal to adhere to those standards, and the enthusiasm with which it creates a whole new language for gaming as a medium.

      On the other hand, I look forward to the day when I’m a curmudgeonly old man looking down his nose at whatever the next big paradigm in storytelling is- erotic holograms or whatever- and young guns like us are writing optimistic think-pieces about finding the “Final Fantasy VII of erotic holograms.”

      ETA: Or better yet, an optimistic think piece titled “Where’s Erotic Hologramming’s John Teti?”

      • Logoboros

        Haven’t most artforms validated themselves at least initially through comparison to the established forms? Medieval writers validated their by drawing out associations (not infrequently illusory ones) with Classical genres. Novels alternatively hearkened back to moral fables and exemplary histories/vitae to claim their value. Film and radio used core structures of stage acts to establish their cultural function, and TV borrowed from film and radio. The historical aberration is the form that stakes itself out as being sui generis.

        • caspiancomic

           I can’t speak to much historically speaking due to towering personal ignorance, but I think there’s an important difference between inheriting characteristics (or purposefully affecting characteristics) of better established mediums and seeking validation through explicit comparisons to them. For film and radio to borrow the act/scene structure of theatre before finding their own feet and language is natural, I think, but I don’t know of any examples off hand of a popular film advertising itself as the Death of a Salesman of film. Gaming has inherited some of the storytelling language of earlier mediums, which I don’t consider unusual (although it got around to inheriting them unusually late, but that’s a different issue altogether), what I think is bizarre is gaming’s insistence on establishing its legitimacy or illegitimacy by directly comparing its own works to the works of another artform.

          (Although I fully concede that I might simply have no idea what I’m talking about. I do recall Miami Vice apparently selling itself as a series of little weekly movies with its glossy camera tricks and licensed soundtrack, so maybe I’m just talking nonsense.)

        • Mercenary_Security_number_4

           @caspiancomic:disqus films advertising themselves as “epic” or “saga” certainly started as an attempt to compare themselves with literature.

      • neodocT

         One example of affecting legitimacy by comparison is when comic books became graphic novels. I’m not sure what came first there, the high quality books or the name change, but it certainly worked for that industry.

        • SaviourMachine

           I think this title is rather precise and suits comics very well. When you hear or read a word  “novel” you automatically perceive that comic book is not just a set of colourful images but a story with its own pace and structure. It causes a sense of continuity. I think comic language maybe  has in equal parts something from cinema and literature but  i’m smattering at this

        • His_Space_Holiness

          They came about at roughly the same time, when Will Eisner coined the term to describe his novel-length works. But the term’s use as a marketing gimmick by bookstores (not so much comics creators and publishers themselves, who mostly use it correctly) is fairly recent.

        • neodocT

          I should add that I like the title of graphic novel, and that it is very apt. But it also seems to have come into greater use at the same time that the medium became more respected, and in many ways closer to literature.

        • http://warren-peace.blogspot.com/ WarrenPeace

          The thing is, the comics community has this same discussion all the time, with people worrying about legitimacy and acceptance and whatnot. It’s fucking exhausting; I always want to tell people that it’s okay to like what you like, and you don’t need to be so insecure as to worry about the approval of the culture at large. With the endless community of the internet, you can always find like-minded people who give your medium of choice the same level of respect you do, so why bother trying to convince people that your particular thing is so special? Just enjoy yourself, man, and quit with all the whining.

        • TaumpyTearrs

          @WarrenPeace325:disqus  Yeah, as a lifelong comic fan I can say this is an argument that just goes in circles and gets tiresome. There was a time when I hung onto the “graphic novel” label really hard, but that was when I was a teenager trying to convince people that comics weren’t just for children.

          But you know what? Wider acceptance and usage of the term barely made a difference. Comics got a little shelf space in bookstores, some cursory coverage in major outlets, and occasionally some will sneak their way onto a “Best Literature” or other meaningless lists. Most people still think they are for kids, and most kids have no interest in them since they are written for adults who are already ensconced in the culture. Its just something to make us feel better when we feel insecure about our hobby.

    • SquidBot

      You’ve just put the point on what’s increasingly frustrating me about modern game development. I play games to, you know, PLAY a GAME. I don’t want an interactive movie. Game narratives are no doubt becoming more polished and film-like and, for lack of a better word, ‘mature’, but usually the story (i.e. cutscenes) is at odds with the actual gameplay. Playing the most recent Tomb Raider, there was a total disconnect between the life-and-death urgency of the cutscenes and then leisurely time I spent as a player searching out optional trinkets to upgrade weapons. And like many others, I found Bioshock Infinite to be a slog to get through due to overlong and bland gunfights, despite the well-realized environment and interesting story. I would have rather read it as a comic or watched it as a film than play it as a game. Which really makes it a failure as a game, no? That example is especially notable because I thought the first Bioshock did a good job of dealing with game-centric concepts like the illusion of player choice. Games, more than any other medium, work best with the “show, don’t tell” philosophy. I understand that as the player, I’m ostensibly the one performing the actions, but I usually feel like I’m just pressing X for the characters to do whatever the script dictates. I don’t feel any real agency as Nathan Drake. I’m not the one in control.
      I think games like Journey or (and I know everyone cites this one) Shadows of the Colossus succeed because they offer experiences of exploration and discovery than no other medium can really convey. Mario endures because those games are just plain FUN to play, story or not. The Mass Effect and Walking Dead series are probably the best way to make games that are still film-like, because the player actually determines the story in meaningful ways in those, instead of just watching a digital movie in between largely irrelevant gameplay moments.

      Sorry for the mini-thesis paper here. This has just been bugging me lately and I needed to vent. Thanks!

      • neodocT

         I had the same impression after playing The Last of Us. But in that case, at least the gameplay was pretty excellent, if completely disconnected from the plot.

      • edincoat

        “I play games to, you know, PLAY a GAME. I don’t want an interactive movie.” <– This.

    • feisto

      I agree with all of this, and I’d also add trying to change the conversation among gamers and the gaming press to focus more on the gaming qualities of games and not how much they resemble movies. I can’t help but feel that games are trapped in a bit of a vicious cycle where any time a game becomes a blockbuster hit, the press and fans overly focus on its “realistic” or “artistic” (read: “has a story and somewhat fleshed out characters”) qualities, thus encouraging developers to continue to overly focus on those elements instead of thinking about whether it works as a game or not.

      I think it’s great that Gameological Society offers a forum for discussing games in a variety of intelligent and entertaining ways without being afraid of whether the content’s too obscure, or not toeing the line of the general consensus. And I think the more game writers and gamers write about games on their own terms and not as ambassadors trying to push for some vaguely defined goal (“cultural legitimacy” and the like), I think the more likely we’ll see increased interest in games from a wider variety of people.

    • zebbart

      “Citizen Kane was the Citizen Kane of movies because it was trying to take advantage of the unique properties of film, rather than trying to do for films what something else did for books or theater.”

      Until reading that I thought the ‘Citizen Kane of games’ question was pure nonsense. But ironically you’ve made me realize I have a definite personal answer. Braid is my Citizen Kane of games. It even has the emotionally affecting and thematically pivotal surprise end. It’s not my favorite game but it’s the most artistically powerful game I’ve ever played. I don’t go back to it as often as I go back to Super Mario Strikers but I think about out often and it changed the way I think about not just games but reality itself. So there, one inane question settled!

      • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

        “When will we have a Super Mario Strikers of movies?!”

        • neodocT

          The Super Mario Strikers of movies? Here you go. 

        • zebbart

          Shaolin Soccer added to my queue. I’m embarrassed to say I’ve never even looked up Citizen Kane to see if it’s on Netflix. Not until I’ve finished Bergman’s oeuvre anyway.

        • neodocT

           @zebbart:disqus Bergman followed by Shaolin Soccer? I like the way you think.

        • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

          @neodocT:disqus : How did I know EXACTLY what trailer that link would take me to?

        • neodocT

           @paraclete_pizza:disqus Nerd minds think alike?

      • neodocT

         I was skeptical when I read your comment, but, when I think about it, you’re right. Braid was the game that first blew my mind with how deep gameplay and story integration could go, not to mention that it being a beautifully drawn, challenging game with a great, if abstract, plot.

        I need to go play Braid again…

      • lokimotive

        Citizen Kane was released in 1941, however it wasn’t recognized as a masterpiece until 1956, and even then it wasn’t described as ‘The best film ever’ until 1962 in the annual Sight and Sound poll (where it stayed at the number one spot until just last year). 

        So let’s align that with where we’re at in video games, just for fun. For convenience sake, let’s put the advent of film at 1900. There’s film that predates that, of course, and at that point the production and exhibition of film wasn’t done with the same level of sophistication, but we’ll use 1900 as a good beginning. Let’s put videogames’ advent at 1970. Pong was released in 1971, and there was some experiments before then, but Pong marks a good starting point.

        Therefore, the Citizen Kane of video games was released in 2011, but it won’t be until 2026 that we finally see it for what it is. Up to that point, there will be some murmurings of its quality, but most people won’t be aware of it, and it will slip into obscurity. It’s true genius won’t be realized until 2032.

        With all that being said, I think it’s pretty clear that Postal III is the Citizen Kane of games.

        • Citric

          So if it’s the same thing, it’s a game that the French are currently obsessed with that North Americans aren’t too interested in?

        • http://www.avclub.com/users/mattman-begins,89632 Mattman Begins

          In a year that also produced the meisterwerk known as ABBA: You Can Dance?  Surely you jest.

          Gaming may be the only art form I’m aware of where Moore’s Law could have an effect on the content, not just the mechanics, of the art.  Moore’s Law predicts a doubling in processing power specifically, and a doubling in what that processing power allows (conjecturally), over the course of eighteen months.  As representational graphics through processing power become more and more of a reality, the “cultural legitimacy” (burp) of the art form itself begins to rise (at least, among those who prize representational art as the raison d’etre of games), and at a much faster rate than the predicted 41 years that the medium of film took to reach the same (somewhat arbitrary) pinnacle.

          Of course, film wasn’t a static medium itself:  sound, color, widescreen, 3D, Steadicams, etc. all shaped the content of what was filtered through it.  But those innovations weren’t happening at a measurable rate, nor were all of them necessary in concert to achieve what we consider “art” in the field of film.  A black and white, mostly silent film won the Academy Award for Best Picture just two years ago, and while not everyone agreed with the pick, very few argued that it had no content–that it wasn’t a film–simply because it dispensed with some of our modern conventions in that medium. 

          By contrast, gaming’s “legitimacy” fallacy partially exists because some are still looking to that bleeding edge of Moore’s Law to determine what the artform “is”.  Something as abstract as Antichamber, as iconic as, oh, A False Saint, An Honest Rogue, and as representational as Skyrim…these are ALL the art form we call “games”, yet only the last one is considered worth talking about or praising in most outside-gaming media, because it’s what’s possible on the current fringe of the Law.  Change THAT argument, and you change their perception, get your legitimacy, and praise some great works all in one fell swoop.

          (blinks)

          My original point here was to make an observational joke and say that Moore’s Law halved the time for a Citizen Kane of gaming, so, therefore, my pick for a Citizen Kane of gaming, 1991′s Sid Meier’s Civilization, qualifies.  But I, uh, kinda got away from that.

