Hang All The Critics: Towards Useful Video Game Writing

Jonathan McCalmont @ 18-01-2012

 

  1. The Problem

It does not take a genius to realise that the world of video game reviewing is completely and utterly fucked. Their reputations sullied by an endless cavalcade of scandal and stupidity, video game reviewers routinely find themselves in the impossible position of having to balance the financial requirements of their publishers with the (frequently unreasonable) expectations of their audience, all the while striving to be completely objective, irreproachably fair, amusingly articulate and uncommonly insightful. Frankly, nobody could satisfy all of these demands at once — and, even if they could, I doubt that anyone would care. The age of the critic has now well and truly passed.

While this column is about the state of video game criticism, the decline of the traditional review is hardly limited to the world of digital entertainment. In fact, I would argue that all forms of criticism are equally worthless and equally in need of a radical re-think, and I include my own work in this generalisation. As a critic I have nothing to offer you but more pointless analysis and tedious evaluation that only add to the already impossible glut of information that deadens your senses and dulls your mind. Faced with so much information, people need something new, and traditional critics are not in a position to offer it to them.

In order to begin thinking about how we might find an alternative to traditional criticism, it is first necessary to understand how culture has evolved and why criticism is no longer a useful human activity.

  1. The Source of The Problem

The collapse of video game reviewing is the result of two structural changes in gaming culture:

Gaming’s cultural spaces have now been thoroughly commercialised

In his book The Function of Criticism (1984), the Marxist critic Terry Eagleton explains how literary culture first emerged in the 17th Century. According to Eagleton, the emergence of an economically powerful middle-class resulted in the creation of a cultural ‘public sphere’ where middle-class people could talk to each other about the experience of being middle-class. Built upon social institutions such as coffee houses, literary journals and magazines, the public sphere used self-appointed literary critics like Samuel Johnson to police its borders for fear that middle-class culture might otherwise be either co-opted by the interests of the upper classes or debased by the concerns and experiences of the great unwashed.

Bourgeois culture needed its own identity, and this identity was stage-managed by a group of cultural gatekeepers with the power to decide whose works were worthy of bourgeois attention and bourgeois financial support. Of course, this state of critical grace could not last forever, and people began to see the public sphere as a place where money and reputations could be made. As cultural values splintered and PR techniques became more and more sophisticated, the idea of cultural gatekeepers came to seem absurdly authoritarian. As Eagleton puts it:

Once the ‘public’ has become the ‘masses’, subject to the manipulations of a commercialized culture, and ‘public opinion’ has degenerated into ‘public relations’, the classical public sphere must disintegrate, leaving in its wake a deracinated cultural intelligentsia whose plea for ‘disinterestedness’ is a dismissal of the public rather than an act of solidarity with them.

Thus the increasing commercialisation of gaming’s cultural spaces gave rise to a climate where reviewers receive death threats for daring to give Uncharted 3 a score of 8 out of 10, while others fawn over broken games like LA Noire because they are neck deep in the same swamps of hype that they were supposed to help consumers avoid. In a culture that has sold off all of its cultural spaces to the highest bidder, there is no place for honest evaluation, let alone thoughtful provocation. There is only the rule of the mob and the entitled whining of sponsors and developers. Nobody deserves being in that kind of situation, and nobody benefits from it either.

Video Games Can No Longer Be Properly Reviewed Prior to Release

Once upon a time, games were finite entities that emerged at the end of a long production line and dropped into the expectant hands of a grateful audience. With this kind of production process in place, it made absolute sense to have people stationed at the end of the line telling people which products were worth buying. However, with more and more games being both played and distributed online, it makes no sense to review games prior to their release, as most games do not reach the marketplace in their final form. This problem presents a number of facets:

Firstly, most games now ship broken. People who buy games upon release are frequently little more than paying beta-testers who serve to flag up any major problems that the developers will promptly fix in a series of patches. Because reviewers generally gain access to games before the general public do, their reviews will be based upon what is effectively unpatched beta-code that will later be fixed. Any serious technical or design problem that is flagged by a reviewer will most likely wind up being patched rendering the contents of that review irrelevant in the process.

Secondly, with online play comprising more and more of the game-playing experience it seems reasonable to point out that most games do not acquire their definitive character until they acquire a community of players and that community acquires its own character. For example, it would have been absolutely impossible to write a meaningful review of a title like EVE Online because much of the ‘experience’ of playing EVE Online is based upon interactions with in-game social institutions that simply did not exist at launch, let alone prior to release. What makes this facet of the problem even worse is that in-game institutions can change with time, so there is absolutely no guarantee that even the most socially engaged of reviews will remain relevant throughout that game’s working lifespan.

