Hi. I’m Mr. Have A Nice Day, and I’ve never done this before. Made a YouTube video, that is. So before I even start, I’ll warn you that you’re not going to see dazzling production value and that there’s a reason I sound like I’m trying out for an open slot on NPR.
I’ve been wanting to do something like this for a long time, and as the debate around GamerGate continues to swarm, and the dialogue on both sides appears to break down as soon as it starts, I’ve decided that now was as good a time as any to get started on what (I hope) will be a casual but long-running series of videos on game criticism. I’m not a professional critic or game journalist in any sense whatsoever at this point.
The reason I mention GamerGate is that, if you’re currently embroiled in the middle of it or are now aware of it in retrospect, there seems to be an ‘error in communication.’ That is, one of the central concerns of GamerGate includes concern over nebulous items such as “politicization” of articles, reviews, and so on. Now, the problem with some of these is that, while legitimate, they use improper phrasing. GamerGate is (or was) about game journalism; but many of the concerns with politicization has to do with game criticism. And, yes, there’s a difference.
Game criticism may currently fall under the umbrella of game journalism sites, but more and more, the realm of game criticism is starting to distinguish itself as an intellectual discipline, perhaps even an academic one. The concerns over politicization in game journalism isn’t necessarily just isolated to the pure ‘news’ side of the journalism sphere, it’s also a bleed-over effect from the game criticism sphere.
Because game criticism is still more or less tied to game journalism, the lines between the two disciplines have blurred significantly. What the first of these ShoeCrit videos will attempt to do will be to better define where game criticism lies as a discipline in relation to game journalism--at least, admittedly, as I perceive it. This first video will attempt to define game news, game reviews, and game criticism as separate entities. The second will briefly address the current state--or perceived state--of game criticism. The third, and possibly final video in the arc, will define what I currently call ‘Close-Play Criticism,’ and other schools of criticism.
And, yes, fair warning: we might get a little academic around here, but I’ll be doing my best to break down ideas in a fairly approachable manner. Let’s just say that, as an English major kind of guy, my future video on classifying schools of thought in game criticism will draw heavily from literary criticism.
So here we go with part one: Differentiating Game News, Reviews, and Critique.
The primary concern with defining these three terms is, in my opinion, their level of objectivity. At heart these three areas will fall in order as I’ve listed them from most to least inherently objective, and I’ll take some time to go through defining each. I encourage you to pay close attention to these definitions, as they’ll be the basis for my use of the terms in future videos.
First and foremost, News is the most basically objective. Its purest form comes to us as press releases from companies, official interviews, and so on. The purity of information dilutes slightly when a writer chooses to inject conjecture or bias into their work. There are plenty--perhaps too many--examples of this, which is one of the complaints that GamerGate raised. Items can fall under the category of ‘news’ and move towards strongly towards the subjective realm, particularly editorials and opinion pieces. The saturation of these--and their use as a defense mechanism--is something I’ll touch on in a later video. For now, I’ll say that I think editorials and opinion pieces should always be a separate companion to the reported facts; that is, a separate article.
Now’s where we get a little more into it, with reviews. There’s been a lot of discussion about objectivity and reviews, with a few people humorously bringing up Destructoid’s ‘Objective Final Fantasy Thirteen’ review. A contributor to Forbes, Paul Tassi, spoke against the idea of objective reviews in a September 10th article. I’ll agree with Tassi’s assessment that truly objective reviews are impossible, that preference and bias will always influence reviews to some degree. However, there are more than a few ways that a writer can make an effort to improve the objectivity of their reviews, something that Tassi only touched on briefly.
First, and this is the subject Tassi touches on, writers can consciously attempt to identify and shed their preferences and biases. I won’t go into a lot of detail on this one because it’s both somewhat self-explanatory and also something I’ll talk about again in a future video.
Second is the use of a strict personal scoring rubric and, yes, I believe strongly in score-based reviews if they’re well done. I discuss and share my personal rubric in a GameShoe article called ‘On Game Journalism, Objectivity, and Critical Empathy,’ but the idea here is that reviewers need to set, and share, a rubric for how and why a game receives particular scores in particular areas of its design. I split my own rubric into several categories of mechanics, visual design, and so on.
Now, again, judging mechanics and visual design is something that will be inherently subjective to some degree. My third point on reviews is actually a strict definition and explanation of what I believe a ‘game review’ should be.
The definition of a game review is this: the identification and analysis of both the accessibility and harmony of a game’s core elements. Okay, I swear it’s not as snoody as that just sounded.
To put it into simpler terms, a game review should identify the game’s key components, such as its core gameplay mechanics, its visual style, its stability, and so on. It should attempt to determine if these items are independently accessible by a player. Are the gameplay mechanics intuitive? Do the mechanics perform consistently with how the game presents them, and do they continue to do so over time? Do the mechanics increase in depth, or are they expanded upon? Does the visual aesthetic of the game work? Are players able to identify key elements or distinct areas based on the visual style? And so on.
Then the reviewer must also consider the harmony of these items. Do they work together? Do they clash unpleasantly? That is an exploration of harmony.
Notice that my definition says nothing of a game’s themes. That’s because, in my view, reviews shouldn’t focus on game themes. Identification and discussion of themes should be placed primarily in the realm of game criticism. Obviously, primary themes, or overt themes, will usually be apparent to a player or reviewer. Mentioning them briefly in relation to how they interact with the mechanics is acceptable. However, dissection of hidden themes or lengthy delving into even overt themes should not be part of a game review.
Let’s take a game like Papers, Please as an example. It has overt themes of totalitarianism that are made obvious by its plot and even its music (a slow, drudging march). These are complemented by its gameplay mechanics, a strangely involved paperwork simulator in a customs booth. The mechanics are dictated by the story. They also increase in complexity over time, but in many cases do so with contextual drop-down buttons and with ebb-and-flow concerns that, again, reflect the political themes of the progressing plot. Mix in a bland, retro-esque pixel presentation and you have a game that’s not really for everyone, but was recognized for a simple premise having strong harmony.
Finally, we come to game criticism. Just a moment ago, I more or less defined game criticism as the identification and discussion of game themes. Well, that’s pretty much it. It will be important to note, however, that this can refer to several things. Critics can examine a specific game for themes, look for certain thematic elements across a series or selection of games in a genre, or try to identify patterns in games as a whole. No matter what you hope to find when working game criticism, you need to be able to clearly articulate and define your thesis, and to remember that the broader your scope, the harder it will be to prove more generalized theses. In fact, this is one of the pitfalls that some critics or opinion writers fall into, and will be talked about in the next video.