I'm a gamer, not game developer. I write about the games industry, but I am not a game journalist. I also am someone who believes that the current state of video game journalism has neither the space nor the use for video game criticism.
Games exist in a bizarre space within the realm of cultural production. On one hand, they are interactive mediums of narrative, engagement and most importantly, a medium of experience. On the other, they are commercial products, produced for mass entertainment, driven by advertising and analyzed by metrics. To argue that the role of criticism is neither welcome nor useful to video games is at best flawed, and at worst denying not only the effects of the medium we so love, but in fact insults the very audience they are created for.
But to insist mainstream journalists abandon their current roles as purveyors of reviews and news to be ambassadors of criticism denies the importance and function of their responsibilities as well.
Not to be confused:
In a reaction to the infamous Freeplay11 panel 'The words that we use', Critical Damage became rightly incensed
with the supposition that you can loosely interchange terms like videogame journalist and videogame criticism and believe they represent the same thing.
Writers for sites from IGN to 1up are video game journalists, performing the filtering and distribution function of a chain that starts with a publisher, lands with the consumer and ends in accounting. They serve to categorize, describe and quantify in their own terms the subjective worth of a game to potential consumers who are trying to make informed decisions of purchase. They’re also fans and gamers themselves, lest we forget. While I don’t envy game journalists, who have to deal with rabid fanboi’s, restrictive NDA's and juggling authenticity with publishers demands, in the system I described there is no room for them for wholesale videogame criticism
To explain that, I have to define not only what I mean by video game criticism, but why it’s so important. My personal definition revolves around a process of analyzing video games through three potential 'lenses': What is the subjective experience or effect of a game (Interrogative), what are the cultural impacts of the game (Applicable), and what is the games place and meaning in the art form (Curatorial)
Interrogative: Video game criticism that revolves around the personal experience of the game to a player, in the format structure of why, how and to what end. For example, phrasing those three questions in a format of: Why did a game make you feel X, how did it go about achieving X, and the reasons for X instead of Y or Z, would result in an emotive, subjective analysis. Rephrasing the variables of those three would lead to different results, but all remaining within the sphere of personal experience, which others may or may not relate to.
Importance: The impact of traditional art and literature, particularly in how it affects those who engage with it, has always been of critical importance to cultural studies. They reveal certain 'truths' not only for those interrogating their reactions, but to anyone who engage with those reactions.
Video games, like film and media, deserve to be studied, discussed and explored in the same fruitful way traditional art forms have always been.
Applicable: This would be analysis factoring on the cultural and societal implications a game might reveal, such as gender concerns originating from characters and narrative, multicultural problems stemming from setting and depiction, or political issues of location and symbolism.
Importance: As cultural products in a timeline, we need to be looking into what statements they make to both individual societies, and the multicultural spectrum as a whole. As interactive mediums, they shape us in the experience they impart, and this is important for critical cultural issues such Feminism, sexual choice and racial representations. We need to understand where games get it wrong, how they got it right, and shape the discussion as to the manner in which those concerns could be represented in the future.
Curatorial: An approach that examines the role a particular video game holds within a genre or subgenre. Approaches are varied in this lens, as the questions could be phrased from a design and structure viewpoint to a subjective comparison. The key element is the criticism of a title's role within a defined historical structure.
Importance: It's only by consistently contrasting similar items do we quantify notions like quality, importance and change. A curatorial critique can never be purely objective, since by its comparative nature it raises questions of value and weighting. It is by critiques, especially by those with design experience, do we begin identifying improving variables within a subgenre.
Mainstream video game journalism has no room for any of these 'lenses', since their primary function of categorizing games is performed for an audience concerned with weighing potential expenditure against personal reward. In other words, finding out if the game was 'fun', is it in a genre or style they like, and if looks like it’s worth the price being asked for it.
You also need to consider the intricate relationships video game websites and publications have to maintain with publishers, whose whim and opinion on reviews dictate which sources get interviews, exclusives and pre release copies, all of which is essential to maintaining a high visitor count, let alone their continuing existence.
Wrap these concerns within the dominant importance of Metacritic to both sides, and you can understand how this complex structure by design refutes a meaningful role for criticism as I have defined it. There just isn’t a place for it.
It doesn’t mean there's no evidence of a move away from the ridiculous categories of decisions and mathematically flawed numbering systems. Hell, I'm still waiting for someone to explain to me the difference on a review scale between 51 and 53. Dont be confused by terminology and believe I am saying there is no room for critical thinking. There are plenty of examples of investigative
reviews, and thankfully more so as the industry matures. It's just not the responsibility, as the industry currently allows it, for writers of large video game review sites and magazines to also be purveyors of racial discourse or scribes of political symbolism.
The wonderful thing is that not only do we have a growing body
video game criticism from both sides
of the games industry, the rising age and demographic of the average gamer will inexorably exert pressure for the mainstream to start being a little less bland, and a little more explorative. More importantly, the implicit relevance of video games as cultural artifacts, whose existence like art and fiction demands analysis by their existence as cultural symbols, creates the needed force within academic and social structures to investigate the tools and approaches true video game criticism requires.
I'm a consumer, and reviews that just tell me the facts of a game to help me decide the next title to buy are important. I don’t want that to end, though I do wish to see it improve, as the journalists themselves do. I just want to see an investment in videogame criticism equal to commercial game journalism, by both writers and the industry itself.
There is room, and a desperate need, for both.
Do you agree? Disagree? Let me know your thoughts!