The Death of the Death of Game Criticism
Supposedly, there’s a problem with game journalism (part one). It’s worth pointing out that if you have an article entitled “The Problem with Games Journalism,” then the tagline of your site best not be “Independent game journalism.”
Yesterday, Kotaku published a piece by the site’s Managing Editor, Brian Crecente which is entitled: “Death of Criticism: The Death of (Video Game) Criticism.” The article is a response to a piece written by famed film writer/critic Roger Ebert entitled “Death to film critics! Hail to the CelebCult!.” Ebert’s piece should be considered a must-read; his insights into film criticism and, in some respect, criticism on the whole are invaluable and he’s a remarkably talented writer. He was the first film critic to win a Pulitzer Price for Criticism back in 1975. 1975. When reading an article entitled “Death to film critics! Hail to the CelebCult!”, it may be easy to think that the contents of such a piece will be a doom-saying condemnation of the state of modern film criticism from someone who is over the hill and out of touch with the times.
That’s a trap.
Ebert doesn’t drop a theory then throw a pun or a joke in stylish prose and leave the meaning up to his reader. The piece may run long but each paragraph consists of substance. When detailing his thoughts on the “CelebCult,” Ebert gives his opinion on the matter, relates an example about the difference between the treatment of celebrities in the 1950s to those of a pair like Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, gives a concrete example of a paper’s treatment of Twilight’s fanbase over the film, and then examples of writers whose time has come and passed.
I have a background in English and Creative Writing, not journalism or literary criticism. The goal of a creative writing is for an author to imbue his own meaning into his story so that others can glean the writer’s intended themes and messages while, at the same time, having a work resonate with them in their own unique personal way. This is a practice that, in my mind, is in stark opposition with the goal of a critical writer or journalist. Criticism is about an author bringing his/her interpretation of a creative work to light in a way that is both unique and thought-provoking. This is discourse that is inevitable in any industry based around a creative product; movies, music, film, and, yes, video games. Video games serve fundamentally different purposes than any of the other aforementioned media but they are creative works and, as such, will and should be open to critical discussion.
Given this mindset, the goal of Crecente’s response article eludes me. At first it reads like an homage to the sad realizations of a critical legend and then it transcends into a sort of “I knew this for years” swan song. Crecente waxes lyrically in concordance with Ebert, echoing sentiments such as:
“If you want to assign blame I suppose you could point a finger at USA Today, at how that national McPaper turned every story, no matter how important, into a glorified brief with colorful charts.
Over the years, papers across the country scrambled to follow suit, shrinking their stories to fit smaller and smaller holes in the paper. Sure, some of this was done because of the desire to run more ads in a newspaper, but most of it was the product of focus testing, of hitting the streets and asking people what they wanted. What they wanted, apparently, was not to think too much about anything.
So papers, first small, then large, begin to cater to the lowest common denominator, what they thought was a genuine desire for short, fast reads. I remember working at a large newspaper when an edict came down that all stories had to be a certain word count, that the first sentence of every story had to be only so long, rather short.”
Stylistically, it’s well-written prose but lamenting the death of critique by criticizing the lack of critique without constructing a valid argument of your own doesn’t seem the best way to make a point. Normally, I’d pay an article like this no mind, but the name of the piece is “The Death of (Video Game) Criticism.” Joining in Ebert’s sadness for professional criticism is one thing, but it seems irresponsible to join in Ebert’s sadness when referring to industry that’s never made its ideas known within the boundaries of traditional media. The death of video game criticism isn’t going to depend on the lifeblood of a newspaper’s features section; I’m still amazed when I see a story in the black-and-white pages of my local newspapers that’s even remotely connected to the video game industry. I’m more impressed when I see a story actually about the video game industry. And I’m amazed when I see a story about the video game industry that gets all the facts right.
The problem with games journalism is the focus on problems with games journalism and the idea that the existence of game reviews is mutually exclusive from the existence of game analysis and criticism. There was an article published by Keith Stuart which brought up the relevance of innovation in the scope of a game review. Leigh Alexander, a writer for Gamasutra, followed Stuart’s lead and added her own sentiments. Eventually N’Gai Croal, a columnist for Newsweek who runs the Level Up gaming blog, also enters the mix. These three articles may not accomplish anything in the physical sense: no customers may have been motivated to buy or not buy Mirror’s Edge as a result of their discussion, the lack of sensationalist headlines attached to their pieces may not have gotten a great deal of what I’m told are the incredibly important clicks, or anything like that. What these authors accomplished is more memorable than any of those individual feats (and is confirmed by the existence of “The Problem with Games Journalism: Part One“): people can get excited by the presence of intelligent game discourse beyond visual fidelity or amount of gameplay present for sixty dollars.
The fate of professional film criticism may hinge upon the fate of the goals of the Features section of newspapers around the globe, but as far as the gaming industry is concerned: the Internet is kind to writers. Keep it up. Writing about games is just getting started.