Warren Spector: Where's Gaming's Roger Ebert?

In his latest column, Spector argues that the industry will be legitimized if mainstream publications can offer regular critical analysis of games

After my last column, I guess you could say, "Enough's enough. Move on to other topics," but I can't stop thinking about one aspect of the column - the idea of what constitutes appropriate games criticism (or, let's just say, something different in addition to what we have now). I promise I'll move on to another topic in the future, but for now, I hope you'll bear with me.

I think everyone can agree that gaming has plenty of consumer-oriented criticism along the lines of "It's great" or "It sucks." Sometimes, though not often enough, writers even share the reasoning behind their opinions. In this journalistic world, the quality of games journalism reminds me of what you used to see in amateur science fiction, comic book and movie fanzines in the days before newsstands were stocked with pop culture coverage. But at least we have some commercial, review-oriented cinema of varying quality.

Similarly, we have some - a growing amount - of academic games criticism. This circulates largely, even exclusively among (surprise!) academics, and most gamers, developers and publishers would be surprised to learn it exists, let alone find any sort of guidance or even utility in it.

Finally, we have a good bit of developer- or publisher-related writing, describing advanced techniques for making games, getting pixels on the screen, AI doing what we want it to do or getting games to market. There's no shortage of this sort, an unassailably good thing. Developers and publishers talking to each other, sharing knowledge and comparing notes? The more of that, the better.

So, we have critical writing and videos and teachers capable of reaching gamers, academics as well as developers and business people. Anyone notice a constituency that's missing here?


Normal people.

Not gamers. Not professors. Not game-makers. Normal people.

In other words, we're missing much criticism or historical analysis that might speed up a process of achieving cultural acceptance of games as something more than a way to pluck dollars from the pockets of teenage and 20-something boys or the purses of 30-something women.

"To reach the parents, the teachers, the politicians, we need to be where they shop. Even if you never pick up a film magazine, the fact that there are obviously serious magazines devoted to the topic makes a difference in the minds of the uninitiated"

(Note: Before anyone accuses me of sexism, let me say I'm simply acknowledging the shameless sexism of the gaming world as it exists today. Call it a mini-column within the column. A two-fer, if you will. Don't kill the messenger.)

What we need, as I said in an earlier column, is our own Andrew Sarris, Leonard Maltin, Pauline Kael, Judith Crist, Manny Farber, David Thomson, or Roger Ebert. We need people in mainstream media who are willing to fight with each other (not literally, of course) about how games work, how they reflect and affect culture, how we judge them as art as well as entertainment. We need people who want to explain games, individually and generically, as much as they want to judge them. We need what might be called mainstream critical theorists.

And they need a home. Not only on the Internet (though we need them there, too), not just for sale at GDC, but on newsstands and bookstore shelves - our own Film Comment, Sight and Sound, Cahiers du Cinema. Magazines you could buy on the newsstand. Why? Because currently, criticism of this - what little we have of it - reaches only the already converted. To reach the parents, the teachers, the politicians, we need to be where they shop. Even if you never pick up a film magazine, the fact that there are obviously serious magazines devoted to the topic makes a difference in the minds of the uninitiated.

Equally important, we need everyday, mainstream media to devote space to different kinds of games coverage. Criticism, not just reviews. What comes to mind is the way the NY Times, the Village Voice, The New Yorker and others treat films.

Check out the June 23rd issue of the NY Times Arts & Leisure section. There you'll find articles of the sort that appear in the Times (and other print and online publications) day after day, week after week. When the topic is film, such articles are expected.

For starters, there's an article about Ernst Lubitsch (look him up) that describes and contextualizes his work. There's a piece on Alfred Hitchcock and how his lesser-known, relatively primitive silent films set the stage for later masterworks. These articles meld criticism and history to provide a context for thinking about movies old and new, not just the specific films and filmmakers they discuss. Articles like this can inspire viewers to think about all the movies they see in new ways. Moviegoers can enjoy the films discussed - or any film - just for what they are, but read enough such articles and it will inform and change the way you think. And that may change the kinds of movies you choose to see as well as how you think about them when you do.

Even better than Lubitsch and Hitchcock, there's a story called "Marriage, the Job" that discusses the ways in which a variety of movies reflect current (changing) attitudes toward marriage. Without assessing the quality of the article or discussing the "appropriate" attitude toward marriage, I'll just say this is a piece of writing that doesn't address or care whether the movies discussed are good or bad, or how they work from a formal, ludological manner. The article is simply about how movies work as cultural objects - not a simple subject at all - in a voice that's well suited to average (okay, maybe above average) readers with even a casual interest in films. It whispers, gently, "Look at me. I'm a serious medium. I'm worthy of your time and attention."

One listening to these whispers might be inspired to seek out some or all of the films discussed, but that isn't the fundamental point. These articles, all of them, in a single day's Times, aren't about how good or bad these movies are - they're about what these movies are about and how they go about being what they're about. These articles don't deny the commercial and business aspects of any film, but they choose to ignore or minimize these elements in a search for meaning and how meaning is communicated. These articles are about understanding, about authorial point of view, about the historical context in which a film came to be made and how films old and new can be relevant to us today.

In other words, these writers, seemingly, couldn't care less whether readers learn if they think a movie is good or bad. Their goal (again, seemingly, since I haven't asked any of them and wouldn't really care what their answer might be) is to communicate that, in some way, a film or director is worth writing and thinking about - certainly worth it for the critic and, one hopes, for the reader as well.

"Frankly, if games are not up to this sort of critical analysis then maybe they are just a way to provide some thrills and chills or some time away from real world problems"

Now, before anyone goes and gets their shorts in a knot, I know I've overstated a bit to make my case about the current state of games criticism. We do have some people - not enough, but some - trying to provide a criticism of explanation rather than a criticism of evaluation, the sort of criticism I've been talking about so far.

