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Advice for Aspiring Game Critics

Gamasutra has posted a short piece by Brandon Sheffield on the state and future of ‘games journalism’. Reading it over the weekend, so soon after Frank’s recent lament that the best and brightest of the enthusiast press seem to be moving quickly on to greener pastures, got me thinking about what could be done to improve the situation. Sheffield points out that almost no critics in the industry have any formal training.  While I think some education in some form of criticism is better than none, I’m not one to say that training in the critique of film or television prepares you very well for analyzing games.

As someone who’s been studying and making games for a few years now, I’m deeply invested in the critical culture surrounding games. Sheffield points out that critics, especially popular ones, serve as valuable translators for the general public to understand the sometimes arcane workings of a given artform. I would add that good critics are also invaluable to artists themselves, constantly pushing them forward, keeping them from getting lazy. As much as artist are often their own worst critics, they can also have enormous blind spots when it comes to their own work; it’s these blind spots that critics can fill in.

It seems obvious then that a healthy culture of criticism is vital to the health of the games industry as a whole.

With this in mind I came up with a few guidelines that I think all aspiring game critics should follow:

Talk About the Rules
The first thing any critic should tell a reader is the rules of the game they’re critiquing. If they can sum up the rules of a game by saying that it’s similar to another game all the better, but they should then go into the differences between those games and say why those differences are important.

Play Different Types of Games
I mostly design and play video games. However, even when I play a board game or a sport, I can usually find something to say about it (sometimes it’s even interesting!). All games are linked underneath by the very things that make them games, and if you can appreciate one you should be able to appreciate them all.

Games are Not Media
Admittedly, it is sometimes difficult to play even a well designed game if it is displeasing to the eye or the ear. However, the sensual components of a game, unless they are intimately connected to its rules and play, are at most second tier concerns. If the game as a system is interesting a critic should emphasize that and only then  move on to comments about the content.

Games are Not a Medium
This is something that I hear all the time: “games are the medium of future”. Whether or not games are actually a vital part of future culture, this is always an unfortunate statement because it misses an important fact about games. Games are found across a range of mediums, from cardboard to TV screens. This statement sounds like nothing more than empty rhetoric to anyone who takes game design seriously.

There is No Perfect Game
Creating a game is not an engineering problem. The critique of a game, or even an individual mechanic, should not rely on the supposition that it is ‘outdated’ or ‘frustrating’. Games are aesthetic experiences and critics should attempt to understand and communicate the ramifications of a design choice and not dismiss it out of hand as if there is some Platonic ideal that all games should strive towards.

Read a Lot
It seems like there is a myth that there is a lack of intelligent discussion about games. There is nothing that could be farther from the truth. There is an exploding body of research being done on games by academics. Some of it is valuable and some of it is crap, but an informed critic should be at least familiar with the work already being done.

Try to Make a Game
Imagine a music critic who couldn’t play an instrument, or a film critic who had never looked through the lens of a camera. It is only in games that critics seem to often move towards positions in the industry, rather than the other way around. The critical culture of other artforms is populated mostly by those who studied to be artists themselves. The quality of their critical work is closely tied to their experience in the actual production of the types of things they are critiquing.

Place Games in the World
For all the problems with ‘New Games Journalism’ it at the very least tried to make a connection between games and human life. Even now there is something interesting to be written about  the fact that Barack Obama is a Poker player while John McCain prefers Craps. There is no use in elevating the appreciation of games if it does not simultaneously elevate our appreciation of life.

Criticism in games is something that I’ve given a lot of thought to, but I know I’m not the only one. Right now there’s something of a groundswell of serious and semi-serious thinkers who are turning their attention to games. I also know that there are a lot of other ideas out there for how to move forward, and I’d be interested to hear them, because the truth is that there will never be a robust critical discourse of games until there is a large and vocal audience that is demanding it.

18 Comments

  1. Sam wrote:

    It’s obviously your wont to think like this, Charles, but video game critics don’t need to be critics of games of all forms.

    Video game critics are, actually, writing about a medium – a medium with a clear and definite history, and a set of expectations for how the player will interact with them.

    Expecting a videogame critic to only think about what they criticize in terms of games is like expecting a film critic to only respond to what they review in terms of story, or cinematography, or the narrative framework – it’s asking them to examine one element of what we can all recognize is a much larger picture. It’s clearly the same way with most games today.

