My friend Sean put up a very interesting commentary on video game criticism on his blog, and it's really worth a read by anyone even mildly interested in the topic. Sean's comments are in response to an article in Esquire Magazine on the same subject.
The Esquire piece wonders why there are no legendary game critics in the same vein as rock and roll music critics from the 60s and 70s. Why is the gaming press, of which I myself am an occasional member, content with limiting itself to Consumer Reports type publications instead of writing something that examines video gaming in a larger cultural and artistic context? Why don't they talk about the meaning of video games and gaming? The Esquire piece, which is also an excellent read, examines several possible answers to this conundrum with the help of Steven Johnson, author of the thoroughly fantastic Everything Bad is Good For You. Games are unique in that their merit typically isn't derived from their plot, characterization, or dialog. They offer different experiences each time you play. The author of the Esquire piece ends with a plea for someone to come in and fill the role of the super critic the way Lester Bangs filled it for the nascent rock and roll scene way back when.
Sean's blog entry picks up this thought and expands on it in an insightful way when he notes that "[Rock critic Lester Bangs] had the rare fortune of writing about music at a time when people really liked to read about music -- because fans, true fans, wanted to extend the experience of music beyond the record."
That phrase, "extend the experience of music beyond the record" jumped out at me and immediately made me think of something that Sean expands on a paragraph later: replace "music" and "record" with "gaming" and "game" and it brings to mind all the wonderfully kooky and sublime things that the gaming community is creating to extend the experience into their own lives. Comedy skits featuring game characters. Game walkthroughs. Fan fiction. Music videos. Game mods, maps, models, and levels. The Internet is replete with examples of people not just writing about video games, but creating fan films, podcasts, and just about any kind of artistic expression you can think of. Sean nails it a few pixels down the monitor when he says "I think ol' Chuck K [the author of the Esquire piece] sort of misses the boat is by looking at the wrong medium."
This also rings true given what I recently read in The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century about the power of uploading. The Internet and associated technologies have given rise to a new kind of critic that's alien to what the rock and roll scene had. It's not the lone expert cranking out manifestos about Cream or Phish or whoever and pushing them out to the masses via a magazine. The new kind of gaming criticism that the Esquire piece is starts off talking about is coming from an army of enthusiasts and up-and-coming professionals who are creating and uploading it themselves. What Chuck from Esquire ends up asking for at the end of the article is the antithesis of the entire video gaming scene and the forces that spawned it in the first place.
Or to quote Sean from his blog again:
Anyone who is looking to writers to fill the need for video game criticism is looking in the wrong place -- not just because they've come to serve the same function as tv shows or pop songs on the radio (namely, as means by which to get you to encounter advertising -- they don't just write "consumer guides," they are an integral part of the entire consumptive experience), but perhaps because the form of writing is, itself, totally inappropriate to address the ecology of video game culture.