How much games criticism does anyone need?

Videogame writer Ed Stern argues that "video games as a medium are not going to gain cultural legitimacy or worth through the attention of critics or theorists - it's going to be because the games are good".

My piece about games criticism - and the paucity of it in mainstream media - generated a lot of response (not all of it angry! result!). In the next few days, I'll be bringing you a rebuttal to the piece from a journalist who is trying to broaden the practice. But, in the meantime, games writer Ed Stern - who works for Splash Damage - agreed that I could share his full response to my question: "How can we have a better cultural conversation about games?" 

Ed, and I'm going to be making him blush now, is one of the most thoughtful and well-read gentlemen I've encountered, and it cheers me enormously that he's chosen to write videogames. Even if he is, as you will discover, a touch pessimistic about making them "mean" anything.

- Helen 

"Cultural criticism about games? Much more pressing for me is the need for better popular consumer journalism: we need regular game review segments in mass readership papers and on primetime (if that’s still a thing) so parents who haven’t grown up playing games know what to let their children play. There’s a limit to the size and number of age rating labels we can put on the front of the box. And increasingly, with digital distribution, there’s no box to stick warning labels on.

As for the hoitier, toitier end of things, I think games get about as much respect as they deserve, possibly too much. Games are continually being enlisted under the banner of Art. It would be nice to see their craft more appreciated, but once you’ve built an academic/critical mill, I suppose you need to keep finding new texts to feed into it (or it’s just the same texts fed in at different angles).

We need more actual, factual journalism, more deep reporting. But the games industry is even more risky (and risk-averse) than movies, has increasing numbers of plates to spin and is consequently ever-less willing to let light in back where the laws and sausages and games get made, so good luck with that.

I think the indie experimental stuff is now much easier for the general gamership/readership to try because so much of it can be found and played in a browser window or on a mobile phone. Maybe this will lead to a greater interest in the craft of design, balance and implementation, but then I’m probably abnormally interested in the production/design process of things and don’t care about theory.

Games-as-texts don’t often read as book-clever. Most of them, particularly the “AAA” big release titles, aren’t about things, or ideas, or themes in a way that repays the sort of critical attention that’s brought to other media. Games aren’t as good at authored narrative or subtext as they are at providing players with virtual adventure playgrounds for developing and demonstrating mastery. What games really excel at is being as forges for anecdote. It’s that combination of sandbox, ruleset and toolkit that lets players make their own stories through trial-and-error interaction. The force of these stories usually comes from oddness or irony rather than significance; often they revolve around the player’s actions gloriously defeating, evading or supplanting the authored significance of the game’s Text-with-a-capital-T.

I suspect 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 through which to view issues of cultural politics of gender, race, class, generational change, narrative and play. They just tend not to mean very much in themselves because it’s just spectacularly, trudgingly hard to make games mean things, not least because the big ones are made by so many different pairs of hands that any potential significance gets dissipated or inadvertently contradicted by something else in the game.

Why critical significance should be so much harder for games than any other collaborative medium like movies or TV, I’m not sure. Perhaps we’re just not as good at designing organisations to make things. Brilliant work is being done on a smaller scale in the experimental art house circuit that is the indie sector, but in terms of “AAA” Hollywood games, just getting the damn things finished on-time and on-budget and fun and sufficiently functional to not fall over is hard enough. Making them significant as well is something few developers seem to even get to attempt. After all, it’s not just making a new film to show in the same cinema, it’s reinventing the camera, the film stock, the projector, the screen, the seats and, increasingly, the popcorn and hotdogs too. Perhaps it’s not surprising there’s so much noise along with whatever signal we’re trying to author in or analyse out.

So what would improve criticism? Well, for a subject so under the academic microscope, we’re light on terminology: we call a ridiculously, meaninglessly broad number of things “game”. Then again we don’t have that many genre terms to describe movies, but we seem to do OK with the ones we have. Maybe we should commit the same fiction as movies: pretend that one mind makes them, and lionise lead game designers as we do directors (while feeling smug when we know the names of the cinematographer, editor and screenwriter too).

I don’t think commercial interests are holding much back, they just make it harder for general non-identified-as-Gamer readers to distinguish between the different genres and markets of game writing. The more antic academic criticism effectively secludes itself, and the informed readers do a good job of finding their own preferred sources (and there’s some tremendous writing about games out there). It’s the non-hardcore civilian readers who have to find their own way through the churnalised marketing copy, the sober consumer reviews, the New Games Journalism-inflected meditations, the frantic fansite blurbs and the comments threads. Oh lord, the comments threads.

What would more, better games criticism look like? We’ve had millennia of books, and writing and thinking about books, which then got adapted to include film, and TV. We’ve only had about three decades of games, and writing about games, we’ve had fan writing that grew up, and critical theory that shifted its gaze over to what the kids were doing, and game-playing kids who got into books and books about books, and there still seem to be as many differences from what went before as similarities. Why would more or better games criticism look like the writing about other media?

Also, how much games criticism does anyone need? Or rather, how many people need any? Perhaps we already have enough. Most people who buy games aren’t particularly interested in critical thinking about games, any more than moviegoers are close readers of film, or downloaders are fascinated by music criticism. They like the sound it makes in their lives, but they don’t have to know how it works, or what it tells them about themselves. Most people like movies, but they want memories and making-of anecdotes and blooper reel gaffs to trade with their friends, they don’t want to spend a day on set, or a week in edit. Maybe we already have all the game criticism there's any actual demand for.

The video game as a medium is not going to gain cultural legitimacy or worth through the attention of critics or theorists, it's going to be because the games are good. Or, you know, by reducing the attention span of anyone who might otherwise read a book or see a play or look at a painting. Kidding. I hope. I look forward to being wrong about all of this."

Find Ed on Twitter: @edstern

Journey, for the PlayStation 3.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

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If you don’t know what a Fwooper is by now, where have you been?

Meet the latest magical characters entering the Harry Potter universe.

Yesterday, the latest and final trailer was released for Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them –  the latest Harry Potter franchise film from J K Rowling. Based on an index of magical animals that Rowling released for Comic Relief all the way back in 2001, it naturally features a whole range of strange creatures from the series – with familiar and fresh faces alike.

So, let’s get to know the animals we meet in the latest trailer.

Niffler

Ministry of Magic dangerousness classification: XXX (Competent wizards should cope)

Any self-respecting Harry Potter fan will remember the niffler. A mole-like fellow mostly found down mines, the niffler’s most distinctive characteristic is its love for (and ability to sniff out) gold. Nifflers were part of Hagrid’s most successful lesson, when he buried leprechaun gold and asked his students to use nifflers to dig up as much as possible – “easily the most fun they had ever had in Care of Magical Creatures”. And who could forget when Lee Jordan, on more than one occasion, released a hairy-snouted niffler into Umbridge’s office, “which promptly tore the place apart in its search for shiny objects, leapt on Umbridge on her reentrance, and tried to gnaw the rings off her stubby fingers”? Some would say the niffler is a distant relative of the New Statesman’s own Media Mole – sniffing out content gold on a daily basis.

From Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them:

The Niffler is a British beast. Fluffy, black and long-snouted, this burrowing creature has a predilection for anything glittery. Nifflers are often kept by goblins to burrow deep into the earth for treasure. Though the Niffler is gentle and even affectionate, it can be destructive to belongings and should never be kept in a house. Nifflers live in lairs up to twenty feet below the surface and produce six to eight young in a litter.

An Egg

Ministry of Magic dangerousness classification: N/A. It’s an egg.

