Monday, January 26, 2009

Gaming's place in pop culture

It's strange how almost as soon as I post an entry tearing down a videogame site (See "Dear IGN," below), several more articles pop up to prove me wrong. I'd be remiss not to point out a great article posted recently on Gamasutra, Video Game Legislation: Where We Are Now, which takes an in-depth look at how videogames are being legislated around the world.

But an article that I particularly wanted to share comes from (who would've guessed?) The New York Times: For Video Games, Mainstream Success Comes With a Price. First of all, I think it's a major leap forward that videogames are being written about in the NYT Arts section at all, as opposed to being put down in a news piece covering the latest school shooting. But moreover, what makes this article so great is that it manages to convey almost my exact feelings about the place of videogames in mainstream pop culture:

The great lurch toward grudging respectability that began a few years ago will almost certainly continue in 2009, if only because of the continuing popularity of mass fare like Wii bowling, Guitar Hero and Rock Band, not to mention Madden. And so video games are becoming acceptable in the manner that watching reality shows or sports on TV all night is acceptable. Bravo. But that can’t be all games are capable of. The real test of 2009 is whether games with a bit more intellectual and artistic ambition can continue to flourish.

Yes! Thank you! Finally, someone gets it! The writer, Seth Schiesel, even goes on to show how a regular diet of videogames is compatible with other forms of entertainment:

So I got away, in the hope that taking a refresher course in other media would help me understand games more thoroughly. I read Hermann Hesse. I saw Alan Gilbert conduct a program of Schubert, Brahms and Schumann at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. I watched Clint Eastwood’s first major film, “A Fistful of Dollars,” back to back with his latest, “Gran Torino.”

It worked, because at times in all the reading and watching and listening — in all the merely consuming — I chafed at how little control I had, at my inability to affect the narrative, at being taken on a joy ride by someone else. At those moments I longed to be able to make a decision, to solve the problem myself, to take responsibility for what would happen next — all the elements that make a game.

From that point, Schiesel gets into the real meat of his argument, and it's one that I and my fellow game enthusiasts have made time and time again: games are more than shallow entertainment. Games can be serious works of art, albeit these tend to be the exception rather than the rule. The fact that The New York Times agrees with me makes my heart leap with joy.

So it's official: games are legit. The NYT says it, so it must be true. Excellent. I hope this means this means that, when talking about gaming's place in culture, we can take this as a starting point and move out from there.

But as the article mentioned, games that go beyond the level of idle entertainment are still few and far between. However, I think we're seeing the beginning of a snowball effect in the opposite direction. We're slowly but surely going to be seeing more and more games that reach the narrative level of Oscar-worthy films. I believe there have already been a handful of them, and I'll be expanding on what those are, but the fact that we're going to be seeing a higher concentration of them is most exciting of all.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Dear IGN,

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You are everything wrong with gaming journalism.


Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Quality vs. quantity

The new year is still young, and game writers are looking forward to the new games that lie on the horizon. Two articles in particular caught my attention, because they highlight the extreme gap between publications that focus on gaming and those that cover general topics. Namely, the two articles I'm referring to are by The Associated Press and GamesRadar. Let's take a look at where each one excels and where they fall short.

First, the article from GamesRadar exposes its critical flaw early into its very first "preview" of BioShock 2:
We don’t know the story. We don’t know the setting. We don’t know any of the characters. We haven’t seen a single screenshot or a single frame of actual gameplay footage. The teaser hinted at the involvement of a grown-up Little Sister, but we don’t know if she’s the protagonist, antagonist, sidekick or twisted love interest of a seriously confused Big Daddy.
OK, so that tells us...nothing. Absolutely nothing. But hey, at least there's lots of pretty pictures on the page to distract us as we read. In fact, the pictures and graphics take up more space than the actual text. As I was reading, I struggled to find tidbits of information within the text that couldn't be gleaned just from the pictures themselves. Let's see...
  • Final Fantasy XIII is "heading in a direction we like." What this new direction might be is left unexplained.
  • Resident Evil 5 and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 will have co-op gameplay
  • Grand Theft Auto IV: The Lost and the Damned will have biker gangs
  • Brutal Legend stars Jack Black
Apart from tiny nuggets of information like these, the article may as well have been written by the games' own public relations departments. If that were actually the case, at least sentences like "Expect StarCraft II to rekindle your love for the RTS genre, improve your sex appeal, and make you a better person - and if it doesn’t, you can at least expect to see some awesome cutscenes" wouldn't feel so damn awkward.

