Say Goodnight, Gracie

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Bye, June!

I’m taking a break until the 5th. I do hope you’ll find something to do to occupy your time until then.

One idea: Vote for the Hugo Awards! As you may recall, Old Man’s War has been nominated for Best Novel, and I’ve been nominated for the Campbell Award for Best New Writer. There are also other worthy candidates in both categories and in other categories as well. So if you’re a voting member of this year’s Worldcon, it’d be nice if you could swing over and do your thing. If you’re not a Worldcon member, well: There’s still time to join.

Have a great 4th of July (or 1st of July if you’re one of those wacky Canadians). See you all next Wednesday.

SCOTUS to POTUS: RTFM

The upshot of yesterday’s Hamdan decision seems to be that the Supreme Court has rather vigorously slammed the door on the idea of an imperial presidency, the one where our executive branch takes input from the legislative and judicial branches under advisement — if it feels like it — before doing anything it damn well feels like doing. That’s my takeaway from it, anyway.

Naturally, I’m pleased. I’m against the concept of an imperial presidency in a general sense, and I’m particularly against it in this specific instance, because I’ve never gotten past the feeling that the Bush people think of the Constitution as anything other than an annoying old document that they don’t understand why they have to pay attention to, because they’re not like other people. Well, guess again, Mr. President. Not even a war lets a president get away with this. As Senator Lindsey Graham — a Republican, I’ll note — said yesterday: “There is a strain of legal reasoning in this administration that believes in a time of war the other two branches have a diminished role or no role. It’s sincere, it’s heartfelt, but after today, it’s wrong.”

The fact that comment comes from a Republican — and that more than a few Republican and conservatives felt uncomfortable with the administration line regarding its power — points out something that I’ve noted before, which is that the administration’s attempted power grab over the last several years has nothing to do with Bush’s nominal political orientation. There’s nothing inherently Republican — certainly nothing inherently conservative — in the Bush administration’s posit of an executive branch supreme above the legislative and judicial branches; it’s a political philosophy cooked up entire in the Bush administration itself, and sprung not from a genuine and coherent foundation of ideas, but required because of the personal opinion of the president (and his advisors, such as the vice-president) that they shouldn’t have to consult the courts or the legislature. It’s the ultimate version of putting the cart before the horse.

This is, thankfully, why the Bush theory of executive power was doomed: It’s built on irrational premises, and it was required to compete with a rational theory of executive power, which is to say, the one encoded into the Constitution. The Bush folks are clever enough to attempt to spin a political philosophy out of their leaders’ unwillingness to follow the Constitution; they were not wise enough to make a durable argument from it (or alternately, not wise enough to realize it couldn’t work). Personally, I think it was vitally important that the Bush Theory of Executive Supremacy was whacked down while Bush was still in office. I don’t think it would survive anyway (I try to spin scenarios in which a Hamdan-like decision comes to the Court in a Democratic administration, and Scalia and Thomas don’t vote against it, and I just can’t), but all things told it’s better it dies with its creator still in office.

There are some folks out there who suspect that this doesn’t change anything; that an adminstration that would posit a theory of executive power would not feel obliged to listen to the court, and that Bush will pull an Andrew Jackson, basically daring the Court to enforce the decision while doing what it wants to do anyway. I think these people need to chill the hell out. There’s a difference between promoting a legal theory and proceeding from it in the absence of a ruling, and proceeding from it after it’s been discredited. Maybe I’m dumb, but I don’t see examples of where the Bush adminstration has gone out of its way to do the latter. This administration may view the Constitution as inconvenient, but it’s not comprised of stupid people, either. It wants to expand what is seen as the legitimate power of the executive branch — not have the executive branch seen exercising illegitimate power. I strongly suspect it’ll abide by the ruling. It will wriggle and twist and turn in all ways to try to preserve its theory of executive power under the constraints of the ruling, of course — how could it not — but it’ll follow the ruling.

And if it doesn’t? Well, then. Impeach the president. Most readers here know I am generally virulently against impeaching the president (any president, but even this one) under nearly all circumstances. But in the almost unfathomably improbable circumstance that George Bush decides to ignore the Supreme Court ruling and do things his own way, thereby placing himself both outside and above the rule of law, then impeachment, trial and removal from office are reasonable and rational remedies (I suspect the impeachment, trial and removal from office of the vice-president will happen concurrently. Hello, President Hastert!). But of course, if Bush & Co. see themselves as above the law, it’s not likely they would respond to impeachment, now, is it. And then we’d have all sorts of interesting Constitutional crises. I don’t see this happening.

