In Which I Respond to A Blunt Critique of Game Criticism

(Quick history: About a year and half ago I took issue with another of Danc’s posts, the Three False Constraints. It was the longest post I ever wrote. Then his latest post came out and I wrote a 13-page response in one night a week later after it had been edited. A combination of poor sleep schedule, life and laziness kept me from editing it. It was also 13 pages long. In that intervening time it has been edited again, apparently. I couldn’t care less about what was added and this is long enough. This is based off Danc’s May 14th version. I tell you this for full disclosure, because apparently that is more important than my words.)

I’m coming at this a bit late. The post went up at that end of last week and there have been plenty of responses in the comments and those made by other critics on their blogs before this. There may be little original I can add, but I prefer to take the time to calm down and get my thoughts in order. So while what I say may have been said before there may be enough in my writing that is original to justify it, or at least say it in an original enough way to do that.

So I’m coming at this a little late, but since Danc is continually editing his post instead of posting a revised version, (I’ll get to that later.) for completion sake, thanks to some cleaver Google searching, here’s the original. (If that link goes or changes I’ll have the original on file.) I’ll be focusing my criticism to his most current post as of May 14th.

First let’s start with the image he chose to put at the top.

The saying is quite a famous one about the nature of criticism, but what it means has little to do, okay it has nothing to do with what Danc is choosing to address. In fact you could call it in direct violation of the position he is trying to establish. The saying “To escape criticism: do nothing, say nothing, be nothing” is about creators who have complained about critics with regards to their work. As an artist or creator, if you aren’t being criticized positively or negatively, you are as the saying says you are. That Danc would headline this saying at the top of his post about limiting the types of criticism we hold as good criticism is counter productive and shows a baseline misunderstanding of what it means. Either that or he used it because it has the word criticism in it four times. I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and say it’s the latter.

We need better methods of filtering game criticism.  The types of writing about games have exploded.  With communities of writers attempting to support highly divergent goals and audiences, simply understanding if an essay is useful is a huge challenge.

This first one isn’t really about the writing, but it’s a valid point so I’ll let that nitpick slide. We absolutely need better methods of filtering through all the writing about games that is out there. Critical Distance is attempting such a thing and we do our best, but the amount of writing has grown exponentially in the last few years and as I’ve said before even with our massive RSS feeds we can’t find it or filter it all. The internet is just too big. Of course our weekly roundups aren’t what he’s referring to. When you are looking for something specific you can try Google or the game writings search engine we have at CD, but your best bet is asking through crowd sourcing on twitter for a specific piece or topic. Yes that has to be improved somehow.

We need writers who are more deeply educated in the art, craft and science of games. The majority of “game criticism” tends to be informed by a narrow population of gamers, journalists and academics specializing in the humanities.  We are often missing experienced perspective from the sciences and the developers of games.  The vast body of game criticism is written by people that I would consider partial game illiterates.  They are dance judges who have watched Dancing with the Stars, but who have never danced.

His assertion in the heading is fine; it’s when he goes into specifics that a problem with what he means by that arises. The way he frames it is like the people doing the work without game development experience are just louts sitting on their couches yelling at the TV. And while this is certainly part of the process for some, that doesn’t preclude the fact that what they say in their writing has merit. In fact amateurs are some of the best critics out there. Roger Ebert has no formal education in film or made his directorial debut at any time and yet he is held as the preeminent film critic for decades. I could name people like Paulina Kael or Lester Bangs, but I’d rather move on. Who they are and their background should not take precedence over what a person says.

We need a defined class of game writing that focuses on improving games.  The existing community will continue writing about the experience of gaming. But what if there were a small group that wished to do more than talk about playing?  Imagine holding your writing to the standard that asks you to ratchet forward the creative conversation.  For this tiny crew, judge your writing on its ability to directly improve the art, culture and science of games in an incontrovertible fashion

Finally, my main issue with the entire piece and it’s based in this assertion: that the purpose of criticism is to improve games. That is a flat out lie. The purpose of criticism is to criticize. I know it seems circular, but really the only thing criticism of any time has to accommodate: to criticize and explain why. Anything else can be a part of it, but isn’t necessary. But then he explains what he means and misses the point in another fashion.

