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No respect, I tell ya.

December 1st, 2005 by Troy Goodfellow · 3 Comments · Uncategorized

Roger Ebert’s recently remarked that, though he has little experience with gaming, there can’t be much artistry there or else he would have heard about it by now.

The blogosphere is full of ruminations, reflections and recriminations about the comment. Probably the most complete (especially since it draws a link with David Jaffe’s recent statements about gaming journalism) is Kyle Orland’s post on Video Game Media Watch. Many of the forum and blog discussions have mutated the same old debate about whether or not games are art.

There is this general sense that games are disrespected by the mainstream arts press. I can understand that I guess. I posted about how the inclusion of a “games of the season” article in the New York Times arts section was something to applaud.

But I don’t really get the pleading tone in some of these gamers’ comments. Kyle’s suggestion that better game journalism (maybe “new” even) would increase mainstream acceptance of games is misplaced. For the most part, the mainstream has accepted gaming as a pastime. Sure, you have to be of a certain generation but that’s always been the case. What a lot of the commenters want, it seems, is recognition of gaming as a Serious Endeavor with Artistic Merit.

And that’s where we part ways.

Asking for a Pauline Kael to advocate for games assumes that we don’t already have one. In fact, I think that gaming commentary is very mature for an entertainment form barely twenty years old. The vocabulary of media analysis is fully formed and is being applied to games. There are a half dozen game journalists that I go out of my way to read even if I have no interest in the games they are talking about. (To spare feelings and out of professional courtesy, I’ll mention no names.) And it’s not like Pauline Kael is a household name in most of America or had much influence beyond certain literary circles. And don’t forget that Roger Ebert is better known for his fat thumb and five minute TV reviews than for his excellent grasp of movie history and formidable critical abilities.

And what do we need mainstream arthouse cred for anyway? I’ve heard it argued that this type of recognition would help provide First Amendment protection, but I doubt that that’s seriously a concern. Speech and art are not synonymous.

There seems to be a desire to have our hobby (or our writing about our hobby) validated by an outside circle of editors and opinion makers, but this is something that can only come about through time and generational shifts. Jack Shafer has written that one sign of the end of Baby Boomer cultural hegemony will be more common references to video games as common cultural touchstones.

Video games have been called junk culture, but I think most popular culture is junk culture. Most of everything is crap and still sells. Games are almost alone for media forms in that the biggest sellers are generally also very good games. (It’s not an iron law, but it mostly holds true. Look at the best seller lists, and except for the occasional movie license dog, good games dominate.) I think that instead of advocating for greater artistic recognition or wondering how we can get games to the cultural position that movies and TV have, we as gamers and game journalists should just embrace the hobby and the media we have and let it evolve as it does. Our media criticism will take its own form and our pastime will take its place among other popular culture as it develops.

Let’s not overthink this. We should aspire to educate the Eberts of the world who plead ignorance and yet still judge, and we should stand up for games as a legitimate adult activity in the face of people (including journalists and marketers) who would relegate it to juvenalia.

But my generation gets it, and we’ll own the world in another ten years. I can wait.


3 Comments so far ↓

  • Kyle

    Good points all.

  • roboczar

    Yeah well, my generation will rule the world in 20 years, so ner.

    In other news, I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like. Looks like Ebert and I have something in common.

  • MikeB

    This is a fine post.

    Just to amplify on your main point: video games left the research lab in 1972 when the Magnavox Odyssey was released. That makes video games no more than 33 years old.

    The first movies left the lab in 1895, when, for the first time, a film was screened before a paying audience. The nickelodeon was invented ten years later, in 1905. 33 years after the invention of the movie industry would correspond to 1928.

    In 1928, the movie industry was scrambling to cope with the introduction of soundtracks, which had debuted the previous year. The first Oscars were still a year away. Pauline Kael was nine years old; her first review wouldn’t appear until the 1950s, and her influential stint at the New Yorker wouldn’t start until 1967.

    Although a lot of movies that are now considered great art were made in the silent era of the 1920s, I don’t think the literary crowd had many good things to say about movies in 1928.