What I see happening is the Constitutional rule of law re-established, and the executive branch of the government returned to its co-equal position with the legislature and the judiciary. I’m pretty happy about that.

On Tonight’s Episode of “Those Crazy Clones!”

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When Clone #1 won’t share his copy of Subterranean Magazine #4 — the SF Cliche issue — Clone #2 gets upset, and Clone #3 takes matters, and a battle axe, into his own hands.

Those crazy clones!

(In other news, yes, the magazine has arrived. It looks great. Get your own copy. And then get one for your clone. Because you know how they get.)

Jim Baen, 1943 – 2006

Science fiction and fantasy readers, pause a moment in your day to to note the passing of publisher Jim Baen, who died yesterday. Author David Drake has an appreciation of him here.

Clouds and Rainbows 06/28/06

You need to see that one in the larger version, I think.

Athena loves rainbows.

Whole set here.

Also, Now That I’m Thinking About It…

… I actually don’t enjoy toast all that much. Just not a big fan of burnt, crispy bread. You want crispy bread, have a cracker.

That is all.

The Blabbering Masses

I’ve gotten a couple of e-mails over the last couple of days asking me if I have any opinion about the slapfight currently going on between The New Republic and Daily Kos. The answer is no, not really, because I’m not entirely sure I understand what the hell it’s about, or even why I should care. At its heart it boils down to “print media writer gets annoyed at blog; blog returns hostility,” and, well, isn’t that a little 2002? Who gives a crap? Let TNR and Daily Kos have their fun, but let’s not pretend it matters.

Nevertheless, there’s a side issue to this whole pointless hoofraw which interests me. Probably the most cogent discussion of it comes from Josh Marshall, who chalks up the TNR overreaction to whatever it was overreacting about (I’m still not entirely sure, although here’s the (ironically) TNR blog entry in which it occurs) by noting that people at tiny political magazines might get a letter or two in response to something they write, whereas when you post on a blog and immediately you start accruing responses in comments and e-mails, and if you’re popular and controversial enough, you’ll get dozens and possibly hundreds of comments.

Josh makes a good point. Like Josh, I work in print and I work online. My offline writing regularly goes out to about half a million people in aggregate; I almost never get any comments about it. This site pulls in between 15 and 20 K people a day; I’m not sure I can remember the last time an entry didn’t elict a comment of some sort. I could put up an entry which, in its entirety, reads “I enjoy toast” and people would leave comments (indeed, I suspect that would be a lively comment thread). What’s more, after a certain and I suspect very low level of visitation, comments happen regardless. When I switched over to the Movable Type software in March 2003 (thus gaining the ability to allow comments) this site got about a tenth of the visitors it has now; nevertheless, nearly every entry then has comments too. There are LiveJournals which have 1% the audience I do which I’d bet get as many comments as this site gets. That’s what this medium is about. And I guess if you’re not used to that, maybe it looks like blogs are being attacked by monkeys. I don’t know.

One thing that I think is true about comments on a blog or site is that there are two factors which are highly significant regarding the overall quality of comments and of comment threads. The first factor is the size of the blog’s audience; basically, the larger the blog, the more people will comment. This means that two things are more likely to happen: One, the sheer number of morons and nutbags in the blog’s audience who feel compelled to respond will go up, dropping their little comment turds in the thread. These turds must be negotiated around; too many of these turds in a comment thread and suddenly the whole thread looks bad regardless of any substantitive discussion which might be happening, because even The Hermitage would look terrible covered in crap.

Two, when there are a large number of people commenting, the narrative of the thread becomes increasingly fragmented — people are responding to comments that happened four or five posts upthread, and none of the comments between those have anything to do with that conversation. This fragmenting can be mitigated by quoting from previous comments or by threading, but it still offers a herky-jerky reading experience.

The second factor is whether the blog is monotopical (all about politics, or open source, or ponies, or whatever); essentially my theory is that the fewer topics you cover in your blog, the more likely you are to have higher percentage of morons, nutbags and just plain obsessives among your commenters. Read the most popular political or tech blogs and you’ll see this most clearly, but I suspect (without having done any useful research on the subject of course) that any single-subject blog will get a disproportionate numbers of morons/nutbags/obsessives among the commenters.