If it feels like I'm being harsh, it's because I expect more out of a preview article than, "Hey, look at the pretty pictures! Aren't you just bursting at the seams to buy this sucker already? No? Well, here's another screenshot! How about now? BUY IT!!" Writers are not supposed to sound like salesmen. That is not their job. If the GamesRadar writing staff was truly, honestly anticipating all 100 of the games they mentioned, then they gave themselves a whopping 3.65 days apiece to enjoy each game. Doubtful.

Next, let's examine the article from The Associated Press:
Video games expected to evolve in 2009
By DERRIK J. LANG, AP Entertainment Writer

LOS ANGELES – Don't hit that pause button just yet. Despite the tanking economy and an increasing number of video game-industry layoffs, many believe 2009 will be a year of evolution for games. The combination of innovative new titles, long-awaited franchise follow-ups and desire for escapism could spawn a gaming renaissance.
The opening sentence made me roll my eyes a little bit, but other than that, I'm already intrigued. A gaming renaissance, eh? The article continues:
"While game makers providing traditional retail product will continue to concentrate on high-profile sequels and licensed properties in an effort to mitigate risk, many of the field's most exciting developments will actually be happening outside of your local GameStop," said publisher Scott Steinberg.

By focusing on surefire $60 sequels that are appearing on next-generation consoles for the first time — like "Resident Evil 5," "Street Fighter IV" and "God of War III" — gaming publishers are expected to avoid economic pitfalls while independent developers are poised to provide cheaper, quicker and quirkier alternatives, such as $20-or-less downloadable games like "Flower" for the PlayStation 3 or "Darwinia Plus" for the Xbox 360.

"Why pay $60 for a game you don't have time to play anyway when dozens of bite-sized, instantly intuitive and schedule friendly alternatives are available for $5 to $15 right from your couch?" muses Steinberg.
I notice the AP, like GamesRadar, doesn't give us much information about what the actual games will be like, but at least the writer doesn't sound like he's shilling the games to you. But what about the "gaming renaissance" promised in the top paragraph? Well, unfortunately, the writer doesn't get back around that until near the end of the article:
"Video games are poised to eclipse all other forms of entertainment in the decade ahead," Activision president and CEO Mike Griffith proclaimed during his [Consumer Electronics Show] keynote speech. He cited market statistics which stated that between 2003 and 2007, the cumulative number of movie ticket sales and hours of television watched fell by 6 percent, music sales slumped 12 percent and DVD purchases remained flat. Over the same four-year period, Griffith said the gaming business grew by 40 percent....

Wedbush Morgan video game analyst Michael Pachter describes his outlook for the gaming industry in 2009 with one word: discovery. He believes the increasing number of diverse console owners, especially those with Nintendo Wiis, will demand new software — and publishers will figure out how to directly market their wares to such folks in exciting new ways.

"They must discover how to reach those audiences," said Pachter. "It's not like they won't want new games."

So this "renaissance" still appears vague, but the end of the article nonetheless left me with a sense of anticipation, something the GamesRadar article did not come close to accomplishing.

While the AP article isn't perfect, it is still miles beyond GamesRadar's masturbatory pablum. The bigger issue here, though, is that GamesRadar covers games exclusively. The AP is a news agency that covers practically everything. Why is it that they seem more knowledgeable, more genuine? It's clear to me that GamesRadar is passionate about games, but it looks like they cater strictly to those that share their level of passion. The AP, in appealing to a more general audience, is much more approachable.

