You Guys Are So Defensive

Call of Duty: Black Ops

Good afternoon, everyone. Reading through several of the other responses, I realized something was bothering me, though I couldn’t isolate just what it was. When I woke up this morning, I had figured it out: You guys are so defensive. From Tom’s attack on Black Ops to John’s quest for the “new new thing” to Chris’s fear that maybe he doesn’t really like games at all, what I hear is a concern—genuine, I’m sure—that perhaps video games aren’t as serious or innovative as they could or should be. What I hear is a concern that if games don’t continually reinvent themselves or become generally more serious or realistic, they won’t be taken seriously by a larger public whose respect they ought to crave. This is not a rare phenomenon. People who play games have long seemed to embrace a certain sort of self-loathing about themselves and their hobby. And that has led to a desire to prove something, to show the world, Hey, we’re important. There are quite a few books these days, not just Tom’s, that take as their mission the demonstration of “Why Games Matter.” There are essays, not just John’s, that plainly try to justify or exculpate games in the mind of a reader who presumably looks down at them. There are plenty of reviews, not just Chris’s, that chase the straw man (or is that the red herring?) of whether “games are art.”All of you seem to spend so much energy defending and justifying and explaining games as a serious intellectual pursuit that perhaps you have lost sight of that fact that games are supposed to be fun. That it is OK for media and even art to be entertaining. I believe that games will truly arrive only when their practitioners and patrons get their chips off their shoulders. Dispensing with that attitude has allowed me to stop holding every game (like Black Ops) accountable for maintaining the presumed respectability and esteem some players and writers seem so eager for. Here’s what I mean. When I first started writing about games for the paper six years ago, a very senior editor told me to approach the job like a foreign correspondent. “You’re going into this world that none of us understand,” he said, “and your job is to come back and explain it to the rest us.” At that point, we were in justification mode, and so I did a whole bunch of stories that basically had as their subtext, Hey look, video games aren’t so weird and gamers themselves aren’t so weird. Please stop hating. If Black Ops had come out and been the top game of, say, 2005 or 2006, I would have had much the same reaction that Tom had. I would have been so concerned that Black Ops made games look frivolous and unable to grapple with The Big Issues that I probably would have felt the need to distance myself and the rest of the industry from it with terms like loathsome. But a few years ago, right around when I started writing criticism most of the time, something very important changed. I had written some line favorably comparing some aspect of a game to films or television (because that is what you do when you are in justification mode), and another senior editor said to me: “Seth, you don’t have to be defensive anymore. You don’t have to explain games in terms of other media anymore and try to justify gaming’s popularity and impact. It makes you, and us, look small.”And so we don’t feel the need anymore to justify why we run game reviews right next to reviews of books, films, opera, ballet, television, music, and visual art. Merely by running game reviews in our culture sections, we show how we feel. What that has done is liberate me to enjoy games even when they are being “gamey,” as opposed to trying to deliver verisimilitude. It has freed me to like games that are silly and over-the-top and bombastic and visceral rather than thoughtful and serious and realistic and heavy. Serious topics require serious treatment? Really? See, I don’t worry anymore that Black Ops’s Bond-ian approach to the Cold War makes games look bad. I was thrilled just to go along for the ride because I accept it for what it is: escapist mass interactive entertainment, of which it is a superb example. Chris, I don’t worry anymore about which games would impress the aliens— or Roger Ebert, for that matter. Instead, I worry about which games are going to provide meaning and entertainment (though not necessarily at the same time) for both everyday consumers and longtime players. In fact, right around the time when the Supreme Court announced that it would take the California video-game regulation case, I suggested that a court clerk bring in a copy of Nier, probably the “gamiest” of this year’s top games. Nier revels in video-game conventions (almost every one of them you can imagine, in fact) rather than trying to hide them. And yet that never obscures the game’s story and characters. But I think I understand why so much writing about games, including here, feels so protective and worried. After all, while Slate lists its dialogues about film and television under “Arts,” this here Gaming Club is still categorized as “Business & Tech.”So perhaps games have not quite arrived everywhere yet. (In my next and final entry I’ll dive into nitty-gritty re-evaluations of some of the year’s high-profile games, including Mass Effect 2, StarCraft II, and Medal of Honor. I’ll also talk about why my personal gaming is almost solely online.)

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