Why there’s no Lester Bangs of video games: My latest Wired News column

Wired News just published my latest video-game column — and this one is a response to Chuck Klosterman, the cultural critic who recently asked an intriguing question: Why aren’t there any nationally-famous video-game writers? It’s online free at Wired News, and an archival copy is also below:

Why No Lester Bangs of Gaming?

by Clive Thompson

Why aren’t there any famous critics of video games?

Chuck Klosterman wants to know. In a recent column for guymag Esquire, he argues that games are the most important cultural medium of our times — “the culture equivalent of rock music in 1967” — yet they haven’t produced a generation of acerbic, barnstorming writers the way rock and film did. “There is no Pauline Kael of video-game writing. There is no Lester Bangs of video-game writing,” Klosterman says. What’s going on?

It’s a hell of a good question, and it deserves an answer. Unfortunately, Klosterman so elegantly misunderstands gaming culture — and the nature of games themselves — that he misses out on all the real reasons. So let me go all godmode here and answer the question for him.

Why isn’t there a Lester Bangs of video games?

Answer A: Because even if he existed, nobody would hire him.

Brilliant critics don’t just sort of “emerge.” They’re nurtured and hired by editors who care about the medium. Today’s mainstream editors mostly neither play games nor think about them much. When they do, they regard games either as juvenile fluff, or dangerous mind-control technology that is programming a kill-crazed generation of moral zombies. (Or, in a lovely bit of doublethink, both.) Nine times out of 10 their favorite angle is the bromidic “do games make ya violent?” crap; the reviews they commission are 400-word pellets.

Worse, they force their critics to write as if games were some bizarre new fad that their shut-in readers have literally never heard of. This kills criticism. No critic can write confidently and with intelligence and style if she’s required to approach her subject like an Encyclopedia Britannica entry on nematodes. What if the New Yorker had told Pauline Kael to write her columns under the assumption that the magazine’s readers never actually watch movies?

Any serious critic of gaming dips one toe into this swamp and runs screaming.

Answer B: Actually, there are Lester Bangs of video-game writing.

Tons of ‘em, in fact! But they’re not writing in mainstream media venues. They’re blogging their witty analyses on 1Up.com, or doing exuberant podcasts and video blogs, or flamewarring their way to the truth on rollicking discussion boards. Or they’re like the geniuses (genuii?) behind Penny Arcade, crafting insanely funny webcomix that communicate more in three panels than most critics can do in 1,000 words.

The point is, gaming culture is on fire right now, for God’s sake! It’s just not happening in print media or on TV; it’s online, the natural environment for gaming criticism, because gamers are total internet freaks. Klosterman can’t find a Lester Bangs because he’s looking for a glossy-mag-anointed critic. There’s no there there. Video games have had the good fortune to come of age when the internet has made it possible for amateur writers to outflank the pros.

Gamers aren’t sitting around waiting for goddamn Esquire to tell explain the existential meaning of games. They’re doing it themselves. And in any case, Esquire isn’t going to tell them, because — whaddya know — it doesn’t run video-game criticism, for all reasons contained in Answer A.

Answer C: Game criticism isn’t economically viable enough to support traditional, professional critics.

Do the math: A serious RPG or first-person shooter or strategy game might take 40 or 50 hours to complete. Even if serious critics don’t have time to finish a game, they ought to spend at least 10 hours to experience its complexity. So ask yourself this question: If movies took 50 hours to watch, would there be any movie critics?

Nope. Newspapers and magazines couldn’t pay enough to compensate that sort of time. And how exactly would a single critic remain authoritative? Pauline Kael watched, like, 10 movies a week. You couldn’t play 10 games all the way through in a week if you tried; there are not enough hours in the day. Any attempt to do this would rupture the space-time continuum and release eldritch forces beyond anyone’s control. To cover the field adequately, a single magazine would need a stable of a dozen game critics or more.

This is another reason why bloggers and layperson enthusiasts will always be the most innovative writers on games. They’re infinite monkeys, and they’ve got the weeks to absorb themselves in a game and generate a brilliant take on it.

(Since I am myself a game critic, I realize that I sound like I’m whining here. For the record: I am whining. Shut up. It’s still true.)

Answer D: Games aren’t like any other medium. We need a new language in which to talk about them — and that’s going to take a while.

Games aren’t like movies or TV. They might have narrative in them, but what defines them — what makes them games — is not a storyline. It’s that they create play. They thus have far more in common with basketball and backgammon than with a movie like Gone With the Wind. Every gamer implicitly knows this: We bitch about the fact that the Paladins in World of Warcraft are overpowered, that the damn guns in Halo 2 obscure the screen, or that the final boss in Tomb Raider: Legend is unkillable.

What we’re most passionate about is the design of play — the invisible rulesets that govern our virtual worlds. You don’t write about Grand Theft Auto as if Rockstar has shot another Godfather. You write about it as if it Rockstar had created the next football.

With games, we’re in the realm of ludology. It’s an insanely rich field of human art and meaning, but it’s utterly neglected. It’s not taught in schools. It’s not written about in newspapers. So we’re just now scratching its surface. The game criticism of tomorrow won’t look anything like the stuff that Pauline Kael wrote. It’ll be some crazy, unruly spawn of sportswriting, gonzo journalism, analytic philosophy, memoir and investigative reporting. The Lester Bangs of gaming is going to be a philosopher of play.

And personally, I can’t wait to read him.

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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