A recent Helen Lewis column on New Statesman lamenting the lack of solid games criticism in the mainstream media kicked off a bit of a shitstorm in critical circles. She’s since been good enough to post two responses to her article: the first from developer Ed Stern (“Do we really need more games criticism?”), and the second from critic Brendan Keogh (“Hells yes! But we have a lot already.”). I’d like to offer a few thoughts on Helen’s original question: why is it that despite their ubiquity, games don’t often grace the pages of traditional news/criticism publications (other than in “buying guide”-style reviews)?
As a new(ish) media form, it is natural to seek the approval and endorsement of the establishment (not pictured), even if only so that games can benefit from the kind of social support that is received by other art-forms. It is just as natural for the establishment to resist, proclaiming that what already exists is clearly more valuable than what is new. But is there something special about games that has allowed them to become so widespread in our lives, while remaining so utterly invisible when it comes to any acceptence of their cultural importance? There are no are likely numerous factors, but I’d like to look at a couple that I believe to be central.
One oft-quoted perception in mainstram media dismissals of games is content-based – they are looked down upon as ultraviolent and/or for children. But I have a suspicion that this is something of a smokescreen, an excuse laid down to cover the fear of the unknown. My belief is that what people are actually worried about is engaging with media in a new, more active way.
If you’ve ever watched a live show that involves audience participation, you’ve probably seen the reluctance of the average person to actively engage in the artistic process. In the pre-Internet age, we were trained to think of artists as special individuals, set apart from society, who underwent strange rituals to create works that they then bestowed upon us, complete and unchanging, to be passively consumed. This is the position Roger Ebert took when he argued that games could never be art, and this is precisely what makes games so unsettling to people on the outer – games require engagement and active participation. They can not be switched on at the end of a day and allowed to wash over us as we drift towards unconsciousness. They require us to step up, take control and participate.
Many people simply don’t have time or energy left in their lives to devote to yet another pastime, which is totally fine – if you prefer to garden or cook, or go on long walks, then that’s great. But others – even those who have devoted their lives to the study or art and cultural artefacts - can be struck by a kind of performence anxiety, which leads them to disparage that which they fear, instead of exploring it with an open mind (“I wouldn’t be any good at games, even if I was interestested. Which I’m not!”). Which makes sense – playing games is different. Unlike the audience of a film, the player must actively become a part of the story-creation process, become in a sense a hybrid of artist and audience, which seems a foreign concept in a world in love with rigid definitions. From this perspective, it can certainly be terrifying for an old dog to learn new tricks.
Which leads nicely to my second point. The mainstream media itself is in the midst of possibly the biggest upheavel it’s faced since it became a thing. Like games, the Internet was to many an alien planet, a frightening place which strips power and revenue from the grasp of the establishment, and allows (*gulp*) ordinary citizens to have their say (totally uncensored by the Editor). The transition from old media to new has been brutal, leaving many established players behind in its wake, and many others still flailing, their futures uncertain. So when we look at the “mainstream”, we are in fact looking at a thing divided – the shrinking business of print and boadcast television, and their new online counterparts, most of which are still struggling to find their msot effective form. Games probably have little relevence to the older, more traditional audiences of the former, while the latter are only just starting to catch on (see the Penny Arcade Report’s links to NBC). But they should, and they gradually will.
If there’s one thing the press knows, it’s that it needs to find content that people want to read. And here in cyberspace, there’s few subjects that can boast as ravenous an audience as games.
[Everyone interested in this topic should also read Sophie Houlden's blog post, Can Art Be Games?. It's brilliant.]