Stephen Totilo's work in the New York Times and elsewhere is definitely a step in the right direction. Leigh Alexander, Tom Bissell and Harold Goldberg have done some nice work in books aimed at a mainstream audience. Academicians like James Paul Gee, Henry Jenkins and Ian Bogost bring a level of erudition and depth of thinking we desperately need. (And remember, it's criticism, not history, I'm talking about. I could add several people to the list by including historical overviews to the discussion. Maybe another column, since there are issues with the way I see our history being written, too.)

And there have been some - way too few - outlets for games criticism in the "core" gaming world that go beyond reviews of varying quality. Back in the day, Next Gen magazine occasionally hit some heights, especially, I think, when Tom Russo was editing it. Nowadays, Edge fills that role on occasion. And there are some websites beginning to publish interesting work (but I'm still digging into those so I won't name names).

But for all those exceptions - and I'm sure I've offended countless other exceptional critics by not mentioning them in the list above (for which I apologize) - none have quite broken through to the mainstream consciousness. What's needed is a variety of ongoing, consistently publishing homes for critical thought. A book here, a book there... the occasional article in the New York Times... one magazine aimed at gamers... That isn't going to cut it.

I'm not saying reaching an audience that doesn't know enough to take games seriously will be easy. I'm for sure not finding fault with people currently trying to accomplish this difficult goal. I'm just saying we need to continue working and harder to bring more writers and thinkers into the area between Reviewers and Academia. We can't be complacent and say, "Aw, what we got is good enough."

Let's inundate the bookshelves, magazine sections and the web with work that isn't above (or below) the heads of readers. Only in that way will we achieve the level of respect I believe we deserve. Only in that way will we create an audience more demanding of the medium, which will inevitably lead to different and, I'd argue, better games.

This kind of treatment - as exemplified by the Times articles mentioned above - would do games a world of good. Establishing games in the public mind as something good and worthy and serious, and not just "fun for kids, but not for me" seems important to me. It's important to developers, publishers, players and maybe even to - for want of a better word - enemies who might come to a more nuanced understanding of our medium.

Frankly, if games are not up to this sort of critical analysis then maybe they are just a way to provide some thrills and chills or some time away from real world problems, as our critics (in still another sense of the word) contend.

One last thing before I call this column done. It's important to note that I used popular film criticism as my primary example here for two simple reasons:

First, because I'm an old movie buff with an academic background that leads me to value certain things. I could just as easily have cited examples from the worlds of books, music, theater, fine arts, architecture and more.

Second, because the New York Times does this every week. "Serious" film magazines do it every month. There's a continuity of outlook and style among the Times critics and others that I can count on. And even if you find their outlook doesn't match yours, the regularity of coverage speaks eloquently to the importance of the film medium even to those who don't read the articles.

To my mind, games are the only medium (well, maybe other than radio, at least post-1950s) that lacks some sort of serious, regular, mainstream critical tradition. And that, my friends, has to change.

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Latest comments (39)

The big problem facing games criticism is that the medium itself is torn between entertainment media and consumer product. A games review has to cover whether the game works (in the sense that it's fun, tells a good story, etc) and whether the game works (is it actually a functioning product that will work on the hardware the reader has). The first one is easy for a mainstream audience to understand. The second one is what tips it into niche territory. You can't review games like movies because games aren't movies. We interact with them differently and their creative goals are different.

Movies have a cultural understanding that games don't have. People understand movies - you sit down, you watch a movie. A nice man on the TV talking about movies makes sense. Different genres don't really impact that relationship. People get the distinction between a documentary and a thriller, while still understanding the common critical language of "movies".

A racing game is not a puzzle game is not a platform game is not a strategy game is not a shooter. Each one has its own critical requirements, each one represents a barrier that keeps Gamers on one side and Normal People on the other. Your mother or grandfather can't sit down and watch a nice man on TV talking about XCOM and The Last of Us and Candy Crush and find the common language needed to parse what's being said.

There are other issues as well - movies, TV and music are all sexy and enticing in a way games will probably never be. People are interested in these things often because they fancy the people involved. People will pay attention to discussion of a new Brad Pitt movie because they're interested in Brad Pitt. Games don't have that human connection. We have avatars rather than personalities. The closest we came was with Lara Croft, but even that always had a slightly tragic air to it. Anyone saying they were interested in Tomb Raider because they fancy Lara is going to look rather sad because Lara is not only fictional, she's virtual. That's always going to be a hurdle, I think.
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Ralph Tricoche Studying MA, CUNY8 years ago
I've been saying this for years. Problem is, much like the "occupy movement" games are an anarchist bunch and all feel they have the proper perspective on reviewing games. Also Ebert was respected even if folks did not agree with his point of view. You cant even get a fair amount of respect from consumers when they post on the developers forums.

Ebert was grandfathered in. Our parents respected his opinions and so did we.
Now, everyone has a website, blog spot, YouTube Channel and whoever can be more comical, gets the most views and therefore popularity.

Hell, we don't even have a a gaming association, were you can take your grievances and politely get your point across with some level of civility. The ESA is supposed to be that, but this is an organization with no teeth. Gamestop has more power than the ESA.

We made 65 billion dollars last year, and we are still treated like outcast by everyone that isn't directly involved in this hobby.
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Nick McCrea Gentleman, Pocket Starship8 years ago
To be honest, I find the craving for mainstream critical acceptance to be the most telling thing with respect to our maturity as a medium.
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Show all comments (39)
I think the games industry needs to stop worrying about respect and validation. It is, by far, the most insecure of all the creative media, forever comparing itself and its products to movies and TV shows, jumping for joy when the comparison is favourable and sulking when it's not.

