In some regards, it has been a threshold year for video games. In reverse chronological order, there was, first of all, the Museum of Modern Art‘s announcement that it had added fourteen games to its permanent collection highlighting design. That sparked off another round in the debate of whether or not games can be art, but the question feels perfunctory, as though it has already been obviated by a more pressing concern. The outlines of that concern could be discerned in an editorial published by The New Statesman toward the end of November, in which editor Helen Lewis asked why we’re still so bad at talking about a medium that’s been around for roughly four decades. That raised hackles in the game journalism community, but it is, perhaps, a marker of the form’s maturity that many answered with considered arguments rather than unadulterated ire. They are right about this much: popular writing about video gaming has grown in stature and sophistication. But in support of Lewis we can point to the continuing mystification of non-players over the rising fortunes of gaming—not to mention the rising fortunes to be made from their sale. That audience found its representative in the Financial Times‘ Lucy Kellaway, who wrote a widely circulated editorial about her attempt to connect with her sons by playing video games as a judge for the GameCity Prize.
What each of these bumps in the zeitgeist signals is the growing awareness of the seemingly incomprehensible divide that separates those who play video games from those who do not. It marks a threshold in game journalism not so much because it presents a solution to the problem, but because it has attracted so much attention, particularly among game writers, to the challenge of solving it. How, in other words, do those of us who have invested large portions of our lives in pixels moving on a screen explain to those who haven’t just why we find those experiences so meaningful? Here at Culture Ramp, we have cast our vote, arguing that jumping the divide means appealing to shared experiences that can serve as point of entry.
To that end, we have invited four writers to participate in an experiment in game criticism. Each of them were asked to write about a game they had found compelling, but with a few restrictions:
- Write as though your audience is made up of reasonably intelligent adults familiar with the basics of video game systems, but with no prior experience actually playing them.
- Focus less on representation than on behavior—that is, on what it’s like to do things in the game, rather than on its story or iconography.
- You may use other games as reference points, but not other video games or video game genres. You may illustrate or explain using personal anecdotes, but the essay should not hinge on experiences your reader might not reasonably be expected to share.
To readers already steeped in video games, these essays may seem rather simplistic, lacking as they do the jargon veteran players use to discuss their hobby. Insofar as that jargon is a stumbling block to communicating those experiences with non-players, that omission is by design. The authors have had to take the long way around, describing behavior that most of us would take for granted, and without which the experiences that make a game compelling is all but lost in translation. Read them in the spirit of diplomacy; see them as attempts to ground game criticism in experiences that are comprehensible to the uninitiated. Our hope is that, in doing so, we will all learn ways to approach the divide between us.