        • http://www.avclub.com/users/mattman-begins,89632 Mattman Begins

          On a much more flippant note, I’m still amazed, given the competition, that Citizen Kane did NOT win Best Picture for 1941.  Continuing this ridiculous exercise and looking at the Best Games of 2011 as the equivalent cream of the crop, this puts Postal III in the following company of nine other Academy-esque nominees, according to my calculations:

          Batman: Arkham City
          Catherine
          Deus Ex: Human Revolution
          Dragon Age II
          The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
          Frozen Synapse
          Super Mario 3D Land
          Encyclopedia Fuckme And The Case Of The Vanishing Entree
          Disney Princess: Enchanting Storybooks

    • Logoboros

      This seems to be a major part of the conundrum. We want to talk about games as narratives. But we seem to very often fail to effective talk about games in the terms that we’ve used to talk about narrative since pretty much the dawn of storytelling. So maybe what that tells us is not that we’re being shackled by outdated language to describe games, but rather that maybe so-called narrative games (and let’s remember that’s really just a narrow subgenre of all the games that are out there, and we’re probably already making too many unstated assumptions when we talk about what “gaming criticism” needs to do, since the aesthetic and semantic value of games changes wildly across game genres) aren’t really narratives. Maybe they create the illusion of narrative, but narrative as we understand it in pretty much all other forms of narrative is not actually the underlying structure of the game. There’s a cognitive theory of narrative that can certainly be applied to games, given that it uses a extremely broad definition, but maybe the critical language of artistic narrative is not applicable not because the language hasn’t been expanded enough, but because you’re describing a categorically different phenomenon.

      • theThinHam

        This is an absolutely wonderful and relevant point. Video games, as a medium for a narrative, are completely different to any other and require their own, gradually defined and redefined terminology to discuss critically. 
         I still think a strong narrative is incredibly important for a good game, but you’re right- a game is, first and foremost, defined by it’s gameplay. A video game is capable of portraying a narrative in a unique way, and simply going through the motions of a narrative is not the same thing as utilising the underlying structure of the game to portray a unique narrative. 
        So, I suppose, before we can have a Roger Ebert of gaming, we’ve got to have schools of video game criticism and a critical language in which to discuss video games that is unique. 

        I’m not articulating myself well, but I fundamentally agree. I think narrative is universal; many see it as the lynch pin of a work, but ultimately narrative is the intangible result of a works mechanics, structure, vision etc.

        PS: Also, I’m not sure why we’re all still arguing about this. Gaming’s ‘Citizen Kane’ is Deadly Premonition. 

        • mnorth700

          No I think what you’ve said is pretty much on the mark. It’s something I kept thinking throughout this whole piece; I think Internet writers want to keep their cake but as Warren Spector asserts, games really would benefit from having an organised place to extend critical discussion. Let’s be honest, the Internet isn’t like that and it’s not because of the talent/voices of writers; it’s because nobody really pays attention to the Internet compared to Academia. Few on the Internet go into things looking to be convinced, Academia exists the other way around as people are more willing to listen. Is it silly? Perhaps but that’s how it works.

    • HobbesMkii

       I wish I could go back to the 30s when film was still looking for “The A Tale of Two Cities of film.”

      • Effigy_Power

        I can’t wait for the discussion when people are wondering where the “Bastion of Brain-implanted Slug-based holo-vision” is.

      • http://www.facebook.com/andy.tuttle.79 Andy Tuttle

        Wouldn’t the “Tale of Two Cities of film” just be “A Tale of Two Cities”?

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Tale_of_Two_Cities_%281935_film%29

        • HobbesMkii

           I don’t think so. I’m pretty sure that’s not how “The ____ of _____” works.

        • lokimotive

          The Dante’s Inferno of video games is not Dante’s Inferno.

    • dreadguacamole

       Someone should just do a Citizen Kane game adaptation. It’d be a business tycoon-style game with mariokart-like snow sled racing segments interspersed throughout; and whenever someone asks for the Citizen Kane of games, you can just point at it and say “oh, it wasn’t very good.”

      • Remoat

        I’d play that.

      • George_Liquor

        In the bonus stage, you get to trash a room.

      • Citric

        The Susan Alexander Opera Opera Revolution level would be pretty much impossible.

        • http://www.avclub.com/users/mattman-begins,89632 Mattman Begins

          Curiously, the Slow Clap rhythm game at the end of that level has a technical difficulty of “easy”, but an emotional difficulty of “hard”.

      • http://www.avclub.com/users/mattman-begins,89632 Mattman Begins

        >EXAMINE ROSEBUD

        It’s a sled.

        *You have won*

    • Dave Dalrymple

      If games are to learn a lesson from film, it’s that a new medium shouldn’t seek to merely replicate an old one.

    • http://www.avclub.com/users/merve,96925/ Merve

      I don’t have a problem with “cinematic” games that take their inspiration from film. My issue is with critical discourse than centres solely around the filmic qualities of games. There’s a tendency in some circles to overemphasize a game’s theme, visuals, and aesthetics and to discuss them separately from its mechanics (if mechanics are discussed at all). The implication of that kind of criticism seems to be that mechanics and systems are secondary to narrative concerns. In other words, value is accorded only to the elements of games that have been inherited from film. But such criticism doesn’t account for the kind of craft that goes into designing mechanics, nor is it interested in exploring the way mechanics shape the narrative and relate it to the player.

      A while back, Derek Yu, the creator of Spelunky, wrote about this very subject. It’s an interesting read: http://makegames.tumblr.com/post/51029493563/maturity-challenge-art-and-games

  • Sam L

    COMMENTJACK  [Though kind of on topic, as it pertains to game criticism]

    Why is Gameological’s coverage  of tabletop games enemic to nonexistent? Maybe it’s just where I live, but I have noticed a HUGE upswing in the last 5 years in the proliferation of face to face, non-”Casual” board and card gameplay, and see nightly wait lists at my local board game cafe and bar where the biggest draw is the vast library of games to choose from with new games added practically as they are released. This seems like the kind of thing that ought to be covered by a website, “informed by a passion for play and grounded in a broad cultural awareness.”

    • Enkidum

      I think it has mostly to do with hits – John would clearly love to do more board games (and game shows) but the video game articles get way more comments, and hence generate more revenue.

      • HobbesMkii

         He probably just doesn’t get a whole lot of pitches. The Magic Card piece got a whole bunch of hits (although, it did have a colored background, so we all knew it was gonna be good), so I’d bet it wouldn’t be that. My bet is more that there’s a distinct dearth of people who can play a newly released board game (it’s sometimes difficult to pull all the friends required together) and write a review of it in a timely fashion, let alone those who see the GS as a viable option for pitching material.

        • Enkidum

          Actually, that’s a good point. And on AVC whoever-it-was did a board game article and a pen-and-paper RPG article that got millions of comments. So… yeah, I’m just wrong. Never happened before.

    • The_Misanthrope

       I would say some kind of semi-regular column on board games would be a good idea .  Then again, you do that and next thing you know, pen-and-paper RPGers (to say of nothing of other RPGer variants like LARPers) are complaining about the lack of inclusion of their little corner of games.  It might be that this site isn’t big enough to cast a broad net; By attempting to please everyone, they would ultimately lose focus and please no-one.

      “Game cafe and bar”? I dunno that I’ve ever heard of such a thing anywhere in my area.  There’s always been small quirky joints that might have some games tucked away for customers to play if they so desire, but I’ve never seen any place make it their focus.  I like the idea, although I have the notion that it might run counter to the economic growth of such an establishment.  But maybe I’m wrong.

      COMMENTJACK OF THE COMMENTJACK:  This is quite a digression from the topic, but this is probably also the best place I’ll have to talk about it.  On one of our semi-regular game nights, me and a few friends had a chance to play Lillebud’s Ladies and Gentlemen, an unusual game that is somehow both team-play *and* asymmetric.  On further reflection, it’s a bit like two simultaneous games being played, the results of which inform each other.  The idea of the game is that you and your teammate are a middle-class Victorian couple preparing for a important society ball at the end of the week.  That’s also where the two separate but interdependent game-modes happen:  one side of the table are the “ladies” who are busy shopping for the most elegant apparel for the ball while the “gentlemen” on the other side try to get a leg-up in the stock exchange and approve/disapprove of the ladies’ purchases.  In case there is an odd number of players, the odd one out can play the “courtesan”, who can change the outcome of the game depending on gifts she receives.  Unfortunately, our odd man out spent too much time familiarizing us with the rules of the game, so we never got a chance to test that feature out.  Also untested:  the optional “gossip” deck, which promises to add an additional wrinkle to the ladies’ quest for elegance.

      While I wouldn’t accuse the game of pushing for a return of such a stratified, mannered society (the worst that could be said is that it might idealize that type of culture), I couldn’t help but feel myself slip into the regressive gender-role I was playing.  As the ladies’ turn dragged on a little long, I felt myself grow impatient that they were wasting time on such frivolous notions–women always be shopping, amirite?–when there was important business yet to be accomplished in the world of men. That said, the players can flip the script and allow the playing of opposite gender roles.  I tried to do so on our game session–mostly because I liked the seat I was in–but there was enough resistance to the idea that I just gave up and acquiesced.

      Here’s a better and likelier funnier explanation of the game:
      http://susd.pretend-money.com/blog/2013/5/17/opener-ladies-gentlemen-and-homemade-scones/

    • http://www.facebook.com/andy.tuttle.79 Andy Tuttle

      My friends and I have a weekly board game get together. Yesterday it was D&D and the Marvel deck building game Legendary.

  • Pgoodso

    Badass editorial, yo.

  • Logoboros

    I would suggest that a more significant binary than “legitimacy”/”illegitimacy(?)” is “ephemerality”/”durability.” Durability or legacy or resonance (I can’t quite find the most appropriate antonym to ephemerality) is something institutions possess that evolving forms lack — and it seems like a trait that’s not pointless to strive for. It seems reasonable to believe that ultimately the ephemeral cannot compete with the durable.

    I think your TV criticism example actually highlights the ephemerality of the current form. The reviews for current shows are certainly great for prompting conversation and discussion, but does their value persist over time? Having gone back and read TV Club reviews at the AVC long after the original airdate, I find that criticism has an extremely short shelf life. It adds value in its immediate moment, but does not continue to add much value to people who return to that criticism (especially for serialized shows); in fact, as often as not, such rereading tends to highlight how the critic’s expectations about the story or its significance were wrong, were handicapped by being in the “fog of war” (to borrow a gaming metaphor itself borrowed from the real world). TV Club classic reviews are far better criticism, I find, because they are able to see their object with perspective (and to see what has made it durable over time — though that is somewhat different from the question of the durability of the criticism).

    But I don’t want to push into a slightly different category of ephemerality or planned obsolescence (that is, airdate-by-airdate reviews of a TV series have a built in interpretive obsolescence rooted in the effort to write criticism in the absence of being able to perceive the whole of the thing being criticized). Certainly, you could also argue that release-day film reviews could be similarly ephemeral, since we won’t know the impact or influence of a film until we’ve gained a similar degree of temporal distance. I think that form of criticism has durability that comes from how it fits into its institution. Daily paper film reviews gain a degree of quality from being part of an established genre (and genre whose basic form predates film).

    Now, it’s too much for me to get into at the moment (indeed, the point above is only barely sketched out), but I think games as an artform are also burdened with a degree of ephemerality that’s partly a product of being so heavily entangled with youth culture, but also because of the way technology progresses — I can read ancient Babylonian texts in trade paperback, but there are games I played on my old Commordore64 that appear to be lost to the ages, or that play awkwardly in emulators (because even if you can emulate the game itself, the control scheme is usually rather radically different). In other words, it can be a hassle to relive games that are only a couple of decades old, and furthermore the evolution of gaming conventions and UI design have made games that are only a decade old almost painful to play today, even though the hardware and OSes can display them just fine. Video gaming is still a relatively unstable form, and that makes it trend even more towards ephemerality.

