Anyone whose familiarity with seminal rock critic Lester Bangs is limited to Phillip Seymour Hoffman's curmudgeonly portrayal in the film Almost Famous grasps only half the picture: To a generation of music listeners and critics, he's not just a line in an R.E.M. song, he's a freakin' legend.
To a generation of gamers, Bangs is little more than the answer to a trivia question. But in the July issue of Esquire, Chuck Klosterman, the former Spin columnist and author of Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs, wondered aloud why video games, the $28 billion dollar modern equivalent of 1960s rock 'n' roll, lacks a Bangs-like voice to give the experience of gaming focus and fire. "As far as I can tell," Klosterman wrote, "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."
For controller-clutching game junkies (including yours truly), them's fighting words. Whaddaya mean there are no good game critics? The gaming blogosphere immediately went apoplectic.
Klosterman, a generally thoughtful guy, was man enough to stand up for what he'd written, submitting to a set of questions by the editors at Gamespot.com, one of the industry's biggest gaming websites.
The problem, he clarified, isn't that there's a lack of good videogame journalism and/or criticism; it's that most of it is either consumer-focused (four out of five stars, baby!), or about as insular as Stephen Hawking at a meeting of Theoretical Physicists Anonymous.
In this regard, Klosterman's got a point. I can't count the number of times friends and relatives have said to me, "I read your column all the time — I don't understand it, but I read it." The media that devote regular space to gaming coverage — including the smart alt-weekly you're holding right now — are often looking to speak to the folks who already get the reasons why guilding in World of Warcraft is a pop culture-defining act, not to clue in the people who think "MMORPG" is some kind of hipster IM-speak. And it's all too easy for gamers themselves to fall back on that tired old saw: Gaming can't be explained — it has to be experienced.
Clearly, there's a serious comprehension gap hovering over that huge $28 billion pile of cash, and it's widening. The establishment in the '60s may not have understood why those crazy-ass kids were hurling themselves at the stage for the chance to catch a whiff of Mick Jagger or Jim Morrisson's vibe, but they at least could understand the medium without having to master a four-button combo, and could grasp that something important was going on. (I'd also point out that musical acts back then, unlike, say, Halo 2 today, weren't trying to make a cultural dent in a commercialized media market packed with so many competing voices and options.) Gaming, for all its vast gains as a pop-culture phenomenon, remains still stuck in a pop-culture ghetto.
But I'm not sure finding gaming's Lester Bangs is the magic bullet to fix that. Bangs didn't make Lou Reed's "Take a Walk on the Wild Side" comprehensible to Ward and June Cleaver so much as he was the poetic glue that unified fans already listening to Reed's stuff. Even once they were all on the same wavelength, it still took years for rock to mature into the cultural force it is today.
As an interactive, ever-shifting medium, games defy easy description in ways other mediums, from rock music to movies, books, and architecture, don't. In addition to the obvious observation that a game like Titan Quest plays differently for everyone who picks it up, at least one critic has pointed out that games — the good ones, anyway — routinely take between 10-50 hours to complete, where movies and albums cost critics all of an hour or two. Can anyone imagine Roger Ebert — who stuck his swollen thumb in gamers' eyes when he infamously declared that "games aren't art" — drooling through a 50-plus hour, extra-special director's cut of Spielberg's Munich? Not bloody likely.
Klosterman's probably not going to find gaming's voice flipping the pages of popular mags like Electronic Games Monthly, where too frequently the passions of an otherwise talented staff are wasted on nugget-sized reviews packed with wannabe juvenile hipness. Even Gamespot.com, the New York Times of gaming journalism, takes an approach that's almost too serious to convey the disorienting, visceral vertigo of playing a shooter like the recent Prey. (Bangs, remember, modeled his drug-addled prose on the beat poets, not the AP Stylebook.)
But there's good stuff out there that captures the experience of gaming, well beyond the bonehead boundaries of "Is it worth buying?" Take a closer look at the genre-bending vibe in "Tom Vs. Bruce," a monthly column in Computer Gaming World in which two of the best game writers out there log their way through multiplayer throwdowns of games like The Sims 2 and Star Wars: Empires at War.
Gaming is moving along the same trajectory as rock music did, even if it faces different challenges on the pixelated road to greater cultural meaning. Beautiful words can help us get there, but ultimately, it's the gamers who must decide if the reward of cultural respectability is worth the risk of sacrificing their insular culture.