I knew I’d have to talk about video game criticism this week. I didn’t think, between the time that my pitch was approved and the draft was written, that anybody else would be either.
It goes without saying that, off the bat, I generally agree with Rab Florence’s now-edited, now-infamous Eurogamer article, “Lost Humanity 18: A Table of Doritos”. I think I’m generally firmly in the camp that maligns the symbiotic “weird club of pals and buddies,” as Florence terms it, describing the relationship between the video game industry and video game media. That in ways both subtle and overt, it compromises both the quality of the journalism that takes place and, perhaps more interestingly, the perception people have of journalists who for the most part, as John Walker points out, are as vigorous and as objective as possible in how they approach their work despite the temptations around them. I think I even at one point referred to this system as an “unholy and incestuous clusterfuck.”
But I’m not here to talk about journalism per se, and for a couple of reasons. The first is that I don’t consider myself a journalist and I’m very careful to no longer call myself one. I’m a critic, an essayist and a writer, but I do try to adopt certain journalistic ethical principles—be accurate; be balanced; do your research, and so on. The second is that the form of “journalism” oft-lamented as embodying the corruption and collusion is the review—which, as far as I’m concerned isn’t journalism in the first place. It’s criticism.
I’ve written before about my very open desire to turn away from the “consumer report” style of review writing, and veer it more toward engaged close readings. I’ve made it clear that I’m sick and tired of review writing being used as a litmus test for whether something is worth the money, and that I believe the culture surrounding these demands exploits enthusiasm press for the self-interests of marketers. So it’s interesting that now, of all times, a piece decrying the state of corporate influence on the so-called objectivity of video games’ Fourth Estate, is making us address some of those concerns.
But I think a broader concern, one that notably affects both journalism and, for the purposes of this piece, criticism, is the same one that treats games more like consumer products than cultural artefacts. The demands that influence publishers to place a suspicious degree of primacy on review scores is the same one that makes us believe aggregating them is a good way to determine the quality of a single game: after all, the games industry is an industry, and is as susceptible to the invisible fists of consumer capitalism as anything else.
When we talk about the “drip-feed” approach to game marketing, or overt attempts to alter reviews scores, for instance, we’re talking about extreme and exceptional examples of this consumer capitalist system. But most of the time we’re talking about a system that subsumes critical discourse into demands of whether or not a game is worth our money. Before that tirade begins, I have to admit that in many ways I understand this demand. After all, we all live and participate in a capitalist culture, and consumer products, like games, are expensive. I can’t afford every game that comes out, regardless of how badly I might want it, so I can understand the perspective that desires an appraisal of a product before the decision is made to purchase it.
This is how we approach purchasing all kinds of things—swimming pools, tablets, Panini presses, whatever—that are made for functional purposes. We have magazines and forums to help us decide which products are the best to buy and when. And, considering the economic system we live in, this makes a hell of a lot of sense.
The problem is, some “products” are not just made for functional purposes—like books, or films, or video games—and yet we now appraise them as if they are. In many ways, the Rotten Tomatoes culture, the Metacritic Culture, the 5-Stars-on-Amazon culture, is one that equates the cultural merit of a product with how high a score it gets, and, by extension, how profitable it is.
Now, I’m the type of person that believes in abolishing review scores altogether, mainly because I don’t think that critical opinion can be justly quantified in a reliable way: that every score or grade will be specific to whatever Critic X thinks about Game Y at a given point in time. But what does it mean when a review is perceived as a tool for evaluating the worth of a product’s consumption, instead of the reader’s edification? What does it mean when the aggregate score is seen as a reliable consensus for what to expect of the game, without looking at how many people reviewed a game, who reviewed it or what they even had to say that informed their score? And what does it mean that we do this with books and with film now, too?
It means that we see our artistic cultural artefacts as reducible to a universalized metric, without much room for nuance or discussion. Things are “good,” “mediocre” or “bad,” in terms of percentages, without needing to be qualified or described in more complex ways. It means that we see artistic products the same way we see any other consumer product—as fulfilling a simple need or want efficiently enough compared to its cost.
