Games and media

Step up


IGN is reporting that Six Days in Fallujah, the first game to focus directly on the war in Iraq, is finished and ready for release. The controversial title by developer Atomic Games was announced by Konami last April and cancelled three weeks later following criticism from a variety of groups and organizations.[1] Atomic Games is a division of Destineer Games which, among other things, makes training tools for the US military.

Atomic doesn't say so directly, but it appears they're looking for a publisher willing to step up and publish the game. I say it's time for a publisher to do just that. It's time for someone with vision, conviction, and cash to unequivocally lay claim to creative autonomy and freedom of expression as fundamental imperatives for games. It's time for a publisher to publicly assert, with money as its marker, that games can resonate culturally only if they're free to explore unexamined ideas and challenge our comfort zones.

Plenty of people have argued on behalf of Six Days in Fallujah, citing a double standard separating games from film and television. Why, they say, should games be prevented from going where films like Battle for Haditha or The Hurt Locker have gone? 

This is a useful observation, but it relies on the increasingly threadbare argument that games deserve to occupy the same culturally respectable space as other media. Claiming it doesn't make it true. It will never be widely seen as true until games finally elbow their way to a place at the table. No one is holding that place for us. No invitation is forthcoming. You gain your place at the table by forcing your way in and then making yourself essential to the conversation that ensues. We aren't there yet because we haven't demanded to be there.

Six Days in Fallujah is that elbow to ribs. I don't know if it's a good or a bad game. I haven't played it. What I know is that the developer interviewed 70 people with intimate experience in Iraq, including returning Marines, Iraqi civilians, enemy insurgents, war historians, and senior military officials.[2] I know they hope to convey through the player's experience an emotional and psychological arc that reflects something truthful about what happened in that battle.

The game may or may not deliver on its ambitions, but success or failure are beside the point in this case. Konami didn't cancel the game because it fell short of its design goals. Six Days in Fallujah was canceled because Konami decided it had more to lose than gain by publishing it. It bowed to pressure from people who made (mostly) baseless or uninformed claims about the game.

Several phrases recur throughout the criticisms leveled at Six Days in Fallujah - a game, by the way, that not a single critic has played. The most common among these are: "exploiting," "trivializing," "glorifying," and "too soon."

I don't mean to diminish or overlook the suffering that many of the game's detractors have experienced. I understand their objections stem from real, heartfelt concerns. But these are the very places artists must go. There is no safe way to explore these painful issues. In fact, the safe way is the surest way to oversimplification; the surest way to telling lies.

The fact that I charge an audience money to see the art I create doesn't mean I'm "capitalizing" on a painful event that caused great suffering. What fuels an artist's fire may also be the cause of human conflict or desperation. The artist is drawn to these places. He has no choice. His freedom to explore the world using the tools of his art must be assiduously protected, encouraged, and, yes, even funded.

The charge that Six Days in Fallujah trivializes or glorifies horrific events will surprise no one. It stems from an assumption that games lack the capacity for any other response to violence. Games have done little to challenge that assumption, and no amount of blog posts or GDC roundtables will convince anyone otherwise. 

Six Days in Fallujah is an opportunity to begin tearing down that wall. If we believe games can be, or do, or say more, then we must produce those games and push through the inevitable resistance to them. If Six Days fails, we learn what can be learned from that failure, and we build the next game better.

What's needed now is an enlightened publisher willing to facilitate that process, clearly articulate the stakes, and take the inevitable heat. Maybe it also means losing money. I don't know if such a publisher exists, but for the sake of dangerous games, I hope so.

The early exclusive


A modest little indie game called Mass Effect 2 appears tomorrow. You may have heard about it. It's made by an upstart Canadian studio called Bioware, best known for its previous sci-fi opus, Shattered Steel. If Bioware can manage to get the word out about this new game, I have a feeling it may do alright sales-wise. Thousands of copies sold is not outside the realm of possibility. 

But they'll need help to move that many copies, and I'm pleased to report that several outlets are jumping on board with effusive praise and hyperbole. Consensus seems to be forming around two main points: 1) The game is a vast improvement on the the original; 2) It elevates the RPG genre to as-yet-unseen heights.

