Objection! Video Game Criticism

Welcome to Objection! This is where we take the time to go on-depth on gaming issues, and let you guys continue the discussion in the comments section.

This time round we're talking about Video Game criticism and the academic study of interactive games. To help us we've roped in Adam Ruch, a regular commenter on Kotaku and a PhD Candidate in Video Games Criticism. Are games worthy of serious study? And how should we be studying them? All this and more in Objection!

MARK: So Mr. Ruch, you’re currently doing a PhD in what now? Video Games Criticism? What does that entail?

ADAM: That's what I've been calling it lately, the name of these things tends to change a lot until you send off your manuscript to the printery, but we'll go with that for now. Basically my overall goal is to make it possible for people, critics let's call them, to talk to each other intelligently about videogames, with the hope that those conversations will result in ideas and recommendations for making better art in this medium. This is different to 'reviewing' that you read in magazines and on Metacritic, this is more to do with art, beauty, unity, narrative, experience and feeling - stuff you learn about in film studies or in an English literature, art history or even architecture class. One of the things I've done is tried to construct an impartial model of what a videogame is, as a cultural object or a medium; this stuff exists for other kinds of texts, but nothing really solid or consistent for videogames. Then I move on and have been doing case studies for various games.

MARK: Sounds interesting – but aren’t those kinds of concepts completely subjective? People tend to judge and enjoy games for entirely different reasons – I thought academics were all about the idea of meaning being completely subjective. What would be the point of creating an impartial model – is it even possible to create an impartial model of what a video game is, or what it should be?

ADAM: “All meaning being completely subjective" is still a totalizing sort of logic for making meaning. It's what leads to the study of the consumer/viewer/reader of media rather than the producer/artist or the media itself, and of the culture within which that media is located. So yes, that is where a lot of the critical thinking has moved today, into Cultural Studies departments, for example.

What I'm trying to do, though is first build an 'ontological' model of a videogame, ie. what is it made from? How do the various parts interact to produce the stimulus that people will react to? Those are pretty fundamental steps that I staunchly believe must be taken. The only reason we can take the object of a novel for granted and instead focus on the culture from which it came is because we have a pretty good shared understanding of what a novel is. Videogames, however, aren't novels - they aren't even films, which are a lot more like novels than videogames - and have yet to benefit from rigorous, disciplined study in and of themselves.

I also openly admit that anyone using my model, myself included, will always approach a game from a certain perspective. I've worked that into the description of my model. Great critics were writing the same kind of thing in the 1930s and 40s, speaking of criticism almost as an art form itself, as a personal expression, and that it is only useful when the critic is honest about his or her own standards and reasoning. But any form of communication at all, even this that I'm writing now, relies on a kind of faithful belief that you will agree with me on what these words roughly mean. We're cooperating together because we want to communicate.

MARK: So as a critic trying to create a model for how we approach discussing video games as an art form – how do see video games reviews?

ADAM: As consumer advice. Simple as that, they have their place and it’s an important one in our consumer-driven society. I know most people will want to hear a little about what to expect from a game before they part with the hundred bucks, so consumer reviews are needed. But for me, criticism is a whole different beast, with a different audience. The biggest thing to me is that the audience of a piece of criticism will really have to have already played the game for any of it to make sense. So in that way, there's no real need for the kind of spoiler-saving that reviews go through. I use the example of Red Dead Redemption, so, spoiler alert here!! You can't make any critical commentary on how Red Dead Redemption fits into the Western genre by adopting some of the same characteristics of film if you can't tell the reader that Marston dies in the end. That's a total spoiler, but it’s also a hallmark of the Western.

I also don't think critics are interested in ratings and scores, despite what Metacritic would have you believe. It’s not so much about 'how good is it?' It’s more 'how is it good?' One is quantity the other is quality. Reviews tell a reader whether or not they should buy the game, criticism assumes you've already played it, and want to know more about how it does what it does.

I've heard it said you can do reviews of art, but you can also do reviews of a toaster or an office chair. It's unlikely you'll find much criticism of the last two, though.

MARK: It seems to me that this kind of study has value for a number of reasons. First off – games need to be placed in their own context, given a set of rules that they can be studied through, and a history they can be placed in. But more importantly this kind of study gives gaming legitimacy as an art form. Is the legitimacy of studying video games something that’s made your study life difficult? Oh, and can you go into a bit more detail about your ‘model’!

