7/20/06

 An Analytical Discussion of the Industry, Culture, Progress and Nature of Video Games.

Chuck Klosterman, Lester Bangs, and the Demands of Journalism (Gaming or Otherwise)

[Hello all. I had intended to write something witty and biting about Chuck Klosterman's Lester Bangs article, and the response to that article, at the time that this issue still had some relevance. But I had made a bunch of postings about it on 1up and thought better of it for fear of repeating myself and not adding anything interesting. However, after Klosterman/Bangs came up again . . . and again, and again, and again, I was getting cranky, and I'm a better writer when I'm cranky, so I cobbled together my postings, expanded things a bit, and decided to sneak it onto the site, so you could peruse it at your leisure. Hope you enjoy. -Aa]

A short while ago, writer Chuck Klosterman published in Esquire magazine the now (in)famous article "The Lester Bangs of Video Games" in which he basically asserts that video game journalism is in a poor underdeveloped state, using as the article's driving theme the idea that gaming does not yet have a Lester Bangs or other critic/poet to promote and elevate the form. He ends with the warning that if this critic/poet doesn't show up, then video games will be doomed to be commodities, and unsung as art.

The problems with his assertions are many. Oh man, are they many.

First off is Klosterman's odd idea of what journalism is, or at least what he thinks it should be in the video game industry. He, like too many magazine writers, have so idealized Bangs and Hunter S. Thompson and a few others in that constellation of New Journalism writers that they can't think about their work critically or with any kind of an honest perspective. Undeniably, they were insightful and important, but a beat reporter for a daily newspaper who has to build his articles out of hard fact and solid reportage (and can't go on flights of poetic fancy or risk losing his credibility) might find Bangs' work (and the work of the hundreds of Bangs clones that have filled all those issues of Rolling Stone with awful celebrity-palaver) to be essay or criticism at best, and self-indulgent and masturbatory at worst. To call it journalism in some ways demeans the idea of journalism. Understand that there is nothing inherently wrong with experiential essays about games or music or politics, and Joan Didion, for example, is a writer associated with New Journalism who has combined factual analysis with narrative and essay brilliantly. But for Chuck Klosterman to mourn video games' lack of a poetic muse seems kind of silly. There are people doing good journalism in the games industry as we speak. If you want to talk about journalism, I'll bring up as an example Dan Hsu's willingness to ask tough questions of Peter Moore, or anything Luke Smith has been doing for the past few months. Chuck Klosterman is basically cranky that we're not pretentious or unoriginal enough, or, basically, doing what he's doing.

Furthermore, Klosterman seems ignorant of how video games work. He, like most writers I've read who don't know video games but feel cocky enough to make proclamations about them, wants games where you can change plots and endings and do all the things games have promised but have so far been unable to deliver. But as John Davison, and 1up Yours et al observed, even the most open ended games have plots that basically run on rails. Klosterman is unable to separate plot and gameplay in his analysis, but most gamers I know take that separation as a gimmie.

To get back to the Bangs: As much Mr. Klosterman would like to think he's making a probing and original point, wondering why there's no Lester Bangs is akin to the "Citizen Kane" question that always haunts discussions about the larger meaning of video games. Games, and writing about games, are currently immature, and I don't mean immature to mean childish (though the excess of emoticons and dearth of punctuation doesn't help) but simply undeveloped. When Klosterman uses a phrase like "significance of potentiality" (which is basically meaningless without context and is probably only slightly meaningful with context) and we all have to clumsily fumble with language to talk about our very visceral gut-level enjoyment and love of video games, it shows we don't have the vocabulary to talk about this stuff yet. And, if you remember the flaming Mr. Hsu received for his asking tough questions, you'll see that the audience might not be ready for it yet either. I admire 1up.com and some other sites for trying and experimenting in the attempt, and I think, by their efforts, we will have the vocabulary and language that properly addresses video games eventually, but to demand poetry from games or reviews in an industry that hasn't reached it's 40th birthday yet is more than a little premature.

Another problem (and I'm having a grand old time doing this) is the idea (and Klosterman isn't alone in this mistake of snobbery) that one type of criticism is more elevated or free from commercial implications than another. Or, to put it plainly: Movie, theater, book, or art reviews are declarations of a work's quality and importance while game reviews, right now, are merely buyer's guides. While I agree that game reviews are basically buyers guides, the same could be said of any form of pop criticism. Roger Ebert may have won a Pulitzer, and Michiko Kakutani may prolix up her book reviews like a living thesaurus, but they're writing buyer's guides as much as G4 is. They're just pretentious about it. Any non-academic critic, while trying to put something poetic or transcendent into their writing (and it's good that they do and game reviewers should do the same), are still basically saying "you should spend your money on this" when they write a good review, and "don't waste your time" when they write a bad one. Game reviews are just more plain about it because, as I've said before and as I'll say again, the form isn't as developed.

Please understand that I, and more importantly, the actual video game journalists who are out there working are probably quite aware that the problems they face right now are legion, running from the excessive power of the industry over news outlets to the fragmentation of the news outlets themselves. But this is just the beginning, and there are good writers and journalists forcing in the necessary changes as I am typing these very words. Some perspective: I used to own a ratty red-covered paperback entitled "Film as Art," a translated 1960's reprint of a book written in German in the 1910's about the potential for film to have artistic substance and merit. The writer mentions how, in reaction to the public's growing interest in this young medium, many critics had been dismissive, saying it could never elicit the emotional depths that painting, poetry, or novels did. It was an immature form, they said, best suited for amusement and little else. The writer of "Film as Art", while taking great pains to show his enthusiasm for this new form and it's potential, could only grope at certain ideas we take for granted now. He mentions how, in one film that took place in a prison, the lead character's prisoner number on his uniform was shown before his face was, symbolizing how he had been dehumanized. A film goer catches this symbolism almost subliminally now, understanding that because film can be art, certain aspects of film can have meanings deeper than just the images that are projected onto the screen. If I were to rather awkwardly force the advent of video games into film's timeline, I'd say we're right around when this book was written. We all have this dawning sense that this new form could have powers of art and expression that we can't quite fathom, potentials that we don't know how to reach, meanings that we can't quite decipher. But still, we know they are there. And we, as lovers of games and play, want very badly to get at them, and show the world what we knew all along. We're working on it. And I'm glad I'm around to see it happen.