Good art-writers break conventions, hold a few sacrosanct, innovate their own. They measure their limits by instinct, not by rote. Mostly they learn by seeing miles of art, and reading good literature in bulk. There is no substitute, for a writer, for possessing a natural ear for language; a rich vocabulary; a flair for varied sentence structures; an original opinion; some arresting ideas to share. I can teach you none of that.
What is the function and purpose of a game review/critique?
As we shall attempt to uncover in this Anatomy article, their function and purpose are becoming less distinct, thanks to culture. I’ve been writing on games for a couple of years now and in that short time I’ve had a chance to notice the bizarre nature of communication and interaction within the “gaming community”, to which I’m referring to anyone who plays video games, interacts with others who play games, buys games, or produces games. I really can’t think of anything analogous to it in any other sphere of entertainment in existence: there’s an extreme animosity almost in a kind of circle between gamers, developers, and journalists.
Maybe people are just awful and that’s the end of it, but what I don’t want to do here is over-generalize. This post is about treating people and their arguments on an individual basis, the fundamental point of a critique (unless there’s an overwhelming reason to do otherwise), so I don’t want to groupthink the key to this article away.
As it stands, here is what we typically hear about in gaming, or at least I do now and then.
Accusation #1: Gamers are bigoted, misogynistic idiots who can barely scrape together coherent words without racial slurs, nevermind provide reliable feedback on the games they receive as the man-children they are. This accusation has led to some people claiming the title for themselves, hilariously: “Individuals who occasionally partake in the activity of playing video games”.
Accusation #2: Developers are self-righteous, pretentious, high tower ethicists above the reproach of the peons beneath them; they are producing art too worthy for the masses like pearls before swine.
It seems like some people only ever talk about how horrible gamers are while others only talk about how terrible developers are.
Both of these accusations and the ongoing feud between consumer and producer is stifling gaming. It’s not the only suffocating factor, but it’s one of them. It’s helped create a culture that is rarely about the appreciation of games themselves (which is what we try to do here at TWRM with our long-form critiques). Gaming culture is more about turf wars, fan-driven sectarianism, and fighting for pecking orders. Perhaps that makes it merely human, but it’s fiercer again than anything I can think of elsewhere in the entertainment world.
The result is developers can’t reliably know what people buying their games think about their games and so trends develop in place of valuable criticism, both positive and negative. Games are made and sold on the basis of how they fit into pre-described molds, indie games become normalized and eventually as cut-and-paste as everyone says AAA games are. Either way, creativity remains a rare commodity away from the average. And yes, the average game today is any of a thousand Steam games or shovelware that don’t speak much to quality or creativity.
But it’s not all doom and gloom (of course not)!
The function and purpose of reviews/critiques is to inform both the consumer AND the developer about the products circulating the market. This takes place in different forms: consumer reports, video reviews, aggregated scores, critiques, blogs, tweets, conversations, emails, polls, etc. but it’s becoming dismissed because of groupthink. If a gamer has a valid criticism, too bad. They’re a bigoted misogynist, don’t you remember? So too, if a developer has a defense for their game, sorry, buddy. They are just another over-protective hipster.
Look, every person is capable of giving their feedback and having their criticisms heard (though not necessarily listened to) without having their place in society, sex, gender, creed, hobby, or other group identity questioned unless there is good individual reason for ignoring them. Reject criticisms on the basis of the arguments within the criticisms themselves, not on the basis of the character making the arguments.
At last, we come to the games journalists. They too face their own accusations:
Accusation #3: Games journalists are angry keyboard warriors from the coasts looking for the next controversy to make bank on.
Now, in some cases this is true, just as with the accusations above where they were true on some individual cases. I’ve built a lot of TWRM on the foundation of games journalism not being all that great, and I’ve cited a lot of Polygon and Kotaku and some others in the past to highlight my points. However, I should be able to say that it’s not all bad and I will say that. I won’t generalize it.
The feud between consumer and producer, though, is fueled by some people who should be there to mediate: some games journalists who out of one side of their mouth label gamers as irredeemably toxic and then on the other side of their mouth craft elaborate takedown op-eds and character assassinations on developers whose views they don’t agree with. The third group in gaming culture, the journalists, occasionally create a culture where their own voices diminish the capability of the voices of the other groups: gamers and developers.
That’s not how things should be and there are many more individuals out there working actively against that stifling than you or I can imagine. I’ve met many an amazing person who plays games and spoken with some great developers, both hardly anything like the accusations as I’ve described. It’s these people who want to see a different future where having a simple conversation about the appreciation of video games isn’t so hard anymore, where the truly toxic voices aren’t listened to, and where the camaraderie between individuals who claimed they got bullied a lot as children isn’t overrun by those same people becoming bullies themselves and we’re just able to relate to each other on games. Simple, yes?
So then what’s the path forward?
Support your favorite non-toxic gamers and journalists and developers! Support those who aren’t feeding the outrage machine themselves. Support content creators, particularly the small ones, who aren’t cogs in the machine, too. Support can really mean anything, and you’ve got a brain so you can figure that out yourself. Reading, watching, pledging, sharing… I know a lot of positive creators appreciate the smallest of gestures.
What else? Here’s an even simpler one: be kind to people. If you were bullied as a kid, don’t become what you were once persecuted by. Treat others like how you want to be treated. I can think of books that have literally been around for thousands of years that say exactly that. You want people to be less toxic? Let’s take the time to examine whether we’ve been toxic to others. If so, apologize and make a new friend. It’s not as if the person who likes a console you don’t actually offended you by eating a baby, or anything. You can disagree with someone without hating them.
It’s not impossible. Trite? Naive? Sappy? Maybe, or maybe that’s just toxicity talking. Either way, if sappiness is the price to pay for a happier gaming community, then I’ll pay it. This all may not even be a concern of yours, in which case, a little kindness won’t hurt you anyway.
Focus on the key more than the blade of the keyblade,
-The Well-Red Mage
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