The criticism of video games

Jonathan McCalmont @ 29-04-2009

This month Blasphemous Geometries turns a conceptual corner, as Jonathan McCalmont decides to refocus the critical crosshairs on video games.

Blasphemous Geometries by Jonathan McCalmont

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Back in the 1930s, a number of physicists (including Einstein) argued that our universe is oscillatory. What this meant was that after the Big Bang, the universe expands until it reaches a certain level of density and gravitational pull, at which point it begins to contract until it ends with a Big Crunch. This idea still has some devotees. However, what made the Oscillatory Theorists interesting was the belief that after the universe had contracted back to its original singularity, it would then bounce back again; expanding until its physical limits were met and another Big Crunch was initiated. This meant that, according to the Oscillatory Theorists, the universe was stuck in a cycle of eternal destruction and rebirth. This has always struck me as a rather useful analogy for certain internet debates. “Is Science Fiction Dying?” is one such debate but another is “Where is the Lester Bangs of Video Games?”.

These debates typically draw their fuel either from some new insight or some popular writer deciding to address the question. They produce heat and light and expand aggressively, prompting responses, discussions and maybe even new publications before eventually entropy grabs a hold of them. “Oh great, this debate again” someone will moan with all of the hyperbolic sarcasm of the truly witless. “Don’t you read such-and-such?” another will ask and before long, the energy is sucked back into a singularity of ideas; lying dormant and ready to expand again should the right person stumble across the question and turn their mind to it.

Before you start rolling your eyes, let me reassure you that I have no desire to actually address the issue of the Lester Bangs-shaped hole in the world of video game writing. This is largely because I suspect that there is no such hole. The Guardian‘s Charlie Brooker began his career as a games journalist and the internet is filled with intelligent blogs and websites trying to create for video games the same middle ground between reviewing and academic theory as the one trail-blazed by Serge Daney for film, Lester Bangs for rock music and John Clute for genre. The real question is not where the writers are but rather why they have not achieved mainstream success and in response to this all I can do is point out that Les Cahiers du Cinema has always lost money and that Lester Bangs no more edited Rolling Stone magazine than John Clute runs the Sci Fi Channel. This type of writing – and thinking – has always been niche, and if you think that it does not exist then that is probably more of a reflection upon you than it is upon the writers or the market. The internet is a rich conceptual ecosystem and whether the subject matter is pornography, cats or intelligent writing, the chances are that if that niche is not already being explored then it soon will be.

Which brings us neatly to the real purpose behind this column.

For over a year now, Blasphemous Geometries has been vying for your attention with nuggets of thought about science fiction and genre. Sometimes it has allowed me to rant about super-hero films, other times it has allowed me to talk about the dwindling of the SF blogosphere and the perils of trying to define a genre. Obviously, some of these columns are more successful than others but it has always been enjoyable to finish writing them (anyone who enjoys the process of writing clearly needs their head examining). However, the time has come to shake things up and so, from next month onwards, Blasphemous Geometries will become a column devoted to video game criticism.

Each month, Blasphemous Geometries will take a look at a different game. There will be no evaluation or recommendation, only interpretation. These interpretations will not rely upon hype or designer protestations, but upon an examination of the games on their own terms. Great criticism is not about making purchasing decisions, it is about inviting you to look again at a work you might well already have experienced. I can think of no better aim for this column and of no medium more deserving of this kind of attention.

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Jonathan McCalmontJonathan McCalmont is a recovering academic with a background in philosophy and political science. He lives in London, UK where he teaches and writes about books and films for a number of different venues. Like Howard Beale in Network, he is as mad as hell and he’s not going to take this any more.

Jonathan recently launched Fruitless Recursion – “an online journal devoted to discussing works of criticism and non-fiction relating to the SF, Fantasy and Horror genres.” If you liked the column above, you’ll love it.

[ The fractal in the Blasphemous Geometries header image is a public domain image lifted from Zyzstar. ]

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6 Responses to “The criticism of video games”

  1. John Scalzi says:

    “The real question is not where the writers are but rather why they have not achieved mainstream success and in response to this all I can do is point out that Les Cahiers du Cinema has always lost money and that Lester Bangs no more edited Rolling Stone magazine than John Clute runs the Sci Fi Channel. This type of writing – and thinking – has always been niche…”

    No.

