Saturday, July 15, 2006

Video Games: Establishing Aesthetic Criteria

In the July 2006 edition of Esquire, in the column Chuck Klosterman's America, the author has penned a piece called "The Lester Bangs of Video Games." He concludes (perhaps rightly) that there is no Lester Bangs of video games...

He writes:

There are still people in America who do not take video games seriously. These are the same people who question the relevance of hip-hop and assume newspapers will still exist in twenty-five years. It's hard to find an irrefutably accurate statistic for the economic value of the video-game industry, but the best estimates seem to be around $28 billion. As such, I'm not going to waste any space trying to convince people that gaming is important. If you're reading this column, I'm jut going to assume that you believe video games in 2006 are the cultural equivalent of rock music in 1967, because that's (more or less) reality."

Klosterman goes on to write that although many writers review games...there are few if any real "video game critics." He fails to locate a "Pauline Kael" of video game writing for instance, and examines the reasons why in his fascinating piece.

The Esquire article got me thinking about this notion. I recently completed a book about Rock'nRoll Movies, and so the author's metaphor about rock music in 1967 seems really powerful to me. Are critics missing the boat on what is potentially the most influential art form of the next thirty years? Have we - as a culture; and as critics - failed to come up with a common lexicon for legitimate criticism of video games?

Klosterman sees the gap in video game "criticism" as arising directly from the fact that games are seen as "product" and little more. They are not seen in terms of narrative, but rather in terms of playability. This would be a little like going to the movies and reviewing the quality of the auditorium seating, no? Actually, movies are increasingly seen this way too; but that's a debate for another day...

If Mr. Klosterman is right and - outside of product - there exists no common set of aesthetic criteria for "video game criticism", why don't we - here on the blog - establish them? Henceforth. I would like to put out a call to all those who are interested in this idea to submit scholarly pieces to me at my e-mail address, and I'll post them here on the blog in their entirety with your byline. Seems to me, we need to establish this missing information as soon as possible, and begin a new critical movement in the study of video games.

Why do I think this is important? Well, in honesty, video games actually have "one up" on movies and TV. Movies and television are always being criticized as "passive" pastimes. Personally, I find movie and TV viewing stimulating. Heck, I've made a career out of watching TV and film and analyzing them. But video games are can't argue that they are passive. Instead, they are immersive. What does that mean to us, as percipients and as participants?

What should the criteria be for "video game criticism?" If we're talking about horror games, I submit the same criteria I judge for horror movies: a benchmark of "is it scary?"; and consequently how does it make itself scary? I played the GameCube version of Resident Evil 4 last year and I'll tell you was as frightening, jolting and suspenseful as anything I'd seen in theaters in the last year or so. The game exploits a cinematic sense of "tight framing" and "peripheral vision" to create scares and jolts. Yet as much as it pains me, I honestly feel we might have to leave behind the descriptors and language of cinema studies to create a whole new vocabulary for games.

Maybe someone has already done this? Let me know!

And again, if you're so inclined, e-mail me well-thought out, scholarly pieces (no more than maybe 1200 words in length) that I can use here on the blog. Together, let's establish the aesthetic criteria for video game criticism. Let's haggle over it; fight, debate, and then emerge with a new school of criticism.



  1. I stopped liking video games after the Super Nintendo. The ones they make now are just WAY too complicated and time consuming. I like classic games because you can play them for a little while and then stop. I guess video games are just one part of popular culture that has passed me by. Any by the way, I still read the newspaper. :)

  2. Anonymous12:42 PM

    John, I may take you up on your 'aesthetic criteria' challenge, and I'm going to shoot a paper I wrote on "writing about video games." Video Games Studies was my main area of focus at UVA. At this moment, however, I do want to take a position on the 'narrative versus play' aspect of game criticsm. The point here is that playability is not the equivalent of the auditorium, but rather equivalent to the cinematography. Anybody can tell any story they want through the camera - it's a matter of how you choose to shoot it that makes the difference.

    The same goes for video games. I'll put it as simply as this. A good story can make a good game even better. But a bad game with a good story is fairly worthless. Some might say that it's the ineractivity that makes it worthwhile - but a good book can be just as interactive as a bad game. The key is embracing each new medium for its defining features - understanding video games for what they are.

    What I see as one of the main problems right now is not just that games are treated only as product reviews (which is necessary information for any game player) but that due to their price, we can't buy a game that does one thing interestingly and everything else poorly. Spending $8 on a film that does unique things with the camera but is an utter bore to watch is feasible - even more feasible when you're renting them through Netflix. But $50 is way too much to spend on a fun battle system when everything else in the game feels rushed and poorly conceived.

    My final point: Resident Evil 4 is an amazing game. Resident Evil 4 is scary, tells an interesting story, has awesome visuals, and eerie music. But, most importantly, the controls are intuitive and the game is fun. This was the barrier that prevented me from playing the previous Resident Evil games. The control in those games was counter-intuitive: you moved the character as if you were driving a tank. The third-person over-the-shoulder view of RE4 made sense. It allowed for the narrow settings you described in your original post, it compensated for the dramatic camera angles used for suspense in the earlier games, and it made the shooting and fighting mechanisms more precise. *That* was the key to making one of the best games of the last console generation.

  3. Anonymous10:11 PM

    I didn't read the article the post was based on, but my question is, did the article mention Seanbaby? If you want a video game critic who isn't missing the boat, I would say Seanbaby would be that man.

    He's no Pauline Kael, though. He's far more positive.

  4. I just want to respond to what Bobby said:

    Bobby, that's a brilliant analysis, man. Please do keep me up to date on your work on this subject. That was a great comment; and an enlightening one for me. You made things a lot clearer for this writer, anyway.

    I look forward to seeing what you come up with next on this topic. Keep me in the loop.


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