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The Death of the Death of Game Criticism

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Also published at my personal site.

Supposedly, there's a problem with game journalism (part one). It's worth pointing out that if you have an article entitled "The Problem with Games Journalism," then the tagline of your site best not be "Independent game journalism."

Yesterday, Kotaku published a piece by the site's Managing Editor, Brian Crecente which is entitled: "Death of Criticism: The Death of (Video Game) Criticism." The article is a response to a piece written by famed film writer/critic Roger Ebert entitled "Death to film critics! Hail to the CelebCult!." Ebert's piece should be considered a must-read; his insights into film criticism and, in some respect, criticism on the whole are invaluable and he's a remarkably talented writer. He was the first film critic to win a Pulitzer Price for Criticism back in 1975. 1975. When reading an article entitled "Death to film critics! Hail to the CelebCult!", it may be easy to think that the contents of such a piece will be a doom-saying condemnation of the state of modern film criticism from someone who is over the hill and out of touch with the times.

That's a trap.

Ebert doesn't drop a theory then throw a pun or a joke in stylish prose and leave the meaning up to his reader. The piece may run long but each paragraph consists of substance. When detailing his thoughts on the "CelebCult," Ebert gives his opinion on the matter, relates an example about the difference between the treatment of celebrities in the 1950s to those of a pair like Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, gives a concrete example of a paper's treatment of Twilight's fanbase over the film, and then examples of writers whose time has come and passed.

I have a background in English and Creative Writing, not journalism or literary criticism. The goal of a creative writing is for an author to imbue his own meaning into his story so that others can glean the writer's intended themes and messages while, at the same time, having a work resonate with them in their own unique personal way. This is a practice that, in my mind, is in stark opposition with the goal of a critical writer or journalist. Criticism is about an author bringing his/her interpretation of a creative work to light in a way that is both unique and thought-provoking. This is discourse that is inevitable in any industry based around a creative product; movies, music, film, and, yes, video games. Video games serve fundamentally different purposes than any of the other aforementioned media but they are creative works and, as such, will and should be open to critical discussion.

And this discussion does occur.

Given this mindset, the goal of Crecente's response article eludes me. At first it reads like an homage to the sad realizations of a critical legend and then it transcends into a sort of "I knew this for years" swan song. Crecente waxes lyrically in concordance with Ebert, echoing sentiments such as:

"If you want to assign blame I suppose you could point a finger at USA Today, at how that national McPaper turned every story, no matter how important, into a glorified brief with colorful charts.


Over the years, papers across the country scrambled to follow suit, shrinking their stories to fit smaller and smaller holes in the paper. Sure, some of this was done because of the desire to run more ads in a newspaper, but most of it was the product of focus testing, of hitting the streets and asking people what they wanted. What they wanted, apparently, was not to think too much about anything.


So papers, first small, then large, begin to cater to the lowest common denominator, what they thought was a genuine desire for short, fast reads. I remember working at a large newspaper when an edict came down that all stories had to be a certain word count, that the first sentence of every story had to be only so long, rather short."


Stylistically, it's well-written prose but lamenting the death of critique by criticizing the lack of critique without constructing a valid argument of your own doesn't seem the best way to make a point. Normally, I'd pay an article like this no mind, but the name of the piece is "The Death of (Video Game) Criticism." Joining in Ebert's sadness for professional criticism is one thing, but it seems irresponsible to join in Ebert's sadness when referring to industry that's never made its ideas known within the boundaries of traditional media. The death of video game criticism isn't going to depend on the lifeblood of a newspaper's features section; I'm still amazed when I see a story in the black-and-white pages of my local newspapers that's even remotely connected to the video game industry. I'm more impressed when I see a story actually about the video game industry. And I'm amazed when I see a story about the video game industry that gets all the facts right.

The problem with games journalism is the focus on problems with games journalism and the idea that the existence of game reviews is mutually exclusive from the existence of game analysis and criticism. There was an article published by Keith Stuart which brought up the relevance of innovation in the scope of a game review. Leigh Alexander, a writer for Gamasutra, followed Stuart's lead and added her own sentiments. Eventually N'Gai Croal, a columnist for Newsweek who runs the Level Up gaming blog, also enters the mix. These three articles may not accomplish anything in the physical sense: no customers may have been motivated to buy or not buy Mirror's Edge as a result of their discussion, the lack of sensationalist headlines attached to their pieces may not have gotten a great deal of what I'm told are the incredibly important clicks, or anything like that. What these authors accomplished is more memorable than any of those individual feats (and is confirmed by the existence of "The Problem with Games Journalism: Part One"): people can get excited by the presence of intelligent game discourse beyond visual fidelity or amount of gameplay present for sixty dollars.