Thirdly, as well as changes due to patching and the rise and fall of various in-game social institutions, many games are now subject to add-ons and updates so substantial and interventionist that they are frequently sold as entirely new games. Indeed, consider the updates made to games like World of Warcraft or City of Heroes and compare the games resulting from those updates to the games as they appeared at launch; it will become clear quite how pointless it is to try and review a lot of modern games.

With so many games now changing after release, any attempt to offer a definitive evaluation prior to release is doomed to absolute and total failure. One solution to this problem would be to recognise the fact that reviews are always written in a particular time and place by a particular person… but, unlike travel writing, traditional reviewing has no truck with this kind of self-conscious and deliberate subjectivity, and to argue for a form of criticism that embraces that subjectivity is tantamount to arguing for the end of conventional reviewing.

Though already quite broad, these two structural problems only begin to scratch the surface of why it is that reviewing no longer has a place in video game culture. Nonetheless, it is these two sets of problems that have informed some of the most high profile attempts to ‘fix’ game writing. I will now consider a few of them and why they fail.

  1. Attempted Solutions

Faced with the collapsing legitimacy of reviewers and an increasing sense of disenchantment with game writing as a whole, people usually respond to the field’s structural problems with two different kinds of solution:

Let us Bring Order to the Public Sphere!

Upon realising that critics no longer have a place in gaming’s cultural spaces, many commentators react to the problem by suggesting that we somehow change gaming’s cultural spaces in order to make room for traditional reviewing. Leigh Alexander gave voice to this kind of argument in one of her recent Edge magazine columns:

The cool-headed critic’s analysis ought to be seen as a much better guide to the wider sentiment than the vocal minority’s, which flares up at launch and becomes much more nuanced later. That’s the role the gaming press should be playing, instead of being participants in the release-cycle marketing machine.

This idea hinges upon the (entirely correct) assumption that the mob and the corporations control gaming’s cultural spaces. Alexander realises that those corporate interests are not going away, but she is also annoyed by the Uncharted 3 death threats, and so she concludes that, rather than surrendering to the mob, corporations should instead listen to the voices of critics and games journalists whose expertise raises them above the level of the shit-munching fans. In effect, Alexander is advocating rewinding the clock to the Seventeenth century so that a caste of modern-day Samuel Johnsons can begin strutting about the place handing down judgements that will somehow be binding upon the community as a whole. [Where do I sign up? -- Ed.]

As someone who has been paid to offer his opinions on various cultural products, I instinctively like the idea that my voice should be weighted more heavily that that of regular fans. After all, as the philosopher John Rawls suggested, one’s perception of certain moral problems tends to be distorted by whether or not one benefits from those problems. The problem is that this final solution to the problem of game writing is actually nothing of the sort:

Firstly, there are no universally agreed-upon criteria for what constitutes a good game, a good review or an acceptable line of argument.

Secondly, because we lack universal aesthetic principles, we do not have a means of weighting the voices of different commentators. We can all determine whom we like and whom we prefer listening to but we are powerless to argue that everyone else ought to listen to them too.

Thirdly, even if we did possess a set of universal aesthetic principles and decided which voices were worth listening to, there would be no way of imposing any of those decisions on either the corporations or the fans — and even if there were, it would be nothing more than monstrous authoritarianism. History is littered with examples of people who thought their words weighed more heavily than those of others, and we are still digging up the bodies to prove it.

As a critic, I recognise the fact that critics no longer serve a useful purpose, but I also recognise that critics are far too corrupt, incompetent and self-indulgent to fulfil the kind of role that Alexander would force upon them. At the end of the day, critics too are a part of the mob and so have no legitimate claim to leading it.

Let us Create our Own Public Sphere from Scratch!

Upon realising that the public sphere has either descended to the level of the mob or become enthralled to commercial interests, many critics reason that the best option is for them to retreat from the current public sphere in order to create a new public sphere where they control the parameters of discussion. A recent example of this sort of thing can be found in the so-called Slow Criticism Project kick-started by Dana Linssen, the editor of the Dutch film magazine De Filmkrant. As Linssen put it in a 2009 editorial:

As film criticism is becoming a commodity and a marketing tool, — you name it, we’ve got it —, it’s no longer the film critic who sets the agenda, it’s the festival calendar, the release schedule, the availability of stars and ‘talents’, and the favours of publicists. And of course we’re not supposed to talk about this, because it’s not corruption, it’s pragmatism. But what are the observations, the passions, the cries of the heart that never get published? Instead of lamenting this so called crisis in film criticism, we choose to resist and create and consolidate our continuous counterbalance.

