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Interview with N'Gai Croal

Chi Kong Lui's picture

N'Gai Croal PortraitIn 2003, I wrote an article that posed the question "are videogames art?" and attempted to show how videogames of the day exhibited similar themes and qualities of some of the most revered works in art history. Four years later, it seems as though the discussion on videogames as art hasn't progressed very far and some may even argue it has taken major steps back. Recently, popular film critic, Roger Ebert, stirred up gamers by challenging videogames legitimacy as art and software like Manhunt 2 and Super Columbine Massacre RPG! have been banned for violent and controversial content. This would appear to be the start of trend where videogames aren't being afforded the same freedoms and protections as any other forms of artistic expression.

One person that has been particularly outspoken about these topics is Newsweek's Level Up journalist and blogger, N'Gai Croal. Mr. Croal graciously agreed to discuss these difficult issues at length in the following interview.

In your Level Up blog, you seem very passionate about the Manhunt 2 banning and Roger Ebert's views on videogames. What motivates you to be so outspoken about these topics? Do you feel there is anything personally at stake for you?

It's how I was raised, both personally and professionally. When I was growing up, my entire family would have Sunday dinners at the dining room table—as opposed to the rest of the week, when my sisters and me would eat at the smaller kitchen table—and we were expected to be able to knowledgeably discuss and debate the topics of the day. We had to be able to defend our ideas. On top of that, my entrée into journalism was as a columnist and critic, not as a reporter. During my high school years in Surrey, Canada, I wrote an opinion column for a black youth newsletter. In college, I wrote movie reviews and a weekly column. As a reviewer, I was inspired by critics like Pauline Kael, Stanley Kauffman, John Simon, J. Hoberman, Armond White, Manohla Dargis and many others who were forceful and passionate in their writing. In fact, I got on Newsweek's radar because of a column I wrote for my college paper criticizing the magazine's cover story on gangsta rap.

The point is that I come out of a culture of argument. For better or worse, it's my default position when I sit down to write. I'm not sure that I'm any more outspoken than most bloggers, because as a means of expression, blogs seem to encourage writers to be more direct and more forceful than many mainstream outlets. The difference is that in examples such as the ones you cited, I tend to write longer than most bloggers, because I'm trying to develop an argument, and to do so takes care and time. When I saw the Roger Ebert column on the evening of the 22nd, none of the major videogame bloggers had written about it; by the time I finally posted on the 30th, all of them had long ago done so. I would have liked to weigh in sooner, but given the choice between being first and being comprehensive, I'd choose the latter nine times out of ten.

You asked if there was anything personal at stake when I wrote about the Manhunt 2 ban and Ebert's dismissal of videogames. Whenever I'm expressing myself, it's always personal. It's a battle of ideas. "Writing is fighting," Muhammad Ali once said. But as a journalist, a blogger and a critic, there's always certain amount of remove from what's being discussed—I didn't work on Manhunt 2, and I've never made a videogame—so the only things at stake are my ideas...and my ego, which is considerable. ;-)

A few years ago, the debate was "are videogames art?" Today, Roger Ebert clarified his earlier statements by saying that videogames are not "high art." Is he right or wrong?

Ebert has yet to properly define high art, so I can't yet say whether he's right or wrong. What Ebert was attempting to do was delegitimize videogames as being worthy of serious consideration. In a previous column, he wrote "To my knowledge, no one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great dramatists, poets, filmmakers, novelists and composers. That a game can aspire to artistic importance as a visual experience, I accept. But for most gamers, videogames represent a loss of those precious hours we have available to make ourselves more cultured, civilized and empathetic."

Looking at Ebert's statement, I have to wonder why he singled out the cultural choices of most gamers for censure. He could have cast the same jaundiced eye upon most theater patrons, most music listeners, most readers and most moviegoers, because most plays, songs, books and movies don't make us more cultured, civilized or empathetic as he would likely define it. That's also why I cited what critics of film were saying 30 - 40 years into its existence.

I also reject his insistence on making direct comparisons between games and other media in an attempt to prove their relative worth rather than to try to better understand what games are. Is the novel a more worthy medium than film because the literary versions of Lolita and Beloved were far richer than their filmic adaptations? Or is film a better medium than the novel because the adaptations of 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Godfather are more widely regarded than their source material? Even Ebert's attempt to draw a distinction between escapist entertainment and art doesn't completely hold up when you consider that in their time, film noir movies were largely intended as entertainment, but were later considered to be art, first by French critics, and later their American counterparts.