    Now, you can say that ephemerality is great, it’s spontaneous, it’s a condition that allows for rapid change, but the nature of the ephemeral is that it will be forgotten and lost. Whether or not you care about cultural “legitimacy,” it seems reasonable to not want your artform (or your critical form) forgotten. Of course, live theater has embraced the ephemerality inherent to its form, so it’s not impossible. That said, it doesn’t seem to me that ephemerality is inherent to gaming, but overcoming it does require actively developing and reinforcing the institutions surrounding it (and, indeed, the individual theater performance is ephemeral, but The Theater has durability as an institution).

    • caspiancomic

       Excellent comment, and some good points made.

      RE: The temporary nature of “live” TV reviews- I feel that your point is totally legitimate (perhaps the wrong word choice given the above article, but you know what I mean), although slightly misses the point of Teti’s arguement. I completely agree that episode-by-episode reviews of TV shows seem to come with an element of disposability- reading the AV Club’s reviews of the fourth season of Arrested Development and seeing them miss or misinterpret jokes that only become clear later is a pretty good example of how episodic reviews are inherently “incomplete,” and our sister site has “expert” and “newbie” reviews of Game of Thrones partially to avoid the “shot in the dark” reviews that come with guessing at what comes next in a heavily serialized story. But I think the point Teti was trying to make was that TV criticism evolved in such a way that it developed its own language and rhythms, not necessarily that it became more “legitimate” or “durable” (in your own words.) The “legitimacy” of the form wasn’t considered an issue (and indeed is today taken for granted), so the nature of the criticism didn’t concern itself with emulating the criticism style of film or literature- it morphed itself into a shape more appropriate for its week-by-week storytelling method. The lesson I think John is trying to extract from the example is that Mr. Spector is mistaken in thinking that aping film criticism is the correct path for game criticism to walk down- game criticism simply needs to- like TV criticism- find a form that best complements its medium. Whether the criticism becomes more “ephemeral” or “durable” will be up for debate, but whatever it becomes it ought to be striving to be more itself, not more like something else.

      Your larger second point though is a direct hit, and is something that’s been discussed in passing on this site before. The state of video games conservation is woefully malnourished, and a tragically high number of games are probably lost to the sands of time forever. Citizen Kane, a movie much discussed in the article and comments, is from 1941 and is still widely available in even the most modern formats of film distribution, while games from as recently as the 1990s become obsolete and are forgotten. Certain official and officialish bodies are undertaking games conservation efforts through things like ROM databases and games-dedicated gallery spaces, but to my knowledge there’s no concerted effort to restore and conserve games on a large scale. It probably doesn’t strike a lot of people as a pressing issue, and this early into the lifespan of the medium we’re not exactly hemorrhaging software, but if serious measures aren’t taken relatively soon then in twenty or fifty years’ time there might be no way to play some of the more obscure titles of the last several years.

      • Logoboros

        On the TV criticism point, I guess I would just respond that it seems to me that the form TV criticism both had in the pre-internet age (fairly rudimentary evaluative — as opposed to interpretive — reviews of season premiers and finales) and in the current episode-by-episode form only done almost nothing to reduce the ephemerality of TV in the culture, and indeed have likely reinforced it. In fact, some of the conversations about the Netflix too-binge-or-not-to-binge question involve people quite explicitly saying that they have to watch the show right away to be able to be part of the conversation as it happens, and that’s because the conversation stops a couple of weeks after the release. That’s quite a bit less true of movies (and though it’s hardly a firmly established phenomenon, I’ve little resurgences of comments on old AVC film reviews when the DVD releases happen — but that almost never happens with TV reviews).

        So TV criticism — especially in the form that John brings up — seem to be a poor format to emulate if you have any interest in reducing the perceived ephemerality of your medium/artform. I would assert that the kind of criticism that has best helped certain TV series attain cultural durability is the book of criticism, which basically adheres to the genre conventions of interpretive film criticism (as opposed to thumbs up/thumbs down evaluative criticism), which itself is heavily indebted to the conventions of literary criticism.

        I do think one thing Gameological does well is to bring in more interpretive criticism of games in a non-academic mode. If there’s a force holding gaming criticism back, it’s the absolute dominance of evaluative criticism (“Is this game worth your money?”) to the exclusion of most other concerns — indeed, interpretive gaming criticism too often tends to get lumped in with moral criticism of games and scorned as a result.

        And one last quick point (though a contentious one): interpretive criticism really depends on institutional norms to shore it up — you need interpretive paradigms to frame an interpretive argument, and those paradigms tend to come out of normalized, institutionalized practice. That’s why serious interpretive gaming criticism is still rooted in academia — academia has a framework for how to criticize a variety of cultural products.

        • Enkidum

          Yeah, I’m not sure gaming needs a Roger Ebert or a Citizen Kane, but the idea of gaming’s Shakespeare or Orson Welles seems fine to me. 

        • flowsthead

          I think what you describe as the ephemeral in TV criticism still applies to most other works. Books are generally commented in that year, as they take a bit longer to read. Films are also commented in that year, and often mostly limit themselves to the month at hand. Is anyone still talking about Zero Dark Thirty? It isn’t a lot of people. TV works the same way.

          I think it just takes time. I don’t think there were too many literary minded people taking the Lone Ranger or I Love Lucy very seriously back in the day, but people like Sepinwall are writing books about the Sopranos and the Wire now. I’m sure we’ll see more of a foundation in the coming decades for great TV criticism.

          As for those resurgences you mention, just check out the Pop Culture Weekends. Almost anytime someone starts watching or has finished a show, there will be someone that will drop by and start a conversation about it. It works the same way with a Book Thread, where someone will read an old classic and one or two people will come by to start a conversation discussing what they enjoyed about it (or hated).

          Memory can only take you so far, and having seen something recently is the best way to have a conversation with all of the details at hand. Of course people are going to want to watch something immediately to be part of the conversation.

        • Logoboros

          @flowsthead:disqus Re: the resurgences. I was specifically thinking about how those revived comments are engaged with responding to the review. It’s less that the movie (or show) continues to spark responses after its initial release, but that the critic’s writing about the film still seems worth engaging with. But there seems to be little point in going back to engage a critic’s take on a show in the middle of its run after the fact. TV criticism becomes obsolete much faster than the show, especially in the “one step removed from live-blogging” mode that’s becoming common today.

        • http://www.avclub.com/users/merve,96925/ Merve

          I think we’re seeing strides being made towards reducing the ephemeral nature of games criticism. To give some examples, this site does Inventories, Q&As, and Features that often touch on older games. Eurogamer does retrospectives on games that are a few years old every couple of weeks. Kirk Hamilton of Kotaku is currently doing a series of retrospective pieces on The Operative: No One Lives Forever, including this wonderful piece on Cate Archer as a feminist icon.

          I think it would be nice to get more of this kind of analysis of games in addition to the already existing ephemeral, evaluative criticism.

        • http://www.facebook.com/people/Kevin-Johnson/501651 Kevin Johnson

          WHAT IF CATE ARCHER AND STERLING ARCHER WERE SIBLINGS?

      • Roswulf

        While I entirely agree that the state of game preservation is sadly inadequate, I do think its useful to contextualize it with a realistic assessment of the preservation records of other mediums.

        Cribbing off of wikipedia, we’ve lost, likely irrevocably, more than half of all American movies made before 1950 (90% of all silents). We retain Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, yes, but the proper version of his The Magnificent Ambersons is gone. So much of film, TV, radio, even drama (to some extent the reason Shakespeare is our great Rennaissance English dramatist is that so many of his plays survived- not that there aren’t other reasons) have been lost to the ages.

        • http://www.avclub.com/users/merve,96925/ Merve

          The difference is that now we have the means to easily preserve almost anything that can be digitized. There’s just no excuse not to preserve anymore. Almost any book, TV show, movie, album, or game can be stored and backed up to multiple servers within a matter of minutes. Legal issues and inertia are what prevent this from happening.

    • http://sarapen.ca/ Sarapen

      TV shows were not generally preserved until rather surprisingly late (I think until the 70′s). TV stations considered their shows inherently disposable and just taped over old episodes. Of course, it’s possible they were coming at it from the mindset of theatre, where basically an episode is a singular performance of a specific set of actors, never to be seen again.
      Which doesn’t stop Dr. Who fans from moaning about their mythical lost episodes, but just because the technology for preservation exists doesn’t mean that people will actually take advantage.

  • Spacemonkey Mafia

    I can sympathize with Spector’s feelings.  I often have ambivalence toward gaming as one of my central hobbies.  And, as is frequently discussed here, a lot of it comes from being a participant in gaming culture.
       I think it must be enticing to imagine by wearing the trappings of other, more sanctified mediums, gaming will adopt the same nuance. That not only will gaming attract broader interest, but a metamorphosis will occur within as well, changing our most commonly seen base from antagonistic, sub-literate caterpillars into thoughtful, erudite butterfly’s.
       But Grown Ups 2 coming in first for this weekend’s box office is the millionth unnecessary reminder on the reach of a critic’s influence.
      All the Ebert’s, Kael’s and Maltin’s that film criticism has been so fortunate to have hasn’t stopped people from going in droves to experience the Criterion-worthy Mise-en-scène of Adam Sandler having his fart-huffer’s mug doused in CGI deer piss.

    • caspiancomic

       You know, I think you’ve touched on an unusual and unwanted side-effect of gaming’s film worship- a lot of films are cultural pollutants. In fact probably the vast majority of films released in any given year rank somewhere between cultural footnote and cancerous drivel on the “legitimacy” scale. When you look at film as a whole instead of zeroing in on the stuff that’s actually worth aping, it’s not exactly a medium that deserves to be imitated. Right now we’re like an insecure younger brother superficially emulating his douchebag older brother’s character traits and wondering why girls like him instead of us.

      • http://www.avclub.com/users/merve,96925/ Merve

        I’ll take that a step a further and say that gaming is more or less fine.* It’s just that gaming’s cultural arbiters – whoever they may be – haven’t internalized Sturgeon’s Law: 90% of everything – games, films, books, plays, albums, bars of soap, sexual encounters, whatever – is crap.

        *Barring its slightly exclusionary nature, of course, which I don’t think is actively sexist/racist/ableist/whatever-ist, but is still somewhat harmful.

  • TheBryanJZX90

    Honestly, this website is the only legitimization I need for video games. Occasionally I still have pangs of worry, wondering whether as an adult it’s acceptable for me to spend all of my limited temporal and mental resources on video games, playing them, thinking about them, and discussing them. The conclusion I’ve come to is that if other reasonable intelligent people are able to critically analyze games and come up with interesting points to discuss, then games must be worth that effort. So I’ll continue to enjoy the medium even now that I’m 30, married, with a kid and adult responsibilities.

  • http://www.facebook.com/deejaytaufiq Mohamad Taufiq Morshidi

    I do think that we can get quality gaming criticism, and people liek Gameological and Adam Sessler paved the way for that.

    HOWEVER:

    The chain that is linking the VG press with Marketing Departments need to stop. Remember that Jeff Gertzmann/Gamespot issue? Yeah, gaming presses needs to stop allowing their bias to influence publications. 

