Nation-Time and Newspaper Criticism

Grand Text Auto discusses a really fascinating report by Carnegie-Mellon computer scientist Randy Pausch on the internal corporate culture of Electronic Arts.

There's a lot to talk about in the report, and I may return to it here for a later entry. But my attention was drawn by a fairly peripheral point in the document--that many within EA resent the general attention within the business community and in the wider culture to companies like Pixar or even Microsoft whose size, market capitalization and/or economic performance are actually smaller than EA. This seems to me to touch on something far bigger than EA or its economic success.

Games researchers in general are keenly aware of the degree to which the economic importance of games still does not fully translate into a perceived cultural or even business centrality in the US or the global economy overall. There are a lot of reasons for this, but I want to focus on one: the lack of a usefully  critical, thoughtful mode of games criticism published in newspapers and major magazines in the US.

Even newspapers that do not stoop to have a comics section could scarcely imagine going without a film critic. Even the fact that universally negative reviews from newspaper and magazine critics can rarely dissuade audiences from going to certain films does not keep the studios and many observers of the film industry from avidly reading and tracking mainstream middlebrow film criticism.

Mainstream film critics range from sycophantic bubbleheads who have never seen a film they did not like--not to mention the quasi-fictional critics-for-hire whose pithy recommendations pop up in the advertisements for Grade-Z reject films like "Gigli"--to critics who are notorious for the length, aggressiveness and critical sharpness of their reviews.

That range notwithstanding, the important thing here is that even small-town newspapers and light-content magazines often feel the need to deliver film criticism to their readership. Benedict Anderson's famous work on the history of nationalism, Imagined Communities, is especially well-known for its account of how the perceived simultaneity of the act of reading newspapers in a number of nation-states helped to create the sense of one people united in their understanding of events and culture. In the United States in particular, the reception of film became an important component of that simultaneity--not just the watching of film itself, but the understanding that the nation was watching films, and its citizens experiencing key movies together through the medium of newspaper or mass media criticism. We were reminded of what we had seen, and what we might think of what we had seen, and took that with us to the water-coolers and parties where the subject of our nights in the cinema could be further discussed and digested.

That's one part of why Pixar is a bigger deal than EA, and The Incredibles  more important as a moment in national (indeed, global) experience of mass culture than Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. Yes, of course it is also that the viewership for blockbuster films cuts across many demographics, while the audience for GTA, though huge, is concentrated among males under 35. Still, I would argue that the lack of a popularly circulated genre of substantive middlebrow criticism directed at games and published in newspapers and major popular magazines is both a sign and a cause of the relatively diminished status of games within the central narratives of national and global culture. There are exceptions: the "Game Theory" column in the New York Times and Steven Poole's writing for The Guardian come easily to mind. But for the most part, when newspapers or magazines like Entertainment Weekly write about games, they write about them in short blurbish articles which appear to have been sent straight from the publicity department of game publishers, in breathlessly superficial, hype-infested prose. Games, for most journalistic outlets in the US, don't seem to justify or require anything more than that.

Obviously I disagree with that assessment, and writers like Poole and J.C. Herz have shown how unjustified it is. But it's an interesting cart-and-horse problem. Do you get a compelling and widespread form of mainstream games criticism only when the demographic of a national population that plays games becomes less isolated, or could the commitment of journalistic resources to developing a games criticism that matches the breadth, relative depth or resource base of film criticism help to write games more visibly into national narratives of popular culture, in line with their economic significance?


Comments on Nation-Time and Newspaper Criticism:

Richard Bartle says:

I think one of the reasons that we don't get serious criticism of computer games is that they take so long to play through. A film critic can watch 4 movies a day, but a game critic would have to spend 40 hours before being in a position to speak authoritatively - longer for virtual worlds.

The computer games press, which ought to be doing this kind of thing, in general doesn't. Because of the publication lead time, they see beta versions of games rather than final releases, and they don't (often can't) play them all the way through. They can comment on anything immediate, like the eye candy or the sound, but the gameplay or narrative just takes them too much time. Besides, if they did play them through then they might not give them the positive reviews that brings the advertisers to their pages.

Richard

Posted Nov 16, 2004 2:50:16 AM | link

brian says:

the reason why games do not receive the same treatment within the mainstream press is because video games are (rightly) still perceived as toys. The only criteria needed for toy analysis is if the toys are F-U-N. For games this translates into how highly gameplay is done well.

