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November 05, 2006

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I think a key to that is meta-criticism, but in a constructive way rather than the chastisement you mention here. There are a lot of different theoretical lenses on game design: nested play loops, unit analysis, constraint analysis, grammatical analysis, "edge of chaos" type systems theory, MDA (or my twist of it which includes player metrics - MDMA) and on and on. I'd like to post on a few approaches to game criticism using at least one of these, I suspect I'll tackle constrain analysis since thats what I used for CoL and The McGame back in a March interview. I'm pretty busy getting ready for a publisher submission(!) speaking of a tipping point, but I'm pretty damned passionate about this.

I think the problem is that there exists little space in consumer magazines and websites for the kind of deep-thinking critical analysis of mechanics and themes that you really need. Mags and sites gain eyeballs by offering one single piece of information: is this game worth buying or not.

They hold onto those eyeballs by being entertaining. Unfortunately, I only know of a few writers that can properly explain mechanics or deeper meanings while maintaining an average reader's attention. Certainly though, I'd kill to read deeper analysis by great writers written for an industry facing site/magazine - I don't think much of the videogame industry trade-press.

Tim,
PC Gamer UK

Just found this thread today. Thanks for the excellent comments. It *is* really too bad that I had to spend half the article just framing the context for the critique itself. But when I read some of the responses to this article and others (sorry, can't post links here cos the HTML gets stripped), it becomes clear that without the framing, many readers wouldn't have the faintest idea what to do with the piece. A strange catch-22. And even with it, many still reject the very idea.

I think Tim's probably right that the consumer magazines are hard-pressed to offer a forum for this sort of critique. *Regular* critique, that is, which is really what's important. There are a handful of critically sophisticated game journalists out there, but the publications they write for have not yet committed to a regular game column of this sort. In the long run I believe we need a major publication to commit to critical reviews of games in order to move the needle.

FWIW, the strong relationship between critical discourse on games and the progress of the medium in general has significantly changed the direction of my academic work. My first book (_Unit Operations_) was quite academic in tone, although I think it will help alter perceptions about the pursuit of game criticism within the university (note: different from development, which has already been embraced). I tried very hard to make my new book (_Persuasive Games_) speak much more directly to developers and the general public. The press and I have been working on tweaking the presentation of it to help even more (for example, it's not yet reflected on the webpage but the title has been changed to _Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames_). The problem is, an MIT Press book still has a hard time getting in the hands of ordinary folks. I've been taking this challenge seriously in some of my new projects -- after all, what good is the shroud of the Ivory Tower unless we use it to produce work that can't be done outside that protective cover.

On the subject of the critique of the implementation of design, this topic is poised to become a hot one. I do give credit to Gamasutra and Game Developer Magazine for starting to put more of this type of critique directly in the eyeball path of game developers. In part, further progress requires a critique both at the level of meaning and experience *and* at the level of technology (e.g., the role RenderWare plays in the apparent design decisions of a game like Bully). There just aren't a lot of popular (or even academic) critics who can accomplish it. That's changing (more on this in the next couple weeks over on my blog), but its changing slowly.

Mostly, it's rewarding to read this kind of response even to a short article of this type. Thanks for taking the time to write it up here.

Ah, how this argument rings of Chuck Klosterman's call for gaming's Lester Bangs. That said, it may be helpful to provide a definition of who this call to action is aimed at.

You say "we," which I take to mean game developers, or the gaming community at large. If Feedback is what you're after, this internal critique will most benefit developers. The obstacle here would be getting more people to notice (ie you had to be pointed to Dugan and Bogost's critiques)

For Protection, you need the media, preferably the mainstream variety. Outsiders (be it politicians, judges or your mom) are not reading 1up and GameSetWatch, they're reading Time, the New York Times and The New Yorker. Features on Will Wright are a first step, and the NYT does have some regular video game reporters. I think over time these publications will separate themselves from sites like Gamespot, which seem pigeonholed into straight consumer reports.

Not sure what to say about your Ownership point. Who's to say who has ownership of criticism -- the media, developers, gamers or complete outsiders? All sides have valid motives for debate.

The big hurdle is to define Criticism. Klosterman wrote about social criticism, the kind of big-picture analysis that grabs anyone with even a marginal interest in games. Unfortunately, most games don't deserve this. Bully and Ayiti are exceptions.

On the developer level, every game is rich with potential for critique, but only within that sphere. The general public does not care about nested play loops and unit analysis.

It's fine to call for more criticism in general, but the source and nature of that criticism should vary greatly depending on who it's directed at.

Jared:

By 'we' I mean the game community in the broadest sense. As in developers - be they on the business, creative or even distribution end - as well as players. By 'we' I mean people who are literate in the medium. Opposed to those whom I suspect are illiterate in the medium, and who currently seem to be controlling the nature of game criticism and the debate around gaming in general.

As long as 'they' are the ones doing the criticism, the questions we wrestle with are questions of whether or not we should be making Game X at all, as opposed to questions relating to the comparative merits of Game X in artistic, social, cultural and medium-specific contexts.

In response to your question about feedback - I agree that it most DIRECTLY helps developers - but I think it helps MOST the players. If developers come to better understand their medium, then the quality of games improves tremendously. The ones who gain the most from that are players.

Of course we need a wide range of different types of criticism directed at different audiences. But before we can 'specialize' into different branches of criticism, we need to have more criticism.

Michael Abbott over at Brainy Gamer is doing some great work in this regard:

http://www.brainygamer.com/

I also try to do my best at Popmatters. It will take a group effort to really get a more mature critical approach to video games going and the more ideas bouncing around about it the better.

Hey Clint,

as a matter of fact I work on my doctoral thesis on the use of language in computer games and I can assure you, that the academic world (at least the one I represent) is very eager to solve this problem your write about here, especially when it comes to a collaboration with designers and critics (again my personal view of it) which is so easy now with the internet. We all can only benefit from many points of view.

Last week Matthew from tap-repeatedly (http://tap-repeatedly.com) recommended me your page. And this only because I stumbled upon one of his articles, wrote him an email and he being such a nice person was willingful to help me with a bunch of recommendations.

I am sure that that's the key to solve this: we should keep on talking, writing mails, writing articles and add our views and criticism to each others work.

Best regards from Germany
Rafael

I think the problem is that there exists little space in consumer magazines and websites for the kind of deep-thinking critical analysis of mechanics and themes that you really need. Mags and sites gain eyeballs by offering one single piece of information: is this game worth buying or not.

They hold onto those eyeballs by being entertaining. Unfortunately, I only know of a few writers that can properly explain mechanics or deeper meanings while maintaining an average readers attention. Certainly though, Id kill to read deeper analysis by great writers written for an industry facing site/magazine - I dont think much of the videogame industry trade-press.

Tim,
PC Gamer UK
+1

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