The problem with criticism is the word criticism. And critic. And critical. Critique can be okay, but only in the right hands. 

That these words all wield negative connotation is no surprise; creators and critics have been at war for 2,500 years, ever since Aristophanes burned a man so badly in a diss track that he drank hemlock to escape the shame. The two sides have battled over ownership of art ever since, which is somewhat pathetic given that it doesn’t really belong to either. But for all the damage that Alexander Pope and Pals have done to the critic’s reputation since, casting them as negative little goblins (mostly true) and frustrated failures (again, mostly true, but so are the artists), the real blow was mushing all the different forms together to be just one word, not only hopeless but hopelessly bland.

Criticism is dead, as are the “criticism is dead, long live criticism” responses. The internet killed the attention span, comment sections gave everyone a press tag to stick in their fedoras, metacritic tucked all nuance beneath the fold, and by the way, the engine for online writing is falling apart anyway. It would all seem pretty dire if we even knew what we were losing. But most people don’t, and we don’t make it easy for them; it’s strange enough that the op-ed shares the same space in the newspaper as actual news, but video game websites interweave journalism, criticism, advertainment and clickbait to produce something not dissimilar to the multicolored colorless speckle of an elementary school carpet. 

As the debate continues over what criticism is supposed to look like in 2019, when discerning sponsored content feels increasingly like sexing baby chicks and modern social media has converted every artist with an instagram into a human-brand cyborg, there are plenty of folks who don’t think it should even exist at all. They were always there, of course, arguing that what separates art from craft is something inexpressible and unquantifiable, a certain magic that fades as soon as it’s exposed to the air (or opinions). This crusade has made more progress in some fields than others; to analyze comedy is akin to farting in an elevator, but poetry has been picked apart for millennia. But there’s a problem with this code that we’ll get to below: Rejecting the basis of criticism is a very intentional act of gatekeeping. In that battle over the ownership of art, it’s one of the oldest tricks in the book.

Besides, it doesn’t matter. Art still exists, and as long as it does there will always be a response to that art. What we need isn’t better criticism, just a better system for that criticism. We need clarity. (We also need to pay for it, but that’s another essay.)

***

The first step to providing that clarity is to try to disentangle all the different things we refer to when we use the phrase “video game criticism.” Perhaps most importantly: Criticism is not journalism. It is not concerned with objectivity. Criticism is entirely subjective, entirely drafted from the perspective of the critic, and then put forth toward the universal of the audience. With that said, and with the provision that all writing can dip in and out of each, there are really three main categories of criticism:

  • Reviews. This is most of it, at this point. A game comes out, we want to know if it’s worth buying. Most people accomplish this by clicking on a link to their major gaming website of choice and looking for the big bold number at the top (or scroll to the bottom, if the site is laid out antagonistically). 

Reviews often take on the appearance of objectivity, in that their aim to appear as reliable and believable as possible. What they in fact do is apply a series of value judgments and arrange them by a formulaic structure: graphics, sound, story, gamefeel, value. The reviewer themselves may not even be aware of how this structure, and the implicit values it conveys through its formula, impacts the criticism.

Basically, this is criticism about how good a game is.

  • Moral Criticism. This is the analysis of what a game means, as something being played in real life by real people who will be changed by the experience, and then go out and interact with people and vote on things. At its worst and most caricatured, this can prove an examination of how woke a work is, but it can also look at subtext to reveal our own (sometimes unconscious) biases and privileges. 

Moral criticism tends to concern itself with the storytelling aspects of video games. It considers how people are represented in the game, how they’re treated by the game, and how the game reflects on us. When it does examine questions of design, these questions tend to focus on the economic concerns of the industry, both for the player (lootboxes, microtransactions) and creator (working conditions, unionization).

Basically, this is criticism about how good a game is, because “good” is about as worthless a word as “criticism.”

  • Aesthetic Criticism. This is the analysis not of what a game does or is, but how it goes about it. It concerns itself with the process of a work’s creation, the underlying systems that make the game what it is, and the appreciation or revulsion that it creates in the player. I should note here that when I refer to aesthetics, I don’t mean the traditional sense of the word, as it would apply to graphics, but its overall style.

Aesthetic criticism tends to concern itself with the mechanical and design aspects of video games. Unlike political criticism, aesthetic criticism doesn’t tend to worry about the bigger picture, or whether a piece of art deserves to succeed, just whether it does by its own ambitions. 

