Q&A: Chuck Klosterman answers critics

Author of controversial <i>Esquire</i> article on the state of game journalism outlines the reasons he threw down the gauntlet.

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Since the games press began in the mid-1980s, it has had a complicated relationship with the mainstream media. For every respectable publication striving for integrity, there seem to be several more fly-by-night operations that ignore basic journalistic practices to pander to gamers' basest appetites to gain circulation.

As a result, many mainstream magazines and newspapers tend to dismiss game publications as covens of fanboyism and wellsprings of hackeyened prose. In the July issue of Esquire magazine, author and former Spin rock critic Chuck Klosterman wrote an article titled "The Lester Bangs of Video Games". In that article he claimed that "video games in 2006 are the culture equivalent of rock music in 1967," but Klosterman also effectively leveled a broadside against game journalism, asserting that "video-game criticism doesn't exist."

Though dozens of hard-working game reporters would take more than a little issue with Klosterman's assertions, his article was widely circulated, and remains a hot topic of debate. To get a deeper insight into Klosterman's views on the state of game journalism, CNET's Rich Brown asked the writer to delve into the reasoning behind his now-infamous article.

Q: One of the first points you make in the article equates games to rock and roll. I think that's something that people are curious about. Can you expand on the idea a little bit?

Chuck Klosterman: I always felt that the reason that rock music was such an important element of the 20th century was because it was the only genre of art that was specifically tied to youth. And it was the only major art form where part of its importance was intertwined with a representation of a younger world view, what it's like to be a teenager in America or England in this very specific time. And over time that relationship became less central, it became the dominant mainstream form of music in the world. I feel that video games followed a different trajectory, but ended up in a similar place. If you take two 15-year-old guys, they probably both like rock music, but rock music might mean totally different things to them. For one it might mean listening to the White Stripes, and for the other it might mean Coldplay or Brooks and Dunn, and they might not have that much in common other than that they're both listening to pop music. Now obviously video games are always different too, but the experience of gaming acts as a unifying element for young people. I think the experience of gaming changes the way you look at the world. It's the same thing that the Beatles did to people in the '60s. That's why I think that if you're looking at the state of gaming now, what you're seeing is [similar to] that period of rock music before it became a mass commodity.

Q: When you talk about the audience I think there's a lot of different opinion on who the audience is. The most obvious is probably the 10- to 35-year-old male. But then you have old folks who play Solitaire. Do you think there needs to be a critical distinction between different types of gaming in order to establish a school of criticism?

CK: Does there need to be? I don't know. "Need" is an interesting word to use. I think that people were confused by my piece. What they seemed to think that I was saying is that no one is doing good video game criticism. And that's not really the point, I wasn't making that argument. What I was saying is that there seems to be no dominant person writing about video games in a way that transcends the insular culture of gaming. In other words there's no one writing about video games who is of interest to people who aren't actively playing them. I mean you look at film in the 1970s--there were people writing about film who were being read by people who had no intention of seeing those movies. So when does something become a critical element of the zeitgeist? It's when people who barely care are interested. It's when you can move beyond the person who is actively involved in the game. I think it's interesting that no one has done this in video games or that it hasn't worked out this way and I was looking for an explanation as to why.

Q: That was one point that came up in many of the various articles and comments online. There are actually a lot of people writing about games. Yes, it's very insular, and it's hard to understand if you're not a gamer. But there's also a certain feeling among gamers that there's no need for a mainstream writer or publisher to legitimize what they're doing.

CK: And that's why part of the article said that this will probably never happen. What's interesting about this is that it's an art form, like a lot of art forms, that's a reflection of the technology that comes along with it. And the technology that allows video games to be popular is also part of the reason that necessitates less criticism. I mean there are probably more people writing about video games, than there are about oh, certainly theater. I'm talking about conventional theater. Most of the people engaged with the video game world have blogs or they have listservs and it's incredibly easy for them to do that. It's an insular culture that's very easy to join; basically you need access to a computer. If I had written an essay about what has happened to theater criticism there would have been no response. Not because no one cares about theater criticism, but because there aren't thousands and thousands and of theater critics that have blogs.

