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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"By now, there was no way back for me": the strange story of Bogdan Stashinsky

Serhii Plokhy’s The Man with the Poison Gun is a gripping, remarkable Cold War spy story.

On the morning of 12 August 1961, a few hours before the supreme leader of East Germany, Walter Ulbricht, announced the sealing of the border between East and West Berlin, a funeral took place for a four-month-old boy at the Rohrbeck Evangelical Cemetery in Dallgow. Numerous KGB agents and officers of the East German ministry of security were in attendance, but the boy’s parents were missing. Instead, Bogdan Stashinsky and Inge Pohl were preparing their imminent escape from Soviet-occupied territory and into the West. They had intended to flee the following day, but the funeral provided a moment of opportunity when their surveillance was relaxed. If they wanted to go, they had to go now.

“The KGB operatives present at the child’s funeral were puzzled by the parents’ absence,” a Soviet intelligence officer later wrote. “By the end of the day on 13 August 1961, it was clear that the Stashinskys had gone to the West. Everyone who knew what tasks the agent had carried out in Munich in 1957 and 1959, and what could happen if Stashinsky were to talk, was in shock.”

Those “tasks” were the state-sponsored assassinations of Lev Rebet and Stepan Bandera, two exiled leaders of the Ukrainian anti-communist movement who had been living in Munich. Stashinsky, one of the KGB’s top hitmen, and the focus of Serhii Plokhy’s gripping book, had been given the task of tracking and killing them with a custom-built gun that sprayed a lethal, yet undetectable poison. It was only after Stashinsky’s defection to the Central Intelligence Agency, and then to the West German security services, that the cause of Rebet and Bandera’s deaths was finally known.

For decades, the KGB denied any involvement in the assassinations, and the CIA has never been entirely sure about Stashinsky’s motives. Was he telling the truth when he confessed to being the assassin, or was he, as some still claim, a loyal agent, sent to spread disinformation and protect the true killer? Plokhy has now put to rest the many theories and speculations. With great clarity and compassion, and drawing from a trove of recently declassified files from CIA, KGB and Polish security archives, as well as interviews conducted with former heads of the South African police force, he chronicles one of the most curious espionage stories of the Cold War.

Stashinsky’s tale is worthy of John le Carré or Ian Fleming. Plokhy even reminds us that The Man With the Golden Gun, in which James Bond tries to assassinate his boss with a cyanide pistol after being brainwashed by the Soviets, was inspired by the Stashinsky story. But if spy novels zero in on a secret world – tradecraft, double agents, defections, and the moral fallout that comes from working in the shadows – Plokhy places this tale in the wider context of the Cold War and the relentless ideological battle between East and West.

The story of Stashinsky’s career as a triggerman for the KGB plays out against the backdrop of the fight for Ukrainian independence after the Second World War. He was a member of the underground resistance against the Soviet occupation, but was forced to become an informer for the secret police after his family was threatened. After he betrayed a resistance cell led by Ivan Laba, which had assassinated the communist author Yaroslav Halan, Stashinsky was ostracised by his family and was offered the choice of continuing his higher education, which he could no longer afford, or joining the secret police.

“It was [only] a proposal,” he said later, “but I had no alternative to accepting it and continuing to work for the NKVD. By now, there was no way back for me.” He received advanced training in Kyiv and Moscow for clandestine work in the West and became one of Moscow’s most prized assets. In 1957, after assassinating Rebet, he was awarded the
Order of the Red Banner, one of the oldest military decorations in the Soviet Union.

Plokhy’s book is about more than the dramas of undercover work; it is also an imaginative approach to the history of Cold War international relations. It is above all an affective tale about the relationship between individual autonomy and state power, and the crushing impact the police state had on populations living behind the Iron Curtain. Stashinsky isn’t someone of whom we should necessarily approve: he betrayed his comrades in the Ukrainian resistance, lied to his family about who he was and killed for a living. Yet we sympathise with him the more he, like so many others, turns into a defenceless pawn of the Communist Party high command, especially after he falls in love with his future wife, Inge.

One of the most insightful sections of Plokhy’s book converges on Stashinsky’s trial in West Germany in 1962 over the killings of Rebet and Bandera, and how he was given a reduced sentence because it was deemed that he had been an instrument of the Soviet state. The decision was influenced by German memories of collective brainwashing under the Third Reich. As one of the judges put it: “The accused was at the time in question a poor devil who acted automatically under pressure of commands and was misled and confused ideologically.”

What makes Plokhy’s book so alarmingly resonant today is how Russia still uses extrajudicial murder as a tool of foreign policy. In 2004 Viktor Yushchenko, the pro-Western future president of Ukraine, was poisoned with dioxin; two years later Aleksandr Litvinenko, the Russian secret service defector, unknowingly drank radioactive polonium at a hotel in London. The Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya survived a poisoning in 2004 after drinking tea given to her by an Aeroflot flight attendant (she was murdered two years later). The collapse of the Soviet Union did not bring the end of the Russian threat (Putin, remember, is ex-KGB). As le Carré noted in a speech in the summer of 1990, “The Russian Bear is sick, the Bear is bankrupt, the Bear is frightened of his past, his present and his future. But the Bear is still armed to the teeth and very, very proud.”

The Man with the Poison Gun: a Cold War Spy Story by Serhii Plokhy is published by Oneworld (365pp, £18.99)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge