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Citizen Kane, Ebert, And Gaming's Inferiority Complex

Is Warren Spector Art?

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I can’t believe we’re still having this goddamn discussion. 

I can’t believe I actually feel that it’s necessary for me to write this dumb article. I can’t believe that people are still arguing over what constitutes an “Ebert of Gaming” or a “Citizen Kane of Gaming” or a “Step Up 2 Fast 2 Furious XIII: Starring Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson And An Egregiously Sexualized Purple Smurf of Gaming”. I can’t believe people continue to name-drop these fairytales in hushed, reverent tones like they’re some kind of long-awaited Messiah. I can’t believe that Deus Ex creator Warren Spector is now one of those people.

Fuck this. Let’s set the record straight on gaming’s insipid inferiority complex once and for all. 

Now, forgive me if I’m wrong, but I’m pretty sure that the gaming industry isn’t the film industry. Can we agree on that? Please? I mean, last time I checked we didn’t have letters on a mountain somewhere, so sorry folks. Guess we’re just gonna have to be different. Damn shame, that.

The problem with gaming’s incessant desire to be just like big brother Hollywood is multifarious and exceedingly annoying – like a thousand-headed hydra puffing away on an equal number of vuvuzelas. Have games or games criticism earned a place in the rarefied pantheon of unanimously beloved “mainstream” art? No, not really. Would it be cool if we had a Citizen Kane or, as Warren Spector suggests, an Ebert? I guess so.

But everyone waiting for those shining beacons of cultural acceptance to descend from on-high utterly fails to understand two key points: 1) in this day and age, creating direct analogs to those landmarks is actually impossible, and 2) games and games criticism are in the midst of a renaissance. An unstoppable explosion of evolution and creativity. The formation of an identity that is, frankly, far more exciting than film. Why aren’t we championing that to everyone with (or without) ears? Why are we instead breathlessly awaiting the day our medium suddenly and inexplicably conforms to somebody else’s standard?

It’s basically astounding. I just… I can’t even… arrrrrghhh.

Ahem. Let’s start with point one. Somewhat recently, humankind invented this thing called The Internet. It’s mostly for cat pictures and hyper-detailed instructional videos about how to remove clothing, but we also occasionally use it to host every other word, thought, video, idea, and piece of information in existence. Oh, games too. Our lives sizzle and pop with information overload. Millions of voices. A never-ending news cycle. New games – and articles and videos and macaroni sculptures about games – every second. In short, there’s just too much for one standout to rise that far above the rest. To define a whole medium for decades to come.

And that’s fantastic! Film “grew up” during a time where – due to the way media was created and distributed – its mainstream boundaries were rather rigidly defined. I mean, there’s a reason that both Citizen Kane and Ebert earned their gleaming pedestals eons ago. Games and the discussion surrounding them, however, can be so, so, so much more, because they’re growing in every imaginable direction right now. At this point, even the idea of “mainstream” culture at large is in flux, with dinosaurs like TV, theaters, print publications, and traditional ads dying out to make way for blogs, YouTube, social media, and the like. “Authoritative” voices are falling by the wayside in favor of diversity and variety. More, more, more, more. And just as YouTube means anyone can make a movie, tools like Unity, GameMaker, and Twine ensure that anybody can create a game.

We’re finally on the cusp of discovering our own way. Our own identity. Hollywood found its all-time greats and then promptly got stuck in a horrible rut. Gaming’s strength right now is that it’s a lawless, untamed, beautiful Wild West. Frankly, I don’t want a single, looming Citizen-Kane-type entity. Not in this day and age. That would mean that, somewhere along the way, we hit a dead end. Something standardized the formula.

What I’m saying is, our most creative, interesting works can be our mainstream. Or at least, a major part of it. We don’t have to be the next Hollywood.

Millions of voices are creating the language of games and games criticism instead of playing with a limited palette provided by a privileged few. We have indies of all shapes, sizes, colors, and goals. We have a triple-A scene that’s finally starting to value them . We have games on every mobile, console, and in-between platform imaginable. We have big websites with huge reaches and smaller, more thoughtful publications like Critical Distance, re/Action, and The Border House. We have YouTubers and people who stream so much that they’ve practically turned their lives into reality shows. We’re far from perfect and we still have tons of work to do, but goodness. Just look at all of that.

Somewhere in that whirling cacophony of creativity is our mainstream. Or the future of it, anyway. But it’s still growing, evolving, gesticulating. New developments are happening every day. For now, gaming’s potential is limitless.

That’s insane. That’s wildly exciting. It’s why I chose to dedicate my life to this medium and not, say, film, literature, or writing those awful jokes on Popsicle sticks (aka, my true calling). I love both Ebert and Citizen Kane, but our nano cyber hashtagged future world has passed them by. It’s great to aspire to heights of cultural relevance and impact (and by all means, let’s keep doing that), but are we really so insecure that we want someone else to show us the way? To cast a eclipsing shadow over us while condescendingly chortling, “Oh, so you finally retraced my footsteps? Haha, that’s adorable.”

It is hideously depressing to me that many of the gaming industry’s most vocal, noticeable personalities and creators – our loudest voices to any sort of outside culture – are so fixated on comparing everything to a bygone era while one of the most exciting, interesting artistic movements in history takes root right under their noses. We need those people to instead confidently draw attention to what the gaming industry is becoming, what it’s blossoming into. Celebrate the diverse lifeblood now pushing our medium to new heights. Love the journey – not some destination a very specific part of another creative medium reached decades ago.

Because I’m not sure if you know this, but games are really goddamn amazing, and everyone should know.

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Nathan Grayson

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