If there was confusion over this piece, and I think that there was, it was that people seem to think that it was a criticism of either gaming or game writing. And what I was basically talking about is that it's sort of strange how this growing and dominant art form seems to have a different sort of social experience than the things that it's most similar to which are the other kinds of youth-oriented art forms, like rock and film.

Q: Are any mainstream publishers asking for game writing?

CK: They all are. What they're looking for constantly are people who write about video games in a way that is interesting to people outside of the insular world of gaming.

Q: So if someone went to Esquire or GQ with a video game pitch, you would have their ear?

CK: It depends on who the person is. This is the key to all kinds of arts criticism. You have to be a writer first. Regardless of what your knowledge of the product is, or of the art form, or the idea, you have to be a writer first. So if someone calls up any kind of magazine with the best idea in the world, but they had never published anything before, in any avenue besides their own blog, well of course they're not going to be asked to write that piece. These magazines are for audiences of 250,000 people or whatever, who are used to a certain level of journalism. It's more than just having an idea. As I talked about in the piece, it's going to have to be someone that comes out of that world who's also a really great writer.

Q: Now every time the topic of serious game criticism comes up, there's always a really strong backlash. Where do you think that might come from?

CK: I don't know. You'd probably know more than I would. It just seems like one of those things that might be more interesting to people that don't play video games than to people who do. I mean maybe the idea of writing about the social meaning of Bad Day L.A. is more interesting to the person who's not actually going to play it. And maybe to those who are legitimately and actively engaged, the context issue is not what's drawing them to the game.

If somebody was writing about the San Francisco rock thing from the late '60s and early '70s, they didn't come from the musical world, they weren't really interested in the Grateful Dead. They might look at writing about the amount of acid people are taking, because for that person the most interesting thing might be the culture of LSD that comes with the music. But for people who love the music, who are playing it or the audience for it, they might see that as very tangential, and they might wonder why someone did a piece about this relatively unimportant element of their culture. And that might be how it is with video game writing. I'm saying it would be interesting to see a transcendent video game critic, but maybe that proves that I'm not really involved with this world. And I'm not. Esquire's not a video game magazine. I write about things that are interesting to me.

Q: You keep saying that you think there's been some misunderstanding about the point of the article. How do you come by that idea?

CK: I know people who are more engaged with it than I am, and when I say "it," I mean the Internet. They'll send me a link to someone who has responded to it. That's how it is. Lots of things you write get responses--positive or negative. But when you write about something where somebody has an avenue to respond, it seems to excuse the amount of controversy it's created. I wrote about ethanol a couple months ago. There are certainly people who disagree with what I wrote, and there are people who agree, but the fact of the matter is people really interested in the ethanol industry aren't going to go on a listserv about it.

The way I look at this is that it was just something that I found interesting, and I write about things that are interesting with me. If there's somebody in the gaming community that has a problem with it, I totally understand it, and that's fine. I'm just surprised that this is the first time that someone's ever written about this in a mainstream publication. That alone makes it seem worth having done it.

Tell me, why do you think that people were upset about it? I have to say it kind of mystifies me, I wonder if you can explain it to me?

Q: Well, I think it's because there was this idea that you were saying, "Hey, there's no legitimate writing about this."

CK: It felt like a lot of people who wrote about video games took it sort of personally. What I was arguing was that at this point with the Internet there is somebody writing about everything. There's somebody out there doing daily reviews of zoo giraffes. Everything is being written about. But when you have so many people with the ability to essentially self-publish, it's hard for someone to have any kind of authority, and I'm not saying that's good or bad, but that it's interesting. And I think it would be to the gaming industry's benefit, if there were people who started writing about it for people who aren't engrossed in it. The closest person to what I'm describing is probably Steven Johnson [author of Everything Bad is Good for You]. To someone who's a hardcore gaming person, they're like "Well, Steven Johnson, he's just a dilettante, he's just in the shallow end of this world." But what he's able to do is write about these very complex ideas so that people can hear about them for the first time. Or Douglas Rushkoff is another great example. When Douglas Rushkoff wrote Media Virus!, that was the first time that a lot of people had ever thought about the meaning of video games. And I think it's those kinds of people who can be a bridge between the insular culture and the mainstream culture.

Q: Thanks a lot. Chuck, we appreciate it.

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