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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The flirting has got extremely out of hand in the latest episode of Game of Thrones

Game of Bones, more like.

Last week, we discovered the romcom residing within Game of Thrones: this week gave us all that and more. “Eastwatch”, the fifth episode of the season, didn’t have high-octane action scenes or lengthy shots of people scheming around maps. But it did have a whole lot of character building: as old allies returned, new tensions emerged and new bonds were formed. And that, my friends, resulted in truly the best thing of all: lots and lots of good, old-fashion Westerosian flirting.

We begin with Bronn and Jaime emerging from the lake: reader, they did not die. Lying on the grass together, dripping and panting. “What the fuck were you doing back there?” Bronn says angrily about Jaime nobly risking his life in his attempt to kill Daenerys. KISS! KISS! KISS! “Listen to me, cunt,” Bronn continues. “Until I get what I’m owed, a dragon doesn’t get to kill you. You don’t get to kill you. Only I get to kill you!” Possessive much? Bronn leaves Jaime looking sadly out over the lake, contemplating the wars to come.

Meanwhile, Tyrion looks sadly over the ashes of battle, contemplating the wars to come. Daenerys and Drogon are presiding proudly over the remaining soldiers, demanding they swear fealty to their new queen. Lord Tarly and his hot son Dickon refuse, and in a vaguely horrifying call back to her father’s taste for (wild)fire, Dany has them burned alive. RIP Lord Tarly’s hot, dead son.

Dany flies Drogon back to Dragonstone, where they run into Jon Snow. Drogon and Jon’s eyes meet across an uncrowded hillside. Jon is transfixed. He gazes deeply into Drogon’s reptilian pools. He removes the glove upon his hand, that he might touch that cheek! They touch. Jon gasps. It’s steamy stuff. Then Daenerys jumps down and Jon’s attention is refocused. What a love triangle.

Dany seems moved by Jon’s connection with her enormous, dreadful son. “They’re beautiful, aren’t they?” She sighs. “It wasn’t the word I was thinking of,” Jon mutters, before remembering who he’s talking to. “But yes, they are. Gorgeous beasts.” It’s adorably unconvincing. They chat about her new habit of burning men alive and Jon’s past habit of taking knives to the heart. The flirting is purely restricted to the eyes but, my God, it’s there.

Until, of course, Ser Jorah Mormont turns up. Boy, this love quadrangle is heating up. Dany openly and outrageously flirts with Jorah’s new, smooth, scale-free face, calling him “an old friend”, saying things like “you look strong”. They hug for way too long. Jon scowls. I can’t wait for the scene where they fight in the fountain to the red-hot guitar chords of The Darkness!!!!

That scene arrives sooner than you’d think. After Bran has a vision of ravens flying over the White Walkers as they march on Eastwatch, he sends a raven to Jon from Winterfell. Jon finds out Arya and Bran are alive and that the White Walkers are approaching their destination. After a long debate, Dany, Jon, Tyron, Davos and Jorah all agree that the priority is to get Cersei to believe the White Walkers are real – by taking one captive and bringing it to King’s Landing. Of course, Jorah and Jon use this opportunity to dick swing in front of Dany like “No, I, The Big Man, will go beyond the Wall, because my penis is larger.” Dany absolutely loves it, doing the same facial expression she used to reserve for gazing between Daario Naharis’s naked thighs.

Even after all this, the flirting is not over for the Dragonstone club. Davos runs off to King’s Landing with Tyrion, where he discovers………. GENDRY! And, my dudes, he’s hotter than ever!! My heart truly sings. What we lost with Dickon’s death (RIP Lord Tarly’s hot, dead son) we gain twice over with the return of the sweaty, hammer-wielding bastard son of Robert Baratheon. Davos and Gendry flirt about Gendry’s love of rowing, Davos’s aging face and being fucked, hard (by Time). Mere seconds later, as they attempt to escape in their comically tiny and unstable boat, Davos flirts with some guards about their massive erections (before Gendry murders them with his larger, harder hammer). Tyrion is impressed, muttering “He’ll do!”

Gendry makes an instant impression back at Dragonstone by refusing to hide his true identity as Davos suggests immediately introducing himself as the bastard son of Robert Baratheon, asking to join the trip to the Wall, and flirting outrageously with Jon by teasing him for being short. Jon absolutely loves it. “Our fathers trusted each other, why shouldn’t we?” Gendry says, cheerfully. (Editor’s note: thanks to the political ramifications of their friendship, both Robert Baratheon and Ned Stark are dead.)

