Today's issue of The New York Times Magazine features a piece on the indie game movement and includes interviews with Jason Rohrer, Jonathan Blow, Jenova Chen, and Clint Hocking - names familiar to most of you. It's a welcome story because it reveals a world of games that most people know little to nothing about...especially folks who read the NYT Magazine.
A quote from Rohrer encapsulates the article's thesis: "A realization is dawning that games can be much more than what they are now. They even have the potential to be meaningful in deep, fundamental ways.” The article goes on to describe how games like Passage, Braid, Flower, and others offer an alternative to massive AAA titles and can be seen as artistic expressions of their creators.
I'm grateful for the Times article, but sometimes I fear our endless preoccupation with making the case for video games is self-defeating. It feels defensive and, at its worst, produces a kind of micro-culture obsession with analysis: a 24/7 bloggo-Twitter tilling and re-tilling of the same small plot of dirt. In this self-absorbed environment, each new game's worth is measured by its ability to move the needle on emergent narrative, artistic expression, genre refinement...or whatever criterion we're applying this week to prove games matter to people already convinced.
Put another way, I wonder how many game enthusiasts can dance on the head of a pin?
Yet, making the case for games and pointing at their unrealized potential remain among the primary missions of this blog. I've written scads of posts (and plenty of tweets) on those subjects, and I regularly evangelize about games to my colleagues in the arts and academia.
My pitch goes something like: "You think you know about games, but you don't. Let me show you this one. Now, let's think about what's happening here and imagine the possibilities for games yet to come." In other words, I do what Rohrer, Hocking, and Blow have done at GDC and elsewhere. I take a snapshot of games now, and then I sing the someday song.
Lately I've been thinking a lot about that someday song and wondering how I can contribute to advancing games and our cultural understanding of them, while steering clear of the tired assertions, the insular navel gazing, and the plaintive cross-media comparisons. How to keep a steady focus on the games we have now, but stay mindful that we're witnessing an evolution (maybe even a revolution) unfold around us? I keep coming back to the critic.
Critics differ from reviewers because they serve a different master. The reviewer serves the consumer, empowering him with information he needs to spend his money wisely - a valuable function that I don't believe is less important than the critic's. Some people don't like Crispy Gamer's "Buy It, Try It, or Fry It," rating system, but I think it sends a clear and transparent message to readers who want to know whether or not a game is worth their hard-earned cash. I'll bet Mastrapa, Chick, and Co. grind hard on games that fall in the two margins. Easier to just assign an 80 and move on the next game.
But the critic is a servant to the art and, in many cases, the artist. Her sole concern is the work itself, and her ability to thoughtfully engage and respond to that work is a measure of her value as a critic. A good critic can see, can synthesize, can contextualize. A careful, astute critic can apply an unflinching perspective to work so mediated with preconceptions, marketing, and other baggage that few people can see it clearly. A worthy critic is a lover. A skeptical, I'll-believe-it-when-I-see-it lover; but a lover nonetheless. A good critic hopes.
Games desperately need such critics, and I'm happy to report they're out there, selflessly doing their thing. Some you've probably heard of; others you haven't. Later this week I'll highlight a few and explain how and why I believe they're doing such valuable work. I hope you'll stay tuned.