Well, well, well, if it isn’t the guy from Twitter that told me to go fuck myself. Who knows what magical creature is appearing from within this hatching egg – the only animal we’ve seen hatch in the Potterverse before was Noberta the Norwegian Ridgeback dragon, but this egg looks too small to be one of those. Aside from dragons, we know from Fantastic Beasts that Acromantula, Ashwinder serpents, Basilisks, Chimaera, doxies and fairies, Fwoopers, Hippocampi, Hippogriffs, Occamys, Phoenixes, and Runespoor all come from eggs. My money would be on this being the egg of an Occamy – a key player in the next movie – but their eggs are made from pure silver. So I’d guess this belongs to a Fwooper.

Nomaj

Ministry of Magic dangerousness classification: N/A (but should be XXXXX to be honest)

Meaning “no magic”, this is basically your common or garden variety Muggle, just with a fancy new American name. Look how Muggleish this one is, falling through suitcases like a chump and getting in a muddle about basic magical principles. Get it together, mate! It remains unconfirmed whether this man’s animate moustache is a magical creature in its own right.

Billywig

Ministry of Magic dangerousness classification: XXX (Competent wizards should cope)

You might not remember billywigs from the Harry Potter series – they only get a couple of passing, esoteric mentions in the final book. But anyone who remembers Fizzing Whizbees – in Ron’s words, “massive sherbert balls that make you levitate a few inches off the ground while you’re sucking them”, will have a tangential relationship with them – according to Fantastic Beasts, they’re a key ingredient in the classic wizarding sweet. These bugs seem to match the billywig description.

From Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them:

The Billywig is an insect native to Australia. It is around half an inch long and a vivid sapphire blue, although its speed is such that it is rarely noticed by Muggles and often not by wizards until they have been stung. The Billywig’s wings are attached to the top of its head and are rotated very fast so that it spins as it flies. At the bottom of the body is a long thin sting. Those who have been stung by a Billywig suffer giddiness followed by levitation. Generations of young Australian witches and wizards have attempted to catch Billywigs and provoke them into stinging in order to enjoy these side effects, though too many stings may cause the victim to hover uncontrollably for days on end, and where there is a severe allergic reaction, permanent floating may ensue. Dried Billywig stings are used in several potions and are believed to be a component in the popular sweet Fizzing Whizzbees.

Graphorn

Ministry of Magic dangerousness classification: XXXX (Dangerous / requires specialist knowledge / skilled wizard may handle)

This is not a “canon” animal in that it doesn’t appear in the original series. God, it’s weird looking.

From Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them:

The Graphorn is found in mountainous European regions. Large and greyish purple with a humped back, the Graphorn has two very long, sharp horns, walks on large, four-thumbed feet, and has an extremely aggressive nature. Mountain trolls can occasionally be seen mounted on Graphorns, though the latter do not seem to take kindly to attempts to tame them and it is more common to see a troll covered in Graphorn scars. Powdered Graphorn horn is used in many potions, though it is immensely expensive owing to the difficulty in collecting it. Graphorn hide is even tougher than a dragon’s and repels most spells.

Fwooper

Ministry of Magic dangerousness classification: XXX (Competent wizards should cope)

We see a bright pink bird sail past the Graphorn – I bet this is a Fwooper. Again, not an animal from the seven books, but here’s what we know about it from Fantastic Beasts:

The Fwooper is an African bird with extremely vivid plumage; Fwoopers may be orange, pink, lime green, or yellow. The Fwooper has long been a provider of fancy quills and also lays brilliantly patterned eggs. Though at first enjoyable, Fwooper song will eventually drive the listener to insanity8 and the Fwooper is consequently sold with a Silencing Charm upon it, which will need monthly reinforcement. Fwooper owners require licences, as the creatures must be handled responsibly.

Bowtruckle

Ministry of Magic dangerousness classification: XX (Harmless / may be domesticated)

A fan favourite, maybe because one attacks Harry in a Care of Magical Creatures class, before it “set off at full tilt toward the forest, a little, moving stickman soon swallowed up by the tree roots.” Aw, cute and feisty! Tree guardians that usually live in trees that produce wand wood, they are pretty damn adorable. We know they like to eat fairy eggs, and we can assume they particularly favour doxy eggs: Aberforth once said, “they’ll be onto you like bowtruckles on doxy eggs”.

From Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them:

The Bowtruckle is a tree-guardian creature found mainly in the west of England, southern Germany, and certain Scandinavian forests. It is immensely difficult to spot, being small (maximum eight inches in height) and apparently made of bark and twigs with two small brown eyes. The Bowtruckle, which eats insects, is a peaceable and intensely shy creature but if the tree in which it lives is threatened, it has been known to leap down upon the woodcutter or tree-surgeon attempting to harm its home and gouge at their eyes with its long, sharp fingers. An offering of woodlice will placate the Bowtruckle long enough to let a witch or wizard remove wand-wood from its tree.

Nundu

Ministry of Magic dangerousness classification: N/A, but pretty damn high we’d assume

Not in the books; not in Fantastic Beasts, definitely fucking weird. Pottermore have invented a Fantastic Beasts entry for it that did not appear in the 2001 book, so I guess we have to go from there.

From Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (on Pottermore):

This east African beast is arguably the most dangerous in the world. A gigantic leopard that moves silently despite its size and whose breath causes disease virulent enough to eliminate entire villages, it has never yet been subdued by fewer than a hundred skilled wizards working together.

Thunderbird

Ministry of Magic dangerousness classification: N/A, but, again, we’d guess high

Again, this is seemingly a new creation invented for this film. It apparently “senses danger and creates storms as it flies”, and a house of the American Wizarding school Ilvermoney takes its name from this bird, and Pottermore gives a bit of extra detail, supposedly from History of Magic in North America, 1920s Wizarding America:

Shikoba Wolfe, who was of Choctaw descent, was primarily famous for intricately carved wands containing Thunderbird tail feathers (the Thunderbird is a magical American bird closely related to the phoenix). Wolfe wands were generally held to be extremely powerful, though difficult to master. They were particularly prized by Transfigurers.

Occamy

Ministry of Magic dangerousness classification: XXXX (Dangerous / requires specialist knowledge / skilled wizard may handle)

A horrific bird-snake, it seems as though Occamys start tiny and cute and end up huge and dangerous. I am intrigued. Again, not one from the books.

From Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them:

The Occamy is found in the Far East and India. A plumed, twolegged winged creature with a serpentine body, the Occamy may reach a length of fifteen feet. It feeds mainly on rats and birds, though has been known to carry off monkeys. The Occamy is aggressive to all who approach it, particularly in defence of its eggs, whose shells are made of the purest, softest silver.

Erumpent

Ministry of Magic dangerousness classification: XXXX (Dangerous / requires specialist knowledge / skilled wizard may handle)

We never see an Erumpent in the Harry Potter series, but who could forget the exploding Erumpent horn – “an enormous, gray spiral horn, not unlike that of a unicorn” – at Xenophilius Lovegood’s house? Hermione spots it as “a Class B Tradeable Material and it’s an extraordinarily dangerous thing to have in a house!” We can therefore assume the Erumpent is a risky animal to be around. Also fucking ugly.

From Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them:

The Erumpent is a large grey African beast of great power. Weighing up to a tonne, the Erumpent may be mistaken for a rhinoceros at a distance. It has a thick hide that repels most charms and curses, a large, sharp horn upon its nose and a long, rope-like tail. Erumpents give birth to only one calf at a time. The Erumpent will not attack unless sorely provoked, but should it charge, the results are usually catastrophic. The Erumpent’s horn can pierce everything from skin to metal, and contains a deadly fluid which will cause whatever is injected with it to explode. Erumpent numbers are not great, as males frequently explode each other during the mating season. They are treated with great caution by African wizards. Erumpent horns, tails, and the Exploding Fluid are all used in potions, though classified as Class B Tradeable Materials (Dangerous and Subject to Strict Control).

I’m sure there are loads more creatures to be discovered in the new film – but getting to know this small handful has exhausted me for now!

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.