    It’s the reason why i like Rev3Games. Instead of getting sponsored by Halo 4 and Mountain Dew, they are instead sponsored by State Farm, and thus they are able to not be biased in their reviews.

    • Mercenary_Security_number_4

       I’m glad to see you include Sessler in that.  I don’t always agree with Sessler, but I’ve always felt he pushes the field to be more analytical and less just “hey, look, cool screenshot.”  I’ve read a lot of hate about him from people who think he’s a detriment to the field because he comes across as spastic and reactionary.  I think he’s one of those guys who the medium might eventually outgrow because of his lack of nuance, but right now his voice usually has a positive impact

  • ProfFarnsworth

    I feel that the “cultural legitimacy” that is so often sought after, is largely something that (in my opinion) is irrelevant.  In most cases when games try and include ‘cultural legitimacy’ or something along those lines all that ensues is awful gameplay or story. (I am looking at YOU uncharted).  I feel that games are all about enjoying the interactivity of a story.  This ability to interact with a story and thus change a story makes games very much a cultural artifact of humanity.  Why then do people need to find legitimacy in something as uniquely human as adapting to new and inviting situations and seeing the possibilities grow from that? That is a travesty.  Look at all the wonderful and sometimes distasteful ways that people have created worlds, ships, lives, stories, and there you will see humanity and probably see culture.

    If anyone needs anything else, I will be in the angry dome!

    • Logoboros

      Restate “legitimacy” as “recognized and accepted value,” and do you still object to it? Is it irrelevant to you that the larger culture (which is to say, most people) don’t think video games contribute anything more than ephemeral value? That is, it seems like one of your sentences could be reworded “Why do people need to find value in things that have value?” Which ends up sounding like a paradoxical statement.

      • ProfFarnsworth

        I still object to the redefinition.  This may be due to the fact that I am a 178 yr. old man, or due to the fact that I do not care what most people find ephemeral, but I think video games have value.  Why then are the people who find video games culturally edifying so bent on making them also accepted by society?  To me it really does not matter.

  • Crusty Old Dean

    Hear, hear!

    …but also, isn’t EDGE Magazine the Sight and Sounds of gaming? Or did it die when I wasn’t paying attention?

     

    • mnorth700

      It used to be.

      Edge does a good job at talking about games (notably their historical articles, previews and interviews) but their criticism is pretty slender to be honest. They are noted as having been notoriously harsh but they’ve changed a lot recently. It was precisely around the point where they extended their online content (about a year or so ago). Edge have been giving games higher scores lately no doubt about it. They also get ‘Edge Magazine’ to write all their reviews; that person must be very over-worked.
      Edge and Eurogamer share a lot in common I feel. Both are pretty good but their criticism is easily their most lacking aspect.

  • TheBryanJZX90

    Has the conversation about video games matured as I’ve gotten older, or is it just that historically, the sites I chose to frequent reflected my relative maturity? The latter seems correct at first. From a chaotic youth spent on AOL message boards, to a nerdy adolescence at The GIA complaining about how much cooler unreleased Japanese games were compared to the drek we got, to a self-centered young adulthood wrapped up in the personal anecdotes of “new games journalism” and Insert Credit, and now to rational discussions at The Gameological Society, what I chose to read reflected my overall maturity. But was there anything I was missing out on, or has gaming journalism (and video games in general) just grown up alongside me at the same pace?

    One thing to consider is the relatively young age of people writing about video games. Even today many of the “established” writers are right around my age or just a little older, early to mid thirties. And I’m consistently surprised to hear how long they’ve been writing. I saw a tweet from Patrick Klepek of Giant Bomb that one of his first E3 interviews was in his teens, and that his dad had to tag along with him for the review. So maybe we’re all growing up together after all.

    • http://www.avclub.com/users/ghaleonq,4597/ GhaleonQ

      Half-baked thoughts by GhaleonQ, who has insomnia because of work:

      I think both of your points relate to each other: they’re about strength through proliferation.  Take Klepek.  If I recall from my embarrassing Ziff-Davis knowledge (EGM/CGW 4 LYF), he showed up in his early teens with Ziff-Davis in Chicago, he developed himself over the internet/GIA after that didn’t work anymore, and then he rejoined 1-Up and then Giant Bomb once he could, you know, rent a car.

      In other words, he got his legitimacy by a certain amount of skill and ambition, but mostly by being around bastions of legitimacy: “old media” and trade shows.  He followed the institutions at first.  He then cemented his status by working at popular outlets, the path John thinks is the most obvious right now.

      John argues that increasing reach creates self-sorting mechanisms, and that the smarties will find smart stuff and the dummies will find dumb stuff.  But wait!  2 problems.  1: Spector didn’t choose outlets for their popularity, but for their breadth of knowledge.  By valuing and chasing information rather than appeal, art consumers could find themselves upbuilt by processing “difficult” criticism they weren’t used to encountering.  2. The stuff John mentions isn’t objectively that popular, but is made legitimate by “bastions of legitimacy.”  Mad Men gets talked about because The New Yorker and people who would buy The New Yorker at the airport wanted to talk about it.  Like Klepek chased E3, VanDerWerff chased Grantland (and Leigh Alexander chased Slate).

      I think that John’s lack of alarm about games criticism leads us to 2 dangerous places.

      We’ll have populism, which leads to compromise on budgeting or substance.  I would argue that this is true of Giant Bomb/IGN/Gamespot.  They have to feed a content-hungry population that inherently leads to “review farms” (as Giant Bomb calls IGN/Gamespot) or fleeting, thoughtless, ill-informed content (Giant Bomb, sorry).  They are never upbuilt and are often satiated by the media buffet.

      On the elitism side, we’ll have what happened with every other art form in the internet age.  Rather than investing in institutions, we invest in the art objects themselves.  (I have a number of thoughts as to why this is, but you can probably figure out aggregation and search are the primary ones.)  So, someone is no longer someone who subscribes to The New Yorker and assumes most of the opinions they hold.  He is someone who has watched all of Mad Men and posts about it on his Whatever profile.  Someone is no longer someone who buys GameFan.  He is someone who invests in writing a book about Earthbound/Mother 2 from his unique perspective that will drag the game from the darkness of obscurity or whatever he thinks he’s doing. http://www.avclub.com/articles/read-this-an-excerpt-from-earthbound-the-first-ent,99449  Institutions evolve and can be fought over.  They promote tolerance because they are a mediator, a vessel.  Art objects are what they are.  We’re now in an age where people get judged and assimilated or dismissed based on “what side they’re on” on certain objects.  Sometimes that’s politics.  Sometimes that’s Community.  They can’t evolve, only be accepted or rejected.

      Institutions can resist both paths, so I would not quickly dismiss them as useless.  John’s argument ends up being that the new model is just as legitimate as the old model, but I find that hard to believe since they don’t value the same thing.  Spector’s institutions valued information and Teti’s consumerism values community and comradery.  (Caveat: I acknowledge that the pre-globalized world could be secondarily FRIENDZ-focused if it wanted to be, but in the form of an Ivy League graduate who’d work in Manhattan and write on an arts journal hiring the same sort of person.)

      • Logoboros

        I just wanted to chime in with support for the seeing value in institutions and in working within or alongside them rather than reflexively rejecting them. I find a lot of new media folk seem to quite casually trade in revolutionary rhetoric that ends up becoming mere posturing — there’s a strong tendency to paint what you’re doing as radical and new, when it’s really pretty easy to see that in fact you’re still employing 90% of the conventions of the institutions whose obsolescence you’re asserting. It just becomes a kind of pseudo-radicalism and ends up sounding very hollow or naive.

        It also seems very disingenuous for a critic to try to privilege “outsider” status — which it seems to me is tantamount to saying “It’s good that our artform is undervalued and that the conversation about it is restricted to a small group of people whose output is largely ignored or dismissed.” And, to read that statement another way, if we just think of outsiderness as not being incorporated into a cultural institution, well, what is criticism if not the primary step into some kind of normalized discourse on a subject? In that formulation, for games to remain “outsider” means that they remain outside of critical discourse. Which is the kind of thing I might expect a certain type of artist to say (“My art just *is*, man; it doesn’t need to be analyzed!”), but seems a bit perverse coming from a critic.

        If a critic doesn’t see their criticism as part of the project of constructing critical discourse (which is an institution; if it isn’t, it ceases to be criticism and becomes memoir), then I don’t really know what to make of that. If it’s in earnest, then it doesn’t sound like a recipe for success.

        • http://www.facebook.com/people/Kevin-Johnson/501651 Kevin Johnson

          You put that a lot more eloquently and substantively that I could ever do, @Logoboros:disqus .

          Full confession: while I, like most of the people here, pretty much hate what the connotation of “gamer” tends to invoke, I don’t necessarily side with the tendency to deny the use of that term as an identifier. A “gamer” plays games. Instead of being a “non-gamer gamer” and defining cultural languages and criticisms of games in some sort of outsider box, I’m not sure why we can just be gamers, be proud to be called gamers, and work hard and push through the BS to present thoughtful and nuanced approaches to game criticisms. Doing it away from “the system” does little to help the system.

          An extreme example, but I liken it to how the identifier “feminist” was ruined, and how people bust their asses to define themselves as feminist or not, despite the fact that feminism is, by definition, a desire to ensure equality of both women and men, something most people agree on. Sure, it has gotten complex and detailed to the point of contention or ridicule (and utter confusion by even professed feminists), but the CONVERSATION is the point, and that we’re having it, that more and more people are discussing rape culture and women issues in Texas – that’s the important part. If feminism was content to define itself within outsider status, that would be great for them, but it wouldn’t do anything good or worthwhile.

          And it’s not pretty – mentioning the treatment of women in games creates a rage that is mind-bogglingly ridiculous in its sadness – but it’s a necessary one to institute change. People keep saying race has nothing to do with the Zimmerman trial, but it clearly does, and cultural critics have a duty to keep that fact in the public conscious. It’s an ugly fight, but a needed one.

          So, yeah, I’m a gamer, I’ll call myself a gamer, and I’ll happily and eagerly talk about gaming issues and criticisms loudly to anyone, whether their Xbox live assholes are not. I will always support cultural legitimacy of games (hopefully not in an asshole-ish or whiny way, which how a lot of such conversations end up as), and would love to push it more in serious intuitions – or at the very least, allow games to have a cultural cache to be discussed in the same vein as its TV/Film/Comic counterparts (what does Lex Luthor, Gordon Gekko, and Andrew Ryan have in common?), since it would hopefully lead to general improvements of gaming as a whole. [I had mentioned before my disappointment with AVC's game coverage moving off-site instead of AVC working to improve it there, like it did with its comics and TV coverage; in some ways, Gameological is representative of John's argument].

      • flowsthead

        I don’t understand the elitism criticism. Why is it worse that people are Mad Men fans rather than New Yorker fans? Is it truly a negative that more people know about Tolstoy and Dostoevsky’s works than they do about the The Russian Messenger, the magazine that published many of their works chapter by chapter? Assuming Mad Men is something that lasts the ravages of time, why wouldn’t a person’s love of the work be a positive.

        Art objects can also be fought over. They get interpreted and re-interpreted over time, and they get different baggage that comes with experiencing them. They get placed in historical context and are evaluated for different things in different ages. Their contemporaries also hold differing and changing opinions on them, as seen with something like American Beauty for a relatively recent example, or Tolstoy’s opinions on Dostoevsky for an older example.

        Maybe my counterpoint is irrelevant to what you were saying, because I don’t understand what you are saying?

