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.