Thought-provokers or killjoys: what do we need video games critics for?

Poniższy tekst jest zapisem prelekcji, którą wygłosiłam podczas anglojęzycznego panelu dyskusyjnego „Grasz?” w ramach festiwalu Ars Independent 2015. Dostępne są również zdjęcia z wydarzenia (gdyby ktoś chciał wzbogacić lekturę wrażeniami wzrokowymi).

fot. Michał Jędrzejowski

fot. Michał Jędrzejowski


So… video games criticism! This is what I’m going to speak of today. But who am I – and who am I not – to speak of it? What I am not is an academic nor professional critic. What I am is gamer (duh), like the most of you here. I’m also an avid reader of video game criticism and author with some experience in writing it. Thus, this won’t be a lecture on the theory of criticism – I will be merely presenting my practical view on role and functions of video game criticism, plus some examples of texts.

Reviews vs. criticism

Let’s start with the question which is both basic and crucial for the topic: what is the difference between regular reviews, which we most often see in gaming press, and critical pieces, which are obviously rarer but not that uncommon (if you know where to look). Simply put: reviews serve usually as buyer’s guide. They treat games primarily as products and tend to answer questions like: is a game worth your money and time, is a game fun? And there’s nothing wrong with that per se – sometimes a straightforward advice on what is worth buying is exactly what we need. But the dominance of such writing model often results in turning video game journalism in what critic Zolani Stewart calls „a machine that cycles anticipation and fuels emotional investment in consumerism”. And we don’t really need experienced writers for that, too – user reviews on forums, social media or websites such as Steam are often sufficient to give us a glimpse of a game. Plus of course YouTube let’s plays and Twitch playthroughs these days.

Video game criticism, on the other hand, just like every other type of art criticism, treats games as pieces of art (so it doesn’t even bother with the question we are fed up with by now: are games art?). It provides deeper insight and careful examination of their contents and form, and tends to answer questions like: why and how is a game fun or not, what does a game mean: artistically, personally, culturally, historically, socially, politically? As author and scholar Ian Bogost puts it: „The artist takes mud and turns it into gold. The critic turns the gold back into mud again”. So critics need to dig deep and be prepared to sometimes cover their hands with dirt, especially when they touch unpopular or inconvenient aspects of video games or video game culture.

How do I see role and functions of video games criticism? For the purposes of this speech, I thought of dividing them into five main groups. In my opinion, video games criticism aims to:

Analyze and interpret games’ meaning and formal aspects

This function comes to mind as first and most obvious when we think of any type of art criticism, and games are no different. This kind of critical texts help us understand games better, show them in new light, deconstruct their hidden meanings, explain how they convey specific ideas, and which artistic or design techniques have been used to achieve certain goals.

  • In Superheroes, Cities, and Empty Streets Austin Walker examines what makes city in a game vibrant, loud and alive, and why some of the cities seem empty and artificial, citing positive examples (like “The Witcher 3” or “Grand Theft Auto V”) and negative ones (“Batman: Arkham Knight”). He also analyzes the relationship between superheroes and cities.
  • In T. and How to Make Horror in Videogames Edward Smith explores in detail what makes “P.T.”, demo of (now cancelled) “Silent Hills”, one of the scariest games of all times. He explains which design ideas have been used to give the player nightmarish sense of confusion and disorientation.
  • In Witajcie w Greenvale Aleksander Borszowski analyzes carefully “Deadly Premonition”, one of the weirdest “so bad it’s good” games, its bizarre narrative and game world, hidden subtexts, and the peculiar relation between the player and his avatar.

Put a game in cultural/social/historical context

No piece of art functions in vacuum; it’s inherently related to various contexts around it. Critics’ role is to find, identify and explain those relations.

  • In Niegdysiejsze śniegi: gry dla dorosłych Paweł Schreiber reminds of games created by British company Infocom, brave and complex in meaning and form, which already in the 80s offered mature and emotional stories. Historical criticism is especially important in the light of common misconception that only lately games have begun to “grow up” (noticed how most “best” game lists assume that almost everything worthwhile was created in the 21st century?).
  • In The Squalid Grace of Flappy Bird Ian Bogost examines the phenomenon of recent mobile hit, psychological mechanism that pushes us to engage in its mindless, frustrating repetition, and what it tells about modern society.

