Warren Spector recently wrote an excellent article stating that what video games need to legitimize them as a medium is a Roger Ebert-like figure whose criticism will help interest the general public in gaming.
I’ve often wondered about this myself, but I’ve ultimately concluded that it’s getting the order wrong. I think the popularity of gaming will lead to the emergence of such critics and not the other way about. I think the reason for this is that what popular criticism requires to exist is a sufficiently rare set of qualities that you need a large pool to choose from.
Now, that said, I think having a “Roger Ebert of gaming” would be awesome. In fact, that’s kind of what I dream of becoming whenever I write a gaming post. Not that I ever will be. I think the thing few people realize about criticism is that the key quality it takes to be a good critic of anything is to be a good writer. It’s not enough to know your subject matter and be able to come with interesting analyses of it; you need to be able to do it concisely, intelligently and above all else, cleverly.
Let me cite one of my favorite literary criticism essays: Mark Twain’s “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses“. I suggest you read the whole thing–it’s short–but to encapsulate what makes it great, let me explain that I have never read any Fenimore Cooper books, and yet I enjoy the essay tremendously. For all I know, Twain’s criticism is completely unfair. But I enjoy the essay anyway. Think about that: I have no idea what these books are about except for what Twain mentions, but his evisceration of them is fun to read.
So consider that the most important element of criticism isn’t about what you’re criticizing or what you’re saying about it; it’s about how you phrase it. If you can be witty in your reviews–that’s the real key, I think. Not that there isn’t plenty of wit in game criticism, but the issue with game criticism is that the humor too often comes from “in-jokes”, or references to other games. It’s not accessible to the layman.
In contrast, take this quote from Ebert’s review of the movie Armageddon: “The movie is an assault on the eyes, the ears, the brain, common sense, and the human desire to be entertained. No matter what they’re charging to get in, it’s worth more to get out.” I’ve never seen that movie; so I don’t know if I agree or not. But it’s a great quote. He could have said it about any bad movie, though; it has nothing to do with the subject of the movie. It’s just a generally funny line.
I’m not saying that’s all Ebert was about–he had truly interesting ideas about movies, too. But that’s not what made him famous. What made him famous was that he was a very witty writer.
All we need then is somebody who loves video games, has interesting things to say about them, and is an extremely witty writer to boot. So where is that guy? Everybody who writes about games, including myself, wants to be that guy, but no one yet has succeeded.
Here’s another question: where’s the new Roger Ebert of movies, now that the original Roger Ebert has passed away? I don’t know that there is a comparable figure in movie criticism. Spector apparently couldn’t think of one either, or he would have used that person’s name. He pretty much said on his blog that Ebert was the most famous movie critic he could think of for an example.
I have a theory: criticism in general is not as good nowadays. People just are not as good at it, possibly because the internet makes it easier to seek out criticism targeted at their specific interests. Criticism is Balkanized now, unlike in Ebert’s heyday, when there was one movie critic in the city paper, and he had to write to appeal to the widest audience he could.
This theory could be wrong–I don’t like it because it’s a little simplistic, “things-ain’t-what-they-used-to-be” kind of thinking, but it does account for why there is no Ebert of gaming.
NOTE: Spector’s article has generated a lot of reaction–Shamus Young and Chris Franklin, among others–have written posts in response to it that make some good points about the issue. Young makes basically the same point I did about the need for game critics who can be read by non-gamers.