    Also: I wouldn’t want to see a film Ebert directed or a novel Kakutani wrote for more than curiosity’s sake. Just like I wouldn’t expect Lester Bangs’ musical output to teach me anything about music (besides that some of it is utterly unlistenable). Ebert wrote recently about how much he learned about film in one cinema studies class, and how it still shapes each of his reviews. He didn’t need to make a doofy short film or two to learn it.

    Tuesday, September 30, 2008 at 4:55 pm | Permalink
  2. Bob wrote:

    I agree that video-games are a medium of their own, but considering the game theory they exercise along with everything else doesn’t hurt– just as reviewing a film and appraising its cinematography doesn’t hurt either. What’s bad is when any one piece of the puzzle is singled out at the expense of the others, which is what can happen if you concentrate exclusively on a game’s rule-set, which becomes increasingly difficult when you consider how modern games routinely build rule-sets within rule-sets like so many Russian dolls. If you really wanted to talk about the explicit rules of “Super Mario Bros.”, it’d take several pages before you even got to describing Bowser’s castle. Perhaps the best thing is to comment on the game-flow, and approach it more holistically, so the entire experience of a playthrough is encapsulated.

    By the way, Ebert did write Russ Meyer’s “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls”. But maybe that’s best left forgotten.

    Tuesday, September 30, 2008 at 5:33 pm | Permalink
  3. Hey, this is a great post and a great site. (I’ve been lurking a lot) I wanted to pop in.

    I just had a few points:

    1) I think it’s almost as helpful to read criticism of other art-forms as it is to read academic games-crit. Like, there are a lot of lessons to be learned about how you go about critiquing a game that you can get by looking at good literary criticism or music criticism.

    2) Video games are a medium, or at least they can be. They can convey content by representing it as a system of rules. So, for example, simcity conveys information about the developmental ecology of cities by making this system of rules that simulates that developmental logic. The way a game jiggers its native system can say something about the world, and so games are a medium.

    3)I don’t think you have to make games in order to understand them. I’m sure it helps. But I don’t think the usual reflection on your experience of a game– how its rules function, and the like– is inherently inadequate. Many great critics were shoddy novelists, like Lionel Trilling or Edmund Wilson.

    Wednesday, October 1, 2008 at 4:25 am | Permalink
  4. Charles Joesph Pratt, nice post. I think you laid the blocks for critics to start from — and I mean blocks in the track and field sense, not the brick and mortar.

    And if your defense here on the comment thread, people seem to keep mentioning that critics don’t need to make games to be able to comment on them. Well, yes and no. Pratt isn’t saying critics need to make good games, but that they need to have a working sense about how games are made. And that’s essential to any critic worth his or her byline.

    As for games as a medium, please refer to earlier discussions on this very blog. This is mantra of Frank Lantz, whom I love to play devil’s advocate with, but there is some truth to the idea that games are not a medium. Games can surely represent and express, but half of what a game is the player experience. That is, half of the game is the players interpreting the game — and that’s unique when compared to more traditional one way “mediums.”

    Wednesday, October 1, 2008 at 12:35 pm | Permalink
  5. Bob wrote:

    “Games can surely represent and express, but half of what a game is the player experience. That is, half of the game is the players interpreting the game — and that’s unique when compared to more traditional one way ‘mediums.’”

    How is that any different from the acts of interpretation I have to make when I read a book, translating lines of static text into a series of coherent mental imagery, characters and events? How is it any different from when I watch a film, or a television program, and make sense of the series of moving images on a screen? How is it any different from listening to music or looking at a painting, which may be completely abstract and totally void of any meaning, save that which I interprete in it?

    All mediums are half what the artist provides, and half what the audience interprets. That’s what makes them mediums– they bridge the gap between the artist and audience, and it’s something that happens all the time in games when the player learns how to play the game successfully. That moment marks the success of the game’s ability to represent, express and communicate– the bridge between the designer and the player.

    Games are about creating experience, but remember, so are all other mediums.

    Wednesday, October 1, 2008 at 4:51 pm | Permalink
  6. A novel is about creating experience? A telegram is about creating an experience? Morse code is about creating experience?