I’m going to have to unpack the second half, because there is so much wrong in just these three sentences. First there is no problem with wanting to talk about something other than playing games, but the statement positions itself as the superior group. As if talking about playing is beneath the conceits of making better games, despite the fact that play is what games are made for. It’s like trying to make a better omelet without concern for the eating of it or a better book without concern for the reading of it or a better movie without concern for the watching of it. Yes other conversations about games can take place, but to assume that they are some how lesser due to the inherent nature of what is done with a medium, not to be insulting, is a stupid position to take. Then he asks us to imagine pushing the creative conversation forward instead of backward or stagnating as the present conversation apparently does. All critical writing, whether it is experiential, analytical, observational or theoretical pushes the conversation forward. Then solely this “tiny crew” can improve the art, culture and science of games is incredibly arrogant and short sighted. To single out any writing as the only kind that can improve games or any medium as some silver bullet is not just stupid, but wrong. Variety is the spice of life and only with variety of conversations each can anything move forward.

That was just the intro, so he didn’t say much and therefore neither did I, but even in the beginning he makes some outrageous claims as vague as they are.

On our first topic, the “blossoming of shallow game criticism” Danc seems at the same time happy that there is so much attention being brought to the topic and at the same time he derides it, but not on the merits that such writing is often worthy of derision. He gives an example that wasted his time. It was the first post from the latest TWIVGB from Critical Distance, Adam Ruch’s piece on Kotaku about first and third person perspective in games. It’s not a piece I would have included, but I don’t think it warrants the accusations Danc levels at it. But before that, he calls it a waste of time because it doesn’t help him. The only real response I should have to present is, if you are looking for the kind of criticism that will help you the creation factor of games then why are you looking for it on Kotaku? I figure you know what Kotaku is, an enthusiast game journalism blog. By your personal metrics nothing there would be helpful to you, so why look at it in the first place? Especially when you later tell us that you structure how much you listen to something based on who is saying it. Despite who the author is, the piece was on Kotaku and the author would adjust the material as needed for the place of publication.

There is little insight that couldn’t be gained by sitting down with a beer and a controller. There is no attempt at gathering empirical evidence.

Really? I wonder why? No offense to Mr. Ruch. It was a nice piece.

Now I wanted to stick with ideas, but when a tone so permeates a piece it is impossible to ignore. The insulting dictatorial tone he takes with Mr. Ruch is downright insulting. Phrases like “fluffy gamer opinion,” “young student” and the conclusion “There’s a clear and obvious need for writing by young gamers attempting to think about their hobby. Without such essays, you never gain(s?) the skills needed to writing something better.” Wow, could you act any more dismissive. I spent almost a year collecting links about the last prominent mainstream “lord gatekeeper” and at least Ebert phrasing wasn’t so condescending. ‘Yes that’s nice Adam now go play in your sandbox while the grownups write real criticism.’ I don’t want to harp on this, but even in the edited version that supposedly toned down the insult, the high and mighty attitude remains about something Danc doesn’t have a full grasp on is insulting not just to those he dismisses, but anyone who might try and agree with him. You don’t win intelligent arguments by belittling the opposition. You only strengthen others’ resolve. All right, off rhetoric and back to issues.

Now we come to his taxonomy of the different types of game criticism. No issues with the first one, traditional reviews are the broadest form of criticism.

Playthroughs: Where reviews are often (but not always) dry affairs that attempt objectivity, a play through seeks to describe the emotional experience of a game through a single player’s eyes. Though I suspect many would disagree, I see the subjective descriptions of gaming found in New Game Journalism as a type of playthrough.

The next one, however, either has a serious flaw with his explanation or his understanding of certain words. He says they attempt objectivity. If they are trying to be criticism, then no they don’t. If they are trying, but are attempting to be objective then the piece is simply failing on it’s own merits. Also, I don’t know how something could attempt objectivity, but then describe “the emotional experience of the game through a single player’s eyes,” aka their eyes. There is a disconnect with these two reasonings.