Movies are enjoyed at all levels of emotional absorption. Criticism follows: whether it made you hapy, sad, frightful or angry. Games, while they may have some of these factors, it is execution that is paramount. If a game cannot be played satisfactorily, no amount of story or plot will make it up.

Posted Nov 16, 2004 9:47:39 AM | link

Timothy Burke says:

While I'd be first in line to say that video and computer games are not aesthetically what they could be by a long margin, I don't buy the opposite position that Brian articulates--that they are nothing more than trifles, pure entertainment, with no content that could sustain criticism.

Posted Nov 16, 2004 11:29:58 AM | link

Flatfingers says:

Have patience.

Most media organizations, who thrive on criticizing others, can't abide criticism of themselves. Pushing on the current inhabitants to "get with it" and accept computer games as meaningful cultural markers will just make them more determined to ignore the industry.

The solution -- as with many things -- is to realize that time is on your side. In time, the old guard in the editor's chairs will retire, and the newsrooms will be staffed by people more in tune with the culture because they grew up in that culture.

Today's gamers are tomorrow's game reviewers.

--Flatfingers

Posted Nov 16, 2004 12:05:20 PM | link

Dmitri Williams says:

Flatfingers (great name) is right on. This a classic "cohort" effect. Think about the age ranges of players. Those who did not remain players after the demise of Atari in 1983 never came back. They're gone. Those who did pine for games got their jones back on with Nintendo. Ensuing generations have followed suit, meaning that there is a wave coming. This drives our current popularty and is why it will be sustained for a long, long time.

Consider the age brackets. Those who were 20-30 in 1983 are 40-50 now. They are far less likely to be players. But they are now of age to be the gatekeepers of traditional media outlets. 10 years from now it'll be a different generation and a different set of assumptions. Remember this post when you are the grizzled old game player who can't abide these newfangled 3D hologram nerve inductors that the kids are all crazy about...

I made this point in an article last year (https://netfiles.uiuc.edu/dcwill/www/DWICS.pdf), and give statistics and usage patterns in a chapter coming out next fall in a book (sorry, can't post the draft).

Posted Nov 16, 2004 3:07:49 PM | link

JP says:

Videogame magazines were born as "buying guides", whose primary purpose was to influence purchasing decisions and provide info like hints and cheat codes. The idea of "criticism" came later. Until game publications can bring themselves to dispense with the former and give primacy to the latter, they will never achieve any kind of greater cultural resonance.

Posted Nov 16, 2004 4:55:13 PM | link

ren says:

JP > Videogame magazines were born as "buying guides", whose primary purpose was to influence purchasing decisions and provide info like hints and cheat codes.

The first video game zeen I subscribed (Computer and Video Games – launched UK 1981) to just seemed to have programming tips and pages of code that you could type in to play the games it featured. I can’t remember any game ads (though I’m sure there were some as the zeen progressed). And as for ‘hints and cheat codes’ – pffft.

Posted Nov 16, 2004 5:50:34 PM | link

David Thomas says:

Although I count myself among the folks who think game journalism needs to grow up and smarten up, I’d also suggest that maybe it’s much better than we give it credit.

For one thing, it’s hopeless looking at how the media treats film. Do you know why there is not generally serious game criticism in big papers and magazines? Count how many videogame ads there are. Now repeat with movie ads.

As for the fan mags and their use of what Matt Bittanti has called “cereal box journalism” (list the ingredients, forget about the flavor), their structure and format is the result of a viscous cycle that includes game buyers, gamer producers as well as the game journalists. I’ve talked to the editors of many of the biggest fan mags out there. They like the idea of “serious” journalism. But they sell a lot of magazines with snarky, well-informed fan writing. They face disincentives to change at every turn.

Along those lines, game developers don’t show much interest in journalists’ changing their ways. How many game criticism presentations or panels do they have at GDC each year? How much do their publishers and PR departments spend catering to the positive fan press?

For a little perspective, I started the International Game Journalists Association (www.igja.org) earlier this year to help deal head-on with issues of quality and professionalism in the game journalism world. I’ve talked to some very passionate and articulate journalists who want to move the form forward. But as a surprise to myself, I find that I am generally defending fan writing. To those that come to berate the fan mags and Websites, I point out that if criticism is supposed to be informed, topical and passionate, then a lot of what is out there is “real” criticism.

