June 27, 2006

Why is there no videogame criticism?

I haven't really been keeping up with the latest videogames since, oh, Ms. Pac-Man, so sometimes I worry that I'm totally out of touch with the most vibrant art form of our age. But most of the time, I feel fine about my obliviousness. A reader writes to assure me that I'm not missing much:

Is there a market or audience for real videogame criticism? Really good criticism isn't that easy, unlike reviewing, and I think it takes more space than a lot of review/preview magazines will give. So I would think there needs to be enough people who are willing to pay for criticism that is more than just "reviews" in order for it to really appear, or at least enough to make an encouragingly-sized audience.

And I'm not sure the audience for games, huge though it is, constitutes that kind of audience or market.

1) Videogames are more addicting than other entertainment forms like movies or music. For some people they seem to be like drugs: There may be something about them that makes their appeal different from other forms of art, whether highbrow or lowbrow or whatever, but that has some similarities to other forms of recreation, like exercise or socializing or drugs. So I wonder how much of the audience is interested in criticism any more than those other forms of recreation inspire criticism.

2) As your reader said, games are very difficult to make—they take years and cost a lot, and experimentation is risky, so they're at least as artistically constrained as big budget tentpole studio films. A lot of the more artistically-inclined designers have been dropping out of the business or thinking publicly about doing so.

3) There's a resistance among gamers and reviewers to too much "movie" in a game, as in if we wanted to watch a movie, I'd watch a movie, skip the story and get to the game. So even if the writing in a game is good—very, very, very rare—it's not generally welcome unless it's also light. So that's another restriction on narrative artists, that leaves critics less to work with.

4) They're loooong. Reviewers (as opposed to critics!) regularly complain if a game is any less than 20 hours. Whereas they consider a game that's more than 20 hours, and has superficial tweaks to justify second and third playthroughs, to be a healthy package, rather than to be bloated and having worn out the good parts with too much filler, which is what it almost always is.

Most of the millions of people who fill out the industry's huge market probably don't finish many games. This reduces interest in them as an artistic whole.

5) Good critics tend to be well-versed in their form--they've seen tons of movies or heard tons of records or read tons of books. The comparable stance for a game critic today would be to have been playing them for at least two decades or so, across many expensive platforms from different companies, with most games taking way longer to become "versed in" than movies or records or even books... And unlike the other forms, it's not easy to go back and revisit or learn about ones you've missed--those platforms may be unavailable. So the pool of people who really know what they're talking about or can potentially know what they're talking about might be smaller than other fields, reducing in turn the number who are also good writers.

6) When you get down to it, most games are about committing some sort of act of violence! And a lot of the remainder are still about visceral action. Other forms, such as movies, can certainly cater to that impulse, but the lack of variety in what, fundamentally, videogames are about is really pretty amazing when you think about it. Again, less to work with for a critic…

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer

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