Connecting games with the humanities: An academic exercise in which various aspects of games are described as being part of an ongoing structure of philosophy, movie criticism, literary criticism, art history, rhetoric, etc.

I take only issue with the phrasing of his definition in that it implies that these kinds of criticism only serve to extend from previous critical arts taken from other mediums rather than apply the same kind of critical eye and work within a new rhetoric unique to the mediums of interactive entertainment.

I have no problem with the forth, fifth, or seventh ones. They are indeed different types of criticisms.

Game analysis: “Here’s a working game. Here’s the experiment. Here are the repeatable lessons I learned.”

This is not criticism. There is no critique going on with that framework. This is an instruction manual. There is analysis and examination, but only of a mathematical nature. There is no opinion. It would be the same as giving the detailed recipe and instruction for making that omelet I mentioned earlier and leaving it at that.

Then there is the taxonomy of the types of writers: journalists, gamer hobbyists/students, academics/intellectuals and developers. I’m not going to quote each one or I’ll be here all night, instead I’ll give the blow by blow. First of all, why are students put with the hobbyists? Despite what he may think of my writing one way or the other I don’t think Simon Ferrari would appreciate having his work lumped in with mine. Even that falls apart, because while I am a Hobbyist at this, I don’t fit your mold and would fall under Intellectual despite having no formal education in the field. Academic is also a style of writing and not just a profession. Students write in that academic style, because they are writing for academics and not the hobbyist press. Then you say developers only write for developers. I know plenty who consider their audience to be a wider circle than that. Then you say that each type only engage in certain types of writings to be considered under that heading. That’s too narrow, because I’ve written under multiple headings and I know others who have written under a multiple of those headings. I’ve seen people who have moved from one profession onto the next who haven’t radically altered how they write about games.

You admit all this. You admit that these terms are nebulous, and a person may shift from one category to the next or that any piece of writing may fall under multiple categories at any one time, which begs the question: what is the point of them? I’ll add to that and ask, what is the point of categorizing the different types of writing as well? It’s nice that you’ve tried to categorize them, but to what end? It’s a waste of time. Yes you can take any game criticism and put it under one of those labels, but then what? What does that do? Nothing. You’ve applied a meaningless label to a piece of writing. You can’t apply it before you’ve read it so you can’t use the system to save time reading and you’ve admitted yourself that you can’t apply a consistent label to all of an author’s work, because the definition of any particular author’s work changes from piece to piece.

Given this classification system, what do we have in abundance and what are we lacking? Here is what I see: (and this admittedly may be biased by my own personal consumption habits):

I wont quote your assessment, as it is pretty much the same as mine. Journalist type game writing takes up the majority because it pays the most. Intellectual type game writing would come is second, but the gulf between them is huge. Your tertiary and secondary types are far closer together than your primary and secondary. Again I’m not sure what this signifies, because as we’ve established such classifications are practically useless.

The problem with writing only by gamers

I’d hope the people who design my games are also people who play games. It be a little like writers who don’t read or directors who don’t watch movies. I take the implication by gamer you mean non-designer player of games.

So we come to what all that rather meaningless build up is for. Honestly, I think you could have started here and saved us both a couple thousand words. If it weren’t for my bullheadedness with regards to responding like this I would have skipped all that and started here. It would make the above a little less rambling and vague towards future arguments. However, I feel that my response is equal in point to those sections they criticize.

You wish designers wrote more criticism. Yeah, me too. It would be awesome to read designers talk about their work the same way an author talks about his books or a director about his movies, but I think you generalize what the designer might be want to talk about or could talk about. You then ask us to consider your hypothetical dancer, yes lets.

Consider the act of judging dances. Dancing (like making games) is a highly technical craft that may be enjoyed superficially or judged in a rigorous fashion. On one hand you have a trained dancer. On the other hand, you have someone who has watched Dancing with the Stars, but never fully engaged in the practical mastery necessary to understand the foundations of the art.  I submit that if both have comparable skills of analysis and communication, the one with personal experience as a dancer would make the more informed critic.

