A blunt critique of game criticism

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Note:  This essay has gone through a couple drafts based off extensive feedback (which you can read below in the comments). I’m aiming for a version of this essay that is less likely to violently misinterpreted by a majority of readers. Apologies for altering the context of any of the comments below…an unfortunate peril of live editing.  Again, let me know where I’m wrong.  Let me know which portions makes sense. 

I read Ben Abraham’s weekly summary of game criticism over at Critical Distance.  Unlike a decade ago, there is now an absolute deluge of essays being written about games.  I see reactions, counter reactions, and copious commentary. What is difficult to find is good writing that dreams of improving the art and craft of games.

There are three areas of improving writing on games:

  • We need better methods of filtering game criticism.  The types of writing about games have exploded.  With communities of writers attempting to support highly divergent goals and audiences, simply understanding if an essay is useful is a huge challenge. 
  • We need writers who are more deeply educated in the art, craft and science of games. The majority of “game criticism” tends to be informed by a narrow population of gamers, journalists and academics specializing in the humanities.  We are often missing experienced perspective from the sciences and the developers of games.  The vast body of game criticism is written by people that I would consider partial game illiterates.  They are dance judges who have watched Dancing with the Stars, but who have never danced. 
  • We need a defined class of game writing that focuses on improving games.  The existing community will continue writing about the experience of gaming. But what if there were a small group that wished to do more than talk about playing?  Imagine holding your writing to the standard that asks you to ratchet forward the creative conversation.  For this tiny crew, judge your writing on its ability to directly improve the art, culture and science of games in an incontrovertible fashion.  

The blossoming of shallow game criticism

When I started writing about games, there was hardly anyone talking about games in a thoughtful manner. At best, you had the chatter of more vocal gamers.  Even journalists were little more than gamers with a bigger podium.  The developers snuck in peer conversations once or twice a year in hotel bars and then went off to toil in intellectual isolation. An admittedly sad state of affairs.

Today,we’ve got the developer blogs on Gamasutra, dozens of conferences, the efforts of the Escapist, the rise of the intellectual game journalist and the slow blossoming of academic writing. The language has improved dramatically.  With the arrival of communities of like-minded bloggers and the co-opting of various university departments, writers find themselves encouraged to say what little they can say in increasingly wordy missives. Each week I find myself inundated with essays that appear on the surface to be fascinating treasure troves of insight.

When I invest my time digging past the fresh coat of erudite language, much of the content is a regurgitation of the same tired discussion from ages past.  Consider Adam Ruch’s recent article “First Or Third Person – What’s Your Perspective?”  (I chose this example not to be cruel, but because it was at the top of Ben’s recent list of game criticism.) Adam is introduced as “a PhD candidate, currently writing about Video Games Criticism” and “a pretty smart guy!”

Yet the essay is little more than a series of personal descriptions of how he feels when he plays certain games.  There is little insight that couldn’t be gained by sitting down with a beer and a controller. There is no attempt at gathering empirical evidence. Adam could have saved everyone a vast amount of time with the TL;DR summary: “In 3rd person you can see (and thus empathize) with a visualized character and in 1st person, you can’t.” Once you strip away the laborious language, you have yet another bit of fluffy gamer opinion written by a young student.

There’s a clear and obvious need for writing by young gamers attempting to think about their hobby.  Without such essays, you never gains the skills needed to write something better.  But there needs to be a better filter.

Classifying game criticism

To create a filter, it helps to ask “what is game criticism?”  This simple question results in a large range of definitions, each of which is vigorously defended by bespectacled tribal groups.

  • Traditional reviews: The stated goal is to inform players if they should purchase or try a specific game. Enough information is given to enable players to compare various games without actually wasting time or money playing them. Reviews cover games ranging from the latest Mario blockbuster to a smaller indie title deserving of attention.  
  • Playthroughs:  Where reviews are often (but not always) dry affairs that attempt objectivity, a play through seeks to describe the emotional experience of a game through a single player’s eyes. Though I suspect many would disagree, I see the subjective descriptions of gaming found in New Game Journalism as a type of playthrough. 
  • Gamer culture: The impact of games on the culture and identity of the players.  
  • Connecting games with the humanities: An academic exercise in which various aspects of games are described as being part of an ongoing structure of philosophy, movie criticism, literary criticism, art history, rhetoric, etc. 
  • Connecting games with the sciences: An academic exercise in which games are analyzed using the tools of psychology, sociology, economics, etc.  
  • Industry analysis: A discussion of large scale trends in the industry such as platforms, new business models and the ever popular unexpected debacle.  
  • Game analysis: “Here’s a working game.  Here’s the experiment.  Here are the repeatable lessons I learned.”
  • Meta-discussions of game criticism:  Discussion of the goals, best practices and changes in the broader field of game criticism.  This article is one example of such an article.   

Types of writers:  To complicate matters further there are several distinct populations of writers who come with their own goals and target audiences.

  • Journalists:  Writers paid to create content for a publication.  The larger goal of the publication is often to acquire readers that pay the bills which in turn has a strong impact on the style and content of the writing.  Typically journalists targets their writing at mainstream gamers or a sizable niche (such as PC gaming).  The goal is to inform, entertain and build a sense of community.  There is rarely any explicit call to make games better.  Rock Paper Shotgun is a good example of journalists engaging in reviews, playthroughs and the occasional piece of industry analysis. 
  • Gamer Hobbyists / Students:  People who come from a background of playing games and what to share their thoughts.  There is rarely a larger goal and just the fact that someone is reading what they write is often encouragement enough to continue.  The audience is often far narrower since there is no economic reason to broaden the reach. 
  • Academics / Intellectuals:  People who are attempting to build a larger tradition of analysis.  They exist in a self-contained, self referencing world of past papers, publishing, and tenure.  Their audience is other academics and the language is often hyper specialized.  External communication is rare and the bigger goal is the preservation and extension of existing systems of value.  There are rare academics that do original experimental research (thank you!). 
  • Developers:  People who make games.  Their audience is other game developers.  The higher goal is to improve the art and science of games so that games are alway become better: more expressive, more appealing, more efficient, more effective, more successful. 

None of this is clearly defined.  The types of writers mix together in unexpected ways.  They change roles over time.  They intentionally obscure their perspective.  For example, the writing of journalists for certain sites like IGN may mimic the writing by hobbyists.  Or a student might assume the role of an intellectual to give their writing stronger trappings of authority. Some of the writers for Rock Paper Shotgun have started making games.

Amusingly, all groups feel like they are in the minority.  Hobbyists feel that they must constantly burst forth in YMCA-style song about gamer pride or the Man will crush their love of games. Journalists feel no one appreciates their heroic efforts at balancing gamer passion, cultural translations and commercialization. Academics huddle in their isolated departments and wonder why no one listens when they speak the Truth (as defined by a philosopher from the 1970’s). Game developers are too busy crunching or being fired  to write much and generally respond in grunts as a result.  ‘Touchy’ is as good a description as any single segment for the entire crew.  Which makes even agreeing on goals, categories and terms difficult.

Here’s an attempt:  If I were to categorize Andy’s article:  He is a student acting as an academic, writing what is essentially a playthrough that in turn masquerades as game analysis.  The fact that he is a student writing a playthrough is fine.  The multiple levels of deception are what initially raised my hackles.

Given this, if you fail to disclose your perspective, you are very likely wasting the precious time of your reader.  If you deliberately obscure this information (as I’ve seen many student or indies tempted to do) you are being a dishonest member of our community.  Hey! Stop doing that…there is no shame in writing openly and honestly that you are a gamer expressing your love and appreciation for games.  Just don’t obscure your intent with faux intellectualism.

