Games Ebert

Hello, I am a college student. When I am not reading academic articles about the transgression of gender boundaries in French autobiographical comics, I am reading about video games. Let me assure you, both are basically interesting, but it is far less fulfilling to study something which you cannot participate in yourself. So I enjoy the games writing much, much more.

It's Lacan! GET HIM AWAY

Why do I feel that I can’t participate in comics? See, I cannot draw, so I cannot make comics. And I can’t write about comics, either, since there are already academic rules about what you can and can’t say about comics. I consider this bullshit, but there you go: I’m getting graded on what I write about comics, and it isn’t fun anymore. But writing about games is awesome, since there aren’t too many rules, and I can say whatever I believe. I can play indie games and write about them and not feel like an asshole, whereas I would feel like an asshole if I wrote about edgy art comics, since they’ve been around since the seventies and everyone’s been writing Lacanian interpretations of them forever, so it’s old old news, and I’d be an idiot to pretend that I have something new to say. But everything about games is new news.

Do you understand? I feel that I understand the territory of games. I’ve got the map of games. It’s practically the only territory I understand at all. I’m a history student, but I don’t have the mastery of history that I have of games, and there are already a million giants of history scholarship to turn to for intellectual guidance. When you’ve got a giant to turn to, it necessarily prevents you from thinking in a fresh and unfettered way. If there were giants of games writing, I’d feel as crushed and worthless about games as I do about comics, or about Napoleon.

When intellectual giants have taken up residence in a medium, it’s hard to respond to the medium in a new way, unless your idea of ‘response’ is to fight with them over new paradigms of interpretation. Having a standard scholarship gives you the vocabulary and the shared experiences to communicate with other people about your medium, but it also limits you. Here’s a metaphor: forging a new way up a rock face is very exciting for some climbers, but those are the climbers who sometimes end up dead. The ones who stick to the pitons that are already in place aren’t going to be famous, and they’re not going to make the art of rock climbing any more exciting or diverse, but at least they’ll live to climb again.

(Anyway: read Thomas Kuhn. It will change your brain.)

But games are fresh. Games have no Roger Ebert to call their own: no mastermind of criticism who has eaten the medium up into himself, nobody who symbolizes Games Writing, scholarly or non-scholarly. I think that a lot of games people feel very inferior about this. See, Roger Ebert is, in some ways, a machine for doling out respect. Even people who know nothing about film and less about Ebert sense that the movies he likes are good movies, whatever that means. His praise actually affirms a movie’s status as art, and verifies its suitability as entertainment. Ebert is an arbiter of quality—he’s considered such an authoritative voice that the modern usage of ‘film critic’ has become synonymous with his name.

Games are pretty close to having their own Professor Ebert—there are some big-time, universally respected academic writers out there who are pretty close to becoming THE GUY, my favorite of whom is Ian Bogost. On the other hand, when it comes to non-academic writing, there are a bunch of famous writers, but they’re only famous among the members of our community. We don’t have a guy like Ebert.

Ebert is my straw man for this argument, but I think he makes a good one, particularly since we had that run-in with him several years ago over whether or not games are art. I think he’s sealed the tomb on himself with that comment—everyone knows he’s a dinosaur now, health problems or no. But he still embodies some solid qualities: respect, elitism, artistic value, authority. The Roger Ebert of video games would wield similar authority, if he existed. If Games Ebert—let’s call him Games Ebert—praised the artistic elements of a game, it would be accepted as a valid work of art, inside and outside the gaming community. Games Ebert would be like an ambassador to non-gamers. He’d be the one name they’d know. Games Ebert’s praise would confer significance. He would be respected as an intellectual.

Sounds tempting, right? That’s the kind of thing that most games-are-art arguments are really about: whether or not games and games-players can earn respect, and whether we can earn it by whining. Clever people have already noticed this: they’ve noticed that we all have this huge inferiority complex about our medium. If a Games Ebert descended from the sky and offered to organize our thoughts for us, there are a bunch of people out there who would jump up and slobber all over him like a pack of lost puppies.

I think this is a problem.

However, I don’t think Games Ebert going to appear anytime soon, at least in the non-academic games writing. Here’s why.

