No One Knows Who You Are, Video Game Criticism Edition

by Maddy Myers

I don't think I have any perspective about what makes a games critic "famous," and that's because there aren't any games critics who are famous outside of the games industry.

For a long time, I've measured other games critics against Leigh Alexander. She has more Twitter followers than most other games critics I follow, and she writes more and better than most others, too. It's likely that if I mention her name in passing to someone who reads any video game press at all, that person will know who I am talking about.

Meanwhile, all of the writers at Polygon now rival Leigh Alexander in terms of Twitter followers; take Justin McElroy, for example. What's more, someone at Twitter HQ must be a fan of Polygon, because a few months ago almost every single writer at Polygon got a blue Verified Account check mark next to their name. Just like Obama, and Madonna, and Roger Ebert. They're notable! They're celebrities! ... Right?

There's a specific network of people on Twitter (I'd estimate about 25K people) who follow video game press, read and recognize bylines, have "favorite" video game journalists and critics, and live in the thick of it. There's a smaller group of 100 or so people within that clique who are games journalists/critics/writers. These people, of which I am one, care even more about bylines than non-industry people, which makes sense because it's our job.

 You can be "famous" within these groups. The critics I've listed so far all feel famous to me, because within the Clique, they are. If, say, Justin McElroy even knew who I was, I'd be shocked. Same goes for Leigh Alexander, who I think knows who I am in a friend-of-a-friend way. Same goes for Tom Bissell, who might remember me because he commented on an article I wrote one time. These writers are household names to me. I know how hard the job is, because I do it, and I know that the more "famous" you get, the harder the job gets. I can barely stand the trolls I already have, and I've got nothing numbers-wise on the Alexanders and McElroys of the games criticism world.

I think I've made it clear, then, that I'm not trying to insult them when I say that no one outside of the Clique knows who these people are. You can put a blue check mark next to a games critic's name if you want to, but that's not going to change anything. Outside of the very niche network of people who follow games press -- which, yes, is a large clique, but is nonetheless a Clique -- no one recognizes these "famous people". Even among the people who follow games press, many don't know what critics' names are or pay any attention to bylines. If they use Twitter, they probably do, since Twitter is so personality-driven. But outside of Twitter? Not so much.

I think that what people like Warren Spector mean when they say there is no Roger Ebert of games is that there is no game critic famous enough that my Mom recognizes their name. My Mom doesn't know who Leigh Alexander is. She doesn't know who Tom Bissell is. She certainly doesn't know who a single one of those Polygon writers with a blue check mark is. My Mom reads Time and the Globe and countless other publications. Her daughter is a video game critic (to her confusion), so theoretically she should know some of these industry names ... but she doesn't. I don't even need to use my Mom as an example, though. Pick any "non-gamer" you know. Ask them who Leigh Alexander and Justin McElroy and Tom Bissell are. They don't have any idea who you're talking about, do they? 

I don't expect every arts genre to have a Roger Ebert. Dance criticism doesn't have one, for example. Roger Ebert was a bizarre anomaly. But most other forms of arts crticism do have a certain cultural cachet (no one is publishing articles asking "where are all the dance critics"). I would like it if video game criticism were visible enough to be considered as viable a career as any of the other forms of arts criticism  -- not that those other arts critic jobs are that respected, but they do still beat out "video game critic", in the sense that people know the jobs exist.

This doesn't relate to fame directly. Fame gets in a critic's way; it makes the job harder (as I've written in the past, with regard to Anita Sarkeesian, who might even be a contender herself as our one recognizable critics these days). But recognition of a few of our names, or at least of certain individual books or pieces or work, could normalize the job for the rest of us.

It's a tantalizing concept, to be the "Lester Bangs of games" or "Roger Ebert of games" or what have you, but it's not a goal that anyone has managed to achieve. That's fine -- maybe we just don't have any famous names, because as I've stated, plenty of other genres of arts criticism don't either -- but we've still got the bullshit part where "video game critic" is still not considered to be a job that exists. After all, we keep seeing people outside of our Clique asking where we all are. That's their fault for not looking hard enough, we shout. Or, maybe we're just not writing in the right places yet.

I don't like trying to explain away strangers' confused faces when I try to tell them what my job is. Even the most "famous" video game critics get paid very little in comparison to other famous arts critics (yeah, I've compared notes). I don't necessarily think video games themselves need to be legitimized; games already exist, people already play them, and that battle's been won behind the scenes already. We're fighting for visibility now, not credibility; we're not fighting for more "fame" (read: more hate-mail), we're fighting for other arts critics to give a shit about what we've been doing this whole time. I'm talking about getting paid, yes, but also getting published in notable outlets alongside other respected arts critics, having career goals to work towards, and not having to see article after article about how my work doesn't exist.

