Sunday 9 December 2012

The Difficulty Writing About Video Games

I'm outing myself as a video gaming pseud. I played them feverishly as a kid, completely lost interest in my 20s, and now only occasionally plunge into the odd retro game. My taste is mainly in the games of the late 80s and early 90s. I don't get on with the sweeping, cinematic masterpieces that dominate modern gaming, nor am I keen on so-called casual games, which appear to me as so many latter day retreads of proper old school 8 bit computer titles. That's me, those are my tastes.

Despite having almost zero interest in the PS3, the 360, the Wii (and Wii U), I'm not so down with the old school gang to realise gaming has a popularity magnitudes greater than the reach the C64 and Speccy once had. Some credit/blame the original Playstation for properly taking games to the masses. As a Sega fan boy, I think Sonic making the Mega Drive cool did the necessary spadework in the UK. But whatever. They have been an utterly mainstream pursuit for about 20 years. So I was amazed when I found nothing on the cultural studies/critiques of video games a decade ago for a deconstructive assignment I was writing (bloggified version here); and was even more gobsmacked to recently hear that little has changed.

Writing in the New Statesman, (Why are we still so bad at talking about video games?), Helen Lewis asks "whether the lack of a serious cultural conversation about games is holding back innovation" and "will we ever move beyond previews and reviews?" As you might expect, it prompted a bit of a response - this for example from Brendan Keogh points to where more sophisticated pieces can be found, which includes Critical Distance - a blog that regularly features what's interesting in the world of video game blogging.

As well as these, there are a few recommendations of my own. Something would be amiss if YouTube commentary didn't get a shout, so I heartily recommend the remarkable Chrontendo project - one man's quest to play and provide commentary on every single NES, Master System, PC Engine, Mega Drive and Super Nintendo game. He's currently up to summer 1989. There's also of course the wonderful Retro Gamer magazine that always has plenty to say on the classics of yesteryear, and the odd chin-strokey piece in Edge. I swear I saw an article in there the other month about Americana and the uses of the mobile phone in GTA IV.

All this, however, happens at the margins. Helen's basic point is that mainstream video game writing is strictly evaluative and, as such, is a function of the industry's political economy. I agree. The preview culture of video game magazines and websites has long been the means by which companies generate interest and, hopefully, create a head of hype around their product. By having trusted professional game reviewers confirm the spin and excitement through the award of a high score, companies are gifted a powerful marketing tool. Readers of a certain age may recall occasional Codemaster titles having real (and imagined) accolades plastered over their cassettes, for example.

On the consumption side of things, the mass market wants to know what's hot and what's rot. Once video games started getting really pricey in the early 90s, consumers - at least those who weren't casual or inexperienced gamers likely to be seduced by a flashy licence or nice packaging - needed video game writing to be a buyer's guide to separate out the quality from the highly-priced dross. This remains true, even though the newest releases can usually be picked up second hand on the high street relatively reasonably some six months after their release. Paying out a tenner for a crap game makes you feel cheated in ways going to see an awful film or forking out for a tedious book does not.

And because there's a market for it, the standard approach to video game writing is where the money and interest's at. If in the week after its release I write a blog post on zombies and ideology in Naughty Dog's upcoming The Last of Us, I am sure that would generate far less traffic than a straight review. In other words, the total complex of video game buying and playing is materially weighted against critical writing.

This brings me to the first of a couple of additional (historical) reasons why video game writing is stuck in a rut. If you date the modern video game industry from the first popular home systems of the late 70s, between then and the establishment of today's three-dimensional gaming standard on computers and consoles from the mid-90s on, the overwhelming majority of games were, well, simple. The first home console, the Magnavox Odyssey offered variations on the Pong theme. The subsequent generation of consoles and computers were similarly underpowered - see this Atari VCS conversion of the technologically undemanding original Pac-Man, for instance. Compare this simplicity with the first modern novels, or first films. We are talking about completely different audience experiences demanding different sets of engagement practices. Novels and films are (or, at least, according to their own specific disciplines of literary and film criticism) supposed to convey a story. Apart from adventure games, RPGs, and early Japanese visual novels from this period, narrative is (or rather, was) ancillary to gameplay.

The hegemonic game form throughout the 8 and 16 bit computer and console era was based loosely around the arcade experience. Whether fighting, shooting, platforming, or puzzling, the vast majority of video games were basically no more than picking up your controller and getting on with the action. The enduring appeal of that era's Super Mario Bros and Sonic the Hedgehog games was the marrying of accessible play to imaginative and compelling game design. This was reflective of the arcade gaming experience as a whole. To keep the 10, 20, and 50p coins rolling into the machine a game (ideally) had to be visually appealing, and offer short, challenging but compulsive gaming experiences. Hence games leant themselves to instrumental, evaluative forms of writing. But the digital architecture of the games resisted the sorts of textual criticism found elsewhere. The hegemonic video game type was fundamentally depthless, the postmodern cultural product par excellence. Take these two examples. Is there much more that can be said about the culture curled up inside their code?

That said, the old school games weren't necessarily a mindless experience. Sans elaborate plot lines and breath taking cinematics, players' imaginations often stepped in and imposed entirely subjective and somewhat arbitrary narratives on their play experience. Mercs was probably my most-played Mega Drive game back in the day. It was a good blast in the Commando mould and I had played it to death dozens of times. But on all of those occasions I fought the mission according to my own ridiculous story line over and above the official narrative of rescuing the US President (and no, before you ask, I did not see myself as the gun toting protagonist - despite sharing the blond hair and muscular physique). So the complex social-psychological work of interpretation long identified in readers and filmgoers by 'professional criticism' was at work here too; and given the interactive nature of gaming, you could probably make the argument that the interpretative meaning-making process was a level of complexity above reading and watching.