You assert that a professional dancer who has mastered the foundational aspects of their art would make a more informed critic that one who simple watches. I disagree. I think they bring a differently informed critique. See there is a fundamental difference between dancer and audience. The dancer cannot see him or herself dance, while all the audience does is watch. I don’t just mean during the physical performance, I also mean should the dancer be apart of the theater crowd. The dancer will see it from the dancer’s perspective. They will see the technical brilliance and how it informs the emotional response from the audience, but they may not have the hard lined direct connection that the audience has to that emotional response. But should the dancer and audience member try to express why a performance made them feel they way it did, and they have similar takes and opinions, they will note the same moves and moments and how that connected with them. The dancer will express that connection from the artist’s point of view and the audience member with express it from the audience’s point of view. Given that it is a performance for an audience, devaluing their opinion is fruitless since it is from them you are trying to elect an emotional response. Let’s get off dance, I don’t know enough about dancing to get into proving a specific hypothetical.

Instead lets go back to that omelet. The chef and diner will note the taste, texture and ‘filling quotient’ but is one opinion better than the other. No. It’s even more complicated should the chef say it’s good, but the diner says it tastes horrendous. Who am I to trust my taste buds with? Or to a medium closer to home, who am I to trust my literary reading to, the opinion of the literary elite reviewers, often written by writers themselves or a man of the masses who dares to say the emperor has no clothes? I’m referring to my ‘little black book.’ I read White Noise and the masses were right.

In general, game criticism tends not to be informed (with) hands-on knowledge about what it takes to make a competent game.

Please establish how this is a problem.

When they look for role models in other media, they see no need for understanding the lowly techniques of creation.

That’s because there isn’t. There is no need to understand how something is made to pass personal judgment upon it and as I established earlier, criticism is subjective and personal. Understanding how something bad was made doesn’t change a person’s opinion that it is bad, nor how something good was made doesn’t alter the opinion that it is good. Do the uninformed need to know how something is made to explain why something is the way it is? Not really. If The Border House staff sees a game with sexist imagery, situations or writing and then call it out with an explanation, understanding how it is made doesn’t inform that critique one iota. Nor does understanding the systems behind say inFamous change my explanation of how it was a wasted opportunity thematically.

Purely evocative media as music, video, writing or painting can often be reasonable well described using tools from the humanities and the personal reaction of an individual.  If I want to understand a novel, a single sample has limitations, but it can convey the essence of the experience surprisingly well.

Oh good lord. I, egh, ummm. Ah, eeeeeh, fffff… You have rendered me speechless. I need a moment.

Two things. First, calling music, video, writing or painting a purely evocative medium is shallow and shows little understanding for those mediums. It also shows little understanding for the humanities criticism that these mediums produced. Yes they can be evocative, but purely so? Jazz musicians, the director of Koyaanisqatsi, the language poets, or Masaccio are all highly technical artists whose works do evoke emotions, but can be regarded more for their technical prowess. And I so want to take exception to the idea one can understand a novel and convey the experience in a single sample. Yes in some cases it can, when it’s followed up by a couple hundred words explaining the work. Were I to write a paper in college to explain the essence of a novel with an excerpt I’d have been laughed out of the classroom after being failed. There is an entire section how such a method fails consistently in my ‘little black book.’ I’d go on, but this is about game criticism, not literary criticism.

Yet though games do possess evocative elements, they also are driven by a functional heart that resists being reduced to only the softest of sciences.

And if a work of art is only driven by its functional elements it will fall by the wayside. Chess and Go are evocative because of the purpose of their functional elements, not inherently because of the functional elements. Moving pieces around a board is not interesting by itself, but doing to so in a simulacrum of warfare to “capture” the king is. Placing stones on a piece of wood with lines on it isn’t interesting, but with the purpose of territorial control, then it becomes interesting. You cannot remove these evocative elements from the games. Terms like attack, control, surround, take, capture, kill are common in explaining how to play the game. Even in a game as boiled down to systems as you can get like Tetris, rely on the evocative elements. The music, the speed and the satisfying sound effect when clearing 4 rows with an I block are the evocative elements of the game and keep people playing. We may debate how they continually call to players, but it is not the functional systems that keep people playing. Yes an ugly purely functional bridge will do its job, but will fail overall. Why? The Golden Gate Bridge is a success because of its aesthetic and cultural elements that it adds to San Francisco. I haven’t the figures, but that bridge certainly adds to the tourism trade and adds to the cultural identity of the city in a way a purely base bridge wouldn’t.

