The Post Heard 'round the 'sphere

[i]Do I contradict myself
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
[/i]


– Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”

With the last grains of sand slowly ebbing the year away, with the promise of a new year's worth of triumph and folly on the horizon, we inevitably turn the calendar back and attempt to wring a tidy label out of the year's events. 2008 will likely go down as a time of change: a year when a $20 independent game turned the concepts of game narrative and meaning on their heads, besting the efforts of larger, meaner entities; where the concept of continuous, worthwhile downloadable content inched closer to reality; where we, at last, honestly questioned the sustainability of print media in the digital age.

See? It's a hard impulse to resist.

Perhaps it's this melancholic need for street-grade Zeitgeist that finally drove Shawn Elliott to assemble his energies and spearhead an online Games Journalism Symposium centered around the concept of the review. Over the coming months, the video game community will be exposed to I.V.-drips of unfiltered Gamerista musings, with dialectic assertions and arguments spawning from what is, essentially, an elaborate “tell me what you feel” roundtable. Elliott's assembled pantheon is no stranger to the give-take of opinions in the era of web journalism. With Goodjer favorites like Stephen Totilo and John Davison, to former Elliott-associates Dan Hsu and Robert Ashley, I have little doubt the various forums, Twitter-feeds and blogs that compose the Meta-state of Gamerland will be buzzing with activity.

But is any of this really going to change anything?

Understand that I am in no way demeaning Elliott's Herculean undertaking, nor am I suggesting that the result of this grand experiment will be a wordy, adult's version of “SNES or Genesis?” In fact, the Elliott Symposium could very well mark the kind of watershed moment that mature gaming enthusiasts have been envisioning ever since Chuck Klosterman whined about the need for our own Lester Bangs. Among other things, it marks a moment of self-reflection where the folks who - like Elliott himself - once aspired to be a part of the games journalism industry are now experienced enough to really consider the Why of it all. We are past the point where adults in the 22 – 35 range look at games only as a source of entertainment. We are past the point where a career in the industry is a glorious Neverland retreat.

We may emerge from this longitudinal study with a greater understanding of the pitfalls of reviewership. We may birth a fledgling code of operations, or a keystone ethical framework which subsequent journalists will be able to consider. We might just be left with pages and pages of blogposts to sift through on our lunch breaks. Whether anything changes as a result of this is inconsequential. Of greater interest to me is the figure behind this undertaking.

I find it oddly appropriate that this adolescent industry - an industry which I cling to like an impressionable sibling would latch upon a Fonzish Arbiter of Cool - is being deconstruction by Shawn Elliott: no longer a journo himself, but historically one of the field's most talented, analytical, yet hopelessly adolescent, voices.

At the heart of the topics addressed by Elliot's Symposium lies the two-faced nature of the gaming industry itself. As the industry grows, and its importance as a form of mass media becomes apparent, the economics behind it all become undeniable. I have grown to accept that not every new release will be a Notes from the Underground or a Sunset Boulevard. To expect otherwise would be statistical foolishness. For every Shadow of the Colossus or Bioshock, offerings that help progress the games-as-art argument, there are at least a dozen titles that remind me that these guys have car payments to make.

This is an industry. Activision's recent “streamlining” should do much to prove that fact. It is a business, and has been a business since the day you picked up your first Atari paddle, placed your first quarter into an arcade slot, or watched The Wizard to catch a sneak peak at Super Mario Bros. 3. The reality of the situation is that reviewers, our traditional gatekeepers of opinion & wisdom, must delicately balance the commercial with the artistic. They attempt to measure out a happy medium between exceedingly analytic interpretation and stunningly bland summary.

And who is the figure excavating the “practice and politics of writing game reviews”? Who is attempting to mitigate the tectonic pull-push of the commercial and the interpretive forces behind gaming?

Shawn Elliott.

Elliott, who conceptualized Braid as an intertwining of “form and content”, “loss and longing” in one eloquent, awestruck breath. Elliott, who then went on to share his Crackhead Tales, reconstruct his griefing exploits, and perform a dramatic re-enactment of a World of Warcraft cybersex chatlog – all in a single podcast. Shawn Elliott -- to be overgrand -- contains multitudes.

And its exactly this range of opinion that makes his participation in this project so exciting. He's a conflicted gamer, embracing his own schizophrenic nature, while he digs into the duality of the industry. But while some would bemoan his forays into lowbrow entertainment, Elliott is the perfect person to help chart these choppy waters. He's not just an ivory tower intellectual, he's also just a kid running around the playground, terrorizing tricicyle-riding classmates, and occasionally pissing in the sandbox. He's out there having fun, and he's utterly sincere about it all.

I can think of no better representative.

Comments

I spent hours of my life talking about this on blogs, Twitter, and a GWJ thread. Now you've brought it back up on the Front Page just when I was ready to move on. Curse you, Alex "Spaz" Martinez!

