Over this past summer, Chuck Klosterman ignited something of a powder keg with a column for Esquire on the lack of game critics (as distinct from game reviewers) in the media today, despite the self-evident (to Klosterman and myself and quite a few others, I’d imagine) cultural significance of games and the gaming industry. This seemed to get quite a few games “journalists” around the web in a tizzy, because they interpreted Klosterman’s speculative curiosity as some sort of gauntlet tossed to their feet. The unfortunate facet of this entire affair, however, is that both Klosterman and his detractors in the game journalism community have excellent points that need to be addressed. Klosterman displays a certain hopelessly optimistic naivete regarding the acceptance of games as a potent cultural force, but rightly calls into question the credibility of most of the current game media.
To address C.K.’s first major question (to wit: why is there no Lester Bangs in games journalism?) is simplicity itself, and I’m surprised a guy as close to my age as Klosterman is doesn’t know the answer without asking. There is no Lester Bangs in games journalism because until a few years ago, gaming was still essentially written off as a hobby of the hopelessly geeky…a male-dominated pasttime that attracted those who had absolutely no social skills and couldn’t find girls to spend their weekends with, and therefore huddled before the glow of the TV pretending to be badass soldiers or fighter pilots or wizards or whatever. The male-dominated thing is still true, which is a shame, but at least now one can admit in casual conversation that one owns an Xbox and enjoys the occasional round of Halo or Dynasty Warriors without being written off as a complete loser. To put it more concisely, Lester Bangs wouldn’t have been Lester Bangs if the only people that listened to rock and roll were social pariahs among their own age group.
As to the larger issue of the suspiciously absent game critics, I think the problem is still the relative infancy of gaming as a socially accepted hobby and a valid mode of narrative and artistic expression. The nature of video games as a “mixed medium” make critical approaches difficult, given that most existing critics have been trained in only one of the various modes that would be helpful. There exist very few scholars who can move equally conversantly between narrative criticism, music criticism, and film criticism, all of which fields contain part of the requisite toolset to really approach games critically. Add to this the fact that those few scholars that do possess all the skill sets are unlikely to be gamers (at least at this point in time), and the problem is compounded nigh hopelessly. All of these issues still fail to address that there’s also some necessity for said critic to be able to approach the game as a game and speak critically on that level as well, adding game theory to the rich mix of critical skills necessary to take up the task. Oh, and a dash of history wouldn’t hurt either, as it would be helpful to understand a given game’s place in its genre, the reputation and common themes/tropes of the development studio, and any and all technical innovation driven by either the code or its control scheme (i.e., the platform upon which the game is played).
There are folks that certainly possess the necessary knowledge to at least take a shot at fulfilling Klosterman’s noted void, though perhaps not as thoroughly as Klosterman would like. It isn’t necessary for a game critic to be some hyperintellectual academic with a pedigree in three forms of criticism as well as a deep understanding of game theory and history. Hell, Lester Bangs was no Ph.D. Bangs got by with a talent for the written word and a deep and abiding passion for music. His knowledge of rock and roll was unrivaled among his peers, and he seemed to grasp almost intuitively the geneological evolutions of style, sound, and subgenre. There are certainly committed gamers who have that kind of knowledge and can fluently discuss the virtues of Square’s RPG titles prior to and following their merger with Enix, shifting quickly to the evolution of the FPS from Wolfenstein 3D to F.E.A.R., and round the convo out talking about the trials and tribulations of Atari and Nolan Bushnell. Many of these folks are writing on the game industry as we speak, but they lack something Bangs had in abundance: unabashedness.
Coming off a childhood and adolescence heavy with mockery towards their chosen hobby, the current crop of games reporters have adopted an irony-laced and deeply self-deprecating approach to their subject matter, undercutting their own enthusiasm and credibility with pages and pages of snark and affected attitude in order to push themselves to the proper ironic distance from gaming itself. This attempt to drum up some level of hipster street cred prevents, I think, anybody from taking them seriously as either journalists or critics. The alternative mode for gaming journalists is that of unabashed and unapologetic fanboy, which is only slightly less grating than the faux cool of the aforementioned set. This level of enthusiasm also creates its own problems of credibility, particularly when it comes to reviews and review scores, as the gaming sites make accomodations to remain in the good graces of the game industry itself. The various review sites are rich with examples of games that got marks that seem, at least to a goodly number of those that played the games, completely out of line. Even worse are reviews that bemoan problems with particular title that, if one actually plays the game beyond the twenty-minute mark, entirely disappear — betraying the fact that a good many of these games get only the most cursory of examination before final judgement is passed, erroneous as it might be.
So what will it take for there to be a Lester Bangs of game journalism? A handful of factors seem to come into play. First, we need just a bit more time to pass from the days when game-playing was purely the provence of the pocket-protector set. Then, we need either a cultural shift in the corporate game environment to become more open with their process and their products, or alternatively for a seriously influential taste-making publication to arise in the games field. The current magazines and websites are considered too often as merely the mouthpieces for corporate press releases — as a result, it’s hard to take their writers’ statements as seriously authoritative. The ones that aren’t suspected of being corporate shills or selling review scores are too packed full of bullshit faux self-loathing and mockery of their target audience (and themselves) to be read as serious criticism. Finally, we need a writer to take up Klosterman’s challenge, one that possesses the knowledge of games and the critical eye and ear to evaluate the artistic presentation necessary to really dig deep into a game’s success or failure as a work of narrative, art, and game design — who can also sling verbiage around with the same reckless abandon and sheer prose stylistics that made Bangs so much fun to read.
No sweat. I’m sure someone will get right on that.