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Why are we still so bad at talking about video games?

In the past 30 years, video games have become more beautiful, more intricate and more intense - but we still lack a critical language to evaluate them. Will we ever move beyond previews and reviews?

A still from Dishonored.
A still from Dishonored.

I can’t remember the first computer game I played. It might have been Killer Gorilla, which was written by a British 17-year-old called Adrian Stephens who had seen screenshots of Donkey Kong in a magazine and decided to make his own version in his bedroom.

Killer Gorilla was published in 1983, the year I was born, so it must have been hanging round in my brother’s collection for several years before I played it. In those days, games came on a cassette tape, which whined with static if you put it in a music player. The machine we had was an Acorn Electron – another knock-off, this time of the more expensive BBC Micro.

Looking at pictures of Killer Gorilla now, it’s hard to believe it kept me occupied for so long, furiously tapping away at the keyboard – Z for left, X for right, and “return” to jump. There was no story (save the jealous love of a primate for a princess), the graphics were basic and the sound consisted mostly of a sad “bingy bongy boo” whenever you died, which was often.

Compare that with the big-name releases in the run-up to Christmas 2012; the so-called triple-A titles that dominate games magazines and newspaper reviews. In the past few weeks, I’ve played three of the best: Bethesda’s steampunk stealth adventure Dishonored, Gearbox Software’s sarcastic space western Borderlands 2 and 343 Industries’ straight-faced military romp Halo 4. Each will have cost more than £15m to make, and several million more to market, and would have involved hundreds of people (Halo 4 had 300 just in the game development team).

These games are gorgeous, delivering both sweeping vistas and fine-grained details, and Dishonored, in particular, has a voice-acting cast to rival a Hollywood film: Susan Sarandon, Chloë Grace Moretz and Mad Men’s John Slattery. They are all critically acclaimed, with each scoring around 90 per cent on the review aggregator site Metacritic.

And yet, I can’t help feeling that something is missing. Technically, video games have matured hugely since I was mashing the Electron’s keyboard in the 1980s, but I don’t have the conversations about them that I have about books or film or music. Having missed out on Channel 4’s GamesMaster from 1992 to 1998, I can think of only one recent television programme I’ve seen devoted to them: Charlie Brooker’s one-off Gameswipe. Most newspapers have a single short review a week, if that and games are rarely mentioned on bastions of arts programming such as Radio 4 or BBC2. Discussion of games focuses heavily on whether a particular title is worth buying.

Now, you might not find that surprising – because you think games are a niche pursuit or that they’re new. But you’d be wrong on both counts. In the US, 245.6 million video games were sold in 2011, according to the Entertainment Software Association. Microsoft says users have spent 3.3 billion hours playing its Halo series online. Read that again: 3.3 billion hours. As for being newfangled, how about this: a ten-year-old who played Pong when Atari first released it will have celebrated her 50th birthday this year.

Does this matter? It does if you think the unexamined hobby is not worth having. And it does if you wonder, like me, whether the lack of a serious cultural conversation about games is holding back innovation. The background of games in programming culture meant that for many years their development was seen purely in terms of what they could do. But while, say, improved graphical rendering means that modern titles look astonishing, I find myself thinking: is it really such an achievement for a sunset to look 96 per cent as good as a real one?

In 2004, Kieron Gillen wrote a much-referenced essay called “The New Games Journalism”, in which he eviscerated most of his contemporaries for being unimaginative drones, who churned out previews and reviews, and stopped writing about a game at the exact moment their readers started playing it.

He rejected the idea that “the worth of a video game lies in the video game, and by examining it like a twitching insect fixed on a slide, we can understand it” and instead urged writers to become “travel journalists to imaginary places”. The New Games Journalism would be interesting even to people who would never visit those places.

Gillen’s article prompted much soul-searching, and many sub-Tom Wolfe pieces in which people bored on for thousands of words about seeing a pixel and suddenly understanding what love was. But eight years later, the state of games writing is even more bleak. Metacritic, which I mentioned earlier, presents an obvious problem. The industry places enormous weight on the scores it aggregates; as Keza MacDonald of the gaming website IGN noted, “eager, inexperienced writers from smaller sites have been known to give very high scores knowing that their review will appear near the top of the listings and refer traffic”.

“As games have developed and there are more interesting things to talk about, like their narratives, their artistic statements, occasionally even their cultural significance, reviews are still often expected to be an overview of a game’s features with a numerical value on the end,” MacDonald tells me. “This is as much the audience’s problem as the outlets’. Readers expect scores and they expect ‘objective’ analyses of games, even as the games themselves have got to a point where that’s not possible any more.”

Gillen is surprisingly relaxed about the direction criticism has taken since his manifesto (and he has now “retired” from games journalism to write comics). “I’ve learned to be philosophical about this one,” he tells me. “The old has always feared and suspected the new. They’ll reject the new for failing to match the old on the old’s terms, failing to realise that its achievements are entirely separate . . . Fundamentally: eventually old people die.”

Elsewhere, however, others are continuing the fight he started. Naomi Alderman is a novelist, a games critic and a games writer, and she concurs that we need to find a way to write about games for people who don’t play them. “You need the vocabulary of an art critic to talk about the graphics, of a novel critic to talk about the storytelling, of a film critic to talk about the performances: not to mention music criticism, and gameplay criticism,” she says. “We need to find a way to talk about what’s interesting about a game –what makes the gameplay so enjoyable, what’s great about the aesthetics, how good the narrative is, and where it fits among other similar games.”

Playing Halo 4, Borderlands 2 and Dishonored side by side made me think of all the common features of first-person shooters; the tropes born of necessity, like slowly opening gates to disguise loading times, or travels by boat or aeroplane to keep you still while expository dialogue is delivered.  But there’s so little criticism out there that writes about games belonging to the same genre: in fact, the only sustained critique of the “narrator” character common to many shooters – because you need someone to tell you where to go and what to do – comes from 2007’s BioShock, where that control itself becomes an integral party of the story.

Perhaps that revolution in games criticism will never happen. Ed Stern, who was a writer on the 2011 shooter Brink, says: “It’s currently easy for the book-literate to find everything fascinating about games other than the games themselves. Culturally, sociologically, technologically, in terms of gender and race and sexual and generational politics, they’re a fascinating prism. They just tend not to mean very much in themselves – because it’s spectacularly, trudgingly hard to make games mean things, not least because the big ones are made by so many different pairs of hands.” For the sake of readers – and writers – I hope he’s wrong.