Game criticism in the spotlight

There’s been all manner of buzz regarding Chuck Klosterman’s column about the lack of game criticism in Esquire magazine. The title of the article is “The Lester Bangs of Video Games”. Klosterman compares video games to rock-n-roll in the ’70s, and one line that seems to stand out is the assertion that video game criticism “doesn’t exist.”

On Monday, GameSpot featured a Q&A with Klosterman in an attempt to address the gaming community.

I’m not going to use this space to slam the guy — while saying that game criticism “doesn’t exist” may sound harsh at first, Klosterman’s not ignoring the fact that there are people who write about games, but that from his point of view, it doesn’t seem that many are taking game writing beyond the nuts-and-bolts “yea-or-nay” review or preview. So in a sense, it’s stuck. Is he right? Well, it depends on what you’re looking for — do you want to know if someone liked the game, or are you the kind of reader who likes to “experience” someone’s prose?

I’ve got a few random thoughts on this topic, based on my humble experience in the newspaper biz. I’ve numbered them for the sake of clarity, but that doesn’t mean one is more important than the other. Read on, if you like.

1) The problem of “me” in “new” game criticism: Unfortunately, you have a lot of people who want to be the next (or first) great game critic by writing epic prose about how a game added meaning to their lives, or how it helped them unearth some kind of hidden feelings about their past. If you’re lucky, they’ll tell you if they liked it or not.

As a journalism student, one of the lessons that was drilled into my head about writing a product review column is this: No one really cares about you. This means that readers generally want to know whether or not you liked something, not about your trip to Coffee Bean or the inner soliloquy you have with yourself before you even take the plastic wrapping off. I’m guilty of injecting “I” and “me” into stuff I write, but I at least try to make it relevant to the game in some way. With every piece that’s a worthy attempt at game criticism, there’s also a wealth of posts that rant and whine, and the last thing readers want is an eyeful of the author’s venomous drama that has nothing to do with the product.

Because the response you’ll get from most readers is, “You get to write about video games. Sit down and shut up.”

2) The concept of journalism: It would probably help if some of the people who called themselves journalists didn’t cheer like an army of trolls every time Ken Kutaragi or Reggie Fils-Aime says something at the pre-E3 press events. This is the equivalent of sports beat writers openly cheering for one team. The courtesy clap and reacting to something truly impressive (or funny) is one thing, but simply seeing Snake or Link on a big screen shouldn’t be cause for wild whooping, should it?

Example: During the Sony pre-E3 press conference where they first went over the PS3, I sat next to a guy from one of the larger gaming mags. He covered it like a pro, with the only reactions from him being the occasional “whoa,” or “nice.” Other than that, he took notes. Meanwhile, a few rows away, you’d hear a “yeaaaah!” or “wooooo!!!” with practically every presentation. This feeds the grossly inaccurate perception that games (and gamers) are undisciplined and immature by nature. Sadly, it’s a perception that’s held by a lot of mainstream media outlets, which is why you won’t find (or at least hear about) too many game critics.

Many papers aren’t quite sure what to do with this content, either. I have the pleasure of writing for our arts and entertainment section, which I see as a step in the right direction. But many others could end up getting buried in the business section next to the stocks tables or something. Not exactly the first place one would look for a game review.

3) Figuring out the audience: From a writing standpoint, who do you try to get with your work? Should the review cater to the informed tastes of the hardcore gamer or should it serve as a gateway for the uninformed, the so-called “noobs?” Welcome to the great balancing act. For local newspapers, readership plays a big part. If your paper’s core readership has an average age of 50, waxing poetic about framerate, jaggies and 1080p might not work. Or — perhaps you could talk about it, and run an “explainer” box with the column. There’s no real way to know HOW readers will respond, but the numbers are a factor. The dangers of writing a game review that everyone can understand is that you might find yourself playing catch-up with your columns for the rest of your life. And if you’re always catching up, how do you reach the “next level” of criticism?

I can certainly hash out more thoughts, but I don’t want to jump on the bandwagon that beats this topic to death. To me, the art of game criticism is still being refined and I’m only one of the hundreds of guys and girls trying to find out what the next great game review is, or what it even looks like. Keep in mind, gaming is only about 20 years old. Give it, and the people who write about it, some time.