Where to find good videogames criticism

Brendan Keogh cuts through the dross to uncover the best writing about games anywhere on the internet.

In the latest of a continuing series I like to call "people disagree with me at length", the excellent Brendan Keogh, a games critic and academic, has replied to my article "Why are we so bad at talking about videogames?" You can also see games creator Ed Stern's thoughts here

Over to Brendan . . .

In an article last week, Helen Lewis asked why we are still so bad at talking about videogames. Lewis rightly noted that as the current era’s most prolific new art form, the videogame demands a critical language with which players can discuss their experiences - and, just as importantly, a language that allows people who don’t play videogames to gain an appreciation for the form. The sheer pervasiveness of videogames throughout modern culture means that they can’t be ignored. If there isn’t a videogame on the same device you are reading this article on, chances are there is a videogame in your pocket. Just as we have always needed literary critics, music critics, and film critics, people are starting to realise just how important it is that we have videogame critics.

It was really exciting to see a mainstream outlet with as much clout as The New Statesman to acknowledge this. However, the implication in Lewis’s article that such videogame criticism simply doesn’t exist yet ruffled a few feathers with those writers (including myself) who would like to consider ourselves as already being videogame critics. We felt slighted, ignored. Here was an outlet rightly calling for critical attention to be paid to videogames while, simultaneously, ignoring those of us already doing as such.

But, really, Lewis made an incredibly important point: no one knows we exist. As a community of writers, it is easy to feel slighted, but the truth is harder to face: we are insular. We are doing all this work we think is so important, but the reality is that we are really just talking to our own little circle of fellow writers and readers. Beyond ourselves, few people know who we are.

So it is no fault of Lewis’s that she didn’t know we exist. Many don’t! But her article was a golden opportunity to tell people that, yes, this kind of writing is important, and more importantly the first steps are already being taken. Right now is, I think, an incredibly exciting time to be writing and reading videogame criticism. There is so much experimentation with form and style happening right now as we try to build this critical language that videogames so desperately need. Ideas are being thrown at the wall hard and fast, just to see what will stick. This is a new frontier of writing that we are venturing into.

So allow me to offer not so much a rebuttal to Lewis’s article - because I agree with her in full that this kind of writing is important - but a response from the other side. You want writers who are good at writing about videogames? Well allow me to point you in the right directions. I would greatly love for you to read their work.

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The first and foremost stop for anyone interested in following the critical conversation around videogames is Critical Distance. Since its founding in 2009, Critical Distance has situated itself as a crucial curator for the countless, disparate writers of the videogame blogosphere. Every Sunday, its volunteers post a round-up of the best articles written that week around the web on both amateur blogs and professional websites. It also regularly posts compilations of works written around a single game or franchise. It also makes a vital effort in highlighting the work of new writers—something especially crucial for a writing form as young as this. More than any other site I recommend below, following Critical Distance’s weekly updates will allow anyone to stay on top of the conversation without having to hunt out a hundred different websites.

In more recent years, a spate of sites dedicated to videogame criticism in its many guises have risen up. I won’t name them all here but three that are well worth your time are Bit Creature, Nightmare Mode, and Unwinnable. Each posts regular and strong essays from a diverse arrange of writers looking at a diverse range of games. From consumerism and depression through the lens of Borderlands 2, to mastery-cum-boredom-cum-massacre in Dark Souls, to heartfelt musings on motherhood and sea monkeys in Creatures.

While these sites allow a platform for a broad range of writers, there are also a range of more specific outlets with specific agendas. One of the most important of these is The Border House blog, which provides a vital place for a variety of feminist and queer perspectives on gaming to be heard. Most recently, Mattie Brice’s look at the surreal iPhone game Boyfriend Maker and how it has allowed an audience of players to experiment with different sexualities is well worth a read. Similar is GayGamer, a queer gaming site “for boys who like boys who like joysticks, and girls who like girls who like rumble packs!”

Similarly niche and fascinating in equal measure is Game Church, offering insightful articles from a uniquely Christian perspective, such as this superb article on Sony’s The Unfinished Swan and perfection.

But it’s not only the niche, small sites that are advancing strong critical writing around videogames. Plenty is happening on the traditional videogame journalism outlets, too. At Eurogamer, Christian Donlan wrote one of the most beautiful videogame-related articles of recent time, when he sat down to play Rockstar’s period piece L.A. Noire with his father who was a Los Angeles cop back in the 40s. What unfolds is a touching bond between father and son made possible through this new creative form. At Kotaku, meanwhile, Katie Williams wrote a revealing and infuriating expose into the videogame industry’s systemic sexism through her experiences at this year’s E3 expo. At Ars Technica, I tried my hand at long-form gonzo-style journalism to cover a 48 hour game jam, where teams of developers made a game from scratch in two days. And, in a particularly experimental piece at Boing Boing, Jake Adelstein sat down with several real-life members of the Yakuza to have them play the Japanese game Yakuza 3 and give their opinions on it.

