If Video Games are Art, We Should Discuss Them as Such – Reviews vs Criticism

As a teacher (and student) of rhetoric and composition, I’m frequently thinking about how art and different kinds of media are presented to various audiences, and how those audiences react in turn. Given that I am also an avid gamer and have taught my first-year college students about rhetoric using video games, the subject of video game criticism comes up pretty often. It’s something I’ve thought about again and again, and a recent episode of IGN’s Game Scoop! podcast addressed some of the things that float around in my head.

At the heart of it, I believe that there is a distinction between a ‘review’ and criticism, and I think that the gaming community at large – on the Internet, anyway – suffers from a lack of clarity when it comes to the function of popular gaming site reviews. Further, I think that video games as an art form suffers from the popular public discourse around the medium centering around reviews and popular commentary, with a lack of criticism – or what some might call ‘high criticism,’ though that phrase always struck me as either self-important or dismissive.

Though my blog isn’t aimed at any particular audience, I wanted to share a transcript of the segment of Game Scoop! that centers on this issue and provide some of my own commentary on the discussion, and suggest some solutions for how we as a very broad – and admittedly loosely defined – community might move toward a more productive way of discussing games.

First, here is the transcript of this segment in its entirety, just in case you wanted to read it unfiltered and free of my thoughts before I dig into it. I did trim some repeated words and a few lines of comedic interjection, but otherwise this is unedited. It’s a long read, but I think it’s interesting throughout. This is episode 451, starting around 34:13:

Daemon Hatfield : (reading a listener’s email) “When you review a game, how much does the tie into real world issues factor in? i.e., making you think about current problems in society. I really like games that are not only insanely fun to play but also leave you thinking differently about the world you live in. Some recent examples are Horizon and Hellblade.”

Dan Stapleton: Yeah, any way a game affects you – it’s just like a movie. Like, if a movie has something to say, then it’s more about – it’s about more than just the events that are happening on the screen and whether the hero wins in the end. It’s got commentary, and that can have more effect on an audience than just nothing at all, just some throwaway plot about saving the day. It adds context and subtext. So I don’t want to say there’s a fixed amount that that’s going to affect things, but anything that can affect you as a gamer, as somebody experiencing a game or a movie or anything, you know, a song can be about something that’s not apparent too.

Sam Claiborn: Booties.

Dan Stapleton: For example. So that can factor into your review, absolutely.

Sam Claiborn: So he’s asking us about reviews, right? And I, you know, a couple of us here are probably English majors, like myself, I had a lot of classes where we studied criticism, and part of critiquing something is putting it in the context of its larger role in society and in its genre and in its, you know, everything that it does. So when I’m thinking about a game, I’m thinking about ‘how does this affect other games? How does it affect how I think about games, how does it affect all that,’ but Dan is a really good editor, and he says the one question we should be answering at IGN, for our reviews, is ‘is this fun?’ And that’s a different prospect, I think, than normal criticism. And so, sometimes when you read video game reviews, or especially movie reviews, and especially-especially book reviews, if you read those, that is criticism and it’s always looking at our time, what this means, and it’s trying to tie this work of art into that. And I think that’s important. That’s not necessarily what we do. I don’t think Dan’s gonna shoot that down if you turn in a review with that in it, but we’re definitely answering a different question here.

Dan Stapleton: Yeah, the priority is about the game itself, rather than-

Sam Claiborn: Like, you don’t demand that kind of critical aspect.

Dan Stapleton: No, I’m not going for literary analysis of the plot of a game, necessarily, unless, like in the sense of a very story-driven game, then yeah, there’s a lot of room for that.

Justin Davis: Yeah, as you said, Sam, this was a question specifically about the context of reviews, and so yeah, I don’t think anyone’s saying this game gets plus or minus one point because of its commentary on real world issues or its ability to influence my opinion on something that’s happening in the world. Outside of the context of reviews, I’m consistently disappointed by a lot of games shirking — a lot of game creators don’t seem very interested in their games, or try to run away from the responsibility that they have as artists for –

Sam Claiborn: Provoking controversy.

Justin Davis: Yeah, for putting something out in the world. You know, they kind of want to have their cake and eat it too, or just be like ‘hey, man, we’re just making our thing and we’re not really thinking about how it sits in the context of the world,’ and I’m like ‘man, you can’t’ – no other artistic medium gets to claim that kind of ignorance.

Dan Stapleton: Far Cry 5 has actually been called out for that a lot as, like, how far are they going to go toward maybe saying something about militias and cults in America?

Justin Davis: Yep. When obviously they’re saying a lot, but they want to say a lot without really answering to that in interviews or any sort of, I don’t know.

Sam Claiborn: Or they’ll include all that but they won’t touch on racial aspects at all because, you know, it could divide their audience or – divide their audience into people that say ‘I don’t want this talked about,’ no matter what their stance is, and people that do.