Fuck it, quite frankly. Games are games. They have so little in common with most other media that discussions about why Movies are afforded X amount of respect while Games get Y are futile. It's a classic apples and oranges scenario.

That said, there's a chicken and egg problem here. A respected film journal can write a retrospective on Hitchcock and know there are enough people out there to make that worthwhile. An architect's journal can write about Gehry and know that there's a crossover with a certain aesthetic crowd.

The games that warrant that level of critical analysis are far fewer, and the audience interested in them is incredibly niche. The games equivalent of a Truffaut retrospective (and I have no idea what that would even be) would be of interest to an even smaller niche within the gaming community, and of barely any interest at all to anyone in the Normal People bracket.

Games need to grow up before any of this stuff can happen. And they are growing up. Slowly, awkwardly and often stymied by enduring their creative adolescence at a time of unprecedented access to information that risks washing away any evolutionary traits in a sea of white noise before they can bear fruit.

Games will get more interesting and so will the writing about them. Pieces like Christian Donlan's wonderful Night and the City article about LA Noire probably wouldn't have been commissioned twenty years ago. But it'll be a slow and organic process, and one that will be of little interest to non-gamers who only want to enjoy the pew-pew-pew or the "wahoo" of Mario. And that's OK.

It's not a race, and I don't believe that worrying about the cultural kudos afforded to Film or Poetry or Music really is all that helpful.
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Tim Carter Designer - Writer - Producer 8 years ago
If you want your serious criticism, the route is crystal clear.


Until we have core creatives out there, steering projects, with creative control and power (regardless of whether or not they are selling their IP - creative control extends beyond ownership).... Until we have that, this medium of games will never be taken seriously, as indeed it will not be serious.
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Darren Adams Managing Director, ChaosTrend8 years ago
I am with Dan on this.

Game developers usually do what they do because they love making games and want people to enjoy the games they make. Yes, people need to be paid, so money is part of the equation but not usually the biggest motivation. Like any artist, we all want to be loved for what we do.

To chase the mainstream is to grind down what makes us unique and dilute the content so it is palatable for any tastes. I say we will be mainstream on our own terms and in our own time. We will not be what other people want us to be, we will be what our actions define us as.

I dislike the fact that too many people from the games industry feel the need to apologise for what they do. It isn't like we murder children or pollute the oceans; we merely make entertainment that appeals to a certain crowd of people.

So what if our work doesn't appeal to everyone? Does that make us less culturally relevant? I don't think so.
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Having a major AAA hit that doesn't rely on monsters, aliens, shooting, stabbing, time travel or any other B-movie guff would also be a huge step forwards. Find a way to turn human drama into a meaningful and mainstream interactive experience.

It's notable that in cinema The Godfather is a thoroughbred classic, an examination of a man's corrupt soul punctuated by occasional, brief and sudden bursts of horrific violence. In gaming, The Godfather was an openworld GTA rip-off with shootouts and car chases.

In cinema, Fight Club was a dizzying multimedia assault on the pre-millenial angst of a lost generation. In gaming, it was a beat-em-up.

Games too often take the dumb, obvious, shallow route rather than dealing with anything that might actually have meaning. Even something as critically acclaimed as Bioshock Infinite is a thin slice of disjointed sociological commentary smothered in superpowers and 'splosions. That's the disconnect. If a new HBO show tackles themes of religious and patriotic mania, racial propaganda and class war then chances are you're probably not going to see anyone whizzing around on rollercoaster tracks in the sky, shooting crows out of their hands. I'm not saying that sort of fantasy allegory shouldn't be done, but that when EVERYTHING is a fantasy then it's less impressive.

That's what normal people see when they look at the "best" of what gaming has to offer. They hear the hype, the Game of the Year plaudits, and then they see more people running around shooting each other. The irony is that if you did make a game that was pure drama - Fullbright's Gone Home looks to be a very exciting example of that - then it's a minority concern. In the grand scheme of the industry, it's a quirky aberration.

It's often said that in the 1970s, the blockbuster model ushered in by Hollywood began a dumbing down process that continues today. Before Jaws and Star Wars, the big studios made prestige dramas and it was the indies that churned out B-movies. From the 1980s onwards, the studios made B-movies (on inflated budgets) while the prestige stuff shifted over to the indies. But at least those indies could still break through. The Academy Awards, flawed as they are, don't go to the gaudy B-movies. They go to the prestige stuff, even if that prestige is a pretentious facade.

Gaming doesn't even have that. We're 99% gaudy B-movie blockbuster, 0.5% gaudy B-movie blockbusters that are trying to do something interesting and 0.5% prestige projects that are only ever played by games critics and a small clique of "arthouse" game aficionados.

And that's because games have been a commercial entity from day one - a consumer product more than a creative media. Art and commerce rarely mix, but at least film evolved in a slower-paced time which allowed interesting tributaries to be explored and absorbed. Video games have only been around for 40 or so years, and almost all of that time it's been a ruthlessly corporate global concern. Never mind where is gaming's Roger Ebert, we never even had a chance to have our own Georges Melies.

That's the root of this whole issue - we're trying to reverse engineer art into a commercial framework that generates billions of dollars and frowns on innovation. And, crucially, we're too often basing our criteria for what that "art" should be on what film and television have already done, rather than creating something that only games could do.

(Apologies for epic posts - kind of a pet topic/peeve of mine)

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Dan Whitehead on 10th July 2013 6:24pm

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Charles Herold Wii Games Guide, about.com8 years ago
Mainstream media simply hasn't made its mind up that games are real entertainment. I wrote a biweekly game review column for the New York Times from 2000 to 2008. For most of that time, I was published not in the entertainment section but in the technology section. Then, finally, I was moved to the entertainment section, where I was put, not with movies and television, but with restaurant reviews and, later, a column on poker. Then I was sent back to technology.