Games have much in common with functional works involving mathematics, psychology, governments, economics or other complex systems.

Maybe in their creation process, but certainly not in their experiential process, you know, the part where a gamer sits down to actually play the final product. Actually no, even during the creation process if you focus solely on the ‘functional elements’ you lose anything interesting about the game. Games are about how those elements speak to us. If you don’t focus on that as part of the design than you are missing a whole lot of potential. And ironically will be nailed for it by critics.

These are vast fields that are mostly untapped by today’s writer. And for good reason.  You can only dig into them at the root if you devote a large hunk of your life to mastering them through direct experience.  This means making games in a thoughtful manner and then sharing those insights with those who will only play.

I’m confused here. I thought designers were writing for other designers. How does sharing insights of how a game is made help those who only play? How does system analysis convey anything to the person who only plays a game? You’re missing a clause or a sentence here to connect these two thoughts.

I suspect that it is too late for the field of game criticism to ever again broadly mean ‘critical thoughts about games’.

Why? That’s what it means now. The field of game criticism is still much like the Wild West. Different people are trying different approaches. Some methods or approaches get left by the wayside because they don’t work; others get tried out and are held on to. Writers improve with their craft and delve into their thoughts at different depths at different times. I can’t see how game criticism doesn’t mean “critical thoughts about games.” That’s the very definition of it.

Somewhere along the line we imported wholesale too much baggage from media that long ago stagnated under the weight of navel-gazing divorced from practice.

Oh that’s what you mean. You definition of ‘critical’ must be different from the one in the dictionary.

-involving skillful judgment as to truth, merit, etc.; judicial

All of which is opinion within some degree of assessment. Having to do with the practice of creation has got nothing to do with “critical thoughts.” ‘How to do something’ is not the same thing as ‘why something was done’ or ‘what does this thing done mean.’ The latter two are questions dealing with criticism, the first one isn’t.

So now we reach Danc’s proposed solution of changing the name of what he wants. Unfortunately “analysis” doesn’t mean what he wants it to mean either. He wants to look to the future, but analysis is only concerned with what already exists, but I’ll ignore semantics and instead focus on the idea. I find that all Danc is doing is running away from one semantic term to another nearly identical term that isn’t tainted with opinion. And really what I find most disheartening by it, is instead of opening his view or his mind he has closed it further and run off into his own little corner. Well-written criticism is very useful to a creator and not just as metrics. Metrics may help with specific instances of clearing up level design or tightening systems, but only through a lens of iterative design. Jaime Griesemer explains the problems with such a thought process here. The summation is, iterative design will get you a more polished or expanded version of what you already have, it wont create anything new. Substantial opinion and criticism, which included analysis of the game you’re talking about in your critique, isn’t about the technical nitty gritty of creating games, but broadening horizons and thoughts processes. Criticism is the application of thought to something, reading criticism can broaden your thoughts and make you see the game/movie/book/song in a different light or from a new angle and might even change your opinion on it.

Deadly Premonition was a game much maligned by the initial reviews and consensus, until the critics got a hold of it and were able to see past the technical problems of the game to the evocative heart that was at the core. Far Cry 2 is another game that the critics help elevate. Before the likes of Ben Abraham and the Idle Thumbs crew, people only considered it a repetitive, wayward directional shooter with checkpoints that respawned too quickly, but once the critics started talking about emergent stories and the feelings evoked by the chaos in the systems or likened it to Heart of Darkness, suddenly a lot, not everyone, but a lot of players saw the game they once dismissed in a different light.

All of this leads me to your four questions to ask about your writing.

Grounded: Are you basing your theories off empirical evidence?  Do not write something merely because you had a feeling to express.

