On Games Criticism
For a while now, this blog has been promoted as a place that talks about academic issues, the nuts and bolts of writing, and the art of games. One of those, of course, has been much neglected. I might make a passing mention of a game here and there, but overall, I haven’t really taken the time to talk about it at length–which is a shame. Now, however, I intend to rectify this oversight with some musings on an approach to games criticism.
#GamerGate has been widely misunderstood as a whole, in much the same way we view any leaderless grassroots movement. It’s pretty hard to talk about something so amporphous and divergent. Some people seem to think it’s about ethics in games journalism. Others say it’s about the caustic influence of identity politics. Others say it’s an excuse for harassment. In many ways, all of these things are valid, I think, but it also demonstrates how much we like hearing ourselves talk. Whatever the movement represents to you is probably predetermined, and there’s likely no way to sway you to another opinion. Sadly, most of these topics are relegated to different spheres. The people who face harassment in and around the industry, of which there are many, shed light on a serious topic, one we should all be committed against. Of course, that doesn’t mean we should ignore ethical breaches or halt discussions about how to assess art. The people who bemoan the invasion of identity politics have legimate claims too, issues we have to consider, but it doesn’t mean they should blithely brush aside the discrimination people face. Instead of actually engaging in these peripheral conversations, most of the time, these true believers continue to preach from their megaphones and silence any dissent.
In truth, there are a lot competing ideas, an argument without focus. Is there sexism in games and the industry? Most likely. Is it annoying to read a review that epouses a philosophy and provides little analysis and cherry-picked evidence without assessing whether a game is “fun” or not? Sure. Are journalists, and this doesn’t even just apply to games journalism, a little too close to their subjects? Absolutely. These things are largely hard to disprove or refute. They just kind of are. However, much like Occupy Wall Street, I don’t think the conversation has been entirely productive. It’s a lot of self-pleasure, appealing solely to one’s own audience: mental masturbation. Frankly, that doesn’t interest me. Instead, I’d rather look at solutions to definitive problems, and since my background is dedicated to the creation and appreciation of art, it only makes sense to talk about games criticism at large.
It’d probably best to start with an admission: Most mainstream criticism, of all art, is garbage. It’s not about careful consideration, thorough analysis, and nuance. In most cases, the critics we find in newspapers and blogs–those who critique our books, our films, our video games–don’t spend a lot of time crafting their argument. They don’t mine every available piece of evidence. They don’t look at a text as whole. They don’t qualify their statements or follow through on the logic of their thinking. As Allan Bloom puts it in The Closing of The American Mind, “[T]here is no text, only interpretation.” In other words, they ignore the very thing under scrunity. They don’t care what it actually says, but instead, they care what they believe it to say. Of course, mainstream critics have deadlines and numbers to meet. It is not, after all, academia, where those things aren’t as important. What I’m trying to say is that contemporary critics react emotionally. They feel their opinions to be true.
And that, to me, is the biggest problem. If we aren’t thorough, if we don’t apply the skill of close reading, how can we really make any kind of aesthetic judgement?
Most games critics don’t seem to have a theoretical basis for their, admittedly, abitrary scores. They say the graphics are great or that the story drew them in. The truth is, I could give a fuck how it made you feel. What I want to know is why. I want evidence. This, again, isn’t entirely their fault. Now, more than ever, people flip shit if there’s even the suggestion of a spoiler, as if the fun of a piece of art is the mystery of what happens next. This, as I’ve said in the past, is a load of bullshit. It doesn’t ruin the experience: It enhances it. When we know what to look for going in, it makes appreciating the craft that much more satisfying. That does not mean that we should expect only to find what the critic has found. If anything, the real disaster would be to allow one reading to bias our own reading, but such a matter is of an individual’s own sense of discovery, their own inability to think for themselves.
So the question arises: How do we assess this artform? What criteria should we use to choose play or not play?
The answer is largely subjective, as we all have different approaches to art, but I think we can, thanks to New Criticism, lay a foundation. Every game is about something, a central tension, an idea, a philosophy its trying to express. Our job is to discover it, which we often do quite quickly. In a mere matter of moments, we can articulate the theme of just about anything. Yet if you were ask us how we had made such a realization, we would presumably say it just is. This, to me, is the first mistake. We need to actually show that theme and how it’s communicated, which means a thorough, careful reading based on a preponderance of evidence. Just as a math teacher asks us to show our work, so must we. The theme should inform every facet of the text: Its setting, its graphics, its design, its gameplay, its characters, its structure. If we talk explicitly, specifically about these elements, then we can form an argument and make our case.
To an extent, there are already a few publications who take this approach, like IGN or The Completionist. However, most reviewers who take such an approach fail to deliever compelling and in-depth evidence to their claims. Again, the text just simply is.
There are others out there, Polygon and Kotaku in particular, who have started to inject moral studies into their reviews. (Polygon’s review of Bayonetta 2 comes to mind.) As an academic, this isn’t all that egregious to me. Feminist, post-colonial, queer, and Marxist criticisms are not exactly new. However, I can understand the anger consumers feel coming into a review expecting to learn whether it’s fun or not and then hearing someone talk about gender roles and objectification. “What does it have to do with the game?” they ask. Most gamers aren’t aware of the jargon of cloistered academics. That’s not to say we shouldn’t practice these approaches or that they can’t serve as a guide for our criticism (it is very easy to marry that framework with New Criticism), but more so that we, as consumers, should know what we’re getting into.
So let’s get to the point here: Games publications should announce their critical lens. I want to know where you’re coming from. How are you looking at a game? What are your criteria? What do you privilege in your assessment? Most editors give some lip-service to these ideas, but none really ever declare a manifesto, a reason for their existence. Presumably, they assume we should learn this by reading the magazine. It’s a nice thought, but I think it’s a bit unreasonable. There’s so much to learn out there, so many opinions. Can I really read through every article you’ve published to get a feel for your publication just to decide if it’s for me? And what if the editor changes and hence their vision? That’s a lot to expect from anyone.
In short, there are two problems with games criticism as I see it. One, when dealing with a specific text, reviewers/critics fail to give specific examples to illustrate their claims and/or investigate their own criteria for what makes a game worth playing, which is why consumers resent the injection of moral studies in what they believe to be an objective analysis. Two, games publications don’t really announce their editorial vision. Though I don’t think these solutions will ever take a hold any time soon, I still hope that at least one publication comes along who adopts such practices. Maybe if such things were commonplace, we’d see a little less anger in the comments and a little more rational, intelligent debate.