    Bob, not only is your definition of “medium” flawed, but so is your notion about what constitutes a game’s success: a player learning how to play successfully. What the hell is that? Do you mean winning or figuring out decent strategy, or interacting with the interface? Please.

    A medium is nothing more than a way to communicate a message from one person to another. Games aren’t a message. They’re more of a dance. The only interpretation is the negative space between the rules.

    Thursday, October 2, 2008 at 3:48 am | Permalink
  7. Charles Joseph wrote:

    Charles B hits it on the head. I didn’t mean to suggest that good critics are good artist, or that good artist make good critics, though I should have chosen my words more carefully. What I intended was that critics should know what it takes to make the thing they’re criticizing.

    The ‘games are a medium’ issue is an interesting one. I understand that the phrase is meant in the sense of ‘the medium of photography’, but the fact that ‘games’ is often used as a stand in for ‘video games’ confuses the issue. Video games are a particular type of game that involve particular materials, most obviously screens. Are games suddenly better now that they’re on screens? If not, then why are they suddenly ‘the future’? To me it smacks of technophilia and has more to do with the things the games are made out of rather than the games themselves.

    Thanks all around for the great responses though. I’m just happy people didn’t seem to have problems with my other points! I especially thought that ‘Games Are Not Media’ would be a little more controversial!

    Thursday, October 2, 2008 at 4:04 am | Permalink
  8. Bob wrote:

    “A novel is about creating experience?… A medium is nothing more than a way to communicate a message from one person to another. Games aren’t a message. They’re more of a dance. The only interpretation is the negative space between the rules.”

    Yes, Berkeley, a novel is about creating experience. First of all, the experience of reading– of decoding lines of text using the process of literacy to imagine people, places and events. Second of all, the experience all storytelling mediums create– the vicarious experience of fictional character’s lives.

    A telegram could be used to create an experience, too, if somebody decided to compose a story on a telegraph machine. That’d certainly be possible, if you knew Morse code well enough.

    When I call games a medium, I use the term in the same way that Marshal McLuhan did; in “Understanding Media”, he called games “popular art, collective, social reactions to the main drive or action of any culture.” To him, games were “extensions of social man” in the same way that any institutions were, and they represented simulations of behavior in cultural climates, “outer models of inner psychological life”.

    He was talking about games long before video games began, so his words, dealing mostly with outdoor childhood war-games and athletic sports, apply to the whole spectrum of game theory. From James Naismith’s Basketball and Albert Lamourise’s “Risk” to Hideo Kojima’s “Metal Gear”, games can represent distillations of cultural norms and a designer’s own commentary upon them.

    Games are like any other outlet of creative expression– they may be used consciously for creative expression, or merely to provide its own kind of entertainment, but no matter what, they always communicate something, however subconsciously, about the cultures and creators whose minds they arise from.

    Games are a medium. Writing is a medium. Even dance is a medium. They can all say something, because in the end, the medium is the…

    …oh, you get the idea.

    Thursday, October 2, 2008 at 6:43 pm | Permalink
  9. I believe you’re confusing medium with message or expression. Games certainly express. But any game designer worth his or her weight knows a game needs players to exist. You can’t say that about a book, or film, etc.

    Thursday, October 2, 2008 at 11:56 pm | Permalink
  10. Bob wrote:

    “…any game designer worth his or her weight knows a game needs players to exist. You can’t say that about a book, or film, etc.”

    I’d say you can, actually. I understand what you’re saying– a game doesn’t really exist until somebody’s playing it– but the same relative claim can be made of any other medium.

    A book is just a bound collection of paper and ink until somebody picks it up in their hands and reads it– only then does it fulfil its purpose as literature. A film is just a series of still photographs projected in rapid succession on a screen unless somebody’s there to watch it. Without an audience, no art form is truly alive.

    So yes, without players, a game is still as much a game as a novel without a reader is, or a film without a viewer. As long as anything sits on a shelf, it’s just another tree falling down in a forest with nobody to hear it.

    Friday, October 3, 2008 at 12:24 am | Permalink
  11. But players aren’t just an audience. That’s the difference.