  • Pretty much everything that anybody took even the slightest issue with in Mass Effect 1 has been axed or rebuilt entirely. -IGN

  • An astonishing RPG...daring, shocking and often awe-inspiring in its use of choice. This is the future of storytelling in videogames. -X360 Magazine

  • A gorgeous experience and a staggering achievement. ... [Characters] are unique. They are individual. They are a pleasure to interact with on every conceivable level. [One of the] top five games of all time. BioWare, we love you. -NowGamer

  • When you've finally completed every last side quest...sadness sets in - until you remember there's at least one more Mass Effect coming. -Official Xbox Magazine

Maybe Mass Effect 2 is exactly the outstanding game these sources claim it to be. I hope so. I'm excited to play it. 

But there's a problem here, and it has to do with print and online outlets granted 'exclusive' rights to publish their reviews before anyone else. Should we be troubled by the fact that these handful of privileged sources have assigned the game a collective average of 97? Does it matter that early exclusive reviews nearly always skew higher than those appearing later? 

When media outlets make deals with publishers to be first out of the shoot, their credibility is instantly compromised. And, oddly, they appear to acknowledge this reality even as they ignore it:

And as if our own misgivings over the revelation of plot points were not enough to throttle the very existence out of this very review, EA has also included a handy list of specifics we’re not even allowed to mention, let alone put into any kind of narrative context. Major characters, enemies, squad members, the list goes on. Instead then, we’ll tell you what we can, and perhaps when you witness for yourself the limits of our remit, you will forgive us this somewhat lethargic preamble. (from NowGamer's review of Mass Effect 2)

I don't mean to pick on NowGamer. I've read and enjoyed their stuff since they set up shop. But when you lead your review with "NowGamer is proud to present the UK's first review of BioWare's epic sci-fi RPG," I can't help questioning why a review outlet claiming to be 'reliable and impartial' should express pride at being first? Are we to assume striking a deal with a publisher - compromised by restrictions imposed by that publisher - is a praiseworthy act?

I'm not operating under any illusions here. I'm aware that game devs and publishers need to generate awareness and excitement for their products, and media outlets were making deals for exclusive coverage long before video games existed. But it seems to me there's a significant difference between an exclusive interview or preview and a final review. Magazine and online editors should refuse them as a matter of principle.

The servant and the someday song


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.

The preview game

While it's true that The Path eschews many of gaming's common attributes, it seems dangerous to suggest it has no problems outside of its assessment as a game. Even taken in the broader context of more ambiguous categorizations - say, as an interactive experience - The Path has difficulty articulating any substantial meaning in an engaging way.

Edge 0309 This assessment of The Path appeared in the March 2009 issue of Edge Magazine, which arrived on newsstands during the first week of February. I'm no expert on print media deadlines, but I assume this means the piece was written in early January or so. If you know more about such things, feel free to correct my timetable.

The Path was officially released on March 18, and, according to creators Auriea Harvey and Michaël Samyn, the game continued to be polished and improved until shortly before its launch.

I think Edge misses the point of the experience offered by The Path, but I'm not here to refute their assessment of the game. My concern is how this essay functions as a preview of an unfinished and unreleased game. The full-page piece appears in the "Hype" section devoted to game previews, but aside from placement it's difficult for me to see how it functions differently from a review. Nothing about the essay suggests the game is a work in progress; quite the contrary, actually. Aside from briefly mentioning Tale of Tales as "sanguine about potential review scores," the piece reads like a complete appraisal of the game with no apparent allowances for improvement or further development. Regardless of where it appears in the magazine, it functions as a review because it's written as such.

Even if the game we received is exactly the game Edge played, I'm not sure I understand the purpose of such a preview. Why not simply wait until the game is released to pass judgment on it? What is the function of an early, and in this case harsh, assessment? Is the developer meant to benefit from constructive criticism? If so, what purpose is served by publishing a negative early view for all to see when most of that audience will read the piece at roughly the same time the game appears? I understand timing published reviews to game releases, but what's the point of a preview appearing so close to the release of a game?

