Criticizing game criticism’s critics: Why gaming doesn’t need an Ebert

Game Critic at Work

Where is gaming’s Armond White? He’s a breed of film critic that you don’t see much of, able to mount a spirited defense of a trainwreck like Jack and Jill or go on at length about the many failings of an award-winning sensation like The Dark Knight. He’s a notorious contrarian, but he supports his arguments even if he doesn’t always sell them. There’s no equivalent in what some see as gaming’s critical wasteland of product reviewers and academics. Jim Sterling’s scathing review of Ride to Hell: Retribution for Destructoid is an outstanding read, but where’s the counter perspective? Where’s the troll in the corner offering contextualized analysis that reaches past purely experiential notions of “fun” and “accessibility” to tease out what’s going on between that deeply flawed game’s 1s and 0s?

Warren Spector carted out his soapbox in a lengthy opinion piece for GI.biz in which he wonders where gaming’s Roger Ebert is. Which is to say, he’s looking for a pop critic of video games who is capable of writing for the masses. Spector readily points to established names like Harold Goldberg and Leigh Alexander and Stephen Totilo, but he quickly marginalizes their work with the assertion that analysis doesn’t qualify as pop criticism until it reaches “the parents, the teachers, [and] the politicians” via newsstands. Let’s put aside the fact that print is a dying media, and that the Internet is an ideal home for games criticism given the audience, and that Totilo’s (and Kotaku’s) work for the New York Times actually does appear in newsstands.

Warren Spector
Warren Spector

Spector’s braying attack on the current state of games criticism isn’t anything new. He himself covered similar points in a series of posts for The Escapist at the dawn of the current hardware generation. Chuck Klosterman asked where gaming’s Lester Bangs is in a 2006 piece for Esquire. Tom Bissell and noted game academic Simon Ferrari went back and forth on their differing approaches to criticism in a 2011 email exchange published by Paste. The New Statesman’s Helen Lewis asked why we’re still so bad at talking about video games as recently as November 2012; in fairness, Lewis then gave noted critic and Killing is Harmless: A Critical Reading of Spec Ops: The Line author Brendan Keogh a soapbox of his own to respond from.

These are but a few scattered examples. There are others, so very many others. 

This may be a necessary dialogue, but it’s also tiresome. We’ve read tons of lengthy diatribes on the ostensibly sorry state of games criticism over the years. So many words committed to criticizing a subject that has been and continues to be in an active process of growth and evolution. With all due respect to Spector, and to others that have piled on in the past, why pour effort into castigating a thing when you can play an active role in improving it? It’s a lesson that most of us learn from any corporate job: don’t cite problems, find solutions. Don’t attack games criticism; focus that energy instead on producing some of your own.

We’re back now to Mr. White. He’s a film critic, but he’s also a media critic. In the midst of tearing down great movies and propping up poor ones (subjectively speaking), he’s also earned something of a reputation for his vocal objections to the current state of film criticism. He’s bemoaned the role that publicists play in controlling the critical reception of a release through selective embargoes and screening invites. He’s further contended – not incorrectly – that embargo deadlines inhibit critical discourse while review aggregators like RottenTomatoes unfairly distill valuable in-depth discussion down to nothing more than a number.

This is all starting to sound really familiar, isn’t it? Embargoes encourage rushed analyses? Aggregators unfairly quantify the unquantifiable? 

Why pour effort into castigating a thing when you can play an active role in improving it?

Gaming doesn’t need an Armond White any more than it needs a Roger Ebert. It needs a Brendan Keogh and a Leigh Alexander. We’ve got them already, along with a Stephen Totilo, a Harold Goldberg, a Jenn Frank, a Gus Mastrapa, a Maddy Myers, and countless others. An accessible work of analysis doesn’t have to live solely in an ink-and-paper format in order to be read widely. It simply needs to be shared. So let’s get to sharing. Check out the websites and direct links below for strong examples of game criticism. Want more? Dig deeper into those sites. Look at their blogrolls.

Ebert became the “Roger Ebert of film” because he read and absorbed the works of noted early theorists like André Bazin and Andrew Sarris. Perhaps games criticism doesn’t yet have a celebrity on the level of the late At the Movies co-host, but there’s really no urgency to get there. A pop critic isn’t the arbiter of established critical discourse; he (or she!) is the product of it.

Websites: Unwinnable, Critical Distance, Nightmare Mode, The Gameological Society, MetroidpolitanClockworkWorlds, Pixels or Death, This Cage Is Worms, Medium Difficulty, Mattie Brice’s Alternate Ending

Direct links: Cancer, The Video GameSpace Station 13: a multiplayer space station simulator about monkeys, insane AI, cultists, and paperwork, Bow Nigger, All in My Head: A DayZ Journal (five parts in all), BioShock Infinite: Now Is the Best Time, The Universe at War: The Great Galactic War of EVE OnlineFive Things I Learned About Game Criticism In Nine Years At PC Gamer

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