Now, combine those two factors above — have a very popular, monotopical site — and you’ve got real trouble in the comment threads. There is likely to be substantive discussion, but the signal/noise ratio eventually becomes hard to manage. And this is without considering other factors, such as whether the blog’s proprietor is completely off his or her nut (because whackjob bloggers will attract whackjob commenters) or whether said blogger has notoriety outside or independent the blogosphere (in which case you add “crazed fanboys” to the mix of morons/nutbags/obsessives) or whether the blogger is an attractive woman, in which case you get an extra added helping of passive-aggressive creeps among the commenters. Really, such a fascinating melange of insanity!

Some very popular, monotopical bloggers don’t even bother turning on their comments most of the time. I think that’s an entirely reasonable solution, actually, particularly if the blogger has a life outside of blogging and doesn’t want to deal with the bother of moderating comments. Because if you are a popular, monotopical blogger (who is not also entirely insane) and you want to keep your comment threads from evolving into a miasmic stew of the lowest common rhetorical denominator, that’s what you have do. There are many who don’t, however, and their comment threads are, from a point of readability, a pure waste of time.

How does all this relate to this site? Well, you know. I actually think this place is reasonably good with the comments. It has an audience which is large (for the blog world) but which is not unwieldly. I cover a lot of topics, so the people who are genuine obsessives on one particular topic don’t tend to stick around. I don’t think I’m personally insane, nor do most the commenters seem that way, and while I have notoriety outside the Blog world, it’s not a notoriety so outsized that it comes with its own core of stalkers. And also, of course, I’m not a pretty girl, drat the luck. So the factors that trend a site toward monkey-like commenting are not greatly in evidence here.

Also, I spend a lot of time in my comment threads, which I think matters. I’m not a strident moderator, but I do think I help establish a tone, and I do think the people who comment here over a reasonable period of time reinforce that tone. Whether that tone is always a congenial one is of course a matter of debate, and not evey comment thread is a model of deep thought and civility. But I think by and large the commenting here is varying degrees of intelligent, substantive and fun. I think overall the Whatever has excellent commenters and comment threads, and that reading the comment threads adds to the value of the site rather than detracts from it, which I think is the case in many places.

Yes, I’m patting myself on the back for having a good reader base. Thank you all, you make me look good.

Is the general high level of comment quality on the Whatever sustainable? Well, that’s an interesting question, isn’t it? The site’s attendence is still growing, and we may get to the point where it the audience is so large that the signal-to-noise ratio in the comment threads gets to be too much. But then again, as they say in financial services commercial, past performance is not a promise of future gains. There’s no assurance growth will continue. I doubt this blog will ever become Daily Kos-sized or LittleGreenFootballs-sized, primarily because it’s not a monotopic blog, and I have no ambitions for it to be so, or to be anything more than what it is now — a place for me to blather. I suspect this is eventually a growth limiter (this is where it would have been useful to be a pretty girl).

However, even if the site does have its readership grow extensively from here out, I suspect its growth will happen as it has for most of its existence, which is, relatively slowly. The Whatever has never grown by leaps and bounds; it’s been a steady accumulation. I think this sort of growth produces a generally thoughtful class of commentors, although again, this is just an anecdotal observation. I have no rigorous data to back it up. But if it is true, then I think there’s also a good chance the comments and comment threads will continue to be of a general high quality. We’ll have to see over time.

Author Interview: David Louis Edelman

Over at By The Way, I’ve put up an interview with David Louis Edelman, whose SF/Business thriller Infoquake has found its way into bookstores. Learn why there are no bug-eyed aliens in the book (but why there are bears), what future business has to go with the go-go 90s dotcom era, and what we have in common with the contemporaries of Adam Smith. It’s everything you could want in a six-question interview, and so much more.

Back to the Amendment Junkpile

Flag amendment fails. Yet again. Back into its hole for another year. Thank you to the 34 senators whose brains are not made of cottage cheese on this matter.

Subterranean Magazine #4 Update

I’ve been informed that most copies of Subterranean Magazine issue #4 were mailed today and the rest will be mailed tomorrow, so those of you who have ordered copies: Here they come!

(And those of you who have not ordered a copy: It’s not too late to turn away from a life of deprivation. Here’s the link. Just $6 for 18 fabulous stories! Come on!)

