The problem with ‘intelligent’ video game writing

A few months before Killscreen Magazine opened its doors, a good friend, Theon Weber, and I discussed starting a blog dedicated to intellectual writing/discussions of video games. After reaching out to a few other writers, we ultimately decided against it because he primarily plays older games, and neither of us really have the funds to invest in the amount of games needed to supply regular content (and given that video game developers are notoriously stingy with press copies, getting ample content would quickly become an issue). Obviously, we weren’t the only ones with this inclination as Killscreen popped up as the most prominent among a number of already-existent sites dedicated to the same goal, but unfortunately, none of them really get it right.

The objective of a lot of “intellectual” writing concerning video games is chiefly focused on one thing: proving that video games are an art form. But this is a non-starter: anyone who is seeking out intelligent writing about video games likely already accepts this idea as true or at least is not opposed to it. Perhaps more importantly, anyone who wants to write next-level content about video games should be bored with that concept; if you don’t believe video games are an art form, you shouldn’t be writing about video games in the first place.

The other common approach to video game writing is to compare aspects of the game (dialog, plot, graphics, etc) to real-world issues. Frankly, this is a method for dilettantes. Anyone can play Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 and make a real-world connection to the airport massacre scene. A more interesting discussion would be why you’re forced to walk through first half of the level. Wouldn’t you be a more effective death machine if you ran through the crowd of unarmed civilians spraying bullets recklessly and not allowing them to run away from you?

Too many critics try to work outward from the games when in reality, the most interesting things happening in video games–and the most intriguing content that people seeking intelligent writing are searching for–is self contained. Take for instance, Skyrim. Christopher Livingston, writing for PC Gamer, attempted to integrate his character into the world of Skyrim as an NPC (non-player character). Essentially, he aimed to play the game as a ho-hum, adventure-avoiding townsperson that just wanted to live a normal life, despite the game being designed to force you into action. He doesn’t attempt to make broad statements about society or argue that this makes the game art. He simply explored the constraints of the game and questioned why they existed.

Sandbox games are ripe for in-game criticism. The common refrain is that the more freedom you give players, the more restrictions also arise. Thus, you have the ability to test things like playing as an NPC. But similar self-contained questions can be asked about almost all games: identify a game’s restrictions and allowances and discuss why those exist and how they change the game. There’s enough video game history now that context exists within the industry. You don’t need to ask why there’s casual sexism in games (Kotaku) or how games are evolving into an everyday aspect of our lives (Killscreen).

Any critic can take a piece of work and compare it to broader society, especially with something that’s as expressive as game design. But video games deserve their own critics who are willing to talk about the structure, design, and attitudes of the games within the culture and history that they’ve been constructed. More importantly, discussions of the actual games are far more interesting than another regurgitated article about why the extensive collection of books in Skyrim or the beauty of any number of current generation games makes the game art.

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “The problem with ‘intelligent’ video game writing

  1. Where did you actually end up getting the points to create ““The problem with intelligent video game writing | The Modern Things”?
    I appreciate it ,Lucy

  2. I came up with the topic and evidence on my own through observations of other video game writing.

  3. Prashant

    Really enjoyed reading this. I agree completely. I’d love to do the kind of video-game writing that you are suggesting here, though I don’t know if I game enough to regularly contribute.

  4. Well, I don’t think EVERYONE interested in intelligent game discussion is exclusively interested in the “games as art” issue, at least not anymore. Granted – I am commenting almost 2 years after the fact, so things may have diversified since then.

    The real problem is that everyone thinks their issue is the one “intelligent” issue in gaming. The art games crowd tend to think “games as art” is the only intelligent topic in games, the “gaming sexism” crowd thinks that the only way to bring intelligence to gaming is through sex, race, and other social issues. Then you’ve got the “retro” crowd that thinks the only way to intelligently talk about games is to go back to old consoles or resurrect old game mechanics…so on and so forth.

    I am generalizing here obviously, but basically as different sites, blogs, and other corners of the community get stuck on one issue, a true “intelligent” perspective taking all things into account gets lost – intelligence becomes an excuse to exclude other perspectives rather than add more perspectives to our gaming “worldview”.

    And part of this probably has to do with the fact that there isn’t enough consensus about the true nature of games. In the effort to prove games can be “serious business”, so many advocate making games into “interactive cinema” or “interactive literature”, or a medium for social messages…which actually contradicts the idea that a pure game, for gaming’s sake, can be art or have intellectual value on its own.

    Personally I’d argue there isn’t nearly enough intelligent discussion of game mechanics, in and of themselves. So many people can blame developers like Activision or Nintendo for being greedy, pumping out sequels, and clinging too closely to their formulas, but they can’t actually articulate what’s wrong with their formulas which needs fixing, how anything would be fixed, or propose new innovative mechanical elements to be added.

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