The fate of professional film criticism may hinge upon the fate of the goals of the Features section of newspapers around the globe, but as far as the gaming industry is concerned: the Internet is kind to writers. Keep it up. Writing about games is just getting started.
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Without having visited any of the links in your post, I was about to reply with something along the lines of this: "Good game reviews are more like product reviews (e.g. automobiles) than they are film or book reviews..."

But then, at the last minute I thought I'd better at least visit one of the links you provided. I ended up reading Jonny Robson's blog entry and I have to say, he hit the nail on the head and articulated things far better than I ever could.

I think Ben Croshaw of "Zero Punctuation" is one of the best reviewers out there. He GETS the fact he's reviewing games and he GETS his audience. He GETS that writing a good game review is not rocket science nor as noble as feeding the poor. If you're a gamer or ever were a gamer, then you already know that there are just a few simple facts that gamers want to know about. How does it look? How does it sound? Is it stable? Will it run on my system? Is it FUN? The rest of a review is just developing a unique style\presentation\personality that will keep people coming back to read your column.

Croshaw's latest review is for Mirror's Edge
http://www.escapistmagazine.com/videos/view/zero-punctuation/457-Mirrors-Edge

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Did you actually read what I wrote or skim it?

Jonny Robson's article is, in my mind, utter trash. He spends too long attempting to be clever by stereotyping writers who seem to only have entered the arena of games journalism because there was, apparently, nothing left for them in their life that would be better. Once he gets done with his unnecessary attempt to generalize every writer about games as best he can, he attempts to prove that critical analysis of games is something no one wants since all we need are the Consumer Reports style of game reviews.

And, really, if that's all you think that the game industry needs then feel free to read them. There are an abundance of them. There are quite a bit of them. It's the Internet, no one forces you to read intelligent discourse about games. You can't classify such prose as irrelevant simply because it's not something you're interested in. Unless it is, of course, irrelevant to you.

ZeroPunctuation is enjoyable but the fact that you take it as a serious critique of games is strange. Croshaw knows his shtick very well and he picks out valid criticisms of games but there are times when he rips games apart that I really enjoy (Saints Row 2 and Dead Space, most recently). They're not intended to be serious reviews or anything, simply entertaining coverage of well-known games.

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Quote:
Original post by mittens
Did you actually read what I wrote or skim it?


I skimmed it but I actually read it this time.

Quote:

Once he gets done with his unnecessary attempt to generalize every writer about games as best he can, he attempts to prove that critical analysis of games is something no one wants since all we need are the Consumer Reports style of game reviews.


I'm not sure how you jumped to these conclusions. My interpretation is that he's A) referring specifically to the writers who are making the case that there's something wrong with game journalism B) he's hardly suggesting "nobody wants" critical analysis in game reviews, but he is suggesting that generally speaking, game reviews are not in the same league as a fine arts review, nor should they be UNLESS (imo) the game is intended as pure art from the start in which case it should be reviewed by an art critic.

Quote:

And, really, if that's all you think that the game industry needs then feel free to read them. ... It's the Internet, no one forces you to read intelligent discourse about games. You can't classify such prose as irrelevant simply because it's not something you're interested in. Unless it is, of course, irrelevant to you.


Huh? Sorry, but you're reading into things I never said or implied. I don't have a problem with intelligent discourse. I also didn't use the word "irrelevant" or imply irrelevance.

Quote:

ZeroPunctuation is enjoyable but the fact that you take it as a serious critique of games is strange.


Again... huh? I said that he was (in my opinion <-- I feel i need to add these sorts of disclaimers all of a sudden) one of the best reviewers out there. Do you honestly think I would consider a review full of toilet humor a "serious critique of games?" Overall, you seem defensive and not particularly sincere in some of your arguments. You're attributing false meanings and intent to my statements that are frankly baseless and not born out of the text.


Quote:

Croshaw knows his shtick very well and he picks out valid criticisms of games but there are times when he rips games apart that I really enjoy (Saints Row 2 and Dead Space, most recently).