An Unfathomable Cavalcade of Riches

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A banner day for SF/F lovers, today is, because four big novels drop into the stores: Fellow Campbell nominee Sarah Monette’s The Virtu, which has gotten a lovely starred review in Publishers Weekly (“This sequel is every bit as original and satisfying as its predecessor”); Scott Lynch’s debut novel The Lies of Lock Lamora, which received a starred review in Booklist (“Expect it to be among the year’s most impressive debuts”) and whose movie rights have already been snapped right up; This year’s Best First Novel Locus Award winner Elizabeth Bear’s Blood and Iron : A Novel of the Promethean Age, which is also nicely reviewed (“Campbell-winner Bear overturns the usual vision of Faerie, revealing the compelling beauty and darkness only glimpsed in old ballads and stories like ‘Tam Lin'”); and last but certainly not least fellow Hugo-nominee Charlie Stross’s Glasshouse, which — surprise, surprise — is getting all sorts of reviewer love as well (“Stross’s wry SF thriller satisfies on all levels, with memorable characters and enough brain-twisting extrapolation for five novels”). The question is not which to buy, merely which to buy first. That’s my question, anyway.

Actually, I do have a complaint, which is that all of these are coming out just as I’m buckling down to finish The Last Colony, meaning that even if I buy them — which I will — I won’t be able to enjoy them until after the end of July. And that’s just cruel. Really, I can’t understand why they didn’t put my needs first. Writers can be so mean sometimes.

As I’ve just unleashed a veritable torrent of pimpery here, I declare the comment thread below to be a self-pimp zone: If you’ve got a something you want to promote, this is a fine place to do it. No link too self-serving! Pimp yourself! Pimp your friends! Hours of fun for the whole family!

Re: Flag Burning Amendment

Oh, look. Another year passed, another idiotic debate on a flag-burning amendment to the US Constitution, as ever, just in time for July 4th. Funny how that works.

Rather than wind myself up on the matter, I commend those of you who have not seen it to last year’s post on the matter, in which I show just how easy it is to get around any flag-burning amendment, rendering it even more completely useless and stupid than it would be on its own. I expect to be posting this as a repeat every year around this time from now until the end of time itself, or at least until the end of the US Congress. A shame, that.

Because I Am a Bad Bad Person…

… I find this almost unspeakably funny.

Well, except for that very last part. But right up to that.

Update: It appears to be an edit of an ad for Nokia (Thanks, Codepope, for the catch). Still funny, however, and I feel better about laughing.

And Now The Bad News

I’m at crunch time for The Last Colony, which means that from tomorrow until the end of July I’m going to spend almost all of my waking life writing, buffing and polishing that book in anticipation of shipping it off to its editor. My blathering here is very like to wrench down to a minimum. I know I’ve said that before, but by God, this time I mean it. This means entries are likely to get very short, and the likelihood of me spending a whole lot of time in the comment threads is fairly small (depending on who you are, you may find this a good thing).

I was in a similar crunch last July and brought in guest bloggers for what I thought was a very interesting (and highly successful) month. I don’t think I’ll repeat this trick this year but I may entertain the notion of bringing in a couple of other folks to post when the mood strikes them. I’ll decide that this week. No, this isn’t an open call; I’ll contact the folks I’m interested in if I go that way.

Once The Last Colony is done, I’m sure I’ll be back to my hypergraphic ways around here. But I hope you’ll indulge me over the five weeks if the Whatever is not filled with the same mass o’ text you’re used to. I promise, I’m still writing, just somewhere else where you can’t see it. Yet.

Update: 10pm: Also, I’ve redone the colors around here.

John Scalzi: Egotistical Toady-Loving Asshole?

Due to my reaction to a number of his recent posts, a fellow who comments here at the Whatever has decided to take his leave of this sunny vale, but not without offering a kiss-off which reads, in part:

You’re an asshole with an inflated ego who only truly suffers the company of sycophants & makes no effort to even try see anyone else’s point of view.

Well, I have my own opinions on this assessment of my own self, but because I’m just this way, I thought I’d throw this open to discussion. So:

Resolved: John Scalzi:

a) Is an asshole;
b) Has an inflated ego;
c) Suffers only the company of sycophants;
d) Makes no effort to see anyone else’s point of view.

Discuss. Are all these true? None? Some but not all? I crave your opinion on the matter!