I don't believe that newspapers are ever likely to fully embrace games. The people who don't play games are unlikely to start just because they read about one in the New York Times. And the people who do play games? The truth is, they don't care what the Times has to say. As much as gamers say they want mainstream acceptance, they are looking to metacritic or game sites to learn what they want to know about games, which is often not, "how will this game inform my life?" but rather, "how's the frame rate?"

As Dan Whitehead pointed out above, there is also the difficulty of dealing with a game's mechanics. No matter how much you want to write an interesting, thoughtful review that discusses what the game says about society or how it tells its story in a unique way, you still have to talk about how the controls work and the specifics of a game's challenges. I have been striving for years to figure out how to explain the mechanics of a game in a way that was both helpful and entertaining, and I'm sad to admit that I do not always succeed. This means that for the non-gamer, game reviews are always going to be, at least in parts, somewhat impenetrable.

If video games are to become a regular part of mainstream media, I think it will be after every single senior editor is old enough to have grown up playing video games, and almost every newspaper reader has had some experience in the arcades. I think we're getting closer to that point, but I don't think we're there quite yet.

As for the video game equivalent of a Film Comment, I don't see that ever happening. Print is a dying medium and there is too little overlap between those who peruse magazine racks and those who own a PS4, so a game of video game magazine criticism seems like a non-starter. The closest attempt I'm familiar with is the Well Played book series, which published three editions from 2009 to 2011. These were books focused on a closer reading of particular video games, but the fact that one hasn't come out for a couple of years suggests they didn't receive enough support to result in their indefinite continuation.

I would be thrilled if mainstream publications became more interested in video games - I miss writing for a newspaper - but if anything, things have gone the other way. Many publications that once employed game reviewers dropped them years ago. Perhaps in another ten or twenty years it will happen, but for now, it is what it is.
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@Charles Herold
If video games are to become a regular part of mainstream media, I think it will be after every single senior editor is old enough to have grown up playing video games, and almost every newspaper reader has had some experience in the arcades. I think we're getting closer to that point, but I don't think we're there quite yet.
It's definitely a generational thing. The middle-aged critics and game designers of today are the people who were gamers in the 1980s. In another decade or so, it'll be our kids entering the industry. And with each new wave, you get people who have grown up understanding the medium a little bit better, (hopefully) being exposed to more interesting ideas aided by better technology.

We're in the thick of it, so it's hard for us to see, but games are still in their infancy as a medium, and creative growth has been stunted by market forces. Let's have this conversation in 50 years time. That's when it will really matter.
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Petter Solberg Freelance Writer & Artist, 8 years ago
Naturally, games are never just one thing. It's never just story, it's never just gameplay.

However, many critics seem obsessed with the storytelling aspect of games, and some measure a game's maturity based on the story. I agree to some extent, because a good piece of writing could lead to new ideas about how games communicate. In my opinion, a lot of game writing is too concerned with being emotionally manipulative rather than communicating something meaningful. I do think that the quality of writing affects other aspects of a game, so story is what I'm going to focus on in this comment:

I've seen games take storytelling in a direction that would be impossible for any other medium. Some games are able to implement story elements in creative ways to help move the player forward. The medium's already proven that it can bring something new to the table.

Sometimes I give up on a game because of the story. More often than not it is because I find the writing (from plot structure down to the choice of words) to be uninspired and shallow. I think that really good writing could potentially inspire new ways of implementing story elements within the gameplay experience. To be honest, most game stories make me want to read a book instead, because in my opinion, the best writers still write books. Why? Because a book can't hide bad writing behind behind audiovisual gimmick. The problem, in my opinion, is that game developers need to stop trying to copy Hollywood screenplays just because Hollywood creates audiovisual entertainment. We need to start looking at the language itself, the phrasing, how everything connects. Maybe we should forget about plot structure for a moment and just look at the words. It seems like the games industry has forgotten one of the basic rules of storytelling: It's not what you write, it's how you write. The problem with many game writers is that their interest in literature is limited to Stephen King or Quentin Tarantino. Perhaps some Charles Dickens or a classic or two, but what about contemporary fiction? Contemporary poetry? Social realism, magic realism. What about Raymond Carver, Virginia Woolf, or even Italo Calvino?

I am not suggesting a straight game adaptation based on Virgina Woolf''s writing style. But my point is that many game writers and developers seem to have little interest in the actual writing process. It's not the writing itself that counts. It's not how you write, but how many cutscenes you can produce using the same material. Game stories are mainstream. I am not saying that mainstream is automatically shallow or uninteresting, but I do think the industry could use a wide range of literary references. There's no reason why game stories can't be as well written or as thought-provoking as books. Audiovisual sparkle can't compensate for bad writing, and bad writing in my opinion is one of the biggest challenges for the medium right now. We need auteurs, and we need writers who can write about challenging subjects in interesting ways.

Edited 3 times. Last edit by Petter Solberg on 10th July 2013 8:40pm

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Tim Carter Designer - Writer - Producer 8 years ago
The fouindation of cryticism is authorship.

Yes, I've beaten this drum. But it's true.
Criticism, at its best, speaks to the author's
Relationship to the piece.

If you deny that,
If a piece becomes just a slab of
From a Studio,
Then the critic has no one to speak to...
Since you can't speak to a
Sausage factory-
A machine or a
Trick of smoke and mirrors.

The Roger Eberts will appear
When the authors appear.
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Paul Jace Merchandiser 8 years ago
Am I the only one who thinks the last thing the gaming industry needs is another Roger Ebert? I think we've done just fine without one and will continue to do so.
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Neil Sorens Creative Director, Zen Studios8 years ago
The legitimacy of a medium does not depend on the quality, demographics, or even the existence of criticism.
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Petter Solberg Freelance Writer & Artist, 8 years ago
Am I the only one who thinks the last thing the gaming industry needs is another Roger Ebert? I think we've done just fine without one and will continue to do so.
I'd rather see a Roger Ebert than another Richard Roeper, but that's me...
Interestingly, I think Roeper did his best (TV) work when he still had to answer to Ebert.

