Hey duders! Be warned, this post is pretty wordy.
I wanted to have a place on the forums to discuss a different side of video game coverage than we're all probably used to. You might have noticed a bit of it sneaking into news features and podcast discussions as well. I'm referring to criticism, which is an academic way of discussing and understanding video games. In this context, the word "criticism" has a pretty specific definition, and Clint Hocking explains the difference more succinctly than I can: "...game criticism is for game developers and professionals who want to think about the nature of games and what they mean. Game reviews are for the public – for people who play games – and they are intended to help those people make decisions about which games they should buy."
The distinction he makes is what kicks off his excellent article, Ludonarrative Dissonance in Bioshock. Game reviews certainly have their value, but I'm especially interested in the critical theory of games, for a few reasons. First, I was an English major in college, and critical theory in literature and film studies was my bread and butter - I spent countless hours going through databases and journal after journal, trying to get an understanding of the mechanics at play in Paradise Lost and The Canterbury Tales, and so on. I always wanted a way of talking about and researching games in the same academic context.
Second, and I'll quote Hocking again here, critical theory provides a medium legitimacy and protects it from censorship. Quoting from a 2006 post on Hocking's blog: "It is much harder for a small vocal group of center-leaning democrats to steal away the much needed 2% of the vote by preying on conservative fears about a misunderstood medium when they need to argue their case in face of a huge body of work from professional critics who in fact analyze all of the things these censors claim games do not afford the public. The cry that games are violent and have no redeeming qualities starts to look mighty far-fetched in face of fifty or a hundred thousand pages of critical analysis of those very qualities."
If I'm being a bit vague, I apologize, and I'll try to get you back up to speed. Critical theory can be pretty nebulous and can come in many different flavors. Ideas from the humanities like class, gender and race can all inform particular views of a work, and scholars will apply "lenses" like Marxism and feminism to a work in order to better understand it and its role as a cultural artifact. Where a reviewer might ask, "Is the game fun?", a critic will ask, "What does the fun of the game say about the society that consumes it or the medium itself?"
There is a whole constructed vocabulary which is exclusive to the field of game studies, and new terms are still being introduced to the practice. You might have heard terms like "ludology" and "narratology," or the previously mentioned "ludonarrative dissonance." Because of the unique qualities of video games, we have to be able to identify and discuss qualities that aren't present in other mediums.
"Okay, great," you say. "Where am I supposed to find this stuff, and what do I do with it?"
There are a couple of really great sources of information that regularly publish critical theory related to games. My personal favorite is Game Studies, an open-access, periodical journal that contains peer-reviewed, scholarly work about games. The articles can be quite dense but are extremely interesting.
Some of you might also be familiar with Gamasutra, which isn't necessarily comprised of scholarly work but fits the definition of criticism - many of its articles are published with the intent of gaining a deeper understanding of the medium. An excellent blog post was recently featured in Worth Reading, which looked at Metal Gear Solid 2 in the context of the Japanese postmodern movement.
Of course, Worth Reading is a great resource for finding this kind of stuff. I've been enjoying @patrickklepek's weekly feature, which is a great resource if you want to start thinking about this stuff in a more academic way.
So what to do with all this? Why did I just write all these words, and what's the point, anyway? To that I say, if you really love a medium, you should do your best to understand it on every level. Not only is it personally enriching to read and write about this stuff, but it's also the best defense against the haters who dismiss video games as "kid's stuff."