To assure that all and sundry feel free to express themselves freely, this thread will not be edited (excepting for spam), nor will I participate in the thread. I trust that you all will play nicely with each other.

Have fun, you crazy kids.

Testify and Amen

From Randall Balmer, professor of American religious history at Barnard College: Jesus is not a Republican:

I went to Sunday school nearly every week of my childhood. But I must have been absent the day they told us that the followers of Jesus were obliged to secure even greater economic advantages for the affluent, to deprive those Jesus called “the least of these” of a living wage, and to despoil the environment by sacrificing it on the altar of free enterprise. I missed the lesson telling me that I should turn a blind eye to the suffering of others, even those designated as my enemies.

The Bible I read says something quite different. It tells the story of ancient Israel’s epic struggle against injustice and bondage — and of the Almighty’s investment in the outcome of that struggle. But the Hebrew Scriptures also caution against the imperiousness of that people, newly liberated from their oppressors, lest they treat others the way they themselves were treated back in Egypt. The prophets enjoin Yahweh’s chosen people to “act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” and warn of the consequences of failing to do so: exile and abandonment. “Administer true justice,” the prophet Zechariah declares on behalf of the Lord Almighty. “Show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor. Do not plot evil against each other.”

The New Testament echoes those themes, calling the followers of Jesus to care for orphans and widows, to clothe the naked, and to shelter the homeless. The New Testament I read says that, in the eyes of Jesus, there is no preference among the races and no distinction between the sexes. The Jesus I try to follow tells me that those who take on the role of peacemakers “will be called the children of God,” and this same Jesus spells out the kind of behavior that might be grounds for exclusion from the kingdom of heaven: “I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.”

Balmer, incidentally, considers himself an evangelical Christian, although he is under no illusion that he has the same views as the majority of evangelicals in the US. Based on the essay, to which I commend you, I wish that more evangelicals did share his views. Perhaps in time more will.

The Great Book Triage of 2006

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Because the quantity of books I have threaten to collapse upon me and cwush my widdle head, we have, as a temporary measure, packed up the majority of my books into plastic tote containers, for easy shlepping to the basement. At some point in the near future I’ll put up some more bookshelves and they will be released from their polyurethane entrapments, but for now, it’s best for everyone involved.

Krissy has suggested this will also be a fine time to do a little culling of the books, and so I’ve gone through the collection with an eye toward which books I have more than one copy of, which books I’ve read but am likely never to read again, and which books I got for some unfathomable reason yet have no intention of reading (the picture above isn’t of the reject pile, incidentally; this was a picture near the beginning of the sorting process). I’m the sort of person who would generally prefer to give up a limb than give up a book, so you might imagine this was painful for me; I basically looked for excuses to keep ’em. But eventually I had over 100 books headed to the used bookstore. May God have mercy on their souls.

The sorting process did make me confront just how many books I have that I’m not likely to let go of. Books by friends, books given to me by friends (whether they’ve written them or not), and books that limited and/or first editions are all books that are not going anywhere, and I seem to have accrued a lot of those, with more coming in as we go along. There are worse things, of course. But it does mean I’m going to end up buying more bookcases than I imagined I would.

Why There Are No Great Video Game Critics (Yet)

In the e-mail box today, a question from one of the great new writers of the day, Joe Hill:

On the assumption that you’re always hunting for material for the blog, I thought I’d point you to the Chuck Klosterman article in the latest ESQUIRE. The always interesting Klosterman wonders why, if videogames are the dominant pop art form of our day, there isn’t a Pauline Kael or a Lester Bangs to remark upon them – why the form has failed to produce a body of interesting criticism. I know you’re a staff guy for PS2 magazine, and someone who has given more than a little thought to the place video games have in our culture. I thought maybe you’d want to check the Klosterman piece out and respond.

Well, as it happens, I know the reasons why there are (currently) no great video game critics. Here are the reasons:

1. Video games are too immature for valid criticism. “Immature” not in the sense that the stories/material is infantile, or aimed at such a low common denominator that useful criticism is not possible. Some video games are, of course, but then so are some movies and music, so that’s not really saying anything.