I covered this above, that great theories, especially when it comes to emotional response towards art do not require empirical evidence. Saying, “Do not write something merely because you had a feeling to express” is counterproductive. That seems the perfect time to start writing to me. Maybe not if it was only a feeling, but a feeling with thought, evidence and examples to back it up, then sure.

Aware: Do you know what other people have written in the past?  Do the research and be an informed commenter.

Do I know what has been written in the past? No, not everything. There is so much even with the limited time frame we’re dealing with, does the fact something may have been written preclude me from writing about a topic or a specific thought? No, what if my reader hadn’t heard the idea before? It’s new to him. Maybe I’m expressing the same idea in a new way or from a fresh perspective or explain it differently that may connect with someone better than what had come before. Maybe what came before was poorly written or poorly expressed. Should that preclude me from writing on that topic simply because it was already done?

Insightful:  Does your writing add a substantial new perspective or tool that moves the conversation forward?  Do not rehash the same old thing simply because you have an opinion on the currently popular meme.

Does it add a new perspective? It could, but it wont matter if it’s already covered material, right? Does it move the conversation forward? Maybe, which particular conversation forward? Yours or the conversation the person new to game criticism is trying to have?

Actionable: Does your writing identify a course of action that previously was obscured? Do not let an exploration of an idea wander off into vague hand-waving. Ask the reader to perform an experiment that increases the knowledge of the community as a whole.

Why kind of experiment? A thought experiment that takes a few seconds or a programmable one that not everyone is capable of? And why should I have a reader perform an experiment? If I’m the writer I should do the work in the writing, not shove it off onto my readers.

Now Danc asserts that by following these weak guidelines, that don’t answer even the basic questions that come to mind while reading them, are the way to A.) have your writing stand out and B.) improve the world by adding your contribution upon the work that came before.

I call bullshit. The way to have your writing stand out is write better. If there is one thing I’ve learned as an English major, to have one’s writing stand out is not through new ideas, concepts or be at the forefront, it is to be a better writer. To be able to connect strings of words in more evocative, entertaining and engaging ways than the others is how to rise “out of the muck.” You say writing this way will attract more people who write this way. Why would any person who seriously wants to intelligently approach games do that? Why would you want a homogeneous philosophy behind how you write about games? It would be the same as if you all believed the same concepts about games, which given where this entire piece is coming from, is entirely possible. That is all you’d attract with such a narrow method. Then you claim such a method will lead to writing that will improve the world and add a contribution to the medium. All critical writing does that. I’ve added contributions, however small, to the medium with my writing. Any well expressed thought will add to the medium. Plus, this goes back to the “Aware” part of your system. Change doesn’t happen when expressed from a single source. You who values his metrics should know that one player getting stuck in at a particular wall will not cause you to allocate resources to change it if 100 others don’t. One person expressing an idea or concept won’t action change. The Border House writers and others like them have written consistently about the sexist attitudes in games and little has changed and they’ve been talking for years. Part of that small contribution is adding your voice to many others saying the same thing so that change will occur.

As a small closing note, I do realize that my comments may seem overly narrow in their focus. Surely game criticism is a big tent in which any gamer can say anything and gentle respect is given to all who share a love for games.  And if that is how you wish to live your life, go to it.

Thank you. I really needed your patronizing acquiescence to continue doing what I was doing, so long as it’s out of sight. Yes, that is how I wish to live my life. I wish to criticize games the way I do and I don’t need to be shoved off like I’m not welcome at the grownup table to so.

I come at this topic with the personal belief that merely rehashing the works of others is not nearly enough.

Not sure what you mean here. Poor criticism may do that, but well written criticism doesn’t. I think it may be the quality of your reading, not the kind of reading you are doing.

As a creator, you have only a few short years to build something great that changes the world.

Why, do they contract leprosy after a certain amount of time?


Responses to comments

Most game criticism is not for developers so none of this matters.

Way to go for the strawman argument. What was actually being expressed was that most game criticism is not written for the benefit of developers and it shouldn’t be. A critic’s job is not to do your job. The original essay and frankly this version as well is like a dairy farmer complaining that the chickens aren’t giving him milk. It’s not the chicken’s job to give a dairy farmer milk, just like it isn’t the job a critic to tell a developer how to do his job. I think many, including Danc, would feel insulted if I started dictating to them how to do their job.