Consumer capitalism often relies on planned obsolescence: things need to be that one Daft Punk song, all the time. And that means, inherently, that whatever new thing the consumer is compelled to buy must replace the old, allegedly worse thing. PR departments have lots of clever ways to try to get people to rationalize the new expense, be it through brand retention practices or hype machines of various sorts. The same thing quite obviously goes on in the games industry. Geoff Keighley is pictured sitting by a table full of it.
This makes it, rather reasonably, seem like a reviewer’s responsibility is to guide the consumer through this sea of exaggeration and elucidate whether or not something is worth shelling out the 60 bucks for. Instead of unpacking, say, Medal of Honor in terms of what ideas or sensations the gameplay offers, for example, I should instead be talking about whether or not that gameplay content is “fun” and “action-packed” and “innovative” in aesthetic or mechanical terms. Everything else is a “pretentious” waste of time compared to what’s important.
Now, to some extent, I understand why this is happening. Part of the effects of this relatively new paradigm is that the definition of “review” has come to mean something very specific. After Kill Screen published my review of Dear Esther, for instance, one commenter was concerned about spoilers, saying that the review was best read “after playing” the game. Another wondered if what I wrote was a review at all.
I suspect that both of these people have a very similar idea of what a review is supposed to be: an evaluative overview of the game tied to a recommendation of whether or not to play it—something that people would be looking for if they’re interested in advice on whether or not to buy it. But the word review has many meanings, because all it really means is to “look at something again.” That means I can give you a critical review, a personally experiential review, a retrospective, and any combination thereof of a particular game (or book, or movie, or whatever.) Sometimes reviews are actually best read after you’ve played the game, to give you something to think about. Sometimes that’s the point.
The review under this consumer-oriented paradigm carries, then, a bunch of questionable perceptions: that reviews have to be timely and bluntly efficient rather than retrospective and long-form; that critics must feign a kind of clinical objectivity that is simply not possible in an intrinsically subjective framework; that the review itself is a kind of journalism, with a reportage-like responsibility to the consumer, rather than a kind of critical literature, with the responsibility of, introducing the reader to alternative interpretation, experience or critical conversation.
We can even say, as Michael Abbott does in his latest post on Brainy Gamer, that the language itself that often gets used to describe games is stunted—and perhaps this is a result of the need for this efficiency. We repeat adjectives because they’re easy signifiers for people to understand—but like any food label that offers Organic or Fat Free wares, the words become “generic placeholders” and eventually cease to accurately describe the thing they’re labeling.
We have seen the extreme ways in which this prioritization of metrics and consumer appraisal has played out—chronic over-scoring; companies making Metascores a part of their bonus policies; reviewers fired for refusing to score a game higher—but these are symptoms of the widespread disease of consumer capitalism, one that warps our perception of what we actually value in game discourse.
Of course there are superb, thoughtful and important critics working today, just as there are fine journalists working in games media. But under a tenuous systematic relationship where the consumer is looking for value and the marketer is looking for profit, these more involved conversations are not what are traditionally privileged. Of course there is excellent criticism already out there, going on all the time, with many game-makers, critics, academics and writers of various sorts participating in it, but, as Michael Abbott writes,
“But we continue to see a disconnect between scholarship about games and the critical community charged with writing about games for a broader non-academic audience. Worse, we struggle to capture the more elusive, expressive dimension of games.”
This important conversation is actually going on as we speak, but it is not yet the norm for the “broader” audience to participate in it.
Now, okay, I did call this system an “unholy and incestuous clusterfuck,” and that probably points to a little bit of bitterness on my part. But I don’t think there’s a single scapegoat we can roast over a spit. We—by which I mean game critics, consumers, publishers and makers—are all complicit in a system that pretty much impels us to prioritize the material. The tragedy, for me anyway, is the limitations this system compels us to place on ourselves when it comes to the discourse we have about games, the standards and methods we keep to maintain that discourse, and even the games that we bother to discuss or acknowledge.
But all you need to know is that I give this whole situation a 7/10.
About the Author:
Lana Polansky is a game critic and writer peddling her wares at Kill Screen, Gameranx, Medium Difficulty and here at Bit Creature. Also, a ludonarrative disco-dancer.