What I mean is that it’s immature as a narrative medium. Video games are no longer anywhere near new — the first home consoles came out in the 1970s, and Space Invaders is on the verge of its 30th anniversary — but it’s only been in the last decade or so that consoles and computers have become powerful enough to allow the sort of meaningful interactive narrative that is the hallmark of video game storytelling. You can argue with me on the specifics, but I think the first truly notable interactive video game narrative presentation was Myst, which dates back only a dozen years. Other people might choose Civilization (1991) or SimCity (1989) instead, and I think those are valid choices, too. But however you chop it up, the video game as a criticism-worthy medium is, at best, about fifteen years old, and to my mind it’s only been since the emergence of Half-Life (1998) that there has been a substantial number of games worthy of genuine criticism. So we’re talking less than a decade’s worth of games worthy of criticism.

Now, let’s go back to the examples of critics offered earlier: Pauline Kael and Lester Bangs. Pauline Kael began writing film criticism in the 1950s, but only really became Pauline Kael when she started writing for New Yorker in 1967. By the time Kael made her name, film, as an artistic medium, was six decades old and artistically significant films had been made for half a century. It was a mature (if still radically evolving) medium. Likewise, Lester Bangs started reviewing rock in 1969, fifteen years after rock and roll emerged as its own genre, and of course decades after pop music of any sort had become a fertile ground for criticism — and pop music in general (as opposed to rock itself) should arguably be the metric we use for the medium.

If we grant that Kael and Bangs typify mature (or, given Bang’s style, at least fully engaged) examples of criticism of their media, the reason there is currently no Kael or Bangs for video games is clear: It’s awfully damn early for someone like them to arrive for the video game medium. Possibly the “Kael of video games” is the age of my daughter right now, and like her banging out rhythms on Dance Dance Revolution or getting immersed in some Mario World. Like Kael or Bangs, she’ll never have known a time in which games were not fully narrative in their way, so like them she won’t have to rely on metaphor or perspective that inherently views video games as a disruption (or the supplanter) of other artistic media.

Which is a problem with at least some of the people who have attempted “serious” video game criticism. Before he became an “embedded journalist” for a video game company, writer Wagner James Au used to write portentous, pretentious reviews of video games for Salon magazine and others, breathlessly exclaiming how this video game or that would forever change the way we look at the world, or whatever. It made me want to brain the man with a heavy limb of oak. These games Au journalistically slobbered over may or may not have been great games, but his rush to pump up the importance of video games in the world (and in the process, position himself as a chronicler at the vanguard of social change) made him look a little foolish. Good idea, overwrought execution. He may have gotten better since then — I’m not sure, I haven’t read him in a while — but he was an early example of why possibly the real significant critics aren’t even in the business yet. The real significant critics will take for granted that the medium is significant. They won’t have to worry about justifying it.

(Likewise, of course, by the time Kael made it to the New Yorker, the magazine didn’t have to explain to its readers why it had a film critic — in 20 years, perhaps, the New Yorker won’t have to explain why it has a video game critic.)

Joe Hill notes that in his essay, Klosterman suggests that now is for video games what 1967 was for rock music. I disagree; I think now is like 1956 was for rock music, or 1928 was for film. We’re not yet at the point where the creative aspects of the medium are simply undeniable, but we are at a point where most of the tools exist that game makers will need to state their case.

2. You actually have to be able to play the video games. Useful and valid criticism requires some academic knowledge of the field you want to criticize. But once you’ve got that, the input portion of criticism is generally pretty easy: With film, you (primarily) watch with your eyes. With music, you (primarily) listen with your ears. You’re done. Video games, however, require an additional skill, and that is to be able to play the game. Therein lies a problem: The hermeneutics of video games require a whole lot of button-mashing. How many critics are both able to get through a boss level and tell you what it means as a social construct? In the future, probably a lot. At the moment: Not so many.

Now, perhaps there are some would-be critics who would tell you that they could watch the game as it’s being played by others and give you a reasonable critical evaluation that way, but let’s call that now for what it is: Bullshit, bullshit, bullshit. You can’t usefully criticize that which you can’t understand, and you can’t understand video games without playing them, because the play itself is immensely significant. In Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, the choice of allowing video game players to save their games only at certain save points rather than saving anywhere is as significant in the experience of playing the game as where Gregg Toland put his camera is in the experience of watching Citizen Kane. Trying to understand the impact of save points in that game without playing the game is like trying to understand the impact of deep focus by being told about it by someone else. No matter how much you understand it intellectually, you don’t understand it as an experience. So your criticism will lack validity.

