Better Gaming Through Criticism


It seems like game journalism and critics are a hot button topic right now in social media and on other gaming blogs.  I think it’s finally time that I put in my two cents about it.

Last night on the commute home I was listening to a RadioWest Podcast episode in which A. O. Scott was discussing his new book, Better Living Through Criticism: How to Think About Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth.  Scott is the chief film critic for the New York Times and has quite a lot of experience critiquing films and other art.  Just a few days earlier The Well-Red Mage posted an article discussing whether video games are considered art.  Now, I know it seems like these are two unrelated events but it was like lightning had just struck my brain and today’s post, which had at first seemed impossible, was now impossibly easy.  So let’s talk about the importance of criticism (proper criticism, mind you) on the gaming industry.  And yes, in case you were wondering, I absolutely think video games are art…

First, let’s discuss some science.  I, if you’ve read my profile, am a microbiologist and love infectious disease.  I specialize in human pathogens and in my studies had to learn a lot about how viruses and bacteria evolve.  There are two major ways they do this: antigenic shift and antigenic drift.  Drift occurs slowly, over time, making small changes in the genetic code that eventually lead to a new organism.  Shift happens when a large factor is changed in the genetic code, creating a new organism right away.  Criticism in the game industry lead to these two types of changes: slow, small changes that occur over time and big leaps that happen almost immediately.

So now let’s discuss criticism.  There are two different types of criticism and I want to talk about both, because each one leads to the advance of the industry.  Let’s start with the easy one: “the expression of disapproval of someone or something based on perceived faults or mistakes”.  This is the criticism I think most of us encounter – the twitter rants, the angry Reddit posts, the comments section on Amazon.  This form of expression seems to be everywhere.

It’s interesting to think of these critics as important for the gaming industry because I think, in general, they are looked down on.  But have you ever liked a tweet expressing displeasure with, say, Nintendo for not producing enough SNES mini’s to meet demand?  Or left a review of how a game’s mechanics are difficult, not intuitive, or broken?  Whenever you do you are telling the game industry what to produce and what not to produce next time.  If a game is unpopular, has terrible reviews, and no one purchases it you’ve just told the developer to never make that kind of game again.  If there’s a twitter rant about not enough consoles for the masses, the developer will change tatics and immediately begin reproduction on that console (thank you Nintendo for more SNES mini’s!).  If everyone is complaining about the mechanics of how a particular gun is made in Destiny, it’ll be fixed in the next patch.

These kinds of criticism produce the massive shifts in the industry that responds to what the gamers want right now.  It’s a way to ensure that developers are meeting popular opinion and demand.  If you want something done, express your frustration and, if enough people agree with you, you can bet it’ll get fixed, either for the next game or in the next update.

The second form of criticism is “the analysis and judgment of the merits and faults of a literary or artistic work”.  This is where game journalism comes in because these are the critics of the industry.  In Better Living Through Criticism, Scott discusses the idea that art cannot exist without criticism.  I loved this idea because it rings so true to me.  Without criticism, without thinking clearly and examining our emotional response to something, we cannot give that something meaning.  Without meaning, that something cannot be art.  So in order to continue to ensure that games are taken seriously, these kinds of critics are a valuable part of our industry.

A critics job is to look at something and figure out why it has meaning.  Why did it evoke certain feelings?  What is the underlying tone and vibe of the game?  How did it affect the general population and what will the impact be on current societal trends?  These questions provide new insights, even insights the artist wasn’t intending, into the games and consoles that are being released.  In turn, these criticisms evoke antigenic drift, the slow process of small changes that adjust the way the industry behaves, the games that are made, and the stories that are told.  When critics ask hard questions and come up with new answers, it provokes though and ingenuity in the developers.  Sometimes it’s something no one had considered before.  Because of these new ideas we are able to change the way that we think about games and the way that games are created, produced, and told.

And you know what?  These voices are important, whether they are good at something or bad at it.  Just because you aren’t capable of playing every game on the market doesn’t mean that your in-depth analysis is invalid.  We don’t expect sports commentators to have necessarily been pro players, but we still accept their opinions and their commentary as valid.  We don’t expect film critics to have been producers or actors at some point in their career.  The point of a critic is to be able to think about something a little outside the box in order to invest new, and sometimes groundbreaking ideas into the mix.  We should extend the same courtesy to game journalists.   Most of them have an area of expertise and they are pretty good at sticking to that area.  But they’re allowed to be humans and step outside that range for non-professional moments.  Let’s let them be human.

