Dysfunctional Serial Monogamy

Adam LaMosca | 14 May 2008 21:00
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Consider the enthusiast press' reception of Grand Theft Auto IV. Wade through the game's print and online reviews, and what you'll invariably see are a series of obsessive descriptions and evaluations of the game's most fundamental, mechanical qualities. You'll hear all about its save points, its new combat and aiming systems, its mission structure, and its driving physics. You'll find detailed examinations of its graphical attributes, production values and multiplayer modes. You'll see careful comparisons between both console versions. In other words, what you'll find is a series of buyers' guides, designed solely to describe the most banal aspects of the game and guide consumers in their purchasing decisions. As a result, once you've actually bought or played GTA IV, the overwhelming majority of the enthusiast press' coverage is essentially irrelevant.

It's amazing what this approach to games ignores. In review after review, there's almost no discussion of GTA IV's inconsistent moral tone, for example, or its compelling but unsettling depiction of American urban culture, or its sometimes disconcerting blend of drama and satire, crudeness and sophistication. There's almost no mention of the dissonance that arises from the clash between its realistic and ridiculous components, and except for obligatory acknowledgments of its controversial material, there's almost no thought given to the game's place in the popular culture's subconscious. Instead, the reviews typically begin and end with whether GTA IV is worth gamers' time and money.

It's as if the release and purchase of a game suddenly signals its irrelevance. We buy games, play them and then discard them, ever mindful of upcoming releases. It's a kind of dysfunctional serial monogamy that prevents us from devoting further time or thought to any one experience as long as there's another around the corner.

I'm not necessarily blaming the enthusiast press, as their content by necessity reflects gamers' interests, and the industry can be expected to promote its products. By pandering to gamers' obsessively forward-thinking approach to their hobby, the media and industry both encourage the phenomenon. The result is an enthusiast culture that, for the most part, suffers from an inability to thoughtfully examine the games its consumes. Serious, thought-provoking discussion and criticism, of the kind that lends insight into the games we play, is confined to a handful of online outlets and blogs or perhaps a few narrow columns of most print magazines.

There are some signs that the situation may be improving, helped along in part by web sites and writers that strive to recognize the depth and importance of the medium. In GTA IV's case, the mainstream media seems more inclined to recognize the game as thoughtful, satirical, mature-themed entertainment, rather than condemning it out of hand. There's reason to believe that the game could provide fodder for thoughtful discussion for years to come. Even the tiresome past debates about new games journalism, the absence of the Lester Bangs of gaming and whether or not games are art all suggest that game criticism is maturing along with its audience.

Despite these positive indications, the enthusiast culture still has a long way to go if it wants games to receive the appreciation they deserve. To get there, we're going to need to be willing to look backward, instead of forever gazing at the light of the end of the tunnel.

As a writer and editor for Gamers With Jobs, Adam LaMosca has at long last achieved complete self-actualization. He also maintains a personal website, Lowspec.com, just for fun.

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