Are Videogames ReadyTo Be Taken Seriously By Media Reviewers?


The U.S. videogame industry today is larger than Hollywood's domestic box-office receipts and is closing in on music sales. Doesn't a sector that size deserve sophisticated mainstream critique, even academic study?

That's what industry boosters are saying. A call for a "third way" of game criticism, beyond jargon-filled reviews and advertorials, is being heard from a growing cadre of academics around the world who themselves have begun serious research on videogames. In a sign of their increasing numbers and organization, more than 400 of them are expected Tuesday in Utrecht, Netherlands, under the auspices of the newly formed Digital Games Research Association, based in Tampere, Finland.

Some of the academics complain that the videogame industry lacks the sort of critical media eye that has accompanied the development of cinema, and has acted as cheerleader for more creative and important -- if less financially lucrative -- films.

Without such legitimate critique, they argue, the industry will take few chances on things besides violent fare, sports games and half-hearted ripoffs of Hollywood. If the games industry is ever going to get beyond its current fascination with heavy ammunition, high-speed chases and pixelized hot-tub vixens, their argument goes, the public has to hear from reviewers who can call the game makers to task or applaud loftier offerings -- and do it for a new, bigger audience.

Instead, videogame reviews are stuck in the Pac-Man era. Matteo Bittanti, a researcher in Italy, says games are still judged on graphics, sound, longevity and playability. That would be like film critics writing only about a movie's audio track and special effects.

The magazines out now are primarily "magalogs, official catalogs, unofficial promos and buyer's guides masquerading as serious information," Mr. Bittanti says.

The academics want a videogame version of Cahiers du Cinema, the French film review founded in 1951 that assisted the birth of the French New Wave movement and championed the likes of Hitchcock and Truffaut.

The game makers themselves are indifferent. "The academics are rushing to study games, and the industry doesn't much care," says Chris Crawford, a veteran videogame design guru.

The global games industry earned an estimated $27 billion in sales in 2002, and is growing at a pace of close to 20% a year in the U.S. But game makers still have work to do to expand beyond their core of fans -- 12- to 25-year-old males -- to attract the broad appeal and cultural influence of film or music.

All this is not to say there is no serious game analysis. British games monthly Edge is getting kudos from both game makers and academics for its higher-brow coverage of the industry. One article this year deconstructs the videogame review itself, outing an informal industry practice of bartering favorable critiques for exclusive rights to review games. But Edge is a niche magazine. Its average reader is a 25-year-old male who buys 30 games a year, and the publication's circulation has been frozen around 30,000 since it was created 10 years ago.

It's probably too early for a mainstream Rolling Stone magazine-like approach to videogames as social and political phenomena. For starters, can covers of game developers and virtual women compete with Britney Spears in her underwear?

One paper to be presented in Utrecht applies a literary criticism concept of French writer Andre Gide to Super Monkey Ball, a simple action videogame. Troels Degn Johansson, of the Center for Computer Games Research at the IT University of Copenhagen, interprets the pitfalls facing players as a "recognition of one's fundamental insufficiency" in life. Unlike other serious university researchers, however, this one notes that he stinks at playing the game.

Other academics call for more rigorous definitions of the words "fun" and "gameplay" in videogame analysis. The debates between camps of researchers -- like the "narratologists" and "ludologists" -- are impenetrable for outsiders. But some conference papers are more accessible, such as those concerning policy debates on topics like game addiction and the violence often portrayed.

A research team led by one of the conference organizers, Prof. Jeffrey Goldstein of the University of Utrecht, will present results of a study that suggests that allowing videogames in the workplace doesn't hurt productivity. Another study compares videogames released by the U.S. government and Lebanon's Hezbollah militia, a U.S.-designated terrorist group.

Works like these remind us of games' growing influence on contemporary art, politics and culture. One interesting example online is, a Uruguayan Web site providing the videogame equivalent of political cartoons. Its first effort, called "September 12th" takes aim at the U.S.-led war on terrorism.

Better videogame criticism is a good idea. But for it to matter, games will have to expand their cultural and social impact to match their economic weight. Game publishers should work harder to attract more gamers outside of their traditional demographic market. They can also offer some more sophisticated fare, games worth writing about.

Write to Kevin Delaney at Updated November 3, 2003