Lester Who?

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Esquire magazine’s Chuck Klosterman says that a Lester Bangs of video gaming “doesn’t exist,” but according to 1UP’s Jane Pinckard, he might exist, but it’s just that “nobody cares.” Henry Jenkins, however, does care and has many, many MIT professor-ish things to say on the subject, most of which center around the current necessity for such a figure. Like Superman, or Jesus Christ, a Lester Bangs of video games, one supposes, would save us all from the horrors of … what, exactly? No one is sure. Yet Clive Thompson claims that a Lester Bangs of video gaming does, in fact, exist, but the mainstream media is looking for him in all the wrong places.

So let’s get the important question out of the way first: Who the hell is Lester Bangs? To quote Louis Armstrong, if you have to ask, you’ll never know. But I’ll try to explain anyway.

Bangs was one of the most influential and well-versed music critics of his time (early 1970s – 80s), writing for a number of magazines including Rolling Stone and Playboy. Often criticized (by musicians and critics alike) for his aggressive writing style, Bangs was nonetheless respected and admired throughout the industry (the Rock & Roll industry), particularly for his almost unerring ability to identify the next, big thing.

Now then, if we’re going to assume that video games are the modern analogue of Rock & Roll music (which is not a safe assumption by any means) then where’s our Lester Bangs? Where’s the well-informed, philosophical, literary, pop-culture inspired ear to the ground with a keen eye for what makes great games great? Judging from the articles linked above, it would appear that almost everyone has their own opinion on the matter. Clive Thompson, for one, goes so far as to subtly point a finger toward a few likely places to look (one of them my now-defunct podcast), but stops short of actually naming names. Perhaps he’s shy.

Allow me to take over then. After all, I, like Lester Bangs, am unafraid of the occasional ruffled feather. So let’s just lay it all out. I’m the man you’re looking for, Klosterman. I’m Spartacus. Now where the white women at?

Want to know who’s writing about games in a thoughtful, artful manner? With more intelligence than wit? With more style than abbreviation? Want to know who’s out there talking about issues that make developers take notice, and saying more than “this game 5ux0r5?” I am. And so are the rest of the fine folks here at The Escapist. And so are a lot of other folks, whom I’m far too conceited to mention. But that doesn’t really matter. And it never will.

First, video games are not the modern analogue of Rock & Roll music for many, many reasons, the most important of which is that video games are not simply an emergent art form (Ebert can bite me), of which we have seen several since Chuck Berry first sang “Johnny B. Goode,” but are also an emergent medium, of which we have seen precious few in the last half-decade. Are video games, like Rock & Roll music, embraced by young people and reviled by their elders? Yes, and that is where the similarities end.

Games share commonalities with music, movies, books and various other art forms (and media), but an appreciation of the essence of video gaming – the kind which the Lester bangs of video games (were he to exist) would be able to impart – requires first that one actually play the damned things, and second that one be well-versed enough in both the history of the medium and the craft of writing to be able to succinctly and accurately share one’s perceptions of the experience of gaming to those who have yet to have had the pleasure.

Which brings us back to the question – as yet unasked – of why anyone should care where the Lester Bangs of video games may be found. After all, it wasn’t like anyone on our side of the media divide was asking the question before Klosterman came along. None of us (who write about and play games for a living) really care. So what’s the deal?

The answer, to put it simply, is that the purveyors of mainstream media are a bit lost. Video gaming is a multi-billion dollar industry, and one which most mainstream journalists simply do not understand. How does one write about a video game, for example? What’s more important, the graphics or the gameplay? And once that barrier has been breached, which game does one then write about? What’s hot? Identifying trends and giving people the information they crave is the name of the game, and in the past, with old media, a man like Lester Bangs, with an uncanny ear for the next, big thing, was an invaluable resource.

So imagine yourself at the desk of Esquire magazine, having just received a mandate to cover “video games,” and begun combing desperately through the blogosphere for a unifying theme, a voice around which the multitudes have rallied, a single, consistent source of unerring intuition as to what would be hot and what would not. With so many games, of so many kinds available, and so many different blogs, sites and podcasts covering them all with their own unique voices, visons and tastes, the task of accurately identifying the one sure bet every time, always would be a daunting one, to say the least.

It is in this situation that any self-respecting journalist may flip through his Rolodex (a big round thing that held phone numbers) and sigh, longing for an entry like the one which used to be filed under “B” for “Bangs, Lester – Music Expert.” Where does our intrepid reporter turn? Where can he find a big lead on the next, big thing in the world of video games? From whom, in other words, can he steal an idea for a story? If you have to ask, reporterman, you’ll never know.

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