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The Function of Criticism

Criticism - do we review games or do we critique them like art, and what's the purpose of doing either

It’s rare that I hear about a game and decide that it’s a must-buy. Rather, I prefer to take the softly-softly approach: wait, see what the community consensus is, read some reviews of the game and (if it’s a board game) the rules and then make a decision. Often, however many reams of text I end up digesting in the course of this process, it’ll be one paragraph, even one sentence that makes me choose one way or the other. Increasingly, I’m asking myself why I bother.

It’s also come to my attention that a lot, probably the majority, of people don’t choose stuff this way. There’s much more of a tendency to impulse buy stuff. And if you read a lot of the comments that people make on game reviews you’ll notice something else: it’s quite clear that a lot of the people who read reviews and comment on them have already played the game in question. They’ve come to the review seeking either validation of their own point of view, or the opportunity to disagree publicly with the opinions of the reviewer. And this begs the question: what’s the purpose of a review? Perhaps more importantly, is the perception of what most people want from a review the same as what reviewers believe they want?

I’ll tell you what I want from a review. I want to get a sense of what a game feels like to play, what the experience is like, what sort of emotions it engenders in the player(s). I like a bit of logistical information too and I want a clear reviewers slant telling me whether they think it’s a good game or not, and why. Personally I think you can do all that and still provide people who might not agree with you with enough information to help them decide whether they might think it’s a good game or not. That’s what I’d look for, and so obviously that’s what I’ve tried to provide in my reviews. I’m not sure I succeed all that well, too often getting sucked down into the mechanical detail needed as a foundation to explain why I think certain things about certain games, but I try. And frankly whether I’m happy with what I write or not, I do think it’s better than a lot of other stuff out there which seems to boil down to some mixture of verbatim instructional re-write, comedy value or “New! Shiny! Awesome!”

There’s a reason for this. I can’t claim the insight for myself, but our very own Michael Barnes has been pointing out for several years that professional criticism of all sorts of games is a relatively new phenomenon. In the video game sector, progress has been held back by a pathetically patronising long-time perception that games were for kids, and kids didn’t need proper reviews, although it’s finally starting to come of age. For tabletop games, a stubborn celebration of amateurism seems to have become entrenched, no doubt partially due to virtually zero professional coverage of the genre. And without a professional attitude, you can’t have the self-examination necessary to ask what the purpose of a review is, and thus how you might go about improving it.

But perhaps unsurprisingly if you turn to the more mature formats of books, films and plays, vast amounts of ink have been expended on the subject of the purpose of criticism. Equally unsurprisingly given the subjective nature of the material, little agreement has been reached. At the heart of the discussion seems to be the tug between wanting to help and inform readers whilst avoiding preaching to them. On the one hand, it’s likely that any given game reviewer probably knows a bit more about games than the audience in terms of insider industry information, the longer history of gaming and wider exposure to different current generation games, and therefore is in a better position to explore whether a game is not only any good but also genuinely innovative than the reader. On the other hand taste is of course entirely subjective, so how does a bit of education and eloquence give a few elite authors the right to dictate that something is good or otherwise, often in the face of popular opinion?

All opinions are equal. But some are more equal than others.

It seems that one of the common answers to this is to say that criticism is an art form in and of itself and so has no particular rights or wrongs outside the eye of the observer. I can see the attraction to this as a way of answering the dilemma of whether a critic should inform or preach, but it’s a get-out clause, an unsatisfactory answer for a number of reasons. For starters, in any form of criticism, it’s circular: it the work of an art critic is itself art, then that makes the criticism a valid target for other critics and so on. And whilst this is true, it turns a subject and its critics into a closed circle, which is liable to stagnate and is useless and impenetrable to outside readers. Which is pretty much what’s happened in the modern art world if you ask me, but I digress. It also comes no closer to answering our initial question. And when it comes to games there’s another problem, which is the question of whether a game is art in the first place.

This is a complex question that’s been tackled by others elsewhere and I can’t properly do it justice. In the past I would have argued that all game design is inherently mathematical, and that makes the status of games as art dubious. But more recently with advances in AI technology, emergent gameplay and multiplayer collusion it’s become far more of an open question. Nowadays I would say that they can be art. In video games the existence of titles like Journey bridges the gap between games created deliberately as art pieces and those created for playability. Board games have been skirting round this territory for longer, and in rather different ways, but arguably politicised games such as War on Terror or GMT’s Labyrinth and story-telling games like Once Upon A Time or Tales of the Arabian Nights fulfil a similar function.