    Lester Bangs didn’t edit Rolling Stone (although people like Ben Fong-Torres, Greil Marcus and David Fricke have), but he wrote for it when it was the largest circulation music magazine in the US; he also wrote for The Village Voice, Penthouse, Playboy, New Musical Express and a number of other very large circulation and/or general interest magazines and newspapers. Pauline Kael, a critic influential enough to sway a generation of filmmakers (ask Paul Schrader or Quentin Tarantino about that) was ensconced for a quarter century at the New Yorker and at large-circulation general interest magazines before then. Peter Bogdanovich wrote marvelously about film in Esquire before crossing over to become a filmmaker himself. John Clute, for that matter, although the “niche-iest” of the people you mention, has an publishing history with a large number of general interest magazines and newspapers, including the Times (UK, New York and Los Angeles varieties), The Washington Post, The Guardian, Omni (back in the day) and so on. In video games, unconventional but intelligent and unarguably influential commentary by Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik is viewed by hundreds of thousands of readers each time they update Penny Arcade (which, it may interest you to know, is very nicely profitable for them).

    As for Cahiers du cinéma, one may very easily argue that the reason the magazine has been traditionally a money loser has as much if not more to do with its business practices than its potential commercial viability; this is a magazine, after all, that was at one point run by a Maoist collective.

    All of which is to say that the blithe dismissal of substantive criticism of the various media as “niche” shows a historical and economic misunderstanding of the role criticism has played in the makeup and fortunes of general interest media and large specialized interest media, and separately, how successful it can be, financially and otherwise, as attractive reading for large audiences.

    I also question the implication that video game criticism is or should be automatically a niche endeavor. The video game industry in indisputably a mainstream endeavor — its gross annual revenues outstrip those of the film industry, the industry employs thousands around the globe, and the production budget of a “AAA” game can equal or exceed those of films released by major movie studios. And of course, the installed base for game machines is in the hundreds of millions worldwide. Substantive criticism of the work created in such a genre need be no more “niche” than the criticism of film or music, which as noted above is not as niche as posited. That there *is* niche-level criticism of the medium is not in dispute; that this sort of criticism is *inherently* niche is.

  2. Jonathan M says:

    Hi John,

    I think that there are two things here.

    Firstly, you seem to really object to me use of the word ‘niche’. By that term I simply mean a corner of a much larger and different market. So while the names we mention were able to make their way as professional critics, their style never became the dominant form of discourse for writing about that particular subject matter. Even someone like Roger Ebert, who is both a proper critic and someone who was once the voice of popular criticism in his area, only achieved that success after being soldered to an entertainment reporter and a cheesy evaluation system. Plus, as Jonathan Rosenbaum points out, had Ebert sat there and given ‘thumbs down’ to every major studio release week after week then chances are it would have been someone else waving his fingers about on TV.

    Secondly, as for whether proper criticism is necessarily niche I suspect that there are two approaches to the question. I took the market-based one. If Pauline Kael was cloned fifteen times then I doubt that there would be enough work to support all 16 of them as professional critics. Especially given the recent and much spoken-of contraction in the market for newspaper film criticism. And this is despite Pauline Kael being one of the more accessible intelligent critics out there. What about someone like Armond White? or Serge Daney? or Andre Bazin? if these people were starting out today they would be bloggers.

    In video game journalism, the market forces are fairly obvious. There’s a market for writers willing to churn out thousands of pages of hype cut and pasted from press releases or by-the-numbers reviews. But intelligent criticism of games and a genuinely critical take on the industry? you need to look at the blogosphere or academia and academic game studies has its own problems.

    The other approach you can take to the question is one based upon talent. According to this view, the reason why not every music review is as good as something written by Lester Bangs is because there aren’t that many people as talented as Lester Bangs. Similarly, if genre criticism were able to produce another John Clute then presumably the market would find space for them too. Ditto film criticism.

