Six years ago, The New York Times asked me to become a video game critic. Like most sufferers of the Dunning-Kruger effect, I figured I would quickly show everyone how the job should really be done. Three years later, my editors not only canceled my column, but they also jettisoned the idea of game criticism entirely, ending a run of 17 years in which the paper of record published video game reviews on a consistent basis. Oops.
Writing is hard. Making video games is hard. Writing about video games? That’s like surviving Oregon Trail on bare bones rations and a grueling pace. (Am I dating myself? Oregon Trail was a kind of historically inflected Dark Souls that they let us play in grade school, back when we didn’t know what Minecraft was.) To write about video games, you need to know something about art history, computer science, sports, psychology, economics, the Happenings of the 1960s, experimental theater, improv, animation, film theory and Dungeons & Dragons, and then also familiarize yourself with scores of games that are playable only on technology stored — for distributed safekeeping — in cardboard boxes in the basements and attics of our national grandparent reserve.
No wonder so few people do it. Even as websites like Eurogamer, Kotaku, Glixel, Critical Distance and yes, Polygon, demonstrate that there has never been more and better writing about video games, I daydream about the alternate universe where literary magazines and the book reviews of national newspapers write about games with sophistication, rather than as gee-whiz curiosities or alien invaders. Why can’t I live in that timeline? The one where game developers write about their peers’ work in the way that novelists do, and where novelists and art critics write about the games they play, instead of concealing their habit in the blue glow of midnight?
For a week, Polygon asked me to bring my fantasy universe to the real one. We’ve invited a few of our favorite game developers, and a few of my favorite game-playing writers, to reflect on the games we played in 2017. Happy New Year!
Chris Suellentrop is a host of the podcast Shall We Play a Game?. He is a former video game critic for The New York Times and has written about video games for Wired, the website of the New Yorker, Rolling Stone, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, Slate, Kotaku, and the Wilson Quarterly. He has talked about games on CBS, ESPN, and NPR. He is also the editor responsible for putting The Beatles: Rock Band on the cover of The New York Times Magazine, and for getting Halo 3 on the Times op-ed page. In his spare time, he is a political journalist.