As I noted, this problem will correct itself in time, because there are a lot people coming up who can think critically about the video game media and do exquisite combo moves without thinking much about them. We’re just not entirely there yet.

3. The current generation of video game reviewers are primarily reviewers, not critics. Which is to say that the reviews are aimed at telling readers whether a game’s play is worth shelling out $50 for, and not about the cultural and aesthetic context of the game and why it is significant in that regard. There can be some of this, of course; today’s best reviewers are quite knowlegable about the genre and also, they’re neither personally stupid nor bad writers (although I’ll have more to say about the latter later), and they know when a game they’re playing is significant as well as fun. But criticism is not the primary role of the review.

This is not a problem. Reviewing tends to be thought of as the idiot cousin of criticism, but as someone who has done both, I reject this interpretation, because it’s jackass stupid. Reviewing a game with an eye toward its playability, the enjoyment it gives to the consumer, and its simple overall fun factor is entirely valid. For one, people tend to buy video games to have fun. For another, $50 ($60 on the next-gen consoles) is not an insignificant amount of money to slap down for a game. Your average player may be mildly interested in the context of the game he or she is playing, but nine times out of ten, what they really want to know is: is this worth my time? Is this worth my money? Having people who can knowledgably say “yes” or “no” on that criteria is a good thing.

Professional video game criticism at this point is almost completely review-driven rather than criticism-driven because that’s where the money is, and the companies who traffic in video game reviewing (including Ziff-Davis, for whom I freelance) see the bottom line value in that. As far as I know, there is no video game equivalent of Cahiers du cinéma, and if one is to come into being, it will be done by someone other than the current crop of publishers, and by people who want to tear down the existing critical structures surrounding video games. People gripe about reviews or declaim about the need for genuine criticism, but no one’s done anything about it to any significant effect. Again, this may also be an issue of time — Cahiers du cinéma popped into existence after a half-century of film; its closest equivalent in popular music, Rolling Stone, also happened long after pop music established itself as a viable artistic form (hold this thought; I’ll come back to it).

4. Many current video game reviewers suck and will likely never stop sucking. The best of the current generation of video game reviewers are good writers and smart observers of the field, even if they are confined for various reasons to reviewing rather than criticism. But let’s be honest here and note that the best writers and thinkers tend to be concentrated in the print magazines, who can afford to pay well for the most competent writers (as well as competent editors and copyeditors, whose input is, to put it lightly, not insignificant).

Quite a lot of the Web-based reviewers, on the other hand, are guys who happen to love video games and think it’s damn cool they get to play games for free and maybe get a little money on the side. Many of these reviews are not especially good as pieces of writing, or show any particularly interesting depth of thought. Serious video game criticism is not likely to come out of the current commercial magazines, but I regret to say that I don’t see it coming out of most of the current Web-based writers, either, because I don’t see all that many looking up from what they’re doing now to see a larger picture.

Now, this is all part and parcel of a larger issue in video game journalism in general, which is the perception that it’s in the pocket of the industry itself because it is highly dependent on the largess of the video game companies, who offer sneak previews to games and access to programmers, etc. in an informal quid pro quo situation. In other words, there’s a general perception video game journalism is largely corrupt. Speaking from my own experience, I think this true the further down the food chain you get (for the record, I’ve never been pressured by anyone at Ziff-Davis or anywhere else I’ve done video game writing to write anything but what I wanted to say), and again, it does put a damper on genuine criticism of video games coming from those who perceive themselves to be in “video game journalism.”

This isn’t meant to be a general beating on Web-based game writing — there is some good Web-based writing on video games. But I do think that game sites that grew out of enthusiasm for games and without notable regard for legitimate journalistic standards and practices find themselves vulnerable to manipulation and misinformation by video game companies. Yes, this is a problem, and it’s a problem that I wonder if some game sites are at all interested in solving, because it runs the risk of them losing access to cool stuff (and possibly readers). This is not a fertile ground for deep thought.

5. Video games lack a human story. Film has its auteurs; music has its singer/songwriters. Each of these archetypes of their media are romantic and also (conveniently enough) a useful peg to hang criticism upon. These media also have other useful archetypes: “the band,” movie stars and crew, producers (both in music and film), exhibition events (concerts and premieres) and so on. The human story in video games is much harder to find. Video games do have their auteurs — Wil Wright, John Carmack, Sid Meyer and Shigeru Miyamoto are examples — but what they do and how they do it is frightfully opaque. Does a long discussion about Carmack’s work on specular lighting or his latest game engine have the same critical accesibility as a discussion about, say, Orson Welles’ directorial choices, or the making of Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound” technique? Personally, I think it doesn’t, save for a small, technically adept tribe.

