“When I look back on it, it was obvious that I was gonna end up doing this because my two big obsessions were always music and writing. It’s an outgrowth of being a fanatical record collector and a fanatical listener. You have fanatical opinions that you want to inflict on people.”
– Lester Bangs, Rock Critic
In April of 1982, Lester Bangs, legendary rock critic, gave his final interview to 17-year-old journalism student Jim DeRogatis.
“I told the Gang of Four,” Bangs recounted to DeRogatis, describing his encounter with the seminal, yet commercially unsuccessful, punk band, “I went to their dressing room when they were down in Los Angeles on their first tour, I said, ‘Hi. I know you guys have been getting your asses kissed ever since you got to this country because you’re English. I figured you’d appreciate one person coming up and telling you what a bucket of shit you are.'”
Such iconoclasm was the trademark of Bangs’ career. Whereas some writers of the time would literally go out of their way to write glowing reviews, Bangs seemed to revel in doing the opposite, earning himself a reputation as something of a troublemaker, if an honest one.
His first review for Rolling Stone was a negative one, and his confrontational interview style eventually led to his dismissal from the magazine in 1973 for reportedly being “disrespectful to musicians.” Bangs went on to write for nearly every print publication with a music beat and was frequently mentioned in the same breath as the likes of Hunter S. Thompson and Charles Bukowski; writers who Bangs himself cited as the inspirations for his work.
“The way I look at it,” said Bangs, when asked about his comment that “almost all current music is worthless,” “the only reason I have any credibility in the first place is because I’m willing to say things like that. And if anything does happen again, I’ll have more credibility for the fact that I did say it.”
Two weeks after the interview, after more than a decade of being the most influential rock critic on the planet, Bangs died in his New York apartment of an apparent drug overdose. His interviewer, Jim DeRogatis, would go on become one of rock’s most influential (post-Bangs) writers, get fired from Rolling Stone himself and write a book about Bangs called Let it Blurt.
“There was a time in my life,” Bangs told DeRogatis, “when you would have come up here and I would have got all drunk and everything like that and you might have preferred it that way and I would have been all exhibitionistic and like that, but if I act like that, I might live a long time, but I won’t live very long as a good writer.
Boys Will Be Boys
Jim DeRogatis: Do you think there’s a danger of rock ‘n’ roll becoming extinct?
Lester Bangs: Yeah, sure. Definitely.
JD: What would there be to take its place?
LB: Video games.
– “A Final Chat with Lester Bangs”
According to The Entertainment Software Association, “Ninety-three percent of game players also report reading books or daily newspapers on a regular basis.” This tells us that people who play games read. Not just that they can read, but that they do read. “On a regular basis.”
In 2003, the U.S. Department of Education-sponsored National Assessment of Adult Literacy found that literacy in America (unsurprisingly) fell along a fairly predictable bell curve. Those with “below basic” literacy (the lowest score, “no more than the most simple and concrete literacy skills”) constituted about 14 percent of the population, while those referred to as “proficient” (the highest score, “can perform complex and challenging literacy activities”) constituted 13 percent. Between the two extremes were two more categories: “basic” and “intermediate,” which constituted 29 and 44 percent respectively.
What this shows us is that there is a small minority of people in the U.S. who can barely read, a similarly-sized minority who are extremely literate and a large swath of people who fall somewhere in between, capable of reading, but choosing not to do so enough to become proficient. It’s fair to say that these people in the middle do not spend the majority of their time reading videogame news – or, to remain on statistically safer ground, that the people who do read extensive news and reviews of videogames are toward the top end of the NAAL’s scale, most likely in the “proficient” category.
This, however, is not a Pulitzer Prize-winning revelation by any means. Once the province of the rare few who not only owned a computer, but also knew how to operate it, games have never been in danger of association with illiteracy. Games’ association with adolescence is another story.
Were we to base our understanding of world events solely on television news and political speeches (which a large majority of Americans apparently do, according to the NAAL), we’d have a hard time believing that mature, responsible adults play videogames. Even the people doing the videogame marketing seem to be of the belief that their products are solely for the benefit of pimply-faced latchkey kids looking to get their next high-octane, adrenaline-fueled, boobie-infested entertainment high. Those who Microsoft’s Peter Moore calls “Boys in Their Bedrooms.”
The phrase brings to mind seedy activities: taking pictures of naked children, manufacturing counterfeit currency, viewing pornography and masturbating. This is no accidental collision of phraseology. To many people, “boys in bedrooms” can only mean one thing. Whether the joystick is made of plastic or flesh, it’s still wankery. Moore uses the phrase to distance noble Microsoft from the still somewhat disreputable practice of playing videogames, and suggests to his shareholders that the goal for Microsoft, in its quest to make its videogame division profitable, is to expand its reach beyond this core market and woo more moderate consumers. Yet, according to a recent study by NPD, so-called “heavy” gamers, almost half of which include the magic 18-34 demographic, only constitute about 3 percent of the total game-playing audience, which lends a lot of credence to the assumption that the game audience is maturing, and that games are playing a more viable role in society, not just as youthful diversions for wankers.