Basically, this is criticism not of how good a game is, but how interesting it is.

There are other types of criticism, but they either tend to fall into other categories (positive/negative/constructive criticism under reviews, for example), or don’t translate as well to video games, or are simply underdeveloped. None of them are intrinsically superior to the others, only done well or poorly by their own aims (the sort of standard an aesthetic critic might accord to aesthetic criticism). 

What’s important is that no matter what angle a critic takes, they own it, and make themselves clear. Just like any work of art, any book, any game is a transaction between creator and recipient, neither fully in control of the result, the exact same is true with criticism. Good criticism takes an idea, just like good art, and meets the reader halfway, creating a bond. This demands an honesty on the part of the author: showing one’s work, making clear one’s own perspectives, one’s background, one’s known biases. 

***

Here, then, are my biases.

For nearly a decade, I wrote about baseball. It’s a sport with a rich tradition of poetic writing, from Angell to Updike to Whitman, and yet sports are, in a way, the opposite of art. They dehumanize people by limiting their personal expression and behavior through their rules. Sports condense critics’ verb sets. Because everyone is required to act the same or similarly, they celebrate the similarities between people (or their conformity) rather than the unique talents of the individual. They seek objective, quantifiable results, slap a score on a piece of work and celebrate one project as the best of the year (OK, they aren’t complete opposites).

I’ve given up on baseball because the concept of winning, when extrapolated to its logical conclusion, not only encouraged that dehumanization but demanded it. More than that, I was tired of rules. I always liked to say that it was the rules that make sports great, in the way that constraints manufacture brilliance; I liked to say that because I was putting myself under constraints by writing about baseball when I personally had no interest in winning. I found myself more interested in the cheaters, the people who broke the rules, and realized that art was a better place for breaking rules than anywhere else.

Also, I hated that making money was more important to the world of baseball than playing good baseball. That one is going to continue to be an issue.

Honestly, it’s been a difficult transition to make. After writing multiple times a week for years, I discovered the pleasures of writer’s block for the first time. I’ve played many video games in my life, but I’d never devoted much time to its critical wing, and there is so much to read and so much to catch up on. In one sense, this is an advantage: Too much criticism, in every field, is based on the work of other critics than the work of the artists themselves, and I’m lucky enough to be blind to it. But I’m blind to so much else, so much of the history of criticism and cultural swings of this particular medium. So I offer this as a mea culpa: if I waited to write until I was sure I was ready, I would never write. We all have to learn on the job. 

I have one other advantage, and that’s being okay with being wrong. I’m not interested in the value judgment aspect of criticism. I don’t want to write reviews. I’m an inveterate relativist, and I see no reason to tell people if things are Good or Bad. Not only that, I don’t see the role of the critic as a lecturer at all; I believe in dialectics. It isn’t by making lectures that people learn, it’s by throwing out ideas and asking smart questions. 

Having listed the types of criticism above, I identify mainly with aesthetic criticism; specifically, as a writer, I’m interested in the act of writing, and how writing is created in games. The medium has spent twenty years largely chasing after the dream of immersive cinema, but there are possibilities for original, expansive writing in video games, thanks to the extra dimension of interactivity, that film and literature can hardly dream of. There are so many new things that have been done, that can still be done. Just as I had with baseball, I meant to avoid the depressing, often hopeless discourse surrounding games, and just focus on what made it interesting to me.

Over the months, the more I read and failed to write, the farther away I found myself from that vision.This is No Cartridge, a place for Marxist Dialectical Podcast Action (trademark assumed), and it would be glaring for the criticism to avoid the moral realm. And correctly so, I’ve come to admit. I understand that my position as an aesthetic critic is in no small part related to my socioeconomic position, and to ignore the effects of the games I study would be unethical. “Art for art’s sake” is a beautiful dream, but it is a dream. No writer, no critic, no game developer should ignore the world in which its audience lives, how they feel, how they affect them. That connection is literally the point. A poem that no one gets is a failure, no matter how beautiful; an essay that ignores the world its readers live in, equally pointless.