ADAM: On the difficulty of studying videogames: actually it hasn't been hard for me. That's one of the benefits of the evolution towards a more democratic, perhaps even anarchic, academy. The various factions in the 1960s and 70s who worked so hard to put forward claims of legitimacy for other areas, feminism and female artists, art and culture from the non-white, non-male, non-European hegemony has helped to open up the gates to the ivory tower, so to speak. Artistic movements like dadaism and guys like Andy Warhol did a lot for eliminating value-distinctions between high and low culture or art.

So in short, I do work in a Media department, which has a fairly well-established history of studying every kind of cultural product/art/artefact we use to communicate ideas to one another. I've also benefited from a couple of very supportive individuals within my department, so I'm well looked after. But then, that's only inside the university. It’s a little harder to keep this in touch with the real world, which is a major goal of mine in general. This stuff is actually relevant to the XBox fanboys out there, whether they are at university or not, you know?

As for the model, well it's an evolution of what game theory is out there presently. Jesper Juul and Ian Bogost in particular have written pretty cogent descriptions of games, and talk about a relationship between the 'rules' of the game and the 'fiction.' Their relationship will be what brings meaning to a videogame. We had ideas about interactivity and immersion slightly earlier from Janet Murray and Espen Aarseth for example... So, Duke Nukem combines visual representations of women as strippers with their mechanical function as health vending machines to make some strong claims about women. Mass Effect also has sexualized women, but they behave, mechanically, in really different ways.

Using that idea of fiction vs mechanics as a jumping off point, I've constructed a fairly simple model that represents videogames as a three part core: machine, aesthetic content, and interface. The Player and Designer exist in the model as well, accessing/influencing the game from different perspectives.

That's a pretty simple idea, though you do have to think of it as an active system. It doesn't work if you're not actually playing in it. The complexity comes in when you look at specific games in specific ways. I've done a lot of work to integrate things like linguistics into the model, because you can see the designer and player communicating together through this complex device, but both are really active agents: linguistics caters really well for 'active' communicators, literary theory is a lot more ambivalent about the activeness of either party.

But you can always say, "Hey I'm a narratologist, and I just want to look at the unity and beauty of the narrative, so I'm focusing on the aesthetic content of the game," and that's ok too.

The model doesn't force you to look at everything at once, it just means that hopefully various critics will be able to fill in each other's blanks somewhat consistently. I've also done a bit of work with general 'design theory' so there's room to talk about how you go about "using" the game as a designed object which doesn't have a lot to do with story - but the narrative can be instructive on telling the player what they're meant to do with this thing...

MARK: You mentioned that you want to keep this in touch with the real world – how do you go about doing that? The topic is a high level - and quite dense with academic terminology - and the way in which people interact with games is so vast and multi-faceted – how do you keep this stuff focused and accessible?

ADAM: Well for one thing I seek out opportunities to talk to the 'media' rather than the 'academy' like doing interviews on a site like this! I mean that seriously too, I have only been at this for about two years, so I've got lots of plans and goals and not quite so much to show for that one yet. But I intend to distill down the theory into examples, basically I want to write good criticism and see it published in popular media, magazines, websites, that sort of thing. Luckily there seems to be a slowly growing space for that. I've done a number of long critiques in an academic journal over the past year, and those are a good thing, but I'd like to get it out there to the general public. I think if I, and like-minded critics, can do a good job of opening up a popular game in an article that the game-playing public actually reads, there will be a few people who find it interesting enough to understand the theory behind what's being said. The rest might just enjoy their games more and eventually start looking for more good stuff in other titles.

Obviously it's not going to be everyone who plays games, but I'd like to think that there are enough people who like games and also would read a couple thousand words on a game they really liked - if those thousand words are actually interesting, thought-provoking, and make the game more interesting by way of insightful analysis. I think we've even seen it on Kotaku a couple times in the past few weeks; there are people who really prefer the insightful stuff that cuts through the press-release sales pitch crap that a lot of developers say about their game. Keep in mind that I'm also a teacher, so there is a simple pleasure for me in explaining/exploring something and hearing someone say "Huh, I never thought of it like that..."