      • GaryX

        I’m not going to be able to offered as nuanced a reply, but the whole “Do we need an Ebert?” question brings to mind one of my chief criticisms of a lot of the supposedly new, mature strain of games criticism.

        Ebert always reviewed a film against itself and its intentions, and I feel that a large portion of this new criticism in video games ignores this. Often, I find myself coming across long write ups about how great a game would be if it didn’t have shooting, or if it wasn’t a platformer, or if it wasn’t… and I find that line of critic rather pointless. To me, it doesn’t mean much to say “Oh this would be better if it was just a point and click” versus looking at the intentions of the game and telling me why those mechanics failed. I feel like a lot of this became really apparent with a few of the AAA games this year (which, granted, are starting to feel a bit tired), and this always comes to mind because I feel like it’s a crutch Klepek and Alexander both share when they’ve already shown they can be better writers.

        • lylebot

          Giant Bomb content is arguably fleeting, sometimes thoughtless, occasionally ill-informed.  But, on the subject of the article… Roger Ebert didn’t become well-known because his reviews were thoughtful and well-informed—one of his most famous reviews starts “I hated, hated, hated, hated this move”, not exactly a hallmark of thoughtful criticism.  He became well-known for his conversational style and for bringing his own personality and love for film to his reviews.  He trusted in his audience to get to know him through his writing, then take his reviews with as big a grain of salt as needed depending on how well they agree with that person.  

          That’s what I like about Giant Bomb.  I feel like I know them.  If Vinny or Brad like something, I’ll probably like it too.  I don’t generally share Jeff’s tastes, but I like it when he enjoys something unironically.  For me, being able to put a face and personality to an opinion is important.  Roger Ebert is the guy that pioneered that, and Giant Bomb is following him.

        • GaryX

          @lylebot:disqus Yeah, I pretty much agree. I generally don’t go to Giant Bomb for some deep, thoughtful reviews, but I know where my tastes align with each of them so well that I can pretty accurately gauge what I’ll think of a game based on their reactions.

    • http://www.avclub.com/users/ghaleonq,4597/ GhaleonQ

      To answer your question directly: it’s definitely matured as a consequence of the art’s prominence and the differentiation of them from toys and analog games.  If you’ve ever read British PC magazines or early Electronic Gaming Monthly, you’ll know that it’s come a long way.  There’s no way I would currently play video games if I was old enough to have experienced the infamous review, “Just another ninja game,” instead of Electronic Gaming Monthly’s 150th issue.  The Insert Credit Podcast just did a retrospective segment on Insert Credit where they dismissed their earlier work entirely (before they grew up and joined industry institutions like Game Developer Magazine/Gamasutra or well-known developers).

      However, each thing you mentioned depended on the support of earlier, existing institutions.

    • Mercenary_Security_number_4

       Attempts at mature gaming journalism have become more frequent over the past few years, but its a bumpy ride.  There was one very ambitious site called “Crispy Gamer” that tried very hard to be a site for the thinking gamer.  As a reward, the board of directors laid off the entire editorial staff. 

  • Professor_Cuntburglar

    Part of the issue is, I think, with the fans more so than with the critics. While most people who watch movies/TV watch dumb stuff like Grown Ups or reality TV, there is also a large culture of people who really watch and enjoy cinema as an art form. For some reason, I rarely see that in the gaming community. Most gamers approach games with the opinion of “it’s fun so whatever” and I really think that’s been holding it back.

    • Mercenary_Security_number_4

       That’s changing.  Movies weren’t given respect the very first day they showed up either.  Actually, neither was theatre.  The vast majority of people who went to the Globe Theater were thinking “it’s fun so whatever,” not “wow, I’m seeing something timeless.”

      • Logoboros

        And yet, Ben Jonson writes of Shakespeare, “He was not of an age, but for all time!” It seems to be a bit of a myth often promulgated by high school teachers that plays were just the television of their time, and perceived as a kind of trashy artform. That’s not really accurate. For light entertainment, Elizabethans had bear-baiting and mummer’s farces. Plays did play for a wide social strata, but that doesn’t mean they were perceived as artistically trivial. It’s true that there were more prestigious artforms and theater’s popularity was held against it in some quarters, but it’s rather a misconception to apply modern low-brow/high-brow distinction to it.

        • Mercenary_Security_number_4

           Point taken, though Ben Johnson was not exactly the average audience member.  In retrospect my evidence is lacking, but I would still bet that the numerical majority of audience members were not thinking far beyond their own entertainment, which is why I compared them to the gaming community that Cuntburglar has experienced.

        • Roswulf

           Yeah…I’m not sure a fawning post-death tribute poem by the chronically promotional Ben Jonson means much when it comes to the views of the typical audience member. Jonson was pretty much engaged in a comprehensive program to raise the status of theater, and thereby himself.

          I seek to defend the honor of the high school teacher. The role of theater in Shakespeare’s England was certainly not identical to modern TV, but it’s much closer to that than it is to modern theater. The churn of material, the broadness of the audience, the atmosphere that interweaved the consumption of art with social interaction.

        • Citric

          Yeah, but that’s Shakespeare. There were other playwrights who were of an age, rather than for all time. It’s not that different from today’s films, I’m sure there was an Elizabethen Grown Ups 2 that has been lost to the mists of time because it sucks.

          Besides which, if we’re talking about the general audience, not everyone went into Shakespeare hoping for enlightenment and great art. Some just wanted Falstaff to be wacky.

          If anything, that just points to how little the “eh, it’ll be fun” crowd matters to whether something endures.

        • http://sarapen.ca/ Sarapen

          @Citric:disqus Shakespeare’s plays have genital jokes and he sometimes wrote for royalty and aristocrats. This leads me to the conclusion that the Elizabethan Grown Ups 2 would have been exactly as puerile, except it probably had more anti-Semitism.

          Still, the female snack vendors in Elizabethan theatres sometimes gave handjobs as a side business so it’s not like the theatre was inherently a hallowed space of intellectual discourse.

      • Dave Dalrymple

        Aeschylus might be a better example than Shakespeare. Very little of his work survives, which suggests that few people expected it to last for thousands of years.

  • Mercenary_Security_number_4

    I think you make a very strong argument.  Looking backward is not the right move.  I would also add that its not only a matter of trying to fit video games into the film mold, its also a matter of pushing the issue way too fast.  Video games are very dependent on changing technology.  Obviously films are too, but not to the extent that the entire definition of the experience changes every few years.  I’m not sure that we have yet even discovered what will in future ages be considered the definitive form of the video game.  What we play now . . . will that one day be more analogous to the kinetoscope or the nickelodeon?  The medium is still changing too quickly and is too diverse.  I’m not saying that the diversity is doomed to collapse or that technology will slow down, but there will come a point of critical mass where a strong historical consensus will give us a much more enlightened definition of the term, allowing us to compare and analyze games across the historical spectrum in way that right now is clunky and more anecdote than theory.

     in the 1960s when Ebert was starting out, there was already half a century of feature length films.  That’s a a strong foundation in order to make historically contexted judgments.  Its hard to even say what a analogy would be for video games, but if The Story of the Kelly Gang can be called a major turning point in what it meant to go see a movie, its hard to see anything that didn’t at least have multiple screens as being a worthy contender for a comparison.  Which moves us firmly into the 1980s for video games.  But trying to say that the equivalent of a historical biopic is a plumber jumping on turtles shows what a fool’s errand this attempt at comparison is.  But my point is that we are no where near the sophistication as an art form that film was in the 1960s.  When I say sophistication I am not necessarily talking about the individual games themselves but rather our cultural framework: our language for discussing them, our expectations for them, the innate sense of what is fundamental and what is changeable.  All of these things are so far couched in terminology and expectations borrowed from other media, even as film borrowed heavily from literature before learning how to talk about a “good film” without simply pretending its a book. 

    Right now, conversations about games are very compartmentalized.  We discuss the plot/cutscenes/graphics like an animated movie and the gameplay like something kinesthetic, but we are still struggling to create a language that joins the two as seamlessly as the games themselves do.   And the best most authentic criticism will only happen once we have a working grammar that truly fits.   Ebert was born in 1942.  That means he didn’t just grow up with movies, he grew up in a world full of adults who had grown up with movies.  It takes that kind of multiple generations of natives to really cultivate a language equipped to fully dissect and deconstruct a medium.  That means we are not there yet.  Most of us grew up with video games as a natural extension of ourselves, but the people who taught us to talk and think didn’t.  So we’re a transitional generation, and thus should not yet be expected to be the genius gurus of being able to talk about it.  That will come from our children, who will have decades more of history and discussion to access in trying to figure out what is really at the heart of these things called video games.

  • Comadreja

    As John has remarked, it’s kinda funny how these people -adult, responsible gamemakers and gamethinkers- are essentially throwing the kiddy tantrum I used to throw when my parents would tell me to “stop shooting at aliens” while I played, dunno, Final Fantasy?

    It’s frustrating when your moral/cultural authorities demean your hobby as less than moral or cultural, and I can see where Spector and Alexander come from. “Let’s go and seize the throne,” they think, “if we control what is produced and make a nice impression the bigger kids will let us play with them.” It’s misguided and mistaken, though, and that kind of ‘curation’, or rather self-censorship, has never been the kind of climate where the defining works of a medium are made (which, of course, is no single defined climate at all).

    I respect Spector for the games he has made, and I respect Alexander for her quality writing on a hobby I love, but they should understand that this kind of universally authoritative attitudes tend to have little effect, and when they do it’s rather negative. Just let developers and critics do their thing and mature on their own: if you don’t you’re just trading the actual worth of the medium for your own, traditional notions of acceptance (I imagine something like stuffy, mustachioed British gentlemen discussing the finer points of Capcom-style vs. SNK-style fighters over tea).

    • ProfFarnsworth

      I completely agree, and feel the same way.  I also think that as games like “Walking Dead”, “Mass Effect”, and “Journey” continue to come out, people will find more in common with games and will accept them more.  I was able to win over my family that way as well.

  • Mercenary_Security_number_4

    Ok, now its pet peeve time.  The phrase “based on Joseph Campbell’s monomyth.”  Campbell identified a pre-existing structure.  Its a structure just as present in the dumbest of dumb sex comedies as it is in the highest forms of art.  It says nothing about the quality of the work.  Even to say its explicitly based on Campbell’s work instead of unintentionally contributing to the plethora of examples is incredibly unenlightening.  Once we didn’t realize every compound in a food is based on a molecular structure that is fundamentally comprised of elements.  Now we do.  But saying “this meal is based on the periodic table of elements” doesn’t tell us a thing about what the meal actually tastes like.

    side rant over.

    • HobbesMkii

       That’s only if you believe in Campbell’s structuralist interpretation of story. It’s only one approach to literature. If you don’t believe in it, then it’s “based on Joseph Campbell’s monomyth.”

  • huge_jacked_man

    Gaming “journalists” are nothing but shills and/or fanboys. They are without a doubt the most transparently corrupt reviewers for any medium.

    For proof of that you need only look at how Metacritic scores for videogames always go down with time as paid for “exclusive” reviews and other obvious score-for-pageviews schemes skew early aggregate scores upwards.

    Worst of all some of those prominent reviewers have apparently decided that “gameplay” is of lesser importance than the “cinematic experience” provided by a game. Now I enjoy my visual novels and adventure games as much as the next person but I am aware of what they are and who they are for. However when an average shooter like Bioshock Infinite is praised to high heavens on the strength of a mediocre, disjointed story despite gameplay that ranges from boring and derivative to plain awful (bulletsponge enemies everywhere? Two-weapon carry limit despite the presence of a crafting system?) and some of those reviewers only make passing mention of the gameplay before awarding it a perfect score then it’s no wonder the AAA market is increasingly filled with shallow cover shooters in lieu of anything original or exciting. 

