Warren Spector’s article searching for games’ Roger Ebert has certainly sparked discussion, but I don’t think it’s the sort of discussion he had intended. While there’s been a fair bit of talk about the nature of Ebert as a media figure that could never be replicated today and about the validity and necessity of “legitimizing” games in pop culture, the piece has also spurred a lot of sullen introspection from the people who *do* write criticism, including myself.
Games criticism is bigger than you’d think, at least in terms of the number of people who create it. Check out any number of sites that specialize in aggregating it – Critical Distance, Medium Difficulty, Border House, Re/Action, and more. Not to mention countless one-off blogs, Tumblrs, and YouTube videos. There are even wonderful pieces occasionally posted to more mainstream sites like Rock Paper Shotgun and Kotaku. There’s always room for growth and improvement, but what’s there is nothing to scoff at. The problem isn’t that game critics like these (and many, many more I don’t have the space to mention) aren’t making fantastic work. Game criticism exists, and it’s varied and plentiful and already doing more to shape how we view games than most people probably know.
But there’s absolutely no market for it. None. And that’s where a lot of the anxiety and frustration with Spector’s statements come from within the critical community. He asks why critics aren’t on TV and aren’t in major publications while the critics themselves are trying to figure out just how to feed themselves with their work. A lot of these anxieties were nicely articulated by Maddy Myers on her blog. It’s not that people writing about games strive for obscurity; everyone writing these pieces hopes to have as many people read them as possible. But there’s no money in it – no career path for us to follow, no success stories to inspire us, no rules about how to ‘make it’ or even the vaguest notion of what ‘making it’ looks like. Games criticism happens, but it happens because people barely scraping by and people putting in tons of extra hours refuse to let it not happen.
Some of this ties into the larger picture of journalism as a whole, obviously – newspapers are dying and no one knows how to make words profitable anymore. It feels at times like they’re simply too ubiquitous; charging people for words feels about as possible as charging people for air. And in a society that’s come to embrace the illusion of discussion more than illuminating discourse, we don’t value structure or ideas as much as we value snark and brevity. News networks refocus on entertainment news and top 10 lists as they grow ever more indistinguishable from Buzzfeed, and people who write substantively about complex things are pushed to the wayside.
But just as much of it seems to be cultural. The game playing public just isn’t interested in reading meaningful criticism, and the non-game playing public is even less so. Look at the Re/Action funding campaign, created to give contributors to the site a flat $200 fee per article. Their expenses are clearly documented and the site itself has three months worth of fantastic articles about games from all sorts of perspectives already up to demonstrate their capability. And yet it’s struggling to meet their funding goals. Major gaming news sites (often eager to post or summarize the latest Kickstarters for games themselves) have largely ignored it. What should be heralded as an attempt to create a criticism-focused publication dedicated to appropriately compensating authors (an embarrassingly novel concept) is instead being met with indifference from a public eager to consume regurgitated press releases at IGN.
And this impacts me, too. People ask why I don’t make more videos or write more essays on this site, and every time I have to point out – this is by necessity a hobbyist venture done in my off hours and on weekends. I’ve run the numbers; there’s no way to make Errant Signal profitable in its own right. I would love – love – to figure out how to make this a full time gig. But what would that even look like? What does a full time critic do in the modern age? What is the business model that would support even one person dedicating themselves full-time to writing criticism? It clearly isn’t in a publication, and no one wants to actually (God forbid) pay for content on the internet. Even the voices Spector references as being the most notable either have full-time gigs as editors at major publications like Stephen Totilo, do massive amounts of freelance writing like Leigh Alexander, or are professors like Ian Bogost who write criticism as an extension of their academic pursuits. Criticism exists, certainly. But do full-on, full-time game critics that earn a living wage exist?
And that, to me, is a bigger problem than not having an Ebert to act as PR for the legitimacy of games. We’ve created a culture that pushes criticism into hiding. We don’t support it – with our attention or with our money. Critical pieces take time, research, effort, and dedication. They take far more hours to make than a simple review and end up appealing to a far smaller audience. Without cultural buy-in and without a monetization strategy that works, criticism will remain hidden from pretty much everyone. Spector wants criticism to be massively consumed – I’d settle for it to be massively sustained.
We already have a lot of fantastic critics and a lot of fantastic criticism. And we get more voices, approaches, and styles every single day. We do everything from cultural criticism to deconstructions of games to lived experience pieces to inventive readings of mechanics and stories. But that’s only happening because people are passionate and willing to dedicate large portions of themselves to this sort of work. And for an entire industry/medium/artform/whatever to want its play taken seriously but is unwilling to support criticism as anything more than a hobby, well… honestly we’re currently getting far better criticism than we deserve.