    Friday, October 3, 2008 at 3:06 am | Permalink
  12. Bob wrote:

    No, it’s only where we have a difference of opinion, because in mine, they are just an audience, in the same capacity that a novel’s reader is an active participant, imagining settings, events and characters based on the author’s prompting. There’s a spectrum of passive and active involvement an audience has in a medium, and the players of a game certainly sway closer to the latter than the former, but even if they’re riding shotgun instead of in the back, they’re not the ones in the driver’s seat.

    As long as a player merely plays by a game’s rules instead of making their own up as they go along, the designer (or, in the cases of folk-games, the design) is the one in charge.

    Friday, October 3, 2008 at 3:19 am | Permalink
  13. Daniel wrote:

    I’m a little late to this party, but there are a few interesting points being thrown around so I thought I’d offer up my own opinion (being an aspiring critic myself).

    Talk About The Rules/Games are Not Media: I greatly disagree here. This is the key point that a lot of theorists over-emphasise when dealing with videogames, and it’s because they seem to be under the impression that videogames are somehow more intimately connected with ‘old’ games than their other forebears. Certainly, there is an imported lexicon of sorts from ‘old’ games, but the actual experience of playing a videogame is now usually so disconnected with playing a physical game that this point is almost useless. When I open up Mass Effect, I don’t think about the rules. I probably won’t even read the manual. I’ll experiment as I go and figure them out, but the core experience of the game is a profoundly spatial and experiential one. To then critique the rules of the game like they are some sort of overruling prism that is the only valid way of looking at videogames is senseless and an intellectual dead-end.

    This is also because videogame makers, as well as looking at successful physical games and past videogames, are influenced to an ever-growing extent by the entire cultural sphere: Mass Effect, for example, seems to me to be as equally influenced by any number of Sci-Fi novels and films as videogames and ‘real’ games. Why, then, would we focus on rules first and treat everything else like secondary errata?

    And on the comments debate about games as a medium, I think Bob’s really hit it on the head. The only difference between videogames and ‘traditional’ texts is a practical one: I act extranoematically when playing a game and noematically when reading a book or film. That is, I put in non-trivial effort (not just turning pages or interpreting) when engaging with a videogame that I do not while reading a book; some skill is usually involved. But really, what difference does this make, and how does it mean that videogames are somehow not a medium? To argue this, in my view, seriously underestimates the role of the audience in ‘traditional’ media.

    Tuesday, October 7, 2008 at 11:47 am | Permalink
  14. Charles Joseph wrote:

    Welcome Daniel!

    First, I’m not sure what you mean by ‘experiential’. Aren’t all things experiential whether they are heavily rule based or not? Also, the spatial aspect of a game is still very much a part of it’s ruleset. The layout of a level in Mass Effect is just as much part of the ruleset as the dimensions of a Basketball court.

    I’m also not sure I agree about modern games having been separated from more traditional games to a great extent. Most FPSs are a combination of Tag and an obstacle course. Most level design in games is simply making mazes of varying degrees of complexity, nothing more or less.

    The truth is that I really like theme, and oftentimes I’ll find myself playing a game just to see something new. Atmosphere can add a lot to a game. But dangerous to fool ourselves into thinking that what we like is what is good, or that atmosphere is a good substitute for doing something interesting mechanically. Otherwise it’s no better than a director remaking someone else’s film shot for shot and only changing the dialogue. An interesting experiment maybe, but not the way forward for the artform.

    Tuesday, October 7, 2008 at 2:28 pm | Permalink
  15. Daniel wrote:

    Thanks for the welcome, Charles. Reading back on my post I might have jumped into the debate a little too enthusiastically, so I’m grateful that you’ve chosen to respond in kind rather than taking me as some kind of passing troll!

    It’s very true that the spatial aspect of a game is very much part of the ruleset. However, it’s also very much part of the fiction of the game, as Juul suggests; it’s probably the most obvious part of a game that inherently combines rules and fiction. It’s largely because of this that I believe that games are primarily a spatial experience. Level design is more than maze-making. It’s architecture and urban design – the manipulation of space in an attempt to influence behaviour and create feeling. The task of a level designer (or perhaps more clearly, the task of level design), to me, is not just in creating an interesting maze for rules to take place, but in creating an environment that conveys rules and fiction in equal parts, and creating experience that will teach both. It’s as much about creating mood, suspense, joy, fear, and whathaveyou as it is drawing attention to solutions to puzzles and teaching ludic concepts.

