Ivory Towers: Embracing Academic Criticism of Games
Many of us sniff at the idea of serious criticism and academic research for games - but this is an important step for the medium
I've never had much time for the artificial separation of 'high culture' and 'low culture' - the concept, which has existed throughout history, that the popular culture enjoyed by the masses is intrinsically inferior to the (generally older and less accessible) forms of culture enjoyed, albeit not exclusively, by the elites. Still, it's hard to shake the old dogma and the instincts it brings with it. The big shelf of comic-books underneath all the Proper Books still earns a slight reddening of my cheeks when guests say, "wow, you like comics?". My Blu-ray collection doesn't necessarily sit comfortably with my memberships at the Barbican and the National Theatre.
Games tend to fall into the same trap. I'm passionate and enthusiastic about games as a medium, but there are times when I can't help being a little apologetic, too. In part that's because games are a young medium, and they still struggle for cultural acceptance - think of how long it took before we started regarding film, television or rock music as something worthy of high-culture status and critical regard, and you realise how far we have yet to go. Comic books and pop music, both older media than games, are still struggling to break through the same barrier.
Sometimes, though, we don't help ourselves. Perhaps it's a consequence of batting against the glass wall for so long, each time repelled by stinging commentary from critics - Roger Ebert being only the most recent in a long line - but large swathes of the games business and its consumers have become overtly hostile to engaging with this world at all. There's a tendency to write off formal criticism and assessment as being snobbish, to declaim loudly that games don't need to be a part of high culture or accepted on its terms, even to argue furiously against the very concept of games as works of art and culture in the first place.
There's a tendency to write off formal criticism as being snobbish… this is a damaging attitude to take because it risks cutting games off from intelligent and thoughtful discourse
This is a damaging attitude to take, and not just for fluffy reasons regarding making your gaming habit a bit embarrassing to defend in polite company. It's damaging because it risks cutting games off from some of the most intelligent and thoughtful discourse about entertainment, interaction, narrative and meaning. It's an attitude that holds back the concept of games being the object of study and critique, and denies the extraordinary value which a medium can receive from the feedback loop that results from that process.
Think about the evolution of film and television, or indeed of any medium. Certainly, great strides can be made by people working exclusively within the creative process - and it is to those people that our thoughts turn when we think of creative and artistic progress. Yet the other side of the equation, the process of thoughtful and critical writing and theorising, of deconstructing media and its techniques and messages, are also vitally important to the process. Today's movies and TV - especially TV, in fact - are extraordinarily self-aware, capable of following established tropes and techniques where appropriate, but equipped with the understanding to break away from those tropes in order to excite, shock or challenge an audience.
You can't break the rules until you know what they are, and good criticism and academic work is what establishes and explains those rules. Giger's Alien, one of the finest and most intrinsically terrifying examples of creature design in cinematic history, wasn't just the product of a nightmare mind and a trip to the butcher's shop; that's a nice story, but the reality is that Giger and Ridley Scott had a deep knowledge of the artistic and cinematic theories, born of psycho-analytical concepts and refined through the critical process over the decades, which allowed them to tap into deep sexual fears and repressions in their design for the creature.
Why bring this up now? Simple - because I spent most of Wednesday, when I should have been busy with other things, being absolutely enthralled with Journey. Not because I was playing it thinking "gosh, this is clever, it's referencing all sorts of things and pulling in loads of ideas"; I was enjoying the ride, being pulled along by the relentless flow of the game and experiencing the rollercoaster on a visceral, emotional level, just as one ought to with a genuinely brilliant game. Equally, though, reflection on what Journey does and how it does it reveals a game that's deeply rooted in intellectual thought on narrative, on psychology, on interaction, on ritual and religion, and countless other things besides.
It's outside of the console world that things are really moving; indie games are allowing people who have engaged deeply with the ideas and concepts behind gaming to start experimenting with bending and breaking the rules.
Journey is a beautiful, thrilling, emotional game experience. It's a game I'll spend the next year loading up on my PS3 before thrusting the pad into the hands of gaming non-believers and saying, "here, this is why I play". But I don't think there's anything mystical about that. I think Jenova Chen is an inspired and inspirational developer, but I don't think he possesses a mysterious and ineffable genius. I think he reads a lot. I think he grasps his themes and approaches them intelligently and rigorously. I think he works bloody hard. I think he produces magic at the end of it.
Journey wouldn't be an easy game to pitch to a publisher. thatgamecompany is, indeed, lucky to have Sony's support - something for which Phil Harrison, another man in the news this week, deserves an immense deal of respect. One can only hope that his tenure at Microsoft will see him continuing to demonstrate the judgment and bravery that saw him support fl0w and Flower, not to mention several other PSN titles which have done wonderful things with the system. Yet it's outside of the console world that things are really moving; indie games are allowing people who have engaged deeply with the ideas and concepts behind gaming to start experimenting with bending and breaking the rules, building their theses in interactive forms, finding out what works and what doesn't.
Along the way, somewhere, I sincerely hope that this is a process that brings us to the point where games embrace serious, academic criticism - and are embraced in return. Today, if you really enjoy a movie, if you are intrigued by how film works or how certain ideas are expressed through narrative, if you want to understand encoded meanings or how a creator can delicately play over the taut strings of cultural and collective memory, then there's a wealth of material for you to explore - not all of it very good, but some of it deeply insightful, and carrying seeds of wisdom which a new generation of creators have proceeded to plant, to water, and to harvest a rich crop. Games, still new to the scene, have little such material; what little we have is recycled from film, assumptions from an old medium Sellotaped to the framework of a new one.
One day, that will change. All low culture eventually becomes high culture. Shakespeare wrote plays full of risque jokes for the bawdy masses. Kabuki theatre was designed to entertain drunken townsmen with violent tales of battle and revenge. Even the novel was seen, not so long ago, as a corrupt and depraved literary form, enjoyed by young people in defiance of their parents' wisdom. Games, too, will one day be studied, and deconstructed, and theorised about, and perhaps even understood, and they'll be all the better for it. I hope it happens soon, and I hope that Journey earns the respect it deserves when it does.