One of those stuffy blogs about the arts and all that

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Every so often, I get private messages from people asking me for advice on getting into the field of writing about games professionally. It's a question a great many people have, and articles offering advice to those with an interest in the field are not uncommon. (Here's the most recent such piece I've come across.) When I get such questions, I'm often reminded of this entry in the blog of film critic Roger Ebert. In it, he writes honestly about how this is both a dark time and a glorious time for film criticism. Far fewer people have paying jobs writing about movies today than 20 years ago, but on the other hand, there's so much more great, insightful writing about film out there, thanks to the internet, and passionate writers are doing the work not for pay but because it is their passion.

The part of that blog that particularly stuck with me is this section in which Ebert and his friend, the great critic and film scholar David Bordwell, consider what advice they would offer to a young person who is interested in becoming a movie critic.

Bordwell: "Forget about becoming a film critic. Become an intellectual, a person to whom ideas matter. Read in history, science, politics, and the arts generally. Develop your own ideas, and see what sparks they strike in relation to films."

Ebert: "Yes! This is the best possible advice. I tell young students: Take film courses, certainly. But cover the liberal arts. Take English literature, drama, art, music, and the areas Bordwell lists. Learn something about science and math. A physical anthropology course was my introduction to the theory of evolution, which is an opening to all of modern science. Don't train for a career--train for a life. The career will take care of itself, and give you more satisfaction than a surrender to corporate or professional bureaucracy. If you make careers in that world, you will be more successful because your education was not narrow."

I strongly agree that an interest in many different areas can only help a person interested in writing professionally about the arts or media in any capacity. We live in a culture in which one form of entertainment doesn't exist separately from the others. Movies influence games influence TV shows influence books and so on. (As an example, here's a piece by Kirk Hamilton of Kotaku, examining the ways in which the BBC series Sherlock employs the visual language of video games.) I absolutely adore games, but when I meet someone who seems interested in games to the exclusion of everything else--someone who has never read a book he considers great, who doesn't particularly care about any type of music, someone who lives, eats and breathes games and only games--I feel as if he's missing out on much of what life has to offer, and that such a narrow perspective won't benefit him as a writer or a thinker.

Just about every person I admire who writes about games has a broad range of cultural interests. Some love movies, some love books, some love music or sports or theater. And I think this broader cultural appreciation, along with the absolutely essential act of reading lots and lots of good writing, contributes to a perspective that sees the interplay of various influences in the arts and media and our culture as a whole, and allows for the creation of a perspective with interesting things to say about many facets of our society.

So that's one piece of advice I have for would-be game critics and journalists: Cultivate a broad range of interests. Now, I'm going to indulge my own interests and discuss some of the films I saw and books I read during the winter break, when I had more time to spend on such pursuits.

Films:

Hugo: This visually stunning family film from Martin Scorsese initially seems to be about the adventures of a young boy fending for himself in a Paris train station in the early 1930s. And it is about that, but it's also about something near and dear to Scorsese's heart--a love of movies, and the preservation of old movies. In fact, it specifically concerns the films of George Méliès, a filmmaker I mentioned in a blog entry in March of last year. I wrote:

An image from the film A Trip to the Moon by George Méliès

"When I was young, playing games on the 2600 and the Commodore 64, my mom would sometimes try to show me black-and-white movies that she loved. For a while, I was of the mind that anything that was black-and-white was old and dumb. Now I know that that's not true, that films like Citizen Kane and The Rules of the Game and the 1902 silent classic (byGeorge Méliès)A Trip to the Moonmatter, that filmmakers today benefit from the strides and innovations of these earlier filmmakers and that lovers of cinema are enriched by viewing their films and knowing how they contributed to film history, by knowing the names Orson Welles and Jean Renoir and George Méliès. I don't know where games would be now without the contributions of (great early game designers), true giants in the field, and I hope that, 100 years from now, game designers and passionate fans still know names like Ron Gilbert andYu Suzukiand David Crane."

Hugo is, first and foremost, a convincing argument for the importance of preserving cinema's past, and although I ultimately appreciated the film more for its visual wonders and its celebration of early filmmaking than for its story and characters, I came out of the film with a revitalized appreciation for the genius ofMéliès and other early filmmakers like him who made such magical movies in the fledgling early days of cinema. And again, it made me wonder about whether, when video games have been around for as long as movies have now, anyone will passionately celebrate the landmark games of the early days and appreciate the impact they had. I sure hope so.

The Artist: Speaking of movies from bygone days, The Artist is a black & white, silent film, but don't let that stop you from seeing it. Rather than feeling like some ancient relic, The Artist brims with life and energy and joy. It is a timeless moviegoing experience--funny, touching, and terrifically entertaining. It reminded me why I love movies so much in the first place.

The Descendants: Thisis a film I admired a lot but would be wary about recommending to others. It's not a crowd-pleaser; it's funny and sad, honest and truthful; it takes its time, doesn't pass judgment on its characters and doesn't try to manipulate you into feeling anything in particular. George Clooney gives a subtle, heartfelt performance as the head of a fine ensemble. There's lots of natural Hawaiian beauty in this film of complex emotions and ethical dilemmas.

Books:

On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan:McEwan is an absolute master at laying the psychologies of his characters bare, and because we understand the internal workings of his characters so well, I often find myself sympathizing with words spoken or actions taken by them that might otherwise seem nigh unforgivable. Inthis sense, I think of him as a great moral writer, gently advising us not to be so quick to judge each other, for we perhaps cannot fathom the inner forces that twist the psyches and emotions of our fellow human beings, just as theycannot always fathom the forces that might be at work inside us. If only we could be completely honest with each other, communicate with each other clearly, free of anxiety, fear, the expectations of society. But for McEwan's characters (and often for those of us in the real world), such elements always intrude and complicate matters. In this short novel, McEwan turns his all-seeing gaze on a honeymooning couple in the early 1960s; the notions of what that first night "should" be weigh heavily on the two newlyweds and on young Florence in particular. The intimate and fascinating tour McEwan takes us on of the inner lives of the characters and the experiences and expectations that each brings with them to that honeymoon suite makes it impossible for us (or at least for me) to judge them too harshly, even when they are cruel to each other. I see them as victims of the expectations laid upon them by themselves, their families, and the society they live in, all making it impossible for them to see each other clearly or to communicate honestly, and I think McEwan is brilliant here in the way that he illuminates how one word spoken or not spoken, one action taken or not taken, can alter the courses of entire lives.

I think that's enough for one entry. Thanks for indulging me. Please share any thoughts you have on the idea of cultivating a broad range of interests in the comments, or tell me about any books, movies, plays, museums, operas, tasty hot dogs, or other cultural experiences that made an impression on you recently.

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