All of this raises the larger issue of game previews and their negative impact on journalism and the industry as a whole. I spoke to several freelance journalists at GDC who openly expressed relief at being free from the humiliation of appearing at publisher-organized preview events where reporters are prevented from even playing the games being shown. These freelance writers understand they're being asked to function as shills in a publicity machine, and they've opted out (when they can afford to). But they're aware that many of their colleagues don't enjoy such freedom. These poor souls must appear, sit through a hype-filled buzzword-mad presentation, and generate a preview story about that game. No one, it seems, likes it or thinks it's a good idea, but the practice continues.

Maybe it's time for publishers to handle their own publicity. With the wide reach of social networks and the rich content that specialized websites can deliver, why should media outlets continue to generate repackaged streams of pre-release fodder? I think I know the reason (it sells), but I wonder if a hard look at the practice of previews might actually reveal they do none of us much good; not journalists, not players, not developers, and maybe not even publishers.

The spoiler ball and chain

Midna I love reading and writing about games, and it's a privilege to be part of a maturing movement that continues to broaden its scope and sharpen its critical eye. It's no longer difficult to find intelligent writing about games. As Clint Hocking pointed out recently after perusing the blogosphere for critical analysis of games, "we have arrived."

As we mature, we inevitably examine our methods, and in that spirit I'd like to propose a small change in the way many of us write about games. I think it's time to renounce spoiler paranoia. I think it's time we collectively agree to write about games as whole, complete entities that require us to consider them as such. I think it's time we say to our readers, "I'm writing about this game, so you should assume I'm writing about the whole game;" instead of, "I know a bunch of you haven't played this game yet, so I'm going to write about it without spoiling anything for you."

Purposely excluding plot or character details from our reviews and criticism needlessly limits our ability to write comprehensively about them. It seems to me we've painted ourselves into a collective corner by adopting a de facto standard that avoids "ruining" games for players. As a result, many of us have come to assume we are expected to maintain this persistent vigilance as if it were an inviolable contract between us and our readers.

I initially intended to argue that video game reviewers and critics need to behave more like their counterparts who cover books, films, and plays. These writers never worry about spoilers, so why should we? It's a decent argument, but it also reinforces the infantilizing notion that someday our little games will grow up to be culturally respectable like their brethren in the other arts. We should abandon our spoiler vigilance not because The New York Times doesn't fret about spoilers. We should drop it because it's the right thing to do if we intend to write about games freely, without self-imposed barriers.

So am I saying spoiler-alerts are a silly waste of words? Of course not, and I can certainly understand why it's important to alert readers in a discussion forum, for example, if you intend to reveal plot details other readers may not want to know. In certain online environments, this sort of respectful behavior makes sense because what's happening in those environments is a shared conversation that no one owns. If we're discussing our excitement about the new Prince of Persia, for example, and someone pops in and says (OK, here comes an ACTUAL SPOILER) "Hey, did you know Elika kicks the bucket at the end?" - certainly under these circumstances it makes sense for people to insist on spoiler alerts. I can also easily see the value of a "spoiler-free" game review policy for a site that wishes to explicitly offer such a thing to its readers.

If writers wish to avoid spoilers, or announce them every time they occur, who am I to say they shouldn't? But they should not be expected to do either. I don't mean to propose any hard and fast rules here; I'm simply suggesting we challenge the prevailing games writing and reading culture that says spoilers must be avoided at all costs. I say it's time to ditch this ball and chain once and for all.

1UP down

Egm+1 It would be easy for a guy like to me to sniff dismissively at the news of EGM's demise and 1UP's uncertain future. After all, I'm a crusty academic out of touch with the often-snarky hipster brand of journalism produced by the network's gallery of print, online, and podcast mini-celebs. Plenty of us have expressed concern about the cozy relationships between the writers covering games and the developers making them, particularly in the preview-stage.

And let's face it, the 1UP gang relished their insider/outsider status and frequently exhibited a child-like delight in teasing us with privileged information they knew, but couldn't share. Sometimes when I listen to their podcasts, they remind me of a bunch of slightly inebriated frat boys a little too enchanted by themselves and their camaraderie.