Also, the context of video game making is inherently less interesting than the context of the creation of other media, and that has an impact on criticism as well. No offense to video game makers, but their lives (so far) generally lack the drama of the lives of filmmakers, musicians and authors, primarily because whereas the backstory to film and music is the stars, the location shoots, the long nights in the studio, the drug-filled creative sessions and what have you, the backstory to game making is lots and lots and lots of coding, with the occasional status meeting and feedback from beta testers. The closest video game creators have gotten to a dramatic life narrative fueling a creative ambition in the field is the John Romero/Daikatana story. I don’t doubt that the creative and production backstory to video games is significant in the creation of games; the question is whether it is transparent enough to write about and compelling enough to hang criticism upon — and if any critic can follow the entire process well enough to write about it knowlegably.

One way this could change is if a standardized set of tools appeared that allowed game makers to focus on creating interactive narratives more than on the tool building itself. This is already happening to some extent — many video games are built on relatively few game engines, which are then licensed, and platforms like Second Life allow people to build worlds and situations with pre-created forms. There’s also machinima (movies created inside of game engines), the creative and critical narrative of which is rather more like the one we already have for film (although machinima is not typically interactive in the same way a video game is). As creating games becomes easier, there is a chance for a wider range of human stories coming into the world of video game production, which will make for more fertile ground for criticism.

More likely, however, is that the Kael or Bangs of the video game world is going to have to find a way to make really obscure and obstruse technical concepts not only interesting but illuminating, and also find a way to tease out the human drama of game production and tie it in with what the player interacts with on screen. This is a tough gig, and again, it may require some more time for the world to catch up.

One final thing, which is the inevitable conclusion of everything above:

6. Criticism is a reaction as well as an explanation. Cahiers du cinéma was a reaction to the status quo of film criticism up to that time; Rolling Stone was among other things an attempt to legitimize a genre of music that was still seen mostly as artistically inconsequential noise. We like to think we live in a world on “Internet time,” but we’re still the humans we’ve been for millennia as well. I’ve no doubt people are reacting to the video game industry and striving to become the Kaels and Bangs of the media, and bless them for it. But the question is whether there is genuinely enough there to respond to in an enduring way. If it took half a century of film before the editors and writers of Cahiers du cinéma could promote the auteur theory of film — and in doing so, change not only the volcabulary of film criticism but also directly affect how films were made — how long might it take to formulate a similar, workable, durable theory of video games? This theory won’t be like the auteur theory, to be sure. But maybe it’ll be something to wrench around the way we interact with video games, and as a result have an impact on how games will be made.

Is it that time yet? Are we there yet? I’m not sure it is, or that we are. Moreover, I’m not sure we will be there any time soon. When it does happen, video games’ versions of Kael and Bangs will be there and ready to tell us how to think about it, and we’ll be able to react, appreciate, argue or ignore them, just as people did with Kael and Bangs. I’m not certain when it will happen, I’m just certain it will.

(Incidentally: of all the current video game writers and critics, who do I think is the closest equivalent to Kael or Bangs? These guys. You may feel free to speculate why I think this might be so.)

New Favorite Photoshop Effect

Diffuse Glow (0 grain) + 50% boost in saturation.

It’s an interesting look.

Incidentally, if it seems like I’m posting pictures more than writing anything of any consequence over the last couple of days, that’s because that’s basically what I’m doing. I’m in an unaccountably foul mood over the last few days, and I’m largely avoiding posting anything that requires me to say anything longer than a paragraph because if I don’t it’s likely to slide into incoherent ranting about how 90% of humanity must be taking jackass pills or something. Yes, I know it’s fun to see me when I’m in a mood, in that “ha, ha, let’s watch the drunken dancing monkey” way. But I’m not in a mood about anything in particular; it’s more of a free floating exasperation with the universe. And that’s not particularly interesting (at least it’s not that interesting to me). It’ll pass. In the meantime: look, pictures.

You Don’t Need a Weatherman to Know Which Way the Wind Blows

Just before the thunderstorm:

We’re in the thunderstorm right now. Wheee!