Taking inventory

Given this classification system, what do we have in abundance and what are we lacking? Here is what I see: (and this admittedly may be biased by my own personal consumption habits):

  • Dominant Majority: Journalists and hobbyist gamers writing reviews and playthroughs make up the bulk of the writing on games.  There are very naturally more gamers than any other group so it is quite reasonably that gamers and those that serve gamers produce the highest volume of game writing. 
  • Growing Minority: Academics and intellectuals connecting the dots between games and the humanities are another major category and rally under the ‘game criticism’ label. 
  • Dwindling Minority:  Game analysis, and essays that connect games with the sciences are far less common.  There are a handful of trade sites like Gamasutra that keep the light alive, but in general it is a desert out there.  

The limitations of writing only by gamers

When I look at this distribution, something strikes me as odd: the vast majority of the rest of writers listed above do not make games, nor do they understand how games are made.  I can understand that there are many writers who are happy just to marinate in the warm communal bath of gamer burbling. I’ve heard many a gamer tell me that they have no need for any additional knowledge or perspective on games other than what they gain through the playing of games.

Yet I also imagine a mythical writer that wants to uncover additional insights into what makes games tick.  For these curious souls, having hands-on experience making games gives them the ability to observe nuances that no other gamer-only critic could manage.  For those of you instantly think of C++ when you hear the term ‘making games’, I am very specifically not talking about programming or technical skills.  By making games, be it board games, inventing new sports or making even the simplest of indie games, you gain insight into the fundamental structure of games and how they produce the end user experience that we all find so valuable.   You start to understand interaction loops, pacing, skill acquisition, randomness, how narrative supports mechanics, play styles and dozens of others of foundational game concepts that are difficult to derives from the experiences of being just a gamer.   These are not passing trends in engineering or technology.  These are the bones of what makes a game a game.

Consider the act of judging dances. Dancing (like making games) is a highly technical craft that may be enjoyed superficially or judged in a rigorous fashion. On one hand you have a trained dancer. On the other hand, you have someone who has watched Dancing with the Stars, but never fully engaged in the practical  mastery necessary to understand the foundations of the art.  I submit that if both have comparable skills of analysis and communication, the one with personal experience as a dancer would make the more informed critic.

(It needs to be said: The existence of educated judges does not obsolete the right of the audience to judge.  Dancing with the Stars would not exist if it wasn’t for the people in the audience yelling out their own scores, filling message boards with thousands of comments, organizing around favorites and doing all the things that passionate members of a community do.  Games are the same.  An educated minority only add richness to the conversation.  It does not lessen the existing conversation.)

In general, game criticism tends not to be informed hands-on knowledge about what it takes to make a competent game.   In the past week of essays on Critical Distance, I found 1 writer of 12 had any declared experience making games.

This is all of course highly intentional on the part of the promoters of game criticism by gamers. When they look for role models in other media, they see no need for understanding the lowly techniques of creation.  Naive consumption without a deep understanding of form is seen by some as a means of recording a gamer’s reactions without undue outside influence. Purely evocative media as music, video, writing or painting can often be reasonable well described using tools from the humanities and the personal reaction of an individual.  If I want to understand a novel, a single sample has limitations, but it can convey the essence of the experience surprisingly well.

Yet though games do possess evocative elements, they also are driven by a functional heart that resists being reduced to only the softest of sciences. Bridges, though undeniably aesthetic and cultural objects, can also be understood as functional or economic creations.  Playthroughs, aesthetics, rhetoric, literary theory, film theory, art history may be one set of valuable perspectives, but if you only rely on these, you will fail to paint a complete picture the babbling, whirring human-mechanical reality of a games.

There is so much about games that is missing from the majority of today’s writing. Games have much in common with functional works involving mathematics, psychology, governments, economics or other complex systems. Given population A with skills B, we experimentally validate that we get result C. We have a rich tradition of design practice stretch across Miyamoto to Sid Meier to modern metrics-driven social games.  There exists game design theory stemming from folks like Chris Crawford, Eric Zimmerman and Raph Koster. The instinct of practicing designers alone is an immense iceberg of unwritten knowledge just waiting to be described and shared.

These are vast fields that are mostly untapped by today’s writer. And for good reason.  You can only dig into them at the root if you devote a large hunk of your life to mastering them through direct experience.  This means making games in a thoughtful manner and then sharing those insights with those who will only play.  Such people are rare. We need to train more of them.

Wanted: Game analysis
I suspect that it is too late for the field of game criticism to ever again broadly mean ‘critical thoughts about games’.  Somewhere along the line we imported wholesale too much baggage from media that long ago stagnated under the weight of navel-gazing divorced from practice.

Instead, we need a new field of discussion.  Let’s expand up on the topic above I called Game Analysis.

  • Goal: Advance the art and science of games.  Simply looking at what exists is not enough.  Instead, we leverage what exists in order to to ask what is next and create the conceptual language and tools that get us there. 
  • Audience: Anyone interested in deeply considering how to improve games.   

Who can write on this topic?  Pretty much anyone. Your work will have more impact if you educate yourself in the following ways:

  1. Make games. Again and again and again.  Understand why games work by making games that work. 
  2. Study the fields of science that deal with complex functional systems. 
  3. Devour any and all existing writing both on games and on other unrelated fields to see if they might move the dial forward.  
  4. Share and discuss useful thoughts from your newly enlightened perspective.

Simply making games does not make you a good at game analysis. I have a friend who makes games, but publicly writes gamer-esque ramblings.  Then he wonders why no one pays attention.  A developer ranting about their personal, emotional experience with the controls in Super Meat Boy from the perspective of ‘Dude, I’m a gamer just like you” no more improves the state of games than a 13-year old gamer engaged in creating entertainment for his blog. Think deeply about what you do and contribute meaningful writing. I love the visual of a ratchet. Every click advances and builds a foundation of steel that will not let the whole fall backwards.

For those with real world understanding of how to make games better, ask yourself the following questions about what you write:

  • Grounded: Are you basing your theories off empirical evidence?  Do not write something merely because you had a feeling to express.  
  • Aware: Do you know what other people have written in the past?  Do the research and be an informed commenter. 
  • Insightful:  Does your writing add a substantial new perspective or tool that moves the conversation forward?  Do not rehash the same old thing simply because you have an opinion on the currently popular meme.  
  • Actionable:  Does your writing identify a course of action that previously was obscured? Do not let an exploration of an idea wander off into vague hand-waving.  Ask the reader to perform an experiment that increases the knowledge of the community as a whole. 

There is a clear benefit when you follow these guidelines.

  • Your writing stands out from the muck.  The world craves a path forward and the intelligent people you attract by being a grounded, aware, insightful and actionable writer open doors that you would never otherwise find.
  • You improve the world.  Your small contributions build upon the work of others to create a mountain of human endeavor that builds our medium to heights we can only barely imagine. 

As a small closing note, I do realize that many writers are happy writing as only gamers or only journalists or only a specific sub-branch of academia and see no need to branch out.

But we can do more. I come at this topic with the personal belief that merely rehashing the works of others is not nearly enough.  As a creator, you have only a few short years to build something great that changes the world.  Hold yourself to a higher standard.  Be more than a gamer who is writing about personal experiences.  Be more than an academic trying to force games into a 200-year old history of criticism.  Take this weekend, grab some dice and build a game.  Play test it (you aren’t building games unless you do).  Polish it.  Release it.  Ask yourself what this tells you about the nature of games and incorporate that critical perspective into your writing.  As years pass and you release your 10th or 20th game, reflect on what have you learned.   Share your journey with the world and raise the level of conversation.

take care
Danc.