Daemon Hatfield: Yeah. You’ll find that indie developers are much more willing to talk about social issues in their games—

Dan Stapleton: Although, something like Metal Gear Solid is loaded with subtext, even though the story itself makes no sense.

Justin Davis: I mean, games have a stance. Metal Gear Solid has a stance and makes a statement and has opinions about, you know, the military-industrial complex and everything else, but then game makers seem unwilling to – you know, they stop short of the finish line in the way that I think creators in other mediums do often. And that’s not a universal, I’m making a blanket statement. Obviously there are a million exceptions, but generally speaking, I don’t think our medium and its creators go as far there as they should or could.

Daemon Hatfield: I think social commentary in games is still a fairly recent phenomenon, in the life-span of video games. There’s not a lot of social commentary in Pong or Super Mario Bros.

Dan Stapleton: Games that have story, some of those stories can opt to veer into having something to say. Most don’t.

Justin Davis: But even – Nintendo and Mario are some of the greatest games ever made, but how many times has Princess Zelda been kidnapped? Or Princess Peach been kidnapped and need to be rescued? Does that matter? Like, is that something that Nintendo-

Sam Claiborn: That’s what Brad [?] is talking about, right? You know what’s cool, is that when you mentioned that I was trying to think of the earliest game that I could think of with social commentary – Death Race is. That was the first controversial game, and that game is this – the setup is, you’re collecting points for just mowing down people. Running them over in a car. And, yes, it’s gratuitous violence, but now when you look at it it’s completely stupid. It’s, like, barely a car and you’re barely running over humans, because they’re just dots. But it came out in 1978, there’s a gas crisis, there’s car culture going crazy, and there’s Death Race, there’s all these kind of cultural things happening about cars killing people, and that’s kind of a cool thing, but at the same time people were like ‘hey, this is wrong that this game is taking the perspective that running people over for points is a good thing.’ And it seems really simple now, but that was the first game that I can think of where there was any discussion of that games impact on wider society and what it means, and how that’s evil.

Daemon Hatfield: Well, there was discussion about it, but I don’t think the game was making any sort of social commentary.

Sam Claiborn: Yeah, it’s hard to say. There are games-

Justin Davis: But it doesn’t always have to be intended. Even if they weren’t intending social commentary, by virtue of it existing and them having made something, they were making a statement and taking a stand.

Sam Claiborn: Or like Chiller. Is Chiller actually saying, this gore and this goofy stuff , like, is all – that’s kind of a bold statement to make.

Dan Stapleton: Postal is the same way.

Daemon Hatfield: I think it’s making a statement, but I think violence is offered as entertainment very, very often –

Sam Claiborn: It’s almost a self-parody, though.

Daemon Hatfield: It’s never bothered me. I’ve always been a big fan of violence in entertainment.

[…]

Justin Davis: Yeah, I mean, for me it’s not about moralizing or being the ‘moral police’ and saying this is too violent or too this or too whatever, it’s just creators owning up to some responsibility for what they made. Or at least just saying, ‘yeah, we wanted to make this super violent thing and here’s why we enjoy that aesthetic and that’s what did it for us.’ And that part’s missing sometimes, I think.

Daemon Hatfield: Yeah.

Dan Stapleton: A lot of people look at reviews that criticize or praise games for social commentary as the reviewer trying to police that, trying to either say ‘I didn’t like this so a game should never do that,’ or ‘I like this and all games should do it.’ Which isn’t really what a review sets out to do, it’s simply offering  an opinion, guidance on a game, and whether a developer chooses to take that advice or not is entirely up to them, and really, sales are gonna guide that more than anything that we are ever gonna say, so it’s – I think a lot of people worry about critics trying to impose a certain view, even though that’s not what they’re trying to do, they’re just offering an opinion, a perspective, just like any other.

Daemon Hatfield: Yeah, like we were saying, I think social commentary in games is starting to become more and more common, and there is a certain segment of the gaming community that’s calling for more of that. For my part, while I think that’s certainly fine, and I believe in a creator’s right – whatever kind of art they’re making, to make whatever they want to make – for my part, what I’m looking for is just good old fashioned escapist entertainment. I just want to play Mario + Rabbids. That’s what I’m looking for in my games.

The team says a lot of interesting things, but one of the lines that stood out the most to me, and is perhaps the primary motivation for this blog, is: “the one question we should be answering at IGN, for our reviews, is ‘is this fun?’ And that’s a different prospect, I think, than normal criticism.” I know I’m not saying anything new here, but video game review sites are by far the most popular venues for video game criticism, and their reviews treat video games as consumer products, not necessarily pieces of art or artful experiences (except when they conflate the two, as with reviews that praise Nier: Automata for its artistic statement, regardless of its lack of technical or mechanical finesse).