While we are speaking about videogame journalism, it is worth noting that there is plenty of phenomenal investigative journalism happening in recent time. In the past twelve months, both the Penny Arcade Report and Polygon have set themselves up as outlets committed to long-form, high quality journalism about videogames. In particularly, Rob Zacny’s extended exploration of the tragic downfall of THQ’s Kaos Studios (responsible for the first-person shooter, Homefront) and Tracey Lien’s investigation into the trials faced by Middle Eastern game developers are both must-reads.

To spread the net even further, it isn’t just in the videogame-exclusive press where good quality writing in a myriad of forms is emerging. At The Wall Street Journal, Yannick LeJacq writes about the various layers of irony in Borderlands 2. At Boston’s The Phoenix, Maddy Myers regularly explores a range of videogame culture-related issues, such as this long form article exploring the ‘anxious masculinity’ of the fighting-games scene. Kotaku’s Stephen Totilo, among other authors, regularly writes for The New York Times. In the UK, one of the most effortlessly masterful voices in videogame writing, Simon Parkin, writes regularly for The Guardian. Meanwhile, in Australia, videogame critic and academic Dan Golding has a column for independent outlet Crikey. (I personally recommend Golding’s updated version of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem “Paul Revere’s Ride” that takes into account the bizarre retelling of events in Ubisoft’s recent Assassin’s Creed III).

Yet, for all these examples, there are still precious few places that videogame criticism can stand on its own legs, and it is often forced to survive parasitically on the back of websites with other primary concerns. What I personally find most fascinating in recent times are those authors and editors trying to push for videogame criticism to be its own independent form. Independent zines like JumpButton Mag and Ctrl+Alt+Defeat have had some critical success—though certainly not commercial.

In the last week, two different projects have experimented with this independence to see if videogame criticism can be more financially viable for writers. Five out of Ten is a new project founded by New Statesman contributor Alan Williamson, where five writers (full disclosure: one of them is me) write two articles each, and then the compilation is sold for £5, and the profits are split evenly between the writers. Meanwhile, my own attempt at long-form criticism on a single videogame was published last week in a somewhat experimental move, and has been met with surprisingly positive feedback, proving that there truly is an enthusiastic readership hungry for more considered writing about videogames.

And last but far from least, I think it is worth noting this plethora of experimental writing around videogames isn’t as new as it might seem. Writers have been experimenting with form to find ways to explore this medium for a decade now. In 2005, Tim Rogers wrote a phenomenal 12,000 word essay about the Japanese role-playing game, Mother 2, which was already eleven years old at Rogers’s time of writing. Rogers effortlessly pulls together interviews and close description to thread together not just an account of one game, but to situate it within a broader culture of Japanese game development. I haven’t even played this game, but this remains one of my all time favourite pieces of writing about a videogame, regardless. (It’s worth noting, though, that Tim Rogers’s style is highly divisive among readers of videogame journalism and criticism. Personally, I am just excited that we are diverse enough to even have divisive writers!).

Going back further, to 2002, Jane Pinckard wrote a fabulous and risqué post on the psychedelic Playstation 2 game Rez and its particularly bizarre ‘trance controller’. While the rest of the geeky internet subculture made snorting jokes about the trance controller’s similarity to a certain sex toy, Pinckard cut across all the immaturity and awkwardness and straight out tested the trance controller in such a fashion (probably unnecessary NSFW flag for that link). It was a brilliant example of sex-positive feminist writing around games—ten years ago!

And, to really drive it home, in a 1972 issue of Rolling Stone, Stewart Brand delved into the culture of pro-Spacewar! players—arguably the first videogame ever made.

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So what’s the point of hitting you with this barrage of links?  Simply, to spread the word that there is incredible writing happening around the art form that is the videogame. Not just incredible writing: exciting writing. Videogames generate experiences; experiences generate stories, and stories want to be told. With so many people having so many experiences, those people writing around videogames are perhaps some of the most interesting, enthusiastic, and experimental voices happening in criticism right now, and they are well worth your time.

A final caveat: I present the above list as a starting point, not as a canon. I haven’t even mentioned yet Leigh Alexander, Tom Bissell, RockPaperShotgun, Anna Anthropy (who wrote the single most important game design book of recent time) or the countless other phenomenal writers out there progressing this young — but in no way non-existent — form. But I think the point has been made: we haven’t been bad at writing about videogames for a very, very long time.