Example game analysis 

Some game essays that fit the criteria above.  Heaven forbid I write an essay like this one without giving some positive examples. 😉

Responses to common comments

  • Most game criticism is not for developers so none of this matters:  You are correct.  This essay is only for those rare writers who wish to improve their craft by mastering new perspectives that are fundamental to the art and science of games. 
  • Game criticism is not about improving games. It is about studying what exists: I understand that there are people who prefer to be historians, catalogers and masticators of culture.  There is still room for both catalogers and people who dream about the future.  Perhaps not under the banner of ‘game criticism’ but certainly within games as whole.  
  • But making games is engineering and that is dull and soulless:  No, it isn’t.  Only a small portion of making games is the technical craft of drawing numbers on cardboard (if it is a board game) or getting triangles to show up (if it is a 3D video game).   Games are about building systems of rules, affordances and people.  They are art, science and community rolled up into one giant holistic act of creativity and play.  To make games well, you need to understand the whole picture.  I desire more writing from this holistic perspective, not from one narrow and highly uninformed perspective. 
  • How will game developers know what players are feeling if not for game criticism?:  Game developers are constantly looking at a vast range of  quantitative and qualitative data. The entire process of game development is built around observing players and adjusting the game (thousands of times!) till the system reaches a desired state of operation. Individual opinions are constantly taken into account.  I personally love watching players and asking them directly what they feel.  In light of this, having a piece of well written criticism is often interesting, but needs to be balanced against the weight of other (often more representative) players.  Since the critic almost never understands the systems underlying their experience, most notes on improvements or root causes are typically wildly off base.  This isn’t the fault of the game critic.  They simply lack access to both the dozens (or thousands) of player data points and the intimate knowledge of the game mechanics.  Perhaps one out of a hundred provides a minor insight into a specific game. 

78 Comments

  1. I always value the opinion of game creators. But to say that they are the only source for criticism would be like saying that all movie reviewers must be movie directors. I don't think there are any of those out there. Games are certainly harder to make than most gamers think, but most professional journalists, I think, realize this. I think it's an interesting perspective and a nice dream, but I don't think it's going to happen.

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  2. This is more about getting more cream to rise to the top. We'll always have gamers writing about their experiences. That's a good thing. Let's just not pretend it offers more than a very limited and isolated perspective on games. And for the record, I don't think I would trust the literary criticism of someone who cannot write. When I speak of the parasite critics, I think those in the movie industry qualify quite nicely. I suspect most would agree that turning into the movie industry is *not* a desired outcome. 🙂 All the best, Danc.

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  3. It's true \”game studies\” academics have no experience making games, but the more serious indictment is that many won't even admit they have ever, themselves, even played a game, let alone enjoyed it. Evidently they view it as beneath them. I wrote at length about the uselessness of academic game criticism in my August 2006 Escapist article \”Immersion Unexplained\”:https://v1.escapistmagazine.com/articles/view/video-games/issues/issue_57/341-Immersion-Unexplained

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  4. Kudos on an excellent article that properly takes to task a lot of low-value writing and criticism going on right now. Thanks for sharing these \”positive examples\” of recent criticism, of which I've only read two – in fact I made a comment on the Gamasutra article praising it, so apparently we're on the same page here. :)I think you go a little far in implying that the value of criticism from other game developers is far higher than non-developers' criticisms. The tone here seems to imply that you simply aren't inclined to listen to criticism from people who aren't game developers. But there's two reasons why I'd value a non-game-developer's opinion on a game as high, if not higher, than that of a game developer.The first reason is that we developers are often too aware of, and too impressed by, the amount of work that went into developing a game. For example, as a programmer who has looked into natural language parsing, Facade can't help but impress me. But Facade's AIs still don't pass the Turoing test, and its characters are only slightly less unconvincing than \”Eliza\” or other clumsy and older attempts at conversation simulators. One example of this was Tom Chick's tepid review of Starcraft 2. As a developer, I'm a bit flabbergasted that one man can be so dismissive of a game that took over 7 years of work from over 100 of the most brilliant and creative developers in the industry. But part of what we need from criticism is honesty: an outsider's perspective that's not influenced by \”inside baseball\” as ours are.It's true that a non-developer could probably never make a brilliant mechanical treatise such as the \”donkeyspace\” theory laid out by Frank Lantz in your above example. However they can say a lot about the experiential levels of our games – which could and probably should be considered the most important layer in our games. After all, what is any artist attempting to create if not an experience for the recipient of the art? Reading about what these experiences are for thoughtful recipients (whether or not they have a deep knowledge of the design rules and development tricks that may have made this experience possible) has a great deal of value to me – so long as they're read with this perspective in mind.I agree, however, that criticism by other developers that offers insight and perspectives on other ways to solve problems is incredibly useful. I think what we really need is more of a \”peer criticism\” culture: I see too few \”game design reviews\” in which developers offer suggestions on other ways in which games could have been approached… and I'd agree with you that this kind of criticism is incredibly useful and constructive.(Oh, and so you know how to value my input here: I AM an experienced game developer, a programmer/designer – I would place myself as a journeyman – who has indeed spent the majority of his waking life attempting to make and release games for the last ~8 years, and for the last 1.5 years in particular… though unfortunately mine has been one of those careers in which the majority of games I've worked on will never be released.)

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  5. Anonymous says

    I don't think the effort and struggles that were required to develop a game should change anyone's opinion of a game or any other product. Either an opinion is well founded and insightful or it is not. Just because someone is inexperienced doesn't mean their opinions are without value. And what else is there than opinions? Even the most well-researched and factually based opinion in the world is still just an opinion.That you are willing to dismiss an opinion based on experience alone shows the vast ignorance of your own opinion on this subject.

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  6. As an aspiring game designer/critic I really enjoyed the article. Like your others it was well thought out, concise, and indeed adds a lot to the ongoing discussion. However, I had a couple of critiques.As someone who has read and understands a fair amount about both physics and systems, I think systems thought can be applied to and found in any field, not just science. Each field has their own unique perspective to bring to the overarching idea of systems theory, and biasing one over the other often precludes a very robust understanding.I would also echo the above poster that I don't think we should signify developers or non-developers as having more legitimacy. Everyone has a point to bring to the table, and saying that only one type of people are allowed to make that point seems rather limiting. As you said above game developers are often no better at this than any other. I would rather say that all critics should aspire to create works of writing that further the field of game design while being conscious of the biases their unique perspective skews them towards.However, excellent article. I always enjoy your unique view.

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  7. I think IQpierce is completely right. You should value an articulate player's experience with your game at least as much as any developer's, if only because you presumably made the game for him to play and enjoy! I mean, if all developers followed your hierarchy, they'd basically be making games for themselves.

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  8. Updated the doc to include feedback: A) Emphasized the importance of listening to players (something I passionately practice!) Tom Chick is still cool. B) Added a bit on the validity of different opinions C) Clarified that perspectives from other fields is good. D) Emphasized the need for game developers to write about games.

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  9. You've clearly articulated that you're mainly talking about whether games criticism is useful to you, and in that respect your argument is spot on.Unfortunately, you also imply in the strongest terms that everything else not useful to you is inherently worthless: \”ignorant blather\”, \”your spew of text\”, \”what passes for insight\” etc. That's muddying the waters. Most writing about games is crap, but game developers have no monopoly on the upper tier of the quality scale.As you asked for feedback, I suggest you ignore the fact keep the focus on your core topic: the purpose of game criticism.The fact is that criticism is not necessarily intended for creators, and is not subservient to their needs. It is neither design documentation nor instructional textbook. It is instead a consideration of the qualities, meanings and value of the art being produced. Its central questions are \”what\” and \”why\” rather than \”how\”. Its purpose is, in part, to inform the community's thinking about the subject. This is clearest in the case of an overtly ideological site like The Border House, but is true of all critics to some extent.Living in Australia, where anti-game prejudice is enshrined in law, I'm acutely aware of the need for people who can clearly articulate what games are and what value games have to a wide audience. Game developers are often not the best people for the job, because their skill set is elsewhere (which is not to discount those like Will Wright who do make excellent representatives). It's valuable to have a Kieron Gillen (or critic of your choice) around to intelligently explain things like what a war simulation really means, especially when non-gamers are continually getting the wrong idea.It's not intended for the makers of the game, but if it informs their thinking, that's great too. In fact, I believe that designers who have the ability to step away from their role as creator and look at their creation from the perspective of its audience are likely to make better art. That means listening to the opinions of people not privy to the creative process that went into making it.Essentially, your argument strikes me as the old, traditional scorn of the engineer toward the humanities professor. \”How does all your philosophy help me to build a stronger bridge?\” scoffs the engineer, missing the point.