What is lacking is maturity and perspective (which, in many cases, comes with maturity). There are more and more journalists coming into the game fold from traditional backgrounds. So, they add professionalism to the sport of covering games. Likewise, as Dimitri points out, the younger writers are growing up and many of them are getting tired of drooling over the latest, great FPS. They are starting to ask hard questions about the meaning of games.

So what do I think it will take? Time, desire and appreciation of what we have. It will take time for the form to develop, to grow up. It will take desire from the business, the fans and the journalists to try to say more about a game than to simplyy inventory to its parts, to say what a game means. And finally, it’s going to take recognition that we don’t want dusty old film critics or cynical rock writers telling us how to cover games. We want to cultivate the best of our own, indigenous writers who feel games in their bones and can tell why there is pleasure in bartering with elves, surviving zombie attacks and rolling around sticky balls of junk.

Posted Nov 17, 2004 12:00:41 AM | link

Paul "Phinehas" Schwanz says:

Timothy Burke> "While I'd be first in line to say that video and computer games are not aesthetically what they could be by a long margin, I don't buy the opposite position that Brian articulates--that they are nothing more than trifles, pure entertainment, with no content that could sustain criticism."

I'm not sure that Brian was claiming that games have no content that could sustain criticism, but it seems to me that the depth of aesthetic offerings (or lack thereof) in games is not orthoganal to how much criticism they may sustain.

Though I am in the process of making a career change in order to pursue game design seriously, if I am being honest, even to my ears the very term "game" carries a hint of triviality to it that "movie" does not. But I think that this is largely a design and implementation issue as much as it is something inherent in the medium or attributable to its (lack of ) criticism. Shallow aesthetics can be addressed more directly by designers, and it seems to me that it would make a wonderful topic for TN.

Consider Jedi Knight II.

Kyle Katarn fell to a brutal death before my eyes. And I. Just. Didn't. Care. Actually, I did care a little bit. I was annoyed and a bit frustrated. In my experience, annoyance and frustration are rarely entertaining. Sometimes the tragic death of a character can be emotionally wrenching, compelling, or frightening in a way that is entertaining, but Katarn's death was none of these things. Why?

Actually, it was about the seventh time I'd watched Kyle "die" while attempting to get past a particular jumping puzzle involving moving girders. If I had ever been aesthetically engaged in living the life of a Jedi in the Star Wars universe, this was certainly no longer the case. At this point, I am playing a jumping game in which I am concentrating on mouse movements and key presses. And when I finally succeed, I feel a sense of accomplishment in having mastered mouse movements, not in having successfully jumped across a dangerous cavern. In the MDA model* (Mechanics, Dynamics, and Aesthetics), aesthetics have very much taken a back seat to mechanics.

This is pretty typical of the way that games handle "death," and I think we often underestimate how it trivializes what could be a more deeply moving and entertaining aesthetic experience. It seems like we've been stuck in a multiple-lives or termoral-reversibility paradigm since Pong. Why? Because character death isn't F-U-N. *sigh*

There's gotta be a better way.

In general, it seems to me that game design, context and content are still pretty limited. I also think that these things are limiting the market moreso than the other way around. Barbie games aren't the answer, but deeper aesthetics and giving drama more primacy than mechanics may be. To me, it is design that trivializes games, not the game's players or media critics.

--Phin

* http://www.cs.northwestern.edu/~hunicke/pubs/MDA.pdf

Posted Nov 19, 2004 2:08:10 PM | link

Paul "Phinehas" Schwanz says:

Erm, "termoral?" Make that "temporal-reversibility" please.

--Phin

Posted Nov 19, 2004 2:22:43 PM | link

Timothy Burke says:

Well, I agree about Jedi Knight 2, in fact, I made some very similar criticisms of it myself, that playing it was like having a kind of deferred relationship to its designer: what does he want me to do now?

Playing Half-Life 2 this week has been an interesting alternation though of experiences that I could talk about aesthetically and experiences that are kind of like JK2-style things, which are just "aw, what is it I'm supposed to do now?" And I'd agree that even at its aesthetic best, it's like of like being Winston Smith with a crowbar, interesting but not profound. But there are games that I think achieve something more, sometimes only for a short bit, sometimes for the whole of it. Even the games which frustrate can be talked about aesthetically.

Posted Nov 21, 2004 3:09:41 PM | link

Brask Mumei says:

Last I checked, Movies are supposed to be F-U-N.

I also think there is too much of an emphasis on cinematic criticism here. Why should we critic a game on how emotionally attached we get to the main character? If the game is multi-live jumping puzzle, such a criticism is rather pointless, no? I mean, I don't critic a film based on its lack of interactivity.

Insetad, a good criticism would be: "that playing it was like having a kind of deferred relationship to its designer: what does he want me to do now?"

This addresses the gameflow, something properly in the purview of the intended design. A good jumping game should have the player trying to make the leaps, not standing about wondering what to do next.

This is why I think Richard Bartle has a very good point. It takes a *long* time to properly critique a game. After an hour of play, Black and White seems like the greatest game ever. It is about ten minutes later that the designers succeed in invoking a feeling of great anger and frustration on the user.

Timothy Burke> Even the games which frustrate can be talked about aesthetically.

Well, in the same way that a movie that induces eyestrain can be talked about aesthetically.

- Brask Mumei

Posted Nov 22, 2004 4:47:50 AM | link

Timothy Burke says:

For example, I hate Peter Greenaway's films. All of them. But I can talk about my hate aestheticaly: it's not just that his films aren't "fun". I don't like his communicative aspirations, I don't accept his representations of sex and many other aspects of human experience, I don't find his experiments in narrative a particularly compelling commentary on cinematic narrative, and so on.

I can talk about Black & White the same way, it seems to me. It's not just that it isn't "fun", it is that the "game" embedded within the software is a profound mismatch with the rest of software's aesthetic. Black and White achieves something that starts to be rather moving and intriguing: the sensation of a relation with something organically unpredictable and real, the consequences of moral choice, and then ties that sensation to a set of profoundly stupid and repetitive exercises.

But Richard's point is really well-taken: even the shortest games are long experiences, and worse, games have short shelf-lives. By the time you "review" one, usually everyone who will play it has played it. Which might explain why some of the most interesting games criticism is actually the postmortems of developers...

Posted Nov 22, 2004 11:42:07 AM | link

Raph says:

Movies are supposed to be fun? Really? Citizen Kane? Saving Private Ryan? These are fun?

I love fun. I prize fun. I value it highly. I just wrote a whole book about it.

But if fun is all games are, then games are doomed. To paraphrase from the book, "No other medium defines itself solely around a single intended effect on the user."

Posted Nov 22, 2004 1:34:15 PM | link

gus andrews says:

I see a lot of scholars and media-moguls-in-training listening to Anderson; while I think he's provided us a useful tool to think with in Imagined Communities, we need to keep in mind that it's a historical piece and that in our postmodern media ecology, we shouldn't expect to find nationalizing dialogues exactly where Anderson did. Let's keep in mind that newspapers are not the nation-building forces that they used to be. They haven't been so for years. Newspaper readership is declining, and popular magazine readership is increasingly fragmented into smaller and smaller specialties. Heck, even network TV doesn't command the audience it once did. Whether widespread middlebrow criticism of games would even have the effect it did on the movie industry remains in question.

Younger people are less likely to read newspapers than their elders. It's hardly surprising, then, that editors don't find it necessary to review video games; such features are not likely to appeal to their audiences. It's going to be rather difficult to convince editors to review GTA if their middle-aged audience usually comes to the paper for horoscopes, stock quotes, or recipes. Whether newspapers will survive as sources of mainstream infomation until gamers grow up remains to be seen.

Video game criticism happens on the Net, in specialty magazines, and on Tech TV. That's where the people who are currently interested in games are going to read it. The larger problem here is getting anyone interested in information which does not immediately appeal to their entertainment or information preferences.

I know this is asking a heckov lot, but perhaps the impetus for change needs to come from game developers seeking to expand marginal markets. If they start making more games which appeal to girls, and continue advertising to women as they grow up, perhaps we will eventually find a generation of female readers interested enough in games that we'd see game reviews in People or Cosmo. (And this process begins at home -- think of the study which showed that girls are less likely to play video and computer games simply because they're less likely to have access to them; the games are often installed in the rooms of their older brothers. Free your home console now!) Or perhaps if gamemakers tried to reach the middle-aged market by more aggressively advertising puzzle games in print publications, editors would get a clue, realize that their readers actually do play games... and feature reviews of new puzzle games?