Videogames matter. That is beyond debate. As such, they demand critics equipped with a strong critical vocabulary in order to help players and non-players alike to understand the infinite experiences they are capable of delivering. I don’t offer this post as a defence of the state of videogame criticism. To be sure, we are still learning, and we are still experimenting.  We have a long way to go, but the point remains that we are well on our way. And, most important of all, as a reader or a writer, we would love to have you come along with us.

Brendan Keogh is a videogame critic and academic from Melbourne, Australia. He has written for a variety of publications such as Edge, Hyper, Ars Technica, and Kotaku. He is also a PhD candidate at RMIT University.

The Japanese videogame Catherine.

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 think Spielberg can't do women, you're missing his point about men

Donning her Freudian hat, Molly Haskell uses her new book to explore Steven Spielberg's attitude to women. But is his real target masculinity?

Few great film directors are as picked on as Steven Spielberg. For a large segment of the cineaste population, a liking for Spielberg over, say, Martin Scorsese is like preferring McCartney to Lennon, or Hockney to Bacon – a sign of an aesthetic sweet tooth, an addiction to flimsy, childlike fantasy over grit, darkness, ambiguity, fibre and all the other things we are taught are good for us in film-crit class. I once suggested to a scowling Sight & Sound reader that while a director such as Stanley Kubrick might be the epitome of the aesthetic will to power – bending the medium to do the master’s bidding – Spielberg’s work was the place you looked to see the medium of cinema left to its own devices: what it gets up to in its free time. The look of disgust on his face was immediate. Conversation over. I might as well have told him I still sucked my thumb.

Partly this is down to his outsized success, which sits ill at ease with our notion of the artist. This is wrong-headed when applied to the movies in general, but particularly when applied to someone such as Spielberg, athletically slam-dunking one box office record after another in the first half of his career, before morphing in the second half, greedily bent on acquiring the credibility that is naturally accorded to the likes of Scorsese, the auteur agonistes, tearing films from his breast like chunks of flesh while wandering in the Hollywood wilderness. Never mind that Scorsese’s reputation for speaking to the human condition rests on his mining of a narrow strip of gangland and the male psyche. Spielberg is a people-pleaser and nothing attracts bullies more.

The film critic Molly Haskell was among the first to kick sand in the director’s face, writing in the Village Voice of Jaws, upon its release in 1975, that she felt “like a rat being given shock treatment”. If you want a quick laugh, the early reviews of Jaws are a good place to start. A “coarse-grained and exploitative work that depends on excess for impact”, wrote one critic. “A mind-numbing repast for sense-sated gluttons”, wrote another. Interviews with Spielberg at the time make him sound as if he is halfway between the Mad magazine mascot, Alfred E Neuman, and a velociraptor: thumbs twitching over his Atari paddle, synapses synced to the rhythms of TV, his head firmly planted in the twilight zone. Who knew that this terrifying creature would one day turn 70 and stand as the reassuring epitome of classical Hollywood storytelling, with his status as a box office titan becoming a little rusty? The BFG did OK but Lincoln came “this close” to going straight to the small screen, the director said recently.

The timing is therefore perfect for an overdue critical reconsideration of his work, and Haskell would seem to be the perfect person for the job. For one thing, she never really liked his work. “I had never been an ardent fan,” she writes in her new book Steven Spielberg: a Life in Films. A card-carrying member of the Sixties cinephile generation – a lover of the brooding ambiguities, unresolved longings and sexual realpolitik found in Robert Altman, John Cassavetes and Paul Mazursky – she instinctively recoiled from the neutered, boys’ own adventure aspect of Spielberg.

“In grappling with Spielberg I would be confronting my own resistance,” she writes. This is a great recipe for a work of criticism, as Carl Wilson proved with his mould-shattering book about learning to love Céline Dion, Let’s Talk About Love: a Journey to the End of Taste. More critics should be locked in a room with things that they hate. Prejudice plus honesty is fertile ground.

But the problem with Haskell’s book is that she hasn’t revised her opinion much. Sure, she grants that nowadays Jaws looks like a “humanist gem” when compared with the blockbusters that it helped spawn, but she still finds it mechanical and shallow – “primal but not particularly complex” – catering to “an escalating hunger for physical thrills and instant gratification”.

But how sweet! Remember instant gratification? It must be up there with Pong and visible bra straps: the great bogeymen of the moral majority in the early Seventies. The dustiness persists. Donning her Freudian hat, Haskell finds “three versions of insecurity” in the three male leads of Jaws. “Lurking behind their Robert-Bly-men-around-the-campfire moment is that deeper and more generalised adolescent dread of the female.”

