Welcome to The New York Review of Video Games
A new way to talk about our most experimental, most alive, least respected art form.
By Chris Suellentrop
Welcome to The New York Review of Video Games. If that name conjures for you an anachronistic, elbow-patched editor sitting at a dimly lit desk amid piles of plastic Atari 2600 cartridges and Sega Dreamcast discs, then good. It has done its job.
If not, then let me try this:
Video games are almost a $100 billion industry, sure. But video games do not matter only because they are large. They are also a new popular art, the kind of thing that comes along once a century. Two intertwined forces, computers and interactivity, have changed the world radically over the past 50-odd years. What is a video game? It’s a creative work — a competition, a story, an experience — that exploits the intersection of those two forces.
It may have been hard to tell in 2014 — what with “GamerGate,” the silly name for both a Twitter argument as well as a serious, orchestrated campaign of harassment of women — but video games are our most experimental medium, and the one art form in popular culture that feels alive, rather than embalmed. Video games are broad enough to encompass interactive short stories written in HTML, shooters that resemble 1980s action movies, robust simulations of everything from sports to all of human history, idiosyncratic personal statements, and Flappy Bird.
Games create joy and laughter — not to mention the thrills of tension and fright — where there had been none, and that is not insignificant. But they are also carriers of ideas, both explicit and unspoken. Video games have asked me to empathize with — no, become — a soldier, a superhero, a murderer, a transgender woman beginning hormone replacement therapy, a border-control agent trying to follow both the law and his conscience, a child who loves yet fears his monstrous, alcoholic father. Video games have also asked me to place falling blocks into neat rows in order to make them disappear.
I’m pushing 40, and I’ve been playing video games for basically my entire life. Even so, games never felt like a lifestyle. They were just there, solid and immovable. Like your parents. You wouldn’t go out of your way to tell people that you have parents.
Video games are a permanent fixture of culture, and not just youth culture, one that these days competes for our attention with Netflix and Hulu, with HBO Go and Serial, with The Americans and Station Eleven and Birdman. That’s why it’s wrong to think of video games as a victory to be celebrated, or a curiosity to marvel over, or a threat that you ought to fear, or the organizing principle of a tribe with narrow interests and cloistered rituals.
Still, just because video games are here to stay doesn’t mean that their trajectory is inevitable, or that we can’t help shape their future. The medium—our least respected, most misunderstood art form—deserves more from us. It’s possible to think that video game criticism is better than it has ever been and yet still find it wanting. I am arrogant enough to think that we can do better. The New York Review of Video Games* (*possibly this week only) will highlight some of the strongest critics of video games, including podcasters and YouTube critics. We will ask game designers, and not just players, to write for a broad audience, just as novelists have long been willing to do in literary journals, or filmmakers in Cahiers du cinema.
And like a great book review, we will seek to create interesting collisions between writers and subjects. Can some of the finest video games of 2014 survive the scrutiny of a former New York Times television critic? A book critic? A Tonight Show writer? One of America’s best young writers of literary nonfiction?