Something I would have liked to have seen in both articles was a more in-depth analysis of the games themselves. What makes next year's games inherently different from 2008's? How does having co-op gameplay change the experience? What makes the downloadable titles so "quirky"? Ultimately, I'd like to see an article that can answer these questions while still maintaining the broad appeal that that AP brings to its writing.

Monday, January 12, 2009

A brief note on "video game" vs. "videogame"

For the purposes of this blog, I choose to use the one-word spelling of "videogame" as opposed to the more common "video game," which is also how the Oxford English Dictionary spells it. The simple reason is because this is the spelling favored by the Videogame Style Guide and Reference Manual, a book which I plan to comment on in a future post. For now, I'll just say that I respect this guide as the definitive word on writing about games, and I endeavor to follow it as much as possible.

When is a videogame not a game?

When people hear words like "movie," "song" or "TV show," they can usually agree on just what these concepts mean without too much trouble. Though specific instances within each medium may vary wildly from each other, pop culture has at least progressed to such a stage where we have a workable, overarching definition for each medium. For example, Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat could not be more dissimilar from Transformers, but everyone agrees that both are movies. Even John Cale's 4'33" counts as a song, but no one would want to put it on their iPod.

I originally wanted to begin this post by offering a workable definition of "videogame" in order to establish a framework for the medium equivalent to the ones above. However, after reading posts by others also attempting to come up with a definition (specifically Man Bytes Blog and The Quixotic Engineer), it became clear that this was a topic far too broad and complex to reach a consensus right now.

After reading Corvus's entry on Man Bytes Blog, it became clear to me that if we are to attempt to come up with a definition of "videogame" that excludes things like board games and tabletop RPGs, the main goal is to discover the essential element of videogames that are not present in any other type of game. But what element is this? A video screen? Nope, there are games that do without. Perhaps the presence of some type of electronic component? If so, then why isn't Electronic Battleship sold at GameStop? Clearly, videogames have become such a diverse medium that we are still struggling to even come up with a universal explanation of what they are. For more in-depth looks at this topic, I encourage you to read the blogs posted above.

I do feel, however, that there is a question about that I can answer: What is a videogame's primary purpose? That is to say, what can be derived from the experience of playing a game that cannot be gained from, say, watching a movie or listening to music? To put it plainly, the primary, distinct purpose of a videogame is to provide immersive interactivity.

When I say interactivity, I mean that the game must depend upon some type of action or activity from one or more players to start, progress and finish the game. Defining immersive is a bit trickier, but what it means in relating to interactivity is that a game must give the player a vicarious role or experience separate from the real world. The game must let players feel as though they are inhabiting a different person, or at least taking on a role different from their current experience. This could be anything from a fighter pilot, rock star, or an invisible being that arranges blocks that fall from the sky.

I say separate from the real world only to denote that, once a videogame is turned off, everything disappears. In chess, the pieces remain after one player reaches checkmate. In Dungeons & Dragons, the 20-sided dice remain long after the last kobold encountered by the party lies dead. Of course, the computer data that makes up the game itself does not disappear, and the DVD or cartridge housing it doesn't either. However, I don't count these as being part of the game for the same reason I don't count the box and instruction manual.

I believe immersive interactivity fits both as the definition of what games have offered since their beginning, and what we can expect them to offer for the foreseeable future. Every game I have played in my life (from "Super Mario Bros." to "Dance Dance Revolution," from "Pong" to "Portal") has depended on a human player to manipulate a character or object toward some objective. Also, they all let you experience something that would not be normally available in everyday life, or they present an everyday life scenario in which the player can experiment without fear of real-life consequences. "The Sims 2" lets you do a lot of the same things you can do in reality, but purposefully making your in-game character's life a living hell doesn't necessarily impact your own life.