    • Mercenary_Security_number_4

       ok, but watch those generalizations.  Not all journalists are that way, and condemning them as a monolith isn’t helpful or fair to the ones who are doing good work.

      • huge_jacked_man

        Like who?
        http://www.metacritic.com/game/pc/bioshock-infinite/critic-reviews?dist=positive

        Please show me where the subjective “journalist” is in there.

        The only place you will find genuinely subjective reviews is (funnily enough) on game forums and obscure blogs. Gaming “journalism” is a sham.

        • Professor_Cuntburglar

           There is this one site that has some good gaming journalism. I can’t remember the name though, I think it starts with a “G.”

        • Mercenary_Security_number_4

           You’re not helping things by defining journalist as “someone listed on metacritic.”

    • http://www.avclub.com/users/merve,96925/ Merve

      If games criticism were really that corrupt, then we would have heard a lot more stories about paid-for reviews and fixed review scores by now.

      • huge_jacked_man

        Reviewers don’t meet publishers at night in underground parking garages to trade big bags of money for grades. The arrangements are about exclusivity/page views and ad revenue in exchange for good scores. Most large publishers base all staff incentives and bonuses on Metacritics scores – including their marketing teams. In fact I wouldn’t be surprised if review scores were part of ad packages. 

         

        • http://www.avclub.com/users/merve,96925/ Merve

          Aside from the Jeff Gerstmann/Gamespot incident, there is no proof whatsoever that this happens. Look, you’re allowed to believe what you believe, and I respect that, but please forgive me if I don’t subscribe to that level of cynicism.

  • rvb1023

    Honestly, as far as cultural legitimacy goes, I think we are pretty much there. Or at least as far as any criticism can go nowadays, as the internet has pretty much killed criticism as far as the masses are concerned.

    I will agree entirely that a “Ebert” of video games is impossible (and we shouldn’t try), partly because of what you said and in part because we have sites like Metacritic and Game Rankings. Why go in depth with the strengths and weaknesses of a game when there’s a website that gives you the general idea of what everybody else thinks and gives you a summary about the length of a tweet. This is how everyone else thinks so you should think this way as well.

    On top of that, criticism really only matters to the more devoted in the first place. I work at a movie theater and the average person who works there has likely never read a review of a movie in their life. In that regard “film” isn’t taken seriously by them either, movies are just a thing. The one other person I can carry on a conversation with about movies there usually opens up with how the movie is doing on Rotten Tomatoes. He also heard The Last of Us was fantastic because it has a 95 on Metacritic. Most people aren’t looking for dialogue, they’re looking for a yes or no.

    And ultimately games in their current form just have a higher barrier of entry to justify appealing to that many people, or at least what dedicated gamers would call games. My mom can play and iPhone game but the minute something enters a 3D space or involves more than 2 simultaneous inputs she’d likely just give up. If VR ever becomes a thing, is easy to use, and is widely adopted then this might be a different case.

    I will admit I am the kind of person who does wish gaming was a bit more “normal” of a hobby but have accepted the fact that my level of interest and dedication will always make it a niche hobby for me anyways.

    And gaming really isn’t old enough to have a “Citizen Kane” of gaming, as stupid as that sounds. Most games don’t have that level of cultural saturation where it becomes a touchstone of an era and those that do (LoL, WoW, Angry Birds, Wii anything) don’t really have anything important to say anyways.

  • duwease

    I’d give you a standing ovation, but that’s such a film audience thing to do.

    *teabags respectfully*

  • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

    Related reading.

    Another thing that makes Spector’s statements seem so out of touch is that a lot of the panaceas he’s arguing for already exist and yet apparently games still haven’t been ‘legitimized’ to his satisfaction. You have folks like Ian Bogost who are regularly published in academic journals; you have folks like Mary Flanagan, Jane McGonigal, and (again) Ian Bogost publishing paper books that sit on bookshelves (of the few physical bookstores that still exist), which are written for both a high-brow academic audience and a general audience; you have a number of academic journals dedicated to games studies, some of which still do physical publication; and you have the NYT re-printing Kotaku’s game reviews. And of course, in the world of ultra-populist, lowbrow print criticism, you’ve had paper gaming mags for decades (though those are probably more akin to ‘Fangoria’ than ‘Cahiers du Cinema,’ to further torture Spector’s already-tortured analogy).

    There are already vestiges of game criticism within the established edifices of cultural discourse. This has done little to democratize games. Certainly it’s done less than the recent push of indie and casual games, which has resulted in my getting regular Farmville notifications from my 65-year-old aunt, or the subway being filled with young professionals playing Doodle Jump on their phones, or everyone from grandma to little Timmy clustering around the TV at family gatherings to take turns at Wii Sports and Wario Ware…

    • lokimotive

      One thing I will say for Spector’s argument: he sure picked the right dragon to provoke. Saying that game designers need to create a Citizen Kane of games is one thing; they’ve got better things to do than to respond. But it’s critics jobs to respond to horseshit like this.

  • Dave Dalrymple

    Gaming doesn’t need to create a critical benchmark in order to achieve validation. All it needs is creators and an audience (including critics) who are willing to engage with the medium in a serious manner. 

  • duwease

    Let me go further and ask:  How much is the concept of ‘cultural legitimacy’ legitimate even for film?  An Ebert is supposedly Spector’s goal, but did Ebert ever *really* have an audience outside of geeks whose area of affection was movies?  He was arguably the most well-known critic, but if you measured his opinion of a movie versus its financial success among the culture at large, there’s not much correlation to be found.

    So then, what really does ‘cultural legitimacy’ even mean?  As I try to put my finger on exactly what it means, I struggle.  Does it simply mean that the culture considers the output of a medium something ‘high society’ can enjoy?  If so, in film how much of that is just the pomp and circumstance of following high-status celebrities?

    Or is it simply that (and I’m projecting here), that people grew up with an elder statesman whose thoughts and opinions opened them up to so much thinking about and enjoying a medium in ways they hadn’t considered before?  It’s a powerful feeling, and to a young person it does feel like getting inducted into a longstanding society of thought.  If this is what it is, are we simply just a generation away from people coming of age in the time of Gameological Society and its brethren, and considering gaming in the same way?

    • Roswulf

       Ebert did have an audience, in part because of the very broadness of his attention to movies, in part because “At the Movies” was a thing. Imagine if the Gameological Digests were watched by millions and acknowledged by the man on the street as a source of intelligent, middle brow gaming discussion. That’s an incoherent goal in the modern world, but it wasn’t thirty years ago.

      The argument for a gaming Ebert is not that such a don of critics could shape the industry directly by making good game sell more, but rather that such a high-profile figure affects the place of a medium in the larger cultural context. And while I agree entirely with Teti that aping the path of film criticism in a different technological and cultural landscape is folly, I would like not to feel the need to justify my interest in quality writing about games to friends and family.

      • duwease

        He did have an audience, but what I’m trying to say (and struggling at, thanks to an epic lack of sleep) is that Spector seems to think of this audience as “normal” people, which is part of what brings ‘cultural legitimacy’.  I’d argue that his audience was simply the subset of society that were ‘film nerds’.  I mean, At the Movies was known of, sure, but in terms of audience popularity it was relegated to the television scheduling ghetto of Saturday afternoons, which is where shows that can’t even muster the ratings of ‘cult’ shows go.  I think Spector’s view of gaming aping the bridging of “normals + geeks” that Ebert brought is flawed, then, because in my mind he was *always* just speaking to geeks.  Given that this measure of ‘cultural legitimacy’ is flawed, I wonder what the phrase really means, because I do think movies have a cultural legitimacy that games don’t.. even if, when I think about it, I can’t say what that actually means in a measurable sense.

      • http://whatistheexcel.com/ Excel-2013

        Another part is that Ebert was given widespread exposure in film trailers and commercials. In his heyday, you couldn’t watch a movie commercial and hear about how great Ebert thought it was. Games are doing the same thing, mashing high review scores in commercials and even boxart and that cheapens the whole experience for me before I even play it. Game criticism is very much fueled by money and that one extra sale, more so than films ever were.

      • http://www.avclub.com/users/merve,96925/ Merve

        “I would like not to feel the need to justify my interest in quality writing about games to friends and family.”

        Alternative solution: go to grad school, so then your family won’t understand anything you’re talking about!

    • Dave Dalrymple

      I always thought that Ebert’s criticism was very accessible to non-geeks. He was neither a prude nor a snob. He didn’t automatically dismiss crude comedies or popcorn movies; he approached them on that level. When reviewing a “fun” movie, he rarely went deeper than “Is this movie fun? Yes or no. Here’s why.” His reasons were usually grounded in things that all people understand. Is the movie pretty or ugly? Does the plot make sense? Does the dialogue resemble human speech? I don’t think that he approached movies in a fundamentally different way than “normal” audiences; he merely articulated his reactions more eloquently.  

      • duwease

        I think it’s less to do with Ebert being exclusive in his approach than it has to do with the audience self-selecting by already being the type of person who geeks out about the output of the medium more than average.  These are the viewers who are looking to hear others’ opinions and discussion of what they enjoy, instead of just viewing it as a manner of entertainment that they enjoy and forget.

        To elaborate, I think the viewers were already the sort of people who were thinking hard about, say, what made Arthur work or not, and wanted to discuss and hear other viewpoints and learn more about comedy movies as a whole by it.  Whereas the majority of people just saw it, laughed or didn’t, and didn’t think about it again.

        That’s why I think ‘cultural legitimacy’ must mean more than just the fact that someone like Ebert is speaking knowledgably to a group of fans of the medium.  We already have that in gaming (although it’s pretty recent and rare).  There’s also a strange sense of whether the process is “normal” or not, as evidenced by Spector’s use of the word specifically.  What makes the process “normal” for movies, but not games?  I don’t rightly know, but my suspicion is just that it seems a lot more “normal” if you grow up with it, rather than it beginning during your lifetime.  People have a natural respect for traditions, which naturally require time to build.

  • http://gameological.com/author/derricksanskrit/ Derrick Sanskrit

    I’m going to try not to comment on the state of Games Journalism because that seems a bit self-serving, but I’ve always been bothered by this “quest for legitimacy.” Did Bruce Springsteen toss and turn at night hoping mainstream press would embrace his work? Did Wes Anderson strive to emulate the critical darlings he saw at award shows? If you want to make a compelling piece of media/art/whatever-you-choose-to-call-it, you just make it, show it around, and have faith that an audience will find it, get it, and appreciate it. There are absolutely games doing that now, games like Cart LifeThe Walking DeadProteus and The Last of Us, to name a few from recent months. Why do people continue to feel the need for mass approval? The quest for legitimacy is a fool’s errand.

    It was less than two years ago that Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist was released in theaters, a film about the struggle to find relevance when one form of pop media has been replaced by another, and there were multiple stories in the news about couples walking out of the theater and demanding their money back when they realized it was a (largely) silent movie. I can count on one hand the number of people I know who watched Breaking Bad during its first season on television. Disney intentionally mis-marketed John Carter so that it would fail at the box office and they could shrug and say the mass market wasn’t ready for that kind of movie. Twilight was totally a thing. If there’s anything I’ve learned from Hollywood over the past few years, it’s that the mass-market and I respectfully disagree on a lot of things. I don’t think they’re bad, and they don’t think about me very much, and I’m okay with that. Games have a larger reach now than they ever have, and they’re less of a counter-culture point of contention than ever before. The more somebody says a field lacks legitimacy, the more other people hear and believe the statement. Maybe if we all stop talking about it, this quest for legitimacy, people will forget that we don’t already have it. Then, miraculously, we will.