On topic(?): But yeah, Sean Elliott seems like a pretty cool guy.

I could not agree more with the conclusion of this: Elliott's interesting (Oh gawd, he's going to read this isn't he? And then his head's going to freaking explode. And people will ask how brown my lazy-ass nose is) because he represents both the crazy-ass kids and the over-read intellectuals at the same time.

He was also an awesome red-pen, and they are damned hard to find. But that's not really the point is it.

I a few thousand years Shawn Elliott's twitter feed will be studied as an important artifact of our civilization.

I'm angry in advance at whatever Tom Chick says. I'm just laying that out there.

Oh the duality of man.
Its almost as if my Literature Prof. who made me read the Illiad had a point.
I feel that the symposium is almost a bad thing. Seeking to define something that is still evolving almost dooms it.
Allow the conflict to exist and work itself out, through some invisible hand, ala Gertsmangate.

rabbit wrote:
(Oh gawd, he's going to read this isn't he?

I hope not, because his immediate reaction will be "Who the &^*( is this douchebag and why is he talking about me?!"

He was also an awesome red-pen, and they are damned hard to find. But that's not really the point is it.

It kinda is. Shawn Elliott is many things, to many people. He defies our expectations, in a refreshing way.
I think it's a healthy thing, especially for the games industry, because he shows you can wallow in your base diversions, but still have something damned insightful to say when you're not dicking around.

.. and perform a dramatic re-enactment of a World of Warcraft cybersex chatlog

I think it was Age of Conan, actually.

Great article.

Oh Sean. If only you know how much I miss you...I've started a compilation of "the best of Sean Elliot" to play for people during road trips - the two "Second Life" segments had the car in stiches.

I do think Sean is the perfect person to go forward with this symposium - I just wonder what is going to come out of it. I really don't think reviews can or will ever become much more than buyers guides - they are, after all, for the masses, has has been illustrated by GFW when their attempt to remove review scores failed miserably.

What can be done, and what S.E. has mentioned before, are "game analyses" - perspectives akin (or exactly) like our illustrious writers here at GWJ prepare for us on a regular basis, or as S.E. wrote in the above-linked post on Braid.

The problem is that only a small subset of the gaming population would even care to have these. They will never be "for the masses" - people just don't have the time or the interest. That's why as big of a deal as the Game Review Symposium (TM) appears to be, it's ultimately going to be irrelevant. There will be tons of discussion, and then mainstrem press will continue to review games as they have and indie outlets like GWJ and other web-based-non-corprorate entities will provide the bulk of what I suspect those in the "review symposium" will actually be looking for.
And why not? These types of "reviews/commentaries/analysis/whatever" will be a niche product for a niche market, and like PC gaming, there ain't nothin wrong with that.

I think any opinion on this has been surgically removed, but I am eagerly awaiting more reading material. I'm also looking for examples of your favorite game criticism (or whatever you want to call it, "fanb0i lulz" or "pretentious waste of pixel space." Also, if you have any great articles or blog posts about game criticism starred in Google Reader or whatever contraption you use, I've got another notebook set up for that purpose. Send me an e-mail at [email protected] or leave a comment on my blog post set up for that purpose.

Thanks!

For some reason this made me think a few years back to when I was a student at Belmont University. This was the same year that the First Narinia movie was released and the university was hosting an annual conference dedicated to the writings of C.S. Lewis. It was a little surreal to walk into a building and in one area have doctors and academics discussing the finer points of Lewis' literature while having in another area a big Disney display advertising the new movie.

I see a correlation there to gaming. The Narina movies were made for the masses and following in the wake of the Lord of the Rings success it was a solid business move on Disney's part. On the other end, behind those marketable stories was the late great Lewis whole wrote dozens of brilliant works. Most of the people who go to see a Narnia movie will likely know little about the man who created the tale but that doesn't diminish the fact that there are many who still know of the deeper world behind it.

Gaming is much the same way. There will always be the larger population who play games purely as diversion and entertainment but that doesn't diminish the fact that there are those of us who see something more beyond the Madden's and Guitar Hero's. Things like this will likely still have little to no effect on gaming for the masses but for those of us who are digging deeper already it might still bring about something new.

boogle wrote:
I feel that the symposium is almost a bad thing. Seeking to define something that is still evolving almost dooms it.

I don't think anyone has set out to define anything. The symposium exists to engage serious (and seriously juvenile) thinkers on the topic of reviews: specifically the practices and politics thereof. True, it remains to be seen what the participants make of their critical engagement, but there is a difference between identification and delineation.

adam.greenbrier wrote:
I'm surprised and a little disappointed to not see Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw of Zero Punctuation fame participating in this symposium. Aside from being one of the most popular video game reviewers right now, he also seem to be one of the few major reviewers to, as Chuck Klosterman put it, "describe the experience of playing the game." While mostly being known for being snarky and difficult to please, Yahtzee does actually give very good critiques of games based on design and gameplay rather than graphics and hype. His review of Braid is a good example of this, I think.

