Monday, December 1, 2008

Does Video Game Criticism Need A Lester Bangs?

Part of the reason I like Popmatters so much is that I get to level these kinds of essays at an audience that is mostly ambivalent to the conversation about video games. Talking about a music critic itself means that the primary audience of the magazine, music fans and film buffs, will probably take more interest than they normally would.

The piece itself is the culmination of all the conversations and blogs I made while reading about Bangs in his book. The link to the radio show was provided to me by a reader via e-mail and nicely rounded out the argument, plus a little bit of insight from Samuel Johnson to bring it all together. The result of this bizarre mixture was surprisingly sharp and simple. Even though it spans 3,000 words, at the core Bangs had a couple of basic driving principles that we could all take note from:

"What Bangs did was tell people to listen to the music they had missed or ignored, making it sound cool so that they would appreciate its contribution rather than neglecting it altogether. He was a person observing the storm and pointing out what it missed, as opposed to where it should go."

That's just a chunk of it though. There's the humility, the belief that the mainstream press is just a part of the machine, understanding the business of your medium, and understanding your own role in it too.

Quite happy with this one.


David Sahlin said...

Seems like an ever-growing bag of worms you opened up with this. My twitter feed is on fire.

L.B. Jeffries said...

Yeah...I get the feeling this one has left my hands and is up to the interwebs now. I think I'm gonna shut off my comment feed to the article soon and let it stand on its own two legs in a bit.

He does set a pretty good standard for those of us in any other medium.

Iroquois Pliskin said...

Hey fine article L.B. Big ups for working in a reference to Samuel Johnson.

I had a couple thoughts:

1) Since I adhere to Koster's fun-is-learning-rules idea I wanted to stick up to it. You said you find learning rule systems is boring and tedious, and from the description I got this idea that you had, like, navigating menu systems in mind. But my take on Koster, and my own view, is that learning rule systems is just a matter of doing creative problem solving: finding your way through a level in portal, beating a boss in Zelda, whaling on some ninjas in Ninja Gaiden.

2) When you talk about the value of games crit, I get the idea that you're looking for some kind of *practical effect* that games criticism has on the world: making people choose certain underappreciated games, or convincing them to have positive opinions about certain games. (like Bangs convincing people to listen to noise, per bob quine.)

While all this is well and good (there is the inescapable fact that we're trying to persuade people of something), I don't tend to think that the value of criticism reduces to changing the attitudes of our readers to works of art.

I tend to think of criticism as a way to translate what games do from game into english, explain how they make fun in words, in a way that is objective and sharable as possible. Maybe you can't convince anyone to buy a game this way but maybe it will make you appreciate it in a new way, and that seems worthwhile to me.

Graduate School Gamer said...

I could swear this was a focused episode of 1Up Yours during the 2006 Luke Smith days. ;)

L.B. Jeffries said...

@ Pliskin

Yeah...I mostly brought it up in the essay to show how even I personally was biased and against some industry conventions. I find the ideal promotes challenge or puzzles over substance. These aren't bad things, but Koster's idea bugged me because in games I feel like this activity gets placed above the experience itself or what it's trying to deliver. To me it's just a means, not an end. I probably should've emphasized that Koster is an industry genius with years of experience and I'm just some twit who plays too many games

As for the purpose of criticism...he's just one guy and one set of ideals. He quotes Pauline Kael and other music critics several times, so like him I think a good critic draws on a variety of people. I'd posted all those blog posts rambling about him and finished his book, so I decided to write something that the Popmatters could crowd get into and slip in some video game discussion while I was at it.

It sounds like we're both on Samuel Johnson's page with the ultimate function: we're just coloring in details, helping people appreciate it, and picking up stuff that was misunderstood.

@ Graduate School Gamer

I gave up on originality or being "first" for a topic on the interwebs a while ago. I'm just saying it a new way.