The Problem with Videogame Critiscism

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The Roger Ebert documentary, Life Itself, was made available on Netflix earlier this month. I’d been reading so much of Ebert recently that I jumped for joy, and quickly sat down to watch it from beginning to end (although not all at once). Watching a film in sections usually diminishes its power, but by the end I was on the verge of tears. Not because the film’s conclusion is particularly sad (spoiler alert: Ebert dies), or because I felt sorry for him and his family, but because I knew that a great mind that had dedicated itself to improving entertainment had left this earth.

Then I looked around, not literally, but digitally, at the gaming websites and blogs that saturate my bookmarks bar, accompanied only by my email and Amazon.com. Considering the hours and hours of my life I spend reading and writing about games, I thought “will any game critic be remembered like Roger?” My favorite game critics jumped to mind. Danny O’Dwyer, Kevin VanOrd, Elle Gibson, to name a few. Their deep, entertaining, and insightful criticism rattles around in my head every time I read one of their reviews, and it seemed unjust that such talented writers would likely go forgotten by the media at large.

That is, until I looked up on Wikipedia a list of critics who’d won the Pulitzer prize. Looking down the list, I saw only one familiar name: Ebert himself. The rest were critics who write about, going down the list in order, architecture, music (then music again), television, art, film, dance, and literature. These aforementioned genres, the cornerstones of our culture, alternate wins for the criticism Pulitzer as if deliberately taking turns. The amazing critics who work in these amazing mediums absolutely deserve their awards, but it did bother me, ever so slightly, that videogame criticism, that is, criticism of a genre that makes far more money than all of those other genres combined, isn’t represented. By now, surely gaming can be considered a cornerstone of our culture as well? That thought immediately ceased as soon as I started reading the work of some of these winners, particularly of two recent winners, the art critics Philip Kennicott (winner in 2013) and Sebastian Smee (winner in 2011). The two are polar opposites, Kennicott using more eloquent language than a thesaurus entry, and Smee writing in short, simple words without complicated structure.

Nevertheless, both critics were insightful beyond comparison of anything present in videogames. Smee pointed out and analyzed the softness in the tones and the eyes of Bartolomé Estebán Murillo’s “Rosa of Viterbo”, and related it back to the influential painter’s childhood. Kennicott wrote a recent editorial about how the civil war still isn’t over, and used his knowledge of art as a tool to add increased depth to his analysis by relating it back to fine art culture. Demonstrating his versatility, Kennicott’s following article is a review of Icelandic pop star Bjork’s new MoMA exhibit. He calls it pretentious, but also explains why pretentiousness is not necessarily a bad thing, and how it may be necessary in today’s popular music scene.

As much as I respect O’Dwyer, VanOrd, and Gibson, these art critics are writing circles around them almost as much as O’Dwyer, VanOrd, and Gibson write circles around me. This cannot be because the game critics are inherently worse writers. When all three mentioned game critics are filled with passion, as VanOrd is whenever he reviews a From Software title, or as O’Dwyer is in almost every episode of his bi-weekly show “The Point”, they can communicate complex messages thoughtfully and simply (and Gibson is arguably better than Ebert when it comes to humor). It’s not for want of skill. It’s for want of a legitimate medium to apply it to.

Let’s face it. Videogames are not good. They have never been good. The number of games that could stand up as art when compared to the masters of every other genre is so small they can be counted on one hand. The games that we hold aloft as our saving graces, the titles we consider high art, only appear so when compared to the dirt that makes up the rest of our favorite way to spend our time. However, this is a reality we can’t afford to face. We can’t just go around saying “this game is terrible, that game is terrible” because, in their hearts, every critic loves whatever medium they choose to write about. It would destroy us to destroy our own genre so brutally, as we would have to do if we were to hold games to the same standards as other critics hold their genres. I cringed just recently when I saw VanOrd call Bloodborne a “religious parable” in an attempt to artistically heighten a well-designed game that primarily uses its religious symbolism to justify hitting things with swords. I, myself, am a complete victim of this trend, and I graciously accept the title of “hypocrite” for writing this opinion piece. Just a few days ago I wrote a raving review for Infamous: Second Son, a game that I know, deep down, is juvenile, pointless, clumsy, and downright bad art. But, as I said in my review, I had fun, so I heaped on the praise.

That was it. My entire review hinged on the fact that, although Second Son is bad, it was fun, and was therefore good. The same can be said of the game I’m playing now, the universally acclaimed Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag. It’s macho, disgustingly and needlessly violent, reliant on filler, but so much goddamn fun.

