It’s a New Year. So Let’s Talk About Video Game Criticism!

It is a new year and so we must kick it off by talking about the previous year! January is the traditional month of wheezy throat-clearing, where all manner of entertainment and enthusiast press horks out the phlegm of last year in the form of Top 100 lists, Best-ofs, Worst-ofs and assorted awards ceremonies. As fun as those are—and they are great rant-fodder—I have something a little different in mind for our first dive into Metageeking.

Woman reclining, playing X-Box. Photo by Marco Arment.

Photo by Marco Arment

Let’s talk about the talk about video games journalism. Now, before you jump out of the nearest window, let me promise you that this is the first and last sentence in this article to include the word, “gamergate”. (There, I saved you a call to Larson and a few hundred stitches. We are friends now! And friends can talk about controversial things without jumping through windows, feeling personally attacked, or wondering how far one can drive on a single tank of gas and a half-empty bottle of Mountain Dew.)

That said, for our first Metageek-out together, I want to share a belief with you: I believe that all the vitriol, rage, keyboard-slamming, confusion, hand-waving, eye-rolling, twit-twittering, fist-shaking and general apoplexy is no more than a foul cocoon. It’s a scabby chrysalis that has formed around both gaming communities and gaming press. You see, gaming is having a bit of an identity crisis. Video games have never been more popular, more profitable, or more influential in global culture than they are now. The adolescence of the gaming industry and its community is at an end and a new, more beautiful era of gaming is beginning—bursting forth as a beautiful butterfly metaphor right before our very monitors!

A large part of this maturation process is the change in how video games are talked about by games press and enthusiasts alike.  We have always had our PC Gamer, Nintendo Power (rest in peace), and other review outlets. These review outlets were such that they served primarily to direct consumers toward some products and away from others. On the other hand, we have also had those individuals and organizations, often from the political sphere, who criticized the medium of video gaming to varying degrees by organizing boycotts, attempting to pass censorship laws and bans, and so on. And that’s about it.

Two young girls and their father playing video games on public transit. Photo by Vincent.

Photo by Vincent

Video games are still the newest entertainment medium in the world. They are just as distinct from music, literature, theater, visual art, and film as those mediums are from one and other. The previous “new kids on the block” were once film and recorded music, whose wide availability—at least in rich countries—transformed popular culture and prompted massive push-back in a way not dissimilar to the how video games are impacting us now.

This new medium (yes, being over 35 years old still counts as a new medium) has demanded new ways to talk about it. We have met that demand by-and-large via the product review format that is in some ways unique to video games as an entertainment medium. See, video games are unlike books, film and music in that there are numerous factors that lend themselves to more-or-less objective critique. If your blu-ray of Guardians of the Galaxy is a dud and does not play, you would never criticize the film for that problem. But if your copy of Assassin’s Creed: Unity fails to load textures, crashes, or generally behaves like a squirrely mess, then you are within reason to fault the game for those failings. On one level. a game is software—a product that must meet certain benchmarks to be considered functional.

Indeed there is such a wide range and number of such variables that many reviews focus on them almost exclusively, with the rest of the review consisting of the reviewer’s affective response to the game: it was thrilling, had good pacing; great scares; good gunplay; strong dialogue, etc. This affective part of the review is similar to the sort of critique you would find in most movie sections of magazines and newspapers. It boils down to whether or not the reviewer enjoyed the experience of playing the game.

Female gaming journalist sitting on floor, playing a video game. Photo by Shane K

Photo by Shane K

This two-dimensional approach is perfectly acceptable and does a good job of informing consumers of the mechanical merits and shortcomings of a game. For example, I know from reading a few Assassin’s Creed: Unity reviews that I probably would not enjoy it on objective grounds alone. Instead, I will probably spend my time instead playing Dragon’s Age: Inquisition, a title not without its own and often hilarious problems.

But as the video game medium is embraced by more and more people, we have seen, much to the chagrin of some, the emergence of a new kind of video game criticism. This sort of criticism goes beyond product or affective review and uses a different, more academic, metric by which to judge games.

While it feels new to the gaming community, this sort of critique has been a part of history as long as there have been mediums to critique. Folks like feminist critic Anita Sarkeesian, organizations like nascent Journal of Games Criticism, and others have begun to apply and adapt models of critical theory to video games that were formerly reserved for the more mature mediums of film, literature, and the like. Well, video games are maturing, we have a whole generation of social critics, academics, and activists who not only came of age in gaming culture, but were actively shaped by it.

There are professors with serious-sounding titles who grew up on a steady diet of Mario, Legend of Zelda, and Crash Bandicoot, and now are applying their education and curiosity to a hugely unexplored cultural powerhouse. These individuals are not reviewers; they are not interested in selling, defending, or maligning games. (Those who do are not pursuing academic critique in good faith and can be safely ignored.) Instead, they are interested in exploring other dialogues and ways of thinking about games and their place in our culture and society.

Applying this kind of critique to video games is simply part of the medium’s maturation in line with all that came before it. In particular, it culturally validates video games as a medium, and makes things like boycotts, attempting to pass censorship laws and bans, and so on, a thing of the past. That’s a GOOD thing, right?

Unfortunately, this new form of video game criticism prompted a fair bit of very vocal pushback. I can’t help but feel that it is a function of formerly well-defined spaces being “invaded” by seemingly outside groups. Never has this been more apparent than with Arthur Gies’ recent review of Bayonetta 2, a Wii U character action game. This review is something of a fusion between the old product-review model of game journalism and the more academic critique model. It left many with a bitter taste in their mouths. Gies followed the previously established review formula of talking about the objective points of the game, but the affective portion of his review, which formerly might have focused on what he liked about the game play, was instead heavily informed by his disapproval of the portrayal of women in the title.

Bayonetta 2 is widely regarded as the best game in its genre of 2014, so the Gies’ review became something of an outlier that seemed to make the internet very angry. This sort of pushback is a complicated beast and would require its own article to really explore, but I would hazard a guess that if Gies’ gave the game the same score but included no social commentary or critique, it would have provoked a much more mild response.

The reaction of many gamers to Gies’ review is an understandable, if unwarranted one. Video games as a medium have really not been subjected to such visible critiques of this kind from insiders in gaming communities and publications. Never before have these qualitatively different, academically-influenced critiques been so widely distributed and clearly articulated. There have always been the aforementioned critics of games as a medium themselves—those alleging that games cause violence, corrupt the youth, and so forth, but that’s not what this is.

The growth in this third dimension of video game critique can only be a good thing. To those who feel threatened by these other voices, keep in mind that even though film criticism and literary criticism exist, so does does Twilight and movies based on Twilight, and they have no shortage of dedicated fans. The video games you love are not going anywhere.

This new avenue of critique only serves to broaden our perspective on what games are, who they are for, what can they say, and how they matter—and perhaps will lead to even better games. You are free to ignore Anita Sarkeesian just as you probably have been ignoring Michel Foucault or Paul Feyerabend. A great new era in games journalism, critique, and conversation is opening up to us and it is my hope that we can Metageek our way boldly into this new frontier free of fear and eager for the possibilities.

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