Ebert is entitled to keep insisting that games are not (high) art. I'm more interested in figuring out what kind of art games are. Time will tell which one of us is right.

Videogames has an indie scene, yet we see very few "serious" games that try to make social statements and commentary about the world we live in and the ones that do like Super Columbine Massacre RPG! get banned for it. Can you offer any insight into why this occurred and why first amendment rights weren't prioritized?

For all of the financial success of the videogame industry, videogames themselves have a cultural profile lower than even comic books. They're still perceived as entertainment for children, and there's still the presumption that when gamers get older, they will put away these childish things. So if that's how the public at large sees videogames, the reaction to Super Columbine Massacre RPG! is perfectly understandable—it would be as if someone made Eric Harris or Dylan Klebold action figures. There are many people who don't believe that videogames are an expressive medium worthy of all the first amendment rights afforded older media.

Super Columbine Massacre RPG! Screenshot

That said, what happened with SCMRPG! and its banning from the Slamdance Film Festival was not a first amendment issue, because the government played no part in it. It was an issue of artistic freedom (SCMRPG! creator Danny Ledonne's) and cowardice and hypocrisy (on the part of Slamdance Film Festival organizer Peter Baxter.) Baxter was under no obligation to admit SCMRPG! to the competition, but having done so, his decision to pull the game completely undermined his festival's raison d'etre. What's great is that most of Ledonne's former competitors understood what was at stake, attempted to get his game reinstated, and when they couldn't persuade Baxter to do so, pulled their games from the competition in protest. To have game creators defend the artistic freedoms of their peers is an important step in this medium's process of growing up.

Despite universal praise of critics and an academic groundswell to the contrary, why do you think renowned developers like John Carmack and Shigeru Miyamoto have been adamant that they don't consider themselves to be artists?

I can't say for sure, because I've never asked either Carmack or Miyamoto that question. But having studied filmmaking and directed plays, thinking of myself as an artist while I was in rehearsals would have done nothing to improve the final outcome. What I tried to bring to the table was a combination of ambition, humility, curiosity, openness and perseverance. I attempted to focus as much as possible on the craft—which, at the end of the day, is the only thing that I had some control over—and hope that the art would shine through. Was the end result art? I have my own thoughts, but honestly, I'm always much more interested in finding out what the audience got out of it than what I was trying to say, because I already know what I think.

Why hasn't an auteur like Jean Renoir risen among the ranks of developers?

To properly answer that question, I'd need to know more about the context in which you're raising auteurism and Renoir. If you're asking whether there are developers whose games have a signature style and approach, I would say that most knowledgeable gamers could distinguish a Rockstar game from a Kojima Productions game or a Criterion Studios game. Some developers have a clearer signature than others, but the same could be said of many creators in other media. If you're asking whether there are developers who've taken a humanist approach to their games, I'd say that Fumito Ueda might be considered somewhat Renoir-esque, with Ico and Shadow of the Colossus. But I'm not sure how much is illuminated by looking for direct equivalencies between film directors and game creators. Videogames have been around long enough that their creators can start to be judged in relationship to one another. Look closer and I think you may find that what you're seeking is already there, even if it's still only in embryonic form.

You're right that I need to be a little clearer about "auteur." I meant it more from a creative leadership sense. It was refreshing to read BioWare president, Greg Zeschuk say that Mass Effect would end the "games as art" debate and we see the names of developers like Sid Meier and Hideo Kojima preface the titles of games. Yet, former ESA President Doug Lowenstein complained about how publishers and developers aren't willing to defend their work when the going gets tough. Why aren't there more developers on the frontlines of this debate and being much more vocal about defending videogames as artistic expression?

Mass Effect Screenshot

Again, this isn't a topic that I've discussed with many developers, but if I had to hazard a guess, I'd say that it's because developers themselves are either inarticulate about the artistic nature of their games, unsure about whether their games are truly artistic, or both. Why? They're inarticulate about their artistry because the vocabulary surrounding their craft is both highly specialized and incomplete. They're unsure about their artistry because videogames aren't a long-established medium, like painting or sculpture, and videogames aren't primarily a narrative medium, like the novel or film. This results in a fairly narrow, impoverished conversation about games in the public sphere, with the ESRB serving as the industry's consumer guide, its shield against legislation, and its de facto moral arbiter for content. This is ultimately the language of product liability, not artistic expression.