In other words, there is no longer any demand for film writing except stuff that is part of the release-cycle marketing machine, and so critics ought to retreat from the market and create their own cultural space that values long, introspective and intellectually challenging works of criticism.

This form of cultural retrenchment is quite a common tactical response to the realisation that nobody cares what you have to say and nobody wants what you are selling. One of the driving forces behind the evolution of the blogosphere is the desire to create new cultural spaces rather than fight for dominance of the old ones: Fed up with reviews and hype? Try the new games journalism. Fed up with evaluation and lack of conceptual heft? Try critical video game blogging. Fed up with all of the sexism, homophobia and outright racism in games writing? Try The Border House. (Of course, the greatest example of people retreating from the public sphere in order to create a new tree house for themselves is the academy itself…)

In his book The Last Intellectuals (1987), Russell Jacoby describes how, before the Second World War, intellectuals supported themselves by writing articles and book reviews for popular magazines. This was possible because bohemians tended to live in the run down parts of inner cities where rents were low. However, when the American economy began to improve after World War II, many run-down inner city neighbourhoods wound up getting gentrified, forcing intellectuals to either get proper jobs or go and live in the country where they became completely detached from the intellectual culture that supported them in return for their commentary.

A solution to problem of how to continue living the ‘life of the mind’ while also paying the bills came in the shape of a rapidly expanding academic sector. After World War II, thousands of returning servicemen used the GI Bill to get a college education, and in order to teach all of these new students universities had to hire new faculty, drawing from the ranks of the old bohemian intelligentsia. Once inside academia, the intellectuals found themselves having to get results, and in order to ensure that the people getting results were the people who would benefit from those results professionally, academics began ‘professionalising’ their disciplines by adopting a series of stylistic quirks designed to keep out the non-professionals who, despite having something to say, did not have the time to learn all the jargon and the rules governing academic discourse. Indeed, it is quite astonishing how difficult it can be to care about footnotes and Derrida quotations when you are not being paid to do so.

In his powerful book Making Meaning (1989), the academic and film critic David Bordwell explains how film writing has adapted to ‘fit in’ with other forms of academic writing. According to Bordwell, most pieces of academic film writing are dominated by a set of stylistic quirks designed not to generate new insights but rather to show the critic’s capacity to churn out the kind writing that academic critics tend to churn out. As Bordwell puts it:

The growth of interpretative conventions has created a tradition for film studies, perhaps the only substantial one we have. Knowing how to make movies mean is the principle source of such authority as film scholars possess, and there is little doubt that text-centred film study could not have entered the university without establishing its credentials as a hermeneutic discipline.

Unfortunately, by ‘professionalising’ its style of writing and excluding non-academic writers from its sphere of discourse, the academic humanities also excluded non-professional readers thereby resigning themselves to complete cultural isolation. Open any book published by a university press and you will most likely find a lengthy preface expressing the author’s debt to various academics, study centres and foundations. These lists of names do not only express the author’s gratitude; they also identify the entirety of the book’s likely readership. All across the world, young academics are attempting to find a place where they can write about video games within the safety of the academic embrace. As with people writing within the academic discipline of film studies, their words will most likely not influence game designers or reach the minds of regular gamers. They will have their well-kept public sphere — but they will also have complete and utter irrelevance.

As someone who has never once tried to review a game for a major site, I am not in the least bit opposed to the fracturing of public space in order to create environments in which inaccessible forms of writing are protected from the vagaries of commerce and popular tastes. A recent comment on one of my pieces described my style as “masturbatory” and I find myself absolutely powerless to disagree. There is something decidedly self-indulgent about sharing one’s opinions online — particularly when one makes little or no effort to reach out to the majority of people interested in a particular topic — and this kind of self-indulgence is not about subjecting games to serious intellectual scrutiny or ‘consolidating a continuous counterbalance’; is a cowardly retreat from the public sphere, driven by the recognition that my opinions are of use to nobody but myself. There is absolutely nothing brave or revolutionary about taking your ball and going home.