Game criticism is not about improving games. It is about studying what exists.

This is correct. You can only criticize what exists by definition. Also, historians and catalogers are not the same as critics. So, way to go. Missed the point, again. What people were actually talking about is a simple definitional truth. You cannot criticize what doesn’t exist. It’s a maxim: review the game you have not the game you want. It’s not about listing games under headings or developing timelines. If you stopped being so high and mighty from your fortress of solitude and took the time to find out what people were actually saying, you wouldn’t be missing the point so consistently.

How will game developers know what players are feeling if not for game criticism?

This is a valid question that you failed to answer. You talk about the use of qualitative and quantitative data used for the system to reach the desirable point. That’s not what was asked. The question is not asking about raw systems, but how a game evokes emotion and what is being evoked? It requires a more nuance answering than strict numbers or questionnaires provide. What you are recommending is known as tyranny of the masses. Somehow the more “representative” uniformed player when in large quantities know more than the critic, who has more experience, can express complicated thoughts better and with more depth. You are right that the critic may not excavate the root cause of a problem, but what makes you think 100 uninformed gamers will? Also, if intimate knowledge of the systems is required to understand a game, then you are doing it wrong. If I wrote a novel that required more technical understanding than reading or a movie that required more technical understanding that watching I’d have failed in those mediums.

Your note pisses me off more than your original post. (It has since been excised.) I feel this is part of the problem overall. Criticism can be utilized by developers and is used in every other medium by working backwards. Critics express their reactions to an end product. When they find something that does or does not work and explain why, it is the creator’s job to work backwards from that. Figuring out where to go next isn’t our job never has been and never will be. That’s your job, but you seem to confuse that. This essay of yours is another example of that. You all but deleted the original version for this “update” which is really a complete rewrite. It should have been a new post. Instead of looking to the future, you are trying to erase the past and update it. That first post was not a rough draft. You shouldn’t have posted it if it was. It was final copy. I would never post a rough draft only to crowd source my editorial duties and replace it. As a creator that is unconscionable. Your audience is not your editorial staff and the fact you would try to apply this to games, but then advocate others follow you is even worse.

Now to respond to a few of your comments in the comment section. There were quite a few more I could have pulled out to pull apart, but I’m tired and this is long.

When I speak of the parasite critics, I think those in the movie industry qualify quite nicely. I suspect most would agree that turning into the movie industry is *not* a desired outcome. :-)

I don’t understand what you mean by “in the movie industry.” Do you mean movie critics? PR people? Financial assessors? What? And that we don’t want to turn into that, the game industry is pretty much following the Hollywood model of if not the present day, then the studio system of the early decades.

Updated the doc to include feedback: A) Emphasized the importance of listening to players (something I passionately practice!) Tom Chick is still cool. B) Added a bit on the validity of different opinions C) Clarified that perspectives from other fields is good. D) Emphasized the need for game developers to write about games.

Yeah you did almost none of these in earnest. It all read of tokenism. Throw the nay sayers a bone. You emphasized, a tiny bit, the importance of listening to players, but well written critics are still somehow a step below the masses. You added a bit of validity of different opinions, but not to the extent that they are worth listening to. Clarified that perspectives from other fields are good, yes so long as they are mathematics and other systems bases sciences. The last one is all you really did without coming off like a condescending dick and that didn’t need to be emphasized in the first place.

- No, you are not subservient to creators. I’ve seen this comment in a couple of places and I’d be delighted if folks could help me identify the particular turn of phrase that seems to polarize folks so strongly.
- Yes, it is helpful to have someone who can act as a translator to other media.
- Yes, it is important for developers to look at their creation from the perspective of the audience. (This comment actively shocks me. What do you think game developers are *doing* with those metrics, surveys, play tests and thousands upon thousands of iterations on a game?)

