Those Games Mean Nothing to Me
Seth Schiesel's review of The Beatles: Rock Band may be the worst game review ever written.
Yes, I'm engaging in sensational hyperbole, but it's OK because Schiesel did too, when he wrote in Sunday's edition of The New York Times that The Beatles: Rock Band "may be the most important video game yet made." There's no problem with a critic taking an extreme stance. A bold statement, though, requires an inspired argument to back it up. The analysis brought to bear by Schiesel is flawed to the point of being harmful to game criticism.
The problems start in the review's lead, where Schiesel writes, "There may be no better way to bait a baby boomer than to be anything less than totally reverential about the Beatles. The news that the lads from Liverpool were taking fresh form in a video game (a video game!) called The Beatles: Rock Band struck some of the band's acolytes as nothing less than heresy."
The Beatles: Rock Band may be the most important videogame ever, but The New York Times doesn't make that case.
Hold on. Where exactly are the fans who are so up in arms over a Beatles videogame (a Beatles videogame!)? You'd think that if there were a real backlash, it might have gotten more attention in the all-encompassing media blitz that preceded the game. At the least, it would warrant a paragraph or two in the Times' own 8,000-word magazine article on the game, no?
It's easy to take it on faith that "some" acolytes are upset about The Beatles: Rock Band. That's the trouble; it's too easy. It fits a familiar metanarrative that Old People Hate Games, and it reinforces hackneyed stereotypes. In essence, Schiesel muses about baiting baby boomers and then proceeds to bait them with a controversy that probably doesn't exist.
It's bad enough that Schiesel builds his premise on a questionable cultural rift (more on that later). But then he drops this bomb:
The weakness of most games is that they are usually devoid of any connection to our actual life and times. There is usually no broader meaning, no greater message, in defeating aliens or zombies, or even in the cognitive gameplay of determining strategy or solving puzzles.
If Seth Schiesel believed this, he would be a staggeringly incompetent critic. Games are products of our culture; the commentator's job is to draw the connection to our life and times. The notion that most games have "no broader meaning" because their settings include elements of fantasy is so obtuse, it suggests that Schiesel has a sub-literate understanding of metaphor. Is there no value in Fallout 3's challenges to patriotism because you shoot mutants in the game? What about BioShock? It had genetic freaks -- those are kind of like zombies. So I guess there's nothing worthwhile to be gained from its repudiation of Randian egoism. You heard the man, no greater message!
"Ah, but those are all top-tier games," you say. "Schiesel only said that most games were without meaning." But creative works produce meaning independent of their quality. When Gus Mastrapa panned The Godfather II, a "Fry" rating didn't keep him from perceiving the game's statement about authorship and the adaptability of great works. I didn't think Godfather II was any great shakes, either, and yet I brought an entirely different reading to the game. Games, good and bad, react to a cultural milieu, and we draw meaning from that interplay.
Schiesel isn't making a statement about the quality of games, anyway. His actual point is even less defensible. The sweeping "no broader meaning" indictment is a refined version of a thesis he advanced in a Sims 3 review earlier this year (which also employed the trite "aliens and zombies" characterization).
Most video games exist to allow the player to forget completely about the real world. The Sims accomplishes the rare feat of entertaining while also provoking intellectual and emotional engagement with some of life's fundamental questions. I love aliens and zombies, but a little reality in my gaming once in a while is not a horrible thing. It may even be healthy.
For the sake of argument, let's accept Schiesel's premise that most games exist for players "to forget completely about the real world." On the other side of the fence, he places intellectually engaging games. This is the nut of his Aliens and Zombies theory of game criticism: Escapism and meaning are mutually exclusive. Except, apparently, in the case of The Sims 3.
No critic could reasonably believe that a game must be grounded in real life in order to make a statement about the real world.
Here's the thing. I don't think that Schiesel really believes what he's saying here, about escapism or about larger meaning in games. It's too naïve, outlandishly elitist, wildly at odds with modern media criticism. If his ability to assess a work were that constricted, he wouldn't be able to write a good review. And the fact is that many of his reviews are smart and incisive. Just not this one.
So why would Schiesel say things that he couldn't possibly believe? Apparently because it adds some superficial gravitas to his words. The baby-boomer framing device for the Beatles piece is not the first time that Schiesel has drawn ham-fisted lines in the sociological sand to make his commentary seem more portentous. Take the lead from his Resident Evil 5 review:
For at least a year some black journalists have been wringing their hands about whether the game … inflames racist stereotypes because it is set in Africa. The answer is no.
In one sentence, Schiesel distorts the Resident Evil 5 debate in two meaningful ways. He characterizes the opposing view as "RE5 is racist because it takes place in Africa," which is simplification to the point of dishonesty. And on a more insidious note, he assigns the argument exclusively to black journalists, implicitly characterizing the questions about RE5's imagery as a Black Thing.
It seems the truth of the matter can be smudged as long as it fits Schiesel's premise that "some" people are angry, but not him! That angle makes it easier for Schiesel to portray himself as the voice of reason. When it comes to RE5, he is the only black journalist with the good sense not to play the race card; for The Beatles: Rock Band, he is the one old soul who's calm enough to accept the notion of a Beatles game. When Schiesel pits himself against the lazy stereotypes of pop sociology, it's disappointing.
But when he uses his straw-man-aided credibility to proclaim that "most games have no greater message," it's downright damaging. Schiesel is willing to sell the medium down the river in order to justify his hyperbolic praise. As one of few gaming writers with access to a prominent mainstream outlet, Schiesel has a responsibility to enlighten his readers. Instead, he reinforces their basest prejudices, dismissing games as escapist piffle -- with the exception of whatever Very Important Game he happens to writing about at the moment.
Schiesel doesn't need to be a cheerleader for games. But it's irresponsible to denigrate the medium in order to make a more sensational argument.
This slash-and-burn rhetorical tactic does real harm to those of us who are working to deepen the credibility and relevance of gaming discourse. Near the end of his Beatles review, Schiesel muses, "[T]here is something about video games that seems to inspire true anger in some older people. Why is that?" Perhaps, Seth, it's because they believe you when you tell them that most games offer no broader meaning beyond the testosterone of killin' zombies-'n'-aliens.
The real shame of the missteps in Schiesel's review is that the article didn't need to be juiced up in the first place. Schiesel makes a powerful point about the influence of a game that, as he puts it, "is about representing and reoffering an entire worldview encapsulated in music." He describes the experience of playing Rock Band more flavorfully than most other critics I've read. There is some great, grounded commentary in there. I don't know why that wasn't good enough. Perhaps he is under pressure from his editors to craft his analysis to an ever-wider scope.
Whatever the case, I can't forgive such reckless disrespect for the welfare of the medium. So when Seth Schiesel tries to pull the "most games are meaningless, but not this one!" sleight-of-hand, don't believe him. He's too smart for that.