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  10. I have found myself struggling with a similar problem of filtering my game article intake. If I spent all my time reading articles and blog posts, I still wouldn't have time to read them all. And I find that the overall nutritional value of this intake is very low.Generally, I find that the best way to filter is simply to read the articles that I find through recommendations on Twitter, or Danc's Reading List. 😉

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  11. Hi Fraser! Appreciate you stopping by. I agree with the topics you raise. To reflect: – No, you are not subservient to creators. I've seen this comment in a couple of places and I'd be delighted if folks could help me identify the particular turn of phrase that seems to polarize folks so strongly. – Yes, it is helpful to have someone who can act as a translator to other media. – Yes, it is important for developers to look at their creation from the perspective of the audience. (This comment actively shocks me. What do you think game developers are *doing* with those metrics, surveys, play tests and thousands upon thousands of iterations on a game?) This last point is a good example of an area where knowledge of game development would improve criticism. Game developers tend to know immensely more about the breadth and depth of player reactions to a particular sequence than most writers ever seem to give credit. The iteration of development is a process and an experience that forever alters how you understand games. Once you experience what it actually means to listen to customers, you end up having a richer perspective on how your specific and highly personal feedback fits into the whole. Would it hurt your writing to have this more informed perspective? Probably not. And I suspect it would give much of the writing additional depth and authority. If your goal really is to inform the community, then most writing is missing some pretty major chunks of knowledge about games. Another metaphor: It is like there is a class of writing that spends thousands of pages discussing a person's individual experience with the texture of a single $1 dollar bill while ignoring anything having to do with micro and macro economics. Are you really broadly doing your job informing the community of the nature of a dollar bill if mostly you focus on the texture of that one example?Replace the texture of the dollar with a single person's experience and the micro and macro economics with game design and development (play testing, psychology, economics again, etc.) The comment about the engineer and the humanities professor is appropriate. However with games, we seem to have accidentally asked the humanities professor to write about the purpose and meaning of bridges independent of any knowledge of physics, transit or architecture. Instead, he walks across the bridge once, considers his research done and then spends the next three years writing a book about how his feet ache. 😉 To be clear- I'm not putting game criticism in a box. – I'm not claiming your soapbox for my own.- I'm not restricting meaningful discussion to only developers. Instead, I'm asking you to be better at your job. Be more informed. Understand games at a deeper level. Base your writing off a broader range of hands on experiences than just sitting down with a game and playing it. Yes, playing games is still valid, but there is a heck of a lot more out there. As a side note: Yes, I would also like more people to write about games in a way that moves game development as opposed to game playing forward. That's me being selfish. Believe it or not, the amount of game criticism completely swamps the amount of interesting writing by game developers. Sometimes I think gamers imagine that there are secret clubs where immense knowledge flows in edible chocolate streams. We try. But the conversation is limited and most developers are understandably focused on making games. So the art of game development inches forward mostly in a small sputtering bursts of conversation. In this respect, I admit to being a bit disappointed how academia and journalists have tackled games. The blossoming of writing that might help game developers never really happened. I suppose it is a simple matter of numbers: there are more gamers looking to write about games than there are game developers. take care, Danc.

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  12. Could you possibly entertain the idea that writing may be the actual problem?Writing is far too simple and linear.

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  13. Unless you write game reviews you probably aren't in the position to critique game reviews.

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  14. Dan, it's really unclear to me who you're writing this article for? What exactly are you trying to improve?If you're writing it for game critics, you probably shouldn't start by calling them parasites, if you seriously intend them to read this piece and then start following your advice.If you're writing it to encourage game designers to write about design, then you're better off writing a how to piece on writing.I'm also confused to the 'positive' articles you're linking to. None of them are game criticism. They're all about game design, which is a completely different fish to the one you're talking about in the rest of the article.

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  15. The fact is, Dan, that most gamers simply do not care about the process behind making games. Just like most music fans (outside the obsessives) do not wonder what input a particular producer has offered or what an editor stripped out of a particular paperback.What your audience care about are a few things:- Is the game fun?- Does it work properly?- Does it look good?- Will it hold my interest?That's it. You should be happy that a lot of academic and feature writers bother to head behind the curtain and introduce the actual people who spend full years of their lives putting pieces together, tearing them down and putting them up again.The other part relates to how secretive a lot of non-indie production houses tend to be when it comes to their development process. I've had tons of interviews with both major and minor developers regarding their operations, and most aren't willing to digress further than a certain mark hense they will be muted by their PR rep or some other lakey from the publisher.Most copy is dribble, and that relates to an entire other problem when it comes to game critique – funding. If you want good prose, you either need to do this in your own time, or you need someone to back you with enough money to pay the rent. Since most gamers aren't willing to pay for copy anymore, most media rely on clicks, and those clicks come from, you guessed it, drama and quick to run reviews.I could go on all day about the dramas that those in the games media industry deal with on a regular basis, but the crux of it relates to what the audience wants. Until gamers care about what's behind their media, and developers are willing to spill their guts to the same extent, we're going to continue in this cycle for an indefinate period.On a side note: this whole situation links well to the brilliant article Geoff Knightley produced about Portal 2 – Valve gave him deep access to their studios and as a result, we got extraordinary access to the people and their development path that had never existed before.Once the developers begin to co-operate with the media, rather than heaping derision and making ridiculous claims (re: some of the points in your piece) then we might be able to work together.

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  16. I'll echo, as a game designer, what others have said.1. Experience making games has no bearing on the quality of writing about games. Yes, designers often have unique insight, but I've read some insightful writing by people who aren't developers. I think part of the problem is that there's a lot of poor writing about games from people who are wannabe game designers.2. You're confusing game critique with game design instruction. All of the \”good\” essays you linked are related to people sharing insightful instruction about game design. And, yes, this is often useful for game designers! But, this isn't critique. At the simplest level, critique is a \”review\” of a work. The best critique, however, is one that touches on the meaning and influence of a work. An essay about how controls for a game are sluggish because movement happens on KeyUp instead of KeyDown is design instruction. An essay about how the sluggish controls for a game build suspense and reflect the difficulty of the topic of the game is critique.3. Critique is not necessarily for developers. Good critique informs and educates the audience. Being game expereinced designers, we don't need to be informed or educated as much as others do. But, that doesn't mean the work is universally worthless. An essay that educates people about the emotional depththat we try to instill in our games or about how they have positive effects on bored housewives can help reflect the positive aspects we take for granted. Given that most of the most active designers are usually busy actually designing games, having smart and educated people write for the more general audience can help.My thoughts.