    It’s this that to me is fundamentally unique about videogames. I’m not discounting the importance of rules, or their contribution to creating fresh videogames. I do, however, think that it’s more illustrative to turn your last example on its head: the importance of rules is like dialogue rather than cinematography. You can remake the same film with the same dialogue (rules) but if you change the setting and cinematography (the space) then you can get completely different results, like Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet.

    Wednesday, October 8, 2008 at 12:33 am | Permalink
  16. Charles Joseph wrote:

    Hmmm, I hear what you’re saying. Look, first off, I’m someone that believes that a great game is one where the content and the rules work in harmony. In my opinion, all the great games have this quality to some extent.

    Nevertheless, I think that there is one point on which we’re missing each other. I do not believe that games are inherently spatial. I think that it’s a large part of a lot of games, but not in all of them. For instance, battles in RPGs are not inherently spatial, and many strategy games like Age of Empires or Starcraft are not primarily spatial.

    The reason that I made an analogy between cinematography and rules is that they are what defines their respective artforms when everything else is stripped out. I’m always interested in mixing things together to see what comes out, but when we’re talking about something like game design, which is so poorly understood in general, it’s useful to keep your eye on the vital elements.

    Your well-considered argument proved that you weren’t a troll right out, Daniel. I hope you’ll drop by on some of the site’s other conversations!

    Wednesday, October 8, 2008 at 3:31 am | Permalink
  17. Daniel wrote:

    Well, yes, I agree that the fundamental nature of space is our key point of disagreement. I agree that certain games are less spatially focussed than others; the best examples for my point revolve around games that have navigable environments of some description, and they’re really what I’m getting at. However, I think that a battle in an RPG or a strategy game can still be usefully analysed through a spatial lens.

    After all, all games are conceptualised through real space – Huizinga’s ‘Magic Circle’ idea might be regarding rules and play, but it equally applies to how we can think of TV screens and monitors, and the navigation that goes on inside them. When I move my cursor to highlight a particular type of attack in a turn-based RPG battle, it’s still a spatial experience. It’s not fictional game-space as in my previous examples, but it’s still a crucial part of the videogame experience unique to the medium.

    It’s also part of the conceptualising of gameplay: the actual space found in Age of Empires might not have too much of an effect on the flow of the game (unless there is a cliff or forest or something in between you and your enemy), but I suspect that strategies, plans, and even memories of gameplay are formed through a map-like conception of the space. I can recount a pitched battle in AoE much more easily with a map in front of me than without, for example.

    Anyway, thanks for responding. This very interesting site is now added to my RSS reader, so I’ll definitely be showing my face in your comments pages from now on…

    Wednesday, October 8, 2008 at 5:03 am | Permalink
  18. Frank wrote:

    When I say that games are not a medium I am primarily challenging the “message model” of meaning as applied to games. In the message model the cultural work is a conduit through which meaning passes. The creator has something she wants to say, the work communicates this message, the audience consumes the work and thereby recieves the creator’s message.

    My claim is that the ways that games create meaning are more complex and emergent. I think of games as conversations that produce meaning that wasn’t there before, instead of a way of transmitting meaning from a creator to an audience. I also want to challenge the notion of players consuming games the way they consume books, movies, and tv shows.

    I know that, in reality, videogames often are consumed in way that resembles the consumption of movies or tv shows – I sit on my couch, pop in the disk, play to the end and then put it on the shelf or take it back to the store. So my claim really isn’t a descriptive one, but more of an effort to pay attention to those essential properties of games which do not fit comfortably within that familiar mode of consumption.

    I agree with Bob that reading books and watching movies is more active and dynamic than you might think. This doesn’t mean we should ignore the essential differences between books, movies, and games. Books and movies, with their roots in storytelling, ultimately do fit more comfortably in the message model of meaning, into the media model of creator > work > audience.

    I think we should start by acknowledging the unique and problematic qualities of games – how they produce meaning in ways that challenge the conventional consumption models of culture. Eventually we may develop new models and then look back and realize that these new models have a useful application to books and movies as well.

    Tuesday, October 14, 2008 at 6:56 pm | Permalink

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