But, damn, I'm gonna miss em. These guys are good, and they know their stuff. For me, that's always been the 1UP edge. I didn't always agree with them, but Bettenhausen, Lee, Davison, and Pfister delivered a ton of useful information, amidst the whisky shots, every Friday, and I know at least a little bit about how much time and effort a well-produced podcast requires.

I think a solid case can be made for the late GFW Radio as the best overalll gaming podcast we've heard. Jeff Green and Shawn Elliott are genuinely gifted writers, and their on-air chemistry and jovial but penetrating analysis of games is unsurpassed in my book. Elliott, more than anyone else, conveys a perspective on gaming - and the processes at work when we play them - within a broad cultural context. His frequent analogies to art, literature, and philosophy go a long way to opening up our understanding of how games work and what they mean. Plus he's hilarious. Not a bad combo. And as a longtime fan of JRPGs, Shane Bettenhausen's encyclopedic knowledge of the genre makes me swoon just a tiny bit.

You probably didn't read them, but the last batch of EGM issues, with Dan Hsu and, finally, James Mielke at the helm, began to point the way to a kind of journalism that meaningfully integrates games-as-fun with games-as-art. Boiler plate reviews gave way, in these last issues, to more thoughtful analysis of design, genre, and culture. And, at least to my eye, the overall quality of writing improved. Edge Magazine approaches games in a similar way, but near the end EGM seemed to find a signature playful voice and a deft touch all its own. Sadly, the more EGM improved, the thinner it became.

EGM ran its ship aground in good company. If you'd like a reality check on the current state of print media, read this month's Atlantic Monthly feature, End Times, on the precarious state of America's paper of record: The New York Times. For antiquated newspaper lovers like me, it's scary stuff.

30 talented people lost their jobs yesterday. I'm sure we haven't heard the last of the 1UP crew. Word has it Davison and the ex-1UPers have already begun discussing a new podcast. Here's wishing all of them the best. See you again, wherever on your feet you land.

Wise conversation


You may have already heard that Shawn Elliott is hosting a symposium on "the practice and politics of writing game reviews," and he's assembled a team of respondents including Leigh Alexander, N'Gai Croal, Kieron Gillen, Stephen Totilo and other notable game journalists.

Elliott is a smart guy, and he proves it by going about this the right way: 1) He's taking his time (the project will span months) to isolate specific topics like review ethics and casual/indie/user-generated games. 2) He's keeping the community on the sidelines. The critics will generate the conversation, and Elliott is encouraging them to engage each other vigorously as the discussion ensues. These email conversations will be posted online, and each will surely be met with a big response from the community. Opening the floodgates to all comers would have produced cacophonous chaos. I think Elliott will have his hands full with the ten opinionated writers already on-board.

Some have characterized the symposium as little more than self-absorbed navel-gazing. I think that's unfair. As I read it, the symposium is designed to encourage rigorous reflection on a fairly complex, non-standardized process with lots of moving parts - one that also happens to be the target of significant criticism from within the industry and from the gaming community itself.

If you're part of an organization, however loosely affiliated, that is routinely criticized for shoddy or unethical work, you basically have three options. You can defensively dismiss your critics as clueless or ignorant; you can acknowledge the problem and attempt to distance yourself from the "bad guys"; or you can stop and take a hard look at the situation (including your own possible culpability) in an effort to raise standards, identify problems, or otherwise address the situation in a positive way. This approach takes more time, requires more work, and insists on large doses of humility and self-reflection. This, it would seem, is the road Elliott and company have chosen, and I wish them well.

By the way, the ancient Greeks originally conceived of the Symposium as a drinking party, and the leader of the event determined how much to dilute the wine, depending on the seriousness of the discussion at hand. Like I said, Elliott has his hand full.

Games on radio

Dish Lots of us complain about the mainstream media's shallow, often infantillizing, coverage of video games. It can be discouraging to witness a flourishing art form consistently packed into the same worn-out boxes. Yes, video games make big money; yes, lots of people play them; and yes, some of them are violent.

