A couple of weeks ago Warren Spector asked the question, “Where’s Gaming’s Roger Ebert?” Most people know who Spector is, but if you’re too young to remember a world before Pokemon, then a little refresher: Wing Commander, Thief, System Shock, and Ultima. And if THOSE aren’t familiar to you then I shudder to imagine what they’re not teaching you in history class these days.
I understand Spector’s desire for legitimacy. It would be cool if games were treated with the cultural reverence typically given to movies. It would be gratifying if they were celebrated by elites and revered as culturally significant. It would be nice if Time magazine, People magazine, the New Yorker, and USA Today lifted up game designers the way they lift up movie stars and directors. I’d love it if people respected the hobby, even if they didn’t participate. I’d love it even more if they joined us. The whole Citizen Kane of Gaming meme is a bit silly, but it does show that we have a hunger to reach people beyond the hobby and get them to admit that games are just as much part of our culture as whatever they’re showing at the multiplex.
In response to Spector’s piece, my colleague Chris Franklin wrote a piece discussing why journalism itself is having trouble and how difficult it would be for an Ebert-figure to rise in the gaming world. Spector responded in the comments and now what we have is an interesting conversation about what an “Ebert of Videogames” might look like and what he or she might do for the industry.
A lot of gamers dismissed the man because of his view that games weren’t – and arguably couldn’t be – art. (Which I commented on here.) So a lot of gamers are a little foggy on why Ebert was important or why we would want such a figure in the gaming world. So here it is: Ebert’s gift was that he could take that artistic, high-minded view of filmmaking and package it in a way that was fun for normal people. He had the knowledge of a filmmaker, but spoke to the audience on their own level and without condescending to them. It was a gift that made his reviews as much a work of entertainment as a review of entertainment. It wasn’t just consumer advice, but a conversation about an experience. I read his reviews all the time – even reviews of indie arthouse films that I would never, ever watch on purpose. I read them because Roger Ebert always had something interesting to say beyond, “This movie is good / bad.”
He was never content to accept that movies were just something to go with popcorn. He was an ambassador of arty cinema, making it accessible and attractive to the common viewer. He was always interested in what movies were about, and encouraged others to look at movies more deeply, ask what they mean, and demand they remain true to themselves. He praised movies that had a heart and gently mocked them if they lacked a brain.
We could certainly use some more of that in gaming journalism.
Not that we don’t have it already. Plenty of people are trying to do this right now, but their voices are small within the sphere of game criticism and they’re basically mute to the world outside our hobby. An Ebert figure – if one existed – would be someone people read whether they played videogames or not.
But videogame journalism is mostly driven by the internet, and the internet is very different from the print world. Note that over the weekend, gaming journalist Marcus Beer appeared in a podcast where he publically sneered at indie developers Phil Fish and John Blow, calling them “tosspots” and “fucking hipsters”. Fish responded with a bunch of name-calling of his own, suggesting that Beer kill himself. Then the rest of the internet joined in, sending hatemail to Fish, who responded by saying he was quitting games for good. It was a mean, ugly, and highly personal exchange and not the type of thing that ever took place in public media in the pre-internet days.
Before the internet, Beer’s comments would have been filtered through an editor, who might have encouraged the man to show some maturity and professionalism in a public venue. Phil Fish would have probably have taken a day or two to consider his response, and it would have happened in the context of an interview with some neutral third party. The response from the public would have been delayed by a week or more as people wrote in letters, and the editor would have thrown away the ones from obviously crazy people. Beer would have been more measured, Fish’s response would have been tempered by time and advice, and neither of them would have seen or read the death threats from random strangers.
But here on the net people responded to each other instantly, they responded directly to the other party, and they responded in public. Ebert and Rob Schneider famously had a “nasty” public dispute, although it was practically a make-out session compared to the exchange between Marcus Beer and Phil Fish. Ebert and Schneider were later able to reconcile. Somehow I don’t think Beer and Fish will be sending flowers or buying each other a beer anytime soon.
My point is, this internet game is pretty raw. People aren’t nice, there are no filters, and the audience generally isn’t willing to pay for any of it. That’s not a knock against gamers. Print publication is in decline and it’s harder than ever to get people to pay for words. Anyone hoping to bring high-minded commentary to videogames needs to be a gifted writer like Ebert, plus they need to be a seasoned gamer, plus they need to have the patience and calm serenity of a Buddhist monk, plus they need to be willing to work in a field that doesn’t offer a lot of money or job security. I’m not saying such a person can’t exist. I am saying it might be a long wait.
And the question that really eats me is: Even if such a person showed up, would anyone actually read them? I don’t just mean the public in general. I mean, would gamers read it? Does the gaming public want artsy ruminations and anecdote-driven analysis of intent and craft? Do people want to talk about kinesthetics, ludonarrative dissonance, narrative mechanics, gamification, and power creep? Or do they just want someone practical and numerically consistent when assigning review scores? I honestly don’t know.
I share Spector’s desire to see games taken more seriously and talked about more thoroughly. But we probably aren’t going to see an Ebert anytime soon, and even if we did I’m afraid they might not find an audience.
An earlier version of this column misspelled Mr. Beer’s name. That has since been fixed.