#1 Posted by deadmoscow (262 posts) -

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."

#2 Posted by HistoryInRust (6293 posts) -

I get the feeling this post won't garner the attention it probably deserves here, but I'm way into this stuff.

#3 Edited by mellotronrules (1188 posts) -

thanks for those links! i'll be sure to check them out.

full disclosure: i tread lightly whenever critical theory is mentioned outside the ivory tower, as it often devolves into semantic arguments involving conflicting terms (rather than the heart of the matter). that, and i have a number of overzealous friends (who also happen to be recovering philosophy majors) who are all too eager to tumble down the rabbit hole at any given opportunity- seriously, give them the chance, and they'll convince you donuts are part of the larger paradox of performance and life, and that zizek probably got all the honeys.

that said, i really do enjoy engaging in this stuff, and i do appreciate the framework critical theory provides to discuss these larger concepts.

#4 Edited by audioBusting (1507 posts) -

I usually can't keep up with these game criticism concepts but they're always an interesting read! My first stop for game criticism and stories is Nightmare Mode and Unwinnable (I think a few of their articles have been featured on Worth Reading). Clint Hocking's blog is obviously pretty boss too.

This NewStatesman article by Brendan Keogh (link) I found is a pretty good primer on this stuff. There's a bunch of good links there, check them out everyone!

#5 Edited by ultraspacemobile (64 posts) -

If games are worth critical treatment, do you suppose this is because they are informative for understanding the milieus in which they arise? Or, is game criticism worthwhile because games in themselves exhibit (or can exhibit) "significant form?" I don't know of any writers who take the latter position--and most are concerned foremost with content, the form or "design perspective" of games being relegated to technical discussion, which is, of course, the least interesting kind. In your post, you certainly seem in the former camp. I lean more toward formalist critical methods, because I like to think artifacts have agency, being not merely a medium for social expression, but in some sense (and you might call this a hermeneutic lens) determining the society's expressiveness.

#6 Edited by deadmoscow (262 posts) -

@ultraspacemobile: The really nitty-gritty technical discussions of videogames are still pretty relevant, because I think we're all still sorting out the ways that the inner mechanics of games inform the entire experience. I just read an article called BurgerTime: A Proceduralist Investigation that reeeeeally digs into the mechanics of the game and the way they inform the meaning of the game. On the completely other hand, I just started reading Brendan Keogh's book Killing is Harmless, about the game Spec Ops: The Line. Some of it definitely stretches a bit, especially since he does a close reading of the entire game, but it definitely questions how implicit we are as players in video game violence.

@mellotronrules: It's unbelievable what some people will come up with when researching to get tenure. And I certainly had my issues with Slavoj Zizek and his utter inability to write a sentence that took less than a half hour to unpack and understand. Obviously he's writing for an academic audience, but dang, dude!

#7 Edited by Rocz3D (1 posts) -

@audiobusting: thanks for that link to the Brendan Keogh article. I am researching a paper for my film theory class and found the links in that article make for an excellent start.

@mellotronrules: It's a sad truth, but donuts are part of the larger paradox of performance and life.

#8 Edited by Zekhariah (697 posts) -

The work to put criticism into game related media has been kind of interesting. Although I'm still a bit short of buying off on it being a entirely legitimate thing to care about in most games (including bioshock infinite). If 90+% of the game is shooting dudes, how important is narrative (beyond permitting some context)? And how much of the game needs to be not directly related to mechanics for it to really have a reasonable body of content for criticism?

Anyway, I'm sort of curious where other people want to draw the line at it being a driving factor (or where @deadmoscow does). At the moment I go for mechanics and puzzles over the story portion in most titles. Exceptions like Heavy Rain, Walking Dead (not the fps :D), and Bastion (due to persistence of narrative) are all ones where the presentation seemed narrative first. But I would skew extremely heavily toward a Tomb Raider or Zelda (or even Gears / Starcraft / Quake II to be really blunt about mechanics) over a Bioshock.