    1. Huh, I never thought of it like that
    2. I do actually have a criticism of the toaster. I want one with three slices. I have a 2yo son who eats toast with me in the morning, but i want 2 slices for breakfast. I end up sharing one with him and go to work hungry. 4 slices is just too much and 2 is not enough...

    Also, good write up, It was actually pretty interesting, even if i didn't understand some words... I swear PHD's speak another language sometimes. I have an MBA and that is about my mental limit...

    And you know, if there was a couple of thousand words on Fallout 3/New Vegas or even GTA SanAndreas... I would def have a crack at it. Cheers,

      Three slices for the win. Two is too few and four is too much. Why waste power to heat up a fourth slot? Also: after spending a few months picking out new furniture for the office, I can tell you there is a LOT of criticism to be had for the office chair. It's just something that people tend not to notice until they spend 8-10 hours each day enduring everything that can go wrong with the design.

      Your criticisms have been heard it seems


      Just need a spare $500 to buy it

        Ok first of all, I have a toaster you can easily fit 4 slices into...

        Second thing: you guys are collapsing artistic (literary?) criticism with 'being critical of' something. You can find flaws and faults in something cause its not doing what you want it to do, but you don't have some fundamental, objective(-ish) theory to back it all up, you just have what you want/like/need. That's fine. But you do that stuff in reviews. SO your uncomfy office chair would get a bad review.

    *Awesome* interview. More of these, please :)

    I can give you quite a few criticisms of an office chair right now...

    So, which department at which university is supervising your PhD? Sounds like something you'd really have to pitch to a supervisor to get the okay...

    Also, with the research aspect of your PhD, how do you go about finding information with regards to previous studies in this area, and how do you separate the valuable information from the junk? I wouldn't imagine there to be too much on videogames specifically, so do you draw parallels with other mediums (print, tv/movie, etc)?

    And finally, let us know if/when you publish any of this stuff - it sounds like a mighty impressive read so far.

      I'm in the department of Media, Music and Cultural Studies at Macquarie University. Being looked after by the two guys that run the "multimedia" stuff within that, and working with one very enthusiastic computer science lecturer from the Department of Computing.

      Believe it or not I didn't know I was going to write exclusively on videogames when I started. I wrote an honours thesis on WoW, so I knew I liked games and the internet and technology and socialisation etc. So I thought I'd write 'about that.' I got more and more into the gaming side of things as I progressed, mostly because I didn't want to become a psychologist, sociologist or economist, which is kind of where the MMO research is going.

      Sorting good from bad? Well that's the job of research isn't it? Can't sum it up here :P But there is a recognisable field of 'game studies' referring to videogames. Not a huge amount, but its there. Yes I do a lot of drawing parallels and cannibalising theory from other media into videogames. Film and literary theory are quite handy in that way, but I do a lot of work to try and open space for things like linguistics and design theory to explain parts that the literary theory doesn't help me with.

      I have published some stuff. Pop my name in Google and you should be able to find links to the bits that are available publicly. Not all of it has a great relationship to my model--all this stuff is a work in progress!

    Mark - These Objection! pieces are really good, please keep it up!

    Adam and Mark - Thanks for a great read!

    Id like to think that there are enough people who like games and also would read a couple thousand words on a game they really liked if those thousand words are actually interesting, thought-provoking, and make the game more interesting by way of insightful analysis.

    *Raises hand* :)

    I think your distinction between game reviews and game criticism is tremendously important, and deserves to be integrated into a wider examination of the way video games are talked about, including gaming journalism. The consumer-driven nature of reviews are hardly satisfactory when you regard narrative-driven video games (as I do) as somewhat of an art form rather than just entertainment. I've read rather sporadic commentary on certain games that approaches the status of 'criticism' (sexuality in Mass Effect, for example), but certainly nothing disciplined in the sense of an objective structure for analysis.

    Your model sounds comprehensive; I haven't studied much in the way of cultural theory but the integration of linguistics and the designer-player relationship is interesting. Are you drawing on similar models for criticism that exist for novels and films, or do video games (with their interactivity) require a completely new structure?

    Hey. Hey Adam. Adam.
    Hey =D.
    But seriously. I support this to the end. Video games are just as deserving of critical analysis as film or literature.

    Sounds like this leans very much toward narratology, which is pretty much dead and buried in the video game industry right now. Almost all companies that have tried to make a game primarily based around a story have gone out of business. As for the latest and most local example - look at Krome Studio and Blade Kitten. Whoops.