More fuel for that fire is the recent finding of an (admittedly biased) study conducted by casual game maker PopCap, suggesting that almost half of the 150 million casual game players are over 50. The ESA’s data concludes that these over-50 casual gamers only make up about 25 percent of the total game-playing audience, but that almost half of the total game-playing audience is between 18 and 49 with an average age of 33. Again, the bell curve. The ESA’s data agrees with NPD’s, concluding that only about a third of all gamers are younger than 18; which, while substantial, is a far cry from being a majority of the audience.
So it’s fair to say that regardless of what Mr. Moore may believe, the “boys in bedrooms” mystique may not be entirely accurate. The videogame audience has matured, and so has the industry. One would expect, therefore, the industry’s attendant press to have kept pace. Unfortunately, the gaming press seems to be just as confused as Peter Moore.
The Lester Bangs of Gaming
“There’s only a few writers who are any good and I’m not saying who they are. … [Most writers] don’t have the passion for the music that somebody who gets into it because they really love music has. … I hate that kind of shit. That’s what I hate anywhere, people who are just being trendies or opportunistic.”
– Lester Bangs
It’s possible that Dan Hsu started it. In January of 2006, Hsu, the Editor-in-Chief of Electronic Gaming Monthly, published an editorial slamming some of his colleagues for accepting advertising money in exchange for favorable editorial coverage.
“My industry pisses me off,” he said, then – without naming names – described encounters with ad buyers who had demanded that various publications “play ball” or else lose access to pre-release games and exclusive interviews. “Those guys can kiss my ass,” wrote Hsu. Meaning, one assumes, both the ad buyers and the editors who would deal with them.
One month later, in the very next issue of EGM, Hsu published an interview with Peter Moore, Corporate Vice President of Worldwide Retail Sales and Marketing for Microsoft’s Home and Entertainment Division (aka: Head Xbox 360 Cheerleader), in which Hsu had apparently decided to pull out all the stops, all but calling Mr. Moore a liar and a thief directly to his face.
“The [Xbox360]’s awfully loud, isn’t it?” Hsu asked, criticizing Microsoft’s just-released console, an almost unheard of blasphemy in such an exclusive interview setting. Hsu also took Moore to task for the Xbox360’s lackluster support for original Xbox games, the so-called “backwards compatibility,” which Microsoft had heavily advertised, yet (as Moore himself would later admit) had failed to deliver. Hsu asked Moore to pick his favorite game from among three pairs of games. Moore, predictably, picked the more popular of each pair.
Hsu then sprang the trap: “So here’s what we’re getting at: You picked three Xbox 1 games that aren’t backwards compatible on the Xbox 360, and the other ones – Sneakers, Kabuki, and Barbie – are. It’s a weird list.”
The interview was seen by some as a bold step forward for videogame journalism, by others as a step in the wrong direction and by still more as another day in the life. Nevertheless, regardless of which side of the fence readers (and writers) found themselves on, there was no mistaking Hsu’s message: It was time for game writers to grow a pair. Like, one assumes, Lester Bangs.
“I wrote that [“kiss my ass” editorial],” Hsu later told The Escapist, “because I was angry because I knew … stuff was going on that was very blatantly bad – very obvious things that you should not do whether or not you have any proper journalism background. … [I thought] if I throw this out there it’s probably going to do me more harm than good, but at least it might shake people up, some of my peers might be like ‘He’s right, we want to do a better job, we want to be more honest.’ This way all of us as an industry can grow together to be a little bit more respected.”
“As far as I can tell, there is no major critic who specializes in explaining what playing a given game feels like, nor is anyone analyzing what specific games mean in any context outside the game itself,” wrote Chuck Klosterman, several months later in an article for Esquire. “There is no Pauline Kael of video-game writing. There is no Lester Bangs of video-game writing. And I’m starting to suspect there will never be.”
Klosterman’s treatise, titled “The Lester Bangs of Video Games” prompted what seems now to be an unrelenting stream of introspective game journalism “how-to” articles; in essence, a veritable roll call for Lester Bangs wannabes (this writer included), all of whom seem to be saying the same thing: Klosterman don’t know jack.
“The point is, gaming culture is on fire right now, for God’s sake!” wrote Wired‘s Clive Thompson. “It’s just not happening in print media or on TV; it’s online, the natural environment for gaming criticism, because gamers are total internet freaks. Klosterman can’t find a Lester Bangs because he’s looking for a glossy-mag-anointed critic. There’s no there there.”