But of course just because some games can be art, doesn’t mean they all can. I’m reminded of the chapters in American Psycho where the narrator offers in-depth analysis of rubbish pop bands such as Huey Lewis & The News. A lot of games, the majority, are just empty-headed shooters and platformers after all. But if some games have the potential to be art, even though many are not it strikes me that perhaps they have to be reviewed as though could be art. After all, one can write a clear and compelling review of mass-market rubbish while comparing and contrasting it with more rarefied examples because both, ultimately, spring from the same source. Film critics make much of their money doing exactly that. And if that’s the case perhaps a review can never be truly helpful in guiding people toward relevant purchases. In my years of reviewing I’ve struggled hugely with trying to address the question of how best to do this, continually being thwarted by the amorphous nature of my subject matter and the wide spectrum of taste in my audience. A lot of art critics don’t feel that advising readers is a key part of what they do and perhaps its part and parcel of game criticism maturing that authors and audience alike abandon the pretence that reviews are a realistic way of helping people decide what to buy.

Not all critics are good writers

So if we’re not in the business of giving commercial advice, why are we here? One of the things that I enjoy about writing reviews is that the process of organising the text helps to get my own thoughts into a coherent, sensible order and perhaps more importantly to explore them more deeply and see where they lead. That seems very insular as a stated purpose for something that is intended for a wider audience, but perhaps reading a review serves the same function, to offer clarity to the jumble of concepts we all carry around in our heads as we think about and play games. The existence of reviews has a further advantage of particular use in the internet age and that’s to engender discussion on the subject which hopefully leads to new avenues to explore and, in extreme cases, to new concepts being adopted by designers, developers and publishers. But you can achieve these same goals through editorial-style content such as this very piece: it may be that the thoughts they clarify and discussion they engender lack focus in comparison to the effects produced by a review of a specific product, but that seems a poor reason for reviews to exist as a stand-alone concept. You’d get the same effect sooner or later from a succession of opinion pieces.

So it seems that a good way to answer the question of why we write and read reviews would be to look at what – if anything – makes a review distinct from a less focussed opinion piece. And I suspect that the answer is actually in the question: focus. By forcing the writer to concentrate on a specific piece of work and comment from their, it means that what could be an opinion piece is actually an analysis piece. Instead of offering airy-fairy thoughts, they have to anchor what they’re saying in reality, provide evidence and reasons for their opinions. You could do the same in an opinion piece of course but you don’t have to, and I imagine most of us are familiar enough with the more extreme forms of fact-free journalism promulgated by the tabloid press, and the manner in which it is often swallowed wholesale, to understand the value of being rooted in reality. Furthermore because that analysis is focussed down on particular, individual products, the discussion that it engenders has a much higher chance of resulting in something equally concrete, feedback that a developer or publisher can take on board, react to, use to improve the quality of their output. Reviews and criticism entertain and inform readers certainly, but their final purpose may well be their ability to push the envelope of design, development and publishing. The ongoing furores over the re-sale of used games and the lack of creativity in AAA titles suggest that without people capable of articulating what’s right and wrong with existing games and starting meaningful discussions around those subjects, the industry has little hope of delivering improvements for their own sake. But sadly, it seems to me that the current poor state of reviews on far too many outlets has little chance of managing to making a lot of difference. At the moment, that’s still up to the fans, and the fuss over the ending to Mass Effect 3 demonstrates that it’s not always desirable that fan power should win over artistic integrity.

I suspect that the answer to my original question that we have arrived at is a lot less interesting than the journey we took to find it. And that highlights the final point I want to make, which is that although we may have found it reasonable to suggest that games reviews share a lot of common ground with the critique of high art there is a long, long way to go before we can meaningfully compare them on the same level. But there is hope that one day we might get there. And perhaps most importantly of all there is certainty that in the exciting, gruelling process of forging this new art, there is room for all of us to contribute and to help shape whatever it is that rises from the flames into something we can hold up and be proud of.

A big thank you to Jesse Dean of 2d6.org who started the ball rolling in my head on this subject. He’s posting his own series of pieces about it, starting by wondering why the flawed A Few Acres of Snow got a free ride from reviewers.