Or, On the Writing of the Personal Essay and How You Felt About the Game
Aram Zucker-Scharff wrote an article titled “Indie Devs vs New Games Journalism” over at Nightmare Mode, and it got me thinking about the whole New Games Journalism push and my deep dissatisfaction with it as a genre.
To address the article proper: AZ-S (sorry, that’s a lot to type out every time) makes the claim that recent pushes toward focusing on auteur creators of video games are a response to the New Games Journalism as proposed by Kieron Gillen almost five hundred years ago now. (Side note: I think that NGJournalism and NGCriticism are the same thing these days, so I’m going to talk about them interchangeably.) He then makes a move that I can get behind–he suggests that creators might not be the be-all-end-all of interpretation and that there should be room for personal experience in video game criticism, despite the potential flaws in the New Game Criticism department. As loyal readers might remember, I made a similar argument before, suggesting that the auteur movement ultimately erases individuals who contribute to games while valorizing quirky “geniuses” or assholes.
However, at the end of the article, AZ-S comes back to New Games Criticism as the place where a plurality of experiences can take root and show us how games work.
I’m not so sure. In fact, I think that the Newest of New New Games Newness Games Criticism, or whatever iteration that we are in currently, might actually be bad for video games on the whole.
This is hard to write. I think Tom Bissell’s article for Grantland, titled “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Shooter,” was bad games criticism. I think it was bad writing about games period.
And that isn’t to say that the article is bad proper. In fact, I loved reading it, and in revisiting it again just now I was caught up in how he aligns everything so well. It is a piece of art. Tom Bissell is a genius.
But the much celebrated article is more air than land. We’re led down rabbit holes and abandoned–why does Tom Bissell play Call of Duty to fall asleep? Who did Tom Bissell cause to be tortured? Why write so much about a game that, from the review that we are given, didn’t seem to have any effect on Bissell other than making him think about how dumb and counter-point the game itself was?
I think these issues might not be at the core of Bissell’s writing. Instead, they are at the center of what it means to write games criticism now. It isn’t about the game or how it plays or how it brings the player close or pushes her away; instead, the article centers around the experiences of the author–here is my real point–and sometimes those experiences don’t line up with any kind of argument or analysis. I’m not a purist in any sense of the word, but I do want my games criticism to take up an object, any object, and actually approach it with some rigor.
Like I said before, this isn’t about Bissell. It is about the half-Bissell’s. Gillen wrote in the piece that we have chosen as the birth place of New Games Criticism that
The mediocre hacks filling positions that could be taken by people wanting to write brilliantly are what will kill the British games magazine. Not that they’re bad people, you understand — many are utterly lovely. It’s just that they’re wasting the potential of the form with their total lack of commitment and/or talent.
He wrote that about the writers for British gaming magazines in the first half of the first decade of our new millennium, but is it any better now? It certainly seems much worse–now there is no money, the games criticism is written for free, and most of it is utter dreck. I’m as much of the problem as anyone else, too, so don’t let it seem like I’m getting off lightly here.
We need fewer Bissell imitators. Ninety-nine percent of the readers of this blog know exactly what I’m talking about–cloying attempts at being smart, shallow readings of games to find some meaning that “speaks to us all,” and assertions that, yes, Final Fantasy VII actually is the best game of all time.
The way we get out of this pit is rigor. We have to play games and actually pay attention to how they are structured. We need to understand how they are assembled.
Most importantly, and this should be the takeaway, I think we need to realize that games are not places where we let ourselves run wild so we can write about it later. Is the value of a game really only in what we, as individuals, get out of it? Or is there something to be said about the game itself, the way it operates, the way it plays itself?
I’m just tired of reading article after article about how Final Fantasy makes straight white men feel.