A Better Class of Game Criticism: Part 1

[UPDATED on March 3rd 2015 to reflect discussion from the comment section. Updates can be found at the end of the post.]

(Long time lurker, first time poster. So I figure go big or go home, right? Feedback appreciated, whether about the content or just e-TAY-quette. Here goes nothing!)

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Social criticism of gaming is still a relatively new phenomenon. One of the most prominent critical teams in this space is Feminist Frequency. When they started critiquing videogames, they brought with them a wealth of knowledge of gendered tropes. But inadvertently, they also brought techniques and ideas from criticism of passive media (books and movies) which sometimes fail when applied to interactive media.

A lot of feminists admire the work that Feminist Frequency is doing.

However, time and again, we have expressed dissatisfaction with the results of their analysis while remaining supportive of their intended goal.

In this post, I want to examine a technique used by Feminist Frequency (and other critics) that fails to give us meaningful results. I also want to propose modifications to this technique so it may be better used in videogame criticism, feminist or otherwise.

The Game and its Projection

Before talking about analysis, I want to discuss what it is that makes games difficult to analyze. Intuitively, we know that the answer is 'interactivity'. But what specifically about interactivity makes game criticism slippery? To answer that, let's dive into a bit of theory.

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There are many different theories of criticism, some focusing on the "objective contents" of the art while others focus on the "subjective responses" of the readers. However, prior to gaming, the one constant was that the same content would be provided to all audiences. So, if someone were to read a critique of T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land, then they could be certain that the critic had read the exact same poem that they had (after accounting for editions and revisions, of course).

[It could be argued that the theatre provides variations on a given play. But by and large, each production company tries to maintain consistency over its run. And that is why each run of a production is critiqued individually.]

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But the same is not true for videogames.

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In mathematics, there is a concept called "projection" (quite distinct from the psychological term). A complex object projects some (but usually not all) information about itself onto a less complex object. For example, when I make shadow-puppets with my hands, then my hands (complex 3-D objects) are projecting a shadow (partial information about the shape of my hands) on the wall (simpler 2-D object). The hands remain the same but by changing their shape, the projection changes.

This is similar to how videogames operate. The content that is the same for all of us is: a piece of software. But we do not get to experience software. Instead, we get to experience a projection of the software onto our screens and speakers. More importantly, because this projection is controlled by our input, all our experiences are different from each other.

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This makes it difficult to criticize the game as a whole. Criticism that is valid to a certain group of players, may appear entirely alien to others who did not experience the same content. A single playthrough is only one possible projection after all.

In this post, I will discuss the analytical technique of close-reading, when it can be problematic, and how to use it correctly for videogames.

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The Issue with Close-Reading

Close-reading is the technique of paying scrupulous attention to detail to a small part of a piece of work. Often it involves looking at an excerpt (a passage from a book or a clip from a movie) and critiquing the elements found in that excerpt.

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Close-reading, if taken as is, fails in videogame criticism.

In a book or a movie, the excerpt is non-optional, and infused with a hundred-percent authorial intent.

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Also, irrespective of intent, the excerpt supports the rest of the work and is supported by it. Without the excerpt, the material under critique would be fundamentally different. And that's why a critical analysis of any excerpt of a book or movie is valid.

In videogames, however, close-reading must be exercised with plenty of caution. This is due to the following reasons:

  • The content you may be analyzing might be optional. The issue with optional content is that it is not supporting the rest of the game. Other players may have skipped it entirely and experienced a different game. Making definitive statements about the entire game based on optional content is poor critique.
  • For example, the Atlantica level in Kingdom Hearts 2 is a jarring break from an otherwise great game. Any criticism of Atlantica (whether of the narrative or the mechanics) must be highlighted as "optional and pertaining only to that level".
  • The opposite of the above: you may have missed out on some optional content that would allow you better contextualize whatever part of the game you are analyzing.
  • For example, in Transistor, a close-reading of the scene with Asher and Grant would be extremely limited without the context provided by function descriptions and the limiter files.
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  • Different players might be creating entirely different contexts in which to play the game. Even if the content of the close-read is the same, its meaning will change based on actions taken by the player.
  • For example, if I choose to play Red Dead Redemption as a hero with a high regard for the sanctity of life, then the death of any prostitute will only serve to reinforce the message that prostitutes are vulnerable targets and society should pay more attention to their security. But if I choose to play as a selfish stone-cold killer, then in that context the death would only work to maintain the status quo.
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As any English teacher will tell you, context matters. When context is fluid, the critic must be especially careful when trying to draw a definitive conclusion.

Modifying Close-Reading

Here are my tips on how to make close-reading work for videogames:

  1. Where possible, focus on non-optional content. From cutscenes to boss-fights, this is something all players will experience. You can also be assured of developer intent since there are no other ways to progress in the game without that content.
  2. When discussing optional content, highlight it as optional. This avoids confusion between the critic and their audience.
  3. Unlike with passive media, it is not sufficient to just describe the context for your close-read. You have to take one additional step: separate the context created by the game from the context created by you. If the game requires you to play as an anti-hero, let the audience know that the framework was set up by the game. On the other hand, if you have chosen to play as an anti-hero instead of the lawful good, then let the audience know that you created that narrative framework for yourself.
  4. Also, in terms of setting up context, let the audience know how much of the game you have explored. Games can be gigantic. No one will blame you for not exploring every dungeon in Skyrim, or not reading every lore-text in Dragon Age. But it is your duty to at least sketch out what you have experienced and what you have not.
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With these few things in mind, you can now apply the technique of close-reading to videogames.

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In Conclusion

This is by no means an exhaustive list of recommendations. I only wish to contribute to game criticism in a positive way. And I hope some of you are able to use the techniques above and refine them even more!

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Let me know if you found this interesting. I have a "Part 2" in mind that deals with big-picture thematic analysis of games.

UPDATE (03/03/2015):

Courtesy of NikanoruS, MasterJediDuck and forestdonkey: An update to point (2) is that not all optional content is created equal. To quote MasterJediDuck:

"[H]ow much of Skyrim is considered "optional"? To what extent is the optional nature of much of the game's content a reflection of the game as a whole? How hard does the critic need to stress the optional nature of such content? How much of this optional content needs to be experienced before a well-informed analysis of the game can be made?

I would argue that these are judgment calls, best answered by the individual critic. Optional content does support the rest of the game, and ideally should be considered as part of the whole.How much it should be weighed in relation to the game, though, is what is contextual."

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I think this is a much better and more nuanced approach when compared to my earlier assertion that optional content does not support the rest of the text. Instead, we should be asking how much it supports the rest of the text.

Courtesy of Rene and ShhhDontStruggle: It has been pointed out that games are not unique in that different people experience them differently. I fully agree to the point that each individual brings their particular mindset to every piece of media. However, I think there is something unique about games (like Mass Effect) in that you can experience objectively different content as compared to another gamers. This is analogous to two readers reading different editions of the same book. So, just as it is good form to mention which edition of a book you are critiquing, it should be good form to mention which content of the game you are critiquing.

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Courtesy of Spacegar: Not directly related to the post but more a commentary about the general landscape of of game criticism – Spacegar says that we need more honest dialogue with the text instead of reading it with the intent to prove a particular point. I think there is space for both those things in our industry but more people focus on the latter rather than the former. I hope I am not misrepresenting Spacegar's views when I say that a good example of an honest dialogue with the text would look something like this:

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