Haskell is on to something, but only if you turn it 180 degrees. What is critiqued in Jaws is precisely the masculinity that she claims sets the film’s Robert Bly-ish ideological agenda. Refusing to cast Charlton Heston in his film because he seemed too heroic, Spielberg chose as his heroes a physical coward, afraid of the water, fretting over his appendectomy scar, and a Jewish intellectual, crushing his styrofoam cup in a sarcastic riposte to Robert Shaw’s bare-chested Hemingway act. Throughout the film and his career, Spielberg sets up machismo as a lumbering force to be outmanoeuvred by the nimble and quick-witted. His films are badminton, not tennis. Their signature mood is one of buoyancy; his jokes are as light as air. He’s a king of the drop shot.

Not insignificantly, he was raised largely by and with women. His father was always at work and was later “disowned” by Spielberg for his lack of involvement. Together with his three sisters, he was brought up by a mother who doted on her hyperactive son, driving Jeeps in his home movies and writing notes to get him out of school. She “big-sistered us”, he said. A version of this feminised cocoon was later recreated on the set of ET the Extra-Terrestrial, where Spielberg brought together the screenwriter Melissa Mathison and the producer Kathleen Kennedy to help midwife a film that, as Martin Amis once wrote ,“unmans you with the frailty of your own defences”.

On ET, again, Haskell hasn’t changed her opinion much. Its ending is still, in her view, “squirmingly overlong”, while the protagonist Elliott seems suspiciously “cleansed of perverse longings and adult desires, stuck in pre-adolescence”. It might be countered that Elliott is only ten years old and therefore not “stuck” in pre-adolescence at all, but simply in it – but this would run counter to the air of gimlet-eyed sleuthing struck by Haskell as she proceeds through the canon. Indiana Jones is an emblem of “threatened masculinity” whose scholar and adventurer sides “coexist without quite meshing”. (Isn’t that a good thing in a secret alter ego?)

Spielberg is “in flight” from women – he can only do hot mums, tomboys and shrieking sidekicks: “Spielberg was no misogynist. It was just that he liked guy stuff more.” It’s a trick she repeats: seeming to defend him from the charge of misogyny while leaving the charge hanging in the air. “Misogyny may be the wrong word. One rarely feels hatred of women in Spielberg but rather different shades of fear and mistrust.” If it’s the wrong word, there is no reason for Haskell to feature it so prominently in her book.

Having examined her own prejudices with insufficient candour, Haskell leaves his career largely as those first-wave critics found it: the early work facile and “mechanical” until Spielberg “grew up” and made Schindler’s List. Her biggest deviation from this narrative is that she thinks Empire of the Sun, not Schindler’s List, is his greatest film. This is a shame. The narrative could easily be upended. That early quartet of his – Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, ET – stands as one of the great glories of pop classicism, a feat for which Spielberg was unjustly chastised, forcing him to retreat into “prestigious” historical recreation and middlebrow “message” pictures: films with their eyes on not so much an Academy Award as the Nobel Peace Prize. Lincoln plays like the creation of a director who has worked extremely hard to remove his fingerprints from the film and is all the more boring for it.

In the book’s final furlong, covering the 2000s, Haskell finds purpose. She is surely right to defend AI Artificial Intelligence from the wags who claimed that it had “the heart of Kubrick and the intellect of Spielberg”. All the sentimental parts that people assumed were Spielberg’s were in reality Kubrick’s and all the pessimistic stuff was Spielberg’s. As Orson Welles once said, the only difference between a happy ending and an unhappy ending is where you stop the story.

The roller-coaster lurches of Spielberg in the Nineties – when he alternated Oscar-winners such as Schindler’s List with popcorn fodder such as Jurassic Park – have stabilised and synthesised into something much more tonally interesting: the mixture of ebullience and melancholy in Catch Me If You Can, of dread and excitement in Minority Report and Munich. The ending of Bridge of Spies is among the most sublime final scenes in the director’s work: entirely wordless, like all the best Spielberg moments, it shows a Norman Rockwell-esque tableau of the returning hero, Tom Hanks, flopping down on to his bed, exhausted, while his family sits downstairs, too glued to the TV set to notice. When aliens finally land and want to know what it is the movies do – what the medium is for – there could be worse places to start.

Tom Shone is the author of “Blockbuster: How the Jaws and Jedi Generation Turned Hollywood into a Boom-Town” (Scribner)

Steven Spielberg: a Life in Films by Molly Haskell is published by Yale University Pres,( 224pp, £16.99 )

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era