    It’s something of an unfashionable idea but I have recently reached the conclusion that there really isn’t that much extra talent sloshing about the place. The reason why most books and films are badly written is because there simply aren’t that many talented writers about. The same goes for singing and, I suspect, the same goes for criticism.

    However, despite coming to accept this view (as opposed to the more humanistic view that we all have the potential to achieve but environmental factors keep us down), I genuinely do not think that if a generation of brilliant critics were born to us that these critics would hoover up all of the reviewing gigs and so change intelligent, insightful and challenging criticism into the dominant form of popular discourse.

    I simply do not have that much faith in the market to believe that.

  3. Rob Sandall says:

    John and Jonathan,

    Firstly, Mr Scalzi’s 2006 article concerning criticism of the video game genre, or a lack of it, immediately highlights an assumption that goes a long way to answering both itself and some of the comments above.

    In short, the real reason I suspect that video game critique has not received more attention is that the majority of critics (including the two of you, at least the way I’m reading your articles) are trying to shoe-horn the concept of ‘video games’ into a rating system you’ve crafted within other media.

    I don’t expect a (good) sports commentator to start discussing the touching story of friendship between two members of a football team. To be that much more blunt, a food critic does not talk about the musicality of the knife scratching his plate. They not only stick to what they are supremely knowledgeable, but they understand that a unique approach is needed to form the review in the first place.

    A great deal of the VG reviewers I know or have read are either literary or film critics who do the odd game review on the side or nerds who don’t write too well. But there’s no stigma attached to ‘nerd’ – I expect to Empire to provide me with the views of film nerds and bookslut to proffer me with, well, you get the idea. Very occasionally a good writer also happens to be a game nerd, and then Gabe and Tycho happens.

    Generally though, a well-meaning film critic surmises that, hey – I know my plots, I know effects and music. Ergo, I am also a game reviewer.

    Scali said “I think the first truly notable interactive video game narrative presentation was Myst.” He is talking about the relatively short amount of time the industry has had to be criticised as it were, but why does narrative presentation suddenly make something critique-worthy?

    “…reviews are aimed at telling readers whether a game’s play is worth shelling out $50 for, and not about the cultural and aesthetic context of the game and why it is significant in that regard.”

    And so on. What is the aesthetic context of a high tackle in American Football, and does that make a sports critique any less important? It opens up an argument on the nature of critique itself. Do film critics tell me if the it’s worth shelling out £7.50 to see a movie in the cinema? Well, yeah, they kinda do.

    To see a debate of the game’s mechanics as a less-important thing, as merely a ‘review’, is to miss the point of video games in the first place. The real reason that neither of you have come across anyone you would see as a Lester Bangs in the world of video games is simply that you are not truly a part of the world of video games. If you had read the monthly columns in Edge you would be adding salt to taste to your hats and stuffing them down your mouths.

    “The real significant critics will take for granted that the medium is significant. They won’t have to worry about justifying it.”

    Close: the real significant critics are already loved – they’re simply not a part of your world, and you won’t know about them anymore than a hardcore gamer with a mild interest in music will know who Lester Bangs is.

    This has started reading pretty angry, so I will leave it there. It’s not intended in such a way, it’s more that I will go out on a limb and say that neither of you have bothered to read any of the print magazines and journals within the industry. McCalmont mentions Brooker, but only in the context of him now having ‘made it’ in the Guardian (and I guess that therefore makes him a ‘real’ critic in your eyes, right?)

    Something smacks ever so slightly of arrogance.

  4. Rob Sandall says:

    Hah – I have also managed to typo the hell out of the above comment. Argumentative Rob is not one to let mere grammar stop him…

  5. Rob Sandall says:

    And furthermore…

    …I have come to realise all too swiftly that my arguments are a touch off topic, picking up some the 2006 article and running with it, and going for the throat concerning talented critique in VGs.

    Still, the final note you made about what you’re setting out to do is noble enough, but again suggests that you are planning to shoehorn videogame critique into a familiar format you’ve already established with film and literature.

    Finally, I bow out!

  6. Jonathan M says:

    No, I agree with you that critics native to other mediums tend to want to write about the aspect of games that most fits their native medium. Hence Scalzi’s bizarre comments about Myst. I also agree that that can be a problem.