Better Gaming Through Criticism

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?