Critics who write so everybody can understand everything are actually engaging in a kind of ventriloquism -- working as their own dummies. They are pretending to know less than they do. But critics who write for other critics are hardly more honest, since they are sending a message to millions that only hundreds will understand. It's a waste of postage.
Ever since I wrote "Do readers want intelligent games criticism? Do writers?" I've been fighting this nagging feeling that I got something fundamentally wrong. There were some good points in there, and the question of why so many published writers need a blog to express their "true" voices is one that deserves an answer. But I didn't answer it. And I didn't get to the heart of the matter.
The fact is, there is plenty of intelligent games criticism out there. Academics like Henry Jenkins and James Paul Gee crank out serious, high-minded looks at the mechanics of games that have nothing to do with assigning a "fun factor" and everything to do with expanding our pereceptions of what games are and what they can do. Guys like Ian Bogost and Simon Carless are on the front lines every day pushing for serious, independent games -- and game criticism. These may not be the most visible writers around, but they're not hard to find. And they're doing important work.
What they're not doing, though, is writing for a general audience. They're not producing great essays that stand alone. And that's true of most of the best videogame writers I can think of.
Don't misunderstand: Everyone I've mentioned, and everyone I'm discussing by inference, does great, valuable (even invaluable) work. I'm just saying that they're writing for a niche audience. You have to care about games before you can appreciate what they're doing. You have to know and understand things about video games that 99% of gamers will never think about. Think of them as the garage band that inspires the next generation of platinum-selling artists. They're helping to shape what we'll all be playing down the road.
But what happens when game critics do write for a general audience? Yesterday, I spotlighted what I thought was some shoddy workmanship in an IGN review. Perhaps it was a little unfair to engage in that kind of drive-by criticism, so let me expand a bit.
IGN does a great many useful things for your average gamer. They deliver truckloads of previews, reviews, screenshots, videos, and news on a daily basis. They do that well. What they don't do is write compelling criticism. And why should they? That's not their charge. It's also not where the revenue is. The last thing on their minds ought to be advancing game criticism as its own art form. They'd probably end up alienating their core audience.
The problem here is the lack of separation between video games as a medium, and criticism of video games as a medium. What we still lack are the critics who can split the difference that Roger Ebert talks about in the epigraph to this post. No one has ever bridged that gap quite like the man himself. I don't need to be interested in a movie he's reviewing to want to read his review. I read Ebert, and I come away enlightened and entertained -- just as when I watch a good movie, or play a good game.
Where's the middle ground? Where's the thoughtful, incisive criticism that is nevertheless accessible to a general audience? Where are the game reviews that are worth reading on their own merits? They're out there. I've lauded the work of Tom Chick before, and I think he comes the closest to what I'm talking about. The Escapist sometimes does, too.
As usual, it's easy to identify a problem without offering a solution, or even -- as I just did -- pretending that extant solutions aren't sufficient. Ultimately, my aim is selfish. I love to play games. I love to read. I want to be able to love reading about games.