There's more to the story, of course, and lately it's coming from an unlikely general media outlet: National Public Radio. Over the past year or so, NPR has devoted considerable airtime to reporting on video games as part of its coverage of arts and culture. These pieces vary in length and depth, but the sheer frequency of them suggests that somebody at NPR has decided to take the lead covering video games in the absence of thoughtful coverage from other broadcast outlets.

In recent weeks, NPR has reported on the music game phenomenon with stories on both Guitar Hero and Rock Band. Rather than the standard sales figures and "gee-whiz it's popular" angles, NPR has focused on the social bonding and underlying tech aspects of the games. Liane Hansen spoke to Rolling Stone reporter David Kushner who plays Rock Band with his daughters; she also interviewed Tod Machover whose team at MIT helped to develop Guitar Hero. Morning Edition reported on the Beatles Rock Band deal; and All Things Considered ran a feature piece on the evolution of video game music. And those are just the music game stories.

In the same brief period, NPR has run stories on Indie game developers, Obama ads in video games, libraries using games to woo kids, Microsoft's XNA project for game developers, teachers using games to teach kids science, coverage of Comic-Con, the Championship Gaming Series, a feature on Jonathon Blow's Braid, and three separate stories from different angles on Spore. I could list many more.

Relative to other broadcast media outlets, NPR is lapping the field with its coverage of video games. These stories are nearly always thoughtful and well-reported, if not terribly deep or analytical. Given the network's diverse national audience, this makes sense; but I do hope for more reporting along the lines of Heather Chaplin's stories for NPR on GTA IV and Braid. Chaplin understands games from a gamer's perspective, but she also knows how to convey the experience of playing these games in a clear, jargon-free manner.

So, as a blogger who has done my share of whining and finger-pointing about video game coverage in the mainstream media, I tip my hat to NPR and hope for more to come. If you agree (and you live in the USA), I encourage you to consider making a pledge to your local noncommercial, not-for-profit NPR station. When you make your pledge, tell them you appreciate their coverage of video games. Such feedback, I assure you, can make a difference.

Media old and new

Oldtv I enjoy helping acquaint my colleagues with the assortment of technologies we call New Media. I've never been crazy about that term (how much longer can it be considered "new"?), but at this point I guess we're stuck with it. Whatever label we use, the emergence of digital networked communication has forever changed how we create and share information. The challenge for me and my colleagues is to figure out what these technologies have to offer us as teaching and learning tools.

The problem is, colleges and universities are generally resistant to change. For many faculty and staff, this stuff we call "old media" still feels awfully new. Books and newspapers are fine, but you can find plenty of of schools that have yet to fully embrace video and film, let alone that fat pipe that streams porn and knowledge in equally indiscriminate bucketfuls.

So if we believe these new technologies can help enable us and liberate us and bring us together, we must make a case for how that works. It can be helpful to contrast how new and old media typically function, and I just happen to have a personal story that does just that.

I was contacted recently by two people who came across my blog and wanted to interview me. I was surprised and flattered and said yes to both. One was Mike Walbridge, who was writing a story for GameSetWatch; the other was a gentleman from a popular am/fm radio station in the western U.S.. Interview times were arranged; both conversations were pleasant and positive; and I finished each fairly confident that I hadn't humiliated myself - at least any more than usual.

Mike's piece appeared on GameSetWatch and I was pleased to see it. The essay included material from interviews with Kieron Gillen, Leigh Alexander, N'Gai Croal, and several other heavy-hitters, and I felt gratified to even have been included in their company. But as Mike pointed out in his preface:

[AUTHOR'S NOTE: all these writers said very interesting things that are beyond the scope of this article but which I think should still be printed. Also, the way my own opinions and perceptions came about were highly influenced by the order in which I interviewed them, as well as the flow of the discussion. More details and more of their opinions will be posted on my own humble blog in the coming weeks.]

True to his word, Mike has followed up with separate comprehensive and well-written features highlighting each of us. These are useful extensions of his original piece, filling in many blanks and fleshing out many ideas. GameSetWatch returned to pick these up as well, and they also appear on Mike's personal blog, as promised.

