Videogame industry circles were abuzz today with what could be characterised as a sense of empowerment.
Tweets were retweeted and likes were accrued, and there was a sense that, finally, someone had vocalised what developers everywhere had been thinking but that they hadn’t had the platform or the courage to say: the quality of critical discourse produced by the gaming media leaves much to be desired.
Where, opined Deus Ex creator Warren Spector, is gaming’s equivalent of the famed, late film critic Roger Ebert?
It is an interesting point, and in many ways, Spector is right. Much of the public discussion of videogames is entirely disposable. Far too many reviews read like product descriptions with a score attached, and YouTube is awash with homespun videogame commentary scarcely more interesting than a soggy tomato sandwich.
“In this journalistic world, the quality of games journalism reminds me of what you used to see in amateur science fiction, comic book and movie fanzines,” wrote Spector in a column on GamesIndustry.
“What we need, as I said in an earlier column, is our own Andrew Sarris, Leonard Maltin, Pauline Kael, Judith Crist, Manny Farber, David Thomson, or Roger Ebert. 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. We need what might be called mainstream critical theorists.”
The problem with Spector’s vision of a world where a new breed of videogame critical theorists argue eloquently with one another across the pages of the New Yorker is that such discussions rarely occur because there’s not nearly enough material worthy of the debate.
If we’re ever to elevate the discourse of games the way Spector would like, we’ll need something more to work with than slow-mo breaches, bullet-cam headshots, and Oswald the Lucky Rabbit.
We can’t just make things up to say about games. We can’t hold a meaningful discussion about authorial intent when too often the author’s sole intent was to deliver a hollow spectacle or series of escalating achievements that kept audiences mindlessly titillated long enough to develop the next instalment.
The industry continues to box itself in by appealing to the same narrowly defined audience of youthful males who enjoy shooting things. It means there’s neither the content to discuss, nor generally speaking, enough interest amongst the audience in the kind of critical analysis that Spector covets. Worse, when that kind of journalism is attempted, many of the industry’s most loyal and vocal consumers shout it down. The torrent of misogynistic abuse levelled at Feminist academic Anita Sarkeesian for doing little more than expressing an interest in exploring gender tropes in games is one particularly telling example.
Never mind that Ebert himself (wrongly) contended that games could never be art, and that they could never be discussed in such a way: would he have plied his considerable, and considerably edifying critical talents to the world of film if there was no The Godfather, no Apocalypse Now, no The Right Stuff? Would he have persisted or even existed as a critic if the annual film calendar was defined by the release of another Rambo and another Top Gun? I somehow doubt it.
To wonder aloud when or where the Roger Ebert of games criticism will emerge is wrongheaded. First, we must ask where is our Scorsese, our Hitchcock, our Coppola, our Tarantino? Where is gaming’s Stanley Kubrick?
A precious few developers may already be taking those first, intrepid steps along that road. Once these new developers are ascendant, once “adult” is no longer just a byword for “graphic” on this medium, perhaps then we can start to discuss a new critical grammar for games, and begin the search for its greatest practitioner.