I freely admit that the concept of immersive interactivity is, at this point, incomplete and insufficient. However, just as the debate over the definition of videogame carries on, so too will I work to refine what I mean by immersive interactivity. But no matter how much the elements of videogames (like graphics, controllers, and interfaces) change, I see no reason to expect immersive interactivity to become inherently different or less central to a game's make-up. Players are always going to be entering a separate, digital world when they load up their favorite game, and when videogames stop offering such experiences, then I assert that it will be time to come up with a term other than "videogame."

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

How much do game reviews influence you?

"They don't influence me at all. The entire games journalism industry is a complete joke and worthless. You don't get review copies unless you're a gutless asskisser."
"Reviews? From magazines? With scores that go to metacritic? Not at all."
"In the sense of gaming journalism, not much. I barely read those sites/magazines anymore, and haven't in years."

This question, and these answers, came from an Internet message board that I frequent. I have chosen to kick off my blog by sharing these quotes because they embody exactly my goal within the game journalism industry. When people think of "videogame journalism," these are the impressions that they have. People who write about videogames for a living are inherently distrusted, sometimes even despised. Why? Well, to be quite honest, there are some legitimate reasons to feel this way -- reasons I hope to cover in future posts. But moreover, it begs the question as to why you don't see the same amount of vitriol hurled at mainstream film and music critics. This blog, among other things, will attempt to explore and answer this question.

So, what is this blog about? In essence, it's about trying to take these same sentiments and turn them 180 degrees. It's about trying to bring mainstream legitimacy to an emerging underground field of artistic criticism. (The fact that I have to do this in blog format to accomplish this pretty much makes my point for me.) My goal, not just of this blog but of my professional life, is to prove that there's more to writing about videogames than pumping out positive reviews on command and reprinting press releases as breaking news.

What sort of things can you expect to see on this blog? I'm going to focus a lot of my energy on criticism of videogame journalism itself, pointing out where I think writers are inconsistent, lazy or just plain wrong. I'm also going to put forth examples of the type of writing that I'd like to see more of in the videogame field. Over time, I hope to show that a publication about games can have every bit as much legitimacy as Rolling Stone or even The New Yorker. Ambitious? Sure. Impossible? Surely not.

I'm also going to talk about games themselves, not just whether I think they're bad or good, but on how they further the artform. I want to move beyond the impression that games are "children's toys" or meant for mere amusement and distraction. I hope to show that videogames can carry important messages, can change the way you view the world, and yes, even be considered works of art. If just one person comes away from this blog and realizes that videogames are not just those things that kids play when they should be doing their homework, I'll consider my goal accomplished.

It cannot be denied that games are an intricate part of our modern culture. We live in an age where Newsweek has a videogame blog and the biggest games of the year can earn comparable amounts to Hollywood blockbusters. But it also cannot be denied that videogames (and gaming culture) still have a lot of growing up to do. Consider this observation: what parent wouldn't be proud if their child enrolled in USC film school? Now, how about if that same child went to Collins College of Videogame Design instead? There's a huge gap between the two schools, not just in terms of tuition, but in how their graduates are seen in their respective industries. Not to pick on Collins College in particular, but I'd just like to point out that there is no such thing as a "prestigious" school for videogames in the way there is for film.

This disconnect is by no means exclusive to higher education. Newseek and The New Yorker enjoy an air of legitimacy that cannot even be approached by the likes of EGM and GameInformer. The industry is making babysteps, though, and overall I see things headed in the right direction. I want this blog to be my way to encourage those baby steps to turn into sprinting leaps. It'll be a long, slow process, but it's a process that I absolutely want to be a part of.

But I don't want this blog to be just about me. I highly encourage anyone reading this to contribute as well. Leave a comment, e-mail me at or take up these same issues in your own blog. I can get on my soapbox and rant all I want, but it will all be for naught without honest, open interaction with others. So I ask you, are my goals crazy? Idealistic? Just what this damn industry needs? Please let me know. Now if you'll excuse me, I've got some games to play.