A blunt critique of game criticism
Posted by Lost Garden [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 7 May 2011, 9:09 pm

I read Ben Abraham's weekly summary of game criticism over at Critical Distance.  Unlike a decade ago, there is now an absolute deluge of thoughtful essays being written about games.  Most of it is a waste of my time as a game developer.

There are two factors here:
  • We need better methods of filtering game criticism.  The signal-to-noise ratio has gotten worse.  The quantity and literary quality of writing has improved in recent year. However the writing tends to be informed by the impoverished experiences of gamers, journalists and academics that know little to nothing about the philosophy and process of making games.  The vast drek of game criticism is written by game illiterates. 
  • We need a new breed of developer-writers who hold their game analysis to a higher standard.  It is not enough to be a gamer. It is not enough to merely write. It isn't even enough to have experience with all the facets of game creation.  Instead, each author should produce writing that ratchets forward the creative conversation.  If your meandering opinion does not point with clarion clarity towards a means of making better games, you can do better. 

The blossoming of shallow game criticism

When I started writing about games, there was hardly anyone talking about games in a thoughtful manner. At best, you had the chatter of more vocal gamers.  Even journalists were little more than gamers with a bigger podium.  The developers snuck in peer conversations once or twice a year in hotel bars and then went off to toil in intellectual isolation. An admittedly sad state of affairs.

Today,we've got the developer blogs on Gamasutra, dozens of conferences, the efforts of the Escapist, the rise of the intellectual game journalist and the slow blossoming of academic writing. The language has improved dramatically.  With the arrival of communities of like-minded bloggers and the co-opting of various university departments, writers find themselves encouraged to say what little they can say in increasingly wordy missives. Each week I find myself inundated with essays that appear on the surface to be fascinating treasure troves of insight.

When I waste my time digging past the fresh coat of erudite language, much of the content is a regurgitation of the same tired discussion from ages past.  Consider Adam Ruch's recent article "First Or Third Person – What’s Your Perspective?"  (I chose this example not to be cruel, but because it was at the top of Ben's recent list of game criticism.) Adam is introduced as "a PhD candidate, currently writing about Video Games Criticism" and "a pretty smart guy!"

Yet the essay is little more than a series of personal descriptions of how he feels when he plays certain games.  There is little insight that couldn't be gained by sitting down with a beer and a controller. There is no attempt at gathering empirical evidence. Adam could have saved everyone a vast amount of time with the TL;DR summary: "In 3rd person you can see (and thus empathize) with a visualized character and in 1st person, you can't." Once you strip away the laborious language, you have yet another bit of fluffy gamer opinion written by a young student.

I need a filter. With the blossoming of game writing, Sturgeon's Law comes into full effect. If your essay merely rehashes the bong water ramblings of a several generations of gamers, I really do not care to read it.

Classifying game criticism

Here's the start of a heuristic for culling the crap. There are several classes of article being written under the general "game criticism" category.
  • Gamer navel gazing: "I played a game or heard about people talking about a game.  Here is my random opinion." This is the most rampant and least useful. 
  • Journalist navel gazing:  "I write about games for the gaming press.  Why am I doing this again?"
  • Academic justification: "I see connections that may or may not actually exist between games and the rest of art history and / or philosophy. Tenure?"
  • Industry drama: "I heard that something vaguely controversial occurred in the game industry.  OMG."
  • Game developer analysis: "Here's a working game.  Here's the experiment.  Here are the repeatable lessons I learned."  
Only game developer analysis is useful to someone who seeks to improve future games by engaging in the radically straightforward act of making games.  I realize that there are other types of readers out there, but to be blunt, they consistently fail to affect change.  And I make the assumption that you want your writing to change the world.

The problem with writing by gamers

Why is there so little practical value in the writings of gamers, journalists and academics?  The vast majority of the rest of writers listed above do not make games, nor do they understand how games are made.

That may sounds like a harsh requirement, but imagine a population that has books read to them, but they are unable to read nor write.  This functionally illiterate population then goes forth and creates a vast number of rambling YouTube videos talking about their experience that they collectively call 'book criticism".  Things as minor as grammar and as major as the context of the creative process are treated as an impenetrable mystery. The level of discussion such a group can provide is substantially more limited than that provided by literate creators.

Likewise, most game criticism suffers from an immense lack of hands-on knowledge about what it takes to make a competent game.   In the past week of essays on Critical Distance, I found 1 writer of 12 had any declared experience making games.  I'm sorry...but based off your worldly education level alone, I don't think you are adding all that you could to the conversation.

Instead, most writing is by gamers for gamers. The resulting impaired discussion is at best a form of guilty intellectual entertainment.  I have no issues with someone sitting on their dilapidated couch and spouting esoteric blather. With a little wine and the right company, it is an evening well spent. Yet when that same ignorant blather is elevated to a respective voice of authority, my skin crawls.  As I scan through page upon page of dilute thought, I worry that the entire game criticism movement is but an attempt to turn being an opinionated gamer into a real job (paid for by some bizarro self congratulatory eco-system of pseudo-intellectual wannabes.)