Thompson suggested that there was actually not one Lester Bangs of videogaming, but several, perhaps hundreds, and that they were all active on the internet, out of the sight of the old guard and out of the mind of the mainstream.
“You see so many stories about how bad game journalism is,” says Bill Kunkel, also known as “The Game Doctor,” co-founder of Electronic Games in 1981, author of the book Confessions of the Game Doctor and now Editor-in-Chief of Tips & Tricks magazine. “There are more great game journalists now than there were 10 years ago. They’re just spread out over a broader terrain.”
Since Klosterman’s assault, the gaming press has been subjected to one bombardment after another, all from supposed experts claiming to know just what the industry needs and how to go about creating it. The latest, a step-by-step examination of how one should go about becoming a game writer, published by CMP Media’s Game Career Guide, would seem to have struck such a sore nerve among game writers that nearly everyone who’s ever played a game has felt the need to respond in some way or another, most offering their own opinion on the subject. Most of these responses, taken as advice from a stranger, are perfectly harmless but use too many words to say basically the same thing: Be lucky, be good.
“I don’t want any credit for [this] at all,” says Dan Hsu, referring to the recent wave of “how-to” editorials. “There’s no way I would tell you that I’m the best videogame journalist around. … I’m sure when I’m 45 or 50 if I’m still in this business that I’ll be a very different journalist and editor. I have a lot of things to learn yet.”
“Want to get into game journalism?” says Bill Kunkel. “Learn journalism. If you’re a journalist, you can cover anything. … [There are] so many places [on the internet] for [young game writers] to write and share their opinion. Magazines are in trouble because you can get virtually any kind of material online, instantaneously. I think [in the future] you’re going to see a combination of print and online journalism.”
Let It Blurt
Jim DeRogatis: If anybody can play rock ‘n’ roll, anybody can write about it?
Lester Bangs: Fuck yes!
– “A Final Chat with Lester Bangs”
Setting aside for the moment the inherent differences between videogames and rock songs, there’s just no way the culture of videogames will ever produce the kind of journalism championed by Mr. Bangs.
Game developers don’t go on tour, nor do they perform in front of an audience. They sit at computers and type – not a sexy cover shot. When a writer interviews a band, they are interviewing the people making the product – the musicians themselves. When a writer interviews a game company, more often than not they’re interviewing people like Peter Moore; the person hired to talk to writers. The rock writing analogue would be like reading a Lester Bangs interview with The Who‘s tour manager, conducted in his Ohio apartment, on the subject of what Pete Townshend had for breakfast. If punk rock was an existential “F— you” to the entertainment mainstream, videogames are more akin to the publication of a quarterly journal, complete with footnotes.
Those who attempt to breathe life into game writing, the so-called “New Game Journalists,” can only describe what it’s like to play a game, but even then the writer doing the playing (regardless of what drugs he’s taking) is sitting in a chair, staring at a screen, not careening across the desert in a stolen Cadillac, hiding barbiturates from highway patrolmen. Picture Hunter Thompson playing a Fear and Loathing videogame and then writing about the experience. “We can’t pause here, this is bat country!” It somehow fails to capture the imagination.
There will be no Pulitzers awarded for the best description of an afternoon playing Second Life, no schools of journalism named after the guy wearing a Zelda T-shirt under a corduroy blazer and no posthumous Medals of Freedom awarded to game journos killed in action serving as embedded correspondents at Ubisoft Montreal. Those of us who write about games are preaching to a singularly insular choir, all of whom already believe they know the sermon, verse-by-verse, and who check in merely to affirm that knowledge, then blog about it on their own site; rarely to learn something new.
In an entertainment medium, the media coverage is part of the entertainment, and we, the writers, are all actors on that stage. So should the Lester Bangs of videogaming ever make his entrance, what kind of writer will he be? Honestly, I don’t care and neither should you. As Bangs himself might say, f— Lester Bangs, I want the Party. And to hell with all of this sentimental, pedantic journalistic saber-rattling. As important as the quality of game journalism may be to the maturation of the industry, of far more importance should be the quality of the games themselves and the explanations of why that should matter to people who don’t yet know.
I think it is time to come out of the bedroom, stop fiddling with our joysticks and get serious; but not about games, and not about game writing. We’ve spent far too much time wanking over that diorama. It’s time now to get serious about communicating; our thoughts, our ideas and our love of the industry and why any of that should matter.
Maybe Klosterman was right. Maybe if we’re still looking for our Lester Bangs, it’s because we don’t yet have a writer who can communicate those thoughts. Or if we do, and he’s sitting around waiting for his muse, then the question he needs to be asking isn’t “How do you become a serious journalist?” but rather “How do you become a serious industry?”
Russ Pitts is an Associate Editor for The Escapist. He has written and produced for television, theatre and film, has been writing on the web since it was invented and claims to have played every console ever made.