Experienced Points: The Ebert of Videogames

 By Shamus Jul 30, 2013 36 comments

A few weeks ago Warren Spector had an article asking there the “Ebert of Videogames” is. Chris wrote this in response, and Spector then followed up with a comment. On his blog.

Which means that Warren Spector commented on Chris’ blog. Which is fine. I mean, I’m not jealous. It’s great. I’m happy for Chris. Good for him. I’m fine. Everything’s fine.

Anyway, this week’s column is a response to that, and also has some thoughts on the whole unfortunate Beer and Fish controversy.

If you want to comment on Beer & Fish, you might want to wait until later today. The podcast will be up soon, and in that we discuss the whole thing in detail.


201636 comments. Hurry up and add yours before it becomes passé.


  1. TouToTheHouYo says:

    If only we had a fellow by the name of Chips involved in the Twitter tirade then we’d have ourselves a full meal.

    Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a sudden and inexplicable craving for seafood and alcohol.

  2. DerekTheViking says:

    A good piece, and very provocative – posted as it was on The Escapist, a site which was founded to serve the very audience that you ask for. The implication being, I suppose, that if The Escapist could not expand to provide a platform for gaming’s Ebert, then who might? You seem to be in a prime position to judge the size of such an audience, as you have surrounded yourself with, produce yourself, and follow many other producers of the form of work which many might look at as the New (Ebert-style) Game Criticism.

    Like Spector, I believe that time may be the first thing that is required. The idea that a game may represent anything beyond a collection of rules to provide entertaining or educational conflict is still a relatively new one to the general population; games even as a simple narrative medium are novel in the grand scale of things. The first generation who have grown up with computer games are now at an age where they can influence cultural conversations, but it might not be until the generation where the majority of people have experience with computer games becomes dominant that the cultural relevance of games is taken as a given, and insight through their virtual lenses sought out by the majority.

    In which form might this first come? This is possibly the most difficult question. I would pose that due to the fractured nature of online content, few people will stumble across game criticism unless they are searching for it; most of those that do stumble across it will be young, with more free time and (arguably) more desire for discovery. This may push the timeline back even further.

    That is, unless the subject can be approached by someone with universal appeal – a born writer, with an uncanny knack for remembering pertinent information and linking it into the current piece in a satisfying and complete way. One who is able to approach his or her favourite subject (in this case video games, but to conjure a picture, let us imagine it is history), and educate and inform the reader about it from the perspective of a discoverer (such as in a travel essay).

    What I am basically saying, then, is that what we need may not be a Roger Ebert. It may, in fact, be a Bill Bryson.

    • MichaelG says:

      The original Ebert comment that games could not be art is kind of ridiculous taken literally. I mean there are canvases in museums that are just a bunch of bright rectangles. If that’s art, of course video games are art.

      It’s even more ridiculous when you consider that Ebert liked movies like “The Polar Express”, which are completely computer generated and have all the emotional appeal of a dull video game. That movie IS a video game, just without the interactivity.

      Still, I don’t think “serious” critics can find much to work with in video games. You need more of an artistic slant, more different genres and a longer history to really do the kind of comparisons that critics do. The field is still too young to attract critics. It’s like comic books in the 50s still. It wasn’t until later, as more ambitious comics got written, that critics took the whole field seriously. And even now, a comic book critic wouldn’t be taken as seriously as a book or movie critic.

      The other big problems is how difficult games are to make. A book reviewer has some idea of what it takes to write a book, and might even have taken a stab at it himself. A movie reviewer can see movies being made and understand the decisions that go into it. He could even have been involved in making a movie.

      Game development is almost completely closed to reviewers who aren’t techies. “Indie Game: The Movie” talks to indie developers, but can you imagine a film maker poking around at a large game company and trying to get a feel for the development process? Other than some story-boarding or art concept meetings, most of it is going to be very hard to follow. The programming will just be mind-numbing to your average reviewer.

      So I don’t think we’re going to get attention from serious critics any time soon.