Sadly, we appear to be aping the accepted critical practices that form an institutionalized parasite on other media.  Yet, games are not and never will be the same sort of purely evocative media as music, video, writing or painting. Game have a functional heart that resists being reduced to the softest of sciences in the same way there is little room 'rock criticism' in the practice of geology. Aesthetics, rhetoric, literary theory, film theory, art history may be how you were trained to think. And these are indeed a possible starting point if that's all you've got to work from. But exploring games using with only limited tools and philosophies of past media is often results in blinders that cause us to ignore the whirring, clicking mechanical reality of games in practice.

Games have more in common with functional works involving mathematics, psychology, governments, economics or other complex systems. Given population A with skills B, we experimentally validate that we get result C. We have a rich tradition of design practice stretch across Miyamoto to Sid Meier to modern metrics-driven social games.  There exists game design theory stemming from folks like Chris Crawford, Eric Zimmerman and Raph Koster. The instinct of practicing designers alone is an immense iceberg of unwritten knowledge just waiting to be described and shared. If you cannot speak these languages and have no direct experience with how you can pragmatically weave these time-tested concepts into the creation of a game, your spew of text only adds noise.

At times when I read what passes for insight, I despair. There is still so much empirical, hands-on exploration and experimentation to do before People-Who-Make surrender the future of our medium to the recursive navel-gazers that infect other media.

Identifying an informed perspective

As someone who paints, I always want to know the following when I hear someone talk of painting:
  • Are you a viewer / critic of paintings?
  • Are you a painter?
  • If you are a painter, are you an apprentice or a journeyman?
For each of these classifications, I turn on a different portion of my brain.  Viewers and critics yield small opinion-based data points. Apprentices are given the initial benefit of the doubt, but are filtered out when they start dogmatically insisting on mere opinions.  Journeymen get my undivided attention.

In light of this hierarchy, I make a very simple request to help time-poor folks like myself.  If you are writing about games in language that suggest intelligent analysis, state upfront in your bio or perhaps even at the start of the article your perspective and experience.
  • Are you primarily a viewer or critic of games?  Are you one of the people listed above?  A gamer? A journalist?  An academic? 
  • Alternatively have you participated in the process of building and releasing games?
  • Are you an apprentice or student who has dabbled in a game or two? Or are you a journeyman who has devoted the majority of your waking life to making (and releasing!) games over a period of years?   
Naturally, anyone has the right to say whatever the hell they want about games.  However, if you fail to disclose your perspective, you are very likely wasting the precious time of your reader.  If you deliberately obscure this information (as I've seen many student or indies tempted to do) you are being a dishonest member of our community.  If this classification system frustrates you and you want to be taken more seriously, do the following:
  1. Make games. Again and again and again.  
  2. Study the fields of science that deal with complex functional systems. 
  3. Then come back and write useful thoughts from your newly upgraded perspective.

    Holding game criticism by developers to a higher standard

    There is a price to be paid for putting writing by experienced creators on a pedestal.  Game developers who identify themselves as sources knowledgeable about the craft of development and design should actually say something meaningful and useful when they write.

    Simply making games does not make you a good writer about games. I have a friend who makes games, but publicly writes gamer-esque drivel.  Then he wonders why no one pays attention.  A developer ranting about their personal, emotional experience with the controls in Super Meat Boy from the perspective of 'Dude, I'm a gamer just like you" is no more helpful than a 13-year old gamer engaged in the same shallow analysis.

    For those with real world understanding of how to make games better, ask yourself the following questions about what you write:
    • Grounded: Are you basing your theories off empirical evidence?  Do not write something merely because you had a feeling to express.  
    • Aware: Do you know what other people have written in the past?  Do the research and be an informed commenter. 
    • Insightful:  Does your writing add a substantial new perspective or tool that moves the conversation forward?  Do not rehash the same old thing simply because you have an opinion on the currently popular meme.  
    • Actionable:  Does your writing identify a course of action that previously was obscured? Do not let an exploration of an idea wander off into vague hand-waving.  Ask the reader to perform an experiment that increases the knowledge of the community as a whole. 
    There is a clear benefit when you follow these guidelines.
    • Your writing stands out from the muck.  The world craves a path forward and the intelligent people you attract by being a grounded, aware, insightful and actionable writer open doors that you would never otherwise find.
    • You improve the world.  Your small contributions build upon the work of others to create a mountain of human endeavor that builds our medium to heights we can only barely imagine. 
    As a small closing note, I do realize that my comments may seem overly narrow in their focus. Surely game criticism is a big tent in which any bozo can say anything and gentle respect is given to all who share a love for games.  I come at this topic with the belief that merely making something is not nearly enough.  As a creator, you have only a few short years to build something great that changes the world.  Hold yourself to a higher standard and do not waste your talent writing game criticism that yields little more than entertainment for People-Who-Consume. I deeply believe that the writers in this industry are better and more capable than what I'm witnessing right now.

    take care
    Danc.

    PS: Some game essays that fit the criteria above.  Heaven forbid I write an essay like this one without giving some positive examples. ;-)
    Note:  This is a first draft of this essay.  It is a broad topic with multiple highly entrenched perspectives so I know it won't go down smoothly on the first pass.   Let me know where I'm wrong.  Let me know which portions makes sense. 



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