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
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
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
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.