  3. Akri says:

    “Do people want to talk about kinesthetics, ludonarrative dissonance, narrative mechanics, gamification, and power creep?”

    That’s an emphatic “yes” from me, and probably from most others here as well.

    This is making me think of a TED talk given by Heather Dale about the issues of having a non-mainstream, non-centralized audience. The issue isn’t that there aren’t people interested in what you’re interested in, the issue is finding them.

    Edit: and since this comment is near the top, and thus has a chance of being seen, is anyone else noticing a problem where the background will “stutter” (moving up and down or side to side)? It only happens occasionally, but it’s incredibly annoying when it does.

  4. Sabredance (MatthewH) says:

    There’s a line in the philosophy of science: “Theories don’t out-argue their opponents, they outlive them.” I wonder if something similar happens in art criticism for good or ill. Games are taken more seriously than they were 20 years ago. I would think that is, in part, because we’ve had 20 years of gaming to raise up generations of people who play games, and who talk about games. Movie criticism didn’t spring whole from Edison’s lab, after all. It took a while.

    And anyway, our host likes to talk about games, and we like to talk about games with him, and we get to do it all the time -which is way cooler than a one-off blog comment.

    • Griffin says:

      Agreed. It took movies over a hundred years to get a Roger Ebert. Asking for one when video games are not even half of that seems a little impatient. Seems like the more important goal is ‘have civilized disagreements’ so that when we do get a voice that non-gamers like to listen to they might actually want to be a part of the gaming community.

  5. Adam says:

    You missed a stellar chance to comment on the fact that it is unlikely that Beers and Fish will not likely be buying each other beers or fish any time soon.

  6. Felblood says:

    Nobody should comment on Beer and Fish, ever.

    The whole thing is stupid and not only does it get more stupid the more we dwell on it, we all become stupider as well.

    • Is that what happened when all these smart people chimed in on the topic?

      It boggles my mind when readers of analytic stuff (like Twenty Sided) make broad strokes statements with no backing. It’s not that you shouldn’t call the situation stupid- I just have no idea why you think that, so there’s no discussion to be had.

      It also makes you sound angry. Don’t be angry! <3

      • Felblood says:

        These guys are behaving like two year olds– throwing a tantrum and saying the no-no words for attention.

        The only meaningful take away from this entire incident is that people who behave like that should be ignored, or they will flood the entire internet with their piss and bile.

        Fie upon them!

  7. Primogenitor says:

    I wonder if the “Ebert of Video games” might be outside of the written word. Web comics can be very accessible to “outsiders” e.g. how XKCD gets shared around outside of regular readers via Facebook et al. But perhaps 4-panel comics are not sufficient to constructively discuss ludonarative dissonance.

    • Tizzy says:

      I don’t think “written word” is to be taken as written *only* in that context. Xkcd is certainly written, and Campster mentions writing as a big part of the work when making commentary video.

      Whatever the final form of the product, some writing is involved, and it’s undoubtedly the critical portion of the commentary.

  8. Sean Riley says:

    Not sure I completely agree with this line.

    Before the internet, Beer’s comments would have been filtered through an editor, who might have encouraged the man to show some maturity and professionalism in a public venue.

    I’m reminded of Gore Vidal and William Buckley’s debates, in which the former called the latter a ‘crypto-facist’ and the latter replied by calling the former “a goddamned queer”. Sure, it’s not quite on the ‘kill yourself’ level, but there’s been plenty of ill advised sniping, poorly considered words and gestures all over the place in mass media.

    • Quite so! I took issue with the implication as well. Other mediums have their fair share of ill-advised public conversations. However, the turn-around time on these quips is shorter than ever. It’s not that people are getting worse, or that the game industry attracts worse people than other industries, but that as the ease of communication increases, our danger from visibly making embarrassing statements increases as well.

      There has always been biting gossip and slander. Mass media enabled it as a public spectator sport, and the internet has allowed everyone to participate as players. In that sense, it’s no surprise. Gamers gonna game.