    • ProfFarnsworth

      I cannot like this enough!  I completely agree with you and I feel that people seek legitimacy way too often as a way for them to “emulate trail blazers” as Teti so elegantly puts it.  Legitimacy will come to games due to the fact that it is uniquely human and very much a cultural item already.  I love the examples you included.  

  • neodocT

    With all this talk about the legitimacy of games, I feel I have a confession to make: I am in the gaming closet.Only my family and close friends know I’m a gamer. It’s not something I talk about with my co-workers, nor do I post game stuff on Facebook or other social media. I skulk around online to find other gamers, so we can secretly play with each other!

    Evidently I don’t mean to say that my mild embarassment of playing games is the same as the struggle of people who feel they can’t freely express their sexuality. But it’s something I still find kind of embarassing, and I don’t think I should. Moreover, I think my attitude is the kind of thing that contributes to the mainstream not taking gaming more seriously. We have people in respected positions talking about film and literature all the time, but when will we have the first gamer president?

    So I’m taking this first step out. My name is neodocT, and I’m a gamer.

    • PaganPoet

      It’s funny how people even in my generation still view games as “for kids,” even though we were the first generation to grow up with gaming in our homes. I’m not “in the closet” as a gamer, but I do get a funny look every now and then from my peers.

      • neodocT

        Which sucks because I’m sure I have a lot of secret gamer co-workers. Plus, it’d be nice to have a conversation starter other than soccer, since I don’t know about soccer.

    • Citric

      I think it might be because I’ve got a relatively nerdy circle of friends, but I’ve never felt all that weird about saying I liked games, and everyone who knows me know that I play.

      I’ve met a couple people from an older generation who gave me weird looks – I took part in a local art show with photography, and I outright said I got into photography through Gran Turismo 4. A guy suggested that the weirder photos were explained by that, even though pictures of cars really don’t lead to stuff like this.

      (Incidentally, I really need to start with the more art-driven photography again.)

      • neodocT

         I do talk about games with my friends, but it’s not something I usually ever mention in any other field of my life, hah. It doesn’t help that I’m a lawyer, so there’s a certain air of respectability we need to maintain pretending we have.

        And nice photographs, by the way!

      • neodocT

         I do talk about games with my friends, but it’s not something I usually ever mention in any other field of my life, hah. It doesn’t help that I’m a lawyer, so there’s a certain air of respectability we need to maintain pretending we have.

        And nice photographs, by the way!

    • http://www.avclub.com/users/merve,96925/ Merve

      I can sympathize with this. I rarely discuss video games with my friends who don’t play them. And I tell them, “I’m going to go play video games” instead of “I’m going to play XCOM/Sleeping Dogs/Costume Quest/what-have-you.” I guess I’m part of the problem, contributing to the notion that video games are some monolithic mass of digital entertainment, unknowable to outsiders.

  • szacharek

    Hi there — this is a really interesting piece, but I’m afraid when you write “On the web…writers like Alan Sepinwall and Stephanie Zacharek—not to mention the staff of Television Without Pity—discovered that they could comment on TV with a frequency and depth that did justice to the episodic form,” you really mean to refer to Heather Havrilesky, my former colleague at Salon. She was the longtime TV critic there, and a terrific one. At Salon I wrote about movies mostly, and television only occasionally. Thanks, and best wishes. — Stephanie Zacharek

  • BobaFettish

    As a non-gamer, I can tell you that a big part of the problem with “mainstream acceptance” or “legitimacy” of the gaming art form is accessibility.  

    With music, for very little investment, you can have a copy of the brand new album that everyone is talking about.  It works on any CD player – from the $200 rack stereo to the $5 portable player you found at Goodwill.  Or if it’s MP3, you can play it on the smartphone you already own, on a computer you already have, or on a dedicated player, which again, can be picked up for a song if you look on CraigsList.  Same goes for a new release movie – $10 at the theater, wait for $1 Redbox rental, or pick it up for $20 sight unseen – and it works on your discount bin DVD player or your computer.  Today you even have the option of in-home PPV or the “wait for Netflix” mentality.

    If I want to play The Last of Us (which I do), I have to go out and drop $300 on a new PS3.  Even if I can find one on CraigsList for $200, it’s still a heck of a lot more than the $25 DVD player I just picked up at the thrift store so I can watch movies.  Considering I spent $250 on my new 32″ TV that I’ll use to do more than just play games, that’s quite an investment.  Sure, I can watch Blu-rays and download content with the PS3, so the investment could be worth it, but if I just want to dip my toe in the video game world, it’s a hard sell to pay out that much for something I may never use for it’s primary purpose ever again.  And I haven’t even spent $60 on the game yet, or the inevitable DLC.  
    This doesn’t even take into account the ever-evolving landscape of video game hardware.  Music is still available on CD (and even vinyl), even though MP3s are now available.  Movies are still available on DVDs, even though Blu-ray and digital copies are available.  But The Last of Us isn’t available for the Xbox or even the PS2.  Exclusivity and technological changes also create a wall to accessibility, which makes it even more difficult to “normals” to try gaming to see if they like it.

    Think about the games that have permeated society.  Soccer.  Baseball.  Football.  Basketball.  These require minimal equipment and can be played in a variety of environments.  There’s a reason soccer/football is the most popular sport in the world – it requires as few as two people (a goalie and an attacker), an open area (alleyway, dirt patch), and a ball (or a tin can).  Naturally you can also spend hundreds on a hand-stitched ball, cleats, pads, uniform, training, etc., but you can also get by (and have just as much fun) with a ball and a friend that’s willing to play.  

    Accessibility is key.  Let the masses experience it with minimal investment and it will become mainstream.  Until then you’re essentially playing polo.  And I don’t remember the last time the blue collar guys at the corner bar were going on and on about horses and polo mallets.  

    • http://whatistheexcel.com/ Excel-2013

      One has to wonder why the accessibility of a common internet browser has not yet produced anything resembling The Last of Us, to use your example.

    • Dave Dalrymple

      There is an ever-growing field of accessible games. Smartphones and web browsers are becoming a viable medium for increasingly ambitious games.

      But new AAA games will forever have a high cost of entry, just like the high ticket prices of Premier League soccer. And they still manage to cultivate huge audiences.

      • Logoboros

        Accessibility seems like a bit of a red herring to me, especially in the field of “casual games.” We’ve had cards and chess and other board games for centuries. They’re perfectly accessible. But in all that time, we haven’t really developed a body of criticism addressing them, and they haven’t typically been treated as artforms (at least not *as games* — their individual components have been, like exquisitely carved chess pieces, but not the game as a whole construction).

        The problem of recognition is that it’s not agreed or clear what the cultural function of games is other than simple recreation. Our critical institutions have constructed paradigms for the significance of other artforms beyond mere entertainment, and that’s what has raised their cultural status and changed the type (as well as the quantity) of attention paid to them.

        Gaming criticism is still struggling to articulate what the value of games is beyond stimulating the reward centers of the brain — and the number of comments on this very article that assert that what is wanted from game criticism is a description of the quality of the gameplay mechanics highlights why this problem continues to bedevil gaming criticism as a fledgling institution.

        • Dave Dalrymple

          I’d say that numerous writers (including the Gameological staff) have grown very comfortable with criticizing games on a “higher” level. They take it for granted that games can be art, and that review scores taint the discussion. They focus on how a game makes the player feel, rather than what the game makes the player do.

  • Ryan Smith

    Good commentary, John.
    Personally, I’d rather be the Hugh Hefner of games journalism anyway. 

    • Spacemonkey Mafia

      I’m afraid all we still have available is the Joe Francis of games journalism.

      • Ryan Smith

        I have 20 booth babe and “Hot Ladiez of Gamez” listicles at the ready.

    • http://www.avclub.com/users/merve,96925/ Merve

      Why not go all the way? Aspire to be the Larry Flynt or the Reuben Sturman of games journalism!

  • OhHaiMark

    I do find Gameological as engaging as any criticism site I’ve read, so very nicely done everybody!

    I think the cultural legitimacy argument is simply an argument made because this is a relatively new artistic medium and we live in an age when things become normative and then fade away within a year or two. It’s a strange process, and to me it seems outrageously quick, so having a place in the upper echelon of accepted art forms is a subconscious desire because legitimacy often translates to longevity.

    I do think, though, that it’d be nice to not be scoffed at when I tell people I had spent a significant amount of time gaming last weekend, or being told it’s a waste of time and money.

    But at the same time, I don’t really care because I’ve obviously continued to play this absolute hell out of video games anyways.

  • TeaCaddy

    Parallels between the movie and video game industries have always been rather tenuous. Sure, there are popular film tie-ins, but even the most immersive and detail-rich story-based games have more in common with Trivial Pursuit and Monopoly than they do with the world of cinema.

    Another difference is that while pretty much everyone enjoys a good movie (we’re talking subjective-good here) there is a broad division in society between those who are players of games, and those who are not. (I’m leaving out casual players of tetris-like puzzle games who are unlikely to ever graduate to Red Dead Redemption, or even Adventures in Ponyville.)

    Which leads me in a roundabout sort of way to ask if this is why you split the Gameological Society off from the rest of the AV Club? Is it because gamers are a breed apart and not of the same stripe as the folks who like films, tv shows, books, comics, music, pop-culture archeology and amusing web pages. Is it because you wanted to give cultural legitimacy to your game reviews and features by gathering them together under a retro banner that hints at the decor of 1930′s movie houses? Or is it because games are fundamentally different to all those passively-consumed entertainments covered in the rest of the AVC?

    I ask because I used to read a lot more of the games-related articles on these pages before y’all went off and built an annex.

    • Dave Dalrymple

      From what I understand (and I’m sure John Teti will correct me if I’m off base), Gameological wasn’t conceived as a “spin-off” of the AV Club. John had been slowly conceiving his own website, and the Onion graciously offered to host it.

      But there’s no question that one of the fundamental tenets of this site is that gaming can be for anyone*. Tetris and chess are no less “legitimate” forms of gaming than Mass Effect, even though they are quite different.

      *I realize, of course, that some people dislike games in any form. They hate card games, word games, and video games.

      • TeaCaddy

        Thanks for putting me straight, Dave. For the record, I developed callouses playing PacMan in the 80s, lost my 20/20 vision playing Doom, Marathon & Myst in the 90s, dabbled with The Warriors in the noughties and now mainly stick to live backgammon, poker and zilch. Somewhere along the way I lost my enthusiasm for virtual worlds as part of my gaming diet.

  • http://whatistheexcel.com/ Excel-2013

    I’ve actually been developing my own philosophy on how to critique games over the last few years. It champions maximum subjectivity and emotional intensity as its central pillars and refuses any attempts at “legitimizing” anything. The main purpose of it is to redefine how review scores should be taken, that is, anything other than someone’s own personal truth. Is a game that gets half a point less than another in a review not worth playing? What about a game that gets a 92 on Metacritic instead of a 93? To echo the article, why should differences like those matter?