I’m going to generalize a bit, but the vocal gaming community seems at odds with itself. When it wants to feel mature about its chosen hobby, or when non-gaming media sites attack video games in the wake of a violent shooting, it is not shy about holding the medium up as art. But when it comes to the discourse surrounding games, it wants them to be treated as consumer products. Is it fun? Is it worth $60? Are reviewers going to ‘mess up’ the Metacritic score for my favorite game? Popular reviews are not based on the artistic merits of a game, the GameScoop!  crew points out here. Their function is to inform the public on a game’s merits, based in their personal tastes, so that the public might choose to purchase the game or pass on it.

For game criticism to be more like criticism of other art forms, it has to be less concerned with things like ‘value’ or how the audience might respond to commentary on social issues. An example of this would be the concept of ‘franchise fatigue.’ Franchise fatigue is certainly something to consider in a review of a video game as a consumer product: if a reviewer is tired of the series and it does little to excite them at this point in its life cycle, the consumer might well feel the same and might be glad to have been warned of the issue. But (depending on the angle), that should have very little to do with criticizing a game as art. Assassin’s Creed Syndicate comes to mind, because I have heard many podcasters and people on social media claim that they didn’t play it or they disregard it because it was just another Assassin’s Creed game. Consider that argument in criticism of other art forms. We celebrate refinement in other mediums, like film, where few critics would say something like ‘I don’t remember The Dark Knight because it was just another Batman movie,’ or even ‘I’m going to pass on Dunkirk. I think I’m all Christopher Nolan-ed out.’ On the contrary, we reward franchises and artists in film when they iterate and continually refine their craft. In video games, they are boring.

Sam says, at one point, “sometimes when you read video game reviews, or especially movie reviews, and especially-especially book reviews, if you read those, that is criticism and it’s always looking at our time, what this means, and it’s trying to tie this work of art into that. And I think that’s important. That’s not necessarily what we do.” What do you notice about the progression of emphasis in Sam’s claim? The ‘higher’ and more ‘artistic’ the medium, the more serious its critics seem to take it as art, and their criticism reflects that. Sure, there are sites for less ‘serious’ film and literature reviews, sites that function very much like popular game review sites. But I would agree with Sam that movie and book criticism tends to have a lot more in the way of looking at content either in isolation – not comparing it to other popular products for the audience’s sake – or considering it as a part of a larger conversation.

Why does this matter, though? Why do we need more critically minded consideration from games writers, especially if the majority of people seem to just want validation of their own tastes in the form of a numerical score from popular gaming sites? Well Justin hints at the reason when he says “a lot of game [developers] shirk … the responsibility that they have as artists for putting something out in the world. You know, they kind of want to have their cake and eat it too, or just be like ‘hey, man, we’re just making our thing and we’re not really thinking about how it sits in the context of the world,’ and I’m like ‘man, you can’t – no other artistic medium gets to claim that kind of ignorance.” By focusing on whether or not a game is ‘fun’ or ‘worth your money or time,’ popular reviews give this kind of behavior a pass. Art is powerful and in a great many ways it shapes how we view our world and ourselves in it. We learn a lot more than we’d like to admit from watching movies and television and playing video games, regardless of age. If we want games to be taken seriously as an art form, that’s something we have to be absolutely willing to accept. So our criticism of the art form should be unflinching in its own willingness to analyze how any given game does just that.

Dan brings up Far Cry 5 here, and I think it’s just one of several recent examples of games that say something about the world or culture in which it was produced. Unlike other art forms, video games tend to stay away from hot political or cultural topics, which is partially why many people are still hesitant to consider it an art form or, at the very least, a ‘mature’ art form. Ubisoft (Far Cry 5, South Park: The Fractured but Whole) and MachineGames (Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus) both seem willing to include culturally relevant material in their games, so by ignoring their commentary and sticking to whether or not the games are ‘fun,’ we devalue them as art, de-incentivize the developers from making more culturally relevant games, and lower the bar for what’s expected out of our own game criticism, making it a consumer review rather than a criticism of actual art.

I’m not saying that popular reviews are bad. I’m not saying rating things for consumers isn’t useful. What I am saying is that our community needs to mature in terms of what it expects of game reviews and associated games commentary. If video games are art, let their creators make artful statements. By making ridiculous claims like ‘keep your political commentary out of my games,’ you’re exposing yourself as a mere consumer and one who feels they should wield power over the artists that create the art that you insist is yours. It’s not. It’s theirs. Let them make their games about gender inequality, racial tension, societal collapse, capitalism, etc., and criticize it as art. Is it important? Is it new? Is it adding something meaningful to some relevant conversation? The more we think video game developers should bow to our wishes because we are the consumers that support them, the more we separate our art form from others, which is ultimately self-defeating.

(Featured photo from: https://www.dualshockers.com/wolfenstein-ii-the-new-colossus-2-review-ps4/)

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