Bold New Criticism

19 Mar


Ever since Greg Costikyan gave his take on what game criticism is I’ve been trying to think about games and how to write about them quite differently than I had before.  My post-secondary education was, fittingly but I think strangely for any human being, in game design.  I like to think I read enough to have absorbed some academic opinion, but I am not an academic.  Costikyan was the one who, for me, stepped up and delivered a clear definition of criticism to an industry which never cared to discriminate much between reviewing and criticism.  But I doubt many people spotted his article and had the same feelings.

The upside of the RE5 racism debate is that it has either acted as a catalyst for a new kind of critical view on videogames, or has become a platform for this sort of critical thinking that hadn’t previously had a chance to expose itself.  People are talking about the effects of the gamer hive mind on the subjective experience of playing a game, the face value of imagery and how the current worldview has audiences absorb it, and…well mostly it has spurred radical thinkers to opine about the race issue, but the effect on games criticism is visible just below the argument’s waterline.

It’s  a bit concerning that this is the way in which games criticism may come into its own, because this is an argument that I can’t see anyone winning.  Especially when individuals are laying out monolithic statements such as “if we’re going to accept this sort of imagery in games then questions are going be asked, these questions will have merit, and we’re going to need a more convincing answer than ‘lol it’s just a game.'”  Well, Resident Evil 5’s problem, the whole reason it sparked this debate in the first place, is that it was constructed to be ‘just a game’.  It’s not trying to say anything, as no Resident Evil game ever has in the past.  While it’s promising that people are now looking at a game like this and asking ‘why is there not something of substance here, why is it that with this subject matter nothing but the equivalent of zombie sport has been made?’, it’s also disconcerting that those same people are disregarding such an important aspect of what games are, and by proxy what games criticism needs to consider.  

The videogame, by its very name, seems to suggest a slapdash combination of film and games.  And it is just that.  Visual imagery of someone’s imagining provides a context for us to engage in play on a computer monitor.  Whether it’s as stunningly simple a combination as the rules of soccer and a soccer game motif, like Fifa, or the more complex coupling of a certain brand of gunplay and item collection and an imaginary Africa, ‘It’s just a game’ will always be a valid argument, because some games don’t say anything — have no intention of saying anything.  As the videogame medium grows and matures we can’t expect the next step to be games in their current form with the extractable meaning that film or literature or visual art can achieve.  Current games, for the most part, are not built to be analyzed like this.

The closest thing we have at the moment to a more responsible form of videogame is the still-debated ‘art game’, such as Passage, Immortality, The Marriage, Braid, or The Path.  The idea that without the imagery in these games being perceived at face value, even though they strive to reinforce meaning with their mechanics, they cannot be seen as ‘art games’ — or simply, ‘games with a purpose’ — seems to have been proved incorrect by the way in which people have absorbed the imagery in Resident Evil 5.  People, or at least, enough of them, have digested the meaning of the game through the end user evaluation of the imagery.  If people are beginning to think about games like this then it’s going to be a dangerous thing for traditional games, but it could mean the beginning of a new period for art games.


4 Responses to “Bold New Criticism”

  1. Charles March 26, 2009 at 4:13 am #

    Hmmm, I’m not sure if you’re disagreeing with me. My basic point was that art games tend to communicate all of their meaning through their imagery. The case of Resident Evil 5, where people interpreted the game based purely on its visuals (because they hadn’t played it yet) seems to underscore my thesis, not contradict it.

    But perhaps I’m misunderstanding you.

  2. nickhalme March 28, 2009 at 6:11 am #

    Oh my, I had written a response but now I see it requires an article of its own…

  3. Kwil May 25, 2009 at 7:09 pm #

    “If people are beginning to think about games like this then it’s going to be a dangerous thing for traditional games, but it could mean the beginning of a new period for art games.”

    Not really. No more than serious film criticism proved a dangerous thing for shlock like Speed or The Fast & The Furious.

    People will continue to play for the play’s sake, all this will do is add another layer where art games can flourish.


  1. A Rose is a Rose is a Rose « Vancouver Game Design - March 29, 2009

    […] Vancouver Game Design « Bold New Criticism […]

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