    Going by that, a game that is based around ludology would probably score very poorly, ie. Wii Sports. I could see the discrepancy in the worth of such critical assessment where a game under your 'ontological' system that would score very poorly would sell 50 million copies, and one that would score very high would sell only 10 thousand. Such a huge difference couldn't even be put down to a shameless excuse such as "the idiot masses". The 50 million copy game is unequivocally much better.

    What's the point of making a construct to worship the 'art' in video games if it becomes logistically impossible to produce games of the sort? You'd be limited to 'grasping at straws' interpretations of a couple of successful narrative-including games such as Mass Effect.

    If you want to make a worthwhile PhD, and not just another self-indulgent thesis like so many other ones out there that truly get nowhere for video games as a whole, I suggest you think about how it would work in the real world. You don't want to end up an unemployed Dr.. Trust me, there are plenty of them.

    Sorry if I've been very blunt, but these are my two cents.

      Well, I can't really defend myself against someone who believes PhDs aren't worthwhile other than to say I'm already not un-employed so...

      I can clear up a couple misconceptions you're voicing though. This model wasn't born in a vacuum. I fashioned it by playing games and reading what others have written about games. Secondly, the model does not assign points or any sort of cumulative grade to a game. Thirdly, no, this doesn't lean very much towards narratology, or ludology. It is as impartial as I could make it. If I were speaking narratologically, I wouldn't need a new model. They already have a one: the narrative, that's their structure. That position can't address the algorithmic nature of games though, which is why my model is built differently. Ludologists have the inverse problem. They miss out on much of the cultural value of games by looking almost purely structurally at the rules/mechanics of a game. I think that sells the medium far short. Believe it or not, those two theories, on their own, are also pretty much dead in academia too, but they are very useful in as far as they take us.

      Pick a game that is, as you say, unequivocally good because it has sold 50 million copies. Then tell me WHY it is good. WHY did it sell 50 million copies? Is it something to do with the game itself, or was it all down to successful marketing and brand-name? If it had to do with the game itself, explain it to me. Then compare it to another game that sold 50 million copies. Did that one sell well for the same or different reasons? That is the point of (some) criticism. And this doesn't even disagree with your assessment that sales is proof of success (which I do disagree with). Wii Sports, for example, has sold a ridiculous number of copies because it came packaged with the Wii. Tell me what that particular detail has to do with game design?

    Hi Adam. I'm a fairly regular user over at Kotaku North America and was a community intern at Gawker over the summer and some of fall. First off, I'd like to say I loved this interview. As a long-time reader of video game criticism (I came across this post from Critical Distance), I was extremely happy that you laid down the groundwork for how it should be viewed.

    On that note, I was most impressed by your separation of reviews from criticism. It is exactly the same stance I hold. Months ago, during the whole Metroid: Other M debacle I put up a rambling and mildly coherent series of posts on several topics like femininity in video game heroines and the difference between a review and criticism. To see that some of my views weren't entirely off base is extremely gratifying, so thank you for that.

    Absolutely delightful to stumble across this during my weekly binge on Critical Distance and see that there is at least one other person trying to walk the delicate line between narratology and ludology. I'm planning on doing my own phd on electronic literature, which (I'm prepared to argue) includes some video games. There will also be some stuff about some experimental print media's reliance on the visual cues of the website or hypertext (i.e. Danielewski's Only Revolutions or even, thematically, Stephen Hull's Raw Shark Texts) but that is mostly because I'm shopping this around to English departments (and also because come on, have you read Danielewski? Amazing!) and now that I think of it this is rambling on quite enough.

    Your own research is exciting to hear about, because it not only means that it is possible for something like this to actually be funded (exciting!) but also because by the time I scrape the funding to start my own ill-advised jaunt into academia your own work might be finished--and man, it would be nice to have a work of video game criticism that doesn't devolve into either frothy-mouthed ludology (I AM LOOKING AT YOU ESPEN AARSETH) or frothy-mouthed narratology (I AM LOOKING AT YOU, NAME I CAN'T THINK OF RIGHT NOW). The only other person I've ever read who came close was Eric Zimmerman in the First Person collection, and that is not a lot to work with.

    Bravo to you Kotaku lot for giving this some exposure, I am pretty excited by all of this.

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