Two weeks ago, I reviewed the game Coliseum for this very website. At the time, I thought that I had written something worthwhile and interesting; well short of grandiose, to be sure, but certainly up to the standards to which we are accustomed here at GWJ. I described the game's premise and mechanics, encapsulated its charm, and I showed what different approaches it took in contrast to most games of the same genre. At 6:17 AM on April 11, 2006, I smiled at what I viewed as a job well done, clicked "submit," and promptly went to bed.
And now, two weeks later, I am moderately disgusted with myself. Aside from some brief discussion in the opening paragraph about how some genres of games are not as good as others, there was not one bit of controversy in the entire review; no theories or claims on which I staked my reputation; no original contributions to the ongoing dialectic of gamerkind, such as it is. I succeeded only in my ambition to render an honest description of a product available for purchase; that is, I advocated that you all should spend your money in a certain manner. That is the sum of my accomplishment, and it's just not good enough.
My dissatisfaction has nothing to do with Coliseum, for my opinion of it has not changed. I have simply decided that ordinary reviews, of the kind that I produced two weeks ago, ought not to qualify as praiseworthy. I now think that (and, this being the crux of the present article, it bears italicization) it is not an extravagant requirement to ask of writers, when they seek to review a game, that they also elucidate and support some original claim or concept, such that the work will hold relevance even to people who have no desire at all to spend money on the object reviewed.
In short, I advocate a move away from game reviews, as we usually think of them, and toward full-fledged game criticism, just as it exists with respect to other forms of expression. We've been loitering in this darkened foyer for too long. The party has moved into the solarium, where I hear tell of excellent punch.
Criticism, in the longstanding, traditional view, is intended to expose the inner workings of its subject for the benefit of the critic's reader, in much the same manner that a physician performs autopsies for the benefit of observing students. By this reckoning, critics, in view of their education and expertise, are thought to have special insight into the arcane processes of the artist, and so to be particularly well suited to describing the techniques that the artist employs. However, toward the end of the twentieth century, most critics of criticism agreed that there is nothing substantially different about critics to justify distinguishing them from the artist's audience at large (whereas there is clearly a difference between an experienced surgeon and the fresh pupils thereof). Critics are, by and large, nothing more than audience members with a soapbox, who desire to persuade others to think as they do with regard to which theoretical model best describes the work observed.
But this should not lead us to scorn criticism as hopelessly subjective; and it certainly should not diminish the delight that we take in participating in the dialectic process. There is still plenty of room for evidence and sound argumentation to guide our beliefs, which process of determination can only benefit from the explosion of new and diverse voices that comes with the abandonment of the old, rigid, critical apparatus. We may yet retain our enthusiasm for rational discourse, even as we melt away the structuralist notion of the privileged perspective.
The realm of game criticism in particular holds special promise, in part because we have only recently begun to explore it, really ever since the maturation of online gaming communities to the point that assiduous, concerted discourse on games has been possible. (Consider whether sites like this or this or this, or Gamers With Jobs itself, could have existed ten years ago, or even five.) There is also the tantalizing prospect of the emergence of a new and meaningful critical vocabulary, as we find that terms such as "realism" and "modernism" simply do not retain their same force when applied to interactive media, and notions of "protagonist" and even "plot" itself may become positively antiquated (and I think they already have). The more distinguished traditions of literary, film, and art criticism can make no account of role-playing, or of dynamic campaigns, or branching plots, or the massively multiplayer, or user mods, or lag, or procedural generation, or even of player emotes.
The unpleasant side effect of the establishment of a true game criticism is that most traditional forms of games-related writing will seem painfully trite by comparison. This is not to say that reviews, previews, and the like will ever cease to hold value. It is only to suggest that the value of a piece of writing is necessarily limited by its own degree of ambition, and that the construction of what basically amounts to a buyer's guide isn't exactly the authorial equivalent of Magellan's expedition. I do not feel that I am overstepping the bounds of propriety by suggesting that we who are able should set our sights higher than that. And I, for one, really have no excuse, but for complacency and laziness, and I hope somebody will pipe up if ever again I should seem to resemble an only slightly more erudite editor than may be found at IGN. Or OXM, for that matter.
Like much of the readership of Gamers With Jobs, I have a vision for the games industry; but almost every time I walk into a game store, or pick up a gaming magazine, or visit a popular gaming website, the effects of other people, in all their horrible numbers, conspire to dash that vision into shards. The gaming industry today is nearly totally dominated by concerns of money, marketing, brands, and products, to the extent that even we here at GWJ sometimes fall into the common mode, unawares. This in itself would not be so bad, if a healthy critical tradition existed alongside it, as is the case with books, music, or film--but, as much as I enjoy some of the above-linked websites, I'm afraid we've still got a very long road to travel. If, as those who disagree with me are no doubt eager by now to point out, the present orientation of the industry (especially with respect to writers about gaming) does not essentially conflict with a thriving, critical community, then I have to wonder what the hell is taking so long.