However, I agree with Tim Carter. Authorship comes before criticism. I think the medium has to reach a certain level before it will benefit from criticism.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Petter Solberg on 11th July 2013 12:44am

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@ Petter
However, many critics seem obsessed with the storytelling aspect of games, and some measure a game's maturity based on the story. I agree to some extent, because a good piece of writing could lead to new ideas about how games communicate. In my opinion, a lot of game writing is too concerned with being emotionally manipulative rather than communicating something meaningful. I do think that the quality of writing affects other aspects of a game, so story is what I'm going to focus on in this comment:

I've seen games take storytelling in a direction that would be impossible for any other medium.
Exactly. In fact, I wrote something saying much the same thing for Eurogamer a few weeks back -

Not to say that there can't be linear narrative games, but just that they're a poor use of gaming's unique properties. Too many game studios think they're making interactive movies.

One of the best narrative games I've ever played was Journey, and that's also a game I think perfectly illustrates the sort of art that only games can create. It's contemplative, meaningful and it could only ever work as a game.

And, yes, it's a difficult realisation to make, given that I make at least some of my living from writing scripts for games, but the more we move over to the "narrative design" model and away from the rigid "scriptwriter" model, the more interesting games will get. And, yes, only then will criticism prove genuinely useful.

Find ways to create meaningful interactive stories about adult humans, not just adolescent superhumans, and mainstream acceptance will come naturally.
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Lewis Mills Creative Partner, Ninja Beaver Studios8 years ago
Because this is what happens when you let people comment on gaming (the article is satire, but the comments...)
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Alan Jack Game Designer, Chunk Games8 years ago
@Dan Whitehead: The idea that we're caught between an entertainment medium and consumer product is a great way of looking at it.

I've recently been quite shocked by seeing the number of reviews that came out for The Last Of Us, which is an entertaining game that has some major core issues that resonate right through it. It suffers from horrific ludo-narrative resonance in places ("Joel, you must have killed people in the past, huh?" says Ellie, having watched me brutally beat a dozen men to death my bare hands), and the "invisible companions" issue - while preferable to having the companion AI ruin the game - is jarring. Even little touches that would only irk a non-gamer (like my fiancee, who likes to sit beside me while I play and point these things out): doors that ought to open but don't, objects that looks collectable but aren't ...

At the same time, the game is brilliantly entertaining and wonderfully put together, and I wonder if these are problems with it as piece of software or as an entertainment medium ... would the game be more suspenseful if these things were fixed?

I think as gamers we're prone to overlook these things because we've experienced the 20 years leading up to this point where these things were borne of technical limitations - but the time has come now to put that aside and have higher standards for the nitpicky little tropes of gaming. But should The Last of Us really have received 10/10 scores when you can pull apart so many little problems with it?

It's a very confusing topic and one we need lots of debate on, if you ask me!
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The Last of Us is a stunning game, within its genre. Trouble is, that genre - the narrative-heavy linear action adventure - is a creative cul de sac as far as gameplay is concerned, and yet a disproportionate amount of the industry's attention is directed towards what is, in reality, a very thin slice of what games are capable of doing. We've convinced ourselves that validation and "art" status will come from showing how well we can mimic other media, with long passages of player-guided action (often violence) in between. The games that are truly works of art are the games in which the beauty comes from the dovetailing of interactive systems and the meaning the player brings to those interactions. Those games tend not to be very "sexy" though. They don't have gruff marketable heroes or multiplayer or lavish cutscenes.

All of those things have their place, but as long as they account for the vast majority of what the industry produces and - crucially - what the fabled Normal People see the industry producing, games are always going to be going round in circles trying to "beat" movies. Games need to celebrate their gamey-ness more, and I think the mass market is more ready for that than we think. Gamers have a tendency to dismiss "casuals" but games like Angry Birds and Candy Crush are arguably more gameplay driven and more in tune with their systems than all the big AAA franchises that are striving to compete with Hollywood blockbusters.

The problem is one of perception - games like Candy Crush and Angry Birds are silly and frivolous, and that means they're not taken seriously. The first developer to find a way to marry a pure gameplay system with a concept or idea that genuinely speaks to an emotional or human core and makes the player feel or think, that developer will do more to move gaming towards true deserved validation than a hundred LOOK AT OUR STORY ABOUT THE MAN WHO KILLS STUFF games.
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I believe, we make games and if its universally acclaimed, the word of mouth will spread and "normal people" will suddenly come to share in the enthusiasm and diverse richness inherent in games that spans both popular media, entertainment and transmedia aspects with the opportunity of countless replay

We dont need to ask for mainstream critique, if the source is true, they will gladly jump onboard with both feet
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Dan Howdle Head of Content, Existent8 years ago
Warren, you seem to believe that what we're missing is 'names'. Celebrity games journalists and critics, in other words?

I think good games writing is the subjective experience of the reader, and if you can aim to deliver information in entertaining, word-perfect fashion, they shouldn't care who wrote it.

A good journalist is a ghost.

If the foremost intention when you sit down to write is 'How do I make my writing stand out?' 'How do I make my reader care about me?' 'How do I write so well I become famous?' then you don't have a hope of writing well. The greatest barrier to good writing is ego.

A good writer doesn't care who knows who he or she is, which makes it very easy to spot a bad one. They Tweet, with prolificacy, inanities on the game they just played, the pie they just ate or shat, or some other thought they assume (like every other) to be golden. They put their names in their own standfirsts, cite themselves in their own text, and wear their Facebook sycophants – who nod and back-slap everything they say or do – like emotional armour.

