It has been eight years since Chuck Klosterman lamented in Esquire that there was no “Lester Bangs of video games,” no true arts critic to give voice to one of this generation’s unique cultural artifacts.
Today, while video games writing has a broad readership on sites like Kill Screen and the Vox Media-owned Polygon—as well as in general publications like The New Yorker and New York Times—there remains a common refrain that games criticism has yet to come fully of age.
Gradually, that may be changing. A generation that grew up playing games has kept on playing, and games have become part of the cultural mainstream. They are played by 59 percent of Americans, of which 48 percent are female and the average age is 31, according to the Entertainment Software Association. The result has been a multibillion dollar industry, proliferation of game production, and a robust indie scene that takes advantage of the low costs of digital distribution. With that comes a new level of sophistication, both aesthetic and technical.
“There was definitely a long time where the products did not support the level of criticism that people were trying to apply to them,” said Leigh Alexander, an editor at large for Gamasutra, who has also written for CJR. That time has passed.
Exhibit A: New York University is premiering a class devoted to games journalism this fall, taught by Polygon Editor at Large Chris Plante. Students will read classic works like Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel’s The Elements of Journalism alongside a 1989 edition of Electronic Gaming Monthly. They will watch Page One, the documentary about The New York Times, and also host a livestream of themselves playing video games while providing commentary. One aim is to create a community of critics who treat gaming as a genre as deserving of artistic critique as film, music and literature.
“The average body of criticism is still inferior to other forms of entertainment,” said Stephen Totilo, editor in chief of the Gawker-owned games website Kotaku. One reason is that historically, most game reviews were essentially buyer’s guides. Housed in the technology, not culture, sections of magazines, they were evaluated for technical and supposedly objective qualities like graphics, sound, and controls before any concerns for emotional resonance or ideas. Capping off the review would be a numerical score - a practice that remains in many outlets. It can be, says Totilo, “a very artless way of looking at art.”
Then again, games only reached an artistic peak in the last five to ten years. “I started taking video games more seriously because they started taking themselves more seriously,” says the New York Times’ games critic Chris Suellentrop, citing puzzle game Portal, the dystopian shooter Bioshock, and Flower, where you control petals floating in the wind. “Games are more interesting now than they’ve ever been.”
The strength of many of today’s games, unlike movies or books, is not in linear storytelling. Games are interactive, so every person’s experience will be different. Instead of being dictated a narrative, players are empowered to make one themselves. Games like Grand Theft Auto V—whose release last fall was covered across specialist and general press alike—allow players to live inside a fictional world, incentivizing them into doing abhorrent or benevolent actions. What kind of human behavior emerges under these foreign parameters? What ideas does inhabiting this world spark? Games criticism lives at the intersection of sports and arts. It requires subjectivity, and perhaps an injection of travel writing too; the term “New Games Journalism” was coined a decade ago, encouraging critics to act like anthropologists, taking readers into worlds they haven’t seen themselves, and giving a reported account of the experience.
With a unique form comes unique challenges. Single-player games may take over 50 hours to complete, and sites including Polygon have responded by editing their reviews after publication as bugs emerge or as extra playtime reveal new highlights (or flaws) in the mechanics. Game technology and economics are still in a growth spurt—one day, free-to-play mobile games are the big story; another, it’s the Oculus Rift and virtual reality. Even the lexicon required to discuss games in a way that everyone understands has yet to calcify. “I think it will take a very long time for us to learn to talk about games in a way that stokes in the reader a sense of recognition, of ‘yes, that’s my experience as well when I manipulate a game controller,’” said Totilo. Then again, it’s this constant state of flux that makes games journalism ripe for poignant criticism.
While many games critics have thrived, of last year’s 67 submissions for the Pulitzer Prize for criticism, only one examined video games. The award has been given for cultural analyses of television, food, and automobiles, yet no writer of video games criticism has ever won. Still, the next generation of critics—some, perhaps, sitting in a games journalism class this fall—can take heart.
“History shows that the category does grow and change with the times,” said Sig Gissler, Pulitzer administrator for the past 12 years, who retires next month. “Once something is part of the culture, it’s just a matter of time before a compelling entry is produced.”