Do We Need a “Roger Ebert” of Video Games?

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When Roger Ebert died a few weeks back, one particular tweet stood out among all the condolences in my Twitter feed. I think it was Bitmob’s Dan “Shoe” Hsu who said it, but I can’t remember for sure; at any rate, the tweet lamented the fact that the world of gaming criticism lacks its own Roger Ebert, and it suggested that perhaps this is truly why video games are still not considered “art.” I’ve been wrestling with this argument for a while, and I still can’t definitively say whether I agree with it or not. But hey, I can still talk a bit about what points I’ve been considering.

I’ve always liked to imagine that great art is great art; it can stand on its own, regardless of criticism, and remain “art.” The ideal piece of art would be immune to subjective deconstruction; everyone in their right mind would be able to look at the thing and recognize it as a work of art. Citizen Kane and the Mona Lisa, for example. Of course, the reality is that remaining purely objective is impossible for any human being, and in the end, we’re still the ones bestowing the titles of “art” upon thing we’ve deemed worthy, according to our own rules and biases. It was around this time I was forced to acknowledge that, unfortunately, “art” is far more subjective than I would have ideally admitted, and there wasn’t a damn thing I could do about it.

I began to lend a bit more credence to Shoe’s (?) argument. Say that, as gamers, we’re suddenly vastly interested in whether our industry is taken seriously as an art form. Will we have to ultimately depend on another human being to tell us that this is so? Do we need our own Roger Ebert mega-critic to act as the arbiter of all that is Artful in games? It’s entirely possible this will be the case. Like it or not, something can only achieve “art” status if enough people deem it so, and equal weight is not given to everyone’s opinion. People respected Ebert more than most critics because he was smart, prolific, fastidious in his research, and all above all, he was incredibly persuasive and convincing. I’m not a movie guy by any stretch, but I do have a strong opinion of every movie I’ve seen; I sometimes read reviews (including Ebert’s) to see whether the opinions of the connoisseurs jive with my own. Even if Ebert disagreed with me, I rarely became angry while reading his reviews; if anything, they sometimes forced me to rethink my position entirely. No one likes to admit that their opinions are so malleable, but I respect anyone who can convince me that I could, in fact, be very wrong. For me, it has more to do with the words on the page than the name behind them, but I recognize that for many people, the two are inextricably linked and together can exert a profound influence on people’s supposedly “independent” opinions.

The thing that kills me about the video game world is that there are legions of reviewers but no true critics. I’ve seen very few writers demonstrate the ability to critique a game in the measured, intelligent, and thoughtful way Ebert so often did. Tom Bissell has probably come the closest out of anyone I’ve read, which is a shame, because he’s not even a full-time games writer. I think about the handful of games journalists whose writing I consistently enjoy– Brian Crecente (Polygon), Ben Kuchera (Penny Arcade Report), Owen Good (Kotaku), and John Walker (Rock Paper Shotgun)– and I’m still forced to recognize that not one of them could ever do for the game world what Ebert did for film. That role will have to fall to a better writer and thinker than these four blokes, as decent as they may be.

Aside from possessing a sharp wit and an immense amount of comparative games knowledge, the “Roger Ebert of Games” will also have to be as visible as his namesake. I’m sure there’s some brilliant writer slaving away in the bowels of WordPress and writing incredibly nuanced critiques of Bioshock for ten pageviews a day, but if no one reads his work, does it have the same impact? In this context, of course not. Everyone knew who Ebert was, and most people generally respected his opinion. When he decided to declare that such-and-such-thing is/isn’t art, the world took note. The “Roger Ebert of Video Games” will have to achieve a certain level of fame (hopefully through viral recommendation fed by immense respect) so that his or her pronouncements on “art” can achieve a degree of penetration in mainstream culture. In this day and age, I find it unlikely that any critic of any medium will ever reach the levels of fame Ebert attained, but even a moderate amount of celebrity would probably do. As it stands, do you think any content curators at the New York Times have heard of Leigh Alexander or Jeff Gerstmann? And yet these people are famous in our industry.

I suppose I still haven’t answered the main question here: “Do video games need their own Ebert?” “Can’t we just enjoy great games without having to worry about whether haughty critics consider them art?” Sure we can, but I’d like to see them receive more mainstream recognition as well as some serious critical attention. Perhaps I’m blinded by my love of the medium and the industry that supports it, but I think games are certainly worthy of serious criticism, and I want to make sure the rest of the world knows it, too. Personally, I do wish there was an “Ebert of Video Games,” if only because it would mean that the average person would finally pay some goddamn attention to us (by us, I mean the games bloggers/aspiring games journalists I’ve had the pleasure of interacting with for the past few months). And I’d get to read great, thoughtful articles from said Games-Ebert, too, which I guess is really my ultimate goal: to get smart people to write about video games for my own benefit.

9 thoughts on “Do We Need a “Roger Ebert” of Video Games?

  1. I agree completely with this! I’ve only just recently tripped (and fell hard) into review writing, and I’m loving it. And I love the fact that others have said that they love it too. The one thing I’ve noticed about the video game industry is that it’s seen as the “baby” of the entertainment industry. Some people may find it absurd to review a “toy” meant for child’s play, and that just shows how uneducated the population outside of video game fans are.

    One problem I tend to have with video game reviews, though, is the immaturity that fuels them. I don’t mind having different opinions from other reviewers, and I don’t mind if people disagree with my own, but some “reviewers” don’t ever rise above the “frustrated consumer” stage and instead simply insult games because they suck.