A good writer (journalist, games journalist, other) should be selfless enough to care only about the experience of the reader and hopes never to give him or her cause to look at the citation – and I don't believe that's compatible with the concept of celebrity.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Dan Howdle on 11th July 2013 3:32pm

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"A good journalist is a ghost."

Not sure I agree with that. Yes, weak writers who insist on putting their personality before the topic at hand are the worst and should be kicked into the sea, but that's because they're weak writers. Some of the best writers and critics - of any kind of media - are good precisely because they put themselves into their work. From Hunter S. Thompson to Pauline Kael, and even the likes of Ebert, Mark Kermode or Barry Norman. We gravitate to their opinions because they are THEIR opinions. We value them even if we don't agree with them, because they're good at what they do. It's not about celebrity, but trust. I know, for example, that Ebert has a weakness for well proportioned actresses, so I take that info into account when he's unusually forgiving to Angelina Jolie's Tomb Raider. Understanding the foibles of a critic plays a huge part in how seriously you take their opinion. Why would anyone care about the subjective opinion of a ghost?

We should write about games because we love games. That love comes from a personal place, and if that love doesn't come through in the writing then reviews are purely mechanical exercises in ticking off the old scorebox criteria of Graphics, Sound, Gameplay and Addictiveness.

But mostly I think the problem is a conflation between the words "writer" and "journalist". Journalism is a trade, not a skill. It's something you need to learn, to qualify in, like being a lawyer or teacher. You have to earn the right to call yourself a journalist and, yes, a good journalist puts the story first.

There is very little actual games journalism, though, and of that only a tiny fraction is worth reading. Lots of people writing about games, far too many people regurgitating press releases, but that doesn't make them - us, me - journalists. I've never called myself a journalist, and cringe when people call me that.

I don't say this to excuse games critics from any responsibility, ethics or standards, but we should know enough to be careful with the words we choose. Journalists investigate. Writers write. The vast majority of us are just writers, writing about a thing we love, and a writer without personality is boring.
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Dan Howdle Head of Content, Existent8 years ago

I'm not saying don't write without personality, I'm saying write without ego. There is an important difference there.

As for the rest of what you said, I almost universally agree.
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Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing 8 years ago
writers write all year
journos tweet only in spring
PR brings winter
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Kenneth Young Freelance Composer & Sound Designer, AudBod8 years ago
I think the lack of ‘accessible newsstand gaming publications’ as described by Warren isn’t so much the missing link to games achieving mainstream acceptance but, more simply, just another way of measuring whether games are accepted by the mainstream yet.

I don’t think it’s crazy for Warren to raise this point. It feels prescient – that kind of publication could exist right now but, crucially, it’s hard to see how it could have existed at any point in the past. Looking into the future of our culture where everyone alive has been exposed to games since childhood, it’s difficult to imagine how that kind of publication couldn’t exist. We’re at that tipping point where it feels incredibly odd to be so huge, to matter to so many people, to be a cultural barometer, and yet still be misunderstood, stigmatised and avoided by an equally large (or greater) number of people.

I applaud Warren for encouraging people to write about games in a way that anyone can appreciate and relate to. I think it is possible, and I agree that it is A Good Thing™.
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I wouldn't look to the newsstand to gauge anything these days. Empire is by far Britain's most mainstream and popular film magazine, but it sells less than 170,000 copies per issue. NME only sells around 23,000 copies every week. This doesn't mean that film and music aren't considered valid artforms by the wider mainstream culture, only that for any field there's always going to be a smaller number of people interested enough to want to read, talk and think about it on a regular basis, but also that the notion of the national print magazine is entering its death rattle.

The fact that YouTube's most popular channels, with subscribers in the tens of millions, are made up of ordinary young people talking about games suggests that, for a certain generation at least, the question of whether gaming is mainstream is utterly moot.
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Samuel Thomson Digital Artist 8 years ago
One of the best comment sections I've read on here.

To be honest I dread game criticism developing its first god-like figures.

The most influential critics in art (and film, but I know more about art) - people like Clement Greenberg, David Sylvester, Nicolas Bourriaud) - are commonly very charming bullies doing untold damage to creativity by styling themselves as gatekeepers and tastemakers, telling the public what to buy and controlling what gets made.

In exchange,

- Members of the public get easily digestible viewpoints that they can echo at dinner parties.
- PR departments suddenly find it cheaper, easier and safer to secretly buy-off a single god-like taste-maker than try to influence thousands of scattered voices.
- Game production becomes more generic because its now influenced by the opinions of drastically fewer people.

And like film protagonists, the most influential critics tend to be bombastic white alpha-males, unconsciously espousing a particular discriminating bias with what they choose to promote.

Where's Gaming's Roger Ebert? Probably trolling Anita Sarkeesian.
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Brent Martyn NW Sales Manager, Electronic Arts8 years ago
I worked at GamePro when John Davison was running the editorial and I firmly believe he rose the bar for the few issues that were under his control. The problem is finding an audience that wants to read that. We had many people in the industry reading and liking what we wrote but we did not see a huge spike in circulation. That could be as much to do with the death of print though. I loved the work that John and team put out and I haven't seen anything else like it since.
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Kenneth Young Freelance Composer & Sound Designer, AudBod8 years ago
Game Informer sells 8 million copies a month, making it the 3rd most popular magazine in the whole of the United States. OK, so it's owned and promoted by GameStop and therefore not directly comparable to the newsstand analogy, but I think it's worth remembering this circulation factoid whenever you bang the "print is dead" drum, particularly in the context of games. Yes, “print is dead”, but only in the same way that “the PC is dead”, “MMOs are dead” and “Elvis is dead” :)

Anyways, the newsstand analogy is a red herring – as much as I like it, I appreciate it's easy to poke it and pull it apart. But that's missing the point - it's the dearth of games criticism in any and all media, and whether games are yet worthy of this criticism, that is being highlighted by Warren here.

