Video Game Critics: Check Out Some History

As some of you may know, I am technically in a film studies program even though I don’t do film work whatsoever. One of the required courses for my degree is an Advanced Film Theory course. In essence, the class is a primer in the disciplinary theories of film studies from the past 130 years or so.

I’ve been remarking on twitter over the past few weeks that games studies, particularly the critical internet writing community at large, could learn a lot from early film studies. The reason is pretty simple: the critical issues that face games were also faced, almost exactly, by film studies.

The strange thing is how similar the questions are. There were debates over the basic art nature of film–can something that is capturing the real, merely indexing, is there room for art there? Or the question of fidelity to the medium–film studies had violent debates on whether film should merely show the world or if it should embrace fiction, or subjective experiences, or total avant gardeism.

What do we have now? We have a totally plural space where personal films, big-budget films, documentaries, and every other imaginable form of film is represented. There are issues of access and marketing, of course, but the violence of capitalism assures us that there is no “level playing field” of art.

So maybe, just maybe, we can stop having silly spats on Twitter about the nature of games and what games are “proper” games. Because, end of the day, we’re going to end up with a plurality. All games are legitimate games. We should stop pretending that our personal proclivities are somehow universalizable or correct. We should also stop pretending that there is a zero-sum game involved with games and the writing that accompanies games. Do I prefer game centered criticism? Yes. Do I think that it might be the best way to properly think the game as a living cooperative being? Absolutely. But I’m not so ridiculous as to say that wholly personal writing should be eliminated or removed from the discourse around games.

You’ll notice that I’ve conflated two things–the writing around games and the games themselves. Something that I have also noticed while reading the film theorists is that these things are totally inseparable. Tastemakers actually do make tastes, whether we  acknowledge it or not. Theorists and critics influence game development; they also make games that alter game space. Anna Anthropy is essentially a contemporary Sergei Eisenstein, both writing on the art form and actively showing us its contours.

I’ll close with a bit from Siegfried Kracauer on “the issue of art” from Theory of Film.

If a film is an art at all, it certainly should not be confused with the established arts. There may be some justification in loosely applying this fragile concept to such films as Nanook, or Paisan, or Potemkin which are deeply steeped in camera life. But in defining them as art, it must always be kept in mind that even the most creative film maker is much less independent of nature in the raw than the painter or poet; that his creativity manifests itself in letting nature in and penetrating it.

Note: that quotation is super masculinist and the penetration metaphor is strange, but the parallel between “games are close to art BUT NOT REALLY” arguments that I read is too close to ignore.

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2 Responses to Video Game Critics: Check Out Some History

  1. Bill Coberly says:

    I noticed this when reading my wife’s readings for her photography MFA, as well — discourse around photography as an art form felt remarkably similar, which helped me move away from some of those conversations.

  2. Switchbreak says:

    I love this, and it’s something that struck me as well when I was reading up on film crit.

    I’ve always really really loved Pauline Kael’s “Is There A Cure For Film Criticism” essay on Kracauer. As a call for plurality in film, it is almost directly transferable to arguments about games. “Art is the greatest game, the supreme entertainment, because you discover the game as you play it. There is only one rules, as we learned in Orphee: Astonish us!”

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