Where Does the Time Go?

The threads of Chuck Klosterman’s recent musings on the Lester Bangs of Game Journalism are surprisingly still unraveling. The always-excellent Jim Rossignol jumps off from a bit of Clive Thompson’s response to Klosterman to speculate on the question of depth and breadth of experience among game reviewers.

The longer games take to play, or books to read, or films to watch, the smaller our range of comparable experiences becomes. I can’t usefully review flight sims. It’s impossible. I don’t have the palette of previous experiences do so with any authority, or even much creativity. Of course I’ve played a number of the big sims, but I’m acutely aware that my capacity to be funny or observant about the genre is always hamstrung with uncertainty.

How can a reviewer be sure he’s significantly experienced with the wide array of games available? Ben Kuchera at Opposable Thumbs has a simple suggestion: play more games!

The author notes he wouldn’t be able to review a flight sim well; I say he simply hasn’t played enough of them. I have a homework assignment for him: go buy IL-2 Sturmovik, the last Microsoft Flight Simulator game, and play both for one weekend. Just one weekend. Get to know what makes a good flight sim, and also bring your knowledge of other games to it. … If you have a working knowledge of good game design and theory, and spend a good day or so on both of those games you should then be able to review any flight sim. Will you be able to make jokes and references to obscure to flight sims you missed in the past? Probably not, but that kind of thing only appeals to hardcore flight junkies to begin with. You will be able to say if you had fun playing the game, and talk about the flaws that jumped out at you.

The essential conflict is clear: one has to play enough games to have a basis of comparison for anything that comes along, but one must also play the games long enough to really understand them. Personally, I often worry that I have too little experience with sports games to review them effectively. Similarly, my friend Jeremy always complains that most fighting game reviews are simply useless to the serious fighting game fan because the reviewer doesn’t have the time or experience to get into the higher-level theory of the game.

But the balance between breadth and depth isn’t the only conflict –the balance between playing and writing must also be considered. Every hour spent playing a game, after all, is one less hour that can be spent reviewing it. Simply eating into time spent Doing Nothing doesn’t help because, as Rossignol notes, a good critic should spend that time becoming “literate, politically informed and knowledgeable of music, art and broader culture.”

If a reviewer is so obsessed with a game that they play it to the exclusion of all else, they may end up rushing out a review just under the deadline. Conversely, if a reviewer plays a game for 30 minutes, they’ll have plenty of time to pore over its every flaw and write the perfect scathing evisceration. Without discipline, a better game might paradoxically get a worse-written review than a worse game.

The solution, of course, is to learn how to write well and write quickly at the same time — an ability good journalists and good game reviewers both need. Luckily, the more you write, the easier it is to write well quickly (or, in my case, the more anal you get about endlessly poring over every word you write), so for most writers this problem works itself out. What is harder to learn, though, is how to “have enough respect for the subject to make it feel like it’s worth [your] time to play as much as [you] can to stay relevant,” as Kuchera puts it. If you don’t have that, maybe you’re better off not even trying…

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