I'm with him because I think there are now enough interesting and valid stories about games, peoples' gaming lives, and the relationships that exist between games and life for this to be more widely written and spoken about, discussed, challenged, improved, regurgitated, absorbed and assimilated. As a games-maker and consumer I find that positive feedback loop incredibly exciting because it progresses the medium. And, as Warren was at pains to point out towards the end of his piece, it's not that this feedback loop doesn't already exist and there aren't already people trying to feed it, it's that it needs more input from more people.

The shifts in games making, distribution and platform technology have made small team sizes and small projects viable again, and small teams are more empowered to craft personal and/or experimental gaming experiences whilst still being able to find an audience (if the quality is there). It's not risk-free, but it is possible. As such, you cannot deny that there is a New Wave in game development right now. But we shouldn't take it for granted - we should exploit it by questioning what games are and what they could be. That's not a new idea by any stretch, but it's worth promoting amongst the parochial nonsense being spouted about not needing to expand our audience.

Expanding the audience does not necessarily mean watering games down so that they are accessible to more people (as if that is intrinsically bad?! There's more than one kind of gaming experience to be had...) it also means offering experiences that people who don't currently play games can understand and want to experience. And that is where Warren's call to arms has the most potential.

For example, the growing criticism over the past 18 months surrounding the representation of women in games, the treatment of women in the industry and in gaming fora, the lack of women in the industry, attracting more women into the industry, and the relationship between all these issues will bear fruit. As apathetic as most straight white men are to such issues, there will be progress. Games (or some aspects of some games) will change and the audience will expand as a result. Everyone wins. Everyone. It's a no-brainer. That's just one gigantic aspect of games that has mostly gone undiscussed or has fallen on deaf ears – it took a critical mass for the conversation to be heard, and its persistence will hopefully mean that it eventually gets absorbed and assimilated.

In short - criticism FTW! Criticism or GTFO! :)
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Dan Howdle Head of Content, Existent8 years ago

Most (professional) games journalists would agree with that sentiment: wouldn't it be nice if there was nothing but intellectual discussion, but that takes no account of commercial reality. The audience for intelligent, long-form criticism of games, their significance in the social, political and cultural world is very small. It may be what you or I or Warren want to read, since our jobs require we think deeply about the medium. But most people just want to know whether or not Sam Fisher can duel-wield.

Which is why (online, at least) intelligent - and generally long-form - articles tend to be heaped in beneath piles of smaller, clicknetic headline stories. Sites need traffic to survive, and 'Unfinished Sympathy: The Synchronicity of BioShock & Edwin Drood' is never going to have the same pull as 'PS4 has 80% more graphics, says person loosely connected to games industry'. Worse, the cynics will likely perceive the former as mere prophylactic to visitor perception based solely on the latter. It becomes window dressing.

I'm not pretending to have the answer, but good games writing/criticism is like the proverbial tree in the forest: the more highbrow the discussion, the less it is heard. It lacks the audience to sustain it, but we have an abundance of capable writers.

Sure, it's chicken and egg, but from my prepossessed vantage point, that's how things appear to me: that Warren has his argument backwards. Nature abhors a vacuum; when the audience pre-exists, those that would cater to it will flourish. But such audiences are grass-roots, so until they arrive under their own steam, capitalism dictates we give people what they want.

Even if that does hurt my (read: pretentious) intellectual sensibilities.

Edited 6 times. Last edit by Dan Howdle on 12th July 2013 9:37am

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Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing 8 years ago

Isn't the mistake made in this thread the idea of associating a critique with a wall of text and nothing else? Sure, we know the longform textbased criticism, but text is not the preferred way of consuming content these days, if media research is to be believed.

Given the choice between "longform criticism" and "snappy flame-bait", users might ignore the critique not due to its nature of being a complicated piece of critique, but because of its mode of presentation. In other words, short infobits still work as texts, everything else might be better off being a podcast or video podcast.

Look at a site such as to see that there is no shortage of people offering the "hipster hater" version of trying to be Roger Ebert (Brad Jones anyone?). What these guys are doing right is the mode of presentation, which is a scripted video format heavily edited. The quality of the script and the quality of the criticism is all over the place. This is the exact opposite of video game magazines, where the writing is good, but the mode of presentation has not adapted to today's reality. Or in the case of Ben Croshaw, the mode of presentation is somewhat there, but the script is still a weird mix of good observations and comedic flame.
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Kenneth Young Freelance Composer & Sound Designer, AudBod8 years ago
I agree that it's chicken and egg, Dan. But it feels like a good point to try and hatch a chick :)
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Dan Howdle Head of Content, Existent8 years ago
And people do. And no one reads it. And that's depressing.
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Our problems lie within our technically diffuse and divisive delivery system of our products. Namely all of the hardware companies driving the industry and competing directly against each other and constantly upgrading and marketing themselves. This means every 3 - 5 years our heritage of games is effectively assigned to the technical scrapheap, giving no sense of continuity and permanence in the same way a novel or movie would join your library forever in your house or even in some digital store.
The last 20 years have seen the hardware companies compete to grab the headlines at the expense of the games and the artists. Without artists there is no sense of history and in turn no point in creating in depth analysis on a highbrow level, worth reporting in the mainstream media.
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Kenneth Young Freelance Composer & Sound Designer, AudBod8 years ago
"And people do. And no one reads it. And that's depressing."

But it makes total sense that a website which is primarily composed of clicknetic headline stories has little readership of any longform criticism that they post. Articles that take time to read need a different kind of home. You don't go to the cinema to listen to the radio, right?

