Games need serious criticism

Greg Costikyan has written a barn-burning essay calling for serious criticism -- not reviews -- of games as an art form:
Similarly, there would be no point today in writing a review of Ultima IV, since it is long out of print. A useful work of criticism, however, is entirely conceivable: discussing, perhaps, its role as one of the first games to consider the moral implications of a player's acts, and to use tactical combat as a minigame within the context of a larger, more strategic title. Such an article, well-written, ideally with an understanding of the influence of tabletop roleplaying on the development of the early western CRPG, and of the place of this title in the overall shape of Richard Garriot's ouevre would be of interest to readers today, even if they'd be hard put to find a way to buy the damn game. And it might find a place in anthologies and studies of the 20th century origins of the popular medium of the game, going forward into the indefinite future.

The truth is that, for the most part, we don't have anything like game criticism, and we need it -- to inform gamers, to hold developers to task, and to inform our broader cultural understanding of games and their importance and impact on our culture.



  1. What about the stuff that Kyle Orland used to do? I’ve seen scholarly criticism on everything from resource management in strategy games to the psychological effect of menus and information onscreen. You won’t find the stuff from Kotaku or Gamespot, but it exists.

    I’m not sure if Greg has really been looking in the right places.

  2. There is a whole history of excellent game criticism now. There is also a history of these types of call to arms, but I think the battle is well joined by now.

    Consolevania at one end, Tim Rogers, Kieron Gillen, The Escapist. Lara Crigger’s piece on gaming in the wake of Katrina was incredible.

    The question isn’t whats wrong with videogame journalism, but whats wrong…with whats wrong with videogame journalism.

  3. What’s wrong with videogame journalism?
    Either it’s fanboys pushing everything by company X (“It’s by X, and even if objectively it’s a boring piece of crap, it’s by X so it must be a gloriously wonderful offering that’s just beyond my grasp”).
    Or it’s the old, old story of conflicts of interests (“If I write what I really think about this boring piece of crap, company X will never give me free samples again, yet alone talk to me again or buy some advertisement space in my magazine and then my boss will get really angry with me”).
    Sorry for being maybe just a tiny bit too polemic.

    And another thing that’s really wrong with the industry as a whole: most new games are hardly original or feature something fresh, creative, new. Creativity went out for commercialism, which today means FPS.
    (Which I personally consider one of the more boring genres available, but I know that’s just me.)

  4. There’s no denying that there are plenty of good critics of games out there, but there just isn’t a full blown culture where it can thrive.

    The escapist is perhaps the closest we have at the moment, but the biggest draw on that are zero punctuation’s scatological youtube reviews. Great fun, but not really the higher criticism being discussed here.

  5. It’s been my opinion for a while that video games, in order to evolve past the current point, are in need of critical reflection at another level than the game reviews of mainstream media. This is not a task that’s in the authority of reviewers or the creators, but should be handled by independent thinkers outside of the mediums target audience and those professionally involved with it.

    I remember reading an anthology of semiotic analyses of graphic novels that was released before Scott McCloud popularized the topic. I think this sort of examination helped in the creation and marketing of the graphic novels available today. It could well be that such articles about games are published somewhere.

    Advertisement, movies and television have long been subject of studies regarding their structure, how they are perceived and the role they play culturally. I think this creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. As long as games are regarded as pop-media aimed at adolescent nerds, they will be marketed and produced as such. While Nintendo is making some progress in this area with the DS, i’m not really happy with the positioning of their line of products. Critical examination of games would provide a “center of gravity” outside of the self-evolving industry.

  6. I was frankly pretty surprised that Costikyan would be so apparently ignorant of the huge body of high quality game criticism that’s been established and growing for almost a decade. Also a little surprised that Cory would seemingly support his ignorance in that matter.

    It’s been around for years, but it’s been centered in academic circles. There is a thriving culture, but it’s based in peer-reviewed journals (both print and online) and in conferences. I guess these things fly under the radar of the larger culture of gaming “journalism”, and that’s a shame.

    Check our, go to (gasp!) the Library and dig out some essays by Henry Jenkins, Espen Aarseth, or Katie Salen.

    This “argument” is old and irrelevant – the work is there, and continues to grow. Pay more attention.

  7. @6 It is true that academics have been writing about games in critical analyses. I don’t think that is the issue here. Those analyses are isolated, closed from the mainstream, often by their own jargon (as a specialized-academic-in-training, I see that as the greatest flaw of academia — our writing is precise and accurate but also so impenetrable that no one reads it.)

    The key line from the article is: The truth is that, for the most part, we don’t have anything like game criticism, and we need it — to inform gamers, to hold developers to task, and to inform our broader cultural understanding of games and their importance and impact on our culture.

    Academic writing on games exists, as you say, but it is not yet serving the function of informing gamers, game developers or the broader culture. It’s isolated in a way that film and literary criticism is not. itself says it is aimed towards scholars and researchers. They serve an important purpose, but academic journals, which are often expensive and subscription-only, are not the way to reach gamers and game developers.

  8. The problem is larger. Aren’t virtually all electronic product reviews nowadays nothing but fluff pieces and press releases regurgitated? Quite possibly the only place one can ever get a truly honest view of electronics is by going on Amazon and reading reviews.

    If you can’t have genuine consumer product reviews, then you can’t hope for better video game reviews.

  9. I published a computer game criticism/review zine in 1987 and 1988 called Microcosm. Someday I’ll dig the back issues out of storage and post them on the Web somewhere.

  10. You’ve clearly not been reading Play This Thing. What a games review site really should do – thoughtful, inspiring reviews of obscure games.

  11. I was Managing Editor of a computer magazine* for eight years, during which time I and my staff wrote hundreds of game reviews. Which qualifies me, I think, to pass along the following bit of wisdom:

    “Dude, they’re just games.”

    * That would be INFO magazine, BTW, for venerable Commodore 64 and Amiga personal computers.

  12. I wrote a little essay on the juxtaposition of the Katamari Damacy universe versus the real world. Have a lookie if you like:

    However, just because I wrote such an essay, doesn’t necessarily mean I’d be interested to read others. I personally appreciate “buyers’ guide” reviews that leave the metaphysical implications for the player to perceive. Some games have been so mindboggling that they’ve literally changed my perspective of the world I live in, while others are just pleasant diversions.

  13. We’re especially fortunate in the UK to have Edge magazine. I used to be very seriously interested in video games – PC, consoles, everything – but I travel so much these days that I don’t even have a TV, so all of that is pretty well in the past. However, Edge takes videogames journalism very seriously, and I still read the magazine as often as I can, partly to keep in touch with developments, but mostly because it’s so well-written.

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