In search of real criticism

Can games be art? Roger Ebert argued that they couldn’t. He was wrong. Any narrative medium can produce art. But I’m not sure we’re producing many examples that meet that definition.

Let’s be honest: everyone keeps talking about BioShock because it had something to say and said it with competence and style, not because what it had to say was especially profound. Had it been a movie or a book, I doubt it would have gotten much attention.

Part of that is because the industry’s economics don’t provide fertile ground for auteurs. This begs the question: given the inherent conservatism in the way the industry makes decisions about content, would we be making more art if customers demanded it? Probably, but that’s not the core audience for most triple-A games. Besides, very few sources are providing audiences with the tools to even recognise art when they encounter it. I’m speaking, of course, about the lack of genuine criticism in games.

For the past year, when I speak at conventions, I’ve been asking gamers, and game devs, what a critic does. The only answer I’ve received is that a critic tells you whether a game is good or bad. Or, worse, that a critic tells you whether to buy a game. Given the corporate entanglements between game companies and many review sites, that last bit is especially chilling.
I die a bit inside, sitting here with a literary criticism degree, every time I hear that.

The role of the critic isn’t purely that of tastemaker or judge – the critic is a guide, an educator, and an interpreter. The critic makes subtext text, traces themes, and fills in white space. Put another way, the critic helps the audience find deeper meaning in a piece of art. Or: the critic teaches the audience the rules of the games artists play so that they’re on a level ground with the artist.

One only has to compare movie or TV reviews in any mainstream publication, in which at least some critical analysis beyond “is this movie worth watching?” is fairly standard, with most of the entries on major game review sites, which tend to focus on specifying what content is in the game and whether it’s fun. In an economic sense, such reviews certainly serve consumers, but they’re not exactly serving those who consume media. (That’s not to say that no one’s doing real criticism: there are plenty of brilliant game critics – mostly writing for sites outside the mainstream.)

I read reviews of my favourite TV shows on the A.V. Club and other sites after I’ve watched the show, because I learn things from those writers. It’s part of the digestive process, and I get insight from it. I’ve rarely had reason to read game reviews after playing the game.

Video games are a geek medium, and the hallmark of the geek is passion and deep engagement. In theory, with an audience primed to devour and pore over every detail, the back-and-forth conversation we have through games should be richer than other media. It’s not. And I wonder if that’s because very few people are teaching gamers the rules of the critical game.

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