Unfortunately, the apparent depthlessness and surface resistance to critical writing then has arrested the development of a specific language of video game criticism. But it is more than just a matter of 'catching up'. Game criticism's underdevelopment meant a potential entry way into the academy could not be taken.

In the time between Atari's VCS and Sony's Playstation, the humanities in HE enjoyed continued institutional expansion. Sociology's place was confronted with a brasher and self-consciously cutting edge upstart: Cultural Studies. Born out of Birmingham's late and very much lamented Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, and variously associated with the work of Stuart Hall and Raymond Williams, by the end of the 80s Cultural Studies was the most thoroughly postmodernised of the social sciences. It was a crucial disciplinary interface between academia and activism where identity questions around gender, ethnicity and sexuality were concerned, and helped make French poststructuralism the season's intellectual de rigueur. By this time, Marxism (neo or otherwise) was out. Economic determination in the last instance was unceremoniously dethroned by the tyranny of the cultural text in the first instance.

I digress.

As Cultural Studies expanded, and particularly after the wave of post-1992 new universities, this was the ideal moment for video game criticism to establish itself as a niche within the academic landscape, and provide the kind of institutional sacralisation enjoyed by literary and film criticism. But it didn't happen. It would be too much to talk of a missed opportunity, because that implies it could possibly have happened. I would say it didn't as video games then were very much a generational thing (though chances are younger academics going into Cultural Studies had a games machine, or at least had played games at some point). They were also more niche, though that was changing with the arrival of glamorous consoles from Japan. But more than anything else, as a cultural phenomena they were marginal to Cultural Studies debates around postmodernism, consumption, identity formation and the like. To illustrate, The Cybercultures Reader edited by David Bell and Barbara Kennedy (2000) brought together key contributions to (cyber)cultural theory in 768 pages. It contains many interesting pieces on theorising subjectivity and identity construction on the internet. It also only has seven index entries for games, of which six mentions appear in one article, and then as an auxiliary to the main discussion. It is amazing to think a canonical collection on a topic of this nature did not carry one piece on gaming - this, after the games consoles of the preceding generation had achieved then record combined global hardware sales of around 140 million (excluding handhelds). I don't blame the editors. They, after all, only put together a reader that reflected the key concerns of Cultural Studies at that time.

Sadly, Cultural Studies as a discipline now appears to lead a subterranean existence in UK university media studies and sociology departments. If video game criticism is to get an academic imprimatur, it will have to be another route. But it won't happen until it becomes a strategic sector within one or more disciplinary fields of the social sciences and/or the arts (but it's not stopping some from trying).

Helen wraps up her piece by noting "perhaps [the writing] revolution in games criticism will never happen". I doubt it too, unless a material interest somewhere in the industry, academia, or journalism coheres around it. Unfortunately, it will be some time before Zelda or Metroid command a lead essay in the video game equivalent of The London Review of Books.


Alex Dawson said...

Interesting take. Not being particularly academic I can't really comment on that side, but I do know that video games journalism is big business employing many many journalists, despite the huge shortcomings in coverage you point out.

I'll admit on here that my only regular magazine subscription is not to Private Eye, New Statesman or any other such worthy current affairs publication, but to the Official Nintendo Magazine. I cannot rationally say why I still get this magazine through the door as it is little more than corporate puff for the latest from that particular gaming empire. Yet still, age 34, the day the magazine drops on the doormat is a relative highlight of the month when I can immerse myself in glossy screenshots of gaming heaven to come for some hours on the sofa.

Is it a psychological comfort blanket to take me back to a more innocent and trouble-free age? Quite possibly. But I doubt I am alone in getting a magazine like this regularly.

That said, It's my belief that the standard of video games journalism used to be a hell of a lot higher and I wonder if it is this I miss.

I remember being bowled away by the comic-like layout masking quite insightful wit and criticism in C&VG. I remember the ZZAP 64 Gold medals actually really meant the game was worth buying going on hard-gaming experience. I remember "Total" magazine for Nintendo systems ploughing a fairly niche independent furrow with good humour.

It's fair to say now that as games have become more corporate and mainstream, so indeed has the journalism which covers it. Similarly, as with most other areas of trade/hobby press, the link between journalists and industry is cosy and conformist so rocking the boat with overt criticism is rare and not encouraged.

Is there space for a new and bolder brand of journalism in the world of games? I think there is given the average age of gamers. But would it make enough money to be sustainable? As with all other areas of journalism - unless punters are willing to pay for it, making something work like this would probably have to be labour of love than a business looking to sustain itself.

Phil said...

I started off on C&VG and regularly read that with Your Sinclair and Commodore Format, before graduating to Mean Machines and various Sega mags. The last one I used to get regularly was Edge in 93-94. The others were anarchic and a good laugh while Edge was super serious. Now? Well, it would appear the Xbox rags Cat has occasionally offer nothing but acres of spiritless print. Isn't gaming supposed to be fun?

Phil said...

Forgot to mention another retro um, retrospective will be gracing the blog this weekend.

Unknown said...

I'm also a big fan of video games :D

Fausto Boyles said...

I remember playing old video games. those were awesome