This is what new media journalism looks like. A journalist does his homework, writes his story, and fulfills his assignment. The story is posted online and picked up by several other online sites. But it doesn't end there. The journalist returns to his unused material and posts that information on his own. These stories are redistributed again by various sites, and throughout this process readers can post comments or questions, and the journalist can respond with more information, context, or perhaps even more reporting. And, of course, all these posted stories are sprinkled with links to related or other useful sites for even more information.


The radio interview produced a 14-second sound bite of me declaring today's gamers dumber than yesterday's. It appeared wedged into a 1-minute 20-second barrage of other "tech" stories. It yielded no useful information, no additional resources, and it managed to completely mischaracterize my ideas and my writing - all underscored by a busy barrage of music and sound effects under the reporter's voice.

This is what old media looks like. To be sure, it doesn't have to be this way at all, but more often than not, it's exactly like this. The show supercedes the content, and any light that's shed is typically a self-reflexive light on the medium itself. The show is the show. The guy I spoke to was doing commercial broadcast radio. That's the schtick. And that's why it's dying.

I could be accused of choosing extreme versions of the best and worst of new and old media. But I think my own little encounters with both are indicative of fundamental differences that help explain why so many of us are surfing the web when we're supposed to be consuming old media.

And now back to the games. :-)

Gamespot - tough crowd for the Wii

Critic I mentioned in my last post that I've been spending a lot of time playing Wii games lately. Among the mostly forgettable spate of recent releases (Deca Sports, Emergency Mayhem, Iron Man), games like LostWinds and Boom Blox have delivered far more delights than I expected. And, of course, Wii Fit arrives tomorrow, hotly anticipated by family and friends.

Normally I don't give much thought to review scores, but I'm often curious to see how reviewers write about games that veer off the path of the tried and true - or even stretch the very definition of "game." I've been struck, in this regard, by the relatively low scores and lukewarm reviews that Gamespot has assigned to recent Wii games. I'm not suggesting a conspiracy, nor do I think Gamespot hates Nintendo or any other such silliness. But I do find the rather stark discrepancies interesting, and I wonder what they mean, if anything.

Looking only at the most recent releases, here's how the scores break down among the three major online outlets, Gamepsot, IGN, and 1UP:

Boom Blox - IGN 81;  1UP A+;  Gamespot 7.0
LostWinds - IGN 82;  1UP B;  Gamespot 5.5
Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles My Life As A King - IGN 75;  1UP B+;  Gamespot 5.0
Wii Fit - IGN 80;  1UP 83;  Gamespot 7.0

My first thought was to consider the possibility that Gamespot has decided to tighten up review scores across the board. But a look at their scores for other games released during the same period (Dark Sector, Iron Man, The World Ends With You, etc.) shows that Gamespot tends to fall near the middle of the pack - or in the case of the three games listed, slightly above the average.

I don't have a theory to explain this, and it probably doesn't matter very much. But I confess it bugs me to read that one of the fatal flaws of LostWinds is that it "lacks personality." I love this little game, but I'll admit it has some repetitive gameplay issues, a few bugs, and somewhat less than inspiring level design. But no personality? That's the single most distinguishing feature of the game.

Similarly, the review of Boom Blox misses the core experience that sets the game apart: its tactile, physics-based 3D puzzle-solving. It's fair to dismiss the game's cutesy shell as potentially unappealing to adults. But the uniquely defining characteristics of the game deserve more consideration than they received.

I said I don't care about review scores, and here I am all worked up about a few review scores. Oh well. Maybe it all boils down to a feeling I've had for some time that Gamespot - and quite a few reviewers from other outlets - don't "get" the Wii and haven't properly understood it from the beginning. Wii Sports, a game with a greater impact than just about any other game of this generation, was described by EGM as "an overly publicized demo" and rated a 63. Mercury Meltdown got a 72.

I don't pay attention to review scores. Much.