  9. Tizzy says:

    The column does not mention the issue of access. Would the Ebert of videogames need any kind of privileged insider information in order to be effective? Be able to talk to producers, programmers and writers? Or would it be better (purer?) for him or her to have the same level of access as a random gamer?

    • The Rocketeer says:

      That’s a chicken/egg question.

      We’ve come to expect a lack of objectivity from people who have been given inside information by publishers, developers, and industry sausagemakers because that access tends to come with lots of strings attached. They have the liberty of attaching these strings because they see game journos as scum-sucking nobodies who should be ecstatic to have any access to their games, and if one of them doesn’t want to play ball, a single keystroke can replace them with a dozen more who are more amenable.

      What we’re asking for is someone who has such reputation and gravitas in the industry that they can’t simply be excluded and replaced like a light bulb. It’s one thing to hear that scum-sucking nobody #1,452 didn’t want to play ball and was turned away from an early look. We hear about that already, and we harrumph and get on with our day. It would be quite another to hear, “They tried to make Video Games Ebert sell-out for them, and when they wouldn’t, they cut him out of the deal.” We’re asking for someone that insiders would want to give access without terms, because their word on their product would be accepted by industry scorekeepers and gawping outsiders alike as reasonable, justified and informed by an impeccable command of perspective and experience. We’re asking for someone for whom that kind of access is taken for granted, because they are an industry oak, a figure which must be because they just always have been, the way people like me never really knew a time when Roger Ebert wasn’t sawing on about films like the old hand he was.

      Now, you tell me, how do we get that figure we want and need while the first group is still around? Where is that first group going to go without some individual surpassing them and making them gauche and obsolete?

  10. postinternetsyndrome says:

    “It was a mean, ugly, and highly personal exchange and not the type of thing that ever took place in public media in the pre-internet days.”

    While certainly more true than it is false, the above statement is not without exceptions. Swedish author August Strindberg was part of an extended and at times quite nasty row between several people, that played out in the debate pages (is there a special word for this?) in the newspapers over the course of several years.

    (Don’t know any good English sources but an account in Swedish is available here: http://litteraturbanken.se/#!presentationer/specialomraden/Strindbergsfejden.html)

    On the main subject though, I quite agree, as usual. Something that pains me is that many mainstream newspapers in Sweden has started having games coverage (on the scale of like, one page once a week or every other week or so), but are wasting what little space they get with contentless reviews when they could use their clout to actually say something interesting about games. These pages could potentially be that coveted portal into the mainstream, but they are squandering the opportunity by trying to do exactly the same thing as the enthusiast press, but in 1/80 of the space, resulting in pointless ink and wasted paper.

  11. The Ebert of Videogames is Shamus Young.

  12. Rili says:

    Interestingly you went for actors as the celebrity face of movies in the public eye. Of course we also have very famous directors in the movie world, but actors seem to outrank them quite a bit in matters of celebrity.
    So that raises the question how that fits with gaming.
    Will we get dragged even more into the mainstream as soon as Kristen Bell has an affair with Orlando Bloom doing mocap work for Modern Warfighter: Gunshooter Chronicles? Is what we are lacking to be on TV a gallery of beautiful faces to talk about before we can sell networks on more high brow material about gaming?

    • The Rocketeer says:

      It’s the same reason everyone knows who the singer is in a band even if they don’t know anyone else. The actors are the folks whom we personally associate with film because we see them up there on the big screen acting and stuff.

      Video games has that, too; people get excited about icons like Mario and Master Chief and Jiub. For obvious reasons, they just don’t really provide a constant stream of mundane activity for fanatics to obsess over, which is how actors maintain fame, for better or for worse.

  13. Taellosse says:

    I’m not altogether sure that games will start to approach the mainstream acceptance they already had by the time Ebert came on the scene for another few years yet. He wasn’t a big deal in the mainstream consciousness until the late 70s, and film had already been around as a medium, to varying degrees, for 60 years by then. Video games are over a decade younger than that still, and depending on where you draw the line on them being at all mainstream, a good deal less.