I don't actually know what the highest possible ideal version of my job would be. What am I aspiring towards? What's the best possible scenario? I end up editing a famous video game publication and I get a blue check mark next to my Twitter handle? More likely, I end up writing as much as I possibly can, a la Leigh Alexander, and I never even get the blue check mark no matter how much work I do. At the culmination of that Dream Video Game Criticism Career, no one knows who I am aside from people within that very insular community (and a lot of people within that community hate me already, so I could be doomed out of the gate).

Maybe I'll be the lucky critic (yes, it's almost entirely luck) who breaks out and ends out doing ... I don't know what, because I don't know what the dream even is! Or maybe I realize there's nowhere to go but sideways.

Why do you think video game writers get burned out? Could it be that they're sick of pushing thirty, or forty, and going to cocktail parties full of people who don't really give a crap about Shoot-Man: The Reckoning (even if it actually is a really good game that non-gamers should care about as a relevant cultural touchstone, god damn it)? Because if Shoot-Man: The Reckoning were a movie, or a book, or a ballet, that same cocktail conversation would land just fine. So why not make a living writing about that other stuff?

My goal for now is "become a better writer, write more, try to make enough money via writing in order to feel like I can buy food and not panic about it," but those are all personal markers of success. There are no external markers that I can think of, besides a blue check mark on Twitter, I suppose. There are no video game journalism awards that I aspire to win -- none that aren't thoroughly corrupt, that is. Should game critics be wishing we could win Pulitzers? Are we all just really sad that our parents and party guests and peer have no idea what we're talking about or who our colleagues are, especially the "famous" ones? Do we care what those people think, whether they're our family members or maybe the people who give out Pulitzers? Do we have to care, now that our more "famous" critics are getting older and older and realizing that none of us has ever really made it out? 

I still aspire to the goals that I imagine other genres' critics aspire to do: write books, win awards (no idea which ones), publish work that matters to people (even non-gamers). But, I admit, it feels impossible to do that in a video game sphere because no one has successfully managed to do it yet, at least not on the level of other arts critics. Doesn't mean I can't be the first. But how many other critics before me have said that? And how many of those other critics are thousands of times more "famous" than I, yet still floundering in relative obscurity and, let's be real, poverty?

Games critics are writing fantastic criticism every day. They are! But no one outside the industry is finding it. No one is reading it. We can make fun of people for not Googling "video game criticism" and finding Critical Distance right off the top, but how would a non-gamer even know what to Google, or to Google in the first place? And even though critics like Tom Bissell do get published in mainstream outlets, I'm pretty sure that people like my mother flip past his articles, saying subconsciously, "I don't play video games."

Gamer Culture loves elitism and exclusion ("we were bullied for liking games as kids, so now they're ours forever, go AWAY!"). But also, we don't need "the Rolling Stone of games magazines," we just need video games in the arts section of every single other publication. We need cover stories about video games. We need long features. And we need those articles to be well-written enough that a non-gamer can read every word and understand why the subject matters. And, yes, that's happening. Slowly. Sloooowwwwwly. So slowly that no one outside of games has any idea it's happening at all, most of the time. But it's happening! We can tell ourselves that, internally, and hope that eventually everyone else starts to see it.

Pieces like Warren Spectors make me feel helpless. I want to shake him and scream, "What do you think we're trying to do?!" As though all the games critics have been conspiring to never be noticed by the public at large! As though we don't want readership or respect! If we had any idea how to get it, don't you think we'd have gotten through by now? Don't you think at least one of us would have become a relatively well-known name that a few non-gamers would recognize as "that video game critic"?

At this point I've been writing about video games for money for about six years, and I've even been writing about games for "mainstream" publications like the Phoenix and Paste magazine. And yet, in the grand scheme, no one is reading my work or the work of other more "famous" critics than I. No one beyond the Clique is finding it. And even people who are theoretically within that circle, people like Warren Spector, can't see much of the work that is happening. That doesn't mean the work isn't happening. It just means no one is reading it. Which, frankly, is far more depressing to me.

No one knows who I am, but what's much worse is that no one knows who any of the writers that I respect are, either. Even the people who I aspire to be, the idols whose work I read and whose successes I'd like to achieve someday (blah blah caveats), are people who no one knows about. My most extreme version of success, right now, still involves a barely-livable wage and a topic that people flip past in a magazine ... even if it might interest them, should they try to read my work in the first place.

It might be selfish to admit that you want money or respect or to be able to tell people what your job is and have them actually know what you're talking about, even if they don't know who you are specifically or care, but whatever. I DO like making a livable wage, and I DO like getting told I did a good job when I worked hard, and I DO like seeing my name in print, and I DO getting edited and published in a popular publication that I read as a youngster and always wanted to be published in ... or, whatever your own metric for success is, fill in the blank.

I haven't had all of those things happen to me ... yet. Nor have I ever said to someone, "I'm a video game critic" and heard them respond, "Whoa, like Leigh Alexander?" Maybe someday. Maybe after she wins a Pulitzer.