I think we're lucky enough the New York Times has a column on games -- other editors look to them as the gold standard, and may follow suit.

Posted Nov 22, 2004 1:55:28 PM | link

David Thomas says:

In terms of the "how long it takes to review a game" issue.

This is sort of a red herring. It takes a long time to read most books, yet serious mainstream literary criticism exists. You can't see Paris in a day, yet we have evolved social and historical criticism.

So, it takes more than 90 minutes to play most games. That in no way precludes serious criticism.

And, as an aside, this conversation is serious criticism. The problem is that outside a few oasis of thought, there are not many places that conduct this kind of discussion about games or game writing--including the New York Times. Just compare the NYT game writing to the writing on any other form of entertianment in that paper. You'll see what I mean.

Posted Nov 22, 2004 3:18:28 PM | link

Brask Mumei says:

Raph> Movies are supposed to be fun? Really? Citizen Kane? Saving Private Ryan? These are fun?

You are right. My statement was indefensible. I must engage brain before engaging my fingers in the future.

I think it is just since I often stick to fun movies that I forget many people actually enjoy watching sad movies. Was Old Yeller supposed to be "Fun"?

- Brask Mumei

Posted Nov 23, 2004 3:49:54 AM | link

Flatfingers says:

David Thomas> outside a few oasis of thought, there are not many places that conduct this kind of discussion about games or game writing--including the New York Times.

I would like to point out one of the honorable exceptions to this rule, and that is Scientific American, which for many years ran the "Mathematical Recreations" column (or a variant thereof) with articles by Martin Gardner, Douglas Hofstadter, A.K. Dewdney, and Ian Stewart.

Although many of these articles were math-oriented, it's also true that many of them treated the subject of play (and playfulness) with the respect I think most of the contributors to this thread would like shown to computer games.

--Flatfingers

Posted Nov 23, 2004 6:51:19 PM | link

Paul "Phinehas" Schwanz says:

Brask Mumei> "I also think there is too much of an emphasis on cinematic criticism here. Why should we critic a game on how emotionally attached we get to the main character? If the game is multi-live jumping puzzle, such a criticism is rather pointless, no? I mean, I don't critic a film based on its lack of interactivity."

I think perhaps the visual presentation sets up expectations. I don't expect to get emotionally attached in a game of Tetris, but I do expect it in JK2. The visual presentation along with many other game design cues seem to tell me that I should be identifying with and emotionally attached to the main character in JK2. The notion of visual POV seems to suggest an emotional or story-like POV. JK2 presents itself as a story in a way that Hearts Online, Space Invaders, or Bejewled do not.

My wife and I have been on a low-carb diet for a few months. This diet offers many low-carb alternative recipes, one of which is called "Mashed Potato Surprise." Creating this dish involves putting cauliflower into a blender and whipping it into a mashed-potato-like consistency. But I quickly discovered that seeing something on my plate that looks like mashed potatoes makes me want to taste mashed potatoes, and not cauliflower. I don't particularly like Mashed Potato Surprise, but if you just put some cauliflower with butter on my plate, I like it just fine. Why? Because when it looks like mashed potatoes I'll tend to critique it as mashed potatoes, but when it looks like cauliflower I critique it as cauliflower.

JK2 looks like cinema in a lot of ways, but then it has a tendency to play like Frogger from time to time. Like so many other similar games, even those that receive similarly great reviews, I feel no attachment to the character and care very little about the mechanics-dressed-up-as-a-story. I think the way JK2 treats "death" plays a large role in this disconnect.

Anyone remember the game Faery Tale for the Amiga? (I think that is the correct title.) In it, you played as three brothers. When your character died, you took up the story as the next brother. It seems to me that such an approach could allow for a much more comprehensive exploration of grief and/or revenge. Does your character have nightmares? Cut scenes where he relives the death of his older brother. Have any more recent games explored this sort of approach? I can't think of any. Why not?

--Phin

Posted Nov 27, 2004 2:15:39 PM | link