Turning the corner

Reporter Back in September of last year I wrote a piece called "Why don't the mainstream media get video games?" It followed the "biggest game launch of all-time" (Halo 3), and examined the woeful coverage from news outlets like Time Magazine and The New York Times. Throughout the media, stories tended to focus on the same three generalized observations: 1) Video games generate big money; 2) Video games attract geek fanatics; 3) Video games are violent.

Now there's another "biggest game launch of all time" in town (GTA IV), and things are looking quite a bit different. While it's still easy to find plenty of stories that focus on all the nasty things players can do in the game (see note below), some of the biggest mainstream outlets have responded in ways that suggest the game is an ambitious cultural achievement to be regarded seriously.

San Francisco Chronicle: Cultural revolution often comes from seemingly imperfect people and unpopular places.The most influential athlete was labeled a draft dodger. The man who helped bring rock 'n' roll to the mainstream grew a huge gut, wore sequined jumpsuits and then died in the bathroom. One of this country's greatest defenders of free speech was dismissed as just a pornographer. But Muhammad Ali, Elvis and even Larry Flynt are remembered for their contributions - just as one day, the makers of Grand Theft Auto will be known as more than peddlers of video game sex and violence.

The Sunday Times (UK): Rockstar North is to video games what JK Rowling is to literature but few, particularly in government, are prepared to acknowledge this. It seems odd that politicians committed to “a smart, successful Scotland” haven't come knocking at [Rockstar producer Leslie] Benzies's door.

New York Times: Grand Theft Auto IV is a violent, intelligent, profane, endearing, obnoxious, sly, richly textured and thoroughly compelling work of cultural satire disguised as fun... [It] sets a new standard for what is possible in interactive arts.

NPR's All Things Considered: The game is more than merely satire. Video games have never been known for expressing the finer points of human emotion...The more I played GTA IV, the more I felt I knew Niko. He's haunted by violence. He walks slowly, and every action is deliberate, as if he were conserving energy. When he steals a car, he matter-of-factly pulls the driver out of the seat and deposits him on the road. There's no joy in it; it's just what needs to be done. And everything about Niko feels uniquely Niko — like when a great actor disappears into a character. It's just not something you see that often in video games.

Rocky Mountain News: I answer the phone and get a nasty reminder that in Niko's world, not only do things not turn out as expected, but the tragedy of his life and of his months in the big city have other, more tragic and lasting consequences, which he and I will have to live with as we continue to explore. In Grand Theft Auto IV the story isn't just an amalgam of cut scenes and cleverly written dialogue, it's the experiences I create, too. It's now, watching Niko stand, his shoulders slumped, that the depth of this game finally hits me.

Newsweek: When you find yourself, as Niko, standing on the edge of a crane, deciding whether to save the low-level hood you've been ordered to kill or speed his passage to the afterlife, what will you do? I let him live, even though part of me very much wanted the instant gratification of watching him fall. What held me back, however, was not just how convincingly the digital actors can portray the series' signature violence (because of the way your enemies stagger, stumble and crawl after being shot, the killings now feel more squalid than exhilarating). It's also because the writers have given our mercurial protagonist a conscience, a fatigue with death and a desire to start afresh. Rockstar managed to convince me that Niko wouldn't do this—so I didn't...That's where the art of Grand Theft Auto IV resides, in the complicated responses it can elicit. Even for those among you who aren't gamers, attention must be paid.

The Today Show: It will be a great shame if the inevitable hubbub overshadows the epic, revolutionary nature of “GTA IV.” The developers, Rockstar Games, have crafted a wildly ambitious game world complete with an engrossing story of an immigrant's rise to power, unforgettable characters and expertly honed gameplay. It will be weeks, if not months, before I get my fill of “GTA IV.”

Part of this sudden enlightenment is surely due to the fact that these and other outlets are hiring writers who understand the medium and happily refer to themselves as gamers (Heather Chaplin, N'Gai Croal, Brian Crecente, etc.). I'd like to think it also has something to do with the quality of the game itself. Despite the franchise's long history as a target of media outcry, GTA IV appears to have turned a corner in the minds of whatever critical mass is required to make something culturally acceptable. Given that it's currently fashionable to speak in praise of GTA IV, there's probably some bandwagon jumping going on as well. I'm sure the backlash is due any day now.

