Friday, September 08, 2006

GAME ON: Refuting Chuck Klosterman

For my gaming column last month (boy am I behind in my posting) I thought I'd take a look at the mini-brouhaha Esquire critic and all-around snark Chuck Klosterman created in one of his recent columns. My thanks to Clive Thompson and Brian Crecente for taking time out to talk to me. They're both very swell, very smart guys. Be sure to check out their respective blogs.

It's a question that's plagued scores of gamers and journalists: Why is there no Lester Bangs of video
games ?

Well, at any rate, it's a question that's plagued critic and columnist Chuck Klosterman. In the July issue of Esquire, he
lamented that, although video games are an important cultural medium, serious, thoughtful criticism of video games was seriously lacking, at least in any major mainstream publication.

"As far as I can tell, there is no major critic who specializes in explaining what playing a given game feels like, nor is anyone analyzing what specific games mean in any context outside the game itself. There is no film critic Pauline Kael of video game writing. There is no rock critic Lester Bangs of video game writing."

Gamer reaction, as one might expect, was swift and, to a large degree, incredulous. Particularly among those who actually cover video games for a living.

"I love Klosterman's writing. He may be the best pop culture critic out there. But he was way off the mark with this one," said Clive Thompson, a columnist for Wired and a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine.

Thompson wrote a rather scathing response to Klosterman's column for Wired, where he took to task the assumptions that gaming needs mainstream validation and that mainstream periodicals such as Esquire are at all interested in covering such things in any meaningful way.

"It's arrogant to think the gaming world is waiting for Esquire," he said, arguing that there is plenty of good criticism being written, it's just being done online.

"Clearly he did not get the interesting thing about games, which is they are the first form of mass entertainment to grow up in the age of the Internet."

Brian Crecente, who covers video games for the Rocky Mountain News and is editor of the popular video game blog Kotaku, agrees that Klosterman's piece was flawed.

"He's right, but he may be wrong about why," Crecente said, adding, "He started a discussion that needs to be had."

Like Thompson, Crecente believes the Internet's role in developing good criticism is too significant to be ignored.

"The audience for consumption of entertainment has become so fractured and niche-based there can't be a Lester Bangs of anything. There can be powerful writers, but no single voice in coverage. Lester Bangs is ... the community."

Part of the problem in talking or writing about video games is that it is a markedly different form of entertainment, one that requires a different set of criteria and language. That can be tough to do in a mainstream market, where you're writing for a general audience.

"What I'm trying to do is continually redirect away from cinema and narrative and talk about play," Thompson said.

Crecente noted that video games are a much less passive experience than other art forms. "Two people can play the same game and have completely different experiences," he said.

There is one aspect of Klosterman's rant that rings true. Many reviewers, even those who write for niche gaming magazines, tend to focus on the details of a game and don't really discuss how the game affects you emotionally. What you get instead is a barrage of technical specs which, as Crecente notes, "don't leave you with any sense of what the game is about."

That will all probably change as time moves on and gaming takes a more prominent role in our culture. Klosterman's biggest faux pas might be that he's a bit premature in his lament.

In the near future, I expect to see more and more coverage of gaming in periodicals such as Time and Newsweek. I expect to see smarter, more in-depth reviews of games and the gaming industry from the journalistic community. I just don't necessarily expect to see that sort of thing in Esquire.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2006


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