    I think games, as an entertainment medium, are only barely beginning to get to the same point that movies were by 1975 – there are a few games out there that are starting to aspire to be meaningful art, instead of merely popular entertainment (please note that only a minority of any artistic medium is ever really “meaningful art.” Most is simply entertainment, and that’s fine too), and I think we’re still a few years away from them achieving the same degree of acceptance movies had by 1980.

    Keep in mind that, despite the accelerated pace of culture today, people still age at the same rate, more or less, and have kids roughly as fast – and this kind of thing is always a generational shift, as the people that grew up with a thing become adults and become makers and commentators, rather than just consumers. The first generation that grew up with games are adults with kids now, but they were a minority of their age group. It’s the people in their late teens to early 20s now that were the first to grow up in a world where most of their peers also played games, to a greater or lesser degree. In another 5-15 years, they’ll be moving into and through their 30s, and the baby boomers will mostly be in retirement. That’s when the real shift can be expected.

    • Atarlost says:

      The mistake is, perhaps, in talking about [i]video[/i]-games. Some of the more complicated board games have things to say and some pen and paper RPG modules are close to being interactive novels.

      These give a significantly longer span to gaming. Potentially thousands of years as I think the oldest extant board game is ancient Egyptian.

  14. Warren Spector says:

    Hi, Warren Spector here.

    I obviously love you more. <3 <3 <3

    (I kid. Please don’t ban this IP!) :)

  15. The problem with being the “Ebert” of videogames is that there is no longer even an Ebert of movie reviews. The ability of a person to have a dominant voice in an area has really taken a dive because of all the outlets and the decline of newspapers and network television.

    There have been runs at dominant review groups, but none of them have succeeded in creating and keeping space over any long period of time. What would it have taken for a group, such as PC Gamer, to have done that or a more “mainstream” magazine such as PC World or Byte (may it rest in peace) to have established a columnist that did that, well we’ve had that discussion about why some have failed.

    “Marcus Beer called out Phil Fish” — ok, so some people have too much money and not enough hunger to keep working. Not like other people in real day time jobs don’t get negative feedback from customers and others. So Fish feels privileged. I have very little patience with people who put themselves out as media personalities, and then complain about things. http://www.gametrailers.com/full-episodes/roj70m/invisible-walls-everything-and-the-kitchen-sink really caught the way an outside adult might see things.

  16. SteveDJ says:

    I wonder if part of the problem is: Movie critics generally are able to view the film early, such that their written review/column/whatever is available BEFORE the film is released. So of course people will flock to read it — perhaps, maybe even pay for it?

    But game critics don’t have that luxury. By the time they get their copy, and go through it, and then write about it, the bulk of potential readers have already gotten the game, or heard good/bad comments from friends, etc. So the market for readers is much lower.

    I would think that if a game critic could write about a game, and publish that column, BEFORE the release (even by just a few days), there would be a LOT of readers — and yes, perhaps some would even pay for it. Until something (anything) is released, lots of people just crave every morsel you give them, including a review.

  17. shrikezero says:

    For the record, Shamus is as close to an Ebert of Games as I have read anywhere. That said, his reviews are not the kind of reviews that will woo the non-game playing masses. Shamus is good at helping the reader understand the how and what of why we like/dislike certain aspects of games. In that way, he is very much like Ebert. However, in order to explain the things he does, Shamus has to delve into a wide range of disciplines that are unique to games. Games simply have many more moving parts than movies.

    Shamus and others have pointed out how difficult (often impossible) it is to compare games from one genre to the next. In movies, no matter the genre there are the same technical and dramatic elements that drive the narrative and your reactions to it.

    Games are so varied in their technology and structure that they become their own cultures with their own languages.

    It might be better to phrase it this way:

    Video Games from two different genres are as different from each other as Movies are from Go-Karts.

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