  1. Curators not Dictators

The major problem facing both traditional reviewing and the more marginal forms of criticism is that critics attempt to position themselves between the audience and the object of that audience’s attention. Reviewers tell you that products are not worthy of your attention and interpretative critics tell you how you can make sense of a particular film, game, book or work of art. Simply stated, there is no longer a place for this kind of mediated relationship to culture. More and more people are information-native to the point where they simply cannot imagine a life lived without constant and instant access to the online information pipe. We are born hermeneuts and born consumers; we can select and interpret our own damned media, thank-you-very-much. We no longer need a mediated cultural experience that gives us more information to deal with; what we need is a way to filter the information we are already getting in order to help us focus on the things that we actually care about.

One of the most rewarding moments in stepping outside of your cultural niche is when you realise that other fields are facing the exact same problems that are facing your field of interest. I recently had one of those moments when I came across a piece written by the art critic Jennifer Allen for the art magazine Frieze. The art world is an interesting point of comparison to the world of video games, as the art world’s cultural spaces are even more commercialised than those of video gaming. Indeed, many of the people who comment on the work of young artists do so for the benefit of people looking to invest in them, and the people who invest in art have a vested interest in the kind of up-beat critical writing that reinforces the wisdom of their purchasing decisions. With the role of the critic hopelessly compromised, many critics stepped down from their mediating position and began adopting an entirely different approach. Rather than interpreting or evaluating art in a pseudo-objective fashion, art critics began taking jobs as curators where they would pull together different works and present them in a particular context. Thus, rather than placing themselves between the audience and the work, curator-critics positioned themselves in the crowd, knowing full well that their curatorial presentation is but one of many that will be staged using many of the same works. As Allen puts it:

Today it’s near impossible to find a critic who doesn’t curate and to name a curator who doesn’t publish. (…) Traditional critics wrote ostensibly for the general public; curator-critics demonstrate that professionals are part of that audience.

In a recent article I wrote for my blog, I praised the curatorial voices of certain boutique DVD labels that would go out and find the rights to over-looked and forgotten films and release them with all the bells and whistles normally associated with a high-end Criterion Collection release of well-known works by established directors. This curatorial voice is not critical (as it neither interprets nor evaluates), but it does allow us to filter the information stream and select one film to watch rather than another.

The age of the critic has passed because there is no longer any need for anyone to place themselves between us and the works we choose to consume. We need neither evaluation nor interpretation, because we are all capable of doing this kind of thing for ourselves. Of course, critics still have an audience, but it is comprised of people who are interested in criticism as an end in itself, as opposed to for the role it plays in the ecology of the cultural space. Criticism is a self-indulgent luxury on a par with foot massages and eggnog lattes. Nobody needs to read a Marxist deconstruction of Civilization, and no sweatshop labourer ever benefited from that kind of writing.

Conversely, the world needs more curators. It needs people who can look at the works that they’ve enjoyed (as a part of the mob) and pull them together just in case other people might enjoy them too. Faced with a never-ending torrent of information, we need to protect ourselves — and what better way than through the love and subjectivity of other drowning members of the mob? Hang all the critics, then string their bloated bodies together so that some of us might build better rafts.

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Jonathan McCalmontJonathan McCalmont is a freelance critic living in the UK.  His work has appeared in such places as Strange Horizons, The Escapist, Salon Futura, Gestalt Mash, The New York Review of Science Fiction and Vector.  He also maintains a blog named Ruthless Culture where he writes about films, literature and the fundamental hostility of the universe.

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4 Responses to “Hang All The Critics: Towards Useful Video Game Writing”

  1. aepxc says:

    What I want from my critics is simple – have a small number of insightful sources (whose opinions I respect) play around with/experience the output of the relevant creative fields and then publish something not-too-long about whether they liked something or not. Think Roger Ebert for film.

    Put otherwise, I do not want to know whether something is “good” or “bad”, and I have other tools for discovery. All I want is a short piece with enough information to be able to determine whether I would be likely to enjoy something or not.

  2. Babylon says:

    I’m an aspiring game designer, currently in school for it, and your writings are definitely having an influence on me. Masturbatory they may be, but masturbatory in the same way as Beautiful Agony, the sort of masturbation one wants to watch.

  3. Jonathan M says:

    Aepxc — I can see where you’re coming from but I don’t think Ebert is a good example of the kind of trusted source you’re looking for as he is very clear about what is and is not a ‘good movie’. Interesting though.

    Babylon — As I frequently tell people on chat roulette ‘I’m glad you enjoy my masturbation’ :-)

  4. ShaunCG says:

    This has given me rather a lot to think about. And it has also helped crystallize some nagging concerns. Thanks once again…

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