    I think that if reviewers want to really make an impact, they don’t just need to review the good/bad things in games. They need to critique them. “I didn’t like this character because…” “Here’s what I would have LIKED to see…”

    We have to treat all video games as art and portray them as a mature (even the rated E games) entertainment outlet worthy of competing against the huge movies, televisions shows, and books.

    Awesome post! Maybe it’s simply up to us to push the industry into a positive light in the mainstream entertainment.

    • I do feel that despite the unprecedented growth of the games industry, it’s still viewed as something of a bastard child among the “higher” forms of entertainment. It’s a shame that this is still the case, but I do feel that it’s just a matter of time until it reaches widespread acceptance. Like you mentioned, the industry is young; I think that, in many ways, this is really the only thing holding it back.

      Funny that you should mention immature reviews. I’ve written music reviews for a long time now, and when I first started, I was a hotheaded teenager. At the time, I did the exact thing you hate: I simply insulted albums because they sucked, and because it resulted in humourous reviews. I got positive feedback because my colleagues sympathized with my frustrations and my readers thought it was entertaining. Over time, however, I began to realize how immature this was, and I decided that every album I was assigned deserved a professional, fair review, regardless of how bad it was. I still write extremely negative reviews when albums deserve them, but I no longer ridicule simply for humour’s sake, and I back up everything I say with examples.

      It’s funny, but I often feel that many E-rated games are the true “mature” games. I guess it sort of depends on how you define “mature,” but I think that the all-ages appeal of Mario or Zelda (and that a Mario game never misunderstands exactly what type of game it should be) goes a long way towards true maturity. Conversely, loading a game full of grimdark and sexual themes doesn’t necessarily make it “mature.” If you put Mario Galaxy 2 and Duke Nukem Forever side-by-side, which one do you think would get ripped by the press for being too juvenile?

      Loved the podcast, by the way. Appreciate the mention.

  2. Good post.

    It’s a difficult issue to tackle for a number of reasons. As someone who has spent a great deal of time studying literary criticism, I really cherish and love the academic and intellectual appreciation of a particular work. Games definitely don’t have that yet.

    And really, quality criticism does more to elevate a subject and the medium it represents than it ever does to tear it down. An Ebert type would be nice, but more than that, I want game criticism that is serious, thoughtful, and independent of the current state of affairs in game journalism.

    At the end of the day, I have trouble looking at a culture of journalism that focuses so much on scores and tidy summations as being one that is serious or even capable of quality criticism. We need to move away from evaluating games as 8’s or 9’s, and move toward evaluating their importance, value, and impact. Instead of reviews designed to sell you a game, I’d prefer an honest consideration of their real merits.

    • The type of writing you propose really can’t come soon enough. I grew up on IGN and EGM reviews, and while those sustained my teenaged self, they’re the epitome of “scores and tidy summations.” Now that I’m all grown up and edumacated and stuff, I’m ready for something a little meatier. I want to read something that could be plausibly be defined as an “essay” or a “critique” rather than a “review.” Sure, it’s a little pompous, but I’ve read enough 8/10 reviews focusing on the minor tweaks in this year’s version of Assassin’s Creed by this point.

  3. Very thought provoking stuff.

    I think you’ve hit the nail on the head, in that game criticism could use a much greater dose of actual critique, to really be able to tackle a game from a mature, intellectual level. I love to see a critic of any medium that can make me see another side to an argument, or even if I disagree, can make me admit that they have a point. That can only come from well reasoned argument, not the belligerent bashing of the medium in question.

    That being said, I truthfully believe we’re well on the way to such a state. Video Game Journalism is still in it’s infancy, having only really started in earnest in the past couple decades(I’m sure that point can be argued). It’s becoming more and more prolific, and we are gaining more and more immensely talented writers like Ben Kuchera and Leigh Alexander, writers the likes of which we certainly didn’t have ten years ago.

    Given time, the state of things will mature. Personally, I can’t wait for that day.

  4. Great article, really enjoyed reading that! David Cage’s talk about wanting games to become “more mature” a few weeks back got me thinking about how journalists go about covering games. Perhaps for games to be seen as art, there has to be a certain level of maturity (at least in the eyes of non-gamers), and he pointed out that those covering games still criticise adventurous projects based on graphics, A.I. and strictly technical/mechanical stuff rather than judging them on an overall experience.

    At first I was a bit put out by his comments, but then I had to admit, this has been the attitude towards game reviewing for more or less thirty years. Though I’m at pains to be as fair as possible to every game in isolation, my own site is guilty of it to a degree (in that we grade visual, audio and so on), but I’d like to think gameplay design and longevity still have the biggest bearing.

    Critiquing/theorising would be a good idea, and I feel certain games can say as much about our culture as films. It’ll be a slow-burn, but I think the fact that a lot of us are engaging in more weighty discussions of this nature shows that we’re on the right track. :)

    • I remain put out by Cage’s ideas of what elevates a game to the level of great art. Judging a game as an overall experience is obviously the way to go, but graphics, AI, and technical stuff are all a part of that. A great game needs to have the whole package; it can’t receive an exemption because the cinematography is fantastic even though the gameplay is frustrating/derivative/buggy.

      With his recent talks, I feel moreso than ever that Cage just wishes he was making movies. He talks endlessly about how he’s going to model the perfect human face and that’s going to make the player cry and BANG emotion = art. I’m not sure it’s that simple, and I would hesitate to call any of his games “art.”

      I still struggle daily with how exactly games should be critiqued, and exactly how we can translate those judgments into words that make sense. It’s the same difficulty I sometimes have with critiquing music; I can immediately tell whether I like a song or not, but it’s difficult to find the right words to describe exactly what I like about it.

  5. Pingback: Games and Art, Pt. 4: The Late 2000′s | The Daily Geekette

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