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…”


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