More than anything else, I realized that this project would force me to come to terms with my own escapism. In baseball, escapism has always taken somewhat of a positive connotation: they played ball during the wars, held the game aloft as some permanent, indestructible element of American freedom. With video games, that escapism often proves to be a retreat from the self, an intellectual dishonesty toward the impact one makes in the world. “It’s just a game,” is the offhand excuse, and then the original anti-criticism remark returns. “It doesn’t mean anything.”

***

So, to come full circle: the old systems are breaking down, the rotting half-eaten corpses of publishers left in the wake of the venture capitalists. What’s to be done? Should we bother?

To tackle the latter first… yes, we should. Criticism is both natural and valuable. To reject its validity is an inherently conservative, pro-power position, akin to saying that it’s not acceptable to question what we are given. The industry has struggled with this of late, with the question of developer intent in terms of difficulty settings and accessibility. In no field is the appeal to the author quite as strong as it is in video games. I believe that this is wrong. The creation of video games, and art, is not unidirectional. It’s a symbiotic relationship, like a comic and their audience, and for the artist to refuse to accept feedback, either through the critic or the audience, is a refusal to engage in art itself. The author is not dead, but neither is the audience; both viewpoints have meaning.

This goes beyond video games, or even art. It’s a representation of the relationship between the powerful and the powerless. Foucault, in his essay What is Enlightenment? outlined the basis for what he called the Regime of Truth, and how he considered truth to be generated:

  • The types of discourse [society] harbours and causes to function as true,
  • The mechanisms and instances which enable one to distinguish true from false statements,
  • The way in which each is sanctioned,
  • The techniques and procedures which are valorised for obtaining truth, and
  • The status of those who are charged with saying what counts as true.

Simply put, if truth is a social creation (a heavy premise, but one I happen to agree with), the way we consume and interact with art is the actual vehicle through which we create that truth. Criticism, and dialogue, is the primary way that we can democratize that truth-making power, and actually create values rather than have them instilled by a ruling power. So moral criticism is, in fact, a fairly big deal.

It’s just as important on the individual level as on the social one. This leans toward Nietzsche, but we also create personal values and truths, live as though our lives were works of art. This, when applied to the Regime of Truth above, is where relativism escapes its wishy-washy neoliberal reputation and becomes a philosophy of power, because it is the vehicle by which we can create our own identities. Foucault summarizes this personal critique as “the movement by which the subject gives himself the right to question truth on its effects of power and question power on its discourses of truth.” A culture of criticism opens up the possibility for the individual to question authority: not permanently, like anarchists, but “like that, at that cost.”

One of the prevailing lies of art throughout history is that it operates as a meritocracy, that the good will just show up if it’s good enough. In his recent podcast Trevor compared the state of video games to the early stages of the novel, a medium still stumbling in the dark trying to find itself. I like that image, but the first one that comes to mind for me is American literature of the early twentieth century. At this point, it felt like the nation’s culture had enough time to find itself, and yet with a few exceptions its output was a bundle of insecurity, expatriates, and Poe. The critic H.L. Mencken despaired at the state of literature, bemoaning a lack of an aristocracy of critics designed to build up American letters, promote and celebrate. Basically, Mencken wanted to curate.

A hundred years later, the structure he helped build is disintegrating, just as video games reach that same crossroads, insecure about their place in art, still liable to chase profit than expression. We still suffer stories in video games that make people say, “Well, it’s just a video game plot.” But it’s not just games. Television viewership is fragmented in the age of cable; films grow increasingly homogenous as the formula for profit continues to be refined; Oprah decides Jonathan Franzen is worth reading and no one has the footprint to argue against her. This is the real problem: we are being told what to like, and our cultural representatives run unopposed in most districts. Marketing, and power, have circumvented our ability to set our own tastes, popularize the art we want to celebrate.

It’s time for the people to seize the means of curation. As the last of the corporate websites falls, we need to build a new network of critics and criticism out of the rubble, better organize and curate the things we want to see. We need critics who are willing to be honest with themselves and with the work, who are willing to form connections with readers and create a dialogue with them, so that their readers can become critical themselves, and the community can become more inclusive and conscious of alternate viewpoints. Criticism is beneficial for the artist as well, through the feedback it provides, much as it may sting from time to time.

More than anything, we need critics who can celebrate the things they love, to elevate little pieces of this gloriously awkward, inventive medium. Through the relationship between artist and audience, the average person grows by understanding a perspective that is not their own. Art makes us better people. We need critics to help that process.

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