That’s where games have hit a terrible rut, one that we cannot seem to dig ourselves out of as an industry. We do not prioritize beauty or sincerity, as other art forms do. We prioritize fun, and our medium suffers for it (in 2014, the beautiful and tragic This War of Mine universally lost “Game of the Year” to titles about littering fantasy worlds with dead bodies). Other genres have been vessels for human expression almost since their inception. They originated as art, and they’ve stayed art. Similarly, videogames, as a whole, are the same as what they originated as: toys. And now that they have a few entries that look pretty and go deeper than just killing, they suddenly want to play artist with the big boys.

I’m not going to make so bold a statement that no videogames are art. Most definitely are, but none are art for the ages. None will be remembered as masterpieces 60 years down the road, much less stand the test of centuries. This is partly because videogames are so young. It’s also partly because, in their 40 years of existence, they’ve progressed far slower than they should have.

By this time, film had Gone with the Wind. By this time, television had The Twilight Zone and Star Trek. Neither of those genres had technical advances nearly as dramatic as videogames over their lifespans. Our versions of art, our explorations of beauty, the human condition, and the human psyche are there, but are only skimming the surface of what interactive entertainment can accomplish. They are, as a rule, weak in the overall scheme of art. Videogames right now are both shallow and callow.

And so game critics are stuck with the abysmal task of putting on a happy face and presenting to the world and to the games industry a veil of “all is well”, dishing out glowing reviews and “8/10’s!” like fun size chocolate bars on Halloween. If we were to truly become harsh, to hold our own medium to a higher standard, we would at the same time destroy it. We would demolish the slowly growing acceptance that the general art world has had toward games over the past decade. We would destroy the image of games in our own eyes. And, most importantly, faced with a horde of “6/10” and “4/10” games that are still ultimately fun experiences, we would obliterate the trust gamers have in critics, effectively eliminating any critical power to drive further change. Every once in a while, an article such as this arises, recognizing some enormous underlying problem in games that simply must change. But every time, the author goes straight back to the old standards, as I will likely do following this article, and as is necessary to keep game criticism afloat.

We’ve seen the disastrous effects harsh standards can have. Every time a score is significantly lower than the average, the de facto explanation is not “different opinion” but “bias and corruption.” Just recently, this led to the Gamergate scandal, where a Twitter feed dedicated to uprooting corruption in games journalism (based off of approximately, hang on, let me count, zero evidence) steadily devolved into a voice for a violent sexist minority of our gaming community.

There’s a man named Nick Capozzoli who writes reviews for Gamespot.com. His scores usually hover around the metacritic average, but his vocabulary would feel at home on a page in the New York Review of Books. One of his especially memorable reviews, for the game Ace Combat: Infinity, seemed to do everything right. Though big words were thrown about, it was hardly glib (a word I actually learned from Capozzoli). Capozzoli not only analyzed a rather shallow game on as deep a level as justly possible, he successfully related it back to history, videogames as a genre, and culture in general. All of his reviews do this, and yet in all of his reviews, and for Ace Combat: Infinity especially, a war is waged in the comments between those who admire his writing and those who accuse him of being a pretentious bigot.

Indeed, Capozzoli was making a mistake, one of the worst you can make in critiquing. He was not writing for his audience. Though his words are as fluent as any fine art critic, and his potential for analysis clearly as deep as any Pulitzer winner’s, his review failed to recognize that gamers, as a rule, have as shallow and callow an outlook towards their medium as the medium has towards itself. They can’t worry about, as Capozzoli describes it, gaming’s “dispassionate remove from warfare.” They’re too busy deciding what to buy so that they can spend an afternoon shooting stuff.

That is the harmful reality of videogames. Our genre lacks depth because the most passionate fans don’t ask for it. Games centered around fun should always have a place, but when they dominate gaming almost exclusively, critics must endorse the culture “fun” in order to maintain readership, maintain artistic influence, and convince themselves that they made the right choice for a genre to dedicate their talents to.

It is not corruption, nor is it dishonesty. It is gaming in the status quo, and, if it continues to move in the direction it’s going, it will change. But by the time it does, we may well be living in retirement homes. This is reality, and this is why a game critic will not even be considered for a Pulitzer for at least the next thirty years. In order to critique art, the subject of the criticism must already be a part of a larger artistic medium. Videogames can be just that, an overwhelmingly artistic medium, but until they evolve, critics are left playing with toys.

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