Thursday, December 11, 2008

Everyone's a critic

There's an interesting post over at Slate, where Seth Scheisel, video-game critic for the New York Times, talks about how he became a video-game critic for the New York Times. His thoughts, if I might paraphrase, sum up as "Holy snaps I am a video-game critic for the New York Motherflipping Times." And, I suppose, holy snaps, he is.

He talks a bit about making the transition from gaming-reporter to critic, one that essentially boils down to one turning point: Now he is obliged to say what he thinks, even if it isn't nice. The cynics among us might wonder where Mr. Schiesel gets the idea that 'telling the truth' is something that a journalist is absolved of... that, in fact, it's sort of the job description. But it's a point of optimism that he clearly sees criticism as a higher calling, one to which he's done-his-derndest to rise.

A king among men.

Notably, he lists Roger Ebert as his inspiration to video-game criticism. He mentions Ebert's quoting of fellow critic Robert Warshow: "A man goes to the movies. The critic must be honest enough to admit that he is that man." In other words, whatever you saw, whatever you felt, whatever you did, you must say so. For example, two things that cannot be convincingly faked are laughter and orgasms. If a movie made you laugh, as a critic you have to be honest and report that. Maybe not so much with orgasms."

(For information on the latter, look no further.)

In this case, it isn't just out of admiration or inspiration that Schiesel cites Ebert - his very position as a critic, an orientation that affects his relation to both his medium in question and audience, comes from Ebert's playbook. In doing so, he cuts through a rhetorical Gordian Knot standing between him and the realm of criticism. Video games as a medium remain a cipher in the world of news-media, due to any number of factors: misreportage, underexposure, a lack of cohesion in criticism and coverage. But ultimately, it comes down to the matter of inexperience, and the shock of the new.

This isn't to say that gaming news is at a standstill. Things purr along contentedly enough until they encounter something unprocessable and unparseable, and then everything goes to the dogs. An example: When Danny Ledonne submitted his execrable Super Columbine Massacre RPG to the Guerilla Gaming Competition, it produced what could comfortably be called a kerfuffle: a host of angry calls, contestants dropping out of the content as a matter of solidarity, wailing and rending of garments.

Fig. 1-b: A garment, mid-rend.

But in the midst of this scrum, no one produced an adequate answer to the question of the game, itself. What was it, anyway? Was it art? Exploitation? Was it a comment on or a product of society? How should it be reviewed - as a product of culture, as entertainment, as a statement, as a social experiment?

All this uncertainty, despite Ledonne being nothing more than a disingenuous rabble-rouser. But if something as two-bit as Super Columbine throws sand in the gears, the need for critical clarity becomes all the more pressing. It's here that Seth Schiesel's critical lens becomes a welcome thing, a necessary compass that orients him in a sea of bewildered games-reportage.

Ledonne claims his game is designed to 'implore introspection'...
but all it 'implores' me to do is crack him in his ratty mug.

It's this aspect that may be the most difficult to pin down. Even moving past claims of games-as-art (some hifalutin', some credible), even beyond a continued discussion of games-as-culture, past the physiological and biological stuff, onward beyond hype and hysteria, there is the Bigger Picture. Panning back, and back, one can finally catch light of the arc and dimensions of the entire phenomenon of video-gaming: let's call it the "game-as-medium".

It's in this respect that I'm glad to see folks like Schiesel sounding off on what they intend to do with all of this data, even while he comes off as a greenhorn. He understands the elusive element of his task: to make games make sense. He's doing his best to do his part - as, I suppose, are we all. Because in an uncharted terrain, we are all cartographers.

(That is, unless we have Map Hacks).

- Rook


  1. Orgasms, What King and Rook is really all about.

  2. Video games really do need more orgasms.