Whatever the reasons (and whatever you think of the game), it's encouraging to see a significant portion of the mainstream media respond to a video game in this way. Perhaps it signals the emergence of a more widespread cultural appreciation for games in general. I'm not expecting an overnight conversion, but this at least feels promising. I don't need the New York Times to tell me video games matter...but I want them to anyway.

Note: Many newspapers and websites rely on the same source (in this case the Associated Press) for their coverage or reviews of GTA IV. Consequently, the following phrase can be found in various versions of the AP story reprinted in dozens of newspapers like the Kanas City Star and the Indianapolis Star: "Critics say the extreme violence in "Grand Theft Auto" video games could be harmful to children, and Mothers Against Drunk Driving has complained that the latest version includes the ability to drive while intoxicated."

One more take

Gta4trailershot After I posted my short and admittedly angry piece earlier today, several thoughtful readers suggested I elaborate on my objections to the IGN "Ladies of Liberty City" video. I agree that I didn't properly explain my point of view, so here goes. After this, I promise it will be back to normal programming.

I think it's unlikely I'll be able to persuade anyone of anything, especially given how polarizing this and other GTA-related issues tend to quickly become. But I can at least try to clarify my intentions in posting as I did. I'm speaking, obviously, only for myself here, but I feel strongly about this, so I'm sure my tone may be seen as harsh or dogmatic. I don't think there's much I can do about that.

What IGN did was morally and ethically reprehensible. They posted a video using stitched-together segments of GTA4 gameplay to show a series of incidents where women are paid for sex and then shot and killed, or run over by a car and killed. This montage was not delivered as some kind of ironic social critique. It was, essentially, a hip, funky homage to killing women.

A similarly heinous compilation pieced together in any other medium and posted on a highly visible website would be denounced immediately, if it ever saw the light of day. Why is it somehow acceptable - and why are responses like mine considered "hysterical" - simply because the video uses footage from GTA4?

I'm not the first person to suggest we're reinforcing the marginalization of the medium by falling back on the "it's only a game" argument (I would extend this to include "it's only GTA."). I recommend Mitch Krpata's "Sex, Violence, and Video Games" for more on this. He says it much better than me.

Of course it's possible to do all the things the video depicts while playing GTA4. It's possible to do all sorts of ugly things in all sorts of media, as well as in real life. The fact that it's possible doesn't make it acceptable to do what IGN did. If you want to play GTA4 at home and kill as many prostitutes as you can, that's your decision. It's another thing entirely to make a compilation video featuring one killing after another, set to music, and post it on your website that receives over 20 million unique visitors per month.

The video is a construction. It was deliberately made, edited, and posted. Someone made specific choices about what this video was intended to communicate. It's not simply "footage from the game." I am suggesting that whomever is responsible for it ought to be held to account.

I've played two hours of GTA4. I have no idea if it's a good game or a bad game. It's irrelevant to my argument. I admire Rockstar for their innovative approach to video game design. They have made an indelible impact on gaming and gaming culture. These facts are also irrelevant to my argument.

Finally, I don't mean to suggest there's some kind of monolithic entity known as the "gamer community" of which IGN is some sort of spokesperson. We're way more complicated than that. But there is a culture and community of gamers out here, even if we don't all think or behave alike. It's fair to say that video games continue to suffer a serious image problem in our culture at large. Making the case for video games as a legitimate form of human expression is a long uphill climb. I know this from personal experience as an educator facing resistance, misinformation, or simple ignorance from my peers and colleagues every day. I realize lots of gamers don't care how we're perceived. In my career, I don't have that luxury.

I'm trying to move the ball forward. That's why I started this blog. It's hard for me not to take it personally when a major media site devoted to gaming posts a video like this because they think it's funny or cool or subversive or whatever. From a purely selfish perspective, it makes everything I'm trying to do as an advocate for video games more difficult to justify or explain. This may not matter much to others, and that's fine, but it matters a lot to me.