Review vs. Criticism: Video Games and the Soul of My Blog

It’s been a bit since I wrote something without pictures or GIF’s or general sparkles and confetti all around. I think it’s time I get into a more serious issue that’s been on my mind for the past few weeks. Don’t worry, the butts and weeb trash will be back soon ❤

Until then, I want to talk a little bit about an issue I see especially in the “video game community” and gaming content on the internet. Starting at the beginning: I’ve been thinking about what I want to do with this blog for a while and, occasionally, what I want to do with my life. As far as life, one of my big options as of right now is game design and games criticism. I’ve always loved games and I think that they deserve to be taken seriously as a narrative medium and as an aspect of culture. That leads into this blog: I want to try and do some more serious critical content on here. The thing is, I’m not sure what criticism actually looks like. Here’s what I mean:

In 2004, Kieron Gillen wrote a piece called The New Games Journalism that has informed pretty much every piece of writing about video games for the past ten years. His concluding advice to games journalists, his “new dogma to drive around the intellectual motorway:

1) The worth of gaming lies in the gamer not the game.
2) Write travel journalism to Imaginary Places.”

I think, in many ways, these have become core values of games journalism, and “YouTuber” review content in particular. What these two ideas seem to suggest are that 1) a meaningful review of a game has to talk about player experience, which is entirely subjective and 2) that video games are essentially taking the players on a journey to another world, and a potential-player should be exposed to some of what that world is like. One of the more problematic effects of this is what I see as a strange blending of review and criticism.

According to most definitions I’ve been able to find, review is inherently consumer-oriented. It discusses measurable characteristics of a thing and tells the audience whether or not they will get enough use or enjoyment out of this particular thing to justify its asking price. Criticism, on the other hand, engages with the meat and potatoes of a thing: how it works, why it works, what it says about the people that created it and the society it exists in. Criticism engages with big ideas. A central assumption of real criticism is that the object of that criticism (a book, a movie, a game, you name it) is important. It is important enough and meaningful enough to examine closely and put in the context of the human experience. Bottom line: these words are not interchangeable. They do not refer to the same thing. A “games journalist,” “games reviewer,” and “games critic” are three different things. They have different goals and use different means to achieve them.

When it comes to games, most reviews that I see on the internet consist of a set of parts:
1) Introduction to the game: Why the review is worth your attention.
2) Technical details: graphics, controls, etc.
3) Qualitative judgement: Was it “fun?” Was it interesting? How did the reviewer feel when playing it?
4) Conclusion: usually consists of “buy it/don’t buy it”
5) Obligatory numerical score: x/10, x%, some collection of stars, tomatoes, or human thumbs.

I think this kind of structure is pretty typical of a game review. At the end of the day, it has internalized the idea of a game’s meaning lying in the player and not the game itself. I have some issues with that idea.

Number one, to say that the meaning of the game is in the gamer is like saying the worth of a book is in the reader: true but only helpful to a point. Yes, games as an interactive and dynamic medium are unlike traditional media in many important ways, but at the end of the day they are controlled. Games have set boundaries, rules, and are designed to be experienced in particular ways. Even if the game is “broken” or even just modified in some way, it is still limited by the engine and the basic code of the game. Games are not, and should not be, open experiences for people to play around in without any restriction: those would be toys. Beautiful, interesting, magnificent toys, perhaps, but still toys. Games are inherently limited by their mechanics and design. How a player engages with the game is extremely important, but to say the game itself has no worth outside of the gamer is to diminish the role of the designer in creating cogent, compelling experiences that gamers want to play. It would be ridiculous to try to engage with a book based solely on how it made the reader “feel,” over actually looking at the text.

Number two, it makes review look more like criticism without actually opening games up to serious criticism. The structure I described earlier engages with ideas, to a point. But it is entirely consumer-oriented. The bottom line is not “What does this mean?” but rather “Is this worth my money?” Which is important and necessary. Games are commodities and it makes sense to talk about them in terms of whether their quality justifies the cost. However, I think that there is a serious expectation among some sections of the gaming community that all things written about video games be written from that perspective.

Something that is not consumer-oriented, something that engages with video games in terms of feminist theory, representation, Christian theology, or anything else, is usually criminally under-viewed or subject to outright hostility. If there is a high-profile space for serious games criticism that sees high traffic and audience engagement, please show it to me because that is all I want in life.

Let’s get back to NGJ. For Gillen, New Games Journalism seems to be at its best when “you’ll be interested in it even if you [don’t] give a fuck about videogames.” You know who writes stuff like that, whether you agree with her or not? Anita Sarkeesian of Feminist Frequency. You know what she gets for it? Death threats. And claims that she isn’t a “real gamer” so she doesn’t have the right to talk about video games. Even if that’s true, who cares? What does it matter? Why do some people seem to think that being their definition of a proper “gamer” is a prerequisite for being able to engage with video games at all? Some of them are just fools and children, but this kind of territorial mindset is disturbingly commonplace among some gamers. To me, it would be amazing if someone who didn’t give a fuck about games started talking about games as important aspects of culture and society. Because that would mean that the war was finally. fucking. over. It would mean that there are people recognizing the importance of video games as cultural artifacts without being personally invested in them. I may hate the Great Gatsby, but I recognize that it’s important. I think most abstract expressionist painting is ugly, but I recognize that it has meaning and reflects something important about humanity.

The difference between review and criticism is, to me, that criticism only happens to serious media. And there is a lot of good games criticism out there. But, I think that so much emphasis is placed on games by developers and gamers as a consumable product that we are fighting ourselves on the front of video games as art. Because there is a very real element in gaming culture that is hostile to critical content if it violates their basic values of “the-customer-is-always-right” and “free-expression-means-freedom-from-disapproval.”

If we want the world to take video games seriously, we, the “hardcore” gamers that love them and cherish them, have to take them seriously ourselves. Sometimes, that means finding faults. Sometimes, that means looking at things that might make us uncomfortable. Sometimes, that means listening to other people’s bullshit and responding like reasonable adults. Sometimes, it means having disagreements but still respecting each other as people who just want what’s best for the industry, for games, and for players. If we want to hold the ground that we’ve gained in the past ten years in the fight for recognition, we need to start building more spaces for games criticism. We need to bring out our fine-grain tools and and ask deeper questions than “Does it suck?” Games are important. They have meaning. They can tell us about our world and about ourselves. Consumer-oriented reviews are legitimate and important, but games are more than just a ratio of hours-of-enjoyable-gameplay-to-pricetag.

Back to my question about what to do with this blog: I have found myself drafting a lot of posts that are just simple “Here’s a thing that I like and why.” I don’t want this blog to be about that. I’d like to go a little deeper, actually analyse things and look at how their parts come together to make a whole. I think that I’ve been limiting myself for no good reason. I mean, I’m only really writing this for myself and the occasional blip of WordPress traffic (that sweet sweet WordPress traffic…). This post may have been a little bit heavy and a little bit rushed, but I really think that this is an important issue worth talking about. So hopefully, you let me be smart at you and read this far. If you did, you’re a rock star.

All that glitters is gooooooold...
All that glitters is gooooooold.

I’m sure that plenty of you might disagree with any of the things I mention in this post, or anywhere else on this blog. If you do, let’s talk about it! I’m not the final word on any of this shit. If you let me be smart at you, then I’m gonna let you be smart at me. It’s only fair.

And so I promise, my next post will be thoughtful, well-considered, and dignified.

...or not.
…or not.

Who knows!

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