I get my critical kicks from:

I think it's notable that they are both digests. I love that they are published on a Sunday - I wouldn't have time any other day of the week to browse through them. They don't really have a focus other than interesting gaming discussion in the blogosphere. I'm a massive gaming nerd, I even contribute to the discussion occasionally through my own blog, so I'm the "right audience" which I guess is why I sought them out. But the vast majority of the discussion is pretty hardcore and I can well believe it has a small readership, but I'd still be interested in knowing the kind of number these digests attract...

However, I think there’s a happy medium that's missing. Maybe, maybe, all that's missing is more regular publication of gaming stories in the mainstream press. I really don't understand what's wrong with pointing that out or why it has ruffled so many feathers. I didn't perceive what Warren has written as an attack on what is currently being written about games, or as an attack on those who write about games, more an observation on what isn't being written or there not being enough of it, or it not having an identifiable home. That hasn't stopped some people getting the hump and taking Warren's piece as some kind of accusation of failure:

Anyways, I'd love to see a website or blog which just focusses on peoples' relationships with games and how they help them. Does such a thing exist?
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Charles Herold Wii Games Guide, about.com8 years ago

I sincerely hope the future of game criticism does not lie in heavily edited scripted video. I feel video so far has proven a very poor form for serious criticism, being generally more chatty than thoughtful. You can ponder text, because you can stop upon an intelligent sentence, but even well-expressed thoughts on a video tend to roll right by. Videos, I feel, are at their best when they're more entertaining than enlightening (i.e. Zero Punctuation).

While I said earlier that print is dead, I don't believe the written word itself is dead. It's still a really good way to express thought.
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Pedro Barahona Localisation Game Tester, Testronic8 years ago
The business-art conflict is evident when trying to do criticism using business terms like "franchise". When someone writes surprised that Resident Evil 5 or 6 is a poor game compared to the fourth one, and ponders about the "franchise" you see one of the roots of the problem. Product brands are not the same as the body of work of an author, or even a team. Without educating their readers about these things, there's no hope for mainstream game criticism.
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David Serrano Freelancer 8 years ago
If thoughtful mainstream journalists and critics believed that video and computer games possessed high artistic or entertainment value, or had achieved a high level of cultural - artistic relevance... mainstream outlets would provide the same type of coverage and analysis given to mediums which do, and have. They don't provide the coverage or analysis because they don't believe games contain, or have achieved either yet. So we must ask why do most developers, game critics, academics and a subsegment of consumers believe the opposite?

Warren partially answered this question when he said "in this journalistic world, the quality of games journalism reminds me of what you used to see in amateur science fiction, comic book and movie fanzines in the days before newsstands were stocked with pop culture coverage." The relationship between developers, publishers, critics, academics and consumers should be a constructive feedback loop which expedites the extinction of fundamentally flawed or outdated concepts and ideas. But this relationship has degraded into a self-reinforcing circle jerk which no longer acknowledges productive feedback, or facts. Any voice, opinion or study which doesn't reinforce or support the narrow in-group definition for what constitutes a game, art or play must be marginalized or dismissed. And this creates an environment where fundamentally flawed or outdated concepts and ideas are perpetuated and reinforced instead of extinguished. Open this link for a textbook example:

The end result of this type of detachment from reality (in practically all cases) is what a minority claims is art, the mainstream dismisses as kitsch. What a minority claims is childlike, immersive and meaningful play, the mainstream dismisses as childish, counterproductive, sadomasochistic and meaningless behavior. And what a minority claims contains high entertainment value, the mainstream finds inaccessible, confusing, frustrating, boring, or pointless.

So with all due respect to Warren, to claim the lack of mainstream press coverage and analysis is on any level the result of the mainstream audience or press not knowing enough to take games seriously is not an objective analysis of the problem. When the medium builds it, they will come. But how can the medium ever build it if the industry refuses to objectively acknowledge what constitutes "it?"
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Craig Bamford Journalist 8 years ago
There is academic writing on games. Quite a bit of it, and a lot of it excellent. There's also solid game-focused criticism out there; just go hit up "This week in Games Criticism" and you'll find loads.

That isn't the problem. The problem is that the notion of games-as-artistic-expression hasn't spread to the mainstream media yet. You've still got game reviews (and they are just reviews) being foisted off on the tech section, as if The Last Of Us were a new model of phone, and the gatekeepers of the arts and culture section are unwilling or unable to allow games to take their place alongside other expressive media.

Whose fault is that? Hard to say. My guess is the "GAMES MUST BE FUN" contingent, who usually overlap with the tiresome faction that claim that games can't or shouldn't have structure and narrative because "that's not what makes games unique!!". (As if any other medium were held up to that bizarre standard.) They're the ones who reinforce the mainstream notion that the dizzyingly complex interactive simulated environments that make up the bulk of modern gaming are nothing more than light amusements.

It's like presuming that all music must be dance music, and all novels must be escapist. It's ridiculous, but it's rife.

If an outsider is seeing these people scream "GAMES MUST BE FUN!" at all comers, why wouldn't they conclude that? Why wouldn't they keep games out of the arts sections of websites and newspapers and magazines? If games are just amusements, they aren't really artistic expressions. They don't belong there. They're electronic toys, and electronic toys go in the tech section.

So, if you want things to change, that's the first thing that you should focus on. Let designers express whatever they want to express, no matter what the topic, how narrative-focused it is, or how "fun" it is. Keep it engaging, sure. But let go of empty amusement.
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Warren Spector Relaxing 8 years ago
I just posted some responses to these comments over on my blog - first time I've blogged in a few years. If you want to know what I think about the comments here on GI (and elsewhere) go check it out.

[link url=""][/link]
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