Actually he praised Saints Row 2 quite a bit for being a better GTA4; he basically said it was a purer\freer sandbox game than GTA4.

But let's talk about Ebert. Do you think that Roger Ebert is a serious film critic? Here's one of his most recent reviews:
http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20081203/REVIEWS/812039993

The way I see it, he's in the same realm as Croshaw. Reviews are reviews and they will stay that way. Serious critiques and analysis are something else entirely. They can be found all over the net, but you wont find them in the Arts & Entertainment section of a major newspaper. Robson is right. The "problem with game journalism" exists only in the mind of these so called journalists.

Getting back to your original post, you said

Quote:

The problem with games journalism is the focus on problems with games journalism and the idea that the existence of game reviews is mutually exclusive from the existence of game analysis and criticism.


I disagree. The problem with games journalism is it's full of bitching and moaning about the state of the industry; that innovation has died, AI is still crappy, interactivity isn't where it should be, blah blah blah blah. We've heard it all before a gazillion times. As to the second part of your statement, I think to suggest that THAT is a real problem is being melodramatic. Effectively nobody believes reviews are mutually exclusive from any other type of games journalism.

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Original post by Hypnotron
Again... huh? I said that he was (in my opinion <-- I feel i need to add these sorts of disclaimers all of a sudden) one of the best reviewers out there. Do you honestly think I would consider a review full of toilet humor a "serious critique of games?" Overall, you seem defensive and not particularly sincere in some of your arguments. You're attributing false meanings and intent to my statements that are frankly baseless and not born out of the text.

You accuse me of being defensive and misinterpreting your meaning? By saying that Yahtzee is "one of the best reviewers out there" you are verifying that you consider him a "serious critique of games." I didn't mean to muddle my uses of criticism and critique. Partially because they're semantically similar. Reviewers do critique games; it's part of the reviewing process. That's not me being defensive or intentionally misinterpreting your words. It's what you said.

What am I not sincere about?

Quote:
I'm not sure how you jumped to these conclusions. My interpretation is that he's A) referring specifically to the writers who are making the case that there's something wrong with game journalism B) he's hardly suggesting "nobody wants" critical analysis in game reviews, but he is suggesting that generally speaking, game reviews are not in the same league as a fine arts review, nor should they be UNLESS (imo) the game is intended as pure art from the start in which case it should be reviewed by an art critic.

How is he referring "specifically to the writers who are making the case that there's something wrong with game journalism?" He is making that case. The articles that he is basing his off of were attempting to discuss whether the vocabulary for reviewing games needs to be standardized or changed based on the type of game being reviewed (something that N'Gai Croal correctly refutes). And, what, you're not sure how I jumped to the conclusion that I did about Robson stereotyping types of writers? Well, gee, I wonder:

Quote:
This typical games journalist has always expressed a fondness for putting pen to paper. They were probably pretty good at English in school and maybe studied it further when they finished. They also grew up in the nineties and played an awful lot of videogames, therefore having quite an extensive knowledge on the subject. They eventually go to university, not really sure about what to do with their lives, maybe they do a language-based degree, maybe they do something not many other people do like Psychology… They finish Uni and they still don't know what the hell to do, but they remember what they loved when they were younger. They always wanted to be a writer.

"But what can I write about?" they'll ponder, "I can't just go ahead and write a novel because nobody will take me seriously, and there's not a chance of getting a job as a proper journalist because I don't have the training." "All of my writing is meandering bollocks about underground boxing clubs (most definitely not inspired by Chuck Palahniuk) and Hobbits and Elves and stuff". "I know, I'll write about games for the time being and hopefully someone will spot my talents and hire me to write the next Tarantino screenplay, or Skins Series 3."


And Roger Ebert not being a "serious film critic?" Do you know who Roger Ebert is?

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If you insist that I mean something even when I explicitly say I don't, then continuing this conversation is pointless.

I will however make a final clarification. Roger Ebert's REVIEWS are not critical essays, they are short little fluff pieces that people read to find out if a movie is worth seeing or not. Such is the nature of mainstream movie reviews and such is the nature of the mainstream video game review.

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Original post by Hypnotron
continuing this conversation is pointless.

Well, we agree on this count. I think anyone who considers the SnappyGamer article as a good read will be at odds with my opinion on the matter. I considered Robson's article to be, for the most part, self-contradictory and abrasive trash.

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