Game Criticism, Why We Need It, and Why Reviews Aren’t It

Greg Costikyan on Play This Thing!

A review is a buyer’s guide. It exists to tell you about some new product that you can buy, and whether you should or should not buy it. A good review goes beyond that, and suggests who should buy it, since not everyone enjoys everything. (E.g., A romance novel may be very fine of its kind, but is quite unlikely to appeal to me, since it is not a genre I enjoy.)

Thus, Ebert is, ultimately, a reviewer; the net result of his discussion of a work is a thumbs-up or thumbs-down. Mind you, he is also an informed and intelligent watcher of film, and his discussion of a movie frequently veers in the direction of criticism; but he is not being paid to write critical works. Pauline Kael was.

Criticism is an informed discussion, by an intelligent and knowledgeable observer of a medium, of the merits and importance (or lack thereof) of a particular work. Criticism isn’t intended to help the reader decide whether or not to plunk down money on something; some readers’ purchase decisions may be influenced, but guiding their decisions is not the purpose of the critical work. Criticism is, in a sense merely “writing about” — about art, about dance, about theater, about writing, about a game–about any particular work of art. How a critical piece addresses a work, and what approach it takes, may vary widely from critic to critic, and from work to work. There are, in fact, many valid critical approaches to a work, and at any given time, a critique may adopt only one, or several of them.

One of the first things I do in my Video Game Culture and Theory course is have students compare a games magazine review with a “new games journalism essay” (in order to get them to realize how much else there is to write about besides simply reviewing the game for a person who has never played it).  I then introduce games scholarship, and have students write their own academic research paper on games.  The first time I taught this course, in 2006, there was plenty of scholarship of the kind Costikyan calls for, and when I taught it again in 2008, there was so much that perhaps next year I will demote the importance of “new games journalism” and jump right into the criticism.

My course is a 200-level elective, which means I have to accommodate students who may have never done any college-level analyses of literature or art, so  it was a bit of an uphill struggle getting students to move beyond the central question at the center of every game review they have ever read (“Would I recommend this game?”) and the central assumption behind every journalism story that mentions games in connection with the latest high school shooting or road rage incident (“To what extent can we use games as a scapegoat?”)

Here is the comment I left on Play This Thing:

Jonsey515 writes:

    The real purpose of criticism is to define how a particular piece fits into the popular culture, how it compares to other pieces of a similar type, whether it adds or detracts to our overall cultural experience, and what it might mean for the future of the form, regardless of whether it’s a book, music, painting, game, or what have you

Those are all useful kinds of criticism, but don’t forget representations of race, gender, and class; psychological crit (often but not necessarily centered around Freud); economic determinism (often but not necessarily centered around Marx), and close reading (such as Don Knuth’s detailed analysis of the Crowther/Woods version of Adventure, or Jeremy Douglass’s excellent analysis of Shadow of the Colossus — among several other games

Whether a work is successful is certainly worth discussing. Even Play This Thing is presented on the assumption that a game discussed on this forum is worth playing — see the apologetic footnote Costikyan added to his negative review of the “serious game” ICED. But it’s perfectly appropriate to recommend a work (or to say “play this thing”) in order to discuss its flaws.

James Portnow has a good essay on the differences between playing for fun and playing to learn, which emphasizes the advanced mental processes that lead to writing critical essays rather than the quick checklist that a reviewer needs to cover.

John Hopson, writing for Gamasutra, argues that the games industry only values a narrow kind of academic research:

    By the way, if the research doesn’t include specific practical recommendations or a measurable impact on the final product, don’t bother trying to sell it to the industry. From the average industry professional’s perspective, there are only two things of value being said in a research presentation: the recommendations and their predicted effects. Everything else, the background research, the brilliant theoretical breakthrough, the clever development of the ideas, falls on industry ears like the “wah wah” noises made by Charlie Brown’s teacher.

Hopson’s formulation of what counts as worthwhile research is depressing in its candor, but it does explain the mercenary mindset of a busy professional who does not share the academic’s joy in knowledge for the sake of knowlege. (There are, of course, scholars who study the therapeutic effects of personal writing, or the psychological impact of various texts and genres. And my own school offers an excellent MA program in writing popular fiction, which is in fact geared towards the needs of students who want to write their own historical romances, fantasy trilogies, sci-fi epics, etc.)

Hopson also criticizes scholars who choose to write about older games, or games that aren’t top sellers — without, perhaps, realizing that it generally takes months to write an academic article (since most of us also have plenty of teaching to do, and we often have to wait until the summer break to do our serious writing), and then the peer-review process also takes time.

Thank you, Greg, for bringing up this issue in this forum.

Update: Emily Short has posted a response pointing out numerous examples of lucid games criticism in the interactive fiction community, and on Costikyan’s blog Andrew Plotkin called WTF with a similar message about graphic adventure games.  It’s probably fair to note that Costikyan may be aware of plenty of fan-produced and academic-produced criticism, but perhaps he is looking for more depth in industry-produced criticism (serving a function akin to that which the thoughtful critical reviews in the Times Literary Supplement serves for the world of literary publication).