Provoke, question, challenge our assumptions and video game culture’s norms

This kind of texts are the most controversial ones, because they touch on subjects which people tend to passionately feel and argue about: sex, gender, race, violence, politics, but also nostalgia-fueled memories of games from our childhood and adolescence, pure and easily bothered by critical analysis. Yet, this kind of texts are worthwhile and needed exactly because of that.

  • In her YouTube series Tropes vs. Women in Video Games Anita Sarkeesian examines plot devices and patterns most often associated with female characters in gaming. Her careful, critical insight stirred many discussions on stereotypical depiction of women in video games, and already proved to have impact on how the creators design female characters and how the audience perceives them.
  • In Colorblind: On The Witcher 3, Rust, and gaming’s race problem Tauriq Moosa raises concerns about race representations in games. He notices, for instance, that being white is apolitical, while being a person of color, even simply by existing, is threatening to some players. Moosa’s piece provoked passionate discussion on how to handle historical or literary accuracy while being inclusive for diverse audience at the same time.
  • In his “review” of fictional game “Raped” – inspired obviously by (in)famous Polish game “Hatred” – Olaf Szewczyk brilliantly mocks thoughtlessness and impertinence of many reviewers who refuse to see problematic aspects of some games and insist on “it’s only a game after all” attitude.

Provide a personal perspective on a game or its aspect, subjective experience of playing a game

In a way, video games are very personal medium: we reach into them, we change what happens inside them, and they reach out to change what happens with us, to affect us on emotional level. This kind of criticism arises at the intersection of game and the person who plays it. It could, but doesn’t have to, be inspired by Kieron Gillen’s New Games Journalism manifesto, in which he compared games writing to travel journalism about imaginary places.

  • In Płacz i ogniska – Dark Souls i walka z depresją Iga Ewa Smoleńska reveals how even little successes in „Dark Souls”, game renowned for its high level of difficulty, helped her to cope with challenges of struggling with depression on a daily basis.
  • In several texts about games she loved when she was younger (Final Fantasy VII, Metal Gear Solid 3, Silent Hill series), Leigh Alexander examines her own memories and feelings from that time, and uses that to look at those games with mixture of nostalgia and grown-up perspective.

Curate, seek and promote valuable, unconventional games and expand audience’s horizons

There are many games outside mainstream, and there are even many games outside what we usually call indie scene! While the former gets a lot of press coverage and publicity and the latter is lately breaking through as well, there are still tons of great games which are broadly unheard of. Notgames, art games, altgames or whatever we call them are often small, weird, rough, rarely fun in the common sense of this word – but still valuable and engaging, also because they show what new things this medium is capable of achieving.

  • This is the kind of criticism I focus on mostly in the last year or so, if you forgive me this moment of self-promotion. For example, Dwutygodnik magazine publishes my series of texts about short, free games which you can play directly in your browser. The aim is to show general culture-oriented audience that video games don’t necessarily require specific skills to convey emotions and interesting experiences. I covered games i.a. by Pippin Barr, Nina Freeman, Paolo Pedercini, and more are to come.
  • In Polish web, also Dawid Walerych on Technopolis, blog hosted on “Polityka” website, and Tetelo, author of blog Femina Ludens, have been doing similar thing. Their view on current state of video games as an art form is a little too gloomy for my taste, but they still do a great job highlighting small, marvelous games which are usually absent in Polish gaming press.

Summary

And guess what? By doing all this, critical texts can – but don’t have to! – at the same time do what typical reviews do: evaluate and judge games’ value.

Coming back to the title question: what do we need video games critics for? We certainly don’t need them to enjoy games, and developers don’t need them to create games. Video criticism is fully optional, and yet it allows more healthy, self-aware, progressive, evolving medium. Critics help developers to improve, advance and grow – and they help the audience to understand games better and make it care more about their artistic quality.

In a way, video game critics really could be killjoys – if we assume that serving the roles and functions I spoke of today somehow magically spoils the fun of playing games – but they are always thought-provokers. And there’s never enough thoughtfulness when it comes to engaging with contemporary media.

fot. Michał Jędrzejowski

fot. Michał Jędrzejowski

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