A word of caution: just because we can be critics doesn’t mean we should be.  This post isn’t a call to arms, trying to make sure everyone remains harsh and unforgiving in their opinions about new games, new consoles, new media.  In fact, I think we can be just as influential in our positive opinions and reviews as we are in our criticism of how things are done.  By showing Nintendo that the masses love Zelda (obvious by the sales numbers) we are ensuring that something we admire continues to be made.  By expressing our delight with the mechanics of Overwatch, we continue to provide support for the loving tweaks they give the characters to help make the game even better.  People’s disappointment that the Uncharted series was over may have ensured that spin-off’s like Lost Legacy continue to be made.  So let’s use criticism to help make the things we love so much become better, but let’s also use our positivity and optimism to make them better, too.

My conclusion?  The criticism from both gamers and critics introduce novel changes to the industry that help it stay active and alive.  I think it’s an important aspect of gaming and something that we should be proud to be a part of.  What do you guys think?  Do you believe that criticism and critics are important for the game industry and how could it be different and better?


14 thoughts on “Better Gaming Through Criticism

  1. I’d say that extensive critiques are important for any medium. A bad work discourages people from following in its footsteps at all (which can be bad if there are a few good ideas present), but a good work captivates would-be artists. Usually, this is for the best when it maps out a new road for the medium to traverse, but it’s not so good when there are a few glaring issues, because those aspects tend to get emulated as well – indeed, good works can sometimes have a higher potential for starting bad trends than bad works. For example, once Resident Evil 4 received a ton of critical acclaim – most of it deserved – quick-time events plagued gaming for the longest time. It’s likely because in the midst of the universal acclaim the game was receiving, critics failed to make a strong enough case against the quick-time events. Granted, a lot of these observations can only be made in hindsight, but it’s vital to acknowledge that the good works can still be flawed; masterpieces typically aren’t flawless as much as their flaws are effectively mitigated.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I completely agree. Even in the best of games there are mechanics that should be adjusted. Good, well thought out critics need to be the focus for how journalism proceeds in order to extract the best nuggets while changing the way the bad aspects are handled!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I agree, constructive criticism is needed and is important. Keyword, constructive. As you said, it’s a form of feedback to let creators know what people really like about said product. I will say though, that just because someones creation is criticized harshly, doesn’t mean that creator needs to improve or change those aspects of a game. As you said, maybe someone who isn’t familiar with a certain genre may not understand certain mechanics of that game, and it simply caters to a whole different crowd who may not know about that game yet. Or perhaps certain things were implemented intentionally for artistic or other reasons. The creator can stick to what they are doing and take that risk knowing the negative feed back, or decide to change things up.

    A good example I can relate to is Xenoblade Chronicles X. Overall, I was disappointed with the game. It treads the border or a certain genre which I’m not all that crazy about. But reading online and hearing people talk about it on podcasts, people love the game so much and consider it an improvement over the last title. Those are obviously the people who the game caters to, and despite my review of the game, they may stick to the formula so the next game continues to cater to those people.


  3. Wow well I’m very glad to be a small and indirect catalyst to a post as thoughtful as this one. Since spending some time reviewing Ghibli films last year, I came upon a kind of principle that I like which says that good artists deserve more criticism, not less. By that of course I don’t mean that good artists deserve snarky, witty, mean, cruel, or dismissive statements directed at them and their work, but I mean that the good artists deserve to be made better through receiving the best and the most good criticism that they can get. Feedback is always helpful, even from those who aren’t being constructive. Maybe even from a troll there’s some hidden subtext of meaning beneath the provocation.

    I also feel a bit more inspired now. The critic role, if implemented with a kind of balance, is a valuable one for the industry. It makes me want to try a lot harder to supply feedback and critiques that I would find useful, encouraging, and constructive if I was the one creating the art.

    I always thought it’s pretty funny how self-conscious everybody is in sharing their own work, how shy, and yet how willing people are to viciously tear down other people’s works. Case in point, I just finished Fez and I’m learning about the backlash its creator received for his public persona. I’m glad I learned about it afterward so it wouldn’t color my perception of the game itself but I’ve already read a handful of reviews calling Fez the worst game in existence… That reeks of hyperbole and that has no place in sufficient criticism.

    Thank you for the heartfelt read!