Before we leave Dragonstone we pack in three more sexually-charged conversations. Tyrion flirts with Jorah. “You may not believe it, but I’ve missed you, Mormont,” he says. “Nobody glowers like you, not even Grey Worm.” In a gesture of grand romance, he gives Mormont a coin from their past, and insists he promise to make it back from The Wall alive, in order to return it. Then Jorah and Dany exchange syrupy goodbyes, Dany grabbing Jorah’s hands and Jorah kissing hers. Jon turns up and fishes for compliments. “If I don’t return, at least you won’t have to deal with the king of the North anymore.” “I’ve grown used to him,” she replies. It looks like Jorah has won the battle – but Jon will win the war.

Outside of the steamy boudoir of Dragonstone, elsewhere in Westeros, relationships are tested. In King’s Landing, Jaime confronts Cersei about Dany’s unbeatable dragons, and Olenna’s confession that she murdered Joffrey. Tyrion meets Jaime to tell him of the White Walkers and Dany’s proposition of a truce. Cersei responds with the shocking reveal that she’s pregnant, and plans to tell the world that Jaime is the father.

In Winterfell, Arya watches Sansa placate the Northern Lords as they complain about Jon – and finds Sansa not protective enough of her brother. When Sansa tries to explain the importance of diplomacy, Arya is like “just kill em all, bitch” as she is wont to do. Sansa sounds surprisingly like her brother when she says: “I’m sure cutting off heads is very satisfying, but that’s not the way you get people to work together.” It’s the first hint we get that while Arya is very good at murdering others and surviving herself, she’s not brilliant at managing other people – a thread that continues when she falls into a trap set by Littlefinger, who, by pretending to hide a letter from Arya, leads her straight to it. It’s the letter Sansa was forced to send to Robb when she was a prisoner of Cersei – asking him to swear fealty to her beloved King Joffrey. It’s intended to poison Arya against her sister – but I don’t buy that she would be fooled so easily

In the Citadel, Sam ignores his smart girlfriend because he’s an idiot. Gilly discovers in one of the citadel’s dusty old books that Prince Rhaegar Targaryen’s marriage in Dorne (presumably to his Dornish wife, Elia Martell) was annulled and he was remarried – possibly to Lyanna Stark. We know that Jon is actually Rhaegar’s son with Lyanna Stark - if Jon was their legitimate child, that’s a key piece of the puzzle in figuring out if Jon has a claim to the Iron Throne. Sam responds by talking over her, jacking in his maester training and leaving the city with all the useful information in. Good one, ya idiot.

Finally, Jon visits the Wall where he is reunited with the Wildlings. Tormund obviously lusts after Brienne – “the big woman” – which makes Jon chuckle with delight. He discovers the Brotherhood Without Banners in the basement, and they all flirt by insulting each other repeatedly. Jon gets to do his favourite thing of reminding everyone that there real war is the one with DEATH. “We’re all on the same side,” he insists. “We’re still breathing.” It’s a great line on which to end the episode, which closes with a shot of this ragtag bunch o’ misfits striding out beyond the wall. Will this motley crew figure out a way to work together? Will they complete their quest and secure a White Walker? Or will they discover that, all along, the real prize beyond the Wall… was friendship?

But time for the real question: who was the baddest bitch on this week’s Game of Thrones?

  • Bronn calling Jaime a cunt. +11. Same.
  • Jon telling Daenerys her dragons aren’t beautiful. +9. Risky move.
  • Sam just boldly butting in to a Serious Maester convention when he’s essentially their cleaner. +19.
  • Tyrion and Varis sipping wine and reading private letters. +8 each.
  • Dany openly lusting over two men and subtly encouraging them to vie for her affection. +21. This is serious bad bitch behaviour.
  • Davos seriously suggesting that Gendry rename himself “Clovis”. What the fuck kind of weird name is Clovis?! +12.
  • Davos: “Don’t mind me, all I’ve ever done is live to a ripe old age!” +16. Why does no one ever listen to Davos!!!
  • Gilly just casually discovering some of the most crucial information for the wars to come. +21.
  • Gilly taking no shit when Sam treats her like a total fucking idiot. +17.
  • Sam, being a total twat. -71.
  • Gendry immediately running off with Davos after five seconds in his company again and no knowledge of the task at hand. +14.
  • Gendry killing people with an enormous phallic hammer. +8.
  • Gendry discarding all advice and breezily identifying himself to a potential rival for the Iron Throne. +18
  • Gendry negging the King of the North five seconds after meeting him. +12.

That means this week’s bad bitch is Gendry!!!!! The hammer-weilding, Jon-teasing king of my life. He is closely followed by Gilly, who I strongly suspect will get her day in the sun one day soon. Congrats to both.

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