The dominant forms of discourse around games generally take their cues first from the enthusiast press/game reviewers (how much fun is it?), then the business press (how many copies did it sell?) and lagging far behind, academia (what does it mean?) What a critic can do, ideally, is open up a space for a thoughtful discussion of a game, among lay people, that lays somewhere between how much fun it is and what it means. The role of a reviewer is to help you figure out whether or not you should spend your money and/or your time on something, while the role of a critic is to help you think about what you've spent your money and/or your time on.

The larger question is this: how much room is there for critics to flourish? Personally, I'm more interested in criticism than reviewing, but there's a much larger appetite for reviewing than criticism. More people want to have their entertainment choices validated than to have them analyzed, provoked or challenged. There's also a deep-seated strain of anti-intellectualism in the U.S. that only intensifies when it's applied to pop culture. Newspapers and magazines never devoted much space for the critical discussion of videogames; now that they're cutting back on their reviewers and critics for media like movies and books, games are unlikely to ever get that spotlight. And the rise of the Internet has brought with it the death of authority, which is what the critic represents. With blogs and message boards and chat rooms, when anyone can talk to anyone else about videogames; when aggregators like Metacritic lump every review under a single average score, why would they care about what individuals like you or I have to say? Why should they?

That's why, when Chuck Klostermann asked, "Where is the Lester Bangs of videogames?" I thought to myself, hell, Lester Bangs couldn't even be the Lester Bangs of music today, let alone videogames. The critic is going the way of the dinosaur and the dodo bird; he or she is an anachronism in an age where anyone can publish an opinion.

The democratizing of opinion is a good thing in that it can give voice to a variety of people who would not have been heard otherwise. The drawback is that it's much harder to develop a shared critical vocabulary amidst this cacophony, and that's unfortunate, because I believe that motivated journalists, readers and developers would benefit from a common language. So to return to your question, the critic in me is not particularly interested in whether the designer's name is on the box (a contractual matter) or debating whether games are art (a mostly pointless distraction.) As I said before, I'm much more interested in figuring out what kind of art games are. That's why I do my Vs. Mode exchanges with MTV News' Stephen Totilo and my Team Assault series of Q&As with developers: it's an attempt to create a shared space, to build up a common critical language and to continue to investigate the art and craft of games. Hopefully it's a small contribution to the larger project of videogame criticism.

If gamers and developers don't care about the subject of games as art and critics outside of the industry dismiss games, why is this important? Is anything at stake here?

Without film critics and academics, would the movies have come to be seen as art? The critical establishment-folks like the ones I listed at the outset-had a great deal to do with the shift in perception of movies from mere entertainment to rising art form. If gamers and developers don't want to assume a thought leadership role on this, that's fine. But someone should do so, because every medium benefits from having a critical eye cast upon it. The creators are often too busy creating, and the audience is often too busy being entertained, to take up this task. In any case, critical inquiry has always been the province of a motivated minority, and in this, videogames are no different.

Let's discuss the Manhunt 2 controversy. A former Rockstar employee blogged about his experience working there and indicated that even internally, there was debate as to whether or not the original Manhunt "crossed the line." For videogames, how is that line defined and what does that say about videogames as an artistic medium?

Individuals have to define that line for themselves, based on their own moral compasses. I only become concerned when someone else tries to dictate what I as an adult can or cannot experience. That's why I've expressed my concern about Sony, Nintendo and Microsoft's ban of M-rated games in North America, and the British Board of Film Classification and the Irish Film Censor's Office's respective verdicts banning Manhunt 2. From what I've seen of the game-specifically its first six levels-it does not incite violence, nor is its release a threat to the public order, therefore it should be available to adult consumers. As for whether or not Manhunt 2 merited its Adults Only rating, I don't know enough about the Entertainment Software Ratings Board's guidelines to offer an opinion.

What do you think about Rockstar employees themselves debating the validity of the content of their games?

It's good to know that Rockstar had that internal debate. I'm not in favor of censorship, but I wholly support an artist's right to self-censor.

Since you've had some hands-on playtime with Manhunt 2, is there any social, cultural or artistic redeeming value to the game?

I don't think that artists have a responsibility to solely produce work that is socially, culturally or artistically redeeming. They can attempt to do so, if they so choose, but it's just as valid for artists to produce work that shocks, enrages, disgusts, terrifies, provokes, mocks, critiques. But they should understand that there might be societal consequences to operating at the outer limits of what's considered acceptable. They create; others and we react.