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    1. Thanks for the comments! These thoughts are wonderful and I’m glad to have inspired you a bit!

      Scott mentioned in the podcast (and in the book) that critics and artists evolve together because one is always challenging the other. I think that anything we can do to provide new ideas, different opinions, and deeper meaning to a work (or game) is beneficial to the developer.

      I completely agree that there’s no place for criticism not based on the art. Bringing personal issues into a piece just turns it into a vendetta piece rather than true criticism. I’m glad you were able to be less biased in your review of Fez! I hope people are more like that in the future!

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      1. I mean, I lucked into the Fez thing because I wanted to play the game but I never knew about the controversial persona behind it. It’s fortunate for the sake of the review but it also means ignorance and the chance for someone to say to me “how could you NOT know that?” Knowledge elitism is another subject entirely but with the way the internet passes on information like wildfire, it’s all too easy now to form opinions about games that aren’t even released yet on the basis of controversy and non-troversy which surround them. In this case I got lucky and while I don’t want to have a disconnect per se from what gamers are talking about and the general consensus of the day, I also don’t want to become embroiled in politics, in-fighting, and culture wars. I think they cast shadows on games which are otherwise delightful. In the case of Fez, the developer really cast one heckuva shadow.

        With critics and artists evolving together, one question that popped in my mind is this: I can see how critics challenge artists, how do artists challenge critics, specifically?

        Liked by 1 person

      2. True. You definitely don’t want to remain ignorant about important events or issues that may have directly or indirectly shaped the creation of the game. It certainly can change the way it’s understood. However, I’m with you on wanting to remain out of the politics and culture wars. It becomes so negative and difficult to maneuver there’s no way to form an opinion not colored by those issues.

        I think one of the main ways artists challenge critics is by proving their critique wrong. If a critic decides one thing about an artists work and the artist doesn’t agree it’s up to the artist to prove that the logic or conclusion was false. If they can, and it’s successful, it will make the critic rethink their opinion. Or force them to create a newer argument. If the artist can adapt to criticism it may take the critic by surprise and allow for a new perspective they can apply to other artists.

        And then there’s also the fact that simply creating new art is a way for an artist to challenge a critic. Any new art has the potential for changing the way a critical review is conducted. Or the way critics see a particular genre. Critics didn’t believe the novel could be a viable genre that would shape humanity until Jane Austen wrote her biting social satires in the form of one. Same with The Last of Us. I’m not sure anyone thought a video game could feel so real and have so much characterization beyond gameplay until it was released.

        Your thoughts?

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      3. I was thinking the “new art” approach was the challenge from artists for critics but I’m pleasantly reminded of the first point you made on that subject. The symbiotic relationship between the artist and the critic is really fascinating, and something I haven’t encountered in conversation too often. It seems very much like an iron sharpening iron sort of thing. Critics rethinking poorly informed or executed opinions is good, as is artists putting out better creations because of solid criticism.

        As for the Last of Us, haha I have my own tangled thoughts about that game. I’ve had many a conversation about it. I admire its quality but not its perspective, but as a milestone in realism and emotion in gaming, it’s highly significant. Interesting to think about gaming history being broken down into milestones.

        With the balance between ignorance and staying informed, I think it comes down to the fact that you’re not necessarily vouching for a creator’s character when you buy something but at the same time you have your individual right to choose not to buy something to support that creator you find morally unimpressive. I’m in the process of writing on the subject so maybe my thoughts will better crystallize by the time that post is published. I hope so at least, right? 😛

        Liked by 1 person

      4. It is interesting to consider the milestones. It’s such a new we are really seeing the foundation of what it will become unfolding right now. It’s exciting!

        I can’t wait to read that post! I’m sure you’ll have it all straightened out by then. It’s something I’ve never considered because I tend to separate art from the creator (a weird habit and one completely opposite of the norm) so it’ll be good to try and challenge that opinion in your post!

        Liked by 1 person

  4. I agree. Constructive criticism is what life and business is based off of. How can we improve if we aren’t being told what needs improvement? I think some forms of criticism are just judgemental and complaining but that’s where we as consumers must find the balance. Great article!

    -Luna 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Gaming and bacteria—only you could make such a clever connection! Also, I’ve never looked at criticism as a vehicle for change. That’s a cool insight. I usually don’t like being negative but in that light I think I’m more willing to courteously express when I’m dissatisfied because it can help make something better.

    Liked by 2 people

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