chuck klosterman and the lester bangs of video games

Sunday, December 06, 2009 | |

man and taxis
(Outside Yongsan Station end of October. Completely unrelated to this post.)

In July 2006, Chuck Klosterman laid out the state of video game criticism as he saw it in a feature piece in Esquire:

If you're reading this column, I'm just going to assume that you believe video games in 2006 are the cultural equivalent of rock music in 1967, because that's (more or less) reality.


So we all agree that video games are this consequential force, right? And we all assume that these games have meaning, and that they reflect the worldviews and sensibilities of their audience, right? And anyone who has played modern video games (or has even just been in the same room with someone who was playing) has undoubtedly noticed that games like Grand Theft Auto and Bad Day LA are visually transfixing, because the images are often beautiful and the movements of the characters are weird and hyperreal. Everyone seems to agree that all of these notions are true. Which prompts me to ask the following question: Why are there no video-game critics?

I realize that many people write video-game reviews and that there are entire magazines and myriad Web sites devoted to this subject. But what these people are writing is not really criticism. Almost without exception, it's consumer advice; it tells you what old game a new game resembles, and what the playing experience entails, and whether the game will be commercially successful. It's expository information. As far as I can tell, there is no major critic who specializes in explaining what playing a given game feels like, nor is anyone analyzing what specific games mean in any context outside the game itself. There is no Pauline Kael of video-game writing. There is no Lester Bangs of video-game writing. And I'm starting to suspect there will never be that kind of authoritative critical voice within the world of video games...

[. . .]

Video-game criticism can't evolve because video-game criticism can't get started.

"It's weird that Entertainment Weekly doesn't have a video-game column, and that The New York Times only writes about gaming sporadically," says Henry Jenkins, a professor of comparative media at MIT and the author of From Barbie to Mortal Kombat: Gender and Computer Games. "Aesthetic criticism exists in this industry, but only as arguments among gaming scholars and game creators. And the gaming industry suffers because of that. There is a very conservative element to gaming because absolutely everything is built around consumerism. Game designers are asking themselves questions about how a game should look and what it should do, but not about what the game is supposed to mean."

And that, ultimately, is why the absence of video-game criticism is a problem. If nobody ever thinks about these games in a manner that's human and metaphorical and contextual, they'll all become strictly commodities, and then they'll all become boring. They'll only be games. And since we've already agreed that video games are the new rock music, we'd be facing a rather depressing scenario: This generation's single most meaningful artistic idiom will be--ultimately--meaningless.

There is a void, but there is still time to fill it. Somebody needs to become the first significant Xbox critic, stat. If nothing else, I'm sure he'll get rich.

Full disclosure: Those last two sentences, when I read them my freshman year of college on the North Dakotan prairie (incidentally, on the very same campus grounds from which Klosterman himself graduated), made me briefly, secretly consider devoting the rest of my life's energy to becoming that person. Roger Ebert became a flashpoint in the games-as-art debate when he famously wrote that he "did indeed consider video games inherently inferior to film and literature." Having grown up on Ebert's film criticism since third grade, I've always admired his style more than that of any other writer both for his wit and for writing exactly the kind of criticism that Klosterman champions: cutting past plot summaries and explanations by way of comparisons to other films to focus on his reaction to his personal moviegoing experience, and what it means, what it accomplishes. I was so crushed by his dismissal of games as high art that I pleaded with him to reconsider over the course of three letters totaling 3720 words.

I've only now come across the riposte delivered by Clive Thompson, editor at Wired, and one of the finest game journalists today. He noted that such criticism does exist, but that Klosterman, in misplacing his emphasis on the importance of traditional print, was looking for it in the wrong place--instead of sitting on newsstands, it was being practiced online by bloggers and message board users. He further argued that the internet is not only the natural forum for game discourse, it is the only feasible one:

Game criticism isn't economically viable enough to support traditional, professional critics... If movies took 50 hours to watch, would there be any movie critics?

Nope. Newspapers and magazines couldn't pay enough to compensate that sort of time... [B]loggers and layperson enthusiasts will always be the most innovative writers on games. They're infinite monkeys, and they've got the weeks to absorb themselves in a game and generate a brilliant take on it.

Nevertheless, it looks like someone is answering Klosterman's call for a print publication that takes games and criticism seriously, and it appears they may have found an avenue to solve Thompson's funding problem--the internet itself, in the form of Kickstarter. The magazine is called Kill Screen, and its first issue, completed and in the process of being printed, will feature pieces from contributors to The New Yorker, GQ, the Wall Street Journal, Pitchfork, The Daily Show and Colbert, among others.

I'm pretty psyched for this. They've posted some sample pages from the first issue, and given an interview on Kickstarter's blog in which they link to three examples of game writing in the mainstream media that they admire:
Sure — here’s three. Tom Bissell (who wrote a piece for us) did an excellent profile on Cliff Bleszinski, the lead designer for the “Gears of War” franchise. Daniel Radosh’s New York Times Magazine piece on Beatles Rock Band is phenomenal as well the Jason Fagone’s profile of Jason Rohrer.

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