    These differentials happen because the gaming culture allows absolutely everyone to weigh in on game reviews and they’re all given equal weight. A game review on a blog can have the same esteem as or even more than one on some media-sponsored website if they cover the same points. The trouble happens when scores enter the picture. Ebert’s rating systems are so consistent that they’ve become part of our culture. By contrast, major gaming publications are frequently accused with using only the top 40% of its rating scale for virtually all games. Part of the problem is that there is no standard definition of what constitutes a game. Whereas a film has to be of a certain length and include certain elements, a game can be as intricate and story-driven as a big RPG, or as simplistic and banal as Tetris, and both can attain top scores if they do what they set out to do well. Would a puzzle game that scores 10/10 be held in the same regard in most people’s minds as an engrossing days-long adventure game that gets the same score? Should puzzles be given scores at all? Would you dare not call Tetris or Pac-Man or Space Invaders culturally legitimate despite having no stories to speak of? Why should a game have to affect you on an emotional level to be considered “good”?

    To me, games are a more fierce competitor to other forms of entertainment because they have an expectation of its audience above watching it and following along. Rarely comes the game that shows you an ending for zero effort. Therefore, the score of a video game should reflect how much it’s worth putting time into, and nothing more. In a world where we’re constantly pressed to find time to get away from the stresses of everyday life, it’s up to us how to spend it. When we choose to do so by doing work, it better be good, whether we’re walking in a huge fantasy world or just making numbers go ever higher. If you need a Citizen Kane to do either of those, you’re going to miss out on a lot of good games made by all kinds of people, and all because you waited for some big name who will never come up to play a game that will never exist.

  • http://www.facebook.com/stevejcrow Stephen Crow

    Half Life 3 is surely destined to be the Citizen Kane of games…

    • Citric

      Half Life 3 is probably closer to the “The Other Side of the Wind” of games.

  • Effigy_Power

    I find the whole “gaming only preaches to the converted” an utterly pointless statement by Spector. It marginalizes the way gaming spreads primarily, which is through gamers rather than critics.
    No review with Jim Sterling, Adam Sessler or, and I say that with all loving respect, John Teti would have turned me from a non-Gamer to a Gamer because I wouldn’t have read the reviews and witty articles in the first place.

    On first sight that seems to point to exactly what Spector said, but it’s an example that’s far too flimsy. No quilting review is going to make me pick up some needles (or however that works), hearing a good review about the new Ford won’t turn me into a car buff and Bobby Flay telling me that cilantro tastes good won’t move me to become a farmer.
    What has moved me to become a gamer was my experience with other games. Nothing motivates me to play or buy a game than the first hand experiences of other gamers, which includes the people writing the reviews, but isn’t exclusive to them. It’s not game-criticism’s job to sell gaming as a concept, but to help gamers make informed decisions and keep them up-to-date with the entire hobby.

    If a time-traveler from the Victorian Age came here right now, she wouldn’t need a review by Roger Ebert to discover films as a medium, she would just let the breadth of the medium wash over her and gain a certain set of movie-watching skills. Gaming is no different in that regard. Like any other hobby or passion, the most common path to it is by contact with the already-initiated. Sometimes those are family members, sometimes those are friends. It’s when we’ve opened up that door that critics and reviewers become a vital component, because ideally they are our advocates in a very corporately controlled environment. Of course that’s not always possible and sometimes we get taken advantage of by Dorito-munching shills, but on the whole the critic is our shopping adviser and fun secretary. They make sure we don’t waste our precious gaming time on crap, pure and simple. THAT above all else is the function of the critic.
    To give critics the sole responsibility to spread gaming across the world detracts from their actual function and pretty much only serves to save corporations some marketing dollars.

    I for one am pretty satisfied with the current state of gaming criticism, at least on the very select few portals I even frequent, GS being the foremost.
    Would reading GS as a non-Gamer have turned me into a gamer? Very unlikely.
    Would reading a radiant review by a GS-writer make me as a gamer consider buying a game? Most definitely.
    Would listening to Hobbes drone on about CK2 for weeks turn me into someone sitting in front of the computer at 3AM yelling at the French King for not coming to my aid against the Almoravid Sultanate? Hell yeah.

    Gaming propagates just fine. No Citizen Kane or Roger Ebert are needed or wanted for my part. More Crusader Kings 2 DLC and mustache-less Drew Toal telling me what games I am not likely going to buy this week (but maybe I will) are all this girl needs.

    • ProfFarnsworth

      That is a great idea and I fully support that.  That is how I have converted my whole family into playing video games.  Gaming is definitely a cultural aspect of humanity.  I cannot like this comment enough!

      • Effigy_Power

        WELL TRY HARDER!

        • ProfFarnsworth

          I am liking as hard as I can!

    • Dave Dalrymple

      I heartily agree that the critic doesn’t need to be an advocate for the medium. However, I think that the critic serves a deeper function than consumer reporter.

      Reading a review of something after I’ve played or watched it can deepen my understanding of what I’ve just seen. Alisdair Wilkins almost always notices some subtext I’ve missed in his Gravity Falls reviews. Most of the people who read TV Club aren’t there to see whether they should download the previous night’s shows; they want a second* opinion on what they’ve just seen.

      Jumping back to games, a great review can make me look at a game in another way. In the case of a strategy game, the reviewer’s experience will differ substantially from my own.

      *Or they might just want someone else to validate their own opinion. Whatever.

  • Knarf Black

    “The Citizen Kane of games” meme is super annoying. One of the main reasons that Kane is so important to film was that it told a story with methods unique to the medium of film, like using faux newsreels for exposition, and extreme camera angles to visually punctuate the power dynamic between characters in a scene. It had to be a movie, instead of a novel or play, so the real “Citizen Kane of Games” would have be something that is difficult or impossible to compare to the actual film Citizen Kane.

    • http://jyhopkins.tumblr.com/ Jeremy Hopkins

      This article served as advocacy for tCKoG tumblr. I followed it because I find this issue interesting, even though I agree with you about statements such as “X is the new Y” or “X is the Y of Z”.
       

    • http://whatistheexcel.com/ Excel-2013

      I think in order to have a Citizen Kane of games, we must first identify the Alfred Hitchcock of games. My first guess would be Hideo Kojima, and as much as I like his work, I really don’t think he is the one.

      • http://jyhopkins.tumblr.com/ Jeremy Hopkins

        ‘Custer’s Revenge’ could be the ‘Birth of a Nation’ of games.

  • rosssmiller

    Great article. I agree wholeheartedly that chasing the artistic merits and critical standards of other mediums is a pointless endeavor, and actually degrading to gaming as its own unique medium. I often get irritated when game critics heap praise on a game for being “cinematic” alone, as if imitating film is the peak accomplishment of game development.

    I do like that Spector pushes for a conversation of gaming as part of a broader cultural movement, though. A lot of modern “game criticism” is simply about gameplay mechanics, graphics, etc., and not a lot of attention is paid to influences from other mediums, or how games differ from those mediums. Gaming (or “interactive entertainment,” or whatever you want to call it) is still in its infancy, but its reverence towards film as an artistic role model is similar to how early “art” films were mostly simple recreations of plays that were making the rounds.

    Anyway, it appealed to me, since I’ve been trying to write about different visual mediums in one place (SHAMELESS PLUG: mediummashup.tumblr.com). Thanks, Gameological, for continuing to be a unique take on game journalism.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Kevin-Johnson/501651 Kevin Johnson

      ARE YOU ME?

      I am also vastly interested in the differences in/varieties of visual media. I’m particularly interested in how we, as pop culture consumers, respond to and deal with the full range of entertainment that’s available to us. (My site and also shameless plug: http://www.totalmediabridge.com/)

      We should, like, talk.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Marijn-Lems/100000547645204 Marijn Lems

    “I remember one publication briefly touting itself as the Rolling Stone of games.” Well, if we’re talking about Kill Screen, that publication did do its best work when it was still operating under that motto, and that’s because they tried to copy the magazine’s underlying focus and philosophy instead of its entire identity. I strongly agree with this article as a whole, but sometimes it CAN be healthy to look at succesful approaches in other media.

  • http://www.facebook.com/andy.tuttle.79 Andy Tuttle

    I’m confused as to why movies are currently the bastion of artistic expression, and seen as the only serious form of art in the world. A work of art tells a story or expresses an idea. Why are movies the only things that seem to be able to capture this in Spector’s mind? Or is he saying that the masses can only accept movies as the prime storytelling device? Games don’t need to emulate or gain the acceptance of movies, because in the end both are trying to do the same thing. Books, plays, comics, t.v. shows, stand up comedians, etc, are all forms of storytelling. Each of these has its share of critics, why doesn’t he say games need to emulate these art forms? I’m sure his original piece had good intention when he wrote it, but he didn’t think clearly enough about what he was saying. John is right, games don’t need a Roger Ebert, all they need are good people to talk about them. It’s a simple concept really.

  • Derek_Noakes

    I don’t post here often, but this is my favorite place to at least view the discussion of video games as an art form. The comments here are often a more thoughtful and insightful take than about 99% of the discussion surrounding video games on the internet.

    I can understand Spector’s point of view. There are amazing games out there, and there have been for years, but the ones that truly bridge the gap towards “true art” have mostly flown under the radar. Spector is not calling for thoughtful insight on every cookie cutter shooter that goes to market. At least that’s not how I read it. 

    But widely published rave reviews of games such as Heavy Rain, or The Walking Dead (which was evidently heavily influenced by Heavy Rain) would certainly help bring a larger audience to games that strive to prove to the general public that, yes, games are a legitimate art form. 

    On the other hand, I think Nintendo and Apple have done more for us in that regard in the last generation than anyone else. Because the real barrier is getting people who consider it a “guy in his mom’s basement” hobby to actually play a damn game and realize that it can be fun for anyone. So maybe we should push for accessibility more than acceptance. My grandmother can play The Walking Dead on her iPad just as easily as she can Angry Birds. 

  • Ohse

    International Superstar Soccer Deluxe = The Citizen Kane of games

  • mnorth700

    Youtube is Roger Ebert

  • BobbyMcE

    Tom Bissell is doing the kind of thoughtful, serious analysis of games that Ebert did for films. There may be others, but he is the one that comes to mind.

    Gameological is not trying for that and that’s fine. But I do think it’s valuable to have writers reviewing games in that way.

    And it’s simplistic to think that the value of writers like that is only an innane quest for “legitimacy”. 

    As a lover of games and film, I find myself appreciating games after reading Bissell’s articles in ways I hadn’t before. I also find it more enjoyable to talk with my partner about games we have played. It doesn’t “legitimize” games for her, it deepens the experience of playing them. Not so different from a thoughtful article about Breaking Bad or the SFMOMA exhibit that just opened.

    Of course games can be written about in this form. Of course there are Roger Eberts of gaming and will be many in the future.

    I’m rather surprised and disappointed by your take on all of this.

    Gameological is breezy, fun, intelligent community-focused site. It publishes short, informative and often humorous pieces about games. Clearly that is also of great value to the gaming community.

    But I can’t help but wonder if your personal inability to write longer pieces in that style (Ebert, Bissell) is part of your reaction here. What you do has value and is certainly appreciated, but don’t crap on others who have other talents or the folks who enjoy and ask for more of it.

  • Eric Bailey

    … This is really good games writing. Bravo.

  • http://jyhopkins.tumblr.com/ Jeremy Hopkins

    Hey, website. Instead of trolling modernism, why don’t you do an article on whether developers releasing games exclusively through Steam is a good thing or not? (Maybe you already did, in which case I’ll read it whilst eating a big, fat slice of humble-crow pie.)