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  17. A music critic does not play a musical instrument yet he/she can criticize music.A movie critic does not make movies, yet he/she can criticize movies.A book critic does not write his/her own book, yet he/she can criticize other novels.There are certain constraints that each medium has. Band members can have differing visions, actors can be fickle, writers block can set in. But being familiar with these obstacles doesn't change the final product that is evaluated. If it is crap, being familiar with how crap is made doesn't change it from crap to gold. A medium such as video games can never be truly objective, it will always be subjective to a certain extent. To use the excuse \”You guys just don't understand!\” seems to be a cheap cop-out that will never be truly respected by the public. Even though many people that write about games might be immature, saying that \”because you've never made a game, shut your mouth,\” doesn't seem like a step in the right direction.

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  18. The animosity between developers and game journalists exist because both camps tend to devalue key aspects of the other's job. Game critics tend to be uninterested in the development of the game, the difficulty of implementing features or simply understanding the limits and constraints of making a game. Game developers tend to under appreciate the perspective that can be provided by someone who is paid to play a plethora of current games and give an opinion on how that game fits into the current changing landscape.As a developer, it does bum me out when I read an overly snarky opinion from some dude who doesn't have the slightest idea how to implement his (most often unreasonable) complaints. But I'm also very busy working on our game and have two kids, which doesn't give me much time to play a lot of the games out there – so I do my best to value that perspective offered by critics who are paid to review games.

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  19. Dan: \”No, you are not subservient to creators. I've seen this comment in a couple of places and I'd be delighted if folks could help me identify the particular turn of phrase that seems to polarize folks so strongly.\”Your entire argument is based upon the following:1) Creators' opinions should always be taken as a higher standard than non-creators, as explained in the sections where you have a chain of being where you judge someone's experience to whether you're going to pay attention to them or not.2) If criticism doesn't help game design, it's useless, as stated in the section where you list all the forms of games criticism and then reject all the ones which don't do that. Also, you admit that there's other readers, but fuck 'em.For the first one, I'll note that in Rossignol's years as a games journalist specialising in MMOs, he's never met a project lead who's spent any time playing Eve. They can talk about their experience, but their experience is so narrow and the medium is so large I would think it dangerous to draw too much from any one individual's experience.For the second one, I'd agree. Were I an engineer.KG

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  20. Anonymous says

    I would encourage you to integrate your comment to Fraser Allison in your main article, because it clarifies points that I had hoped you were making but weren't explicit in the writing.However, and a few people have mentioned this, but what you're referring to as game criticism isn't actually game criticism. What you consider \”bad\” games criticism is actually the definition of games criticism, and what you consider good criticism—\”game developer analysis\”— is not criticism at all, but instruction on the craft, which is completely different.Here is a metaphor: There are classes on creative writing, and there are classes on literary analysis. One tells you how to write, the other tells you how to understand what writing means and how it makes us feel. You want instruction on games as a craft, and you're looking for it in analysis of how games make us feel. No wonder you don't feel satisfied with current games criticism! By its very definition, it isn't what you're looking for. You are looking to games criticism for things like postmortems and analysis of technique. But this has never been what criticism is concerned with: as an example, a feminist critique of Hamlet will is in no way concerned with instructing the reader on how to write like Shakespeare.No one would ever read literary criticism as a instruction manual on how to write, because that isn't its purpose. Its purpose is to articulate the effects games have on us. That's why writers talk about their feelings, and why readers enjoy reading criticism—it enhances their own feelings and understanding of games, (or literature, in this extended metaphor). To be blunt, this writing is going to have little to no application to your design process and should never be expected to. I can tell you that as a writer, literary analysis is the last place I would ever go to get better at writing, just as a game designer will not find much instruction from Kotaku.HOWEVER, you've raised an extremely important point: not enough critics know about the craft of games. Roger Ebert may never have made a movie, but he knows damn near everything about the filmmaking process. In order to make more thorough analysis, critics will need to know what they're talking about.They still won't be any more useful to you, though, because criticism is concerned with analysis of response. We certainly need more collections of postmortems and analysis of how we make games, and that would be of benefit to critics as well.But please, redefine your terms: the craft of games is not the experience of games. If this is a draft, make this your number one priority.

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  21. In addition to Kieron's and Andrew's and Psychochild/Brian's comments, which I wholly agree with, I'll chime in that you don't seem to touch on criticism of social issues — feminist critique and that sort of thing. I mean, I suspect you'll throw that out the window too, but you might want to add it to the list of criticisms you find invalid!

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  22. Danc: Thanks for the thoughtful reply.Does knowledge of game development make a writer better at game criticism? Probably, but it's not so simple. The developer's perspective is one body of knowledge among many that a critic can bring to their work to make it more valuable.The Psychology of Video Games article you linked is a good example. Jamie Madigan obviously knows a lot about game development, but it's primarily his knowledge of psychology that makes his analysis insightful.Or take this piece by Ben Medler on modernism in Mirror's Edge and postmodernism in Assassin's Creed. It provides a way of thinking about those games that has everything to do with their design but very little to do with the process of making them.I don't mean to devalue the creator's perspective, but to point out the benefits of other perspectives. And as IQpierce pointed out, developers have their own baggage: it's harder to see a game with fresh eyes when you know what went into making it. Does a food critic really want to know how the sausage was made?I'll try to answer the two big questions you posed: what was it you wrote that made people think critics should serve creators, and do readers understand the amount of user testing that goes into making a game?On the first point: it isn't one particular turn of phrase but a current that runs through what you've written. The section headed \”Classifying game criticism\” is the crux. By summarising the first four classes of writing in such a dismissive way, you imply that it has no value. Not all of the writing in each category is good, but some of it is, and it all has an audience. In each case, the audience is rating the work on different merits than what you're asking for here.On the second point: I hope most critics do appreciate the importance of user testing. I think developers have done a good job of conveying its central importance – particularly Valve with its developer commentaries. But while metrics, surveys and play tests are essential, they are all more or less quantitative forms of data collection, which can't provide the whole story. Chris Hecker has pointed out the danger of relying too much on this kind of feedback:\”The problem is not that the data is wrong, the problem is that we tend to gather the data that is convenient to gather, we worship that data because it is at least some concrete port in the storm of game design and player behavior, and then we assume we can take a reasonable derivative from that data and hill-climb to a better place in design-space. But, as anybody who knows any math can tell you, hill-climbing is not a very good algorithm for optimizing complex functions, and game design is a very complex function indeed.\”Hecker says \”intuition is the art\” that goes into game development, but that intuition doesn't have to come from nowhere. To get a more complete picture, you need qualitative feedback – which you do indeed get, by talking to playtesters and players. In-depth game criticism goes deeper (if it's any good), but is essentially the same thing: an in-depth qualitative response to the game.Some new comments have appeared since I started writing this (I thought you had to say Gillen's name three times into a screen before he was summoned?), so I'll tie it up here rather than repeat what other people are already saying.CheersFraser

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  23. It sounds to me that you're asking less for a wholesale revolution in games journalism than for the creation of a professional journal of game development.In other words: a publication that covers issues in game design from the developer's perspective, perhaps with articles submitted by other developers. Something that does for game developers what The Lancet and New England Journal of Medicine do for medical professionals, what Nature and Science do for scientists, etc.Such a journal would provide the filter you're looking for, since by definition it would only include commentary by professionals working in the field. And since its audience would be developers rather than gamers, it could include submissions that focus on practical questions that wouldn't be of interest to the general population of gamers at large. (Just like patients don't read The Lancet.)So maybe this essay would be more productive if it were reframed from \”why game journalism sucks\” (which in the large it doesn't, since it's quite rightly aimed at the broader population of gamers than at the much narrower population of developers) to \”why game developers need a professional journal.\”

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  24. I'll try to be brief.You seem to be saying that criticism should be about providing answers for game developers, and that they're the only ones who are sufficiently qualified to fulfill this function. I'd argue every single point of that statement.I'll start with the obvious. A good question can be just as useful to a creator as a good answer. Moreso, probably, as most creators like to find their own answers to problems. Outsiders are actually probably more likely to pose the best questions than insiders, simply because their perspective takes less for granted. Admittedly, this also means they're more likely to pose a lot of stupid questions as well.Now, the idea that criticism should be for the creator has been dealt with above, so I'll skip past, just saying that I didn't appreciate Far Cry 2 until good criticism made me reassess my vantage point.Finally, the idea that criticism can only be made by game developers is a bit of a nonsense. Game development isn't some set of mysteries handed out to a select few. It's a collection of skills, most of which have been appropriated from other disciplines: everything from cinematography to economics to physics to architecture to programming informs how a game is made. I'll try and show what I mean by quoting your response to Fraser, above:\”This last point is a good example of an area where knowledge of game development would improve criticism. Game developers tend to know immensely more about the breadth and depth of player reactions to a particular sequence than most writers ever seem to give credit [for].\”Now, I'll admit to cheating a little here, as I know Fraser personally while you may not. But seriously, do you think he's unaware of the QA process? You simply need to listen the Portal developer commentaries, or to listen to Bungie talk about the lessons they learned about warthog placement, or god knows how many other sources. It's not hard to get an understanding of the iterative process. Certainly, there's no doubt specific lessons can be learned by going through that process yourself, but to argue those lessons are necessary to talk about why players respond in certain ways or what causes certain reactions is simplistic, at best. A photographer is better qualified to talk about the guiding lines and colours in Mirror's Edge than someone who's worked in sound design on AAA titles for the past ten years.I'll round off my comments by pointing out that many of the best critics of the past few years have either dabbled in game design or crossed over, often with great success.They didn't need to go back to school to do so.(Oh, and because it doesn't want to show, my full name is Mr Ak. Well, Mark, really, but Marks are like water – we cover two thirds of the earth.)

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  25. @Little Fish \”\”because you've never made a game, shut your mouth,\”It was not my intent to say this that that seems to be a common interpretation. Good to know. Gamers can and should talk about games! It is a valid perspective. But for that small portion of the writing population who wants to do more, I recommend that they learn about other perspectives and disciplines, namely game design and development. If you aren't inclined to do that…awesome. Keep writing. No one will stop you. @Mr \”A photographer is better qualified to talk about the guiding lines and colours in Mirror's Edge than someone who's worked in sound design on AAA titles for the past ten years.\”I think this is exactly my point, but I apparently need to state it more clearly. Noted for the next edit. As far as I can tell there are very few writers of game criticism who are bringing a deep bench of domain specific knowledge to their writing. Re: QA Process and listening to Portal dev diaries. No, I'm sorry, you are misinformed. Merely reading about something that requires years of practice to master does not instantly translate into experience or understanding. There is a reason why dancing judges are past dancers. It gives a level of insight that the uneducated observer cannot match. A few side notes* The outsider / insider / engineer rhetoric is fascinating. I don't have this view, but it is good to know that it exists. My initial assumption was that we are all in this together.* Ebert did in fact participate deeply in the movie making process. https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0001170/ Though Ebert happens to not be one, I would state in general that idiot savants are poor role models. Just because there are critics who are ignorant of the art and craft of games doesn't mean you should strive to be one.@JasonA community of people who are interesting in moving the art and science of games forward would be a great step. Lately I've been irritated at academic journals since they seem more intent on maintaining a business model than encouraging the spread and advance of knowledge. But the core of the idea has merit. I suspect however I'm looking for something a bit broader than a box to collect game developers within. At one point, I hoped that some of the energy being expressed by promoters of game criticism (notably Greg over at Play This Thing) would yield a cross fertilization between people in other fields and game development. That hasn't occurred. Instead, under the staunchly defended label of game criticism, we have a small extension of traditional game reviews. And we have various academic departments that don't seem to be contributing much except to themselves. These are fine enough for what they are. Still, it doesn't hurt to ask for more collaboration and attempts at building hybrid philosophies. take careDanc.

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  26. The problem is that you're using a terrible example to support your point. The article you refence is indeed atrocious: it says nothing, is poorly-written, and wrapped in pseudo academic language which makes you want to puke.But instead of calling out bad writing as bad writing, you seem to be calling out all criticism written by non game designers. You make this weird analogy to critics having books read to them, when the better analogy is critics who read novels but doesn't write novels. In literature, music, and film, there is a huge tradition of amazing criticism produced by non creators. You haven't supported the position that this can't be the case for games.

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  27. Dan: The problem with what you have written is that you're not just \”ask[ing] for more collaboration and attempts at building hybrid philosophies.\”, you're dismissing everything that isn't this.And you're doing it in a way that is pretty inflammatory. I don't think you're picking up on the angry reaction to what you've said from someone that many game critics considered was 'on their side' – mostly because as far as critics and academics go, the result is initially always going to be a polite and well written attempt at rebuttal.

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  28. I agree that there's a lack of writing by developers that pushes the medium forward creatively, but I disagree with your assumption that writing by people who don't know how to make games is irrelevant and useless.I find as a game developer that my responses to the games I play are increasingly different to my non-developer friends' responses. My opinions and responses are what they are, but unless my audience is entirely game developers, I need to have an insight into how non-developers think.Regarding Gamasutra Blogs, I think there's a pretty good split there between the \”Expert\” blogs and the regular ones. I think the Expert blogs should be kept to the high standards that you propose (attempts to advance the games medium from a developer's perspective), but the non-developer blogs (and other enthusiast outfits like Kotaku) should continue their key writing as well.Perhaps we just need a different name for each type of writing? It seems at the issue at the moment is just that both groups are trying to co-opt the word \”criticism\”.

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  29. Anonymous says

    Pretty much agree with e5d16eb2…. except the last part about ignorance. What I *think* (reading as I go along) you're trying to say is that game developers should write more?But I don't agree if someone has no experience in the game-making process makes there writing of less or no value. Maybe thats not what you're trying to say, but I did get a hint of that from what I've read.I definitely don't want criticism to be dominated by developers. And this is coming from a developer-in-the-making…. hopefully.

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  30. Anonymous says

    You asked for feedback, but this post needs more help than I have time to give. Go back to the drawing board. Take Ben's comments to heart. If you honestly want to draft something, solicit private feedback. Don't publish it on your blog, throw around reductive, divisive language (parasitic, illiterate, impaired, ignorant, wannabe, bozo, etc. & etc.), then ask for the \”the particular turn of phrase that seems to polarize folks so strongly.\”

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  31. Interesting article. If you're looking for feedback, I'd say it's more useful as a sort of developer primal scream than it is as a step towards better game criticism.I thought \”The Blossoming of Shallow Game Criticism\” section was a great summation of the situation, but like the rest of the article it was sometimes a bit harsh:\”Yet the essay is little more than a series of personal descriptions of how he feels when he plays certain games… Once you strip away the laborious language, you have yet another bit of fluffy gamer opinion written by a young student.\”As a piece that expresses the frustrations of a journeyman game developer who reads this sort of thing, you pretty much nailed it. As a piece that's meant to encourage people who write about games to gain perspective and be more thoughtful, it's probably a bit confrontational. There is some good concrete stuff here, I would love for articles to clearly state the author's background. You used the word \”honesty\” and i think it's a good one. I'm sure some game writers deliberately obfuscate this because they don't want their opinions to be dismissed, but it's not fair to the reader that they have to wade through three paragraphs on a screed about development pitfalls before they realize that the author is not talking from the perspective of someone who has ever actually shipped a game. I think the request for better filters is really the most productive part of the article. We all know where the bad writing is, but as developers our methods of compiling the good info is pretty haphazard. It's often a co-worker pointing out a specific GDC talk that can't be missed, or an article on a particular website that may not be worth reading regularly, or a podcast that only appears irregularly, or it's just someone relating an interesting conversation they had with another dev at a bar during some conference or convention. I've worked at a few studios now where people regularly read the this site, and and Tip of the Sphere has been doing good things since it started up. You mention the Escapist, which does some good things. I'm fascinated by #AltGameDevBlog but it's a bit like drinking from the fire hose. The NYU lecture series can veer into navel-gazing, but overall it's a huge step in the right direction. But in general I think it's a more reasonable to expect developers to put together a better set of filters than it is to expect millions of people with internet connections and very strongly held (if uninformed) opinions to gain better insight into development and the art form. You mention Sturgeon's Law, but the article reads as request to overturn it in the particular area of game criticism. There will always be high-calorie, low-protein content in all media. We don't HAVE to read the tabloid rack at the super market, or watch the local news, or read the group blog sections of certain websites, but we do it because we're masochists or rubber-necking a car wreck. The real solution is to make sure people who want quality discussion and criticism can find it in a place without having to spend huge amounts of time weeding through the fluff. Why not start collecting useful criticism here?

