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Cahiers du Ludica

A look at how to improve video game criticism, and how this could improve game development as an art form. I draw parallels between where gaming is now, to the film industry in the 50's. Sort of a manifest for where this blog will be heading.

John Osborne, Blogger

September 3, 2013

9 Min Read

For games to be art, we need better critical theory in popular game analysis.  Currently, game criticism ranges from product review to recounting personal experience to more academic essays in game design programs.  There is a disconnect between trying to analyze the game as a product or as a work of art.  Games are seen by gamers as fun, by popular culture as a distraction, and by those outside the culture as dangerous. 

Video games are not the only medium to face this.

Before the 1950’s, movies were known more from the studios that produced them - an RKO Picture, a United Artists Picture, a Warner Brothers Picture - than as a film made by people, by artists. While there was some idle notion among academics and critics that filmmaking had potential as an art form, it wasn’t taken seriously in cultural circles.  They were entertainments, consumable time wasters meant to help forget the reality outside the nickelodeon or theatre, and they were reviewed as such.

France, 1951.  A new small format film journal shows up in magazine shops - Les Cahiers du Cinema - and sparks a revolutionary idea that cinema can be and is art, and not just a product to pass the time.  Film should be dissected and looked at from a critical standpoint.  It is quite possibly the most influential critical publication in film history, from which most of modern film theory comes from. 

Les Cahiers changed everything.  Not overnight, of course, but the work that was done created an atmosphere that took film more seriously, and more importantly took itself more seriously.  Directors took themselves seriously as Auteurs, and began negotiating with their studios for creative capital.  Today, they’re celebrated artists.

What does this have to do with games?

Warren Spectre famously argued for a Roger Ebert for video games.  Before we have a Roger Ebert of Video Games, we need a Cahiers du Ludica.  Criticism needs to take both a serious look at games from an artistic perspective, and not as products.  From this creates a sense of cultural identity.

The concept of the Cahiers du Ludica as a movement is to bring about a cultural conversation about where games are, and how they’re enjoyed and appreciated.  It’s a call to arms to games critics and game developers to look at the role they play in the cultural conversation.  It’s a statement to gamers and the wider global culture that games can and should be taken seriously.

Step one: Embracing Auteur Theory.  Treating game developers as artists in and of themselves gives the credit of artistic vision not to an anonymous studio, but to the people behind it.  This isn’t an attempt to keep deserving people out of credit, but rather one of ownership.  A person or persons willing to stand up and say ‘’this game is my idea, flaws and all.’’ will not only motivate good work, but also may give some game developers a negotiating position that many film directors enjoy today.

Step two: Embrace critical analysis of the past.  When the Cahiers du Cinema started, they were receiving movies from Hollywood and England that they couldn’t get during the War.  This allowed them to develop a critical language that applies across studios and genres.

Step three: Develop this critical language for popular culture.  This was the most important thing that the Cahiers did for film, which was define what films did better than other mediums.  For film it’s cinematography (photography of moving sight and sound), for video games one can say it isn’t just mechanics, but ‘’game feel’’.  Take the academia out of it and bring it into popular culture. 

To some extent this is already happening.  From academic conferences such as DIPRA and professional conferences as GDC and Respawn, to youtube channels like Extra Credits and Errant Signal.  Magazines like Kill Screen, websites like Gamasutra, the Gameological Society in the Onion's AV Club as well as works like Tom Bissel's Extra Lives have given rise to academic, personal, and longform criticism and theory. 


But there's a gap.

Today in many websites and newspapers, ‘’Games’’ are still reviewed in Technology sections, rather than Arts & Entertainment.  Gaming magazines are niche, and awards are presented by Mountain Dew.  Gamers have a reputation as overly defensive against criticism of their hobby, even those from gamers themselves.

This can change.


This should change.


What I'm nicknaming the Cahiers du Ludica is to name the movement above, but steps must be taken to popularize it, to make it part of the conversation.  At this point, gamer culture seems resistant, and yet there appears to be a market of people who want such a coversation to happen.


What Les Cahiers did was not wait for popular culture to accept film as art, they proudly and boldly stated that it was.  They then went and dissected film as artistic works regardless of whether a film is personal or made for commercial interest. 


Games and gamers need to do the same.  Games being Art is not a matter of avoiding criticism - as has been done far too often.  No, Games being Art invites more criticism - whether it be Academic, Sontagian, Marxist, Feminist, Aesthetic, Ludological, Narratological, Populist, etc, etc, etc.  True art is carved and formed by critique.  It looks at itself as if it has meaning, and allows others to dissect it.



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