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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In Snowden, Joseph Gordon-Levitt seems to absorb the spirit of the whistleblower

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard. It is reassuring that a film in which people are spied can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable.

Laura Poitras’s Oscar-winning 2014 documentary Citizenfour captured the precise moment at which Edward Snowden turned whistleblower after quitting his job at the NSA. Is there room for another film on the same subject? Oliver Stone’s fictionalised account, Snowden, would suggest not. In effect, it admits defeat from the get-go by using the making of Citizenfour as a framing device, incorporating flashbacks to show what led Snowden to commit the security breach that exposed the extent of US government surveillance. Cooped up in a Hong Kong hotel room with him as he spills the beans are Poitras (Melissa Leo) and the Guardian journalists Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson), who put on their best ­listening faces and try to forget that all of the most interesting scenes are happening in other parts of the film.

What Snowden has in its favour is an economical performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt which is mysterious without being aloof, cool but never cold. The actor gets the voice right (it’s a benign rumble) and though he is physically dissimilar to the real Snowden, that need be no barrier to success: look at Anthony Hopkins in Stone’s Nixon. Gordon-Levitt is absorbed by the role like water vanishing into a sponge. When the real Snowden pops up to stare wistfully off into the distance (there’s a lot of that here), it can’t help but be a let-down. People are so bad at playing themselves, don’t you find?

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard, and it is reassuring that a film in which people are spied on through the webcams of dormant laptops can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable. The script, written by Stone and Kieran Fitzgerald, pulls in the opposite direction, allowing every character to deliver a remark of nudging innuendo. When Snowden is discharged from the army after injuring himself, a doctor tells him: “There are plenty of other ways to serve your country.” When he is approved for a job at the CIA, Snowden tells his employer: “You won’t regret this.” What we have here, give or take the strip club scene in which a pole dancer is filmed from an ungallantly low angle, is a more sober Stone than the one who made JFK and Natural Born Killers but he still can’t resist giving us a few deafening blasts of the old irony klaxon.

Though we know by now not to expect subtlety, Stone’s storytelling techniques are still surprisingly crude. When Snowden’s girlfriend, Lindsay (Shailene Woodley), complains that he has become distant, that he doesn’t touch her any more, the viewer is likely to wonder why that point had to be expressed in soap-opera dialogue rather than, say, action or camera angles. After all, the film was more than happy to throw in a superfluous sex scene when their love life was hunky-dory.

But when Stone does make his points visually, the cringe factor is even higher. He used carnivorous imagery in Nixon – a bloody steak stood in for murder – and the new film doesn’t take the vegetarian option either. Snowden is already starting to be alarmed by surveillance tactics when he goes hunting with his boss, Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans). The pheasants they kill are barbecued in sizzling close-up, providing a buffet of symbolism. Snowden is going to be grilled. His goose is cooked. He’s dead meat.

An early scene showing him establishing contact with Poitras and Greenwald by an exchange of coded phrases (“What time does the restaurant open?” “Noon. But the food is a little spicy”) suggests that Stone intends to have fun with the story’s espionage trappings. The movie falls between two stools, however, lacking either the irreverence of satire or the tautness of a well-tooled thriller. At its most effective moments, it floats free of irony and captures a quaint, tactile innocence. We see Snowden communicating in sign language with an NSA colleague to avoid being eavesdropped on, or sitting in bed with a blanket over him as he taps away at his laptop. He is only hiding his passwords but he looks for all the world like a kid reading comics by torchlight after his mother has said: “Lights out.”

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump