Once, while ringing up my purchase of Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs, the cashier at the bookstore described reading Chuck Klosterman as something like “a conversation with a very clever acquaintance after you’ve both had a few too many beers at the bar;” enjoyable and stimulating, but upon further reflection, kind of shallow and sloppy. Klosterman recently wrote a bit in Esquire about the lack of serious criticism of video games. Let’s leave aside the fact that Klosterman seems to assert that the real reason why there’s no serious criticism is that no one is trying; that is simply incorrect. I’m more intrigued by his choice of role models, his claim that “there is no Pauline Kael of video-game writing. There is no Lester Bangs of video-game writing.”

Why Kael? Why Bangs? Is it just that they’re two of the more famous names in criticism? (“Famous” is, of course, a relative term; it could be argued that Ebert and Siskel [sorry, Roeper] are the only critics of any medium with any real hold on the general consciousness.) Kael, in addition to her trademark barbed wit, had a complete mastery of the straight-up review format; she could give the reader a complete understanding of a movie’s plot and themes (somehow without spoiling any twists or endings), rip it to shreds, and indict the entire film industry for allowing it to be made, all in under 800 words. Bangs was almost the opposite: his rambling, reflective essays were less about the music he was reviewing, and more about what the music brought out in him, and by extension, in the reader.

What Kael and Bangs had in common was a deep and abiding passion for the arts they covered, but passion is not what is lacking in the games criticism we see today (to be honest, passion is all that some writers have going for them). So the big question is: What kind of games criticism do we need? The gonzo, wandering, narrative writing of Bangs? Or the incisive, pithy, focused writing of Kael?

What I think we really need is a Jane Jacobs of games criticism: someone who can speak with clarity and urgency about the world we live in and its problems, and can point the way to real solutions.

What I think we’re generally heading towards is a games writing scene that looks a lot like sportswriting: beat writers who can’t afford to alienate the clubs they cover, and columnists whose job it is to make trolling remarks about who’s better than what.