Manhunt 2 Screenshot

In the case of Manhunt 2, Rockstar is trying to give the player the experience of being a former government test subject who may have been driven mad by the experiment. Again, I only played the first six levels, so I don't yet know whether I would consider Manhunt 2 socially, culturally or artistically redeeming.

In an ideal world (meaning devoid of political pressure and business quotas), what would you like to see in the progression of videogames a few years from now?

More ambition, more experimentation, more diversity. Anything can happen in a videogame, yet too often, we're asked do the same things in the same way in the same setting. The Lord of the Rings, Dungeons & Dragons, Star Wars, The Godfather, Aliens, Goodfellas, Menace II Society, Saving Private Ryan and Black Hawk Down—surely these can't be the sole sources of inspiration for an entire industry.

Xbox Live Arcade, Playstation Network and WiiWare, with their focus on smaller games, can be a catalyst for greater risk-taking. The same is true for the Wii controller, the Xbox Live Vision Camera and the Playstation EyeToy. Sony's first-party group appears to be funding a number of art house-style games, while Nintendo is redefining handheld games with the DS. We've only scratched the surface of mobile games. And as the most open platform, the PC will continue to see the most experimentation, with Flash games and other browser-based games leading the way.

All of this is moot if journalists don't write about these games and consumers don't buy them. If you read about a game that is taking a chance and appeals to you, pre-order it, and convince your friends to do likewise, because pre-order activity is one of the factors retailers use to determine the size of their orders. The more games you buy new rather than used, the more money goes into the hands of publishers who fund these games. Send letters via registered mail to the heads of developers, publishers and retailers letting them what you want to see more of. These are just a few small ways in which the average person can make a difference.

Thank you N'Gai for your thoughtful and candid responses.

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Thanks to both Chi Kong Lui

Thanks to both Chi Kong Lui and N'Gai. This discussion is a sign that the medium is healthy and has a bright future ahead of it! Keep it up.

And never fear, there will always be a place for "professional" critics. You're not the first, N'Gai, to think that critics are on their way out. Walter Benjamin said the same thing about film back in the 1930s (he thought the medium was inherently democratizing and would make everyone a critic).

The current censorship debate in the field closely resembles other media's early stages of development (novels in the 17th and 18th centuries and film in the early 20th). As much as critics like you two are needed to fight the good fight, the current cultural debate is a sign that the medium is doing well in becoming a new "art" form.

Not only would you be hard pressed to find a developer calling her/himself an "artist" or his/her work "art," you'd have a hard time finding painters, fiction authors, photographers, etc. who say the same thing about themselves. Anyone calling themselves an "artist" or their work "art" most definitely is not.

Great work.

yeah

like the 'artist' formally known as Prince ;)

Fantastic

Understanding the artistic nature of videogames has been a topic on my mind for the past few months. N'Gai provided some fantastic insight in this article. I'm glad to know there's a community dedicated to understanding videogames.

Nice to see we have another

Nice to see we have another reasonable, intelligent public voice on our side. If only there were more than a couple voices out there that have any business speaking on the subject.

Great Piece

Great work, Chi--that was an excellent read.

"That's why, when Chuck Klostermann asked, "Where is the Lester Bangs of videogames?" I thought to myself, hell, Lester Bangs couldn't even be the Lester Bangs of music today, let alone videogames. The critic is going the way of the dinosaur and the dodo bird; he or she is an anachronism in an age where anyone can publish an opinion."

This is true--and it's why I've made less money writing every year for the past three years in a row. Why pay a writer when anyone can blog for free? If I complain, there's ten other guys willing to do my job for pennies.

It's so bad at this point I'm going to have to actually get a real job...

Mike B.

Can't believe I missed this

Can't believe I missed this the first time around - I stumbled across it via the recent slate discussion.

Great work Chi.

Excellent interview

These are the kind of points that need to be made. We NEED critics in videogames, not reviewers. As someone who's been fighting the argument that games are not toys meant for children (well, not all of them at least) with anyone who'll have it for 10 or more years now, I'm glad to see some major names standing up and doing something about this. Between Stephen Totilo, N'Gai Croal, and Garnett Lee/1UP, I'm incredibly excited about the future of gaming journalism -- a future where such a thing EXISTS for instance. The very fact that Newsweek hosts one of the most important blogs on the internet speaks volumes (good ones too!) about the future of our form. Keep up the journalism guys, some of us really do appreciate it.

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