Some PAX East panels convinced me that the current games-writing atmosphere is too harsh to allow someone like Games Ebert to develop. One panel, ‘Journalists Versus Developers: The Ultimate Grudge Match,’ featured a pensive Patrick Klepek; musing about games journalism’s low pay, he addressed the talent bleed to other, more lucrative industries. In another panel, ‘The Death of Print,’ I saw Chris Dahlen from Kill Screen argue the need for long-form, mature, non-commercialized writing about games. The odds against his mission are pretty steep, as magazine sales are declining across the board and Kill Screen, though astoundingly well-written, is pretty expensive. Finally, I saw a panel called ‘Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Games Journalism…’ at which a set of very well-known panelists (Kyle Orland, Chris Grant, Lou Grossman, Susan Arendt, and Gus Mastrapa) restressed the dearth of money in that profession. They also debated the problem of review honesty and addressed concerns about the ways in which treating hype as news undermines the field.

What did I learn? First of all, there was an overwhelming consensus that games journalism is pretty difficult on an economic level. Games writers who want a family and a house sometimes feel pressured to leave the field, or to make it a secondary occupation. This prevents them from developing the maturity of experience and style which is essential to our mythical Games Ebert. Secondly, games journalism is ultra-commercialized: a lot of games writing is hyper-focused on games-as-products. Writing which addresses games on a primarily critical and artistic level has yet to find the type or number of forums which it needs in order to flourish broadly. There are people writing beautiful, non-academic prose about games, but they’re still the underdogs. Finally, games journalism’s reputation is sometimes uncertain. It can occasionally lack credibility. There are probably a million reasons for this, and a million ways to fix it, and we could argue about that forever, but it’s a fact.

Would Ebert have put all those years of thought and experience into film criticism if he couldn’t make a living off of it, or if film criticism was seen as something unintelligent, inane or stupid? I tend to think that he might have not. Ebert’s fame stems from the fact that film criticism is usually seen as a non-trivial, intellectual occupation. Games writing isn’t yet seen in the same way. I’m sure that it will be in the future, but only if games writers everywhere can invest years in the business, and only when reactionary characters like Alan Titchmarch and his idiot panelists fade out of public discourse. Will forums for intellectual writing create this atmosphere? Or does such an atmosphere have to exist before those forums will flourish? Or must other as-yet-unknown conditions be fulfilled? Must everything line up perfectly and magically, like the starry elements of some crazy celestial conjunction?

This is why I love games writing.

I have no idea—someone who knows more than I do about the history of film might be able to give a guess, but it’s always dangerous for us to make those kinds of connections between games and film. Because of that, writing this has been plenty uncomfortable for me. I want, desperately, for Games Ebert, if Games Ebert must exist, to be entirely different from Roger Ebert. I want him or her to have a gloriously unique voice and personality. I want them to wear t-shirts, not bow ties. I want them to tell jokes. They’ll need a broader, more-accepting intellectualism than Ebert’s. I guess, if I have to have a Games Ebert, I would want a messiah figure.

I understand, though, that messiah figures are dangerous. Maybe film criticism would be better off—more diverse, more creative—without a giant like Ebert? I have no idea. But I’m glad that today’s good games writers are on such equal terms, and I love that they know about each other and respond to each other’s ideas with respect. Remember the argument about Leigh Alexander’s Bayonetta article? That’s the kind of mutuality that I love about non-academic games writing today—the fact that all these people can talk to each other on a level. The kinds of things that are being said by clever people about games today are hundreds of times more interesting and valuable than anything Ebert could hope to churn out by himself. Part of it is obviously because the medium is newer, and hasn’t been wrung dry yet, but I’m sure it has something to do with this exchange of ideas, too.

See—when I think about how much I adore some of the games writing that’s taking place today, I start hoping that there will never, ever be a Roger Ebert of games, that there will never be an overbearing giant who carves up the medium and eats it alive, who makes it his own. If there was, I’d be cut off from games writing—my relationship with games writing would be like the relationship I have with comics writing, or with historical scholarship. I’d feel like a spectator. When I think about how incredible today’s games writing is, I start hoping that it can operate on unique terms. I’m convinced it can happen. It’s happening today, really.

I just—does this make sense?—I just want it to happen harder.