Ben dealt with the first one. The second one didn’t come across. And as to the third one, you disregarded the opinions of people who actually cared enough and were moved enough to write something about a game. I point to this with regards to iteration, as iteration wont help with what I feel you only think of as the window dressing narrative elements of many games. Because of the fact you disregard all of this, you are not looking at the game from the audience’s perspective, you are filtering it through your perspective, which is not the same thing. You are shocked by the comment. I’m shocked you think you are looking at it from the audience’s perspective.

Another metaphor: It is like there is a class of writing that spends thousands of pages discussing a person’s individual experience with the texture of a single $1 dollar bill while ignoring anything having to do with micro and macro economics. Are you really broadly doing your job informing the community of the nature of a dollar bill if mostly you focus on the texture of that one example.

This is a great metaphor, for arguing my point and losing ground on yours. The fact someone would spent thousands of pages discussing the aesthetics of a dollar bill rather than economics should tell you they couldn’t give a rats ass about economics and not they are going about it wrong. An economist would have no use for such writing, but the guy making the new printing plates might.

Take your own advice then replace it with game design and game critic. Then you have a person writing about the western genre implications of Red Dead, really couldn’t care about the rendering code one way or the other. While the programmer wont get anything from it, maybe the set designer would or the writer, or lead designer who set the direction of the game may fix some of the thematic problems.

To be clear
- I’m not putting game criticism in a box.
- I’m not claiming your soapbox for my own.
- I’m not restricting meaningful discussion to only developers.

Yes you are. That entirely pointless lead up to your actual essay was all about categorizing and compartmentalizing criticism, pointlessly I might add. You’re not claiming it, but you are trying oh so very hard. And yes you are restricting meaningful discussion to developers by claiming only those who develop games can have meaningful discussion, because everyone else is an uniformed “young student” who “attempting to think about their hobby” but only with “fluffy gamer opinion.”

Believe it or not, the amount of game criticism completely swamps the amount of interesting writing by game developers.

This is a rhetorical tick for me, but you are implying here that game developers don’t write game criticism by divorcing the two concepts and if they did it wouldn’t be interesting. By extension you are calling all game criticism uninteresting.

Re: QA Process and listening to Portal dev diaries.

No, I’m sorry, you are misinformed. Merely reading about something that requires years of practice to master does not instantly translate into experience or understanding. There is a reason why dancing judges are past dancers. It gives a level of insight that the uneducated observer cannot match.

Not true. Reading or consuming material that requires years of practice to do does not translate into the ability to do it, but yes certainly in the ability to understand it. Writing is thoughts made physical on paper or on screen. If you are trying to convey an idea or concept about the creation process than reading or listening about it can certainly convey understanding if not ability. I’ll ignore how this contradicts your entire premise of game designers writing will help people design games. If concepts cannot be conveyed or understood via the written word then how will game designers tell their teachable moments?

Though Ebert happens to not be one, I would state in general that idiot savants are poor role models. Just because there are critics who are ignorant of the art and craft of games doesn’t mean you should strive to be one.

This argument I’m about to make came up last time as well. If there is an example of something being done a certain way that means it can be done that way. Disregarding it in the face of a factual example doesn’t mean you playing to statistics; it makes you willfully ignorant.

Fraser Allison pulled your last comment apart wonderfully in his response below it, so I wont bother responding here.

If I had to make an overall statement to sum up my points, it would be that you are being willfully ignorant of what criticism is, how it functions, and how it can be useful all because it doesn’t fit into your narrow world view. The purpose of criticism is to broaden thought through the medium of discussing a work. The fact that you close your mind in the face of it and then try to slink off into another section by relabeling yourself is ironic and tragic at the same time. If games are only to be mechanical interactions then yes, criticism wouldn’t matter past an examination of function, but art has no practical function other than what importance and individual ascribes to it. By denying that facet of criticism from the creation process you lose the very essence of what pushes games beyond their mechanical boundaries they had in the beginning. The core is neither mechanics, nor raw feelings but central ideas that all elements express. The designers are becoming engineers and programmers less and less as time goes by. In clinging to these mathematical and purely systematic creations and methods you will fall behind and not strive for the future you hope for. If you find this assertion wrong, then you must go back to your own premise, because this is all I see coming out of it.

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