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  32. Also, would it be worth defining the difference between consumer reviews (a place where I think the, \”It's not for you\” argument holds weight), and game criticism? I took most of your article as a referring to the recent deluge of people writing about older or classic games (and some current games), and picking apart their mechanics, narratives, and form, but reading through these comments I think there's some confusion here.Does the difference between someone writing a consumer review (\”This is worth/not worth your $60\”) and someone writing a piece of game criticism (\”Here's is why having a silent protagonist worked/didn't work in HF2, and here's why it did/didn't work in these other games\”) only exist in my head? Is this a distinction worth making or is it just semantics? Because I feel like people may be talking about two different things.

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  33. Interesting article. If you're looking for feedback, I'd say it's more useful as a sort of developer primal scream than it is as a step towards better game criticism.I thought \”The Blossoming of Shallow Game Criticism\” section was a great summation of the situation, but like the rest of the article it was sometimes a bit harsh:\”Yet the essay is little more than a series of personal descriptions of how he feels when he plays certain games… Once you strip away the laborious language, you have yet another bit of fluffy gamer opinion written by a young student.\”As a piece that expresses the frustrations of a journeyman game developer who reads this sort of thing, you pretty much nailed it. As a piece that's meant to encourage people who write about games to gain perspective and be more thoughtful, it's probably a bit confrontational. There is some good concrete stuff here, I would love for articles to clearly state the author's background. You used the word \”honesty\” and i think it's a good one. I'm sure some game writers deliberately obfuscate this because they don't want their opinions to be dismissed, but it's not fair to the reader that they have to wade through three paragraphs on a screed about development pitfalls before they realize that the author is not talking from the perspective of someone who has ever actually shipped a game. I think the request for better filters is really the most productive part of the article. We all know where the bad writing is, but as developers our methods of compiling the good info is pretty haphazard. It's often a co-worker pointing out a specific GDC talk that can't be missed, or an article on a particular website that may not be worth reading regularly, or a podcast that only appears irregularly, or it's just someone relating an interesting conversation they had with another dev at a bar during some conference or convention. I've worked at a few studios now where people regularly read the this site, and and Tip of the Sphere has been doing good things since it started up. You mention the Escapist, which does some good things. I'm fascinated by #AltGameDevBlog but it's a bit like drinking from the fire hose. The NYU lecture series can veer into navel-gazing, but overall it's a huge step in the right direction. But in general I think it's a more reasonable to expect developers to put together a better set of filters than it is to expect millions of people with internet connections and very strongly held (if uninformed) opinions to gain better insight into development and the art form. You mention Sturgeon's Law, but the article reads as request to overturn it in the particular area of game criticism. There will always be high-calorie, low-protein content in all media. We don't HAVE to read the tabloid rack at the super market, or watch the local news, or read the group blog sections of certain websites, but we do it because we're masochists or rubber-necking a car wreck. The real solution is to make sure people who want quality discussion and criticism can find it in a place without having to spend huge amounts of time weeding through the fluff. Why not start collecting useful criticism here?

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  34. Anonymous says

    As an academic teaching game design and writing criticism, I've struggled with the \”you have never done this for a living, so how can you criticise it\” question for a while. I acknowledge that a lot of your criticism is valid (although it could be expressed more politely if you want people to actually change, rather that just react angrily).I will however ask the question: on what are you basing your views on academic writing? You seem to be referring mostly to blog posts rather than academic conferences and journals. I blog, but I happily admit it is not my best writing. My blog is more of a forum for me to experiment with ideas or get things off my chest. If you are looking for the best in games scholarship, blogs are not the place.

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  35. \”Yet, games are not and never will be the same sort of purely evocative media as music, video, writing or painting.\”\”Games have more in common with functional works involving mathematics, psychology, governments, economics or other complex systems.\”I have to disagree with both of these statements, though since I'm not and never have been a game developer, you may not value my opinion on the matter much. Still, I am a working creative, and there are parallels with my own medium.You make the comparison in your piece here between game design and disciplines like mathematics, physics, and structural engineering. And while it's certainly the case that there are scientific and technological aspects to game design and development, the fundamental purpose of game design is utterly different from these disciplines. The purpose of physics–the reason why we do it–is to explain and predict. The purpose of engineering is to build. The purpose of game design–that is to say, the purpose of games–is to elicit a human response. And most of the time, an emotional response. In a very important way, focusing the discussion of games on the \”whirring, clicking mechanical reality of games in practice\” is missing the forest for the trees.It's the same in my own medium, photography. There are scientific and technological underpinnings to the creation of a photograph that a good photographer has to understand in order to create a good image. Physical phenomena like the angle of reflection of incident light or the additive nature of light color are crucial to understand if one is going to create a good photograph. And yet, they are quite unnecessary to understand in order to discuss why a photograph works. You don't need to know what aperture or film emulsion a photographer used in order to talk about the resulting image. You do need to understand your own reaction to it.I absolutely find use in reading photographers' books, essays, and blogs, in order to learn about their methods and techniques. But that has little to no bearing on the utility of photographic criticism. The two are on almost completely separate axes of intellectual discourse.And, certainly, I have found that many of the most insightful analyses of photographic works have come from photographers, but that has little to do with their understanding of photographic techniques and everything to do with the fact that photographers are often experienced consumers of photography.By all means, be frustrated if you can't find the kinds of discussions you want to read and participate in. But understand that those discussions are at least as narrow and inutile as the kind you're complaining about.

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  36. Anonymous says

    For the people who couldn't (or just won't) take the time to read that entire diatribe:\”If you aren't a game designer, you lack the knowledge to meaningfully criticize games and for all I know, you just might be a ranting 13 year old with a worthless opinion.\”The one-analogy debunking of this entire post:Do you have to be a professional chef to say that you absolutely hate the way something tastes when you eat it? I hope not.

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  37. You don't have to be chef to say you dislike the food, but you would have to at least know how to cook a little in order to offer some constructive criticism about the taste that would help to improve it.

