Criticising computer games

February 25th, 2008

I was struck by a really interesting post by Greg Costiykan on the difference between reviews and criticism, and the absence of real criticism of computer games at present.

Most people aren’t very interested in ‘criticism’ per se. Pauline Kael was one of the most influential film critic, but I’d imagine there are third teir reviewers for small outlets who are more widely read than she was. Most people are interested in the consumer reports side – is this a good example of the type? Should I go and see/buy it or not? And for computer games the outlets are very much in that mode.

As an aside, I’d note that ‘Criticism’ has become one of those over-loaded words. I think that when most people hear the word, they think of the dictionary meaning:

the art of evaluating or analyzing works of art or literature.

It’s hard to think of a review of anything but an analysis. But there’s this additional, academic definition that a lot of people use: Criticism (a cousing of Theory). Which is where a lot of the points Greg Costiykan makes come from. So I think it’s a little unfair to say that reviews aren’t criticism – in the everyday sense of the word they certainly are.

But there’s still a really substantial point here – there are schools of Criticism for film, novels, poetry and other art. Why isn’t there one for games yet?

(Another aside: Computer games, as a mass market medium, are around 30 years old. The most common major theories of film didn’t arise until that medium was nearly 60 years old).

It’s a really good question.

Part of it is simple immaturity. And I don’t just mean that the industry is young. The industry sells to young people, who are really not the best audience for formal Criticism. This has changed a lot recently, but it’s still a big part of the media that surrounds the games market. We have 1Up, which is a lot like Empire, but there isn’t yet an equivalent to Framework.

Another part is the very real question about whether video games are art or not. Personally I think they can be, much like any other artistic medium, but the difficulty of the question has meant a lot of people who are interested in Criticism end up diverted into that question first.

And a final part of it is academic snobbery. Most Criticism today is the product of Arts faculties at universities. And I suspect most of the faculty members think of video games as a childish pursuit beneath their attention. Without the grounding in some of the pointless pursuits of academic Criticism (such as deconstruction) it’s hard to make your criticism sound like Criticism.

There’s a lot to be gained from having some better understanding of what works and what doesn’t in games, and the ways that they are put together. Some formal Criicism could be a really good thing for the maturity of the medium. I hope it happens. And I hope we can come up with a better theory than Auteur Theory.

Because Auteur Theory really sucks.