Major changes over the last decade have reshaped the popular writing about video games, many of them for the better. Its intersection with other genres of journalism, most notably travel writing, has grounded it in personal experience. That was a marked improvement over the faux objective assessments of quality that once dominated writing about video games.
Nevertheless, the New Statesman recently ran an article entitled, “Why are we still so bad at talking about video games?” Despite that lede, the author, one Helen Lewis, never answers the question, and never makes a very concerted pass at looking for why. She seems rather content, in fact, to characterize the current state of game criticism, and that characterization can be fairly called despairing.
Not unsurprisingly, this sparked indignation among some game journalists who thought that they had been charting compelling ways of talking about video games. They were stung in part by the visibility of the article and the authority of its author — Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman — but all the more so because she did what many journalists have failed to do: she acknowledged the growth of New Games Journalism. There, too, her attitude was dismissive. The movement, she wrote,
prompted much soul-searching, and many sub-Tom Wolfe pieces in which people bored on for thousands of words about seeing a pixel and suddenly understanding what love was. But eight years later, the state of games writing is even more bleak.
That’s overstating the matter a great deal. The analogy to travel writing did a great deal to open game criticism to new points of view. If nothing else, it loosened the stranglehold that the review format once held on the field, and resettled game criticism on the sorts of experience on offer. If the essays of the new wave were, at times, too personal, then at least they rarely shied away from the substance of what matters to readers, even after the screen showed “Game Over.”
Yet, if the state of games writing is not so bleak as Lewis would have us believe, it remains burdened by certain complexities that distinguish it from other forms of criticism. Those problems have been an ongoing topic of discussion on Culture Ramp since its inception. It’s worth recapping some of the major themes:
- The increasing complexity of games has raised the bar for entry. Explaining the basic experience of playing Pong to someone who has never played a video game might not be that difficult, but building on that explanation to a compelling description of Mass Effect makes for a significant challenge. That was the gist of “Why gamers can’t talk about what they do,” and it goes a long way toward explaining the fundamental difficulty of talking at a high level about the significance of any given game released in the last 30 years. So far, the best ways to bypass the scaling problem of game writing have relied on analogy—sometimes the very analogies suggested by the iconography of the games themselves.
- That the analogies by which games describe themselves can be misleading poses a second problem. It means that we’re often lulled into talking about them in terms that don’t accurately convey the experience of playing the game. The biggest single illustration of that principle is the persistent controversy over video game violence. As I wrote in “Video games and the Doors of Perception,”
Guiding Nico [protagonist of Grand Theft Auto IV] through crime-themed missions is not really like being a criminal, any more than playing Pong is really like playing table tennis. The fact of the video gaming apparatus mediates and modifies the experience, in ways not entirely dissimilar to that in which four-tenths of a gram of mescaline mediated and modified Huxley’s experience of a bright May morning.
- Many of those analogies are rooted in familiar art forms. Triple-A games in particular seem plagued with cinematic aspirations, but the indie market is no less prone to the anxiety of influence. The still mostly niche market of interactive fiction, for example, has heavy ties to traditional literary forms. Those similarities seem to invite us to talk about games the way we would talk about the art forms that influence them, but that too may be misleading, as I suggested with “The interpretation of games.” Sometimes it’s worth looking at the tension between how a game is played and what, by borrowing the language of other mediums, it seems to be saying—but there’s no guarantee that we’ll always be best served by that approach.
- Finally, all of these issues have been exacerbated by our tendency to think of video games as something with hardly any precedent at all. As I argued in “Jumping the divide,” there is a set of reference points that have so far been left mostly unexplored by game writers. Other forms of non-video play may be useful for helping overcome the obstacles we face in attempting to talk meaningfully with non-players. It may even help us better understand just why we find video games so compelling.
Many of those difficulties can be summed up by asking what it is we’re looking at when we talk critically about games. Traditionally, the answer has been roughly analogous to the case of television. That is to say, our attention has generally been commandeered by what’s taking place on-screen. We tend to focus on the visuals, the sounds, the narrative, the iconography. Yet much of what distinguishes the experience of playing a game is the feeling that all of those on-screen events are happening in response to what you’re doing. Part of the allure of a video game is the curiousness of the relationship that allows the player to participate in what is, to the third party, an exhibition, passively observed.
There is, in other words, an intangible fold in the space between the game and the player where much of the experience of gaming takes place. As a critical blind spot, it is particularly intransigent, but finding a better way to talk about games may mean learning to attune our sensibilities to it.