Game Criticism: A Brief Survey

by tommy.rousse

Recommended listening: Cave – W U J

As I’ve coquettishly hinted at previously, I’m taking classes on both game journalism and digital game theory this semester & thus have placed my feet to the fire on this whole writing about video games thing.  In digital game theory, we are required to “blog” (I don’t blog y’all, I bjournal); for games journalism, we have to write an article of  a different type every few weeks.  No secret, I’m trying to up my writing game, so I decided to see who was better than me so I could analyze their weaknesses and consume their critical soul after beating them in a octathalon contest of wills featuring a free-style rap battle about procedurality & a Joust tournament.  “To the Internet!” I shouted lustily, thrusting my arm and one finger into the air before slowly lowering them mousewards and opening Google.

I haven’t read much in the way of video game criticism, thus far largely passing it by as I battle my way up the ivory tower.  I might as well admit that in my younger and more vulnerable years I slogged through thousands and thousands of words of terrifically bad “games journalism.” A lot of the coverage I read in print, as budget cuts decimated magazine staffs, had about as close a relationship to PR & marketing as a Super PAC & your average American presidential candidate. Until recently, I looked forward to reading games journalism about as much as the editorials in my local college paper.  I assumed whatever was dubbed “games criticism” was just more of the same.

I looked into more recent stuff two or three years ago, an era when perhaps the latest generation of young critics was still in a painful puberty complete with wispy mustache & the kind of acne-ridden syntax that fills the grapheme “Prom” with ominous enormity.  But as I set out into the critical fauna that have since blossomed, I discovered a lush foliage; more directly, there are a bunch of sharp internet types out there writing stuff I should have been reading, so I’m furiously mashing my eyeballs against the computer screen until further notice.  I thought my classmates might be interested, so here’s some of the stuff I found in my early exploration of who to learn a damn thing or two from.

  • Critical Distance — I just heard about this site about a week ago; their roundups of 2010 & 2011 are especially helpful.  I like to look over these lists to get a sense of what writers are associated with what venues.  This might not be a bad network to map out through NodeXL’s Twitter analysis, actually.
  • Oh No! Video Games! — Looks like the first post ever on this site is about Lacan & Slavoj Žižek. Kind of a bold opening salvo. I saw some other stuff about death and fascism that looks p. neat. Promising.
  • Tom Bissell @ Grantland — I already read Grantland for the football coverage, but Bissell’s stuff here surprised me.  I got the impression that Extra Lives didn’t live up to the boldness of the subtitle: “Why Video Games Matter.” A reductionist part of my brain sung out, “It’s probably not because you make doing cocaine and playing open-world RPGs sounds fun as hell.”  But damn if his writing on Grantland isn’t great.  He discusses his game criticism philosophy in dialog with the more game studies-oriented Simon Ferarri.
  • A blunt critique of game criticism — Daniel Cook pushes a thesis that I would characterize as “game criticism in the service of design progressivism.”  Like much written about video games, it has a clear slant towards the interest of designers and developers.  But the idea is that improvement on that end will trickle down to the audience, thus it is right and just for a game critic to improve games.  Cf. Zimmerman on Bartle asking “But how will your research help me make a better game?” over and over again. His approach is explicitly against affect and seems incapable of conceiving that video games might be intriguing for any quality beyond their escapism.  But the detail and clarity with which he lays out his ideology is worth engaging with, even if I endorse little of it.  Lagniappe: a metric shit-ton of comments.
  • Game Criticism, Why We Need It, and Why Reviews Aren’t It — “Grumpy” Greg Costikyan comes out swinging for an aesthetic criticism in the vein of Pauline Kael, an extension to his call for a critical language specific to gaming circa 1994. I respect work like this; I know some prominent academics like Frank Lantz shy away from identifying games with art. Maybe the art debate doesn’t matter because we’ve already won. It’s certainly arguable that Brown v. EMA didn’t rely on video games taking up the mantle of art, but that they were given First Amendment protection even if considered solely entertainment.
  • On Design Centric Game Criticism — In his final post for PopMatters’ Moving Pixels, L.B. Jeffries shares a little bit of information about the method he’s developed for writing about games. He happens to be a lawyer, so I’m especially keen on what he has to say about rule systems in games. He now blogs under his real name, Kirk Battle.

That’s some of what’s good.  I’ll probably get into other subject areas of criticism and look for lessons to be used for gaming.

I probably forgot like your favorite dude, how could I!  Proceed directly to the comment box and let me know what a terrible mistake I made.