Monday, 9 May 2011

Dear Dan

You've got everyone around here hot under the collar with your think piece on game criticism - not because it is inaccurate, but because you've stumbled across a truth that most people don't like to talk about ("most game criticism isn't very good"). The problem is that you've completely misattributed the cause ("game criticism isn't written by game developers").

Roger Ebert is a great film critic not because as you point out he made films. He's a great film critic because he's been able to devote a large proportion of his life to learning, thinking and writing about film. He's been able to do that, because there is enough of a financial reward for him to do so - there's enough money to be made being a film critic - not just for Roger Ebert, but for hundreds of wannabe film critics around at the start of his career who could justify devoting their every waking moment to film criticism.

There is simply not enough time and reward for being a game critic for us to have the same quality of game criticism at the moment. Partly this is because (computer) game design is in its relative infancy, but mostly because of unique challenges of making money writing criticism, especially in the game industry, at this point in time.

You may have noticed that the mainstream press is having a hard time remaining financially viable in the age of the Internet. Academia has also been under sustained assault for some 30 years with funding (in the United States) at a low point since the 1970s. These two avenues are the traditional methods for critics to learn their skills while being able to put food on the table - and neither of which are in the healthiest state at the moment.

Not only this, but the specialist gaming press is under direct attack by the largest game publishers. And, unlike film, the challenge of game reviews require that games be reviewed as a product, as well as a piece of art - Mr Ebert is unlikely to have to respool a film when he goes to watch it - which means that the game press is dependent on game publishers in a way that film, art, literature and so on are not. Not to mention the logistics of reviewing a product in a timely fashion which could potentially be played for hundreds of hours.

You may think I'm conflating reviews with criticism. I'm not. But one way you start developing critical skills is by reviewing games, lots of games, and the specialist game press is the only avenue which will pay you a living wage to do so - and potentially not for very much longer.

The economic reality of trying to be a game critic is also why a large number of the recent leading lights in game criticism have decided to change the field they write in or started working for the tabloids of the game industry or been co-opted by the industry as developers, publicists, designers.

So what's wrong with your vision of game developers being the only people to write about games?

I'll take one example: the Playdom piece you linked to about redesigning a social game makes a reference in passing to 'whales' or high spending customers. Let's make the hypothetical assumption for the moment that whales are in fact problem gam(bl)ers. I'm picking this example because I've written to you before on the cross over of gaming and gambling addiction. Not that there is anything in the article to suggest this is the case.

A game developer will never reveal that whales are problem gamers, because he is bound by confidentiality agreements between him and his customers as well as commercial interests to keep exploiting - that is making money - for the company, and should this inconvenient fact be revealed, he is opening the company up to the possibility of litigation or legislation.

A game journalist may act on an anonymous tip off however, and end up writing a piece on games which makes the analogy between watching a 'whale' playing Farmville and visiting a local casino and sitting next to the customers at a slot machines.

An academic may get funding for a study which begins to establish a link between playing social games and problem gambling, which warrants further study.

The actions of the journalist and the academic may result in real change: for instance, the FBI deciding there is no difference between putting $10 on a hand of cards, and buying a virtual chest; while a game critic merely makes a persuasive case for change. But a game critic has a chance of changing someone's view of the world, whereas the type of writing you're asking for can only change someone's view of how they design games.

I do hope there is a positive outcome from what you've written: the game critical community not just looking towards developers to make gaming's Citizen Kane, but figuring out themselves how to make gaming's Roger Ebert. But there is a lot of work to be done to make such a beast, and you can help more by pressuring publishers to give free and unhindered access to games journalists, than criticising game critics for not being you.


Will said...

I suspect he agrees with you more than you think. His posited ideal critic is someone who spends virtually every moment reading other people's work and studying the form. I think the reason for the Roger Ebert comparison is because Ebert *has* made films - which is to say, he's not ignorant of the realities of game creation. You can't spend every waking moment studying the form and still have time to make games, so I think the suggestion is that the "perfect critic" is someone who has developed, not someone who is a developer.

Such a person is also not constrained by the commercial issues you mention. Many of the developers I speak to are deeply worried and/or cynical about the exact same issue, and as you say, they can't really speak out - but someone who has taken the jump from industry to criticism can do so with reasonable freedom.

Danc said...

Aye, I did step in it. The term 'developer' certainly sets people of in an unexpected fashion. Your insight into the pressures that journalists are under gives some explanation for the rather emotional reactions.

Perhaps I should have just left it as saying most criticism isn't very good. But better to put my half-assed theories out there than leave them unchallenged in my mind. :-)

Will gives a good description of what I was hoping to find (and didn't). It isn't so much that I want all criticism to be written by developers (a bizarre request considering most developers that I know) but instead that there is a sub-population of people writing critically about games whose experience also includes personal knowledge of game development.

(Your writing on rogue-likes is certainly one of the bright spots)

take care

Andrew Doull said...

Danc: Completely appreciate the position, looking forward to the second draft.

patchworkZombie said...

I like this blogs game criticism style (although some of it's ideas like "co-efficient of clean" aren't useful)

KirbyKid said...


Aww man. No love for the co-efficient of clean?

If you find any other place on the internet that stresses the importance of feedback and how it can be cluttered by increasingly emergent layers of gameplay, do let me know.

Thanks for the mention. No worries.

Danc said...

Finally got around to doing a minor edit on the essay. On to another essay in a month or three. :-) (

Not too many major changes, but I tried to head off some of the unintended readings (like "game developers being the only people to write about games")

take care