Earlier this year, writer and critic Michael Thomsen appeared on the webcast version of ABC’s World News with Charles Gibson and declared Nintendo’s Metroid Prime trilogy “the Citizen Kane of video games”. The segment was not particularly persuasive, being a collision of film history, video games, and the evening news– we see quick cuts between Kane’s bold swaths of shadow and three-dimensional laser combat with space aliens, while Thomsen says something about loneliness– but the piece struck a chord in the video game community, which emitted a loud and derisive collective snort. The reaction of Anthony Burch at Destructoid was typical: he wrote “are you fucking kidding me?”
Within the video game industry, and despite strenuous, well-argued objections to the worth of comparing two very different media in two very different times, debate about “the Citizen Kane of video games” pops up again and again. As overused as the phrase is (along with its equally abhorrent twin, “where’s the video game that will make me cry?”), it stubbornly persists because it’s an easily-graspable shorthand for a bothersome problem: where are the games that will artistically legitimize them to everyone who doesn’t play them? The non-gamer world, succinctly represented by film critic Roger Ebert’s 2005 assertion that video games are “inherently inferior to film and literature,” just doesn’t see what’s so great about them, despite our own fervent belief and our dogged evangelical efforts.
The real debate, then, is about what exactly we’re going to muster to show the world to prove that what we’re doing isn’t just a fun diversion, but something of genuine cultural import. And the irritation with Thomsen seems to stem from him calling Metroid Prime a work of art for the ages with about as much guile as a schoolboy proclaiming the genius of a trade fantasy novel he read over the summer in front of the rest of the class. “That’s what you’re going to show to Ebert to convince him videogames are a legitimate art form?” Burch wrote. “You’re going to show him the morph bomb and expect him to nod repeatedly, and admit that the story of an extinct bird race and a woman with a bazooka on her arm is just as meaningful as La Dolce Vita? Seriously?”
Well, what else can we point towards? Thomsen picked Metroid, he told me, partly because he was just trying to talk about something that he personally responded to, and felt had some connection to the technical innovation for which Kane is known. But there are many other games out there with thoughtful, artfully constructed designs– games absent of laser beams in space, games that when played invite us to consider the rules and the mechanics that govern the world around us. We give these games awards and talk about them in polite non-gamer company as proof of their worthiness, but ask a typical gamer about the most memorable moment in his playing life and he is as likely as not to mention the time he sniped five guys in a row to save the day in a particularly hotly contested multiplayer match.
The idea that the embarrassment of admitting you really like games might be mitigated by pointing out that there exist certain works of interactive art that deserve to be taken seriously also doesn’t hold water when one looks at the fate of comic books, which, despite having been blessed by many works of absolute sincerity, seriousness and subtlety over the years, have largely failed to make a dent on the popular imagination as anything other than the province of the juvenile in body or mind. And how video games may or may not avoid the marginalized fate of comic books is another worried strain of thought running through the industry’s creatives. It serves as a warning to those who assert that cultural acceptance is simply a matter of time, that we can wait around for a coming generational shift. Michael Abbott, a professor at Wabash College who teaches theatre and film, notes his students usually aren’t particularly impressed with Kane when he screens it for them, but that they aren’t therefore automatically interested in video games, either: “From time to time I mention games in my class, and sometimes they respond and sometimes they don’t. They’ve all played games, sure, and see them as a fun thing to do. But the idea that one could think critically about games, that one could take them seriously, is really quite foreign to many of them.”
Real maturity, then, is about more than just appearances. It is about what lies underneath. Even though Burch wrote scathingly that Thomsen’s comparison “makes our most beloved art form look like kid’s stuff, and us like a bunch of idiots,” the very same day Destructoid also ran a story entitled White Knight Chronicles 2 has pointy boobs, droopy boobs. The implication of this being that treating games as the inwards-facing exclusive province of boyish adolescence is perfectly acceptable as long as Mom and Dad aren’t looking; if they are, though, hide the controllers and put on a tie. This inferiority complex runs so deeply in the gamer mindset that we will often swear up and down it does not exist while we continue unbridled our wildly passive-aggressive approach towards the artistic establishment, equal parts brash and defensive, trying to look older and more experienced than our years: the hallmark of youthful insecurity.
So before we can confidently come forth with our own particular offerings towards the sum of human cultural output, the light of civilization, it seems we must continue to gyrate through this adolescent process of self-discovery, as awkward and humiliating as it can be. Whether we like it or not, however, learning to be comfortable in our own shoes is not a journey that we can delay indefinitely.