I tried sending the invite to his agent, actually.

ShawnElliott wrote:
adam.greenbrier wrote:
I'm surprised and a little disappointed to not see Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw of Zero Punctuation fame participating in this symposium. Aside from being one of the most popular video game reviewers right now, he also seem to be one of the few major reviewers to, as Chuck Klosterman put it, "describe the experience of playing the game." While mostly being known for being snarky and difficult to please, Yahtzee does actually give very good critiques of games based on design and gameplay rather than graphics and hype. His review of Braid is a good example of this, I think.

I tried sending the invite to his agent, actually.

Ooh, rabbit and The Fly are blushing right now.

My personal opinion of the Symposium is really just curiosity about what comes of it. I suspect nothing much practical, although it will be interesting. What really confuses me is the reaction against the fact of the Symposium, there seems to be some kind of fear that it is a threat to existing review standards.

There seems to be an anti-intellectual slant around the net. Odd considering geeks have always tried to present themselves as intellectuals. At the worst the Symposium will be like a high school poetry club, at best it will grow games writing to something new and interesting that crosses into the mainstream.

I'm surprised and a little disappointed to not see Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw of Zero Punctuation fame participating in this symposium. Aside from being one of the most popular video game reviewers right now, he also seem to be one of the few major reviewers to, as Chuck Klosterman put it, "describe the experience of playing the game." While mostly being known for being snarky and difficult to please, Yahtzee does actually give very good critiques of games based on design and gameplay rather than graphics and hype. His review of Braid is a good example of this, I think.

ShawnElliott wrote:
adam.greenbrier wrote:
I'm surprised and a little disappointed to not see Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw of Zero Punctuation fame participating in this symposium. Aside from being one of the most popular video game reviewers right now, he also seem to be one of the few major reviewers to, as Chuck Klosterman put it, "describe the experience of playing the game." While mostly being known for being snarky and difficult to please, Yahtzee does actually give very good critiques of games based on design and gameplay rather than graphics and hype. His review of Braid is a good example of this, I think.

I tried sending the invite to his agent, actually.

I'm sorry if you took my comment to mean that I thought you'd excluded him intentionally. My assumption was that he had been invited and that the invitation had been ignored or rejected; I'm sure that many more people were invited than were able to participate. I'm surprised mostly because I thought this would have been the kind of thing he'd enjoy participating in; disappointed because I think that the perspective of someone famous for negative reviews would have been very interesting, especially with regard to conflict of interest and ethics.

MrDeVil909 wrote:
There seems to be an anti-intellectual slant around the net.

It's being paired with anti-elitism. If the definition of "elitism" is a simple matter of holding higher standards, then I'm quite comfortable being called an elitist. Unfortunately, elitism has another, more common definition that involves excluding others. I'm not comfortable with exclusion, but I do support any discussion that refuses to debase itself so that anti-intellectuals feel welcome.

adam.greenbrier wrote:
ShawnElliott wrote:
adam.greenbrier wrote:
I'm surprised and a little disappointed to not see Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw of Zero Punctuation fame participating in this symposium. Aside from being one of the most popular video game reviewers right now, he also seem to be one of the few major reviewers to, as Chuck Klosterman put it, "describe the experience of playing the game." While mostly being known for being snarky and difficult to please, Yahtzee does actually give very good critiques of games based on design and gameplay rather than graphics and hype. His review of Braid is a good example of this, I think.

I tried sending the invite to his agent, actually.

I'm sorry if you took my comment to mean that I thought you'd excluded him intentionally. My assumption was that he had been invited and that the invitation had been ignored or rejected; I'm sure that many more people were invited than were able to participate. I'm surprised mostly because I thought this would have been the kind of thing he'd enjoy participating in; disappointed because I think that the perspective of someone famous for negative reviews would have been very interesting, especially with regard to conflict of interest and ethics.

Oh, no offense taken at all! I was simply saying that I would've liked it, too.

wordsmythe wrote:
MrDeVil909 wrote:
There seems to be an anti-intellectual slant around the net.

It's being paired with anti-elitism. If the definition of "elitism" is a simple matter of holding higher standards, then I'm quite comfortable being called an elitist. Unfortunately, elitism has another, more common definition that involves excluding others. I'm not comfortable with exclusion, but I do support any discussion that refuses to debase itself so that anti-intellectuals feel welcome.

I think it's one of the downsides of the internet as the 'Great Democratizer' as summed up by Elysium in your own sig. People have always had a tendency to feel threatened by people trying to lift themselves up, and in the age of web 2.0 those people have a voice, unfortunately.