Sentiment, Embarrassment, and Learning: Wrangling with Games Criticism

In June 2013 Jonathon Blow, developer of The Witness and Braid, gave a thoughtful answer when asked about the role of a video game critic:

“I still have this tendency to think about criticism, and care about it, and want it to be good just the way that I want games to be good.”

When I first started writing this piece, I was focused on how review scores affect consumers’ choices about what games to buy or avoid. But this is a reductive way to think about games and art in general. In his review of The Novelist, Alec Meer splits his reaction into two parts: what his head says about the game and what his heart says. His head describes the narrative, mechanics and design elements at work. His heart reveals his personal connection to the game as a father. In contemporary games criticism, this is the kind of review that draws me in and spurs me to discuss games with my friends and family.

Meer and his colleagues at Rock, Paper, Shotgun don’t just tell me what they like and don’t like about a game and then proceed to plaster a score on the end. They try provide insight to readers in a more nuanced way than a numerical summary.

Aggregating aggregates raises as many questions as aggregating itself does. Is the PS4 the "best" system because its games have the highest average rating? On the PC, are Half-Life, Half-Life 2 and Bioshock equally "good" because they have the same Metacritic ratings?
Aggregating aggregates raises as many questions as aggregating itself does. Is the PS4 the “best” system because its games have the highest average rating? On the PC, are Half-Life, Half-Life 2 and Bioshock equally “good” because they have the same ratings?

 Putting themselves in the story makes it easy to imagine myself playing; it reminds me of Hunter S. Thompson’s iconic experiment in gonzo journalism, “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.” They even focus their writing on the PC, where my dad first introduced me to games and his passion for technology.

Reading this kind of review, I don’t feel the impulse to jump to the bottom of the page and see the score. I want to read every word. I feel lucky to get an interview with these writers. Unfortunately I failed to realize that Meer worked with Kieron Gillen, the person who coined New Games Journalism. I asked all the wrong questions.

In 1973 journalist and author Tom Wolfe collected a series of journalism pieces into a book called “The New Journalism.” He used them as examples of New Journalism, a term he coined describing a style of journalism that adopts literary techniques in order to document events first-hand, focus on the thoughts and feelings of the real characters involved and place them in a realistic context of environments and events. Hunter S. Thompson’s novel “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved” and an excerpt from “Hell’s Angels” were included in “The New Journalism.” He embodied the style defined by Wolfe with his unique blend of non-fictional reporting and fictional storytelling.

Game critics aren’t trying to persuade you whether or not to buy a game. At least, not all of them are.

In 2004 journalist Kieron Gillen published “The New Games Journalism” on a gaming forum called State. Gillen was tired of the profit-driven environment of games journalism and critique present in corporate gaming magazines of that time. Earlier that year a user named Always Black posted a story titled “Bow, Nigger” on State. This individual’s experience within the online multiplayer of Star Wars Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast, along with other stories regularly posted to the forum, would serve as inspiration for New Games Journalism.

Gillen’s diatribe wasn’t attacking games writers; it was written for their benefit. Instead he was pointing out what he saw as a fundamental disconnect between the business model of gaming magazine corporations and what he felt as the need for serious critique of games. Like Wolfe’s reaction to American novels in “The New Journalism,” Gillen called for his peers to adopt a confessional tone in a first-person perspective, embrace metaphor and offer a truly personal experience of play by ridding themselves of journalistic objectivity.

“What a gamer feels and thinks as this alien construct takes over all their sensory inputs is what’s interesting here, not just the mechanics of how it got there,” Gillen said. Essentially, New Games Journalism injects humanity into traditional gaming journalism and critique. The focus of the review lies on the gamer rather than the game. Explaining that playing a game is feeling and experiencing something that doesn’t exist, Gillen tells writers to be “Travel Journalists to Imaginary places.” This principle is meant to make gaming journalism interesting even to those who don’t play games.

The philosophy of New Games Journalism remains present in some of the games criticism of today. Reviews on sites such as Rock, Paper, Shotgun and VG247 reflect elements of Gillen’s manifesto. When I interviewed Alec Meer and John Walker I had no idea that Gillen helped them found Rock, Paper, Shotgun in 2007. I had no idea who Gillen or what New Games Journalism was. In retrospect, I can’t believe I actually asked them if they had a responsibility to balance objectivity and subjectivity in their game reviews.

“With the greatest of respect, that’s not a question I can take entirely seriously,” Meer said.

“The moment any review gets bogged down in questions of ‘objectivity’ and ‘subjectivity,’ they’ve forgotten what they’re meant to be doing – reporting their experience of a game,” Walker said.

Reading their responses, I felt an acidic feeling of foolishness in my belly, the price paid for not doing the right research. Critics such as Gillen and Walker aren’t concerned with being objective, and with good reason. They’re trying to put the reader in the game. Their writing is more anecdotal than evaluative. They still offer opinions about the game, just not always from an analytical, big picture perspective. Walker says that a review score can have meaning but he considers them too inaccurate an instrument to fully represent the qualities of a game.

“So very often a game can be hugely flawed, but absolutely fascinating; there’s no numerical value for that,” Walker says. In a November 2012 issue of the British magazine New Statesman, gaming critic Helen Lewis said that too much value is placed into game ratings thanks in large part to review aggregators such as Metacritic. She said games criticism still needs to develop its own critical language for games to be properly examined and discussed.

Ever since my father introduced me to Doom and Half-Life I have loved playing, reading and talking about games. I guess that makes me a critic. Reading “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” inspired me to provide information to Americans and to do it in a personal way. Games are ultimately a form of art and entertainment but to me they represent how quickly the world seems to change and how we choose to react. While some games writers look more like public relations representatives, it’s inspiring to see others more concerned with discussion and freedom of expression.

Hear what some other games writers think of review scores below.


Fisher: Journalist Stace Harman does freelance writing for IGN, Eurogamer and VG247 among others. He says that reviewing a game is different from playing for pure enjoyment.

Harman: At the point that you put down a controller when you’ve been playing a game for work and then, sometimes it will literally be an immediate thing of I will then pick up another controller and play game for fun. You can just feel the difference. A lot of people play games to relax and you can’t do that if you’re reviewing it because you have to be more aware of what’s going on, you have to be looking at it with a critical eye.

Fisher: Harman tries to write in the first person whenever he can. He says it can help his writing to stand out and be more personal than his standard reviews with numbered scores. He says that readers and game makers place too much value into sites such as Metacritic, which aggregate review scores. He recalls stories of developers and publishers encouraging their development teams to achieve some particular Metacritic score.

Harman: From a personal point of view in terms of what I enjoy to read or to see either in magazines or on websites, I’m not a fan of numbered scores at all. … It serves a useful purpose for a lot of people but on a personal level it’s just not something that really does anything for me.

Fisher: In June 2013 author Tom Bissel wrote an article for Grantland about The Last of Us on PlayStation 3. In it he identified the disconnect between the opinions of game critics and game audiences. In October, Bissel appeared on The Indoor Kids, a gaming podcast hosted by Kumail Nanjiani and Emily Gordon.

Gordon: People who think about games really critically want novelty but the people who only have the money or the time to get a couple games a year, that’s not what they’re looking for.

Bissel: Nope. … This whole increasing dominance of the multiplayer experience, I think somebody is gonna figure out how to blend it with story and its gonna be cool, but I think – and I’ve been beating this drum a little bit in reviews – that the games that I kind of really like a lot seem seriously endangered, and that bums me out.

Fisher: For Interactive Arts, I’m Austin Fisher in Lawrence, Kansas.


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