Monday, January 24, 2011

Critics, What You Do Matters

I don't mean critics in this sense, but I couldn't pass on such wicked street art. Following on the discussion of game journalists' importance last week, now we move to critics. What any one person believes game criticism is comprised of varies, but I'd say it's any writing about games that isn't primarily meant to inform purchasing decisions (most scored reviews are thus excluded, but that's certainly not categorical). This kind of writing has increased in sophistication and quality in the past few years and I find that quite an exciting trend.

The distinguishing feature of criticism is that it's inherently reflective. Unlike journalism, where the lion's share of coverage for a game takes place before its release, game criticism is almost entirely post hoc. A game is played, analyzed and discussed. The role criticism fills is vital, because the pace of conversation about games otherwise moves at break-neck speed. Any game released more than two weeks ago is old hat. Criticism challenges that status quo by thoughtfully discussing games from months and years previous.

Game criticism is important because it encourages being more thoughtful about the games we play. Nearly all conversation about games elsewhere boils down to "Is it awesome or does it suck?" Criticism provides discussion that isn't necessarily rooted in value judgement. It's important to recognize and encourage the examination of what a particular game, or just some facet of it, actually means. For some games, whether or not it's fun to play is probably the least interesting to consider.

Good criticism gives voice and structure to similar thoughts in ourselves that hadn't quite congealed. It shines light on things we hadn't noticed or considered. Even if it's disagreement, sometimes the best way to form an opinion is to bump your mind against the contrary. My thinking about what games mean has matured due in no small part to reading these sorts of conversations.

As a game creator, critics help keep me honest, I think. It's challenging, in a good way, to know someone will be looking at what you do through this particular lens. It encourages me to go further and make something that's worth analyzing. It's fresh perspective and voice that deeply considers how games affect their players. Reading smart writing about games has genuinely helped me sharpen the tools I'll be pointing back at my own work. That's a healthy cycle, I think.

I'll close with pointing to some specific examples of games criticism I think represent just how useful and important thinking about games in this fashion is. This is meant as an introduction and won't provide surprise for anyone even passingly familiar with this domain, but for the uninitiated, this is where I would advise one to start.

Rather than call out the online writing of any specific critics, as there are many of excellence and I'd inevitably leave far too many out, I'll point to Critical Distance. Weekly, CD compiles a list of notable game criticism (Rock, Paper, Shotgun's Sunday Papers provides a similar rundown, but usually with little overlap with CD). And if one is looking for specific critics to follow more closely, Critical Distance's ur-compilation of 2010 games criticism is a fine place to start.

As for games criticism in other media, Kill Screen is exquisite. It's something like The New Yorker but for video games. For long form writing, Tom Bissell's Extra Lives reflects upon a handful of games that have affected him personally. It's both clever and honest; I highly recommend it. While I've been enjoying their written pieces less as of late, The Escapist does host two excellent video series, Zero Punctuation (which everyone has heard of) and Extra Credits (maybe less prevalent, but honest and optimistic).

Finally, for podcasts, since Idle Thumbs has retired and A Life Well Wasted seems to have done the same, Scott and Jorge's Experience Points podcast is just about the only gaming podcast I listen to regularly. EXP is delivered weekly like clockwork and Scott & Jorge never fail to provide food for thought. Michael's Brainy Gamer podcast is also excellent (as is all his writing) but quite understandably infrequent, and the RPS podcast is no slouch either.

So critics, thank you for helping find the more interesting things to discuss. Game criticism certainly isn't flawless (it's a bit insular perhaps and is pretty dwarfed by consumer-focused writing) but it's certainly as robust as it has ever been and doesn't show signs of diminishing. The writing (and other media-ing) you all do is important to me personally, and to games as a medium in general. You all encourage me to keep pushing the boundaries with the games I help make and I hope we can keep providing you with games worth discussing.



Blogger Jacob Clark said...

I think it is cool that people are digging further into to games. I think the future generation of gamers look to much into whats good and bad rather than breaking a game down piece by piece. Video games are a fairly new media compared to movies, or books but they also from the same problem whether that movie or book is good or bad. I find it sad though that traditional press (magazines and newspapers) do not publish articles like these.

I am still trying to get better at my own writing skills and write articles on specific aspects of games rather then saying "this is fun". I run into the "fun" trap usually when I do a top five list, but I have been working on a article about how death affects gameplay.

January 24, 2011 at 9:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Another spot-on article.

@Gaming in Public: I was going to comment on the tendency to fall in the "this is fun" trap too :p

Critics' most important but often overlooked role is to provide players the words – the vocabulary – to talk about games in a thoughtful way. In a way, they pave the way for game literacy: we need accurate terms to describe our medium if we are to fully understand it.

January 24, 2011 at 11:07 PM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@Gaming in Public I've found the most interesting pieces I've read about specific games are just someone's unexpected experience with them. That may be played out well into something more broad or a larger context, but even if it's not, it usually produces something interesting.

@Hugo I think that's exactly right. A good critic can help put words to something someone was feeling, but couldn't quite convey. And as you note, that has the added benefit of helping build out a vocabulary.

January 26, 2011 at 9:20 AM  

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