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  38. I can appreciate that some are offended by the tone of Danc's post. I also appreciate that blogs tend to ruffle feathers to get a good conversation going.But I agree that games can only be pushed forward by developer-writers who critique and communicate effectively.I've been reading Danc's work since his Nintendogs game design deconstruction (http://www.lostgarden.com/2005/06/nintendogs-case-of-non-game-that.html). As a game designer, this article provided me deep insight into the mechanical workings of a game that I had dismissed as casual and gimmicky.This insight, along with others from different Lost Garden articles, have provided me with information I can use to further my own work. They're useful to me because they're presented by a peer.Generally speaking, we learn the most from those grappling with the same challenges.To further myself and my work, I attend conferences, read postmortems, read gamasutra features and the odd developer diary. I try to learn from others' mistakes and find inspiration in what they're attempting. But the message isn't always clear; developers don't always successfully convey their valuable insights.As for wider games journalism, I don't get any appreciable value from them. But that's fine; they're not writing for me.Cheers-Dan Vogt

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  39. Smart writing. I will, however, make a couple of contradictory points, 1) because I'm a writer for IGN (though rarely in charge of criticism) and 2) because I'm an asshole. Sorry.I always take extra care with my words when criticizing the literacy of others. \”…but they are unable to read nor write\” should read \”but they are neither able to read nor able to write,\” and after this you can go ahead and call people illiterate.Also, if we follow the reasoning that only a person that makes games can write worthwhile criticism of games, would we not also have to agree that you'd have to write enthusiast-press game reviews before you could make worthwhile criticisms of them? For the record, I don't believe either of these two statements.I think there's a lot of value in what you're asking for. Much of it would probably sail over my head, but I know better than to call it worthless.

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  40. Danc: Thanks for the thoughtful reply. I left a follow-up comment yesterday but it seems to have been swallowed up before it reached the page, the way these things sometimes are.I won't rehash the whole thing, as others have now covered a lot of what I had to say. However, I would like to address the idea you put forward in your response to me, that writers fail to understand how empirical user testing is superior to criticism based on individual experiences.The types of feedback developers typically use – metrics, surveys, play tests and so on – are assessment tools. They answer questions. They can tell you if players are getting lost, if players are having fun, what players are confused by, what players are ignoring. This is a vital part of the design process, and an indispensable guide in reaching the project's goals.Criticism has a different aim, although the two may overlap. Criticism is a process of exploration and evaluation. It often asks questions that could not possibly be covered in empirical testing. See for example Troy Goodfellow's long-running series on National Characters in strategy games. There is no comparison between that kind of criticism and, say, the user testing Firaxis conducted for Civilization V. The two are different beasts.Talking about what he calls \”metrics fetishism\”, Chris Hecker said \”The metrics are the craft, and the intuition is the art.\” Without meaning to put words in Hecker's mouth, it seems a neat illustration of the difference. Empirical testing (including metrics) is part of the craft developers employ to achieve their goals. Creative thought (including intuition) is the process developers use to choose their goals. Criticism speaks to the art of game design; user testing to the craft.That's the kind of \”looking at games\” that I meant when I said developers would benefit from being able to step away from their role and see the game from another perspective. Not just the shallow-but-broad input of multiple game testers, but also the narrow-but-deep input of individual critics.To return to the bridge allegory: the engineer seeks to improve the design of his bridge. The geographer studies how the bridge will change the population distribution of the area. The historian places the construction of the bridge in a historical context. The poet writes a creative response to the bridge. The lawyer looks at how the road rules may apply to traffic on the bridge. They each have a different purpose, but that doesn't necessarily make them antagonists. They are, loosely, \”all in this together\”, but they are not all pulling in the same direction, or indeed all pulling on the same rope. Would they benefit from a fuller understanding of each other's fields? Probably, but it's not essential to what they do.

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  41. Anonymous says

    The fact that the majority of games are bad means just culling the group to actual designers / artists / musicians / coders / writers who have published game material won't get you what you want.

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  42. Much like Objectivism is philosophy for people who are unaware of what philosophy is, this article is sort of the critical equivalent of a 3-year-old screaming at the top of their lungs \”EXCUSE ME!!!!!\” I.e., Danc has some vague concept of form, but seems cognitively incapable of relating it to its actual function. Perhaps if he read some actual, you know, criticism, it might help…though I obviously have my doubts. Nonetheless some starter recommendations: I Lost It At The Movies by Pauline Kael, Air Guitar by Dave Hickey, that new and utterly mind-blowing Ellen Willis anthology. Or just go to Robert Christgau's website and type whatever into the search bar.

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  43. @Fraser \”Empirical testing (including metrics) is part of the craft developers employ to achieve their goals. Creative thought (including intuition) is the process developers use to choose their goals.\”A fascinating and false manner of segmenting art. I personally use both the empirical and creative tools of game design to achieve a result (very much in concert with the players). To separate empiricism from creativity in such a simplistic manner is to ignore the reality that scientific and logical thoughts are as deeply creative as the act of poetry. There is no 'hard part' or 'soft part'. They melt together and one without the other is devastatingly incomplete. Hence my original critique. One thing I've noticed over the years is that reaching this state of understanding often requires an grueling immersion in the practice before the art of it all becomes apparent. I'm not sure how to share this view other than suggesting you go down the path of making games yourself and see how things look on the other side. I'm all ears to less demanding solutions. \”..see the game from another perspective. Not just the shallow-but-broad input of multiple game testers, but also the narrow-but-deep input of individual critics.\”Perhaps a slightly different flavor, but have you ever stopped by an MMO forum and read the dozens of pages of lovingly crafted encounter descriptions, art critiques, mechanics teardowns and oh, so much more. It comes from a rather different tradition, but the content contains surprisingly similar themes. All this, plus the articles, plus the long and highly personal emails all goes into the creative engine. It is rather difficult for game developers to avoid the \”narrow-but-deep input of individual critics.\” 🙂\”Would they benefit from a fuller understanding of each other's fields? Probably, but it's not essential to what they do\”Huh. As a builder of games, I cannot afford such siloing of knowledge. Every day pushes my skills and ideas to the limit. In order to create the thing that others have every right to insist on reacting to in a narrow fashion, I feel I must constantly be looking to integrate new perspectives. Even this discussion, as bloody as it might seem on the surface, has been immensely educational. 'Criticism' is certainly not my field, but I become better at what I do by engaging (however poorly) with the concept. I assumed the same of those who practice 'game criticism' but from your comments that seems not to be a shared value. In all of this I sense an odd fear. What is so dangerous about being an engineer-geographer-historian-poet-lawyer? I only see benefits to the community as a whole. The only risk is that individuals comfortable in their current niche might need to change and grow. take care,Danc.

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  44. Danc: \”I cannot afford such siloing of knowledge\” and yet nothing by a non-developer is worth reading? Did we flip positions at some point in this conversation? :-)If my comments suggested that critics should avoid knowledge, they were poorly written, because that's not what I mean at all. I mean to draw a distinction between essential knowledge for a field and other valuable knowledge. I dispute the idea that knowledge of game design is an essential requirement for a game critic, as you've suggested above. Rather, it is one of many bodies of knowledge that might enrich the criticism. (It may also have drawbacks, but others have argued that point before me.)I agree it would be preferable if everyone knew everything, but rarely do you get the chance to read a piece of game criticism by Doctor Manhattan.Re: \”A fascinating and false manner of segmenting art.\” I'll take the compliment (cheers) but stand by my point. Craft supports art and art supports craft; that doesn't make them the same thing.

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  45. \”I assumed the same of those who practice 'game criticism' but from your comments that seems not to be a shared value.\”Yes, instead of learning by posting a long, solipsistic, condescending, self-debunking screed that's \”provocative\” enough for others to feel compelled to explain to me everything I got wrong, I've always felt it more polite to actually learn something about the field I'm talking about first. Guess I'm funny that way.

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  46. Instead of focusing on the bad, I'd love it if people could look for what's good and point it out. A more constructive article to write as follow-up would be:\”Examples of the Best Game Criticism on the Planet\”Now there's an article worth writing!For those looking for the GOOD stuff, may I humbly recommend that you google:Emily ShortChris HeckerIan BogostI'd love to find more writers in the community that you think are top-notch. Let's find the good stuff and highlight it.Anyone have some examples of top-quality game journalism? Please post them!

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